The Real McCoy

At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on Sunday, July 7, 2019, at 9:30 a.m. we will observe our annual memorial for the past Bishops of the Buddhist Churches of America.  Throughout the history of the Buddhist Churches of America and its predecessor, the Buddhist Mission of North America, our bishops have responded to the challenges of their times, showing courageous leadership and empowering the Sangha to work tirelessly to share the joy of the Nembutsu in this land.  One of the greatest challenges faced by the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist community in North America was the mass incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry during the Second World War.  Following the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, organizations like the Buddhist Mission of North America that had close ties to Japan and were led by immigrants from Japan were subject to severe suspicion and hostility.

Following the mass relocation and incarceration of the Japanese American community on the West Coast in makeshift camps in desolate inland areas of the United States, an emergency Buddhist National Conference was convened in 1943 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  At that time, the decision was made to file articles of incorporation with the State of California for a new organization called the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) that would succeed the Buddhist Mission of North America.  In American Sutra, Duncan Ryuken Williams’ recently published history of Buddhism in the Japanese-American community centering on the World War II incarceration, Dr. Williams describes how a group of 47 American-born nisei leaders were chosen to sit on the board of directors that would run the BCA (p. 146).  With the support of Bishop Ryotai Matsukage, the American-born Rev. Kenryo Kumata was chosen to head the board of directors.

Under the leadership of Bishop Matsukage, Rev. Kumata had been charged with actively ministering to the younger generation of English-speaking Japanese-Americans.  He also served as the English-language spokesman for the Buddhist Mission of North America during the critical time-period at the outbreak of the war.  Bulletins and Dharma messages written by Rev. Kumata were widely distributed across the various incarceration camps, bringing comfort and guidance to those who took refuge in the Nembutsu in the midst of tremendous adversity.

I recently came across the following message written by Rev. Kumata that was circulating in October 1943 and recorded in the Denson YBA Bulletin, a publication of the Young Buddhist Association at the incarceration camp in Jerome, Arkansas:

 

DENSON YBA BULLETIN, Vol. I, No. 2, Oct. 3, 1943

Hidden Qualities

Many of us can find agreement in saying that “tempura” is indeed a tasty dish. Once in a while, the enjoyment lies in guessing what is covered by the “koromo”* and in the anticipation of finding your guess come true.  But the “koromo” itself does not constitute the whole of the meal; the essence lies in what is underneath.  Just so, no matter how glittering and beautiful a trinket may look, it is still a trinket, a bauble, and may not be classed as a jewel unless the innards are of the same quality as the surface.  In other words, it must be “solid”, or “sterling”.  Superficial education, sophistication and all may pass for the “real McCoy” once in a while, but cannot compare with true wisdom and humility; qualities which are endowed upon those with Faith in the spiritual guidance of the Buddha. —Rev. Kenryo Kumata

http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/jarda/ucb/text/cubanc_35_1_00261330ta.txt

*koromo: a batter coating; koromo may also refer to robes and clothing, often used to refer to the robes worn by Buddhist priests.

 

Reading Rev. Kumata’s words over 75 years later, I am in awe of his ability to provide a profound and impactful Dharma message with striking economy of language.  Writing messages for wide distribution at a time when paper and printing would have been precious resources for his community, he was able to make every word count.  He manages to evoke the comfort and fond recollection of delicious food and family gatherings for readers who were likely subsisting on cafeteria-style meals that lacked the flavors of Japanese home-cooking and the intimacy of the family dinner table.  Writing in the vernacular of the youth of his day, incorporating everyday examples and slang expressions like the “real McCoy,” Rev. Kumata’s message conveys the penetrating depth of Buddhist faith, or shinjin, which is the essence of Shinran Shonin’s Nembutsu teaching.

