As I struggle to keep up with my two sons—one who is three and a half years old, and one who turns one this month—I am constantly facing the reality that I am not as limber and agile as I was ten years ago. As I take stock of my physical condition, the following passage from the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life Delivered by Sakyamuni Buddha (Larger Sutra) comes to mind:
Sentient beings who encounter [the Light of Amida Buddha] have the three defilements* swept away, and they become soft and gentle in body and mind. They leap and dance with joy, and the good mind arises in them.
(Three Pure Land Sutras, Volume II: The Larger Sutra, p. 36-37)
This passage tells us that people who are touched by the light of Amida Buddha become soft and gentle in body and mind. When I get out of bed in the morning the day after I have been chasing my kids around a playground for a couple hours, my body feels stiff and cumbersome, not soft and gentle.
On the first Tuesday of each month, I look forward to spending time with long-time temple members as well as new friends at our Senior Gathering. Following a short service before the image of Amida Buddha in the Main Temple Hall, we retire the Social Hall for a morning of fun activities, conversation, a delicious lunch cooked fresh by volunteers in the temple kitchen, and a movie projected on a big screen. After everyone has gathered in the Social Hall, one of the seniors will lead the group in some simple exercises that can be done sitting in a chair to develop balance and flexibility. I like to join these exercises each month, and am always humbled to see that many of our eighty and ninety-year-old members are far more limber than I am. Several of the seniors can easily reach forward and grab their toes while sitting in a chair with their leg straightened. I have a hard enough time straightening my leg while sitting in a chair, let alone reaching for my toes.
Spending time with these inspiring seniors, I am struck by how they are soft and gentle, not just in their bodies, but in their minds as well. They always share kind smiles and friendly conversation with everyone they meet here at our temple. As I consider what it means to have a mind and body that is soft and gentle, I am reminded of the Buddhist teaching that the hard ice of self-centered thinking melts into the soft flowing water of compassion. In his Hymns on the Pure Land Masters, Shinran writes:
Through the benefit of the unhindered light,
We realize shinjin of vast, majestic virtues,
And the ice of our blind passions necessarily melts,
Immediately becoming water of enlightenment.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 371)
To live with shinjin, or Buddhist faith, is to receive the light of the Buddha’s wisdom as the warmth that melts the ice of self-centered thinking, so that our minds and bodies can flow freely in the water of enlightenment.
The softness of body described in the sutras is not about being able to touch your toes. True hardness of the body is the unwillingness to do things to help others simply because it is inconvenient or uncomfortable. One example might be a healthy body that is unwilling to get up to surrender its seat to an elderly passenger in a crowded train car. A body that has become soft and gentle in the Dharma is not attached to comfort and pleasure, but rather is willing to set aside its own convenience to act freely in the world to help others—this kind of soft and gentle body can be seen in those who set aside fear and desire for comfort and travel to help those affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. A body that has been softened by the light of the Buddha’s wisdom moves freely within its full capacity to help others.
*three defilements: greed, anger, and ignorance.