Ice Melts Into Water, Obstructions Melt Into Virtues

As temperatures warm and we prepare to welcome the arrival of Spring with our Ohigan Service on March 19, I am reminded of the following verse from Shinran Shonin’s Hymns of the Pure Land Masters:

Obstructions of karmic evil turn into virtues;
It is like the relation of ice and water:
The more the ice, the more the water;
The more the obstructions, the more the virtues.

(From Shinran Shonin’s Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, Hymn 40)

In the verse above, Shinran Shonin describes how, just as the warm spring temperatures melt ice into water, the warm light of the Buddha’s wisdom melts the hard obstructions in our minds into the flowing virtues of awakening.  Greed turns into Generosity.  Indulgence turns into Self-control.  Anger turns into Patience.  Laziness turns into Dedication.  Distraction turns into Concentration.  Delusion turns into Wisdom

Growing up in Minnesota, the springtimes of my childhood were filled with joy and wonder, as I experienced the warm sunlight melting away ice and snow, making way for blades of green grass to sprout up on the lawn.  During the long winter, the cold of the snow and ice had turned the grass brown.  The water of the melted snow and the warmth of the sun brought new life to the grass.

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Nītha the Scavenger

Translation by Henry Adams from the Sutra on Wisdom and Folly (Xiangujing), Fascile 6, Chapter 30 (賢愚經卷第六 T0202_.04.0397a24)

Thus I have heard. At one time the Buddha was dwelling at Jetavana in the country of Sravasti.

At that time, many people lived inside the walled city of Shravasti.  There were few lavatories, so most people went outside the city to urinate and defecate.

There were also wealthy people of high status, who did not venture outside the city walls.  They would use containers for toilets and hire people to take them outside the city.

There was one man named Nītha who was extremely poor and destitute.  He had nowhere to go and earned a meager living taking out the toilet pots.

At that time, the World-Honored One came to know of his situation and resolved to liberate him.  He instructed Ananda that they would go into the walled city with the intention of bringing Nītha out and saving him.  When they arrive a short distance from the city, they happened upon Nītha carrying a clay pot filled to the brim with filth on his way out to dispose of it.

When Nītha saw the World-Honored One, he was extremely ashamed and went back to find another road by which he could discreetly leave the city. 

Again, he saw the Buddha and was doubly embarrassed, so he went back again trying to run away.  In his haste, he bumped the clay pot filled with filth against a wall, where it shattered dousing his body in urine and feces.  He was deeply ashamed and could not bear to meet the Buddha.

At that time, the World-Honored One went straight to Nītha and said to him, “Would you like to leave this life and join the Sangha, or not?”

Nītha replied, “The Tathāgata is more honored than a king adorned with gold jewelry.  You are surrounded by disciples who are all of noble birth.  I am the most destitute and despised.  How could I join them and be ordained?”

The World-Honored One told him, “My Dharma is pure and marvelous.  It is like pure water that can completely wash away any defilements.  Moreover, it is like a great fire that can burn anything.  Large or small, beloved or despised, it can burn them all up.  My Dharma is like that.  It is vast without boundary.  Among the poor and the rich, male and female, those who practice it all bring an end to their various desires. 

At that time Nītha having heard what the Buddha said, received shinjin (faith in the Dharma) and awakened the desire to leave [his life of destitution and join the Sangha].  The Buddha instructed Ananda to take Nītha outside the city to the edge of a great river, where he cleansed his body.  Once he was cleaned up, they proceeded to Jetavana so the Buddha could teach the sutras of the Dharma. The principle that all people suffer, renouncing birth-and-death, and that nirvana is lasting peace.  Nītha quickly understood the meaning of the teachings and attained the first fruit of understanding.  Joining his palms he faced the Buddha and asked to become a sramana (monk).

The Buddha then said, “Welcome, Bhikkhu (monk).”  Nītha’s hair dropped away and he was clothed in the Dharma robes.  The Buddha once again taught the essential Dharma of the Four Noble Truths.  All Nītha’s remaining defilements where eliminated and he became an arhat (one who has attained enlightenment), fully endowed with the three kinds of awareness and six supernormal powers.

