Hearing one another, hearing the Buddha

One month ago, as I sat down to write my newsletter article for April, we were just beginning our life of staying at home under the Shelter in Place Order.  My mind was filled with uncertainty about what the coming weeks would bring.  I did not imagine the extent to which this coronavirus would affect the lives of so many people across the globe.  As I sit down to write this article for May, I see the following headline in today’s edition of the Washington Post, “Covid-19 is rapidly becoming America’s leading cause of death.”  It has been deeply saddening and distressing to hear of so many people near and far falling ill with Covid-19.  The loss of life is heartbreaking.  In the midst of my anxiety and fear, I find myself turning to the words of Shinran Shonin for comfort and guidance.

In my reading this past month, I came across a letter that Shinran wrote at a time when famine and epidemic disease had devastated communities all over Japan.  To me, Shinran’s words shine the light of wisdom on the challenges we face today.  Shinran writes:

It is saddening that so many people, both young and old, men and women, have died this year and last. But the Tathagata taught the truth of life’s impermanence for us fully, so you must not be distressed by it.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 531)

Shinran begins this letter with the words “It is saddening . . .”  With these words, he compassionately acknowledges and shares in the sadness that we all feel when parting with loved ones.  He then proceeds to remind us that Sakyamuni Tathagata taught fully the truth that all who are born into this world will one day be separated by death.  When I consider the many lives that have been lost through Covid-19 infections, and the difficult conditions that our heroic healthcare professionals are working under as they strive to save lives, I cannot help but feel distressed.  Kobayashi Issa, a poet of the Nembutsu, wrote the following verse in 1819 after losing his young daughter to a smallpox epidemic:

 

Tsuyu no yo wa

                            Tsuyu no yo nagara

                                          Sarinagara

 

The dewdrop world

                     is a dew drop world,

                                     and yet. . .

 

Even though we have heard and accepted in our hearts Sakyamuni Tathagata’s teaching that birth, aging, illness, and death are unavoidable in this life, as human beings who have yet to realize enlightenment, sadness and distress well up in our hearts when we part from our loved ones.

Where can we turn to find peace of mind as we live in this world where illness and death abound?  Shinran calls us to open our hearts and receive the unshakeable peace of mind (shinjin) that comes from entrusting in Amida Buddha’s vow that all beings will receive complete liberation from suffering through birth in the Pure Land:

I, for my own part, attach no significance to the condition, good or bad, of persons in their final moments. People in whom shinjin is determined do not doubt, and so abide among the truly settled. For this reason their end also – even for those ignorant and foolish and lacking in wisdom – is a happy one.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 531)

Amida Buddha established the compassionate vow precisely because there are people like me who lack wisdom and are mired in the suffering of this world.  When I hear the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” I hear the voice of the Buddha calling to me and assuring me that there is nothing to fear in life and death.

The life of the Nembutsu is the life of hearing the voice of the Buddha calling to us in our moments of joy and in our moments of distress.  Great peace of mind comes in hearing the Nembutsu with others, which can seem particularly difficult in our present circumstance, where we find ourselves severely limiting our in-person contact with others.  And yet, the Nembutsu continues to thrive in our Sangha as we open our hearts and minds to find ways to stay connected.

Over the past month, our Sangha members have reached out to one another by phone and by email to check-in and offer support for those who are not able to freely leave their homes for fear of contracting the virus.  Sangha members have also gathered in virtual spaces like online teleconference meetings to hear the Dharma together and practice compassionate listening with one another.  As we encounter the distress of others, we explore our own feelings of distress.  Hearing one another, we are reminded that the Buddha heard the suffering of all beings, and therefore established the compassionate vow for each and every one of us.  Hearing the Nembutsu, we receive diamondlike peace of mind in these distressing times.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


The Sangha Treasure

I hope this message finds you well, and that you are receiving comfort and clarity from the boundless wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha in these stressful times.  As my good friend Rev. Harry Gyokyo Bridge of the Buddhist Church of Oakland reminded me in a recent e-mail, “Don’t forget to say the Nembutsu.”  Even if our minds drift from Amida Buddha, Amida Buddha never forgets us.

In keeping with the guidance for preventing the further spread of Covid-19 infections provided by the San Mateo County Health Department, the San Mateo Buddhist Temple plans to remain closed for in-person activities throughout the month of April.

The April Shotsuki Memorial will be postponed to a later date.

The Hanamatsuri Celebration of the Buddha’s Birthday will be conducted via live internet broadcast as scheduled on the morning of Sunday, April 19 at 9:30 a.m.

We are working to provide regular opportunities for our community to take comfort in the Sangha and find guidance in the Buddhadharma as we face the many challenges presented by this coronavirus outbreak.  One simple thing you can do is pick up the telephone and call your friends and relatives to check in. 

