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


The light that shines from the Bodhi Tree

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the month of December is a time when the days get shorter and shorter and we find ourselves spending more time in the darkness of night. As the darkness of the winter season arrives, many of the world’s spiritual traditions celebrate holidays and religious observances inspired by the light of transcendent wisdom. The candles of the Jewish Hanukkah Menorah, the fireworks of Hindu Diwali celebrations, and the strings of electric lights on Christmas decorations are all part of the rich religious landscape that makes this a festive time of year in our diverse community. In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, we observe Bodhi Day on December 8 in commemoration of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni’s realization of perfect enlightenment sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya, India around 2,500 years ago.

Living in the multicultural society of modern-day America, we enjoy a “holiday spirit” at this time of year when wonderful common values like generosity, friendship, and goodwill are celebrated by religious and secular communities alike. Since beginning my service as a minister in the Buddhist Churches of America, I have had conversations with several members of the Buddhist temples I serve who have somewhat sheepishly mentioned to me that their family embraces the American cultural tradition of decorating their home in December with a lighted tree with brightly wrapped presents for friends and family stored at the base of the tree. Some have come right out and asked me if, as a Buddhist minister, I object to Buddhist families putting up these sorts of decorations in their home.

When I consider this question, I am reminded that the branches of evergreen trees have been used as winter decorations by many cultures throughout history and are certainly not exclusive to any one religious tradition. For example, it is customary in Japan to welcome the New Year by adorning the home with pine branches, which are treasured for remaining green and vibrant throughout the year. Pine, bamboo, and plum blossoms make up the traditional Japanese New Year decorations called sho-chiku-bai.

The tree under which Prince Siddhartha was sitting and meditating when he realized perfect enlightenment has great significance in the story of the Buddha’s awakening and is called the Bodhi Tree. “Bodhi” means wisdom or awakening in Sanskrit, anancient Indian language in which the teachings of the Buddha have been recorded and passed down. Prior to sitting in meditation under the Bodhi Tree, Siddhartha had spent six years pursuing extreme ascetic practices, fasting constantly and exposing his body to the harsh elements of the North Indian wilderness. One day his body finally gave out and he collapsed from exhaustion. At that time, a young woman named Sujata happened upon the ascetic in his weakened state and out of concern for his well-being revived him by giving him some milk to drink. In receiving Sujata’s gift, he realized that the path to awakening is realized by pursuing the Middle Way between extreme life-denying asceticism and indulging in the attachment to sensual pleasures.

With renewed energy from the nourishing milk, he accepted the gift of a cushion of grass and sat beneath the Bodhi Tree that would provide him with shelter from the elements. As he settled into his seat in the shade of the tree, he resolved not to leave that spot until he had conquered all delusion and awakened to the true nature of reality. He sat in meditation through the night and finally realized perfect enlightenment when he saw the Morning Star appear in the sky.

Because the Bodhi Tree provided shelter from the elements, it expresses the Buddha’s rejection of the extreme ascetic practices of exposing his body to harsh sunlight and driving rain. The Bodhi Tree represents the Buddha’s embracing of the Middle Way as the correct path leading to enlightenment.

In this month of December when we recall the story of Sakyamuni Buddha’s awakening and reflect on the example of his life, I take great pleasure in seeing beautifully illuminated trees in homes, businesses, and public places. For me, these trees call to mind the Buddha’s instructions to seek the Middle Way between the extremes of life-denial and indulgence. In this season of light shining in the darkness, I feel the light of the Buddha’s wisdom shining forth from the moment when he realized perfect awakening sitting under the Bodhi Tree. That light of wisdom shines across two millennia and distant oceans to illuminate each moment of my life. Shinran celebrates the wonderful light of the Buddha’s wisdom in the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Shoshinge):

Everywhere he casts light immeasurable, boundless,
Unhindered, unequaled, light-lord of all brilliance,
Pure light, joyful light, the light of wisdom,
Light constant, inconceivable, light beyond speaking,
Light excelling sun and moon he sends forth, illumining countless worlds;
The multitudes of beings all receive the radiance.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 69)

 

Namo Amida Butsu

 


Year of the Monkey

As we welcome 2016, the Year of the Monkey, I would like to share with you a traditional Buddhist Jataka Tale that holds much wisdom for us as we consider the direction of our lives for the year to come. It is said that Sakyamuni Buddha once told the story of a troop of monkeys that lived in a banyan fig tree by a river. The tree bore ample and delicious fruit and the monkeys lived comfortably, never needing to worry about what they would eat. The monkeys were led by a wise and compassionate king who warned them not to leave any fruit hanging on the branches that reached out over the river.

Despite the best efforts of the monkeys to keep those branches clear, a day came when they overlooked a piece of fruit that grew under a thick bunch of leaves. In time, the fruit ripened and fell into the river, which carried it downstream where it was discovered by the king who ruled the local people. The king assembled an expedition party and set off up the river in search of the tree that had borne the delicious fruit. When they finally found the tree, the king became enraged by the sight of so many monkeys eating the delicious fruit, while he had none for himself. He ordered his soldiers to attack the monkeys, and as arrows and stones rained down on them they could do nothing but scream out in terror.

Moved by great compassion for his subjects, the monkey king boldly leapt from the tree to the side of a mountain that stood nearby. He quickly found a tall bamboo stalk, and grasping the top of the stalk with his feet, he leapt back over to the tree to rescue the other monkeys. The bamboo stalk was just long enough for the monkey king to grab hold of the nearest branch of the tree with his hands while his feet clung to the bamboo stalk.

When the other monkeys saw that he had created a way for them to escape, they rushed across the bamboo stalk over to the safety of the mountainside, many stepping on the body of their king as they fled. After all his subjects had escaped, the monkey king continued to hold himself between the tree and the bamboo stalk, too exhausted and injured from the trampling to climb away to safety.

