True Victory

Growing up in Minnesota, my favorite sport was alpine skiing. As a teenager, I competed in slalom racing on my high school ski team and the great sports hero of my youth was Olympic slalom champion Alberto Tomba. Our team practiced at a local ski hill that somehow managed to rise out of the flat surrounding farmland, gradually increasing in elevation over the years thanks to innumerable dump truck loads of dirt. I never came close to winning a race, but I enjoyed practices because the course of gates was set differently each time, transforming the otherwise unremarkable little hill into a challenging and exciting place to ski.

A tradition with origins in ancient Greece, the Olympic Games attracts the best athletes from all over the world to compete for the honor of being designated the greatest athlete in their sport. In order to reach the Olympics, athletes must emerge victorious in a series of qualifying events in their own countries. Having competed at the consistently superior level to reach the Olympics, the athletes who earn a place on the medal podium need to have the inward attributes of motivation, strategy, and discipline, as well as the outward attributes of speed, strength, and good equipment.

Although few of us will have the opportunity to compete in the Olympics, we enjoy the excitement of watching the games because we all face challenges in our own lives and receive inspiration from seeing others rise to the occasion and put forth their best effort, whether they go home with a medal or not.

Among the various challenges that we face in life, the Buddha teaches that the most important victory to pursue is the victory over greed, anger, and ignorance. Greed, anger, and ignorance arise from our self-centered way of thinking, and are referred to as the three poisons because they poison our lives by causing all kinds of suffering for ourselves and others. The way for us to overcome these three poisons is to attain enlightenment and live in accord with the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.

The medalists at this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games possess the inner and outward attributes of a superior athlete. Likewise, one who conquers greed, anger, and ignorance and attains the victorious state of Buddhahood possesses the inner and outward merits and virtues of enlightenment. The inner virtues of the Buddha include wisdom and fearlessness. The Buddha also displays outward virtues, such as sharing the Dharma for the benefit of all beings. By sharing the Dharma, the Buddha shines the light of his wisdom, freely illuminating every aspect of our lives.

The nembutsu, or the practice of reciting the name of Amida Buddha in the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” has been provided for us by the Buddha as a way to receive the immeasurable wisdom and compassion of awakening. In his writings, the eminent 12th century Japanese priest Hōnen describes how all the virtues of enlightenment are contained in the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” the name of Amida Buddha:

. . . into the name flow all of Amida’s uncountable virtues. That is to say, in the name are contained all the merits and virtues of Amida’s inner enlightenment, such as the four kinds of wisdom, the three bodies, the ten powers, and the four kinds of fearlessness. Also contained in it are all the merits and virtues of his outward activities, such as the major and minor bodily characteristics, the emanation of light, the preaching of the Dharma, and the benefitting of sentient beings.

(Honen’s Senchakushu published by the Kuroda Institute, page. 76)

In providing us with the nembutsu teaching, the Buddha provided us with a means to receive all the merits and virtues of enlightenment. To say the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” is gratefully acknowledging the working of the Buddha’s wisdom in our lives. We receive the benefits of the Buddha’s awakening as the light of the Dharma illuminates our lives, liberating us from the fear and darkness of ignorance.

As you face the challenges in your life, I encourage you to keep in mind that the Buddha has provided the Dharma as a light to guide you on your path to awakening and a life of wisdom and compassion. When you feel the presence of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion in your life, you will find the words “Namo Amida Butsu” spontaneously echo in your heart and flow from your lips in gratitude day and night.

Namo Amida Butsu

Ānanda’s Kind Heart

February is the month in which the Buddhist traditions of Japan observe the Nirvana Day Service commemorating the end of Śakyamuni Buddha’s life in this world and his passing into parinirvana approximately 2,500 years ago. We invite you join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for our Nirvana Day Service on February 11, 2018, at 9:30 a.m. As the Buddha approached the end of his life, he settled on a spot between twin sāla trees in a grove on the edge of the city of Kuśinagara in northern India to spend his last days in this world.