While we are not able to gather in person, there are now many opportunities to take part in temple activities by telephone and through online programs.  If you are comfortable using communication technology, please consider supporting your less technologically-inclined friends and family members, so they can maintain this vital link to the Sangha.

If you prefer to participate by telephone, simply call us at (650) 342-2541, and we will add you to a list for telephone updates.  We are also developing a set of e-mail distribution lists to provide you with the specific information you seek, without overwhelming your inbox in this time when we are relying heavily on our e-mail accounts to maintain essential lines of communication.  You will only receive messages regarding the categories you select when you subscribe.  You may unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time.  Subscribe to the lists through the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Website:

https://sanmateobuddhisttemple.org/subscribe/

You may also e-mail me at sanmateo.buddhist@gmail.com with your preferences and I will add you to the lists of your choice.

You may choose updates from the following categories:

Live Broadcast of Services: Services will continue to be broadcast live over the internet every Sunday.  You may also call in to listen to the service over the phone.  Details for how to view or call in to that week’s service will be provided each week.

Dharma School: We are working on plans for Dharma School Activities that your family can participate in from home.  As a parent of two school-age children myself, I recognize that our Dharma School families are scrambling to balance working from home, attending to our children, and implementing the distance learning programs that our heroic school educators have managed to create on very short notice.  Nevertheless, in the midst of this hectic and stressful time, there are opportunities for gratitude as families are reunited in the home in a way that is increasingly rare these days.

Study Classes and Seminars: Our Sunday Adult Discussion program is continuing using internet and telephone conferencing.  I’ll be surveying interested Sangha members to identify the best days and times for additional Dharma conversations and study activities, as we adjust our schedules to implement social distancing.

Community Service (ex. Support for Homebound Elders)

While we work to identify needs for community support in areas such as shopping for groceries or picking up prescriptions from the pharmacy, we can begin by reaching out by phone to our fellow Sangha members to provide social and emotional support, which is so vital as we navigate these stressful times in a state of social distancing.

The psychological and emotional impact of extended isolation is hard on everyone, particularly our elders.  Regular intellectual stimulation is key to maintaining wellness, and for many in our community, the temple is their primary provider of those precious interactions.  While we are not able to gather in person at the moment, a simple phone conversation can do wonders for maintaining spiritual and emotional vitality.  We are recruiting volunteers to call up our Sangha friends on the phone to check in and have a friendly conversation.

日本語の法話: Japanese Language Services and Dharma Talks will be broadcast by telephone and online.

General Announcements: We will provide updates and announcements regarding temple events such as Shotsuki Hoyo Memorial, Memorial Day Cemetery Services and Bazaar.

Feel free to call Rev. Henry at (650) 342-2541 anytime if you have questions, concerns, or would just like to chat.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


Heading Westward

We will be observing our Spring Ohigan Service on Sunday, March 22 at 9:30 a.m.  Ohigan is observed twice a year during the spring and autumn equinoxes, when days and nights are of equal length and the sun sets directly in the West.  The Pure Land Sutras describe the Pure Land of Amida Buddha as a realm of enlightenment located in the west, so Ohigan is an ideal time to reflect on the direction of our lives and reorient ourselves on the path to liberation from suffering.

The following passage from the Amida Sutra describes how the Pure Land of Amida Buddha is located in the western quarter: “Beyond a hundred thousand kotis* of Buddha-lands westwards from here, there is a land called ‘Perfect Bliss.’ In that land there is a Buddha called Amida who is expounding the Dharma at this moment.” (Section 2)  Once, after I gave an Ohigan Dharma talk on the subject of Amida Buddha’s Pure Land in the western quarter, one of the Sangha members approached me and asked, “If the Pure Land of Amida Buddha is located in the Western Direction, can I travel there on spaceship?”  At the time, I was so caught off guard by the question that I had no idea how to respond.  While I am certain of the existence of Amida Buddha’s Pure Land, I do not believe it is the kind of physical place that one could fly to on a spaceship.

Some time later, I had the opportunity to meet with Rev. Sasaki Giei, one of my teachers from the Chuo Bukkyo Gakuin Buddhist Seminary where I studied for the ministry.  In our classes, Sasaki Sensei always provided clear and understandable explanations of the essential aspects of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist teachings, so I asked him how he might respond to that question about the spaceship.  In reply, he shared with me the following explanation, which is found in his book Naruhodo Jōdo Shinshū (Now I get it! Jodo Shinshu):

The light of the beautiful stars that we see shining in the night sky must travel hundreds of millions of light-years to reach us, such that by the time we see those stars here on earth, some of them have already ceased to exist.  Therefore, not all the stars we see in night sky are in existence. 

    All things that come into being eventually pass out of existence.  This is true of the stars in the night sky and it is true of our lives on this planet.  If the Pure Land were a world that could be seen with a telescope, then just like the stars in the night sky, it would eventually cease to exist.

