Sakyamuni and Amida are our father and our mother

We hope to see you at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on May 17, 2015 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. Shortly thereafter, Shinran left home at the young age of nine years to receive ordination as a Buddhist monk from Jien, the abbot of the Shoren-in Temple. For the next twenty years, he dedicated his life to Buddhist training in the Tendai tradition on Mount Hiei outside Kyoto.

As a young monk growing up on Mount Hiei, Shinran spent the remaining years of his childhood and adolescence under the care of the temple community rather than with his parents. Even though Shinran spent relatively few years living with his parents, we find that he uses metaphors of father and mother in several key passages of his writings to express the deep gratitude he feels for the Buddha’s compassion. The following passage from the Hymns of the Pure Land Masters (Koso Wasan) is a personal favorite of mine:

Sakyamuni and Amida are our father and our mother,

Full of love and compassion for us;

Guiding us through various skillful means,

They bring us to awaken the supreme shinjin.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 380)

I do not believe that Shinran would have the deep appreciation of compassion that we encounter in his writings had he not encountered great kindness and nurturing from the monks with whom he spent the formative years of his youth. After leaving the monastery on Mt. Hiei at the age of 29, Shinran joined Honen’s Nembutsu community that included men and women of all walks of life. Under Honen’s guidance, Shinran continued to dedicate his life to studying and sharing the Dharma, but with an expanded view of the possibilities for Buddhist practice in any lifestyle. Eventually, Shinran married Eshinni and they raised several children together.

At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we continue to follow Shinran’s example of Buddhist practice in family life. On Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 10), we will celebrate the arrival of new babies into our Sangha family with our Hatsumairi Service. We will also express gratitude toward our parents by dedicating that Sunday Service to Parents’ Day activities. This service is an opportunity to express the gratitude we feel for our parents, but also to reflect upon the many people who care for and nurture us with the same loving commitment of a mother for her child.

I recently heard one of our Buddhist Women’s Association members whose mother lives far away refer to the senior BWA members as “my temple moms.” This reflects the deep insight that the compassion we encounter through the Buddha goes beyond blood relations. It even goes beyond gender. The wisdom often associated with a father’s love can be received from a woman. The kindness often associated with mothers can be received from a man. When Shinran refers to Sakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha as our father and mother, he is pointing to the deep love and compassion that goes beyond the difference between man and woman.

For some people, the most familiar kindness comes from their mother. But it could come from a father too—or a grandmother or grandfather. It could come from a teacher, a coach, a coworker, or a friend. While that experience of kindness comes into our lives through many different karmic relationships, it is something we all encounter in life. The nembutsu that we recite with a sincere heart of entrusting is our everyday celebration of the Buddha’s boundless compassion that we encounter through the kindness of others.


Namo Amida Butsu.