The tireless efforts of wise and dedicated leaders like Bishop Matsukage and Rev. Kumata created the circumstances for me to hear the Nembutsu here in the United States.  Thanks to their leadership, we enjoy a thriving BCA Sangha and the San Mateo Buddhist Temple continues to be a place where we gather to encounter the Buddha’s heart of great compassion in our daily lives.  Reflecting on their legacy, I can only join my palms in gassho, bow my head in gratitude, and say “Namo Amida Butsu.”

 


“This is enough for me”

This past month at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple we were honored to host our friends from the Pacifica Institute, a local Muslim community active here on the San Francisco Peninsula, for an evening of Muslim-Buddhist interfaith conversation that culminated with a delicious Iftar dinner.  Iftar is the traditional meal that is shared by Muslims after sunset to break the fast that begins each morning at dawn during the holy month of Ramadan.  We began our encounter in the Buddha Hall, where I briefly introduced the history of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple and our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition before we chanted Juseige and offered incense. Our guests enjoyed a taste of our Buddhist practice, and several came forward to join in the offering of incense.

We then adjourned to the Social Hall where my good friend Imam Yilmaz Basak provided a clear and informative introduction to the Muslim observance of Ramadan and the significance of fasting in Islam.  Following a prayer at sunset by Imam Yilmaz and our customary Buddhist Words of Thanksgiving before the meal, we enjoyed some dates and water that had been set out on the table while we waited for our turn to go to through the buffet line to receive a delicious Mediterranean meal.  While we were chatting and getting to know one another, an elderly gentleman who was sitting across from me at the table turned to me and said, “I have a gift for you.”  He then reached into his pocket and took out a tangerine, which he offered to me, saying, “I brought two tangerines, but one is enough for me.”  Bear in mind that this gentleman had been fasting since dawn and had not had anything to eat or drink all day.  As I bit into the juicy tangerine, I thought to myself, if I had been fasting all day and had two tangerines in my pocket, would I so readily share one with a stranger who had eaten two meals and several snacks in the time that I had been fasting?  Would I be able to hold one tangerine in the palm of my hand and say, “This is enough for me”?  If I were in his shoes, I would probably be thinking, “This guy has been eating and drinking all day.  I need this tangerine more than he does.”

As I savored that tangerine, I realized that I was receiving a truly precious gift of Dana.  In Buddhism, Dana, or selfless giving, refers to a gift that is given with a pure heart, free of self-interest.  Imam Yilmaz explained to us that for Muslims, fasting during Ramadan deepens one’s appreciation and gratitude for what one has received and enables the faithful to cultivate awareness for the needs of those who are less fortunate.  As gratitude for what one has received deepens, one’s practice of charity grows.  Through this encounter with the Muslim observance of Ramadan, I discovered a deeper appreciation for the virtue of selfless giving.  Dana is the first of the Six Paramitas, or perfected virtues, that Mahayana Buddhists aspire to embody in our daily lives.  Similarly, selfless giving to those in need constitutes one of the Five Pillars of the Muslim faith.  While Muslims and Buddhists follow the unique teachings of our respective traditions, when we come together in friendship and mutual respect, we are reminded of the common values shared by all who seek a path to liberation from the narrow confines of self-centered living.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


Buddha Loves You Little Shark

Raising children can be a challenge.  My wife and I have three sons, and there have been times when their behavior has been entertaining for others but exasperating for us as parents.  Our third son is still a baby, but before we know it, he will be crawling, then walking, then running, then talking and making animal sounds.  If he is anything like his big brothers, he will do all these things in the middle of Sunday service.  I once overheard a conversation between a temple member who attended service most Sundays and her daughter, who rarely came to the temple.  The temple-going mother said, “You should come to service more often.  It’s fun to see what mischief Sensei’s son is going to get into next.”  When she noticed me standing within earshot, she hastily added, “I mean you should come to service to hear Sensei’s Dharma talk.”