    Among all things of this world, there is nothing that continues forever.  That is why the sutras tell us that the Pure Land is a “realm of enlightenment” that differs from this world of ours in that it cannot be apprehended in our limited way of seeing and thinking.  Thus, the Pure Land is a realm that exists in order to liberate us who dwell in this world of impermanence and bring us to the realization of enlightenment.

(Naruhodo Jōdoshinshū, p. 13, H. Adams translation)

Just as the sun that rises in the east will eventually set the west, all of us who are born into this world will one day die.  The Dharma taught by the Buddha teaches us that those who realize awakening are liberated from the continual cycle of suffering in the realm of birth and death.  The realization of awakening and liberation from suffering is the goal of Buddhism.  It is taught that the Buddha provided 84,000 Dharma gates that provide paths to liberation.  The Buddha also taught the Pure Land gate, which assures us that those who entrust in Amida’s compassionate vow to liberate all beings from suffering will surely enter into the realm of enlightenment in the western quarter at the end of this very lifetime.  Ohigan is our precious opportunity to reflect on the direction of our lives as we journey westward toward the realm of enlightenment.

 

Namo Amida Butsu

 

*koti: A term used in ancient India to express a high numerical value equivalent to one hundred thousand, ten million, or one hundred million.

 


True Victory

In a recent address to the Sangha, our temple President began his remarks with the words, “I would like to offer my condolences to Reverend Adams. . .”  Wondering what loss I should be grieving, I momentarily searched my memories of the preceding weeks.  Then he finished his sentence with the words, “. . . for the inhospitable treatment your Minnesota Vikings received from the San Francisco 49ers yesterday afternoon.”  I grew up in Minnesota and the previous day those two professional football teams had faced off for the Division Title.  Having suffered defeat at the hands of the 49ers, the Minnesota Vikings lost their chance to play in the Super Bowl on February 2.  For many families, Super Bowl Sunday is a major social event that rivals the traditional winter holidays as an occasion for gathering friends and loved ones for elaborate feasting and celebration—or drowning your sorrows in bean dip and hot wings if your team happens to be losing.

A classic American tradition, the Super Bowl is the championship game that decides who can claim the honor of being the best team in American football.  In order to reach the Super Bowl, two teams must emerge victorious over the other teams in their division and conference.  Having played at the consistently superior level to reach the Super Bowl, the team that wins the championship game needs to have the inward attributes of motivation, strategy, and discipline, as well as the outward attributes of speed, strength, and good equipment.

Although few of us will have the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl, we enjoy the excitement of watching the game because we all face challenges in our own lives and receive inspiration from seeing others rise to the occasion and put forth their best effort, whether they win or lose.

Among the various challenges that we face in life, the Buddha teaches that the most important victory to pursue is the victory over greed, anger, and ignorance.  Greed, anger, and ignorance arise from our self-centered way of thinking, and are referred to as the three poisons because they poison our lives by causing all kinds of suffering for ourselves and others.  The way for us to overcome these three poisons is to attain enlightenment and receive the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.

The members of the winning Super Bowl team possess the inner and outward attributes of a superior athlete.  Likewise, one who conquers greed, anger, and ignorance and attains the victorious state of Buddhahood possesses the inner and outward merits and virtues of enlightenment.  The inner virtues of the Buddha include wisdom and fearlessness.  The Buddha also displays outward virtues, such as sharing the Dharma for the benefit of all beings.  By sharing the Dharma, the Buddha shines the light of his wisdom freely illuminating every aspect of our lives.

The nembutsu, or the practice of reciting the name of Amida Buddha in the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” has been provided for us by the Buddha as a way to receive the immeasurable wisdom and compassion of awakening.  In his writings, the eminent 12th century Japanese priest Honen describes how all the virtues of enlightenment are contained in the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” the name of Amida Buddha:

 

. . . into the name flow all of Amida’s uncountable virtues.  That is to say, in the name are contained all the merits and virtues of Amida’s inner enlightenment, such as the four kinds of wisdom, the three bodies, the ten powers, and the four kinds of fearlessness. Also contained in it are all the merits and virtues of his outward activities, such as the major and minor bodily characteristics, the emanation of light, the preaching of the Dharma, and the benefitting of sentient beings.

(Honen’s Senchakushu published by the Kuroda Institute, page. 76)

 

In providing us with the nembutsu teaching, the Buddha provided us with a means to receive all the merits and virtues of enlightenment.  To say the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” is to gratefully acknowledge the working of the Buddha’s wisdom in our lives.  We receive the benefits of the Buddha’s awakening as the light of the Dharma illuminates our lives, liberating us from the fear and darkness of ignorance.

