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.


Konnichiwa Namo Amida Butsu Sayōnara

The poem above was composed by one of our Dharma School students during the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Summer Terakoya Program that was held from July 25 to 29. This poem was composed in the Japanese haiku format of five syllables (Ko-n-ni-chi-wa), seven syllables (Na-mo-A-mi-da-Bu-tsu), five syllables (Sa-yo-u-na-ra). In just seventeen syllables, a Haiku brings us deep into the mind and heart of the author. The moment I heard this Haiku, I felt that it perfectly captured the spirit of our Summer Terakoya Gathering.

In Japanese, Konnichiwa is the usual way of saying “hello” during the daytime. Konnichi means today and wa is a grammatical particle that indicates the subject of a phrase. So, one way of literally translating the meaning of Konnichiwa would be “Nice to see you today.” Whether it was chanting in the Hondo with a strong voice first thing in the morning, sitting in quiet concentration writing and painting with a Japanese brush, or playing tag during recess, I saw our Terakoya youth treasure each moment of the day.

Namo Amida Butsu is the ground upon which all of our temple activities take place. During Terakoya, we began each morning with a service in the Hondo and a reflection on the Golden Chain:

I am a link in Amida’s golden chain of love that stretches around the world. I will keep my link bright and strong. I will be kind and gentle to every living thing and protect all who are weaker than myself. I will think pure and beautiful thoughts, say pure and beautiful words, and do pure and beautiful deeds. May every link in Amida’s golden chain of love be bright and strong and may we all attain perfect peace.

I often translate the words Namo Amida Butsu, as “I take refuge in the Awakened One of Immeasurable Wisdom and Compassion.” When we hear the words Namo Amida Butsu we are reminded that wherever we go and whatever we do in life, Buddha’s wisdom and compassion are always there with us, helping us to live a life of beauty and kindness.

In just five days of learning and playing together, the bonds of friendship were deepened for everyone who took part. After the Summer Terakoya closing ceremony on Friday afternoon, the family and friends hung around to admire the artworks that had been created over the past week and chat while the youth ran around the temple for hours making up games to play and improvising song and dance routines on the stage in the Social Hall. Adults and children alike were so relaxed and comfortable that time at the temple flowed gently along, and for a moment, busy schedules and do-lists were allowed to drift out of mind as we enjoyed that special time we shared together. As the hours passed, one by one, parents, grandparents and friends rounded up their youth and went off to swimming lessons, bath time or dinner. As this year’s Summer Terakoya experience drew to a close, I was reminded of the words of our true teacher Shinran Shonin, “We come together when conditions bring us to meet and part when conditions separate us.”

The word Sayōnara could be translated as “If it is so . . .” We say Sayōnara in parting with gratitude for the precious time that we have spent together and the bonds of friendship that we have discovered together. Perhaps conditions will bring us together again, in which case there is great joy. We saw that joy of meeting again among the Terakoya children who were reunited during Obon dance practices in the weeks that followed in early August. After the dancing was finished, children gleefully ran back and forth across the parking lot while parents and friends enjoyed conversations under the flood lights. These past few weeks have deepened my appreciation of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple as a place where we live together in the Nembutsu, greeting each other in the light of the Buddha’s wisdom.

 

Konnichiwa Namo Amida Butsu Sayōnara


Dancing with Mahamaudgalyayana

As a child growing up in Minnesota, my birthday party in July was one of the highlights of summer that I looked forward to each year, along with camping trips to the North Shore of Lake Superior and Fourth of July fireworks. I would eagerly anticipate having all my friends come over to eat cake and ice cream and play on the “slip and slide,” a large plastic sheet that we would spread out on the lawn and wet down with a garden hose.

I have wonderful memories of my birthday parties as a child and now I do my best to create those memories for my own children. For our oldest son, summer begins with his birthday party in June and culminates with treats, dancing and staying out late for Obon Odori in August. This year, our San Mateo Buddhist Temple Obon observances will occur with cemetery services and Obon Odori dancing on Saturday, August 13, and our Obon Service at the temple on Sunday, August 14. The Buddhist observance of Obon is inspired by the story of the Buddha’s compassionate teaching to his disciple Mahamaudgalyayana.