At that time, the Buddha’s disciple and constant companion Ānanda asked for specific guidance regarding how the Buddha’s remains should be venerated. The Buddha’s initial response is that wise householders will see to the veneration of his remains, so Ānanda and the other monastic disciples should remain focused on the goal of realizing awakening. Out of kind concern for the faithful householders, Ānanda humbly solicited guidance for those who would venerate the Buddha’s remains after he had departed from this world. The Buddha proceeded to give clear and detailed instructions regarding how the remains should be cremated according to the customs for royal funerals and placed in a suitable monument for veneration.

After hearing these instructions, Ānanda must have been powerfully struck by the realization that the Buddha would indeed pass from this world in the coming days because he is said to have gone off to a dwelling where he stood weeping and lamented, “I am still only a learner whose task has yet to be completed. My teacher is about to attain final Nibbāna (Nirvana)—my teacher who has compassion on me!”

When the Buddha learned of his grief, he summoned Ānanda and instructed him, saying:

“Enough, Ānanda, do not sorrow, do not lament. Have I not already repeatedly told you that there is separation and parting and division from all that is dear and beloved? How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed, and bound to fall should not fall? That is not possible. Ānanda, you have long and consistently attended on the Perfect One with bodily acts of loving-kindness, helpfully, gladly, sincerely and without reserve; and so too with verbal acts and mental acts. You have made merit, Ānanda. Keep on endeavoring and you will soon be free from taints.” (The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli, p. 318)

Having offered Ānanda these words of comfort, the Buddha goes on to praise his dedication to ensuring that all people, bhikkhus, bhikkhunīs, lay men and women, kings and commoners, and even followers of non-Buddhist teachings, are given the opportunity to hear the Dharma and receive instruction from the Buddha.

With this, Ānanda recognized his sacred duty and set out to encourage the local people to visit the Buddha in his last hour, so that they would not miss the rare and precious opportunity to see him before he passed from this world. To accommodate the vast assembly of devotees who flocked to the grove where Buddha was preparing to enter parinirvana, Ānanda instructed each clan to send one representative to receive the teachings and pay their respects to the Buddha. Despite his own grief, Ānanda continued his dedicated service to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

I find that among the Buddha’s disciples, I can most easily relate to Ānanda. While the Buddha’s fully enlightened disciples remain calm and composed, Ānanda is distraught at the prospect of parting from his teacher. It is in the Buddha’s conversations with Ānanda that we find the following precious teachings addressed to those, who like Ānanda at the time, have yet to realize full awakening:

“Ānanda, you may think: ‘The word of the Teacher is a thing of the past; now we have no more Teacher.’ But you should not regard it so. The Dhamma and Discipline taught by me and laid down for you are your Teacher after I am gone.”

(Ñānamoli, p. 323)

On another occasion, the Buddha offers the following guidance to those who would continue their journey on the path to awakening after he had departed from this world:

“. . . Ānanda, each of you should make himself his island, himself and no other his refuge; each of you should make the Dhamma his island, the Dhamma and no other his refuge. How does a bhikkhu do that? Here a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as body . . . contemplating feelings as feelings . . . contemplating consciousness as consciousness . . . mental objects as mental objects, ardent, fully aware, mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world.” (Ñānamoli, p. 300)

The diverse Buddhist traditions in our world today all hold to these core principles, encouraging seekers of the Dharma to live with deep self-awareness illuminated by the light of wisdom, and to turn away from greed and stress about worldly matters.  In the following passage from a letter written by Shinran Shonin, he describes how the truth of this wisdom comes to be reflected in a life that is settled in the Nembutsu of deep entrusting: “Signs of long years of saying the nembutsu and aspiring for birth [in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha] can be seen in the change in the heart that had been bad and in the deep warmth for friends and fellow-practicers; this is the sign of rejecting the world.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 551)


Namo Amida Butsu

Poison Candy

At this time of year we have many opportunities to eat delicious food as we gather to celebrate the winter holidays with our friends and families. During New Year’s many of our temple members will enjoy traditional Japanese dishes like ozōni stew or the traditional osechi menu. When we eat these traditional Japanese dishes we feel a deep connection to the past and the lives of those who have come before. This past year I had the opportunity to try mizuame, a thick, sugary syrup that has been enjoyed by Japanese children for centuries.