As you face the challenges in your life, I encourage you to keep in mind that the Buddha has provided his teachings in the Dharma as a light to guide you on your path to awakening and a life of wisdom and compassion.  When you feel the presence of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion in your life, you may find the words “Namo Amida Butsu” coming forth in gratitude from your lips.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


20/20

Earlier this week, I was dozing off in my office at the temple while attempting to read a challenging passage from Shinran’s writings in Japanese when the chime for the outside doorbell woke me with a start.  As I sprang to my feet to answer the intercom, my glasses slipped off my face and fell to the ground.  The hinge that holds the right temple in place broke apart as it hit the floor, rendering my glasses unwearable.  Ideal vision is traditionally described as being able to see clearly at a distance of 20 feet the same object that a normal person can see at 20 feet, often expressed as the fraction 20/20.  The largest letter at the top of a standard eye chart that you find at an optometrist’s office often corresponds to 20/200 vision, which is the eyesight of a person who needs to be 20 feet away to see an object that a normal person can see from a distance of 200 feet.  Without my glasses, I have a hard time seeing that big letter E at the top of the chart.

I searched through my drawers and found an old pair of glasses I had purchased when I was living in Kyoto.  The first time I bought a pair of glasses in Japan, I remember complaining to the optician, “You got my prescription wrong.  Every time I have gotten new glasses in the past, I could see more clearly.  With these glasses, I can see less clearly than with my old glasses.”  When I suggested that they switch out the lenses to give me my old prescription back, the optician calmly explained to me, “From our perspective, your previous prescription was too strong.  Your left eye is stronger than the right, so you favor your left eye.  By slightly reducing the strength of your prescription in the left eye, we are creating a balance so that you will use both eyes equally.  This will reduce fatigue.”  I was skeptical, but the optician was adamant, so I decided to give the new prescription a try.  Prior to moving to Japan my prescription would increase slightly every couple of years.  During the six years I spent living in Japan, my prescription didn’t change at all, so in time I became a believer in the approach my optometrist in Kyoto was advocating.

When I went to update my glasses here in California for the first time after moving back from Kyoto, my new optometrist made the comment, “The prescription for your right eye remains the same, but we’ll need to increase the prescription in your left eye.”  When I explained the rationale for the prescription I had from Kyoto, my optometrist was dismissive.  “You want to be able to see as clearly as possible.  I am not aware of any research that supports deliberately under-correcting in one eye.”  I was not about to argue the science of optometry with a doctor, so got my new glasses and enjoyed being able to read distant signs on the freeway in time to change lanes and avoid missing my exit.

Wearing my old glasses from Kyoto these past few days as I wait for my current glasses to get repaired, I find that indeed my eyes do not get fatigued as much when I am reading.  That first optometrist I saw here in California was most intent on bringing the object of sight into crystal clear optical focus.  To him, the best prescription was determined by how clearly I could see an object across the room from where I sat.  For the optometrist I saw in Kyoto, the best vision was determined by taking into account both the subject who saw and the object that was seen.  Rather than focusing on the external object of sight as the sole criteria for determining the prescription, my doctor in Kyoto also took into account my experience of seeing through the lenses all day long.  In our conversation, I was encouraged to consider not just “What can I see?” but also “How do I see?”

A plaque hangings in the Buddha Hall of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple that reads “見真 kenshin” which means “see truth.”  Kenshin Daishi is the honorific title bestowed upon Shinran Shonin by the Meiji Emperor of Japan.  These words capture the spirit of our life in the Nembutsu, in which we endeavor to see the truth that is illuminated by the wisdom of Amida Buddha.  In reflecting on his own experience of seeing, Shinran composed the following verse in his Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu:

The person burdened with extreme evil should simply say the Name:
Although I too am within Amida’s grasp,
Passions obstruct my eyes and I cannot see him;
Nevertheless, great compassion is untiring and illumines me always.

The clear sight that I receive in the Nembutsu arises from seeing my life illuminated by the light of the Buddha’s wisdom, which helps me see how my perceptions are clouded by the greed, anger, and ignorance that arise moment to moment in my mind.  As I welcome the New Year 2020, I am grateful for the light of Amida Buddha that guides me to clearly see the truth of wisdom and compassion each day.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


A Place for Awakening

This past month the San Mateo Buddhist Temple had the honor of hosting a tour group from the San Francisco Foundation that was visiting sites in North Central San Mateo to learn more about the history of our neighborhood, how it is changing, and the current challenges faced by its residents.  The tour organizers were eager to include SMBT on the tour to highlight the important role that the Japanese-American Buddhist community has played in our neighborhood over the past 120 years.