A few years ago, when one of our older sons was at the height of his “terrific twos,” he was thoroughly enjoying himself crawling around under the pews during the Hanamatsuri Service.  He was having so much fun playing cat-and-mouse with my wife, who was desperately trying to contain his antics, that he scurried off under the pews until he popped out from under the first row and stood grinning back at my wife from the floor right in front of the podium where our guest speaker was delivering the Hanamatsuri Dharma Talk.  The instant my wife moved to get up from her seat to retrieve him, he gleefully dove under the table upon which the Hanamido floral shrine sat at the front of the Hondo.  The table was completely covered from front to back with carefully arranged potted plants to evoke the luxuriant Lumbini’s Garden in which baby Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, was born.  The front of the table was covered with a large sheet of white paper, so no-one but me could see my son as he sat happily in an enclosed little space beneath the Hanamido.

Our guest speaker that Sunday was a senior retired minister who carried on with his talk unperturbed.  When I glanced out at the Sangha hoping no-one had noticed, I could immediately identify which members had seen my son crawl under the Hanamido table because they were intently watching the floral shrine with facial expressions that ranged from seriously concerned to thoroughly amused.  I sat in my usual seat dreading catastrophe until my wife saved the day by deftly extracting my son from beneath the Hanamido.  It was one of those moments of public embarrassment that, as a parent, one hopes will soon be forgotten.  However, in a recent conversation a temple member delightedly recounted the episode in colorful detail.  She concluded by saying, “It warmed my heart to see that our temple is a place where children are allowed to be children.”

Last month following our Hanamatsuri service, we enjoyed our usual program of songs and skits by the Dharma School students.  Our preschool and kindergarten class contributed a heartwarming rendition of the classic children’s gatha, “Buddha Loves You.”  Each verse of the gatha features a cute little animal doing its cute and charming thing, complete with hand motions for little birds flying, pussy cats crying, little pups running and little fish swimming.  The verses conclude with the refrain “Buddha loves you little bird/pussy cat/etc.”  All the animals in the gatha are docile, well-behaved and endearing.

The preschool and kindergarten class took the stage dressed in adorable costumes, such as little birds and little pups. The little fish costumes struck me as somewhat unusual until we reached the last verse of the gatha and the children joyfully sang out, “Swim, swim, little shark, Buddha loves you little shark”—punctuated not with the sweet puckering mouths of little fish, but rather with the big chomping hand motions of a hungry shark.  One of my sons happened to be one of the little sharks, and after the performance he proudly announced to me that he and his classmate had come up with the idea for the little sharks.  I was duly impressed with the creativity of the students, but also filled with gratitude to our open-hearted Dharma school teachers who remind us that Amida Buddha’s compassion embraces all the hungry little sharks and even welcomes the sweet little fish.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


By compassion alone is hatred overcome

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.”

 


The Mind of Great Compassion that is Thoroughgoing

This past month we were truly honored to have Rev. Donald Castro, Rimban Emeritus of the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, join us as the guest speaker for our Nembutsu Seminar on the topic of EcoSangha—Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Ecology.  In his talks, Rev. Castro challenged us to consider how the Buddhadharma guides us to respond to the great ecological crises of our time, such as the man-made climate change that has contributed to the terrible wildfires that have ravaged communities here in Northern California with increasing frequency in recent years, or the vast swaths of floating garbage that pollute our oceans.  As an individual, I try to reduce my individual carbon footprint by taking the train to meetings in the East Bay rather than driving my car.   I also make an effort to use paper bags rather than the cheaper plastic alternatives.  That said, I cannot help wondering what difference my limited efforts make in the face of the monumental ecological challenges we face today.

When I find myself losing hope, I look to the Buddha’s teachings to illuminate my path forward in these difficult times.  Reflecting on my life in the nembutsu, I find inspiration in the  following four vows that are established by all bodhisattvas—beings who aspire to arrive on the shore of true awakening carried across the ocean of birth and death by the great vehicle of the Mahayana sutras:

1) “Living beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them all.”

2) “Base passions are inexhaustible, I vow to sever them all.”

3) “Dharma gates are immeasurable, I vow to know them all.”

4) “The way of the Buddha is unsurpassed, I vow to perfect it.”

