Andrew Wingate’s article for Theology journal

Article Published in: Theology Volume C No.795

A Woman of Faith Dies: Death of a Champion of Buddhism 
Andrew Wingate
 

These were the stark newspaper headlines of tributes to Fuengsin Trafford, a Thai woman of fifty-eight. She died in February 1995, in St Mary’s Hospice, Selly Oak, under two months after she was diagnosed as having inoperable cancer. Only seven stone when well, she weighed four and a half stone when she died, having suffered greatly throughout her illness.

A more appropriate tribute would be to quote from the Pali scriptures, from the Dhammapada:

52. As a flower that is lovely, beautiful and scent-laden, even so fruitful is the well-spoken word of one who practises it.

53. As from a heap of flowers, many a garland is made, even so many good deeds should be done by one born a mortal.

54. The perfume of flowers blows not against the wind, nor does the fragrance of sandal-wood, tagara and jasmine; but the fragrance of the virtuous blows against the wind; the virtuous person pervades every direction.

58, 59. As upon a heap of rubbish thrown on the highway, a sweetsmelling, lovely lotus there may grow, even so amongst the rubbish of beings, a disciple of the Fully Enlightened One outshines the blind worldlings with wisdom.

Though Fuengsin would be the last person to claim such for herself, those of us who knew her, of whatever faith, could describe her as such a scented-flower, or lotus, whose fragrance enriched our lives. This piece is written to share some of that beauty in her life and, above all, in the way she met illness and death. As a Christian, I was privileged to witness this and, with the permission of Tony, her husband, who is English and a Roman Catholic, I write to share this experience. It is one that comes rarely in a lifetime. Fuengsin lived her commitment to inter-faith dialogue as a deeply committed Buddhist. I hope to show how that Buddhism sustained her through death and beyond, and to reflect on how I experienced this as a Christian, pastorally, spiritually and theologically. The sharp end of inter-faith reflection is shared life experience, and this is what Fuengsin’s witness offered.

I write only a little of her life before her illness. She came to Britain more than thirty years ago, and during her studies met Tony. They married and Paul is their son, now aged twenty-eight, a Roman Catholic also, with his mother’s commitment to inter-faith concern. He describes himself as ‘English outside, Thai inside’!

Fuengsin was Thai inside and out, and it was as a Thai Buddhist that she practised her religion, a mixture of Theravada Buddhism and strong Thai cultural traditions. She attended several local temples, and loved especially the Forest Hermitage, a Thai centre in the Warwickshire countryside, to which she gave the name. As housewife and not as academic theologian, she gave two decades of service in Buddhist and inter-faith ministry in the West Midlands, as teacher, resource person and friend.

Fuengsin was a born teacher, and could make Buddhism understood at whatever level was required. She would always defer to those she saw as more learned, but it was Fuengsin whom people remembered. This was partly because she evidently lived what she preached; it was partly because she was a very good listener, who wished to learn from others, without feeling in any way threatened; it was perhaps above all because of her joy and sense of humour. Her use of everyday illustrations reminded me of Jesus’ way of teaching. If people could not accept Buddhism from Fuengsin, they could not accept it from anyone. Her joy in others is shown by her comment, during a three-day seminar on ‘Christian, Buddhist and Hindu scriptures’ at the College of the Ascension last summer: “Heaven is like now, on a sunny morning, being with people like you of various faiths, on an exciting course like this.” Her pain began in the autumn, and though her condition was not yet diagnosed, those of us who saw her regularly felt she was very ill. Yet she continued coming to class week by week.

In early January, she was admitted to Kidderminster General Hospital, and from here on, I wish to describe in more detail what I witnessed personally over the next few weeks. I know 1 speak for many.

My first visit was with a Hindu friend. Tony was present, and so round the bed of a Buddhist woman were a Roman Catholic, a Hindu woman and an Anglican priest. On her bedside table was a statue of the Buddha given by a Roman Catholic sister. We presented her with a Thai orchid, and a book of inter-faith readings, representing two sides of her life. She had received news that her cancer was inoperable, though chemotherapy might be possible. She said, with strong emphasis, that she had taught so much about suffering, now she must show the way. Her one wish was to revisit Thailand. ‘But it may be that I will go there only in the spirit,’ she said, rather unorthodoxly!