Moved by courageous compassion of the monkey king, the human king ordered two of his finest archers to simultaneously shoot down the banyan branch and the bamboo stalk while another group of his men held out a cloth sheet to gently catch the monkey king as he fell. Once the monkey king was brought down, the human king went to his side to express his admiration for the monkey king’s virtuous actions and ask him what motivated him to practice such generous kindness for his subjects, even though it was their duty to protect him as the king.

The monkey king replied by saying: “Your highness, though my body be shattered, yet my spirit has attained perfect well-being, inasmuch as I have relieved the distress of my subjects who I have ruled for so long.” He then went on to instruct the king on the path to realize happiness for himself, saying “Beasts of burden, army, country people, townsmen, ministers, the helpless poor, monks, and brahmins—the king should, like a father, endeavor to procure for them all a fruitful happiness. By increasing your merit, your wealth, your fame in this way, you will earn happiness both in this life and in the next.” (Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Arya Sura’s Jatakamala, trans. Peter Khoroche, p. 191)

While the courage of the monkey king is truly remarkable, what I find most compelling about this story is the way in which he responds to the human king who, motivated by greed, ordered the attack on the monkey king’s subjects that led to his own pain and serious injury. Rather than expressing anger and vengeance toward the human king, he shows great compassion teaching him the path to realizing true peace and joy—which can only be found in serving and caring for others free of concern for one’s own comfort and convenience. We are told that this monkey king is the bodhisattva who would go to realize awakening in our world and become the true teacher or our world Sakyamuni Buddha.

When I think about the story above, I find that I am most like the greedy king, chasing after the things I want, without regard for the harm I may cause to others. I am grateful that just as the monkey king provided a wise teaching for that greedy king, Sakyamuni Buddha provides me with the Nembutsu, so that I may welcome the coming year with my path to a life a peace and bliss clearly illuminated by the Buddha’s wisdom.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


The Patient Ox

We will be observing our Spring Ohigan Service on Sunday, March 15 at 9:30 a.m. Ohigan is observed twice a year during the spring and autumn equinoxes, when days and nights are of equal length and the sun sets directly in the West. The Pure Land Sutras describe the Pure Land of Amida Buddha as a world of enlightenment located in the West, so Ohigan is an ideal time to reflect on the direction of our lives and reorient ourselves on the path to liberation from suffering.

As we consider what it means to lead a life guided by the Buddha’s wisdom, the Japanese Buddhist observance of Ohigan traditionally focuses on study and reflection on the Six Paramitas, a set of Buddhist virtues which are perfected by those who have crossed over from “this shore” in the deluded world of birth and death to arrive at the “other shore” of enlightenment. The Six Paramitas are generosity, moral conduct, patience, diligence, contemplation, and wisdom.

Stories of Sakyamuni Buddha’s previous lives are called Jataka Tales. Many of these stories provide clear teachings on the virtues of the Six Paramitas that can be appreciated by Dharma students of all ages.   One of these stories tells of a mischievous monkey who dwelled in the forest near a great ox. Every day the monkey would amuse himself by tormenting the ox, climbing all over his body and mocking him. In spite of the monkey’s consistently obnoxious behavior, the ox never became angry or punished him. One day, a forest sprite happened to pass by just as the monkey was in the midst of harassing the ox. Shocked at the monkey’s inexcusable behavior, the forest sprite questioned the ox as to why he did not make use of his superior size and strength to put the monkey in his place.

The ox replied that, rather than being annoyed, he was grateful to the monkey for giving him a wonderful opportunity to practice the virtue of patience. The ox went on to explain that it is easy to be patient and accepting of unpleasant treatment from one who is more powerful than oneself, because one has no choice. However, when one who is weaker than oneself and can be easily defeated gives unpleasant treatment, it is a great gift because to refrain from punishing a weaker opponent is truly to practice the bodhisattva’s virtue of patience. The story goes on to explain that this virtuous ox is the bodhisattva who will one day go on to become the awakened Buddha Sakyamuni.

I wonder how our world would be different if the most powerful people, corporations, and nations adopted the ox’s patient and generous attitude. As for myself, I like to think of myself as that ox—kind and gentle, patient and tolerant of those around me. However, when I honestly consider the life I live, I find that more often than not, I am the monkey that thoughtlessly pursues my own enjoyment, taking for granted the kindness and patience of others that day-by-day enables my life to continue. In his Hymns of the Dharma Ages (Shozomatsu Wasan), Shinran writes:

Lacking even small love and small compassion,
I cannot hope to benefit sentient beings.
Were it not for the ship of Amida’s Vow,
How could I cross the ocean of painful existence?

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 422, No. 98)

Shinran abandoned the idea that he could perfect bodhisattva virtues such as patience and compassion by relying on his own efforts (self-power). In order to realize the perfection of these virtues and cross over to the Other Shore of liberation, he took refuge in the ship of Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow to liberate all beings (Other-power).

During Ryukoku University Professor Emeritus Chiko Naito’s recent visit to our temple, he graciously agreed to join us for our weekly adult discussion. During the discussion, one of the participants asked Prof. Naito how making an effort to practice the Six Paramitas fits into Other-power Nembutsu practice. Prof. Naito responded that there is no problem with doing our best and making an effort to live well. He went on to explain that we go off track when we start to think that the effort we are capable of is something special on par with the great efforts made by the Buddha. He further elaborated that if we think that the ego-based effort we are making is somehow necessary for our own Birth in the Pure Land, that we are doubting the power of the Buddha’s transcendent wisdom to guide us to awakening. Living in the Nembutsu, we do our best to lead a life that reflects the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha, while avoiding the traps of complacency and self-satisfaction.

 

Namo Amida Butsu