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


Sustained by the Nembutsu

As Spring arrives, we prepare to observe our Spring Ohigan Service on Sunday, March 20. The word higan 彼岸 means “Other Shore,” and in the Buddhist tradition refers to crossing over the ocean of suffering in the realm of birth and death to arrive at the Other Shore where one enjoys a life of awakening. As I consider my own journey to the Other Shore, I am reminded of the lives of those whose unwavering dedication to seeing the Nembutsu thrive here on the shores of North America has made it possible for me to discover my own path to a life of peace and bliss.

In 1919, there was a growing a community of Japanese Buddhists working on farms around the town of Guadalupe on California’s Central Coast. Many of these intrepid Issei lived in camps near the fields with few comforts and amenities. As families began to take shape with young children, it became clear that these camps did not provide a suitable environment for children to grow and receive an education. Responding to the urgent needs of one family and then another, the local Buddhist minister Rev. Issei Matsuura and his wife Mrs. Shinobu Matsuura opened the doors of the temple and began taking in children one by one until they found themselves caring for over twenty children in what became the Guadalupe Children’s Home.

Later in life, Mrs. Matsuura recalled her experiences caring for the children in her memoir Higan: Compassionate Vow. I find the following episode from her memoir to be a particularly inspiring account of how the Nembutsu sustained that early Buddhist community here in California in the face of the great difficulties they faced in those early years:

When the children were healthy, life was comfortable. But frequently, when epidemics struck, we spent many sleepless nights worrying. Measles, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough and other illnesses were common occurrences. When one became ill, we expected others to soon follow. Caring for the sleeping children, who bravely endured high fever, I realized how they must have yearned for their own mothers, and I was deeply touched.

Once [a girl named] Akiko came down with Scarlet Fever. For one whole month, the Children’s Home was quarantined. No one was allowed to leave the compound, and no visitors were permitted to enter. There was no time for tears. I had to immediately concentrate on nursing Akiko back to health with the help of her older sister, Toshiko. Her father, Mr. Tanaka, came to the front gate every day, handing fresh vegetables and other food over the fence, pleading, “Please take care of Akiko. I appreciate your care. But if she does not survive, she is in the temple and in good hands!” Many parents came to the fence to hand over food and gifts. Fortunately, after four weeks, recovery at last! The other children were given preventative shots, nutritious meals, exercise, play, and study during the quarantine and were spared from catching the disease. When, after a month, the isolation was ended and quarantine lifted, the parents rushed over and a joyous reunion took place. I could only gassho, for surely the Nembutsu had sustained us.

(Higan: Compassionate Vow, Selected Writings of Shinobu Matsuura, p. 90)

In this story, we see how the Nembutsu has given generations of people living here in America the strength to face the most trying times of their lives. We see the Buddha’s compassion at work in the life of Mrs. Matsuura who cared for so many children, as well as the dedicated care of the older sister Toshiko who stayed close to Akiko throughout her illness, helping to nurse her back to health. As a father, I am particularly inspired by the example of Mr. Tanaka who visited the temple each day to bring nutritious food for the children and show his love and devotion to his daughter. While Mr. Tanaka is deeply concerned for Akiko’s well-being, his heart is at peace knowing that she is in good hands. The Nembutsu gives him the courage to face whatever may come without fear or anxiety. Having directly faced the possibility of death without shying away, these pioneering Buddhist families were able to truly savor the preciousness of their lives together when they were reunited after the quarantine.

 

Namo Amida Butsu.


Become a Buddha, not a Buddhist

From time to time, I receive inquiries from individuals who are interested in attending a service or study class at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple. Often they begin the conversation by asking if non-Buddhists are permitted to attend our services, or if there is a special initiation they need to participate in before taking part in temple activities. On a few occasions, individuals who have been studying on their own have contacted the temple ready to convert to Buddhism and become a Buddhist.

My first response to these inquiries is that everyone is welcome to join us for service and participate in temple activities, whether they identify as Buddhist or not. For example, if a person who identifies as a Christian or a Hindu enjoys the companionship of our Sangha and receives peace of mind and useful insight from hearing the teachings of the Buddha, we are delighted to have him or her join us.

We do have special rituals for affirming our resolution to live a life guided by the wisdom of the Buddha. Examples include the group recitation of the Threefold Refuge at a Sunday Service or the Affirmation Ceremony (Jpn. Kikyoshiki/Kieshiki) conducted on special occasions, in which one receives a Buddhist Name. These ceremonies are wonderful opportunities to express one’s personal commitment to the Buddha’s teachings, but participation in these ceremonies is not required, does not grant any special status within the community, and does not make one a Buddhist.

