Bouncing into the New Year

Happy New Year! According to Japanese custom, we all become one year older together on New Year’s Day. In that sense, Japanese New Year Celebrations are like a big birthday party for everyone, complete with gifts for the children. One of the joys of parenthood is experiencing the wonder of childhood once again through the eyes of my children. Often this means setting aside my idea of myself as a “dignified adult” and accompanying my children in their rambunctious playtime activities.

At a recent birthday party, I was compelled by begging and arm tugging to join my son inside a bounce house. A bounce house is a large inflatable room that can be set up on a lawn or driveway. It has a giant inflated cushion of air for a floor and soft yet sturdy netting for walls, supported by a large inflated pillar in each corner. The floor is both soft and springy, so that you can jump even higher than normal and it does not hurt if you fall over. Inside the bounce house, my son delighted in jumping around, chasing the other children and being bounced about by the cushion of air underneath.

As I sat on the floor of the bounce house, watching him play and occasionally steering him clear of the flailing bodies of other children, I was struck by the curious sensation of sitting on that giant cushion of air while the others bounced around. Each time the weight of one person came down on the cushion, the rest of us would be lifted up slightly by the increase in pressure, so that our movements were all interconnected. As the excitement built up with more children climbing into the bounce house and beginning to bounce around, it became impossible to tell who was causing what motion. We were all flowing up and down, to and fro together, moving and being moved by each other.

In the bounce house, it was easy to feel our interconnectedness through physical motion. Outside the bounce house, we sometimes move each other through thoughts and feelings that are more subtle than an inflated cushion that lifts our body into the air, but with even more far-reaching impact. Have you ever had a teacher who opened up a whole new world of knowledge for you and changed the course of your life? How about a friend or family member whose kindness kept you afloat in a time of great difficulty? It is the motion of those karmic relationships that buoys us up and propels us along on our path to awakening.

Shinran, the true teacher of our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, taught that “We come together when conditions bring us together and part when conditions separate us.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 664) It is impossible for the ordinary mind to discern the manifold causes and conditions that brought us together with the special people in our lives. Likewise, we can never fully predict or comprehend the circumstances that one day will cause us to part. With the support of the Buddha’s illuminating wisdom received in the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” we can come to terms with the difficulties of our past and calmly face the unexpected bounces that we will surely encounter in the future. I wish you much joyful bouncing amidst the flow of causes and conditions in the coming year.

In conclusion, I offer the words of the Nembutsu poet Issa, written in 1819 for his young daughter:

My little daughter was born just last May, but I give her a grownup’s portion of zōni for her New Year’s breakfast:

Crawl, laugh,

Do as you wish—

For you are two years old

This morning.

(The Year of My Life by Issa, translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa, p. 39)

Namo Amida Butsu