Mahamaudgalyayana felt deep gratitude toward his loving mother, and after she passed away, he would reflect on how all the things she had done for him continued to bring benefit to his life. As an enlightened disciple of the Buddha, Mahamaudgalyana had a special ability to see the workings of cause and effect beyond the boundaries of birth and death. On one occasion he used this power to search for his mother throughout the six realms of existence*. At that time, he saw that his mother had fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, a state of suffering from unsatisfied desire.

Mahamaudgalyayana immediately went to the Buddha to ask what he could do to ease his mother’s suffering. Because there is nothing that we can do directly for a loved one once they have passed away and ceased to dwell in this world, the Buddha advised Mahamaudgalyayana that the best way for him to express the feelings of gratitude he felt for his departed mother would be to practice generosity toward the people he lived with everyday. Mahamaudgalyayana followed the Buddha’s instructions and made a gift of food, clothing and other necessary items to his fellow monks at the conclusion of their rainy season retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month.

After making this gift, his thoughts turned once again to his mother. Again, he used his special power of vision to seek her out in the various realms of birth and death. He was delighted to see that his mother had been released from suffering in the realm of the hungry ghosts. At that time, we are told that the usually reserved and dignified monk Mahamaudgalyayana was so overjoyed by the power of the Buddha’s teaching to bring about freedom from suffering that he began to leap and dance about without any regard for what others might think of him. This unselfconscious dance of joy serves as the basis for the Obon Odori dancing that we will enjoy at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on the evening of Saturday, August 13.

In one version of this story, Mahamaudgalyana questions the Buddha regarding how his kind mother could have fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, the destination of those who fail to practice true generosity. The Buddha explains that while Mahamaudgalyayana’s mother was kind to him, she always restrained her generosity so that she would be able to provide her son with the best things.

I have yet to meet a parent who does not give ultimate preference to their own children. Now that I am a parent myself, I realize all the attention and planning that goes into hosting a successful birthday party. Venues have to be reserved, menus planned, and cakes ordered or baked. In making all these decisions, the preferences of our birthday boy get first priority. Usually we try to teach our children that guests get served first, but when hosting a birthday party, our custom is for the birthday boy or girl to choose the first slice of cake.

Sakyamuni Buddha and the enlightened monks and nuns who have followed his example all left home so that they could seek the path of freedom from karmic bonds. My karmic bonds are too deep to leave home and abandon my bias towards my own family. For this very reason, I find my Dharma home in Shinran’s path of the Nembutsu. Shinran himself married and raised several children with his wife Eshinni. He lived with deep awareness of the karma that bound that bound him to this world, and yet he was confident that the great compassion of the Buddha would carry him to liberation through the Nembutsu. He expresses his joy in the following words:

How joyous I am, realizing as I humbly reflect that my heart and mind stand rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and that my thoughts and feelings flow within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 303)

In this season of Obon, we join Mahamaudgalyayana in remembering those who for our sake have taken upon themselves the karmic burden of special concern for us above all others. We join Mahamaudgalyayana and Shinran in the dance of joy at encountering the power of the Buddha’s compassion to bring about liberation for all who bear a heavy burden of karma.

Namo Amida Butsu

 

*hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, fighting titans, and heavenly beings

 


The Fragrance of Light

The other day a friend of ours, a young mother from Japan, stopped by the temple with her daughter to drop something off for my wife. The moment she stepped into the Social Hall from the parking lot she took a deep breath and exclaimed “Ah, the wonderful fragrance of a temple!” Standing there in the Social Hall, I wondered if she could smell the delicious aroma of shiitake mushrooms that the Buddhist Women’s Association had been simmering in soy sauce over the weekend, so I inquired, “What does our temple smell like?” To which she replied, “The wonderful fragrance of incense.”

