On April 14, 2019, at 9:30 a.m. we will gather at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for our Hanamatsuri Service celebrating the birth of a child who grew up to bring a simple, but powerful, message into our world: “Hatred is never overcome by hatred in this world. By compassion alone is hatred overcome. This is a law eternal.” (Dhammapada, Chapter 1, Verse 5) These words were spoken by the wise teacher who we revere as Sakyamuni Buddha, “Sage of the Sakya Clan.” We commemorate his birth in Lumbini, Nepal 2,682 years ago by pouring sweet tea over a statue that depicts him as newborn baby, standing amidst the blossoming flowers with one hand pointed to the sky and one hand pointed to earth. It is said that at the time of his birth he took seven steps and declared “Above the heavens and below the heavens, I alone am the Honored One.”
I do not take these words to mean that he viewed his life as more precious than the lives of others. Sakyamuni is the Honored One because from an early age, he recognized the precious opportunity he received when he was born as a human being. He made the most of his human birth by realizing liberation from suffering and guiding others to realize liberation for themselves. The story of the Buddha’s birth expresses the truth that each single human life is precious because it holds the potential for realizing liberation from suffering. When a human life is cut short, a rare opportunity for realizing liberation is lost. The Buddha taught that even the most wicked murderer has the potential to awaken to compassion, feel remorse for the harm done to others, and discover a life directed by the light of wisdom.
At a time when we hear of so many lives being cut short by hate-fueled acts of violence, I was heartened by Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent decision to place a moratorium on executions by the state of California. In August 2016, the Buddhist Churches of America Ministers Association voted to issue a resolution calling for the repeal of the death penalty in the United States. In the discussion that led up to that vote, I recall one of my colleagues saying, “It is easy for me to declare my opposition to the death penalty, having never lost a loved one to an act of violence. However, I do not know how my feelings might change if one of my loved ones was murdered. From that perspective, I could not say to someone whose dear loved one had been murdered, ‘You should not seek the death penalty.’” As the discussion progressed, I felt honored to be part of an association that was able to explore such a complex and contentious issue with frank open-minded discussion that affirmed the legitimacy of many points of view.
Amidst the wide range of views that were expressed by my colleagues, there was one comment by a senior minister that clearly illuminated the matter at hand and enabled our ministerial association to arrive at a consensus in opposition to the death penalty. That senior minister said “When I consider the death penalty from my perspective as an unenlightened being, I can certainly understand the desire to seek the death penalty for the person convicted of murdering my loved one. However, when I consider this matter in light of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow that contains the wish to liberate from suffering those who are most heavily burdened with karmic evil, I am compelled to oppose the death penalty on the grounds that when an execution is carried out, one person’s opportunity to encounter the Buddha’s wisdom, realize awakening, and guide others to enlightenment is cut short.”
Living in this world that is so often marked by greed, hatred and ignorance, I find Hanamatsuri to be a hopeful time when we come together as a Sangha to celebrate the preciousness of human life and affirm our commitment to the wisdom of Sage who taught that “by compassion alone is hatred overcome.”