It was the first time tasting mizuame, but I had been curious about it since first hearing of it in an apocryphal story about the Zen Buddhist monk Ikkyu Sōjun Zenji (1394–1481). Ikkyu was a contemporary of Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499) the eighth abbot of our mother temple, the Hongwanji. Ikkyu and Rennyo were renowned Buddhist priests active in the Kyoto area, and while there are no authoritative historical records of their relationship, legend has it that they were good Dharma friends.

Ikkyu is said to have been an unrecognized son of the Emperor Go-Komatsu (1377–1433). His mother left him in the care of a temple in Kyoto at the age of six to be raised as a monk. The tales of Ikkyu’s youthful exploits and sharp wit continue to delight and inspire children and adults in Japan to this day.

One day the abbot of Ikkyu’s temple received a gift of mizuame. It seems the abbot had a sweet tooth. To discourage his young students from pillaging this special treat, he told them that the jar did not contain candy, but rather a special medicine that was safe for adults, but poisonous to children.

Later, while the abbot was away from the temple on official business, young Ikkyu accidentally broke the treasured inkstone that the abbot used for brush painting and calligraphy. His fellow monks immediately began speculating about what severe punishment they would all face upon the abbot’s return. Ikkyu, however, remained calm and reflected on the situation until he arrived at an elegant solution to their dilemma.

Ikkyu invited all the other young monks to join him in eating up the mizuame. When they had finished off the whole jar, he instructed them to lie on the tatami mat floor as if they were dead. They waited there on the floor until the abbot came home. When the abbot walked into his quarters, he was astonished to see all the young monks lying on the floor of his room, next to the broken inkstone, and the empty jar of mizuame. When the abbot demanded an explanation, Ikkyu confessed, “We broke your precious inkstone, so we tried to give our lives in apology. We ate all this poison, but for some reason, we haven’t died yet. I’m sure it will take effect soon, so we’ll just keep lying here until it does.” When the abbot heard this explanation, he knew that he had been bested by Ikkyu’s quick wit. The abbot burst into laughter, admitted defeat and dismissed the young monks.

It is our custom to take the arrival of the New Year as an opportunity to reflect deeply on our daily activities over the past year and ask ourselves if we have lived in a way that reflects the light of the Buddha’s wisdom that we receive in the Nembutsu. It is in my nature to tell lies and twist the truth at my own convenience. The real test of our character is how we respond when someone shines the light of wisdom on our actions and reveals our attempts to deceive ourselves and others. Do we freely admit our deception and gracefully own up, or do we double down on the falsehood? The abbot’s ability to gracefully own up to his deception shows that he is free from pride and ego.

Legend has it that when he saw a portrait of Jodo Shinshu founder Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) wearing the white scarf that indicated his mastery of the Tendai Buddhist doctrine, Ikkyu remarked, “The Dharma taught by this monk in the warm scarf and the black robe is the finest in the world.” In the Chapter on Shinjin from Shinran’s True Teaching Practice and Realization, he quotes the follow passage from the writings of Shandao:

We are filled with all manner of greed, anger, perversity, deceit, wickedness, and cunning, and it is difficult to put an end to our evil nature. In this we are like poisonous snakes or scorpions. Though we perform practices in the three modes of action*, they must be called poisoned good acts or false practices. . . . To seek birth in the Buddha’s Pure Land by directing the merit of such poisoned practice is completely wrong. Why? Because when, in his causal stage, Amida Buddha was performing practices as a bodhisattva, in every single moment – every single instant – he performed his practices in the three modes of action with a true and real mind. [True practice] depends on this.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 84-85)

*three modes of action: bodily action, words, thoughts

In the Nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin, we begin by recognizing the light of Amida Buddha that continually shines into our hearts and minds, showing us that our path to liberation is found in deep entrusting in the true and real mind of the Buddha.

