“A Light Endlessly Working”

The Funeral Service for the Late Professor John White

Namu Amida-butsu

On the 3rd December 2021, Three Wheels held the funeral service for the late Professor John White; founding member of the Three Wheels Sangha, our great teacher and friend. Following Professor White’s first encounter with Venerable Chimyo Takehara, the Head Priest of Shogyoji in November 1992, it was Prof. White’s singular great efforts, alongside his dearest friend Reverend Kemmyo Taira Sato and his late wife Hiroko, that created the very foundations and continued growth of the Three Wheels Sangha both physically and spiritually.

The funeral ceremony was an occasion in which all the generations of the Three Wheels Sangha, together with old friends of Professor White and many Dharma-friends from Shogyoji Temple via a live video link, could come together to commemorate his life and express our deepest gratitude for everything Professor White has done for us and continues to do, even after his death.

In preparation for the funeral service, Rev. Keimei Takehara together with Rev. Emmyo Sato and Mr Masayuki Ogawa, flew to London to join Rev. Kemmyo Sato, Rev. Kenshin Ishii and his wife Sanae to meticulously plan and prepare for the funeral ceremony. Through Mr Ogawa’s unstinting work during the days leading up to the funeral ceremony, the Zen Garden was restored to its original pristine glory in honour of Professor White.

As Rev. Keimei Takehara later remarked, the funeral ceremony for Professor White began not on the day itself but as soon as the many preparational activities for it started. Under the supervision of Rev. Kenshin Ishii, many Dharma-friends gathered at Three Wheels to assist in cleaning the temple and grounds so that when Professor White’s coffin returned to Three Wheels on the eve of his funeral the atmosphere and environment of the temple was completely peaceful and pure.

The funeral ceremony itself was led by Rev. Keimei Takehara, representing Ven. Chimyo Takehara, the Head Priest of Shogyoji. Sitting to the side, Rev. Kemmyo Sato, Professor White’s brother-in-Dharma, sat to the side of Buddha-shrine representing his family. Following the chanting of the traditional Shin Buddhist funeral liturgy, Rev. Keimei Takehara read the Eulogy written by Ven. Chimyo Takehara entitled ‘A Tribute to Bodhisattva White’ in which he with “utmost revererence” posthumously bestowed upon Professor White the Dharma-name of, 久遠劫保和燈菩薩 Kuongo Howato Bosatsu, “Eternally Peace Keeping Light Bodhisattva”.

Ven. Takehara’s Eulogy revealed the true essence of Professor White’s life in which he, over the course of twenty-nine years until the very moment he died, “worked very hard as a bodhisattva” and dedicated to the establishment of a Shin Buddhist Sangha in the U.K. and its two way spiritual encounter with Shogyoji Temple in Japan. Professor White was still working at his desk at Three Wheels when he suddenly died whilst writing down his thoughts on the profound teachings of Shinran Shonin, “and thus he returned to the Pure Land like a phoenix soaring into the sky”.

One of Professors White’s greatest contributions to Three Wheels was his design and creation of its unique Zen Garden , which Ven. Takehara wrote, is a symbol of his being, of his true body. It will continue to be lovingly raked and maintained, preserving its purity”. It was the creation of the Zen Garden that began an ever widening process of encounter between East and West that continues to grow and develop, fulfilling Professor White’s innermost wish for true international friendship and exchange.

As Ven. Takehara made clear to us at the end of his Eulogy in words of moving tribute, Professor White continues to work for us as an eternal Bodhisattva from the true world of Dharma-nature who will endlessly manifest himself as, “that innermost core of sincerity within everyone protecting this Dharma garden, and will thereby make the fulfillment of the Pure Land adornments ever clearer for all of us”.

The eight speakers who next gave their messages of condolence represented all of the important aspects of Professor White’s many faceted life. It was with both feelings of profound grief at losing a dear and treasured friend and mentor, together with their deepest joy and gratitude for the way John’s love and compassion had altered the course of their lives, that they each related something uniquely special they had experienced through their encounter with him.

Representing University College London, where Professor White taught as an art historian eventually becoming its Pro-Provost, Professor Nick Tyler recalled how he met
Professor White due the 150th Anniversary commemoration for the arrival of the Choshu students. Prof. Tyler learned from him about their “journey of peace”, and felt such incredible admiration for Professor White’s foresight and ability to understand the depths of the relationship between the Choshu students and Professor Alexander Williamson.

