I hope that you and your family are enjoying good health and have managed to avoid catching a bug during this cold and flu season. I am grateful to report that at the time of writing this article all four members of my family are finally back in good health after several weeks of taking turns coming down with colds and the flu, starting during the precarious holiday travel season and lasting well into the month of January.
Before becoming a father, I would often make it through the entire winter without catching so much as a cold. Now that our oldest son is going to preschool, he brings home artworks that warm our hearts as well as the occasional virus that lays us out in bed for a day or so. Despite our best efforts at hand washing and improvised quarantines using our guest bedroom, just as one of us starts to feel better, another member of the household will start coughing or spike a fever. On a recent trip to the pharmacy to stock up on cold medicine and children’s Tylenol, the cashier encouraged me to go home and stay in bed for 24 hours straight. Regrettably, with two small children in the house that’s not an option.
At some point, all children come down with an illness and require special care and attention. In the Nirvana Sutra, the Tathagata (i.e. Buddha)’s compassionate concern for all beings is likened to the concern of a loving father or mother for a sick child:
Suppose there are parents with seven children. When there is sickness among the seven children, although the father and mother are concerned equally with all of them, nevertheless their hearts lean wholly toward the sick child. . . . it is like this with the Tathagata. It is not that there is no equality among all sentient beings, but his heart leans wholly toward the person who has committed evil.
(Quoted in the Collected Works of Shinran, p. 133)
It is common for children to have illnesses such as chicken pox, a bad cold or the flu. When kids get sick, fathers and mothers often take time off work so they can dedicate all their energies to caring for the sick child.
Illnesses and chemical imbalances in our bodies can cause physical and mental suffering. The Buddha teaches that spiritual suffering arises from failing or refusing to recognize the deep connections that we share with all beings. It is in those moments when I lose sight of the deep connection that I share with all beings—people, animals, even insects—that I find myself doing harmful things that make life difficult for myself and others. The Buddha’s teachings speak with wisdom and compassion that is equally relevant to lives of all people, but the compassionate heart of the Buddha reaches out to us with the greatest urgency in our moments of harmful foolishness.
In Buddhism, the word “evil” does not refer to actions that stand in opposition to the will of a divine creator being. Rather, “evil” refers to thoughts, words, and actions that arise from mistaken views and a failure to recognize our deep connection with all beings. It is precisely at those times in our lives when our selfish thoughts, words, and actions have caused harm to others and ourselves that we are called to turn to the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings for guidance.
Just as a loving parent is there for his or her sick child, the Buddha is always there for us, providing strength and clarity in our moments of selfish weakness. When we come to feel the supportive presence of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion in the here and now, we learn to stop committing harmful acts of ignorance, and our lives overflow with kindness and the joy of the Nembutsu.
Namo Amida Butsu.