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49 Day Ceremony for Billy Sothern

We are grieving the loss of our friend, former board chair, and long time Mid City Zen sangha member, Billy Sothern. Billy represented people facing the death penalty in the American South for more than two decades as a criminal defense lawyer and was also instrumental in his support of Mid City Zen as board chair and his contribution of countless volunteer hours over the years.


We will be joining Houston Zen Center, where he was also active, in holding a 49 day memorial service, which will include meditation, chanting, incense offering, and just shared time together every Thursday for 7 weeks, beginning this Thursday at 6:30pm at Mid City Zen, 623 N. Rendon.


All are welcome to come for any part of the ceremony (i.e. come at 7 if you don't want to sit zazen), and for any of the ceremonies listed below. You are also welcome to join online through the virtual zendo.

(Pictured above, an Instagram post from Billy on Father's Day, 2021, with the caption, "Zen Garden on Father’s Day. The lines were crazy long but the ride was worth it. #zengarden #neworleanscitypark #girldad #transdad")


6:20pm han starts, call to sitting

6:30-6:55pm, zazen seated meditation

7-7:15pm special chanting service

7:15pm all are welcome to offer incense, followed by remembrances

Dates of the 49 Day Ceremony:

Thurs Oct 6

Thurs Oct 13

Thurs Oct 20

Thurs Oct 27

Thurs Nov 3

Thurs Nov 10

closing ceremony Thurs Nov 17

Chant card for the ceremony (download as pdf)

49 Day Ceremony for Billy Sothern

b. Feb 15, 1977 d. Sept 30, 2022


The ceremony begins with an incense offering and 3 full bows toward the altar. 


All are welcome to recite the following chant 3 times:




No mo san man da 

moto nan oha ra chi 

koto sha sono nan 

to ji to en gya gya gya 

ki gya ki un nun shifu ra 

shifu ra hara shifu ra 

hara shifu ra chishu sa 

chishu sa chishu ri chishu ri 

soha ja soha ja sen chi 

gya shiri ei so mo ko


After a prayer is recited, all may join in with the following:


All Buddhas, Ten Directions, Three Times   

All Honored ones, Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas  

Wisdom Beyond Wisdom, Maha Prajna Paramita


followed by 3 full bows toward the altar. 

All are welcome to make an incense offering.


We close the ceremony with one standing bow to the altar and one bow toward each other in the room. 

More information and ways you can contribute:


Read the New York Times obituary

Read the Times Picayune obituary


In lieu of flowers the family requests donations to be made in Billy’s honor to:


Louisiana Parole Project advocates for Incarcerated people and operates a residential reentry program that provides safe housing to clients while they work to rebuild their lives and reintegrate into the community. 


The Promise of Justice Initiative’s Client and Family Services Fund ( ) serves the direct needs of incarcerated people in Louisiana and their families with money, client visits, family visits, and internal advocacy in jails and prisons across Louisiana. 


New Orleans Innocence Project ( represents innocent men and women in Louisiana’s prisons and individuals serving unjust sentences

A note about the 49 Day Ceremony from Naomi Yoder

Hello friends,

I wanted to share a bit about the ceremony Houston Zen Center and Mid City Zen will be conducting for Billy.  Please feel free to share this.


Bardo observance

49 days is believed to be the period of “bardo”, or the stage between death and afterlife where  consciousness slowly leaves the body. The purpose of conducting ceremonies for bardo is to help the person who has died find their way through the bardo. As Gaelyn told me, “we want to help Billy in his confusion, to be at peace”. The ceremony is primarily meant to reach Billy, to communicate our love and support, and to settle him. It also serves to bring some comfort to the rest of us, and the feeling of connection can extend throughout the 49 days and beyond.


The ceremony at Houston Zen Center consists of offerings at the altar, chanting, bowing and offering incense. A card with “Billy Sothern” written on it stays on the altar for 49 days. A photo of him is also placed on the altar. The following offerings are made: light (candles), flowers, incense and tea. 


Those assembled bow together three times. Then the “Sho Sai Myo Kichijo Dharani” is chanted together, three times. The Sho Sai Myo is said to ward off troubles and misfortunes - we send this out to Billy to calm him and ease his confusion. It is sometimes called the “Dharani of Removing Hindrance”. 


There isn’t a great translation of the Sho Sai Myo, since we read a Japanese or romaji transliteration of a Chinese transliteration of a Sankrit verse. The importance or power or meaning is thought to be in the recitation, not in the understanding. This is the verse:


No mo san man da 

moto nan oha ra chi 

koto sha sono nan 

to ji to en gya gya gya 

ki gya ki un nun shifu ra 

shifu ra hara shifu ra 

hara shifu ra chishu sa 

chishu sa chishu ri chishu ri 

soha ja soha ja sen chi 

gya shiri ei so mo ko


Then the merit of the service is dedicated to Billy. And finally everyone present bows again three times, together. 


Here is a recording from Zen Mountain Monastery in the Hudson Valley, NY, close to where Billy's house was when I saw him this summer.


The 49 days ceremony is almost universal within Buddhism. In Zen Buddhism, the ceremony utilizes the Sho Sai Myo Kichijo Dharani, but other sects may chant something else. Some Buddhists believe that the bardo period is where the body and soul get readied for the next realm - one of which could be the human realm and thus reincarnation. 


The name card we place on the altar is similar to a “spirit tablet” or an object inscripted with the name of the deceased. People are sometimes given a new name upon death, so that the deceased person won’t be confused or tempted to try to cling to this world when their name is invoked.  

We will be conducting this ceremony every thursday through November 17th, just after 7am central time (Mid City Zen will be conducting the ceremony every Thursday at 7pm central time).  We invite you to take a moment of contemplation and remembering Billy with us, and wishing him love and support in his journey.

May you be happy, may you be joyous and live in safety.




Example of a Chinese spirit tablet


An image of Houston Zen Center's altar in March 2020

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