During the visit, our guests heard from four SMBT Sangha members and longtime residents of North Central about their memories of life in the neighborhood and their hopes for the future.  Each shared a moving story of how their family had overcome challenges to establish meaningful lives here in San Mateo.  I’d like to share one of those stories, as I find it particularly relevant as we prepare to observe our Bodhi Day service on Sunday, December 1, 2020, at 9:30 a.m., in celebration of Sakyamuni Buddha’s realization of enlightenment seated beneath the Bodhi Tree:

The most significant event that happened as a child was the U.S. evacuation order in Feb. 1942.  I was 6 years old then and vividly remember the black-out drills the city had where all lights in the homes and streets had to be turned off until the all-clear sirens would go off and curfews were set at 8:00 PM.  My father was a landscape gardener during the day and often was asked by wealthy families in Hillsborough to wash dishes for their parties and would drive home with his headlights turned off.  I remember how I was worried that he’d be caught.  We only had three months to prepare to move – selling whatever we could for a few cents to the dollar and burning everything else we couldn’t sell or take with us.  I recall tears streaming down my older siblings’ faces seeing their treasured books and things thrown in the bonfire in our backyard.  On moving day, May 9, 1942, my younger brother had just turned 3 on May 7.  We closed the house and walked from Delaware to Tilton to the Masonic Hall on Ellsworth and Tilton.  On our way there, my younger brother started to cry because he didn’t have his favorite doll.  My father had dumped it in the trash can because it was old and tattered.  But my brother cried so hard that my father had to walk back to the house to get it.  As the buses arrived to take us to Tanforan Race Track, which was converted to the Assembly Center, I was again worried if my father would return in time so I kept looking down Tilton Ave. With a sign of relief, I saw him coming.  

After 3 years in internment camps in Topaz, Utah, and Tule Lake, CA, my family was able to return to San Mateo because my uncle and aunt offered to share their home on Eldorado Street.  All 8 of us lived there for 3 years until we were able to save enough money to buy a home on 4th Ave.  At that time, we were restricted to buy only in the North Central area – nothing beyond 5th Ave. to the south and Peninsula Ave. to the north and the railroad tracks to the west and Highway 101 to the east.

Returning to San Mateo after the war was difficult.  Prejudice against the Japanese community was still strong.  The San Mateo Buddhist Temple was “home” for us returnees – a gathering place to share our experiences, and having a minister to listen to and giving us strength to face new challenges as families had to restart their lives from scratch.   

The traditional story of the Buddha’s enlightenment tells how a brilliant light shone forth from the place where he sat in meditation as the moment of Siddhartha’s awakening approached.  When Mara, the demon king of illusion, saw this light, he knew that Siddhartha was about to go beyond the world of illusion and open forth a path for all beings to break free from Mara’s control in the unending suffering cycle of birth and death.  Mara then summoned his army of demon hoards in an attempt to thwart Siddhartha and force him to stray from his path to awakening.  Mara came at Siddhartha with the full force of his army of illusion in the hope of disrupting Siddhartha’s meditation.  Undaunted in his wisdom and courage, Siddhartha saw through the illusions and refused to be swayed from concentration.  At that moment Siddhartha reached down and touched the ground claiming that spot as the site where he would realize unsurpassed awakening.  It is said that with this show of determination and resolve by Siddhartha, the earth shook in affirmation and Mara was forced to accept defeat.

The members of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple who returned after the war to reestablish this temple in San Mateo are carrying on this tradition of claiming sacred space for Buddhist practice of Buddha by establishing the lot at 2 South Claremont Street in North Central San Mateo as their place for Awakening.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


Giving Thanks

During this month of November, we have some special opportunities to express our gratitude for all the precious gifts we receive in our lives.  On Sunday, November 17, we will observe our Eitaikyo Service, which is dedicated to grateful remembrance of those temple members whose families felt inspired to donate to the temple Eitaikyo Fund, which exists to ensure that the San Mateo Buddhist Temple will continue to be a place where we can gather to hear the Dharma and joyfully recite the Nembutsu.  On Sunday, November 24, we will hold the Shichigosan Observance at the temple for the families of children ages three, five and seven to express our gratitude and wishes for continuing healthy growth of the children.  On Thursday, November 28, many families and friends will also come together in their homes to celebrate the wonderful American holiday of Thanksgiving.

While gratitude is a theme that we return to throughout the month of November, living in the Nembutsu, we find that gratitude is a daily practice that brings peace and joy to our hearts.  One of the ways in which we cultivate gratitude in our daily lives is by pausing to join our hands in gassho and utter the word “Itadakimasu (I humbly receive)” before beginning a meal, and “Goshisosama deshita (It was feast created through great effort)” at the conclusion of the meal.  This practice of gratitude has deep roots in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition.  I recently came across the following clear and profound explanation of the Buddhist practice of joining our palms in gassho before a meal in a collection of Dharma School messages composed by Rev. Daisho Tana at the Department of Justice incarceration camp in New Mexico where he was held prisoner throughout the Second World War.  I thought I would share it with you as the questions it addresses remain as relevant today as when it was written some 75 years ago:

Question: Who started our practice of joining our palms in gassho before meals?