On that evening, though she could not move from her bed, somehow she knew the condition of those in the other beds. She told us how she felt for an old lonely Chinese lady in the bed opposite, and how she had arranged for two of her visitors to go and sit with her since she had enough support. There was never any self-pity. She told another friend, in a puzzled way, who asked if she was not angry that she had not been diagnosed earlier, “What is the point in being angry?” (Here, of course, one could add that anger leads only to further bad karma, but Fuengsin will have said this quite naturally and without calculation.) As we left that evening, our Hindu friend said, “You and Tony will pray, and Fuengsin and I will meditate.” This left me pondering about the difference between these two things, if any, and it was with this saying in mind that I offered prayer at the Eucharist the following morning. I knew that Fuengsin was sitting up with effort on her bed, at the same time, and meditating before the Buddha. This she did at 6 a.m. each day in the hospital.

On the next visit to the hospital we learnt from her and Tony that chemotherapy was not advised, and all that could be offered was pain control. She affirmed she would face what was to come with courage, and it was her religion and meditation that would enable her to do so. She still hoped that some special Thai medicine might help her, and she still expressed the hope she would have enough of a remission to return once to a class, to listen at least!

On this occasion, Paul had come from London, and he had been to a healing Eucharist. The priest in London had suggested he lay hands on his mother. Paul asked my help, and I wondered what to say. Should I use words of Christian prayer? If not, what could I say? Graciously, his mother enabled us both. She took Paul’s hand and placed it upon her disease-ridden stomach, and said she would like our prayers. I looked for a Bible, and there was a Gideon Bible by the bed. I found 1 Corinthians 13, and asked a West Indian Methodist minister, who had come with me, to read it. She said the passage was beautiful, with its emphasis on the abiding quality of love. I was wondering still what words to pray. But Paul quietly prayed for healing in the name of the Trinity, with his hands on his mother. I felt enabled by him, and then prayed freely, asking that she and Tony might be surrounded by the love of Jesus, and the compassion of the Buddha. She was clearly pleased, and we left with a sense of gratefulness for her, in all the sadness of the situation.

From the hospital she was discharged, and went to a Thai family who could give her the food she was used to. She continued to enjoy the visitors who came, and to give to them more than they gave to her. I found myself praying with her and Tony easily now, and she remarked that she found great strength in this. We discussed the continuation of her teaching and dialogue work. She nominated a woman who, she hoped, would continue it for her, someone I know well. She also added, “Andrew, please look after her. She has been looking very tired recently.” Again, compassion for others, in the midst of her own pain.

Before long, she was moved to St Mary’s Hospice, where she was beautifully looked after. She remained alert, and could indicate this with her hands, or small movements of her eyes or mouth. But gradually she began to weaken. She indicated that she wanted ‘the monks’ to be called. This was a sign that she wanted the last rites. I visited the local Burmese Viharawith some of my students. We were invited to join a meditation of ‘loving-kindness’ specifically for Fuengsin. We were asked to imagine her, and to offer our compassion for her. This seemed to have a great power, as a whole group did this together for maybe ten minutes, Buddhists and Christians doing this each in their own way, whether we call it meditation or prayer.

Tony asked me to come for the last rites, and I went with our mutual Hindu friend. Fuengsin had been moved,on her bed, into the chapel.

A Tibetan Buddhist was chanting when we arrived. She stopped, and while we waited, I gave Tony the twenty-third Psalm, and suggested he read it aloud quietly to Fuengsin. Three monks arrived, one Burmese, one Thai and one English, in their saffron robes. They brought a statue of the Buddha, some incense sticks, and a bowl of water containing two carnations. They asked where they should put them, and I indicated they could put them on the altar. At the same time, I noticed that there was a crucifix above the altar, with Jesus holding out his arms wide in a gesture of embrace. I felt conscious that she was surrounded by the resources of both religions, Buddhism that she was conscious of, and Christianity, through the care of the hospice, and the presence of the crucified Lord.

