We will be observing our Spring Ohigan Service on Sunday, March 15 at 9:30 a.m. Ohigan is observed twice a year during the spring and autumn equinoxes, when days and nights are of equal length and the sun sets directly in the West. The Pure Land Sutras describe the Pure Land of Amida Buddha as a world of enlightenment located in the West, so Ohigan is an ideal time to reflect on the direction of our lives and reorient ourselves on the path to liberation from suffering.
As we consider what it means to lead a life guided by the Buddha’s wisdom, the Japanese Buddhist observance of Ohigan traditionally focuses on study and reflection on the Six Paramitas, a set of Buddhist virtues which are perfected by those who have crossed over from “this shore” in the deluded world of birth and death to arrive at the “other shore” of enlightenment. The Six Paramitas are generosity, moral conduct, patience, diligence, contemplation, and wisdom.
Stories of Sakyamuni Buddha’s previous lives are called Jataka Tales. Many of these stories provide clear teachings on the virtues of the Six Paramitas that can be appreciated by Dharma students of all ages. One of these stories tells of a mischievous monkey who dwelled in the forest near a great ox. Every day the monkey would amuse himself by tormenting the ox, climbing all over his body and mocking him. In spite of the monkey’s consistently obnoxious behavior, the ox never became angry or punished him. One day, a forest sprite happened to pass by just as the monkey was in the midst of harassing the ox. Shocked at the monkey’s inexcusable behavior, the forest sprite questioned the ox as to why he did not make use of his superior size and strength to put the monkey in his place.
The ox replied that, rather than being annoyed, he was grateful to the monkey for giving him a wonderful opportunity to practice the virtue of patience. The ox went on to explain that it is easy to be patient and accepting of unpleasant treatment from one who is more powerful than oneself, because one has no choice. However, when one who is weaker than oneself and can be easily defeated gives unpleasant treatment, it is a great gift because to refrain from punishing a weaker opponent is truly to practice the bodhisattva’s virtue of patience. The story goes on to explain that this virtuous ox is the bodhisattva who will one day go on to become the awakened Buddha Sakyamuni.
I wonder how our world would be different if the most powerful people, corporations, and nations adopted the ox’s patient and generous attitude. As for myself, I like to think of myself as that ox—kind and gentle, patient and tolerant of those around me. However, when I honestly consider the life I live, I find that more often than not, I am the monkey that thoughtlessly pursues my own enjoyment, taking for granted the kindness and patience of others that day-by-day enables my life to continue. In his Hymns of the Dharma Ages (Shozomatsu Wasan), Shinran writes:
Lacking even small love and small compassion,
I cannot hope to benefit sentient beings.
Were it not for the ship of Amida’s Vow,
How could I cross the ocean of painful existence?
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 422, No. 98)
Shinran abandoned the idea that he could perfect bodhisattva virtues such as patience and compassion by relying on his own efforts (self-power). In order to realize the perfection of these virtues and cross over to the Other Shore of liberation, he took refuge in the ship of Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow to liberate all beings (Other-power).
During Ryukoku University Professor Emeritus Chiko Naito’s recent visit to our temple, he graciously agreed to join us for our weekly adult discussion. During the discussion, one of the participants asked Prof. Naito how making an effort to practice the Six Paramitas fits into Other-power Nembutsu practice. Prof. Naito responded that there is no problem with doing our best and making an effort to live well. He went on to explain that we go off track when we start to think that the effort we are capable of is something special on par with the great efforts made by the Buddha. He further elaborated that if we think that the ego-based effort we are making is somehow necessary for our own Birth in the Pure Land, that we are doubting the power of the Buddha’s transcendent wisdom to guide us to awakening. Living in the Nembutsu, we do our best to lead a life that reflects the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha, while avoiding the traps of complacency and self-satisfaction.
Namo Amida Butsu