Answer: Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499), the Eighth Generation Head Priest of the Hongwanji, joined his palms in gassho and said, “It is thanks to the Buddha and my ancestor Shinran Shonin that I have clothing to wear and food to eat.”  As children of the Buddha, Rennyo Shonin’s gassho is our model for gassho before meals.

 

Question: In that case, aren’t we joining our palms in gassho to give thanks with the understanding that “The Buddha gives us this food”?

Answer: Other religions teach that “Other animals and plants were all created by God as food for human beings.”  However, in Buddhism there is not a similar teaching that says, “The Buddha provides meat from fish and birds for us to eat.”  In that sense, the meaning of our gassho before meals is not to turn to the Buddha and say, “Thank you Buddha for today’s turkey dinner.”

Question: Please teach us the Buddhist meaning of gassho before meals.

Answer: It is an expression of our gratitude to all beings.  Buddhism teaches us to be mindful of the truth that we are able to simply live through this one day due to the support we are given from all directions in the world around us.  For example, when I consider the food laid out on the table for any given meal, I first ask myself, “Who cooked this food? Who worked so that we could buy the ingredients from the store?”  As I continue to acknowledge the various lives that contributed to the meal one by one, I ultimately come to recognize that the very lives contained in the food on the table were taken in order to preserve my life.  When I come to this awareness, my grateful feeling of “With deep gratitude, I humbly receive” shines forth in the Nembutsu.  In time, that grateful awareness comes to be expressed as a life lived for the benefit of others, and the practice of generosity (dāna) in the Six Paramitas sprouts forth.

In recent years, the Hongwanji in Kyoto has provided the following “Words of Thanksgiving at Mealtime,” which capture the heart of gratitude expressed in Rennyo Shonin’s Nembutsu in words that resonate in our modern lives today:

Before meals

 🙏

leader: We are truly grateful for this opportunity to share this wonderful meal, thanks to all the many people and living beings that surround us who made this occasion possible.

 Group: With deep gratitude, itadakimasu.

 

After meals

 🙏

leader: We are thankful for the wonderful meal which we have received. May our gratitude to Amida Buddha enable us to work even harder for the benefit of everyone.

 Group: Thankfully, gochiso sama deshita.

 

As we gather for special meals this month, whether we are enjoying a turkey dinner or a tofu salad, I encourage you to take a moment to pause, reflect, and allow the gratitude in your heart to shine forth in the Nembutsu.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


Let the waters of Amida’s Dharma flow

I would like thank all of our Sangha members who supported the World Buddhist Women’s Convention that was held in San Francisco over this past Labor Day Weekend.  Our San Mateo Sangha was well-represented on the committees that handled registration, translation and interpretation, the marketplace, and the organizational leadership for the convention.  The planning and preparation for the convention was in the works for ten years leading up to the event, and I am truly inspired by the dāna of time, energy, and resources that our Sangha generously provided at every step along the way.  1,700 attendees joined the conference from Japan, Hawaii, Canada, South America, and the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA).  In addition to a large number of lay Buddhists who attended, many ministers—women and men—also participated in the gathering.

At one point during the conference, I had the opportunity to provide interpretation for a frank conversation that occurred over lunch among a group of ministers from Kyoto, Japan and the BCA.  A minister from Kyoto had been speaking on the topic Shinran Shonin’s teachings regarding birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.  A question came up about whether birth in the Pure Land must be understood to be an event that occurs after death, or if one can experience aspects of birth in the Pure Land during this present life.  Citing several examples from the writings of Shinran Shonin, the minister from Kyoto set out to demonstrate that for a person who entrusts deeply in Amida Buddha, birth in the Pure Land will be realized after this present life comes to an end.

One of the ministers from the BCA said, “This is a matter of keen interest for us because many newcomers to the temple are seeking practices to guide their lives in the present moment.  These seekers are unconcerned with matters of the afterlife.”  The BCA minister went on to say, “Don’t you think that, as ministers working to propagate the Jodo Shinshu teachings, we should endeavor to share the teachings in a way that speaks to the interests and concerns of the people who are walking through the doors of our temples seeking the Dharma today?”

“I agree that it is important to speak to the concerns of everyone who comes to the temple seeking the Dharma.  At the same time, it is also important to faithfully maintain the traditional teachings that have been passed down over the generations.” replied one of the ministers from Kyoto.

“Setting tradition aside for a moment, how do you personally understand this matter of birth in the Pure Land?” inquired a BCA minister.

“I don’t intend to share my own personal views.  My purpose as a minister is only to clarify what I have understood based on my reading of the writings of Shinran Shonin.” said a minister from Kyoto.