The paradoxical nature of these four expansive vows initially struck me as overwhelming.  I have a hard-enough time realizing liberation for myself, how could I ever liberate all beings?  I struggle when I try to reign in even one of my base passions, how could I possibly sever them all?  After more than twenty years of studying the Dharma, I feel like I know less than ever, how could I know all the Dharma gates?  It seems impossible for me to perfect the way of the Buddha through my own efforts.

However, when I take the nembutsu as my guide on the bodhisattva path, I am reminded that the important matter is to carry on in the direction illuminated by the Buddha’s wisdom, even when it seems impossible to fulfill my aspirations through my own efforts.  The spirit of the bodhisattva path is to persevere in the face of insurmountable odds, trusting that if I set my life on the path of truth, the inconceivable working of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion will ultimately bring about liberation, not just for me, but for all beings.

In his talks, Rev. Castro reminded us that, as Buddhists, our ethical principles are not handed down to us by a divine authority.  Buddhist ethical living is rooted in compassion for all beings.  Our concern for the natural environment arises from compassionate awareness of the people, animals, and plants that suffer when a wildfire sweeps through their home or toxic plastics clog the ocean waters that they depend upon for survival.  When I feel overwhelmed by these environmental problems, the following words of Shinran, recorded in A Record in Lament of Divergences, Chapter Four, shine the light of the Buddha’s wisdom on my path:

Concerning compassion, there is a difference between the Path of Sages and the Pure Land Path.

Compassion in the Path of Sages is to pity, commiserate with, and care for beings. It is extremely difficult, however, to accomplish the saving of others just as one wishes.
Compassion in the Pure Land Path should be understood as first attaining Buddhahood quickly through saying the nembutsu and, with the mind of great love and compassion, freely benefiting sentient beings as one wishes.

However much love and pity we may feel in our present lives, it is hard to save others as we wish; hence, such compassion remains unfulfilled. Only the saying of the nembutsu, then, is the mind of great compassion that is thoroughgoing.

Thus were his words.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 633)

This teaching does not imply that it is no use making efforts to help others and care for the natural world because I am incapable of solving the problems all by myself.  Shinran’s words offer me encouragement to do my best to actively address the needs of this world, at peace in the knowledge that, even though I will not be able to alleviate all the suffering I encounter, the mind of great compassion constantly works in the nembutsu to guide me and all beings to liberation.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


Listening and learning

My wife Shoko recently gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Tokuma Monju Adams-Ichinomiya, at the Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Medical Center. Throughout the delivery and post-partum period, Shoko and Tokuma have received excellent care from the doctors, nurses, and other staff at Kaiser. The conscientious and compassionate treatment that our family has received inspires a deep feeling of gratitude in us for the quality of health care that we have access to.

When people first learn Tokuma’s name, they are often curious about its meaning. In Japanese, the name Tokuma 徳眞 is written with two Chinese characters: “Toku 徳” (virtue) and “ma 眞” (truth). During our Bodhi Day Service in early December, we chanted the “Verses in Praise of the Buddha (Sanbutsuge)” from The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. At that time, we were still thinking about possible names for the baby, and during the chanting the character “Toku 徳” in the following verses caught Shoko’s eye:

 

Your observance of precepts, learning, diligence,

Meditation, and wisdom—

The magnificence of these virtues (toku 徳) is peerless,

Excellent and unsurpassed.

 

Deeply and clearly mindful

Of the ocean of the Dharma of all Buddhas,

You know its depth and breadth,

And reach its farthest end.

 

In these verses, Dharmakara Bodhisattva recognizes and praises the virtues of Lokesvararaja Buddha. This passage from the Sutra reminds us that our path to awakening is fulfilled when we live with the humility to recognize great virtue in others and learn from their example. The character “ma 眞” means “truth,” and refers to the truth of the Buddha’s teachings as a guide for living with wisdom and compassion. Shoko and I chose the characters Tokuma 徳眞 for the name of our third son as an expression of our wish that as he finds his own path on the journey of life, he will be guided by the virtuous truth of awakening.

