Having spent much of past sixteen months sheltering at home, this summer has brought a joyful return to some of our favorite pre-pandemic activities, including a visit to the San Mateo County Fair. Even breathing through my mask, the smells of the county fair brought back waves of memories of past summers. The smell of barbequed ribs, turkey legs, and French fries reminded me of leisurely summer afternoons enjoying fairs and festivals with my wife and sons. The farm smells of pigs, goats and cattle in the livestock showcase brought back memories of summer visits to the family farms of my relatives living in Iowa. I recall the first time my son received a tour of the cattle barns on my aunt and uncle’s farm. At one point, he asked my aunt, “Can we see something that doesn’t smell?” She laughed and replied, “Well, we are on a farm.”
That reminded me of a conversation I had with her husband many years ago when I toured those barns myself as a child who had grown up in the suburbs. My uncle must have noticed me holding my nose while we walked through the cow barn because he asked me, “Do you know what that smell is?” I said, “Cow poop.” To which he replied, “That’s the smell of money.” Pooping cows means healthy cows. Lots of poop means lots of cows. Lots of cows produce lots of milk, which is how a farm family pays its bills. To a livestock farmer, a smelly farm is a thriving farm.
We experience the world through our six sensory organs: our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and thinking brain. Led by my discriminating mind, I attach labels of “good” and “bad” to the sights, sounds, feelings, tastes, thoughts, smells, and memories that I encounter throughout the day. To me, the smell of cow manure is stinky and gross. To my uncle, that smell is a welcome reminder that his farm is healthy and thriving.
There is a plaque that hangs above the onaijin shrine in the main hall of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, inscribed with the two kanji characters 見真 kenshin “see truth.” The Buddha’s teachings guide us to perceive things as they truly are. This means that when we live in the Nembutsu, hearing and reciting the words “Namo Amida Butsu” moment to moment throughout our lives, we receive the mind of the Buddha that takes in all the six senses without grasping or revulsion. The Buddha mind does not attach labels of good or bad, like or dislike to the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and thoughts that we experience moment to moment.
There was a farmer named Genza who lived in the region of Inaba (Tottori Prefecture), Japan about 100 years ago. Genza would recite the Nembutsu day and night whether walking, standing, sitting, or reclining. One day he was caught in a downpour while walking home. As the rain poured down outside, a local Buddhist priest sitting inside his temple heard the sound of the Nembutsu, faintly at first, and then growing louder and louder. Curious as to who could be out walking in such terrible weather, the priest stepped out under the eaves to investigate. When the priest saw Genza walking with no umbrella, completely soaked by the rain, he called out, “Hey Genza! You sure are wet!”
Genza called back, “Yes! I’m grateful!”
“Huh? Why are you grateful?” asked the priest.
“I’m grateful that my nostrils point downward!” was Genza’s reply.
With a mind that dwelled in the Nembutsu, Genza received the Buddha’s wisdom and was able to take in the flow of his six senses without being carried away by discriminating consciousness. Genza takes it all in and never loses sight of the most important matter in this life: gratitude.
Namo Amida Butsu