“Here in the BCA, I find it necessary as a minister to share my own personal understanding of the Dharma as it relates to this world that we live in right now.”  said a BCA Minister.

Hearing this comment, another of the ministers from Kyoto offered the following insight, “In Japan, great value has been placed on the authority of tradition.  The desire to maintain and uphold tradition has been particularly strong in our Jodo Shinshu community since the Edo Period (1603-1867).”

“You’re talking about 400 years ago!  What about right now?” countered the minister from the BCA.

“Many people in Japan are inclined to continue the values and perspectives that have served their ancestors well over the centuries.  As such, they are not inclined to be the one to stand up and call for a new direction.”  said a minister from Kyoto.

“That sounds like stagnation to me.  Without movement, a body of water becomes stale and lifeless.” said one of the ministers from the BCA.

While affirming the validity of the BCA minister’s perspective, a minister from Kyoto offered the following insight: “Shinran Shonin’s teachings ought to be shared in a way that is suitable to the cultural background of the people who are hearing them.  It is natural that the Jodo Shinshu teaching will find one expression in Japan and another expression here in the United States.”

The conversation went on in this manner throughout the meal, continuing and over coffee and dessert, without reaching an elegant conclusion.  To me, this spirited dialogue was an uplifting reminder that our Nembutsu teaching continues to thrive thanks to our tradition of frankly and openly exchanging ideas.  As Rennyo Shonin wrote in the 15th Century, “time after time, [we must] clear the channels of faith and let the waters of Amida’s Dharma flow.”  (Rennyo Shonin Ofumi: Letters of Rennyo 2-1, BDK English Tripitaka Series, p. 61)

 

Namo Amida Butsu


“Where am I going?”

One of the great heroes in our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition is a humble farmer and handyman named Shoma who lived in Sanuki province (present day Kagawa Prefecture) on the Japanese island of Shikoku from 1799 to 1871.  Shoma helped to maintain the Shokakuji temple, where the resident priest had much affection for him.  Shokakuji is affiliated with Koshoji, a large Jodo Shinshu temple located adjacent to Nishi Hongwanji in Kyoto.  In Shoma’s time, Koshoji was part of the Hongwanji School.  It became the head temple of the independent Koshoji School of Jodo Shinshu in 1876.

Shoma visited Koshoji for the first time with a group of five or six fellow practicers of the Nembutsu.  Together they received the Sarana Affirmation Ceremony, a ritual in which the abbot of the temple places a razor on the head of the Nembutsu follower three times, representing the shaving of the head, which since the time of the Buddha, has expressed the resolution to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (the community that lives guided by those teachings).  The abbot of the temple proceeded through the group one by one administering the Three Refuges.  After he administered the refuges to Shoma, the abbot started to move on to the next person when Shoma grabbed hold of the sleeve of his robe and said, “Brother, are you prepared?”

When the ceremony was finished, the abbot told his assistant “Summon the fellow who pulled on my robe.”  The assistant went into the crowd of fellow practicers and said, “Is the fellow who just pulled on the Great Abbot’s robe here?  You will go before him now.”  Hearing these words, Shoma sat there with a serene face, but the fellow practicers who had accompanied him to the temple were shocked and alarmed.  They immediately began pleading with the abbot’s assistant saying, “We are truly sorry for this grave disrespect!  Had we known he would do something like this, we wouldn’t have brought him along.  We will take back him with us.  We can only humbly beseech you to forgive him.  He’s just a simple-minded fool.  We implore you to take compassion on him and forgive his rudeness.”

“I see.” said the assistant and returned to the abbot to recount what they had said.  However, the abbot replied, “No matter, bring him here.”  There was no choice but for Shoma to be brought before the abbot.  Being ignorant of formality and refined manners, Shoma just plopped himself down and sat cross-legged right in front of the abbot.

At that time, the abbot asked him, “Was it you who pulled on my robe?”

Shoma replied, “Yeah, it was me.”

“What were you thinking when you pulled on my robe?” asked the abbot.

“You are wearing a fancy red robe, but that red robe won’t help you escape rebirth in hell, so I was wondering if you are prepared for your next rebirth,” said Shoma.

“Yes, I summoned you here because I wanted to hear this understanding of yours.  Many people treat me with reverence and respect.  However, you are the only one who has shown concern for my rebirth.  I’m glad you asked, but have you received the heart of entrusting (shinjin)?” inquired the abbot.

“Yeah, I have,” answered Shoma.

“In one sentence, tell me what you’ve received,” said the abbot.

“It’s nothing at all,” replied Shoma.

“With that, are you prepared for your next rebirth?” asked the abbot.

Shoma replied, “You’d better ask Amida about that.  It’s not my job, so why would I have the answer?”