After some chanting in Pali, the three monks each spoke a word to Fuengsin. The Burmese spoke about the goodness of her life, and what she had done for the ‘dharma’, and the merits that she had accumulated through this. The Englishman gave her some quiet counsel, about having nothing to fear now, about being of courage, and about letting go, as she was upheld by those around her. The Thai monk spoke at length, and rightly so, as at such times it is our own language we most need. I reflected on how in our tradition, so often good things are said at a funeral, but the one they are said about does not hear them. They did a ‘loving-kindness’ meditation, and then took the flowers, full of water, and dashed some of the water onto every part of Fuengsin’s body. She registered the water hitting her brow. Paul next held her hand, and repeated quietly some Pali words she knew well, while Pranee, her Thai friend, spoke quietly into her other ear. As the chanting continued, we each went up to Fuengsin, said farewell in our own way (I gave her a blessing), and left the chapel. Outside, I prayed quietly with Paul and Tony.

The experience almost made me repeat the words of Mother Julian of Norwich, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ All did seem well. So she died, peacefully, the following day.

I was asked to go to two further ceremonies before the funeral. The morning after Fuengsin died, while her body remained in her hospital room, the monks came back and, with more chanting, began the process of enabling her to be released from her body. To this quiet background, family and close friends were able to continue the process of grieving. And Pranee quietly but firmly explained to Tony what ‘should be done’ in the Thai traditions which Fuengsin held so dear.

We were then told that there would be two occasions when we could go and offer food to the monks, in honour of Fuengsin. Food offered should be the food she had liked particularly. On Sunday it was to be vegetarian food, at the Forest Hermitage and, on Tuesday, non-vegetarian, at the city Vihara. We decided to go to the Forest Hermitage, and on a beautiful spring morning all kinds of foods were brought–all manner of Thai dishes, fruit, chocolates and her favourite chocolate cake. In quiet dignity, each in turn was offered to each of the monks, who filled their bowls. Before they ate, there was a ceremony by which the merit of these gifts was distributed in compassion for the world. Then all ate their fill, monks and guests. A bit like the feeding of the five thousand, there was so much that there were left-overs.

On the early morning of the funeral, I held a Eucharist where special prayers were offered in thanks for Fuengsin’s life, with Tony present. We read the Beatitudes, and the passage from the epistle to the Galatians about the fruits of the Spirit. We read the passage from the Dhammapada (quoted above) as an extra reading, and ended with the hymn of Faber, ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’. We had a bunch of spring daffodils on the altar, and the fragrance of incense from the East during the service.

We come finally to the funeral itself. This was in Stourbridge Crematorium, and many could not sit, since a large crowd gathered, of various faiths and nationalities. Seven monks led the ceremony, and it began with a very clear exposition of what would happen, which was a model for helping people feel at home in any funeral. Chanting was used at the beginning to make the chapel into a temple, as the artefacts were put ready. There were then three short talks. Two were tributes, from a Roman Catholic sister, and then one that I gave. I was asked to announce the release of a translation of a Buddhist text, completed by Fuengsin shortly before she fell so ill, and there was a copy for each on the pew. The Burmese monk gave an address, where he gave an exposition of how Fuengsin must be let go, to allow her to be released from all the attachments that held her back here. She must be free to become part of whatever was to come. A series of ceremonies followed. We were all asked to meditate, while the monks chanted. At first we were to ask forgiveness of Fuengsin for anything we had done wrong to her; then we were to forgive her for anything she had done against us. This was so that nothing negative need be carried forward. We then were asked to kneel in the aisle, touching the person in front, to form a human chain. While further Pali was chanted, we were to think of the compassion and loving-kindness of Fuengsin’s life, and all the merit which she had accumulated, and which was being accumulated from this ceremony, being distributed in compassion for all living beings, through us. Before this, seven of us were asked to give clothes to the monks, one set each, simple robes given to us by the family. Water was then doused on the coffin, from a bunch of flowers and, after more chanting, we were each asked to take a direct part.

