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 Santa Monica Mountains west 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


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

 


In Perpetual Memory

The next time you enter the Hondo, or main hall, of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, I encourage you to take note of the three large plaques that adorn the back wall. The following words are elegantly etched on the top of each plaque, “San Mateo Buddhist Temple Eitaikyo: In Perpetual Memory of.” Below these words, we find the names of several hundred Sangha members who have crossed over to the Other Shore. The names listed on the plaques are individuals included in the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Eitaikyo registry and remembered at our annual Eitaikyo service in November.

All are encouraged to join us for the Eitaikyo Service on Sunday, November 13 at 11:30 a.m. with special Guest Speaker Rev. Dr. Shoyo Taniguchi, retired minister of the Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church. “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.

We spend most of our time in the Hondo seated facing the image of Amida Buddha at the center of the onaijin shrine area. As we sit together facing the Buddha, hearing the sutras, the gathas, Dharma talks and the Nembutsu, we are reminded that we are fellow travelers in the Nembutsu, with a common destination in Amida Buddha’s realm of peace and bliss. At times, we may have the occasion to stand facing the Sangha at one of the podiums in the front of the Hondo to help chair a service, make an announcement, or share our appreciation of the Buddhadharma.

When I stand facing the Sangha, I see the Eitaikyo plaques and am reminded of those Sangha members who have crossed over to the Other Shore. Those individuals dedicated themselves to building and sustaining our beautiful temple so that we have this special place to gather in the warmth of our Sangha friendships to hear the Nembutsu. When I look to the back of the hall, I feel the presence of those individuals listed on the plaques encouraging me on my journey in the Nembutsu. I feel them delighting that their wish for the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha to flourish in this land in perpetuity continues to this day. In the words of the Pure Land Master Daochuo, “ . . . those who have been born first guide those who come later, and those who are born later join those who were born before. This is so that the boundless ocean of birth-and-death be exhausted.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 291)

 

Namo Amida Butsu


Dharma School Teacher Interview: Mrs. Yuko Suruki, San Mateo Buddhist Temple

This interview by Rev. Ryuta Furumoto originally appeared in the Japanese section of the Wheel of Dharma BCA Newsletter in September 2016. Rev. Adams translated it into English so that our English-speaking readers could enjoy hearing from one of our most energetic Sangha members.

 

For this month’s interview I spoke to Mrs. Yuko Suruki, a Dharma School teacher at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple.

In this interview, we hear from a Dharma School teacher who is working to share the Buddhadharma with the children who will carry the Buddhist Churches of America into the next generation. I was particularly interested in Mrs. Suruki’s perspective as an English-Japanese bilingual Dharma School teacher who knows the cultures of both the United States and Japan.

 

Where were you born?

Toyama, Japan

 

Toyama is known as a place where Jodo Shinshu Buddhism thrives. Does your family in Japan belong to a Jodo Shinshu temple?

Yes, my father is the second son of a temple priest, so our family is Jodo Shinshu Buddhist. My father worked as a school teacher and did not become a priest, but I recall that whenever I visited the temple where my father grew up I would run around in the temple and the grounds playing with my cousins. However, I wasn’t a very serious student of the Dharma back then and wouldn’t chant the sutras every day at home. I would only chant Shoshinge at Obon and New Year’s, when my family would chant along with a tape recording. I didn’t understand the meaning of the words I was chanting, and my legs went numb from sitting on the floor, so I hated chanting. The thought of the ozōni (a traditional holiday stew) that I would get to eat at the end of the service was what got me through it. In the end, however, those experiences provided me with a good religious education that likely planted the seed for me to start coming to the temple here in America.

 

Why did you come to the United States?

During my second year of high school, I studied in Ohio as an exchange student. After high school, I enrolled at California State University, East Bay.   When I graduated, I returned to Japan where I worked for about three years until I found an opportunity to transfer to a job in the United States and moved back to the East Bay. Then I met my husband who is a second-generation Japanese American, so we married and settled down here. Including my time as a student, I have been living in the United States for over 25 years.

 

Why did you start coming to the temple?

I wanted my daughter to have a religious education. Initially, I had no interest whatsoever in temples or the Dharma, but when my daughter asked me what our family’s religion was, I was taken aback. My daughter was seven years old at the time, and one of her good friends who comes from a devout Catholic family had told her about their church. Right around that same time, my daughter was attending the Japanese Language School that meets at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, so I got to know Rev. Furumoto, who was the resident minister then. When he learned that I am from Toyama and that my father is the son of a temple priest he said, “You should come to the temple,” so I started bringing my daughter to service. My daughter made friends in the Dharma School program, and I got to be friends with the other parents. Before long I began teaching Dharma School myself. It’s been six years since I started coming to the temple.

 

What are the main points you emphasize in teaching the Dharma School students?

The importance of playing nicely with others and joining our hands in gassho (the traditional Buddhist gesture of respect and gratitude). These are simple matters, but they make a big difference in our lives. The students I teach range in age from three to five-years-old, so I set my expectations accordingly. Also, last year we started a summer Dharma School program with Rev. Henry. It’s a one-week program with students from elementary to high school ages at the temple from morning to afternoon learning about Buddhism and Japanese culture. We focus on Buddhist education and this year’s theme for the week was “The Golden Chain.” When we had our first morning service on Monday morning the children all chanted quietly, but by the last day on Friday they were all chanting Juseige and reciting the Golden Chain with nice loud voices. I believe that living with awareness of our connections with others and getting along well with others is the essence of the Buddhist path.

 

What do you like about Jodo Shinshu?

No matter how busy we may be, we can live with freedom in our hearts. I believe that this is because we are touched by the vast heart of the Buddha. I enjoy listening to Rev. Henry’s Dharma talks each Sunday because I get to hear that Nembutsu teaching. Even though the Dharma has been there right in front of me since I was child, it is thanks to my daughter that I have come to encounter this wonderful teaching.