The abbot was most satisfied with Shoma’s reply and said, “As you say, there is nothing beyond entrusting in Amida.  One must not rely on the working of one’s own mind.  You are an honest man.  Today, let us share a drink as brothers!”  With that he called his servants to bring a bottle of sake.  The abbot poured Shoma’s drink and they enjoyed a feast together.

After that initial encounter, Shoma would regularly visit the abbot.  Shoma was quick to forget matters of this world, so before he returned to his village the abbot tucked a letter in his waistband, indicating that Shoma was to be given an audience whenever he visited Koshoji.  From then on, every time Shoma arrived in Kyoto, he would call out “Where am I going? Where am I going?”  As soon as someone noticed the letter, he would be taken to visit the abbot straightaway.

We will be observing our autumn Ohigan Service on September 22, 2019.  Ohigan is an ideal time for us to pause and reflect upon the direction of our lives and ask ourselves whether we are living with the teachings of the Buddha as our guide.  If we are able to meet a Dharma friend like Shoma who is able to look past all the superficial concerns of this world and remind us what is truly important, let us take this time to treasure their company and show our appreciation for their companionship in the Nembutsu.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


The Lantern of Wisdom

I always leave one high-efficiency LED light on in the hallway and open the door just a crack when I go to bed.  At some point in middle school, I stopped sleeping with my Snoopy nightlight, and for many years, I tried to make my room as dark as possible before going to bed.  Even a little bit of light in the room would make it hard for me to get to sleep.  That habit changed suddenly for me one night almost ten years ago, shortly after my wife and I moved to Oxnard, California, where I had received my first assignment as a minister in the Buddhist Churches of America.  We were settling into life in California and getting used to living in a spacious single-family home after having spent a couple of years in a tiny downtown Kyoto apartment.  Our entire Kyoto apartment would have fit inside the kitchen of our Oxnard house.

This was before our children were born, at a time in our lives when we slept soundly through the night without interruption.  We had yet to develop the attuned nighttime listening of parents with small children who are accustomed to waking up in the middle of the night to change diapers or comfort crying children.  Late one night we were awakened from a deep sleep by the ear-piercing screech of an alarm sounding in the hall outside our room.  In a panicked daze, I jumped out of bed and rushed toward the bedroom door to investigate.  Running through the pitch-dark room in my groggy state, I miscalculated the location of the door, both in terms of distance from the bed and position in the room.  I was running at a full sprint when my face collided with the wall two feet to the right of the door to the hallway.  I reeled momentarily before fumbling on the wall to find the light switch.  Once I switched on the lights and opened the door, I could see that the noise was coming from the smoke alarm where the “change battery” light was flashing.  I climbed up on a chair, removed the battery from the screeching smoke alarm, and the device fell silent.  I then staggered through the house to the kitchen, made an ice pack, and climbed back into bed, where I eventually drifted off to sleep with a wet towel filled with melting ice cubes resting on the bridge of my nose.

Today we can light up a dark hallway instantly with the flip of a switch, but for much of human history lanterns have been used to bring light into darkness.  The Buddha’s teachings are likened to a lantern that shines the light of wisdom and dispels the darkness of ignorance.  Japanese Buddhists have a custom of hanging lanterns at this time of year in observance of Obon, the festival of grateful remembrance for deceased loved ones.  According to popular Japanese folk belief, lanterns are hung outside the home during Obon to guide the spirits of deceased loved ones back home to rejoin the family for the three days of Obon, during which the deceased enjoy a brief respite on their journey through samsara, the cycle of continuing death and rebirth.

In contrast, followers of the other power nembutsu extolled by Shinran Shonin take comfort and guidance from the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, which assures us that those who take refuge in Amida Buddha attain final liberation from birth and death when they are born in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha at the end of this life.  The lanterns that we hang at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple during Obon are not intended as a guide for our deceased loved ones because they have already arrived at their true destination.  It is I who am in need of guiding light as I fumble through life, mired in the darkness of delusion.  When I run through the darkness as fast as my legs will carry me, it is no wonder that I continually crash into the walls of greed, anger and misunderstanding.  How many hours will I spend nursing my aching head before I turn about and allow the lantern of the Buddhadharma illuminate my mind?  In his Hymns on the Pure Land, Shinran writes:

 

The light of wisdom exceeds all measure,
And every finite living being
Receives this illumination that is like the dawn,
So take refuge in Amida, the true and real light.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 325)

 

As we light the lanterns this Obon season, let us open our hearts to the true light of wisdom that illuminates the path to liberation from suffering.  Let us gratefully receive the guidance of those loved ones who have already arrived at the Other Shore of liberation.  As we remember their lives, we awaken to the truth that they continue to guide us with the light of wisdom each and every day throughout the year.

 

Namo Amida Butsu