Representing the Buddhist Society, Dr. Desmond Biddulph paid tribute on behalf of the wider Buddhist community in the UK to the life of Professor White who, in his search for the truth of the Buddha’s teaching, “did not leave a stone unturned”. Dr. Biddulph was very grateful to have been involved in the publication of the three volumes of haiku poetry by Basho, Buson and Issa that were translated by Professor White and Reverend Kemmyo Sato. These three poets each represented three of the most important aspects of Mahayana Buddhism and these books will be a lasting tribute to him. For Three Wheels, Dr Biddulph continued, Professor White was a real pillar, and a real example of a life fully lived from the whole heart.

Dr Stephen Montgomery first Professor White in 1998 at UCL and soon became a close friend to him, witnessing the growth of his very special relationships with Rev. Kemmyo Sato and Mr Kenji Toda. Dr. Montgomery was very touched by the dialogues between Professor White and Venerable Chimyo Takehara. When the latter asked Professor White if he had a teacher, Professor White immediately replied, “I have no special teacher, everyone around me is a teacher”. This answer reminded Venerable Takehara of the spirit of Bodhisattva “Never-despise” who always feels heartfelt respect towards others, never belittling them.

Professor Hideaki Nagase addressed his words of gratitude to Professor White, “For teaching me, guiding me and inspiring my thoughts. Without which I could be not be the person I am today”. He remembered with great fondness their long conversations over dinner on topics such as Buddhism, quantum physics and illusion. Mrs Kaori Punwani saw, over the many years she knew Professor White since she was a young student, his commitment and dedication towards the growth of the Three Wheels Sangha and future generations of followers. This was a selfless work he carried out in quietness and stillness, with no attachment to the result.

Miss Jessica Adkins first met Professor White when she was a very young child and always regarded him as her godfather. Shortly before his death, whilst still extremely weak and fatigued, Professor White dictated to Jessica his final haiku for the last volume of poetry he completed. It read:

A finish
can be

of this, that
or everything.

Which will this
one be?

Mrs Latifa El Ahmadi was Professor White’s housekeeper and was deeply devoted to him over many years. He seemed to her like a father rather than an employer and she looked forward to seeing him every week. She felt that Professor White was now in a very special and peaceful place.

In his Address of Thanks, Revered Kemmyo Sato spoke of Professor White’s original encounter with Ven. Chimyo Takehara, which was the fountainhead of all the innumerable events which flowed from it. Finding out, several days after his death, that Ven. Takehara always saw Professor White as a Bodhisattva, Rev. Sato came to understand it as rare historical event in which two Bodhisattvas met in mindful contemplation of one another in the deepest spiritual dimension.

Rev. Sato described how, following that momentous encounter, Professor White laid aside all his extraordinary achievements as a world-renowned scholar in the field of art history in order to pour his entire energy into the establishment of Three Wheels. This was the work of a Bodhisattva that he continued right up until the very last moment of his life, when he died at Three Wheels after vowing to spend his remaining days there. It was after his death, Rev. Sato continued, that John’s true being, emerged, “This eternal Bodhisattvaship, or never-ending altruism is still working for us and will always continue to do so”

Following the traditional offering of incense in gratitude for Professor White’s life, his coffin was carried out to the viewing hut of the Zen Garden for his final viewing of the garden he designed and created. Rev. Kemmyo Sato and Mr Masayuki Ogawa, who had such profound, life-changing encounters with Professor White, especially during the time of the construction of the garden, sat by his side and raised a glass of Sake as a final toast to him. The song, ‘You Raise Me Up’, performed by Dharma-friends from the Shogyoji Ladies group, was played as a final tribute to Professor White’s life. Professor White would have been overjoyed to see the pristine beauty of the Zen Garden at that moment.

In closing this report, I would like to express my most sincere gratitude to Ven. Chimyo Takehara, Rev. Keimei Takehara, Rev. Kemmyo Sato, Rev. Kenshin Ishii and all Dharma-friends from Shogyoji Temple in Japan and Three Wheels in London, for everything they did at Professor White’s funeral ceremony to make real his innermost wish for pure harmony within diversity. As Ven. Chimyo Takehara expressed so wonderfully in his Eulogy, Professor White will always be together with us as an eternal Bodhisattva, “illumining the way for all of us of us ignorant beings, as a light endlessly working for those who have been left behind” from the world in which being and not being are equal.

With Gassho

Andrew Webb