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


Cicadas

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


Treasure of the Nation

We will be observing our annual Gotan-e Service on May 21, 2017 at 9:30 a.m. Gotan-e celebrates the birth of Shinran Shonin, the founder of our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, in the year 1173. As we celebrate Shinran’s birthday, we take time this month to recall the events of his life. Shinran was ordained as a Buddhist monk of the Tendai school at the age of nine under the guidance of the eminent monk Jien. Shinran spent the next twenty years studying the Tendai teachingsand practicing monastic discipline on Mount Hiei. Although he departed from Mount Hiei at the age of 29, his later writings show the lifelong impact that the Buddhist education he received in the Tendai tradition had on his understanding of the Dharma.

The Tendai School was established in Japan, bythe monk Saicho (767-822) who in 804 joined an official delegation to China, where he studied with the leading monks of the Tiantai (Jpn. Tendai) school. Upon his return to Japan he worked to establish a dedicated site for monastic practice at Mount Hiei, just northeast of the capital. Saicho envisioned the Mount Hiei monastic complex as a site for Mahayana Buddhist practice based on the model of Bodhisattva Vows and self-realization through working for the benefit of others.

As he petitioned for support to establish an officially sanctioned ceremonial platform for ordaining monks in the Mahayana tradition, Saicho emphasized the benefit that his mountain Buddhist community would bring to the nation of Japan.

 

What is the treasure of the nation? The religious nature is a treasure, and he who possesses this nature is the treasure of the nation. That is why it was said of old that ten pearls big as pigeon’s eggs do not constitute the treasure of a nation, but only when a person casts his light over a part of the country can one speak of a treasure of the nation. A philosopher of old once said that [he who is capable in speech, but not action should be a teacher of the nation]; he who is capable in action but not in speech should be of service to the nation; but he who is capable both in action and speech is the treasure of the nation. Apart from these three groups, there are those who are capable neither of speech nor action: these are the betrayers of the nation.

Buddhists who possess the religious nature are called in the west bodhisattvas; in the east they are known as superior men. They hold themselves responsible for all bad things while they credit others with all good things. Forgetful of themselves, they benefit others. This represents the epitome of compassion.

(Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume One: From Earliest Times to 1600, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary, et. al., p. 145-146)

 

As a student on Mount Hiei, Shinran would have aspired to these lofty ideals set forth in the writings of Saicho and other great teachers of the Tendai tradition. While the specific reasons for Shinran’s departure from Mount Hiei are not recorded in his writings or other contemporary documents, we do know that by Shinran’s time the monasteries of Mount Hiei had come to be dominated by monks from aristocratic backgrounds who were regularly embroiled in secular and political affairs. There was even a standing army of “warrior monks” based on Mount Hiei, who would periodically march on the capital to influence matters of the state.

Perhaps exasperation with how far monastic life on Mount Hiei had diverged from the ideals set forth by Saicho was a contributing factor in Shinran’s decision to leave Mount Hiei and join Honen’s Nembutsu community on the outskirts of Kyoto. In his Hymns on the Dharma Ages, Shinran writes, “It is saddening to see the behavior of the monks of the major temples and monastic complexes at present, whether high-ranking monks or ‘teachers of dharma.’” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 424) In contrast, Shinran expresses his joy in encountering his teacher Honen (Genku) in the following verse from the Hymns on the Pure Land Masters:

Though Shan-tao and Genshin urged all to enter the true Pure Land way,

If our teacher Genku had not spread it among us

On these isolated islands in this defiled age,

How could we ever have awakened to it?

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 387)


Seven Steps

We welcome you to join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on Sunday, April 9, 2017, at 9:30 a.m. for our Hanamatsuri Service, the “Festival of Flowers” where we celebrate the birth of Sakyamuni Buddha in present-day Nepal about 2,500 years ago.

