Finding Refuge in the Territory of the Dharma

In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, February 15 is the day that Nirvana Day is traditionally observed in commemoration of Sakyamuni Buddha’ s passing into parinirvana, the state of great tranquility realized at the end of life by one who has crossed over the ocean of birth and death. At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we will be holding our annual Nirvana Day Service on Sunday, February 9 at 9:30 a.m. We hope you will be able to join us for this service as we remember the life of Sakyamuni Buddha and reflect on our own journey to final liberation from suffering.

In the Buddhacarita: In Praise of Buddha’s Acts, an ancient record of the Buddha’ s life, it is written that when the Buddha was 80 years old and dwelling near the city of Vaisali, an unusual series of earthquakes occurred. Startled by this strange occurrence, the Buddha’ s disciple Ananda asked the Buddha why this was happening. Sakyamuni Buddha responded by saying that he would only remain alive for three more months and that the earthquakes were the result of the Buddha’ s abandoning all remaining ties to his life in this world.

Upon hearing this news, Ananda became deeply disheartened. Ananda was aware of the truth of impermanence, having on many occasions heard the Buddha teach that all those that come together will one day be separated. Nevertheless, he and the other disciples of the Buddha who had not yet realized perfect enlightenment worried about how they would be able to continue their study of the Dharma without the Buddha as their teacher and guide. At that time Ananda lamented, “In the great darkness of ignorance, beings have all lost their direction. The Tathagata (Buddha) has lit the lamp of wisdom but it will be suddenly extinguished. How will they escape?”

Observing Ananda’ s distress, the Buddha offered him the following words of comfort:

“As a teacher, I have never held anything from beings. Develop a notion of revulsion [for samsara], well established in your own territory!

“When you know your own territory, you must be attentive and diligently apply yourself! Practice alone and in tranquility, and reside in solitude! Do not follow beliefs in anything else!
“When you know the territory of the Law (Dharma), you are certain to clearly see the lamp of wisdom. It can dispel delusion . . . Having obtained the excellent Law, one is free from any self and free from [‘ I’ and] ‘ mine.’”(Buddhacarita: In Praise of the Buddha’s Acts, translated by Charles Willemen, pg. 168; available online at

In commenting on these words of the Buddha, the Buddhist scholar Hajime Nakamura explains that the word “territory” here originally refers to a place of high ground where one can take refuge during a flood. The Buddha is telling Ananda that he must determine for himself what is true and wise, so that he may have a well-established refuge in his heart and mind that he can turn to for guidance in times of difficulty.

The guidance of a wise friend can be of great help to us as we face challenges in life, but in the end, we must decide for ourselves what our true path is, without just going along with what the people around us are doing or saying. For this reason, the Buddha teaches that our most reliable refuge can be found in the Dharma. The Dharma that the Buddha taught freely without holding anything back is the high ground to which we can return and get a clear perspective when the flood waters of confusion seem to be rising all around us.

From that elevated territory of the Dharma, we can clearly see the lamp of wisdom shining into our lives and illuminating our true path. Even in the times that we are unable to clearly see that lamp of wisdom, it never ceases to shine into our lives, guiding us to the higher ground of true understanding. In the Nembutsu, we receive that lamp of wisdom as the compassionate vow of Amida Buddha to guide all beings to liberation. As our true teacher Shinran (1173-1262) writes in his Notes on the Inscriptions on Sacred Scrolls: “Amida’s Vow is a great torch in the long night of ignorance. We should reflect that, although our wisdom-eyes are dark, we need not despair.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 516)