Namo Amida Butsu

The Maddened Elephant

In Japan, Bodhi Day, the day of Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, is traditionally observed on December 8. This year we invite you to join us for a special Bodhi Day Service on Sunday, December 3 at 9:30 a.m. Bodhi Day 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.

The 45 years of Sakyamuni’s life that followed his realization of Buddhahood, provide a model for manifesting the awakened mind in the midst of the violence and chaos that has existed in our world since ancient times and sadly continues to this day. The following episode from the traditional biography of the Buddha describes how Sakyamuni relied on the wisdom and compassion of awakening to respond to the mayhem caused by his cousin Devadatta, who envied the Buddha’s renown and sought to usurp his leadership of the Sangha.

At that time, when Devadatta saw the excellence of the Buddha’s qualities, deep in his heart he felt jealous and withdrew from the trances. He used evil means to destroy the order of the Right Law.

[Devadatta] ascended Mount Grdhrakuta, let a rock fall, and tried to hit the Buddha with it, but the rock split in two and fell to the Buddha’s left and right.

On the level and straight royal road [Devadatta] let loose a maddened evil elephant. His rolling roar was like thunder. His ferocity burst forth, forming a cloud. He rushed on like a storm, mighty as a fierce wind.

His trunk, tusks, tail, and four feet—coming into contact with them would absolutely bring destruction. In the alleys and streets of the city of Rajagrha, those he had killed and injured lay scattered about. After their violent deaths, the corpses lay spread out in the streets. Brains and blood were spattered all around.

All the men and women were afraid to go out. The whole city trembled [in fear]. One heard only voices calling out in panic. Some left the city
in a hurry, and others hid in caves.

The Tathagata and a group of five hundred then arrived and entered the city. The people in the windows high on the pavilions advised the Buddha not to proceed.

The Tathagata was composed at heart and complacent, and his countenance was free from distress. He was mindful only of the suffering of envy. His compassionate mind wished to put [the elephant] at ease.

As a multitude of gods and dragons followed all around, [the Buddha] gradually approached the place where the maddened elephant was. All the bhiksus had fled, so he was accompanied only by Ananda. Just like the one specific nature of all kinds of characteristics of the Law, he did not move.

The maddened elephant burst forth in a rage, but when he saw the Buddha, his mind immediately became calm. He threw himself down and made obeisance at the Buddha’s feet, as if Mount Tai had crumbled.

With his lotus-like palm, [the Buddha] patted [the elephant] on the head, just like the sun shining on a dark cloud. As [the elephant] knelt at the Buddha’s feet, he expounded the Law to him, saying:

“No elephant may injure the greatest dragon! It is hard for an elephant to fight a dragon, but if an elephant wants to injure the greatest dragon, he will never be reborn in a wholesome destination!

“The infatuations of greed, anger, and delusion are difficult to subdue, but the Buddha has subdued them. That is why you should now reject greed, anger, and delusion. If you do not reject them, [you will be] sunk in the mud of suffering and they will further increase.”

When the elephant had heard the Buddha’s exposition, his madness was destroyed and his mind immediately gained insight. He was content in body and in mind, as when one is thirsty and drinks the nectar of immortality.