The Buddha teaches that we create suffering by clinging to the ideas of “me” and “mine.” With that in mind, the purpose of his teachings is to help us let go of the ideas of “me” and “mine,” including “my identity as . . .” As I endeavor to live the Buddha’s teachings in my daily life, I come to see that all the labels I apply to myself, such as “I am white,” “I am a man,” “I am American,” “I am a graduate of Saint Olaf College,” and “I am a resident of San Mateo,” create an illusion of difference that prevents me from seeing the profound kinship that I share with all people and all living beings. The teachings of the Buddha that we hear at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple are not intended to give us one more identity—“I am a Buddhist”—to cling to, but rather to help us realize freedom from the mind that discriminates between self and other.

On February 14, at 9:30 a.m., we will observe our Nirvana Day Service, commemorating Sakyamuni Buddha’s passing into perfect tranquility at the end of his life in this world. As the time of his departure drew near, many of his disciples became increasingly distraught, worried about how they could continue their journey to liberation without Sakyamuni there to guide them. His message to them was simple: “Take refuge in the Dharma. Take refuge in yourself.”

When the Buddha instructs us to take refuge in the Dharma, he is calling us to rely on the truth to which he awakened, not cling to words and ideas. The Buddha’s wish for us is to become Buddhas, not Buddhists. When I examine myself, with all my tendencies toward prejudice and foolishness, I cannot help but recognize that I am not a suitable object of refuge. At the same time, if I focus too much on striving after an idealized “enlightened” version of myself, constantly wishing to become somehow different from the foolish person I am today, I run the risk of losing sight of my life as I am living it at this very moment. When the Buddha calls us to take refuge in ourselves, he is reminding us to remain grounded in this life that we are living everyday driving to work, sitting in meetings, and cooking dinner. Our liberation is to be found right here, right now.

The Buddha’s call to realize our path to awakening right here in our present lives echoes through the Nembutsu. I hear it in the following words of Shinran:

For all people – men and women, of high station and low – Saying the Name of Amida is such That whether one is walking, standing, sitting, or reclining is of no concern And time, place, and condition are not restricted.

(Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, Genshin No. 94)

 

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


Taking the Stage

This past month, our family took part in a traditional Japanese-style talent show called an oyugikai, which was organized as a collaboration between three Japanese playgroups and held in the Social Hall of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple. The three groups are based on the year in which the participating children were born: Usagi-kai (2011, the Year of the Rabbit), Tatsu-no-ko-kai (2012, the Year of the Dragon), and Me Babies (2013, the Year of the Snake, or mi-doshi in Japanese).

The program began with the Me Babies group taking the stage to sing preschool standards like “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Kira-kira Boshi (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star).” As the two-year olds paraded onto the stage in their spider outfits, one little girl stepped out under the stage lights, took one look at the audience of about 150 parents and children staring back at her, and began screaming at the top of her lungs. She continued screaming throughout the performance, pausing briefly at one point to join in the singing and dancing with remarkable skill for her age.

The range of performances was what you might expect from groups of children between the ages of two and four. On stage at any given time, there were some children who were quite impressive in their mastery of choreography and lyrics, along with those who stood stock-still—impervious to the exaggerated gesticulations of the parent-conductors stationed in front of the stage. One boy sat very comfortably on the floor at center stage throughout his group’s performance.

While the children performed in many different ways, I observed a common response from all the parents: each one welcomed their child with a big smile and a hug, praising them for their courage and hard work. As parents of small children, we are all learning to encourage our children to step out onto the stage of their lives, try new things and face challenges with calm minds and courageous hearts. Having someone in our lives who shows us that we are precious just as we are gives us the courage to venture out into the world and respond to whatever we encounter there with the best wisdom we have.

At times, we may find that presence of boundless care and support in our parents. Other times in our lives, we may find it in grandparents, teachers, coaches, coworkers, spouses or friends. Once we have an encounter with true compassion, the transformation of our lives is permanent. Even if we are separated from someone who has been a presence of genuine compassion in our lives, the deep feeling of peace we received from them remains. In the life of the Nembutsu, Amida Buddha is that presence of boundless compassion in our lives. We use the word shinjin, or “entrusing heart,” to describe that peace of mind that we receive from the light of the Buddha’s wisdom shining into our lives. In the Notes on Once-Calling and Many-Calling Shinran writes: “When one realizes true and real shinjin, one is immediately grasped and held within the heart of the Buddha of unhindered light, never to be abandoned.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 475)

The world around us may be telling us that we ought to stand in a certain place on the stage or sing and dance in a certain way. Living in the Nembutsu, we find the courage to take the stage just as we are, discovering a life that is full and beautiful, just right for us at this very moment.

 

Namo Amida Butsu