In gassho,

Family and Friendship

     On Wednesday, December 11, 2013, my wife Shoko gave birth to a healthy baby boy Shoma (pronounced “SHOW-ma”) Jesse Adams-Ichinomiya at Mills-Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame.  Throughout the delivery and post-partum period, Shoko and Shoma received excellent care from the doctors, nurses, and other staff at Mills-Peninsula.  In a time when we hear so much in our public discourse about the problems facing the medical system in this country, the conscientious and compassionate treatment that our family has received inspires a deep feeling of gratitude in us for the quality of care that we have access to.
     When people first learn Shoma’s name, they are often curious about its meaning.  In Japanese, the name Shoma 證眞 is written with two Chinese characters: “Sho 證” and “ma 眞.”  In the “Verses in Praise of the Buddha (Sanbutsuge)” from The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life Delivered by Sakyamuni Buddha, the character “Sho 證” appears in Dharmakara Bodhisattva’s request to have Lokesvararaja Buddha verify his aspiration to become a Buddha and guide all beings to liberation from suffering.  Sho 證 may be translated as “verify” or “realize.”   The character “ma 眞” means “truth,” and refers to the truth of the Buddha’s teachings as a guide for living with wisdom and compassion.  Shoko and I chose these two characters for the name of our second son as an expression of our wish that throughout Shoma’s journey through life, he will realize what is real and true in each situation he encounters.
     Shoma’s middle name Jesse comes from his great-great-great grandfather Jesse Melver Adams, Sr. (1844-1909), who lived in Bradley County, Arkansas.  In writings preserved by historians in Bradley County, one of Jesse’s good friends says he “knew Mr. Adams from his boyhood and can say that he never knew a better man or had a better friend.”  With the arrival of Shoma in our family, our first son Ryoma now has a brother.  As one of our good Dharma friends commented after Shoma’s birth, “Later on the two boys will have fun . . . as well as “fights.”  It brings us great joy to know that Ryoma and Shoma will enjoy a lifelong friendship as brothers, so we chose Shoma’s middle name inspired by a man who was known and loved as an exceptional friend.
     As there is no established custom of monastic practice in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, our practice of the Dharma is deeply rooted in family life.  For those of us who practice Buddhism in the midst of home life, our family is our Sangha.  When I reflect the following words from a letter written by our true teacher Shinran (1173-1262), I am reminded of how living in the nembutsu deepens our feelings of appreciation and affection for those close companions in our lives: “Signs of long years of saying the nembutsu and aspiring for birth can be seen in the change in the heart that had been bad and in the deep warmth for friends and fellow-practicers. . . .” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 551).  Just as our family is our Sangha, we have found that the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Sangha is our family.  We thank you for all the kindness and generous care you shared with us in 2013.  We look forward to deepening our friendship in the Dharma in the coming year!
In gassho,

Conquering the Demon Army

Since Daylight Saving Time ended last month, I have really noticed that the days are getting shorter.  Lately, it is often pitch dark outside by the time I return home from the temple for dinner.  Spending more hours surrounded by darkness as winter approaches, I find myself feeling a deeper appreciation for light and illumination.  Here in the United States there is a widespread custom of decorating homes and businesses with strings of lights, lending a festive mood to the long winter nights.  As I reflect on this custom, I am reminded that many of the world’s religious traditions have winter festivals that celebrate light transforming darkness, such as Hanukkah, Christmas, Eid al-Adha, and Diwali.

In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, Bodhi Day, the day of Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, is observed on December 8.  This service is a time when we reflect on Siddhartha Gautama’s heroic journey in search of the light of clear wisdom that shines through the darkness of ignorance and mistaken thinking.  When he fully realized that light of wisdom in his mind, he became a Buddha, or “Awakened One,” who would come to be revered as Sakyamuni, the Sage of the Sakya Clan.

In the traditional telling of the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, it is said that as the moment of his awakening approached, a brilliant light shone forth from the place where he sat in meditation.  When Mara, the Demon King of Illusion, saw this light, he knew that Siddhartha was about to transcend the world of illusion and break free from Mara’s control in the unending suffering cycle of birth and death.  Mara then summoned his army of demon hordes in an attempt to thwart Siddhartha and force him to stray from his path to awakening.  Mara came at Siddhartha with the full force of his army of illusion in the hope of disrupting Siddhartha’s meditation.  Undaunted in his wisdom and courage, Siddhartha saw through the illusions and refused to be swayed from his concentration.  At that moment Siddhartha reached down and touched the ground, and it is said that the voice of the earth stated that upon realizing Buddhahood he would be of great help to people and he was welcome to sit where he was.  With this show of determination and resolve by Siddhartha, Mara was forced to accept defeat.

Siddhartha vanquished Mara not by raising an army of his own, but rather by maintaining his calm and focused state of mind and seeing clearly the true nature of the threat that Mara posed.  Often when we are confronted by a difficult situation in life, our first inclination to respond by pushing back and trying to bend the situation to our own will.  Even in cases where we do not resort to physical force or strong words, we often have a hard time letting go of our set ideas of the way things should go.  The character of Mara can appear in our lives any time misunderstanding or stubborn thinking leads us down a mistaken path in life.  Sometimes we feel as if we are under attack by a demon army when in reality the cause of our suffering is our own misguided thinking.