(Buddhacarita: In Praise of the Buddha’s Acts, translated by Charles Willemen, pg. 153-154)

Because the Buddha does not feel threatened by the elephant, he is able to meet it with compassion rather than aggression. This story illustrates the power of patient compassion to transform even the most terrifying adversary. I find it exceedingly difficult to exhibit such awakened compassion in my own life. Nevertheless, I take comfort in Shinran Shonin’s assurance that the nembutsu is indeed the path to a life of boundless compassion:

Compassion in the Pure Land Path should be understood as first attaining Buddhahood quickly through saying the nembutsu and, with the mind of great love and compassion, freely benefiting sentient beings as one wishes.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 633)


Namo Amida Butsu

Limitless Life

Over the past month, tragic disasters have occurred one after another, following so closely upon each other’s heels that we scarcely have time to come to grips with one disaster before being confronted with the next. Our San Mateo Buddhist Temple Sangha offers our deepest condolences to those who have lost loved ones in these disasters, and offer our heartfelt wishes that those affected will find solace and peace of mind through the working of boundless compassion. In times like this, we seek a guiding light to show us the way forward in our lives, an axis of clarity that will enable us to maintain peace of mind in the midst of all this chaos. I find that guiding light in the teachings of the Buddha and in lives of those who have brilliantly reflected the light of the Buddha’s wisdom.

Lady Takeko Kujo (1887-1928) is one of the bright lights of the Buddha’s wisdom shining in our world during modern times. She was a renowned poet and great humanitarian who worked tirelessly in service of the poor who lived in the slums of Tokyo during the early twentieth century. The following reflections that she composed in response to the devastation she witnessed first-hand during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 shine with the light of precious wisdom.


Those with just a little life remaining were crowded on all sides by fire—those with high rank and low, learned and unlearned, old and young, people from all classes and abilities.

But all these people, who were moment by moment approaching their imminent fate, had one common wish.

Eternal life.

That is the final wish of everyone who has nothing more to rely upon. In this final desire, there is absolutely no distinction between great and small, high and low, old or young, male or female.

(Muyuge: Flower without Sorrow, p. 106)


  We all burn with desire for eternal life.

  We are, however, apt to be tormented over disappointment of the moment. Cynicism starts when our aspiration to live forever is disillusioned by its briefness.

  Many preach eternity, but it is impossible to discover the limitless life by merely talking about it, disregarding the experiences of yesterday and the torment of today’s reality.

  Only those who reflect on the fact that they are continually bathed in the light of eternity, will live a life in which there is light. Only when we consider that our life, though decaying moment by moment, is always bathed in the omnipresent life, will we begin to grasp the eternal life that is found only in each moment of reality.

(Muyuge: Flower without Sorrow, p. 99)


On Sunday, November 12, at 11:30 a.m., special Guest Speaker Rev. Yushi Mukojima, Resident Minister of the Mountain View Buddhist Temple, will join us for our annual Eitaikyo Memorial Service. “Eitaikyo” literally means “perpetual sutra.” It is a shortened way of referring to “a service in which we chant sutras in perpetuity to honor those who have left this world before us.” The funds to conduct the Eitaikyo Service come from donations made when an individual’s name is added to the Eitaikyo Register. Traditionally, Eitaikyo donations have been made by the family of the deceased when a loved one passes away. This practice of dana, or generosity, in grateful memory of a loved one is what has allowed this service to be conducted without interruption since the establishment of our temple. The Eitaikyo service will continue to be conducted as long as our temple exists. By continuing the Eitaikyo service, we ensure that our temple will remain a place to gather and hear the Dharma into the future without end. In this way, we hope that our temple will be a continual place of refuge for all who seek peace and comfort in turbulent times.


Namo Amida Butsu

A Radiant Bride

During the month of October, we remember the women of the Nembutsu whose lives shine with the Buddha’s light of wisdom and compassion. One of the great Nembutsu poets of the late Edo Period was the Myōkōnin Okaru (1801-1856) who lived on the tiny island of Mutsure in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

As a young woman, Okaru was known for her strong personality and fiery temper. She married at age 19, but her husband travelled frequently for business and would stay away from home for long stretches at a time, causing Okaru to become frustrated and angry. When she eventually turned to the priest of the local Buddhist temple for counsel, he surprised her by saying that she should be grateful for this relationship trouble, because it was the karmic condition that led her to the Buddhadharma.