The Buddhacarita, a traditional biography of the Buddha, tells us that his mother Queen Maya longed to retreat from the chaos of the world to live a life of peaceful contemplation: “In her weariness she railed at the commonplace and longed to stay in a secluded forest, in the excellent garden of Lumbinī, where springs flowed and flowers and fruits were luxuriant. She wanted to meditate in quietude and beseeched the king for permission to travel there. The king understood her earnest wish and thought that it was wonderful.”

We are told that while delighting in the beauty and serenity of the of the gardens, Queen Maya gave birth to the child who would grow up to become the Buddha. The Buddhacarita, describes his moment of birth in the following verses:

Upright and clear of mind, he walked seven steps with dignity. On the bottom of his feet his level soles were well placed. His brightness was as penetrating as the seven stars.

Stepping like a lion, king of the animals, he observed the four directions. With thorough insight into the meaning of the truth, he thus spoke with the fullest assurance:

“As this birth is a buddha’s birth, it is my last birth. Just in this one birth I shall save all!”

(Buddhacarita: In Praise of the Buddha’s Acts, translated by Charles Willemen, pg. 4)

The seven steps taken at the time of his birth represent the Buddha’s intention to transcend the six paths of rebirth and realize final liberation from the chains of birth and death.

Buddhist teachings reflect a traditional Indian worldview that describes six paths of birth-and-death, or samsara, through which sentient beings continuously cycle lifetime after lifetime. These six paths of existence also provide insight into the way our thoughts and feelings change moment to moment. Below is a brief summary of the six paths described by the Genshin (942-1017) in the Essentials for Birth (Ojo Yoshu):

Hells

The hells are paths of uninterrupted physical and emotional torment. In Buddhism, a hell is not a place to which a person is permanently doomed according to the judgment of a divine being. Rather, hell is the unhappiness that results from hateful and violent living. As with all six paths, life in a hell path is not permanent and will eventually give way to birth in another path.

Hungry ghosts

Hungry ghosts have insatiable appetites, but any food or beverage they try to enjoy bursts into flames the moment it touches their lips. Birth as a hungry ghost occurs as the result of greed, as in a case where a person receives something good but fails to appreciate it because they want something even better.

Animals

To dwell in the animal path is to be shameless, unconcerned with the results of one’s foolish behavior. Some animals live as predators and prey in the wild; others are subjected to lives of servitude and grueling labor. One who dwells in the animal path is ruled by fear of punishment and the desire to be rewarded. Birth as an animal occurs when foolishness and ignorance rule one’s mind.

Asuras (Fighting Titans)

Asuras are constantly competing, envious of those who appear to have better things than they do, especially the devas. Life among asuras is divided into winners and losers, and they suffer from the terror of being surrounded by enemies and the wounds of battle.

Humans

Genshin describes three characteristics of human life: 1) Impurity: the human body is subject to disease and decay in all its parts, 2) Suffering: human life is characterized by suffering, and 3) Impermanence: all human life comes to an end. Nevertheless, human birth is most favorable among the six paths because it is an ideal circumstance for hearing the Dharma and breaking free from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Devas (Heavenly beings)

Devas lead lives of power, pleasure, and satisfied desire. However, at the end of their lives, devas experience the same suffering of separation and death shared by all beings in the six paths. As their death approaches, devas find themselves rejected by their companions who turn blind to their suffering, cast out of their heavenly palaces to die alone. Following death as a deva, any manner of rebirth may occur, even into the lowest hell of uninterrupted misery.

Prior to his birth in Lumbini, Sakyamuni passed through all these paths over the course of countless lives. That is why his teachings speak directly and clearly to our experiences. In the words of Shinran Shonin:

Sakyamuni Tathagata appeared in this world
Solely to teach the ocean-like Primal Vow of Amida;
We, an ocean of beings in an evil age of five defilements,
Should entrust ourselves to the Tathagata’s words of truth.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 70)

As we celebrate the appearance of our true teacher Sakyamuni Buddha in this world, let us continually turn our minds to the Nembutsu of the Primal Vow, so that we may follow in his footsteps, and cease our confused wandering through the six paths of birth-and-death.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


Ohigan 1942

Last month we observed the 75th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which was signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, authorizing the forced evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. As we recall these important events for our Nembutsu community here in the United States, I have encountered precious insights in the diaries of Rev. Daisho Tana, who was serving the Japanese Buddhist community in Lompoc, California when the war broke out.   In later years, Rev. Tana was assigned to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, where he cared for our Sangha from 1952 to 1955.