I begin a typical day at the temple by lighting incense in the Hondo before I chant Shinran’s Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Shoshinge). The fragrance of the incense permeates the entire temple and lingers throughout the day, such that at times I am not aware of it myself. Hearing the Dharma is similar to that experience, in that if you read or listen to the teachings of the Buddha and say the Nembutsu even for just a few minutes each day, the wisdom of the Buddha comes to be reflected in your daily life, even if you are not conscious of it yourself. Shinran writes:

 

“When sentient beings think on Amida Just as a child thinks of its mother, They indeed see the Tathagata – who is never distant – Both in the present and in the future.”

 

“Such beings are like people who, imbued with incense, Bear its fragrance on their bodies; They may be called Those adorned with the fragrance of light.”

[Shinran’s note:] Fragrance of light: refers to the nembutsu, which is wisdom.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 357)

 

The offering of incense at Buddhist temples is a tradition that has been transmitted from Buddhism’s Indian cultural roots.  Because the pleasant fragrance of incense lingers in the air and permeates our clothing, hair and skin, one of the original purposes of burning incense was to purify a sacred space and the bodies and minds of the participants in a religious service.

In some Buddhist traditions this understanding of incense as a source of purification is expressed by the practice of holding granular incense up to one’s forehead before placing it on the charcoals.   Holding it up to the forehead indicates that it is being received by the person who is burning it, so that they will be purified in body and mind. According to one interpretation that was shared with me by a Dharma friend from the Shingon tradition, three pinches of incense are commonly offered with the intention of “burning away” or purifying the negative karma created by (1) thought, (2) speech and (3) behavior. Another common interpretation for offering three pinches of incense is to purify oneself of the three poisons: (1) greed, (2) anger and (3) ignorance.

In the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji tradition, it is customary to place a single pinch of granular incense directly on the charcoal without the ritual of holding it up to the forehead. This way of offering incense expresses our gratitude to the great oneness that is Amida Buddha. The Jodo Shinshu way of offering incense reflects our understanding that the fragrance is not something we receive for our own purification, but rather is something that we offer as an expression of our gratitude and reverence for the Buddha’s teachings. The words of the Buddha found in the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life assure us that the Buddha’s great compassion embraces us just as we are—with all our impurities of body and mind—so incense does not serve the purpose of purification in the Jodo Shinshu tradition.

We have many ways of showing our appreciation for the great heart of the Buddha that accepts us just as we are. We say Namo Amida Butsu to express our joy with sound, we gassho and bow to express our gratitude with bodily movement, and we offer incense to allow our joy and gratitude to flow into the air as a sweet and comforting fragrance.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


Makuragyo (Pillow Sutra)

There is a Japanese Buddhist custom of performing an end-of-life service commonly referred to as “Makuragyo (lit. Pillow Sutra).” The purpose of the service is to chant the sutras in gratitude for the Buddha’s teaching and the Nembutsu, which have served as one’s guide during the journey of life in this world. As many people are unable to chant the sutras on their own at the end of life, it is customary for the minister of the local temple to be called to lead the service on their behalf. In principle, the Makuragyo service would be performed prior to the moment of death.  However, in practice a minister often arrives to perform the service after the person has already passed over to the Other Shore. In some cases, the Makuragyo service may be held after the deceased has been moved to a funeral home or other location.

Upon arrival, the minister will assist the family in setting the room in order for the service. If there is not an obutsudan (Buddhist shrine) in the room, one may be brought in from another room or a portable Buddha image will be provided by the minister. The focal point of the service is the Buddha image (a painting or statue of Amida Buddha or the Name of Amida Buddha written in the words “Namo Amida Butsu”), not the body of the deceased. Once all of the family and close friends who are able to be present for the Makuragyo have gathered, a brief service will be held, consisting of sutra chanting, offering of incense and words of comfort from the teachings of the Buddha. The burning of incense may be omitted from the service if hospital or assisted living facility guidelines prohibit the smoke.

If you sense that your loved one’s time to pass over to the Other Shore is drawing near, or if they have passed away, please call the San Mateo Buddhist Temple at (650) 342-2541, anytime, day or night. If no one is at the temple to answer your call, it will forward to my cell phone. If I am not able to answer when you call, please leave a message including the number where you can be reached, and I will return your call as soon as possible.