From that point on, Okaru visited the temple regularly, and her heart became settled in the peace and joy of the Nembutsu. People are often reluctant to let go of their preconceptions, so it took time for her fellow islanders to appreciate the change of heart she had experienced. With her mind always directed toward Amida Buddha’s Pure Land, Okaru showed little concern for worldly matters. To her neighbors, she appeared unkempt and peculiar.

The May 5th Children’s Day celebration was the only day of the year when the people of Mutsure were allowed to fish and harvest shellfish in the abundant waters that surrounded their island. Not only did Okaru join her fellow islanders on the beach, she was particularly zealous in gathering as many shellfish as she could. As the other islanders noticed the great trove of shellfish she had amassed, some people made snide remarks, saying “Okaru walks around all day saying ‘Namo Amida Butsu.’ If she’s such a devout Buddhist, how can she take the lives of so many living beings?”

That evening great mounds of empty shells piled up outside each home as families feasted on the day’s catch. When her neighbors noticed that no empty shells had been discarded outside Okaru’s house, some thought “That crazy old hag is eating her clams, shells and all.”

Around midnight, one of the islanders went down to the beach to collect fresh seawater for storing his uneaten shellfish, so they would stay fresh for the next day’s meal. Approaching the water, he noticed someone hunched over a basket, speaking softly. As he drew closer, he saw that it was Okaru carefully releasing the shellfish she had gathered back into the sea, saying “I’m sorry. I must have scared you when I took you away from your home today. I gathered as many of you as I could before the other islanders could get you. I’m sorry I couldn’t save more of your relatives. Now, return to your home, little shellfish! Namo Amida Butsu, Namo Amida Butsu.”

People would occasionally sneer at Okaru, but she did not pay any mind to what others thought of her. She enjoyed peace of mind in the Nembutsu, confident that the most important matter of her birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha was settled. In the words of one of her poems:

Though mocked (in this world)

              As a crazy old hag,

In the Pure Land

              I will be a radiant bride!

(Myokonin Okaru and Her Poems of the Shinjin, p. 47)


Namo Amida Butsu


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:

Kobōzu ya
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

The Buddha’s Light Shining in the Heartland

In our Buddhist tradition, Obon is a time when we reflect on the lives of those loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore. This month as our observance of Obon on August 12 and 13 draws near, I am gratefully remembering my grandmother’s older brother, Earle Kenyon, who crossed over to the Other Shore on June 22, 2017.

The last time I met my Uncle Earle in this world he had driven his motorhome up from Kansas City to my parents’ house in Minnesota to join us for a family gathering to celebrate the birth of our son, Ryoma. He parked his motorhome in the driveway and came into the house where he gave me a big hug and greeted me, saying, “It’s great to see you, Henry! Since I became a Buddhist, I’ve been looking forward to sitting down with you to hear about your studies in Japan and discuss the teachings of the Buddha.” While I am certain in my belief that the teachings of the Buddha speak a truth that illuminates the lives of all people without exception, I have to admit that I did not expect my 84-year-old great-uncle living in Kansas City, Missouri to become the only other Buddhist on my side of the family.

In the course of our conversation, Uncle Earle described the peace of mind that practicing meditation and attending services with a community of Buddhists in Kansas City brought him while he was navigating his grief following the passing of his wife of 60 years, whom he had cared for as she faced the challenges of living with Alzheimer’s disease. He told me about how the teachings of the Buddha gave him the strength to discover moments of gratitude in the midst of sadness and the insight to treasure each day of this precious human life.

I remember visiting Uncle Earle and his wife Willa at their previous home in San Antonio, Texas, when I was boy. As my second-cousin (Earle’s grandson) Caleb and I ran in and out of their house playing games, he kindly cautioned us to make sure to check our shoes for scorpions before putting them on. During that trip, Caleb and I became great friends. When I think back on that visit, the atmosphere of caring and kindness that Earle and Willa cultivated in their home stands out in my memory as the circumstance that made that joyful time possible.