On February 24, 1942, FBI agents accompanied by three local police officers went to Rev. Tana’s home to investigate his activities.  When they arrived at his door, he asked them straightaway if he was to be taken into custody. They affirmed that he was.  The agents commenced to search his entire house from top to bottom, including the attic, the basement, and the back of the Buddha shrine, looking for guns, radios, or other items designated as contraband for enemy aliens.They left having found no prohibited items during their two-hour search. Rev.Tana was detained on March 13 and on March 14was put onto a truck bound for Los Angeles along with twelve other Japanese community leaders from the San Luis Obispo area, including a fellow Buddhist minister and a Japanese Christian pastor.

They were first detained at an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Tuna Canyon in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles.  Rev. Tana’s diary entries from those early days of the internment paint a powerful picture of the disorienting experience of being transported from one place to another with little certainty of what the future would hold.  In the midst of all the confusion, Rev. Tana describes the clarity and comfort he found in the Buddha’s teachings.

As we prepare to observe our Spring Ohigan Service at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on March 12, 2017 at 9:30 a.m., I would like to share the following entry from March 1942 in which Rev. Tana describes the first major Buddhist Observance that was held in the Tuna Canyon camp:

Ohigan Service in the Internment Camp—March 22, 1942

Today is Sunday.  At 9:00 a.m. there was an outdoor Christian Service.  I admire the practice of holding Sunday Services without fail wherever one may find oneself.

I do not care to get up in front of a crowd of people and promote Buddhism.  However, today is the Spring Equinox, so the various Buddhist sects decided to come together this evening for an Ohigan Service.

We hung a painted image of Amida Buddha in C Block and chanted the Junirai (“The Twelve Praises of Amida Buddha”) all together.  Gathered as Buddhists in the hall that was full to capacity, I was filled with emotion to be observing this year’s Ohigan Service in such an unexpected place.

Having been tasked with giving the Dharma talk at the Ohigan Service in this unexpected place, I entitled my talk “Our Ohigan” and spoke about the ideals we might aspire to as people being held prisoner.  When people applauded in the middle of my talk it struck me as rather unbefitting a Buddhist Service.  However, when they applauded again at the conclusion of my 30-minute Dharma talk, it occurred to me that it was not merely polite applause, but that I may have struck a chord with others who shared my sentiments.

I was encouraged when Pastor Izumi from [a Christian congregation in] Santa Barbara said it was a good sermon.  Pastor Nakane also said he enjoyed the way my voice carries when I speak.  It is a great thing when a person is able to respond to the words someone who holds a different point of view with frank words of appreciation.

(Santa Fe Lordsburg senji tekikokujin yokuryūjo nikki, Volume I, p. 117-118, Trans. H. Adams)

As I reflect on the words of the Junirai, which they chanted that night at Tuna Canyon Camp, and which we regularly chant at our Sunday Services these days in San Mateo, I find that the following verse expresses the wisdom and strength that sustained Rev. Tana in those difficult times:

SHO U MU JO MU GA TO
YAKU NYO SUI GATSU DEN YO RO
I SHU SEPPO MU MYO JI
KO GA CHO RAI MI DA SON

All things are impermanent and nonsubstantial,
Like the moon in the water, a lightning flash, or the dew.
For all beings, the Buddha expounds the Dharma that cannot be expressed in words.
Therefore I pay homage to Amida Buddha, the most Honored One.

(The Pure Land Writings, Volume I: The Indian Masters, p. 41)

When we face unsettling change in our lives and find that the things we have taken as our foundation prove to be nonsubstantial, like the moon on the water, the wisdom of the Buddha shines into our lives and guides us to an appreciation of the truth that goes beyond words.  Rev. Tana’s life of the Nembutsu in the midst of the uncertainty and hardship he and his companions faced shows the great strength that can be found in a life of humble gratitude for the guiding light of Amida Buddha’s wisdom.

