So yesterday I went on CNN again. As one does (insert fake upper-crust vaguely British accent).
The last time I was on CNN I did a show called something like… oh what was it? Spiritual Sunday or something along those lines. It was a Sunday morning show in which they interviewed various spiritual teachers then cut those interviews down to about 35 seconds. So I got my 35 seconds of fame. It was fun. That must have been around five years ago.
This time I got an email on Friday asking of I could come on CNN and talk about Buddhist funeral customs. Since I just conducted two memorial services for friends and had spent a lot of time researching Buddhist funerals I figured I could handle it so I said “Yes.”
It turned out they wanted someone to comment on the funeral of Wenjian Liu, one of the New York City police officers who was murdered by a crazy person on December 20th. There’s been a ton of press about this because many are linking his murder to the various protest movements that have sprung up in response to the killing by police officers of unarmed, loose cigarette seller Eric Garner in New York City. While it’s clearly ridiculous to blame Liu and his partner’s murders on the protest movement, it’s equally disingenuous to say there is no connection at all. Reality is messier than that.
Anyway, here’s what I said from the transcript CNN published on line (somewhat edited by me for space, I also corrected it in some spots).
BRAD WARNER, ZEN BUDDHIST PRIEST: When you say somebody is a Buddhist, it’s like saying somebody is a Christian. In Christianity you have Catholics and Christian Scientists, Mormons. The same thing goes for Buddhism. So the tradition that exists in the region that Officer Liu comes from tends to be a syncretic tradition with a lot of mixtures of different types of Buddhism, mainly Zen and Pure Land along with some Chinese customs that predate even Buddhism.
So the thing about the burning of the paper money isn’t exactly a Buddhist custom. It’s more of a Chinese folk custom. The monks would usually be chanting “homage to Amida Buddha” who is supposed to have prepared the Pure Land for people to go there in their next incarnation and learn about the Dharma from him. So basically they will be chanting that in a usual Chinese Buddhist funeral for about eight hours taking turns among the family members doing that chant.
DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN ANCHOR: Tell me what the monks sort of bring in to help the family at such a painful time.
WARNER: Well, the general Buddhist belief about what happens to a person when they die, we don’t have a belief in an immortal soul the way Christians do. But there is a belief that a person is the result of causes and conditions that go in to create a human being and a human life and that those causes and conditions will continue on after the person has departed. So I would imagine the monks there would be kind of consoling the family in the idea that Officer Liu in some sense continues on and continues to be a presence within the universe rather than simply disappearing from it.
FEYERICK: And it does seem that that’s what the NYPD certainly is trying to do. They’ve renamed two streets in the area. They’re also saying that his legacy, his life, will continue as a reminder of all the values that he incorporated. Eight hours, is that traditional, the length of the ceremony?
WARNER: Yeah, that’s the general Chinese tradition. I don’t know for certain that they’re going to do this ceremony for eight hours, but that’s the usual tradition. They generally don’t believe in embalming in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, so there’s a kind of a sense of getting it done quickly because you’re dealing with a body that’s not prepared like that.
FEYERICK: Sure. To sort of spirit him on his way, so to speak. What about the funeral – what about the burial itself? What are we likely to see?
WARNER: Well, generally in Chinese Buddhism, which differentiates it from the Japanese Buddhism I studied, is they don’t tend to favor cremation. They tend to favor a burial of the body. So they would do this — the ritual chanting as a preparation for that, and then they would bring the body to the burial place just as in a usual sort of Western type of arrangement.
FEYERICK: All right. Brad Warner, thank you so much. We appreciate your insights on what we’re expected to see.
And that was it.
Mostly I sat in their studio on Sunset Blvd., next to Amoeba Records, waiting around to be put on air. I was there from just before 7am until about 11am. I had an hour break when they went to a taped program but then they wanted me to stand by in case the anchor decided to ask me some more questions. She didn’t, but the next anchor threw it over to me for a nanosecond. I said the same stuff to her adding that the full ceremony would be 49 days long.
I’m sure a lot of people are saying a lot of things about this particular funeral. Obviously most of the thousands who turned up didn’t know Wenjian Liu from a loaf of bread. Nor did they, as mostly fellow police officers, simply care that one of their own had been killed in such a horrible way. Sadly, that happens a lot to police officers and rarely does a city have to shut down a mile of its streets for their funerals.
It was a backlash against the protests about the clear and obvious misuse of police power in the death of Eric Garner and the very likely misuse of police power in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. There was a strong right wing element to the funeral and to much of what the other commenters said as I sat and waited for my turn. It had to have made Liu’s grieving family even sadder to see how their loved one’s death was being turned into an excuse to flaunt politics.
I hoped CNN’s anchor might ask me how a Buddhist feels about the way police officers have a legal right to kill people when necessary. I could’ve given them an earful on that topic. But it wasn’t my place to interject such things, so I didn’t.
Some people have questioned why I, of all people, was asked to comment. I’m not really sure. I imagine it was because I did a CNN show before and I must be on somebody’s Rolodex. I would imagine they wanted someone who not only knew about Buddhist funerals but who they could be certain wouldn’t freeze up or get weird on the air. I’m sure they could have found someone more well-versed specifically in Chinese Buddhism, but they might not have known if that person would be able to handle themselves on TV.
Some of you are aware that I reached out on Facebook the night before asking for people who might know about Chinese Buddhism. I got a few responses but nobody offered me much info. But my friend Sam, who’s lived in Shanghai since the 90s, was helpful. My friend Dale, whose wife is Chinese, gave me some good info on Chinese people living in the US. My friend Gesshin asked a friend of hers who studies Chinese Buddhism for some info that proved very useful. Also, I wasn’t completely ignorant of the subject. I mainly wanted to be certain I was correct in what I already thought I knew. A lot of being an “expert” on something involves knowing who to ask and what to ask them.
So that was my Sunday.
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CNN did not pay me for my appearance, by the way, or for the hours I spent there. Though they did send a limo to get me, so that guy got paid! Your donations can really help me a lot at this time. Thanks!
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