Wisdom and kindness ran through Uncle Earle’s life, so it strikes me as quite natural that he would discover a refuge for his big welcoming heart in the Buddhadharma. Shinran Shonin writes:

The light of wisdom exceeds all measure,
And every finite living being
Receives this illumination that is like the dawn,
So take refuge in Amida, the true and real light.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 325)

My great-uncle Earle’s life affirms the truth that the light of the Buddha’s wisdom truly does shine brightly throughout this world, dispelling darkness like the dawn and brightening countless lives in the heartland.


Namo Amida Butsu

Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu

At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we look to Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition. However, Shinran himself never set out to found his own Buddhist school. Throughout his writings and teachings, he describes himself as a humble student of his teacher Honen Shonin (1133-1212), as we find in the following words from A Record in Lament of Divergences (Tannisho):

As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, “Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida”; nothing else is involved.

I have no idea whether the nembutsu is truly the seed for my being born in the Pure Land or whether it is the karmic act for which I must fall into hell. Should I have been deceived by Master Honen and, saying the nembutsu, were to fall into hell, even then I would have no regrets.

The reason is, if I could attain Buddhahood by endeavoring in other practices, but said the nembutsu and so fell into hell, then I would feel regret at having been deceived. But I am incapable of any other practice, so hell is decidedly my abode whatever I do.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 662)

What is the nembutsu that Honen taught? The Japanese word nembutsu is made up of two Chinese characters nen(m) 念 “to be mindful of” and butsu仏 “Buddha,” so one way to translate the word “nembutsu” would be “mindfulness of the Buddha.” In the teachings of Honen and Shinran, the nembutsu refers to the recitation of the words “Namo Amida Butsu.” Namo Amida Butsu is a Chinese transliteration of a phrase from the ancient Sanskrit language of India. A literal translation of the meaning of “Namo Amida Butsu” would be, “I take refuge in Amida Buddha, the Awakened One of Immeasurable Light and Life.” The light of the Buddha represents wisdom and the life of the Buddha represents compassion.

Shinran tells us that to say the words “Namo Amida Butsu” is to hear Amida Buddha calling us to take refuge in the boundless wisdom and compassion of awakening. When we say Namo Amida Butsu, we hear the voice of Amida Buddha is calling to us, saying, “Hey you! Take refuge in me (Amida Buddha).” Hearing the nembutsu in this way, we discover the joy and peace of mind that arise from entrusting in the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. Realizing the settled mind that we call shinjin, the nembutsu of joy and gratitude flows forth from our mouths throughout the day and throughout our lives. Thus, the simple practice of saying Namo Amida Butsu becomes an expression of profound awareness of the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha constantly guiding and sustaining us.

Because the flow of the nembutsu comes from Amida Buddha, Honen and Shinran call this Other Power nembutsu. Despite the clarity of Honen’s simple instruction to “Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida,” disputes and confusion arose regarding the true intent of this teaching and the spirit in which the nembutsu should be recited. Among Honen’s students, Shinran was one who made a concerted effort throughout his life to clarify misunderstandings, so that future generations would be able to encounter the same great peace and joy that he found in the nembutsu.

Among the many volumes of teachings that Shinran has left for our guidance, perhaps the clearest and most concise crystallization of the teaching of Other Power nembutsu can be found in a selection of verse called the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Shoshin Nembutsu Ge), commonly referred to as the Shoshinge. A teacher of mine once said, “We chant Shoshinge in the morning, and we chant Shoshinge in the evening. This is the culture of Jodo Shinshu.” The Shoshinge begins with the heart of Namo Amida Butsu:

I take refuge in the Tathagata of Immeasurable Life!
I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light!