Namo Amida Butsu


Sakyamuni Buddha’s Parting Words of Wisdom

February is the month when we observe our annual Nirvana Day Memorial Service marking Sakyamuni Buddha’s passing from this world of suffering approximately 2,500 years ago at Kuśinagara in Northern India. Meditating in the shelter of the Bodhi Tree at the age of 35, Sakyamuni Buddha realized Nirvana, the “blowing out” of the flame of the base passions of greed, anger, and ignorance. However, as his human life continued for 45 years following his awakening, he was subject to the physical discomforts of life in a human body, such as aches and pains and occasional illnesses. The nature of reality is that all things that are born will one day pass away. This was true of Sakyamuni Buddha’s human body as well. The Buddhist sutras teach us that when Sakyamuni Buddha passed from this world of suffering, he entered the state of final peace that is called parinirvana. Nirvana Day is traditionally observed in East Asian schools of Buddhism on the Fifteenth day of the Second Month. We invite you to join us in observing our Nirvana Day Service at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on Sunday, February 12 at 9:30 a.m.

Shortly before passing in to parinirvana, Sakyamuni laid out a set of guiding principles for those who would continue their study of the Buddhadharma after he departed from this world. These principles have served as a guiding light for Buddhist communities as the Dharma has spread all over the world. Writing in 13th century Japan, Shinran passed on the following teaching from Sakyamuni Buddha’s final sermon as a guide for our lives in the Nembutsu:

When Sakyamuni was about to enter nirvana, he said to the bhiksus, “From this day on, rely on the dharma, not on people who teach it. Rely on the meaning, not on the words. Rely on wisdom, not on the working of the mind. Rely on the sutras that fully express the meaning, not on those that do not.”

(The Collected Works of Shinran, p. 241)

These four principles remind us where to look to see the true light of the Buddha’s wisdom shining in our lives.

Rely on the dharma, not on people who teach it. The dharma is the truth to which the Buddha awakened sitting under the Bodhi Tree. Parents, friends, elderly relatives, small children, and even pets can serve as teachers who help us to see the truth of the Dharma in our lives. Teachers of the Dharma can help us to deepen our understanding and appreciation for that truth, but in the end the Dharma is only meaningful to us when we are able to apply it in our daily lives and feel its benefits for ourselves.

Rely on the meaning, not on the words. Sakyamuni Buddha explains the meaning of this teaching, saying, “ . . . words may indeed have meaning, but the meaning is not the words. Consider, for example, a person instructing us by pointing to the moon with his finger. [To take words to be the meaning] is like looking at the finger and not at the moon. The person would say, ‘I am pointing to the moon with my finger in order to show it to you. Why do you look at my finger and not the moon?’ Similarly, words are the finger pointing to the meaning; they are not the meaning itself. Hence, do not rely upon words.” We treasure the words of the Buddha because they are a guide for us on our journey through this world of confusion and strife. The scriptures point us in the direction of true reality, but are not true reality itself because the Buddha teaches that true reality is formless and transcends the limitations of words and ideas. The important matter is not the words themselves, but rather the meaning that they express.

Rely on wisdom, not on the working of the mind. Sometimes we hear people say, “My mind was playing tricks on me.” This probably happens more often than we realize. The basic function of our mind is to seek pleasure. However, it is often in seeking pleasure that we create suffering for others and ourselves. Wisdom is what we know to be true through our experience. Our minds work very hard to rationalize harmful thinking and actions even when we know better from our experience. The challenge of living guided by the Dharma is to embrace the life changes that Buddha’s wisdom guides us to.

Rely on the sutras that fully express the meaning, not on those that do not. The sutras are records of Sakyamuni Buddha’s Dharma talks. It is said that he taught 84,000 Dharma Gates, through which we can enter into understanding of the truth. In seeking the path to awakening, the important matter is not to read and master all the sutras, but rather to recognize which sutras speak the circumstances of your own life and to take those sutras as your guide. At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we revere the teachings of Amida Buddha and the Nembutsu expressed in the Three Pure Land Sutras as our guide to realizing the liberating peace of Nirvana.