In our family, we have a custom of choosing the middle name of our children taking inspiration from the wisdom of the lives of those who have come before us. Our two older sons have middle names from ancestors on my side of the family. When we found out that we were pregnant with our third child, Shoko shared with me a Japanese proverb that has been passed down in her family over the generations and that she often heard from her mother growing up: “When three minds come together, they have the wisdom of Manjusri (Monju 文殊) Bodhisattva. (Sannin yoreba Monju no chie.)” In Mahayana Buddhism, Monju is revered as a bodhisattva of profound and penetrating wisdom. In the Amida Sutra, Monju appears as a representative of the beings of awakening who gather to hear the Buddha’s teaching. The truly wise recognize the importance of listening to others. The proverb above expresses the truth that three ordinary people who come together and listen to one another are able to realize great wisdom and insight. With the birth of Tokuma Monju, our wish is for our three sons to listen to one another and come together to realize profound wisdom, drawing on their unique perspectives to realize a greater depth of insight than they would each be capable of on their own. We are truly grateful to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Sangha for all your support and friendship as our family grows together in the Nembutsu.

 

Namo Amida Butsu


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


The Diamondlike Heart and Mind

On Sunday, December 2 at 9:30 a.m., we welcome you to join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for our Bodhi Day Service celebrating Sakyamuni Buddha’s awakening at the age of 35. Sakyamuni dedicated the remaining 45 years of his life to sharing the Dharma—the absolute truth to which he awakened seated beneath the Bodhi Tree. In time, the Sangha, or community of the Buddha’s followers, grew and the Buddha was revered by common people, kings and queens alike.

The Buddha’s cousin Devadatta had joined the Sangha, but was resentful and envious of the Buddha’s renown. Eventually he set out to split the community by calling for a more austere lifestyle, with the intention of building a large following of his own. During this period of conflict, there was a man who snuck up on the Buddha with the intention of assassinating him one day while he was sitting quietly in a forest. As the man approached and prepared to attack, the Buddha continued to sit in unwavering concentration. The would-be assassin found himself unable to go through with the act and bowed down at the Buddha’s feet confessing his ill-intent. The Buddha calmly spoke with him, but the man refused to divulge who had sent him for fear of retribution. In his wisdom, the Buddha instructed the man to take a different road home and escape with his mother.

Concerned by the escalating conflict, the Buddha’s chief disciples, Sariputra and Mahamaudgalyayana, decided to visit the breakaway Sangha and reach out to those who had been misled by Devadatta. Devadatta eagerly welcomed them, thinking that it was a great coup to have the Buddha’s two leading disciples in his community. While he was among Devadatta’s followers, Shariputra gave a series of Dharma talks with eloquence and penetrating wisdom. Having inspired the assembled bhikkhus, he declared, “The Buddha is the only true teacher I have ever known” and departed with Mahamaudgalyayana. Several hundred disciples realized they had been misled by Devadatta and returned to the Sangha of the Buddha.

Devadatta was enraged and a series of troubling incidents followed. One day, a large stone was rolled down a hill onto a path where the Buddha was walking. The Buddha dodged the stone but his foot was badly cut. His disciples were naturally upset, but the Buddha counseled them to remain calm and instructed them to summon the great doctor Jivaka to treat his injury.

A little over a week later, the Buddha’s foot had healed enough that he could join the other monks begging in the local capital. As they were walking along a busy road, Ananda looked up to see an enraged elephant charging at the Buddha. Everyone scattered and shouted at the Buddha to run away, but the Buddha calmly stayed right where he was standing, with only Ananda remaining at his side. When the elephant laid eyes on the Buddha, it immediately stopped charging and knelt down before the Buddha. As the Buddha gently patted the elephant on its trunk, its madness vanished and it became calm.