The Buddha shows us that the way to overcome difficulties in life is not to try to power through, relying on the force of our own will.  Rather, by remaining calm in the face of adversity, we can find strength and clarity in the light of awakening.  At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we often hear the words, “Namo Amida Butsu.”  One way of translating the meaning of this phrase is “I take refuge in the Buddha of Immeasurable Light,” which is to say that no matter how deeply we may find ourselves immersed in the darkness of ignorance, the light of awakening is always shining into our lives.  When we are faced with a difficult situation, rather than charging ahead according to our own ideas of how things ought to be, we are encouraged to pause for a moment and calmly assess all the possibilities that present themselves.  Approaching life’s challenges in this way, we will likely find that the light of wisdom is illuminating a way forward that we had never considered before.  In the words of Shinran (1173-1262), the true teacher of our tradition, “Although I too am within Amida’s grasp, Passions obstruct my eyes and I cannot see him; Nevertheless, great compassion is untiring and illumines me always.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 73)


In gassho,

Our Original Home

I would like to begin my message this month by expressing deep gratitude to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Sangha for your warm welcome and the kindness you have shown to Shoko, Ryoma and me as we settle into our new life here in San Mateo.  We are particularly grateful to everyone who worked to prepare the minister’s residence for our arrival—painting the walls, shampooing the carpets, unloading the moving truck, and even stocking the refrigerator for us, so we would have something to eat when we arrived after the long trip up from Oxnard.

We are also very grateful to everyone who worked so hard to prepare a festive gathering to officially welcome us on October 20 after Sunday Service.  I’m sure there were countless other kindnesses and favors that I’m failing to mention here, but please know that we truly appreciate all you have done to prepare a beautiful and comfortable place for us here in San Mateo.

Many Sangha members have been kindly inquiring about how we are settling in.  Okagesama-de, I am pleased to report that we are starting to feel very much at home here in San Mateo.  When people find out that we have a two-year-old son, they are always curious about how he has adjusted to the move.  Fortunately, children are very adaptable, so he quickly made himself at home in our new place.  The most challenging time for him seems to have been the last couple days before we left Oxnard, when we were packing up his toys and rearranging the furniture that had defined his favorite play areas.  There was one set of toys in particular that he managed to dig out of the moving boxes at least three times before we left Oxnard.

However, once we arrived in San Mateo he settled right in.  He likes the easy access to the covered patio and backyard, where he “works in the garden,” watering plants and moving pebbles from one planter to another.  He also enjoys the freshly shampooed carpet in the house.  We know he’s getting ready for a nap when he starts wandering around the house with his blanket, but we never know where he will finally plop down on the soft carpet and fall asleep.  Sometimes we find him snoring away in the middle of the living room floor or in a hallway.

As I reflect on the experience of this move—stressful at times, but made so much easier and more pleasant by the kind care and support of so many people—I find myself considering what makes a “home.”  Certainly being surrounded by one’s familiar possessions is part of it.  Having comfortable spaces to relax, enjoy meals, and get a good night’s rest is also important.  However, it occurs to me that having a home is really about the peace of mind that comes from knowing “this is where I belong.”

So what gives us that wonderful feeling of belonging in our home?  For me it is a feeling of companionship, a feeling that there are people here who are supporting me and guiding me as I endeavor to live a joyful life.  I find that companionship in my family, our friends, and in the Sangha.  Marvelous causes and conditions have brought us to this temple where we can meet true friends in the Dharma as we gather to hear the nembutsu.

In the nembutsu, we say the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” which literally means “I take refuge in the Awakened One of Immeasurable Wisdom and Compassion.”  The nembutsu is the voice of the Buddha guiding me to my true home.  In the words of Shandao (613–681), the great Chinese Buddhist teacher who clarified the meaning of the Pure Land Buddhist teaching in his time:


Let us return!
Do not abide in other lands.
Following the Buddha’s guidance, let us return to our original home.
Once we have returned to our original land,
All our aspiration and practice will naturally reach fulfillment.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 238-239)


Our original home should not be understood as some far away place that we could travel to on a boat or an airplane.  Our original home is the realm of the Buddha’s enlightenment.  When we speak of Amida Buddha’s Pure Land we are referring to our original home.  When we return to our original home, we feel completely comfortable and at ease in the present moment.  Dwelling in our original home, we are free of any feelings that there is something lacking in our lives.  We enjoy peace of mind knowing that everything we need to be happy has already been provided to us.  We have all we need right here, right now.  That truth is expressed in the nembutsu, those six syllables that the Buddha provided to guide us to our original home where all of our aspirations for peace and bliss are fulfilled.