Namo Amida Butsu


Grandfather’s Wisdom

On December 13, six days after the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, I joined several Dharma friends from the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for a one-time screening of actor and civil rights activist George Takei’s Broadway musical Allegiance at the Century Cinema in the Tanforan shopping center near San Francisco International Airport. The cinema sits on the former site of the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, which was the assembly center where Japanese immigrants and U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry living in the San Francisco Bay Area, including San Mateo, were housed in horse stables prior to being loaded onto trains with covered windows and transported to hastily constructed camps hundreds of miles to the east. In the end, 120,000 people were uprooted from their homes and communities following President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. Inspired by George Takei’s childhood experience of being interned at the Santa Anita Racetrack outside Los Angeles before being sent with his family to the Rowher Relocation Center in Arkansas, Allegiance tells the story of the Kimura family, who were farmers in Salinas before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The play details the turmoil experienced by the Kimura family as they are forced to sell their farm for a fraction of its value and relocate to the internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Much of the story revolves around the relationship between two American-born Nisei siblings, Keiko and her younger brother Sam, and their Japanese-born Issei father Tatsuo. The play powerfully evokes the tremendous strain that the internment placed on families. In the Kimura family, we see conflicts erupting due to differing values across generations, as well as divisions among people of the same generation, coming to a head with the notorious loyalty questionnaire that asked internees to declare whether or not they were willing to declare loyalty to the United States, renounce allegiance to the Emperor of Japan, and serve the U.S. military in combat duty wherever ordered.

In an opening address to the audience watching Allegiance in theaters, George Takei reminded us that the racism and discrimination that led to the grave injustice of the internment camps are alarmingly visible in our society today. He also expressed the hope that by shedding light on this dark chapter in American history, we will be able to prevent such injustice from reoccurring in our country. Over the past month, several Sangha members have approached me expressing concern about recent hate crimes in our area, proposals for a national registry of Muslims and immigration policies that could disrupt the lives of countless families in our community. They have asked me, “What can we do as Buddhists to make a difference in these turbulent times?”

I share their concern, and found myself pondering this question as I reflected on the story told in Allegiance–a story that echoes the lived experiences of so many of my friends and teachers in the Nembutsu. The character of Ojii-chan, Keiko and Sam’s grandfather played by George Takei, was a beacon of calm, humor and wisdom in the midst of the injustice of internment camp life and the tensions triggered by the loyalty questionnaire. I came away with the strong impression that the character of Ojii-chan was Mr. Takei’s tribute to the Issei elders who sustained the Japanese-American community with their strength and dignity during those troubled years. Ojii-chan does not show anger or resentment, but he is not passive. At key moments in the story, he shines the light of wisdom on difficult decisions faced by Keiko and Sam, helping them to see the clear path forward. After thoughtful conversations with Ojii-chan, both Keiko and Sam are inspired to take courageous action to oppose injustice.

My own life in the Nembutsu is deeply inspired by the families of our Sangha who lived through the events depicted in Allegiance. Each day I spend at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple I am humbled to be a recipient of the legacy of their lives that shine with the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha here in America. The elders of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple are my true Dharma teachers. I believe that their lives show us that when, in the midst of adversity, one maintains a clear and calm mind illuminated by the Buddha’s wisdom, simple conversations and everyday activities like tending a garden can inspire change and transform the world we live in. With palms joined in gassho, I bow my head in gratitude to those whose lives shined with the light of the Buddha’s wisdom during those dark years of war. Through their strength and dignity they embodied the truth that we find in the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life:

Even if the whole world were filled with fire,
Resolutely pass through it in your quest to hear the Dharma.
You will unfailingly attain the enlightenment of Buddha
And bring beings everywhere across the stream of birth-and‐death.

(The Three Pure Land Sutras, Volume II: The Larger Sutra, Part II)

 

Namo Amida Butsu