In the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, we are taught that those who live in the Nembutsu, entrusting themselves to Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion, immediately realize birth in the realm of peace and bliss at the conclusion of their life in this world. The life of the Nembutsu is perfect and complete just as it is, so there is nothing that needs to be added on our part to ensure the realization of peace by our loved ones after they depart from this world. With that in mind, we do not conduct the Makuragyo service in order to bring about a favorable rebirth for our departed loved ones. Also, in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, there is no need to keep candles and incense burning throughout the night following the passing of a loved one.

For the family of the deceased, the Makuragyo serves the therapeutic purpose of enabling the grieving loved ones to receive focus and support from the Dharma. “Amidst the chaos and emotional confusion, the Makuragyo becomes a focal point of stability and peace of mind for the grieving family. It is an intimate moment when everyone may listen to and hear the very profound and compassionate teachings of the Buddha; which is meant as an instruction of how to continue living for the grieving family members and friends.” (Rites of Passage: Death by Rev. Arthur Takemoto, Rev. Masao Kodani, and Rev. Russell Hamada, p. 57)

In the days that follow the passing of a loved one, a Funeral Planning Meeting is held at the temple or in a family home. This meeting is an opportunity for the minister and representatives from the temple to reflect on the life of the deceased and discuss the details of the funeral and other services. If the deceased received a Dharma Name at a Sarana Affirmation Ceremony conducted by the Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America (Kieshiki) or the Gomonshu of the Hongwanji Temple in Japan (Kikyoshiki), please bring it to the meeting. If you have received a Dharma name, please make sure your family members know where the information is kept. If the deceased has a Japanese name, the minister conducting the service may also ask for the kanji.

The Makuragyo is not intended to mark the end of life. Rather, it is the start of our process of coming into a new relationship with our loved one who has realized birth on the Other Shore of peace and bliss.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


Suzumushi and Matsumushi

This month we will celebrate the birth of Shinran Shonin at our Gotan-e Service on Sunday, May 15. For me, Gotane is a time when I feel renewed gratitude for the founder of our tradition, Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), and his life dedicated to sharing the Nembutsu. In 1207, Shinran was exiled to a remote area in Echigo Province (modern-day Niigata Prefecture) as part of a widespread persecution of his teacher Honen Shonin’s Nembutsu community. Honen taught that by simply reciting the Nembutsu, it was possible for any person to break free from the cycle of birth and death through birth in Amida Buddha’s realm of peace and bliss. At that time in Japan, many mainstream Buddhist teachers taught that people who engaged in professions such as fishing and leatherworking, those who had broken monastic precepts, and women in general were so burdened with negative karma that they would surely remain bound to the cycle of birth and death at the end of their present life. From that perspective, Honen’s Nembutsu teaching was radical, even subversive. In 1206, the conservative scholar-monks of the Kofukuji Temple in Nara, sent a letter to the emperor recommending that he prohibit the practice of exclusive Nembutsu advocated by Honen.

Because Honen taught that men and women have equal potential for fulfillment through the Nembutsu, women from all segments of society were drawn to his community. In late 1206, while the Emperor Gotoba was away from the capital on a pilgrimage to the Kumano Shrine, his consorts Suzumushi and Matsumushi joined a Nembutsu gathering led by Honen’s followers Juren-bo and Anraku-bo. After hearing the Nembutsu teaching, the emperor’s consorts experienced a great change of heart and took ordination as Buddhist nuns. As imperial consorts, it would have taken great courage for Suzumushi and Matsumushi to abandon the world of palace life. The emperor wielded great power in his world, but the hearts of his consorts turned away from that world and turned toward Amida Buddha’s realm of peace and bliss. In hearing the Nembutsu teaching, they came to the radical realization that in the light of Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion, the lives of all people are equally precious. It is not difficult to see how the Nembutsu teaching was a source of consternation for the emperor and the established Buddhist schools.

When the emperor returned and discovered that Suzumushi and Matsumushi had renounced their lives in the imperial palace to join Honen’s Nembutsu Sangha, he became enraged and ordered Juren-bo and Anraku-bo to be executed along with two other leading followers of Honen. Honen was sent into exile on the island of Shikoku. Seven more of his followers, including Shinran, were dispossessed of their monkhood and sent into exile, scattering the community throughout Japan. While many lamented the exile, Honen instructed his disciples that this too should be accepted as the flow of karmic causes and conditions in their lives. Honen’s disciples took that teaching to heart, and as a result, the Nembutsu teaching flourished in the rural provinces to an extent that likely would not have been possible had it not been for their exile.