In gassho,

Greetings from New Resident Minister Rev. Henry Toryo Adams

As I prepare to begin serving as the Resident Minister at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on October 1, I would like to take this opportunity to share a little about my background and how I discovered my path as a minister in the Buddhist Churches of America.

Before I begin my self-introduction, I want to thank the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Sangha for your warm welcome and generous support for me, my wife Shoko, and our son Ryoma as we settle into our new life in San Mateo.  I am deeply grateful for this encounter with all of you and look forward to growing together the Buddhadharma in the years to come.

Since I began my ministry in the BCA at the Oxnard Buddhist Temple and Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara in April 2010, there is one question that I have frequently been asked: “How did a Norwegian-American who grew up surrounded by the vast cornfields and dairy cattle of Minnesota come to be an ordained minister in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition that traces its roots to Japan?”

My first encounter with Asian religions occurred during my Senior Year of high school, which I spent as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student in the city of Chennai in southern India.  Having grown up in a uniformly middle-class small town about 45 minutes west of Minneapolis, the striking disparity between the rich and poor in Indian society made a strong impression on me and awakened many doubts in my mind.  I found myself wondering, “Why must the laborers I see toiling under the hot sun and the people who populate the slums that I walk by on my way to school live in constant struggle and grinding poverty?  Why have I been privileged to live a life of comfort and given every opportunity to fulfill my dreams?”

As I pondered these questions, I began to explore a wide range of philosophies and religions looking for answers to the problem of human suffering.  In the course of my reading, Buddhism was the teaching that stood out among all the others as a source of wisdom that spoke directly to questions in my heart.  The teaching that our self-centered thinking is the root cause of suffering was a particularly powerful insight for me.

As an undergraduate at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, I continued to explore the Buddhism through reading and visits to Zen Centers in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  During my Junior Year at St. Olaf, I spent a semester at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan.  I was living near Kyoto at that time, and had the opportunity to explore the richness of Japanese Buddhism while taking part in meditation retreats at Zen temples.  It was during that time in Japan that I first became interested in becoming a Buddhist minister.

After graduating from St. Olaf and spending a year teaching English in Taiwan, I decided to pursue a life of studying and sharing the Buddhist teachings as a scholar and academic teacher.  I enrolled in a graduate studies program at the University of Michigan and continued my study of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.  I learned many valuable skills for studying Buddhism at the University of Michigan, but realized along the way that I was interested in Buddhism as a source of wisdom and guidance for our daily lives, as opposed to an object of scholarly research.

I left graduate school after receiving a Master’s Degree in Buddhist Studies and spent one year working at freight forwarding company in Seattle before moving to Miyazaki, Japan to work as Coordinator for International Relations through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme.  While in Miyazaki, I encountered the warmth and compassion of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism through services and Dharma lectures at the Shineiji Temple in Miyazaki City.  In the writings of Shinran, the 12th century founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, I discovered elegant solutions to many of the problems I had encountered in trying to practice the Buddhist teachings of non-self in daily life.

After completing my employment contract in Miyazaki, I spent three months traveling around the United States visiting BCA temples and participating in events before returning to Japan to begin my ministerial studies in Kyoto.  While in Kyoto, I spent two years at the Hongwanji Seminary Chuo Bukkyo Gakuin, where I received a thorough ministerial education enhanced by the school’s carefully cultivated Jodo Shinshu Buddhist culture.  Each student is accepted as they are and encouraged to realize their full potential.  Starting each day with a morning service that fostered mindfulness of the Buddha, my studies at Chuo Bukkyo Gakuin gave me a taste of what it means live a life illuminated by the wisdom and compassion of awakening.

I am deeply grateful to have been welcomed into this Sangha, and I humbly ask for your patience as I learn the ropes here at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple.  I am most fortunate to be receiving excellent support and guidance from the members of the Sangha, Temple Board, the Buddhist Women’s Association, and many other groups.


In gassho,