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Koden (and den and den and den)

“As for the matter of practicing the Dharma, there are rich people who consider themselves good devotees. They may give a hundred useful or useless things as alms, but only with the motive of getting back one thousand in return…Afraid they will not achieve their worldly aims, they try to do good; but since they are unable to renounce the desire for recognition, they are actually consuming poison with their food. Do not drink this poison of the desire for recognition. Abandon everything you call Dharma practice but which actually is directed toward glorifying the worldly life.”– Milarepa, 12th century Tibetan saint

For the last year or so of her life, my mom forgot herself in some of the best possible ways. Like many people who have faced serious illness, she seemed only minimally concerned with obligations or what she “should do” and instead honed in on what really meant something to her, even if it was to do nothing at all.

While she never was one to candy-coat a thing, daily life after her cancer diagnosis took a joy in the mundane that I had seldom witnessed growing up. Daily life also entailed suffering that she never tried to hide. Spending time with a terminally ill person seems all about calling a spade a spade. That is to say, the important thing and the difficult thing is to show up for whatever each moment brings for her – morbid laughter, anger at the uncertainty, wincing pain, one savory taste of ice cream – and not, out of fear, to make it into anything other than it is. As a supposed student of Buddhism, I can’t but think of this “showing up” as the very basis of “waking up.” If we can think of life as an event, it is surely an ever-changing one that does not acknowledge human desires and schedules. Buddhism encourages us to show up for that event as it is and not as it is only so far as it is palatable to our false sense of individual selfhood.

This personal and recent observation is one roundabout way to begin a discussion on the custom of giving koden -- or, more precisely, to discuss the way we give koden. As it is practiced today, this custom is so deeply mired in feelings of obligation and calculating thought that its meaning is often difficult to see. In the two years that I have now spent thinking about koden for this belated article, I’ve come to believe that it’s best not to think much about it at all. Taking a page from my mom’s (and Milarepa’s) book by disposing of needless worry, attachment, and speculation, it seems that the best kind of giving is the amnesiac’s giving.

Consisting of the characters for “incense” (? kou) and “song” or “chant” (? den), koden was originally money given to the family of a deceased person in order to help pay for the burning of incense and a minister’s chanting during the Buddhist funeral. The practice persists today in various Japanese American religious traditions. In theory, this custom ostensibly combines sympathy with economic practicality. In practice, giving koden can become a source of conflict or anxiety, involving questions of how much to give and what to return (???? koden gaeshi, usually consisting of a book of postage stamps or other gift generally worth half the amount of koden) in thanks for receipt of koden. More beneficial to all would be to transform this cultural practice in face-saving into a potential religious practice in ego-less giving.

My father has been a vociferous opponent of complicating koden. In an effort to simplify the practice, he has even co-authored a book and written several articles like this one. Yet when we were sorting through koden envelopes and preparing thank you notes after my mother’s funeral, he asked (out of what I hope was either his grief speaking or just his way to test me), “Should we write the amounts down?” In other words, “Should we keep track of how much each person gave?” We decided against it in short order and never really thought about it again. But this momentary lapse demonstrates how deeply Japanese American culture has conditioned us to second-guess the adequacy of our giving and, more crucially, the adequacy of our thanking. All cultures observe customs of giving and reciprocity. Japanese American giving, though, seems uniquely, yet endearingly, intricate and neurotic.

My mother once gave our Issei neighbor a basket of strawberries. The neighbor returned the gesture as a jar of strawberry jam. My mom’s thank you gift was a jellyroll baked with that strawberry jam. I don't think either of them actually ate any fresh strawberries. Continuing a cycle of reciprocity and the desire to maintain the neighborly relationship was the goal of this game of berry-ball. If only by this example alone, I am tempted to say Japanese Americans know how to prolong the giving and the thanking. Now if we can combine this skill with the Buddhist principle called dana (giving without attachment or expectation and with good intentions) and apply it to the custom of koden, we might get somewhere. How liberating it would be to attend a funeral simply to grieve along with a family, unconcerned with outward appearances, how much koden to give, whether it is adequate, etc. To understand why this attitude is not more prevalent, we might consider that, as a people, we tend not to forget or overlook anything.

If mine is any representative indicator, then many other Japanese American families also have at least one member who is a consummate paperless record keeper. This person is a matriarch who may not remember what she did yesterday or where her car is or the crippling yet nonchalant criticisms she visited upon your childhood. But she does remember with assassin-like precision the date of her sister-in-law’s father’s funeral during the Carter Administration. She also remembers how much koden each attendee gave for that funeral in order to determine how much to give for the future funeral of that attendee or a member of his or her family. Dana and The Accounting Department were never meant to have this child called koden. Real giving of koden – especially at such a surreal and vulnerable time as death – would ideally consist of any amount of money in a blank envelope, submitted anonymously, and then forgotten about by all parties involved, especially the giver. Treating koden as an economic and social transaction is the poison that Milarepa warns against drinking.

The amount of money a family receives as koden sometimes far exceeds the amount necessary to cover the cost of the funeral. Excess funds are often donated to causes relevant to the deceased – cancer research, Alzheimer’s research, temples, or various charities, to name a few examples. This, to me, seems the essence of dana and the potential power of the koden system – to pool money together without regard for who gave how much and to direct it towards a good purpose.

It is possible my observations smack of simple-minded thinking and easy, broad generalizations. Reading over these paragraphs myself, I can see how they might be interpreted as negative and unfair estimations of JA culture. But much to the contrary, they stem from great affection and the certainty that we are all capable of some remarkable acts of giving. And by “remarkable,” I don’t refer only to external qualities such as the quantity or even anonymity of the gift. I mean something internal – what the act of giving does to the giver -- whether it causes her to harbor secret expectations, to feel self-satisfied, or, most meaningfully, to do nothing at all.

©2009 Mayumi Kodani

community custom koden money tradition