All were given an incense stick, and asked to go forward one by one, and place it on the coffin, to say a last goodbye. We then left by a side door, without the coffin having disappeared behind a curtain. At the end, Paul was instructed to carry the water in which the flowers had been, to pour it slowly over the roots of a tree in the garden, thus signifying the unity of life. We returned to the house, for a traditional English cup of tea, sandwiches and cakes!

A Few Reflections

Pastoral

I saw the strong sense of unity and support from the Buddhist community. There are various strands in local Buddhism, but all owned Fuengsin as their concern. Distinctions between Theravada, Mahayana and other schools seem to fall away in face of such a situation. I saw also the strength of friends across cultures, Europeans through where she lived, through her husband’s church, through her inter-faith work and, above all, Thai friends who live around. There was no sense of illness and grief being privatized, around the close family. It was shared in the community. Nor were details of the illness kept hushed; it was on the basis of realities that care could be shown, with Fuengsin in some ways the rock of strength in the midst of it all.

I felt the importance of established ritual and practice in the face of such illness. Fuengsin was able to carry on the rituals she knew so well, to follow meditation techniques that were second nature. And the community had their regular times of meditation that could be utilized in concern for her. Nor was she in any sense embarrassed to do such things in hospital, in a public ward. We Christians can be very apologetic about our practices. When I was in hospital, I was asked whether I would like to have communion ‘behind a curtain’.

While Fuengsin was able, she never went silent, but opened us up to what her religion actually meant in practice. She showed us how a lifetime of preparation enabled her to meet such great suffering when it came.

Rituals led by the monks seem to offer real lessons in pastoral care. They last long enough–an hour or more at a time–to give space for people to feel, reflect and move on a step. Their demeanour, and the style of their chanting, are sufficiently detached to be enabling of the family, and the person dying. They give a strong signal, a kind of permission, to encourage an end to the struggle. This is not resignation, however, but a sense of positive surrender to the future. All parties are given space to say farewell, and to begin to release the bonds of attachment.

But the ceremonies do not have a sense of stoical resolution, they are full of feeling. But this feeling is turned into positive application, not turned in on itself. Here the invitations to join in meditations link the ceremonies that we are taking part in with compassion for the whole world.

There was a strong sense of participation. The son, in particular, has a clear part to play, and this binds him close but, at the same time, enables him to feel of service to his mother, and to be ready to carry on her heritage. In the funeral, this participation extended very widely. Vital here was the clear introduction, and we can learn much from that for Christian funerals. Everyone present, of whatever faith, had a strong personal part to play, yet all were held together by the eternal sounding structure of the Pali chanting. Though we did not understand what was being chanted, we all felt involved from beginning to end, the whole thing symbolized by the incense sticks. How much we can learn from the mutual forgiveness meditation, when we see how much history is often brought to a funeral!

I was struck throughout by the sense of freedom that people had. Rituals were provided, and those who came were given the sense that they could use them as they found them, but there was no sense that one might do the wrong thing. They were freeing rather than limiting; we were contributing as well as receiving.

All the senses are involved in the various ceremonies: the smell of incense, the sound of chanting, the touching of hand to hand and shoulder to shoulder, the taste of shared food, the concentration of mind in thought, the beauty of flowers, the freshness of water. There is a holistic feel to the link with the nature, though, paradoxically, all this is impermanent.

The acceptance of death indicated by the calling for the monks, is also a sign of an openness to reality, thus allowing the full resources of a religion to be offered. Fuengsin loved life, and indeed, was determined at first to confound the prognosis of the doctors. But she also accepted that there was a time when her preparation should begin for a different pilgrimage. In accepting this she also enabled her family, and helped them to be part of that journey with her.

Theological

Theologically, the two religions clearly sharply diverge in their eschatology. For the Christian, what happens after death is dependent on the sheer grace of God. Death is not the end but a beginning. The story of Jesus in the garden on Easter morning, and his meeting with Mary, indicate that we will know each other by name, but that we must for the moment let go, as Mary had to let Jesus go, who had not yet ascended to his Father. The conviction is that, though we now only see through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face, then we shall be known as we are known by God (1 Cor. 13). Relationship remains of the essence of God in Trinity. It is God who so loved the world, and relationship between the believer and God is what is maintained through and beyond death.