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 69)

Shinran’s descendent Rennyo (1415-1499) established the practice of chanting of Shoshinge and Wasan as a daily liturgy in the Hongwanji School. Revered as the eighth generation leader (Gomonshu) of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha (Nishi) and Otani-ha (Higashi) Schools, Rennyo revived Shinran’s Nembutsu teaching in his time by consolidating the many small and scattered Nembutsu communities under the leadership of the Hongwanji. As part of his project to establish standard practices across the diverse communities he brought together under Hongwanji leadership, he published the “Bunmei Edition” of the Shoshinge and Collected Wasan in March of 1473. The Bunmei Edition utilized printing-press technology for mass production and widespread dissemination, so that practicers of the nembutsu throughout Japan could deepen their familiarity with Shinran’s teachings and realize peace of mind and joy through entrusting in Amida Buddha.


Namo Amida Butsu

Meeting in the Pure Land

I recently got together with an old Dharma friend who I had not seen in over a decade. Though it had been years since we had last met, the closeness of our friendship was in no way diminished. Reminiscing and laughing about our college days, it felt as if not a day had passed since our last meeting. Catching up about our lives today, we shared stories about our children’s antics and debated the merits of lightweight “umbrella” strollers versus luxury stroller models with sturdy aluminum frames and air-cushioned tires.

As we talked, I felt that as we had each grown and matured in the intervening years, we were discovering new depth in our friendship. Even though we had spent years journeying down separate roads in life, our lives were guided by the same principles of wisdom and compassion and directed toward a common destination. While the causes and conditions that have guided us have been different over the years, our paths have been flowing in the same direction and will eventually converge with awakening in the realm of Peace and Bliss.

In the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, we find great meaning in the following words spoken by Sakyamuni Buddha in the Amida Sutra:

Sariputra, the people who hear of that [Pure] land [of Amida Buddha] should aspire to be born there. Why? It is because they will be able to meet together with such sages of supreme virtue there.

(The Three Pure Land Sutras, Vol. I, Section 5)

Our Dharma teachers often call our attention to this passage when reflecting on the truth that all people who entrust in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and say the Nembutsu will meet each other in the Pure Land at the end of their present life. In the midst of the sadness and grief we experience when a loved one passes over to the Other Shore, those who are sustained in the Nembutsu find solace in the Buddha’s teaching that we will meet again at the end of our own lives when we are born in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.

Shinran Shonin expresses this understanding in the following words from one of his Uncollected Letters:

I have carefully read your letter of the first day of the intercalary tenth month. I am truly sad to hear about Kakunen-bo. I had expected that I would go first [to the Pure Land], but I have been left behind; it is unutterably saddening. Kakushin-bo, who left us last year, has certainly gone [to the Pure Land] and is awaiting us there. Needless to say, I will surely meet them there; it is beyond words. Kakunen-bo’s words did not differ at all from what I have said, so we will certainly go to the same place [the Pure Land]. If I am still alive in the tenth month of next year, it will undoubtedly be possible to meet again in this world. Since your mind of entrusting also does not differ at all from my own, even if I go first, I will await you in the Pure Land.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 579-580)

If we read these words of Shinran with close attention, we find a depth of meaning that goes beyond simple reassurance that we will be reunited with our loved ones in the afterlife. Shinran emphasizes that he and his companions share the same mind of entrusting. Because this mind is received through the working of Amida Buddha’s vow to liberate all beings from suffering, the end result of birth in the Pure Land is exactly the same for all who share that entrusting heart (Jpn. shinjin 信心).

The teaching that people of Nembutsu all meet again in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha at the end of this life not only provides comfort in our time of mourning, this teaching affirms the truth that those whose lives are guided by the working of Amida Buddha’s vow are settled on a common destination in the realm of peace and bliss. That certainty of direction enables us to appreciate the companionship of our fellow travelers and inspires us with the confidence to face whatever comes in life with equanimity and peace of mind.

Namo Amida Butsu