Prior to his exile, Shinran himself enjoyed special status as an ordained monk of the influential Tendai School. Years after he was stripped of his monastic status, he commented on that experience, writing “I am now neither a monk nor one in worldly life.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 286) Even without the special status of monks and nuns, our lives in the Nembutsu are illuminated by the Buddha’s wisdom that shines brighter than the misguided values of worldly life. Wherever he went, Shinran worked tirelessly to share the Nembutsu teaching, so that the people he met would see the preciousness of their own lives when viewed in the light of Amida Buddha.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


Udumbara Flower

On Sunday, April 10 at 9:30 a.m. we will gather at the San Mateo Buddhist in Celebration of the birth a very special baby. According to the traditional stories of the Buddhist tradition, this baby did something truly marvelous at the moment of his birth. Immediately upon being born, he is said to have taken seven steps and raising one hand to the sky, declared, “Above the heavens and beneath the heavens, I alone am the Honored One.” Flowers bloomed and rained down at that time as heavenly beings and people of this world paid reverence to him. He was given the name Siddhartha, which means, “he who has accomplished his aim.” His name was Siddhartha Gautama, and in his life he came to be revered as Sakyamuni Buddha, the Awakened Sage of the Sakya Clan.

Perhaps the most meaningful part of the story of the Buddha’s birth is his declaration, “Above the heavens and beneath the heavens, I alone am the Honored One.” These words are not meant to tell us how important the Buddha thought he was. These words tell us how much the baby Buddha meant to his family, and the people who were there at his moment of birth. They also tell us how important his life has been to Buddhists throughout the world whose lives have been guided by his teachings over the past 2,500 years.

The words “Above the heavens and beneath the heavens, I alone am the Honored One” express the way that loving parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and friends view a new baby who has come into their lives. Above the heavens and beneath the heavens, that new baby is truly a precious and honored person. Every new baby is born with the potential to one day become a Buddha. So we care for each child with the understanding that we are caring for a future Buddha.  Just like the Buddha, we all have the potential to grow up and show wonderful kindness and caring for the people around us. But as newborn babies we need constant care and attention. Consider all the things we need to do to care for a baby—feeding, bathing, changing diapers, trips to the pediatrician, singing song and reading stories. Luxuries like uninterrupted sleep and movie theatres are temporarily set aside.

Each of us was once a baby. If you are reading this, you are alive today because someone cared for you as the “Honored One above the heavens and beneath the heavens.” Each baby is different and needs to be cared for in his/her own way. Just as we are all unique people, we were once unique babies. The way we treat a baby should be a lesson for us in the correct way to treat all people in our lives. I’m not talking about changing diapers and giving milk to drink in a bottle. Rather, we can treat all people as future Buddhas.

Each person who is born into human life has received the chance to become a Buddha. Shinran writes:

 

Considering then this human existence – hard is it to obtain; It is like the blossoming of the udumbara. Truly we have come now to hear the Pure Land teaching so rare to encounter; Truly we have encountered the opening of the dharma-gate of the nembutsu. (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 41)

 

Shinran compares receiving human life to the blossoming of the udumbara flower. The udumbara flower is a special flower described in the Buddhist sutras that is said to blossom only once every 3,000 years. So to receive human life is as rare as that flower blossom that comes only once every 3,000 years. Each of you is also a rare flower that has blossomed with human life through marvelous karmic circumstances.

How will you spend your precious human life? Who will you turn to for guidance? There are many wise teachings in the world that offer guidance in choosing the path of your life. The San Mateo Buddhist Temple is a place where we hear the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha. The Buddha calls us to recognize all the love and care that we have received in our lives from the people who have cared for us as the most Honored One, as a future Buddha. Likewise, we do our best to pass that kindness and caring on to all those future Buddhas we live with everyday at home, work, and school.

 

Namo Amida Butsu