Miguel Caro was a talented performer, choreographer, dance teacher, and well-loved man known for his hugs and smiles. He toured the world performing baile folklorico, traditional Mexican folk dancing. He was introduced to Buddhism while on tour in Japan and embraced the religion. A Buddhist memorial service was held for him at the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) New Mexico Buddhist center.
As with many memorial services, there was a photo board with pictures of Miguel through the years, many showing him in colorful, elaborate costumes that he designed and his sister Beatriz made. A photo montage was projected on the screen at the front of the room, showing Miguel dancing and with family and friends, always, always smiling. Between the photos at the start and the open comments period and reception toward the end, something very different happened.
Having never experienced a Buddhist memorial service before, I am grateful to Marilyn Mendes for taking me under her wing to describe the traditions and meanings ascribed to the ceremony.
SGI members follow the teachings of Nichiren, a Buddhist monk who lived in thirteenth-century Japan. Nichiren’s teachings provide a way for anybody to readily draw out the enlightened wisdom and energy of Buddhahood from within their lives, regardless of their individual circumstances. Each person has the power to overcome all of life’s challenges, to live a life of value and become a positive influence in their community, society and the world.
The invocation (chant) of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a universal practice to enable people to manifest the Buddhahood inherent in their lives and gain the strength and wisdom to challenge and overcome any adverse circumstances. Nichiren felt that everyone can attain enlightenment and enjoy happiness while they are alive.
“Enlightenment exists within you now, with your human frailties,” Marilyn said. “The difference between the common mortal and Buddha is behavior. The struggle is to manifest enlightenment in our behavior.”
Buddhists believe the essential nature of life continues, whether manifest in this physical world or not. They believe the spirit of the deceased still exists. The person’s life is celebrated and prayers are offered for rebirth in the best possible circumstances, to be reunited with loved ones.
The screen was put away and the assembled centered themselves with prayer beads looped around their middle fingers. Some slid the beads back and forth, to make a focusing vibration in their palms. A cabinet at the front of the room was opened, revealing a mandala (an object of devotion) which was the writing Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in Japanese characters.
A man sat in front of the mandala with a large black bowl next to him. He started the chanting by striking the bowl with a large stick. The bowl rang like a gong, and everyone began the Nam-myoho-renge-kyo chant. Each person had their own booklet copy of the sutra, written in Chinese and Japanese characters with English transliteration. They intoned their prayers in unison in between the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. How can I best describe this? It felt similar to the hypnotic repetition of the Rosary in a Catholic church.
A regal picture of Miguel in Aztec costume sat on a table at the front, with two incense burners before his image. As the chanting continued, people lined up in the center aisle and came forward to take a pinch of incense and drop it into one of the burners. This ceremony allowed each individual to offer up a prayer for Miguel’s eternal life. Many carried prayer beads in their hands. They were young and old, black and white, Hispanic and Asian. Some hugged Miguel’s longtime partner Keith Langford after they offered up their incense and prayers.
After the incense offering, the booklet indicated it was time for silent personal prayers and a prayer for all the deceased. As one person said, the endless cycle of birth and death is eternal. The leader sounded the bell continuously to end the chanting portion of the service.
Keith Langford, Miguel’s partner for 26 years, got up to speak. He started with words of thanks for everyone who helped during Miguel’s long illness. In the last few years, Miguel had broken a shoulder and a toe, and he had liver cancer and coronary artery disease, which ruled out his chance for a liver transplant. But Miguel always kept up his chanting and his strong faith.
Miguel was born in the small Mexican town of Ameca in the state of Jalisco. He loved to dance as a teenager – while he didn’t understand the words, he loved the beat of American rock ‘n roll. He trained at the Institute of Fine Art in Mexico City and toured the world as a soloist with the Nacional Ballet Folklórico.
He moved to Albuquerque in 1972 and started his dance company, Miguel Caro y la Fiesta Mexicana, in 1978. He became a U.S. citizen in 1983. He taught dance at UNM for 20 years, as well as at his own private dance studio and several local high schools. In 1999 he was the recipient of the Bravo Award for Excellence in the Arts and was named Arts Educator of the Year.
He designed and made the costumes with fine attention to detail. He also got a cosmetology license and had his dancers all wear the same hair and makeup.
Miguel’s body was shipped to his native Mexico, for burial next to his mother. A mariachi band played at the graveside service.
The floor was opened for others to speak and share stories and memories. Miguel was remembered as a great, kind person who always wanted to hug you. His smile brightened the room. He was a citizen of the world who illuminated the stage with music and dance. He embodied vigor and grace, determination and connection, passion and compassion.
Al Soto, the man who led the chanting, spoke about understanding the reality of life and death. “Every day, you get up, you wake up. You’re born, grow stronger, mature, age, tire, go to sleep, die. If you understand one day, you understand the entirety of life,” he said. “Buddhism goes beyond this view. In the latent phase of death, the entity cycle remains unchanged. Life and death are one and the same.”
Marcella Sandoval, a dancer with Miguel’s company for 23 years, asked those from different spheres of his life to stand and be recognized: the SGI community, those who took dance classes from him, those who danced in his performance groups, and those who sat in the audience for his performances. “The legend does and will live on,” she said.
Paula, a student in the 1980s to 1990s, offered some “Miguelisms,” things that he would say and what he really meant. “Put all your fingers on the floor” meant put your feet flat on the floor (the word for fingers and toes was the same). “Up your face” meant hold your head high. “Change your face” meant turn your face right or left. “Up your dress” meant lift your skirts. “We are the really reallies” meant that they were the true professionals and genuine Mexican folk dancers. “Ay Labio Vary Mach” means “I love you very much,” although the word labio means lips.
Miguel got his 15 minutes of national fame doing his show-stopper dance El Tilingo Lingo on the “Late Show with David Letterman” in 2001. He kept a tray of 10 glasses of water perfectly balanced on his head while his feet tapped out a staccato rhythm. The service wound down with video footage of Miguel doing that dance in the KNME program “Colores.” Miguel’s spirited dancing and beaming smile left everyone with a sense of joy.
At the end of the service, everyone was invited to share food and stories at a reception at the center. If you have stories you’d like to share, please write in the comments box below.