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

 


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


Finding Refuge in the Territory of the Dharma

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

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

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

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

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

“When you know your own territory, you must be attentive and diligently apply yourself! Practice alone and in tranquility, and reside in solitude! Do not follow beliefs in anything else!
“When you know the territory of the Law (Dharma), you are certain to clearly see the lamp of wisdom. It can dispel delusion . . . Having obtained the excellent Law, one is free from any self and free from [‘ I’ and] ‘ mine.’”(Buddhacarita: In Praise of the Buddha’s Acts, translated by Charles Willemen, pg. 168; available online at http://www.bdkamerica.org/digital/dBET_T0192_Buddhacarita_2009.pdf)

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

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

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

In gassho,


Family and Friendship

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

Conquering the Demon Army

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

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

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

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

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

 

In gassho,