For the Buddhist, the endless life process is impermanent and unsubstantial. I quote here from a paper by Dr Pinit Ratanakul of Mahidol University, Thailand, delivered at Selly Oak during a seminar on death attended by Fuengsin. What is transmitted to rebirth is not the soul (as in Hinduism), but ‘kammic’ energy. He went on:

“…In its encounter with death, Buddhism has no sentiments. It coldly and relentlessly analyses this phenomenon both in the limited context of our present existence and in the larger context of ‘samsara’ life in the light of the three great laws, i.e. the law of change, the law of becoming and the law of cause and effect … The Buddhist attitude is an accepting attitude for it accepts the inevitability of death and regards it as something that can come to us at any moment … This process view of death denies the existence of a permanent entity back and behind the process. It implies there is no-one who suffers dying, but there is only a dying process.”

Laws of kamma are in the nature of things and do not depend on external power. An understanding of these laws will rob death of its terrors and help us to face it with a correct attitude. Ultimately such understanding is a way of helping us to die before death, i.e. to be free from greed (lobha), anger (dosa) and ignorance (avijja) conceived by Buddhism as the root cause of all births and deaths, and to attain nibbana.

This kind of understanding underlies the content of the rituals involved. Reference is continually made to ‘merit’. This is not a selfish thing–indeed if it was it would cease to be ‘merit’. Rather it is something offered for all. But merit and kamma are paramount, rather than grace and gift.

The other central word is ‘attachment’, and this is the title of the book Fuengsin translated during her last year.  The book is by Ven Ajahn Sanong Katapunyo. He talks of ‘three golden chains’, one around the feet, another the wrists and another the neck. They are symbolic of property, whether house, money or land; attachment between wives and husbands; and the attachment to a son. “The last chain is so tight that the attachment would still be with him after death. It is said that if one cannot cut these ties, one will never realise Nibbana. So it is absolutely necessary to cut them.” We can compare here the emphasis in the Gospels on giving up homes and land and relatives, for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. Ultimately, in both cases, the necessity of surrender when required is an obligation. But the essential aim of that surrender is different.

The Christian talks of salvation, the Buddhist of Nirvana, and they are clearly very different. But both provide a framework for approaching death constructively. I learnt that the Buddhists do not leave the person alone to face death. The teaching of the Buddha, the power of meditation, and the support of the monks are all there. The above book says, “Monks chant to help us develop a meritorious state of mind. When we listen to them chanting and giving the discourses of the Dhamma, all the merit will concentrate in the mind alone.” For a Christian, it is to Jesus we look: “Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The Buddhist talks of ‘taking refuge’.

Shortly after Fuengsin died, someone suggested to me that, however good a Buddhist may be, they could not be in heaven unless they had expressed personal faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. They would be in hell in some form. Another person said, “Well, if that is the case, then I would rather be in hell with that person, than in heaven with you.” Such talk seems strangely trivial before the reality of Fuengsin’s life and death. If our understanding of God and his love cannot include so much goodness, then what is our concept of God? Far too small. This does not mean I would not have wished Fuengsin to know that such a God was loving and caring for her. There is still a place for witness to that. But even if she did not realize this, I believe that God’s love surrounded her and still surrounds her, whose life was so centred on ‘compassion’ and ‘loving-kindness’.

About the Author

Revd. Dr. Andrew Wingate is the Principal of the United College of the Ascension, Selly Oak, Birmingham. Many thanks to him for kindly allowing his article to be published on the Web.

 

Some Extra Notes (by Paul)

The ceremony performed on the day after Fuengsin passed on was a Phowa conducted by Lama Lodro of the Tibetan Karma Ling temple in Birmingham.

The cremation service was led by Phra Ajahn Khemadhammo, abbot of the Forest Hermitage. The Burmese monk who gave an address was Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma and the Catholic sister was Sr. Dr. Mary Hall, head of the Birmingham MultiFaith Centre.