In these stories from the life of the Buddha, we see how his enlightenment emanated in his presence, subduing any anger and aggression in the minds of those he met. I am particularly struck by the image of Ananda standing calmly with the Buddha as the charging elephant approached. The Buddha with his enlightened mind knew there was nothing to fear. Ananda, however, did not realize awakening until after the Buddha passed into Parinirvana. Even though Ananda had yet to realize complete liberation from fear and anger, he was able to remain calm because of his deep entrusting in the wisdom of the Buddha.

In his great compassion for those of us would come after he had already passed into Parinirvana, Sakyamuni Buddha taught the Pure Land Sutras, so that we who are unable to stand in his presence can encounter the power of the Buddha’s wisdom through the Nembutsu and birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha. Like Ananda in the presence of Sakyamuni Buddha, we are able to realize the unperturbed diamond-like mind through our encounter with Amida Buddha in the Nembutsu. Shinran Shonin writes that entrusting in the Buddha’s wisdom and reciting the nembutsu, one becomes a “. . . practicer who has realized the diamondlike heart and mind. Through this shinjin and practice, one will without fail transcend and realize great nirvana . . .” (The Collected Works of Shinran, p. 117)


In gratitude for the living beings that support our lives

November has arrived and another holiday season is fast approaching. Thanksgiving at the end of this month marks the beginning of a season of feasting, during which we will have frequent occasions to come together with family and friends to enjoy delicious food.

In some Buddhist temples led by monks and nuns who observe monastic precepts, or detailed rules for living in a monastery, keeping a vegetarian diet is encouraged to avoid causing suffering for animals that would be raised for food. I have visited Buddhist monasteries in China that have special ponds where live fish and crabs that have been purchased from the market can be released to live out their lives under the protection of the Sangha.

Outside of monasteries, it is common for lay Buddhists throughout the world to eat meat and fish. The Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition that the San Mateo Buddhist Temple belongs to has been a predominantly lay Buddhist movement throughout its history. Our lay Buddhist heritage can be seen in the fact that it is common for our ministers to marry and raise families at the temple while serving the Sangha. This tradition goes back to Shinran, the twelfth century Japanese Buddhist priest who we look to as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition. Our ministers follow Shinran’s example of not separating ourselves from the lay members of the Sangha, leading a similar lifestyle and sharing in the joys and challenges of family life. The fact that few members of our Sangha maintain a strict vegetarian diet reflects this long tradition of lay-oriented Buddhist practice.

That does not mean we are indifferent to the suffering of the animals whose lives we receive in our meals. In each moment, we are called to recognize the great hardship and suffering that immeasurable beings have undergone for our sake. One of the reasons that we treasure human life is that the precious lives of so many plants and animals have become part of us through the nourishing food we receive.

As human beings, the impact we have on the lives of other species is not limited only to the animals we eat. The fields that produce the fruits and vegetables we eat were first cleared and harvested generations ago with the help of farm animals like oxen and mules. These days, few people travel on horseback or in horse-drawn carriages. However, nearly every time I drive a car, I find myself slightly bowing my head in reverence for some animal on the side of the road whose life was cut short by traffic on the roads I travel. Many of the medicines that have seen me through my own times of illness, as well as the treatments that have enabled my loved ones to live longer, healthier lives, were tested on animals before they were approved for use by humans.

Taking all these circumstances into consideration, I realize that I am incapable of living without causing suffering to many different animals. With a deep feeling of repentance, I turn to the teachings of Shinran and find guidance in the following passage from the Tannisho (A Record in Lament of Divergences):

However much love and pity we may feel in our present lives, it is hard to save others as we wish; hence, such compassion remains unfulfilled. Only the saying of the nembutsu, then, is the mind of great compassion that is thoroughgoing.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 663)

The nembutsu is the recitation of the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” which expresses both my profound awareness of the limitations of my ability to fulfill the practice true compassion on my own, as well as the joy I encounter by letting go of my ego and recognizing the boundless compassion of Amida Buddha that flows through my life.

