As we welcome the New Year, many of us are enjoying a long-anticipated return to family holiday gatherings. My family and I are happy to be travelling to visit my relatives in Minnesota for the first time in two and half years. Getting together in one place with family and friends, we are reminded how wonderful it is to spend time together in person. Sitting together in a cozy room, enjoying the flavors of favorite family dishes shared at a common table, breathing in the delicious aromas while laughing together and sharing stories—these are experiences we have come to truly savor after a long separation.
A Dharma friend recently shared with me their family’s experience of coming together this year to celebrate Thanksgiving. The whole family gathered around the dinner table to enjoy the traditional feast and lively conversation. A few days after the gathering one of the attendees began to feel flu-like symptoms and then came down with a fever. Even though they had been fully vaccinated and received a booster shot, when they received a Covid test, the result came back positive. The rest of the family members got tested and two more came back positive for Covid. Fortunately, everyone in the group had been vaccinated, so those who were infected did not get seriously ill. Nevertheless, my Dharma friend encourages everyone to get tested for Covid prior to getting together with family and friends this holiday season.
These days our attention is focused on the latest variants of Covid-19, but there are other things in our lives that can pass unnoticed from one person to another. Illness-causing germs can spread easily, but we can also pick up good thoughts and behaviors when we spend time with wise and compassionate companions. One of my teachers once said, “Spending time with good people is like walking in the fog. You don’t realize that you’re getting wet at the time, but when you get home, you find that your clothes are soaked through.”
Spending time with good Dharma friends who delight in the Nembutsu, I find that the direction of my mind shifts toward the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion and the Nembutsu flows freely from my lips. Asahara Saichi (1850-1932) was a humble man who lived deeply in the Nembutsu and wrote profound poems like the one below to express his appreciation of the Dharma:
When I catch a cold, I cough.
I’ve caught a Dharma cold,
I cough the Nembutsu again and again
These days, I take all manner of precautions to avoid catching a cold. I wash my hands, wear a mask, and make sure to dress warmly on cold days. However, no matter how careful I try to be, I still wind up coming down with a cold from time to time. It seems to me that whether I catch a cold or not cannot be entirely determined by my own efforts.
The Dharma that Saichi speaks of in this poem is Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow to liberate all beings from suffering. Shinran Shonin describes his own encounter with this Dharma in Chapter 2 of the Tannisho (A Record in Lament of Divergences):
As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, “just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida”; nothing else is involved.
The liberation brought about by Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow is not determined by one’s own efforts. Shinran Shonin received this Dharma when he was together with his teacher Honen Shonin and the Nembutsu continuously flowed from his lips. The Nembutsu Dharma continued to be passed down through the generations, eventually arriving in Saichi’s life. Having received that Dharma, the Nembutsu recitations followed one after another flowing from Saichi’s mouth in the words “Namo Amida Butsu.”
During 2021, a year in which the vast majority of our services and Dharma activities were conducted online, I came to realize that while you will never contract Covid-19 from meeting on Zoom with good Dharma friends, you may catch a Dharma cold.
Namo Amida Butsu