As summer draws to an end and we prepare to welcome the change of seasons with our Autumn Ohigan service on September 24 at 9:30 a.m., I have been enjoying the following haiku by the Japanese poet Issa (1763-1827) that captures the atmosphere of our temple in recent weeks:
tamoto no naka no
semi no koe.
Little monk, I hear the cicada in the sleeve of your robe.
Buddhist Temples have long played an important role in children’s education in Japan. Today many temples run preschools and kindergartens that are attended by local children. In Issa’s day, it was not uncommon for children whose families were not able to provide for them to be placed in the care of a Buddhist temple, where they received education and underwent religious training. Issa himself was devoted to the Jodo Shinshu Nembutsu tradition, in which most temples are run by families, with children being brought up from an early age to help out with religious services.
The call of cicadas is a constant refrain to late summer life in Japan. These large and vocal insects are fascinating creatures, and catching them and keeping them as pets has been a favorite entertainment of Japanese children for centuries. This poem tells us that the children Issa knew who had entered Buddhist life at an early age had fun and played just like other children. Buddhist temples in Issa’s day were places for serious religious practice, but the life of many temples was also punctuated with the joy and playfulness of childhood. The young monks at the temple learned to chant and studied the sutras, but they also caught cicadas and carried them around in the sleeves of their robes.
In addition to children who ordained and lived the monastic life from a young age, there were children who lived with their families but regularly went to a Buddhist temple to learn to read, write and calculate with an abacus. These early education programs conducted by temples were called terakoya. At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we model our Summer Terakoya program after the terakoya that have played such an important role in the education and spiritual growth of Buddhist children for generations in Japan.
During our Summer Terakoya, the participants took turns leading sutra chanting in the Hondo and the recitation of the Six Paramitas (giving, discipline, patience, endeavor, meditation and wisdom), the six key virtues that serve as the cornerstone of Mahayana Buddhist life. While Summer Terakoya is a place for children grades 1 to 9 to learn Buddhist traditions and deepen their understanding of the Dharma, it is also a place to play badminton in the parking lot, design a silly hyottoko mask, and sing songs with friends.
Issa lived in the Nembutsu, a Buddhist way of living that permeates our lives and was encouraged by Shinran in the following words:
For all people – men and women, of high station and low –
Saying the Name of Amida is such
That whether one is walking, standing, sitting, or reclining is of no concern
And time, place, and condition are not restricted.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 385)
In the Nembutsu, we find that rather than abandoning our daily activities to pursue an ideal of Buddhist practice, our lives are transformed such that we encounter the boundless wisdom and compassion of the Buddha in our everyday activities of work and play. If you’d like to learn more about how our Terakoya youth experienced the joy of the Nembutsu during their time at the temple this summer, please join us for service on Sunday, September 17, when the Terakoya participants will be leading service and talking about their experiences.
Namo Amida Butsu