THE HEART OF KANJI: As you understand death, you understand life


Shiwoshiri seiwoshiru. calligraphy by Rev. Masato Kawahatsu

死 (Shi) means “death.” The left character represents a bone and the right represents a person who is buried beneath the ground.

知る (Shiru) means “knowledge.” The left side indicates an arrow and the right indicates a mouth. Together, a person can talk quickly and expertly when they have great knowledge.

生 (Sei) means “life.” The bottom represents soil and the top character represents a sprout.

Shiwoshiri seiwoshiru. calligraphy by Rev. Masato Kawahatsu

Many people are fearful of death and therefore avoid discussing it. In Japan, people believe that discussing death is not auspicious. Buddha said, “There are four major sufferings — living, old age, sickness and death.” Many religious leaders have grappled with sickness and have come close to dying and through this found faith as well as their explanations for the true meaning of life. The Konko founder struggled with sickness himself, as well as the death of three children and four family members in a short span of time. When we are faced with our own mortality and cannot ignore death, we truly begin to appreciate and respect life.

As the founder witnessed the fragility of human life, he realized the great potential and value of it as well. One of his very well known teachings states, “People are born amid divine blessings, live amid divine blessings, and die amid divine blessings.”

Though many would not consider death as a divine blessing, the founder understood that in nature there is balance and harmony. When we celebrate a child’s birth, we rejoice that they have joined our world. In the same way, we should honor and rejoice as spirits pass on to the ancestral realm.

This may be easy to understand logically, however we have emotional attachments to those we love and it is hard to accept that friends or family have left this physical world. How can we begin to reframe death as a celebration of life rather than something taboo or inauspicious?

There is another well known American quote that says, “You can’t take it with you.” This means that anything that you gain in this world — material riches, fame, and fancy cars, will not go with you after you die. When I was 20 years old, this was made very clear to me and I worried that I would die with deep sorrow and regret. If I could not take material things into the afterlife, what would I have there to make me happy? Many people these days focus on material possessions as the source of their happiness, but it is a very shallow happiness and can be taken away at any moment. Instead, we should focus on ways to be happy without material possessions.

Though we cannot make our family members live forever, they can live forever in our fond memories of them. Instead of purchasing many new things, we can donate that money or our time to helping the lives of the less fortunate. We can attend church and be inspired by the teachings of the founder and try to live our lives with more gratitude, humbleness, and compassion.

Practicing these aspects of life can help us to minimize our suffering and worries about death. We can begin to learn that all aspects of life and death are connected as one to maintain harmony on our planet. Rather than comparing ourselves to one another or judging each other, we can practice seeing the value in all our different perspectives and unique personalities. Instead of seeing the universe and the earth, life and death, as separate entities, we can work to understand the unity of these seemingly separate concepts.

It is not easy to fully accept the necessity and blessings of death nor is it easy to appreciate the opinions of someone who thinks differently than you, but by practicing this daily and being mindful of our own precious lives, we can move in the direction of a more appreciative spirit with a calm and accepting outlook on life, death, and the world around us. I am so thankful that I was able to understand true meaning of death when I was a young age so that I was able to understand true meaning of my life.

Rev. Masato Kawahatsu is a minister at the Konko Church of San Francisco and Konko Center of South San Francisco, who teaches shodo (Japanese calligraphy). He can be reached at or (415) 517-5563. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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