As we observe this wonderful American tradition of Thanksgiving, let us do so with appreciation for the multitude of beings that have made it possible for us to live this human life where we hear the nembutsu and encounter the mind of great compassion.

 

Namo Amida Butsu

 


How like the voices of the Buddha

At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, October is the month in which we celebrate Buddhist women of the Nembutsu, including Shinran Shonin’s wife Eshinni and their youngest daughter Kakushinni, who worked tirelessly to ensure that the joy of the Nembutsu would be passed on to future generations. During our Sunday Services this month we will be learning about important women poets of the Nembutsu, including Mrs. Wariko Kai and Mrs. Misuzu Kaneko, who were active in Japan during the early part of the twentieth century.

Mrs. Tomoe Tana, the wife of Rev. Daisho Tana who served as the first assigned minister to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple from 1952-1955, was an inspiring poet of the Nembutsu writing here in the United States. Mrs. Tana was born in Hokkaido in 1913 as the daughter of a Buddhist priest. She married Rev. Tana in 1937 and moved to the United States in 1938, where they lived in Berkeley and then Lompoc.

With the outbreak of WWII, Rev. Tana was taken into custody in March 1942, and transported to incarceration camps in Santa Fe and Lordsburg, New Mexico, where he remained for the duration of the war. Mrs. Tana and their two young children Yasuto and Shibun were sent to the internment camp at Gila, Arizona. At that time, Mrs. Tana was pregnant with their third son, Chinin, who was born in camp. Their fourth son Akira was born after the war. While many ministers were released from Santa Fe and reunited with their families in the other internment camps, Rev. Tana was hospitalized repeatedly with tuberculosis, which prevented his transfer to the camp at Gila where his family was living. Mrs. Tana cared for their three small children on her own throughout the internment. By the time Tana Sensei was finally released in 1946, the family had been separated longer than they had been together.

Mrs. Tana was a renowned Tanka poet and she captured the experience of those years in the following poems written during her incarceration at Gila, Arizona. She sent these poems to her husband and he recorded them in the diaries he kept during the war.

 

Saying, “To the Buddha,” young girls pick flowers and hand them to me;

I delightedly offer them to the Buddha.

 

From the peaks of the Sierras, winds blow this way and that:

In the dead of night, I pile on more clothes because of cold.

 

During a Dharma Talk, cries of a cricket are heard from time to time;

How like the voices of the Buddha.

 

Opening a sacred text I carry;

The voices of the devout chant a sutra in unison.

 

When rains come, clouds leave.

How like the world of impermanence

This sudden change, where no one lives forever.

 

Minding a sick child who seeks mother’s affection,

I cannot progress with my needlework, or even wipe away my perspiration.

 

Skimming his diary without stop makes my eyes moist;

When I put it down, I realize I have forgotten to even wipe off my perspiration.

 

Wandering without a husband for whom I yearn,

I look with nostalgia at his handwriting, reading it again and again.

 

My husband is about to touch my face;

When I awake from that dream, the flickering of stars enters my eyes.

 

The lullaby I croon seems to wake the child;

He croons with me while half asleep.

 

(Translated by Michihiro Ama in “Neglected Diary, Forgotten Buddhist Couple: Tana Daisho’s Internment Camp Diary as Historical and Literary Text,Journal of Global Buddhism 14 (2013), p. 51-52)

 

Even though she and her family had suffered great hardship in the US, she bore no ill will toward the country and its people. In fact, she dedicated herself to sharing the beauty of tanka poetry in the United States, so that this Japanese art could become a part of the fabric of American cultural life. In 1951 she composed the following tanka poem that expresses the wisdom of her life in the Nembutsu.

 

My growing children

Sing the national anthem

In America

And their mother goes

Following right along.

 

(First published in Zaibei dōbō hyakunin isshu (One hundred tanka by our countrymen in America), 1951, Reprinted in The History of Japanese Tanka Poetry in America, Mrs. Tomoe Tana Master’s Thesis, San Jose State University History Department, 1985, p. 47)

 

Namo Amida Butsu