We hope to see you at the San Mateo Buddhist temple on May 18, 2014 at 9:30 a.m. for our Gotan-e Service celebrating the birth of Shinran, the Buddhist teacher who we look to as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition. Shinran was born in Hino near Kyoto on May 21, 1173 during a time of great social turmoil in Japan when warlords battled for control of the country, severe famines caused widespread starvation, and epidemic disease took many lives. Shinran’s mother is said to have passed away after falling ill when he was just eight years old.
As a young boy, Shinran surely encountered a great deal of suffering and sadness in the world around him. At the age of nine, he became a Buddhist monk and sought refuge in the Dharma. He arrived just before sunset on the day he was to be ordained at Shorenin Temple. As night was beginning to fall, Jien, the head priest who would perform the ordination, told him to return the next day for the ceremony. At that time, the young Shinran is said to have recited the following poem:
“For him who counts on tomorrow, Like the fragile cherry blossom, Tonight, unexpected winds may blow.”
Even as a child, Shinran was aware that just as beautiful cherry bloosoms may be scattered overnight by expected winds, the circumstances and relationships we are counting for tomorrow may be suddenly disrupted without warning. It is said that Jien was deeply moved when he saw that Shinran possessed deep insight into the truth of impermance at such a young age, so he conducted the ordination ceremony by candlelight that very evening.
Shinran sought refuge in the Buddhadharma in the hope of realizing lasting peace of mind in the midst of this world of constant change. In the various activities of our temple, we too receive the support of the Dharma as we face inevitable change and loss in our lives. For many families attendance at the monthly Shotsuki Hoyo Memorial Service is a meaningful and comforting way to remember loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore.
In my family, this month our thoughts turn to my grandfather Harold Hanford Hammersland who passed away last year in May at the age of 90. Although he lived with Alzheimer’s disease for many years, it was not until the day he passed away that the reality that he would not always be here with us really began set in. As we approach the one year anniversary of my grandfather’s passing, I have been thinking about the journey of his life and all that he has done for our family. My grandfather trained as aircraft mechanic and worked for Trans World Airlines (TWA) in Washington D.C. and Kansas City in the 1940’s before and after his service in the Air Force during the Second World War. In 1948, he married my grandmother and the following year he returned to his hometown in Iowa to farm on land that has been in our family since the first Norwegian families settled in that area.
As an aircraft mechinic working for one of the world’s largest airlines, he could have expected a comfortable livelihood with a reliable salary and good benefits. It occurs to me now that his decision to return to Iowa and dedicate his life to farming showed genuine courage and resolve, as he would face considerable risk year after year in operating the farm. Key factors that determined whether or not the farm would be profitable, such as weather and crop prices, were beyond his control and varied greatly from one year to the next. My mother has commented that when she was growing up on the farm some years there was plenty money coming in, and some years they had to make due with less. Through hard work and determination, my grandfather was able to maintain the farm and pass it on to the next generation. My uncles continue to farm on our family land today.
Although my grandfather is no longer dwelling in this physical world, I am discovering new inspiration from his decision as a young man to return to that farm in Iowa. As I reflect on the direction of my own life, I find myself looking to his example of choosing a path of personal fulfillment and maintaining the family legacy he received, despite the challenges that entailed.
In the midst of sadness of parting, every encounter with impermanence in our lives is a call to look more deeply into the way we are living and consider the direction of our own lives. We never know what the winds of impermance will bring, so the wise and compassionate voice of the Buddha constantly calls to us in the Nembutsu, urging us to clarify the direction of lives today and settle the great matter of birth and death.