At that time the citizens of Shravasti heard that Nītha had joined the Sangha.  They became very upset and angry, saying, “How could the World-Honored One ask this low-class man to join the Sangha and study the Way.  How could we bow before him and make offerings of alms to him.  When we invite the Buddha and his disciples to our homes, if he comes along, he will pollute our floors and chairs.”  Carrying on this manner, they asked the king what should be done.

When the king heard of it, he too became enraged and felt that he needed to lodge a protest.  Thereupon, he mounted his chariot, and accompanied by his many vassals, set out for Jetavana to inquire with the Tathāgata regarding what the meaning of this was. 

When they arrived in front of the gate, they paused for a brief rest outside the gate to Jetavana.  There was a large boulder there, upon which sat the Bhikku Nītha sewing his robe.  Seven hundred heavenly beings had each brought flowers and incense as offerings.  Circumambulating with their right shoulders facing him, they bowed in reverence. When the king saw this, he felt deep joy having arrived at the place of the Bhikkhus, and said, “I wish to see the Buddha, please let him know I am here.” 

The Bhikkhu Nītha’s body sunk into the stone, and he emerged inside the grove out where the Buddha was dwelling.  The Buddha instructed Bhikkhu Nītha that he should lead the king into the grove.  Bhikkhu Nītha returned to the gate, emerging from the stone as easily as if passing through water.

Bhikku Nītha conveyed the Buddha’s invitation for the king to enter and ask his question.

The King thought, “Let me set aside the question I came ask.  Let me inquire as to what virtuous practices this monk has accomplished, such that he has such marvelous abilities.”  The king then entered to meet the Buddha.

The king bowed before the feet of the Buddha and circumambulated him three times to the right.  He then sat facing the Buddha and addressed the World-honored One, saying, “This monk who greeted us at the gate has marvelous abilities that are hard to attain.  He passed through stone as if it were water and emerged from the stone without leaving an indentation.   Please tell me what his name is.

The World-honored One told him, “This is the lowly scavenger I saved from your walled city.  He is now an arhat.  He is the person you came here to complain to me about.”

Hearing the words of the Buddha, the king abandoned his pride, and his joy was immeasurable. 

The Buddha’s Final Meal

In the time of the Buddha, there was a blacksmith named Cunda.  Blacksmiths had low social status, but Cunda was hard-working and intelligent, and so he prospered and owned a beautiful mango grove.  On one occasion, the Buddha visited Cunda’s village and chose to stay in his mango grove.  At that time in India, the sons of wealthy and important families, like the Buddha’s Sakya clan, would not normally interact with common workers like blacksmiths, so Cunda was delighted that the Buddha would honor him by staying in his grove.

Cunda delighted in the Dharma taught by the Buddha and invited the Buddha and his Sangha to partake in a special meal at his home.  The Buddha indicated his acceptance of the invitation by remaining silent, so Cunda proceeded to prepare a scrumptious feast, including a variety of foods with good textures, well-cooked soft foods, and a dish made with a special kind of mushroom.

When the mushroom dish was served, the Buddha immediately claimed it for himself and instructed Cunda to serve the remaining dishes to the other monks.  After eating his fill of the mushroom dish, he told Cunda to bury what remained of it in the ground, saying, “This food can only be eaten by one who has mastered the Dharma and attained awakening.”

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Ho’onko: the Annual Memorial Service for Shinran Shonin

 In the Jodo Shinshu School of Buddhism, it is customary to hold an annual Ho’onko 報恩講 (Pronounced HOE-OWN-KOH) Memorial Service in remembrance of Shinran Shonin (1173-1263), the Japanese Buddhist priest who we look to as the founder of our tradition.  The tradition of annual Ho’onko services was initiated by Shinran’s great-grandson Kakunyo during the 33rd Year Memorial Service for Shinran.  At the Nishi Hongwanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, the Hoonko observance is held each year from January 9th to 16th, culminating in an all-night Dharma marathon of talks by ministers from all over Japan.  This year, we will observe Ho’onko at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on Sunday, January 22.  In temples of the Jodo Shinshu tradition, Ho’onko is considered to be the most important Buddhist service of the year.

If we conducted a survey of our Sangha members asking everyone which of our annual Buddhist services is most important, we wouldn’t be surprised to hear many responses along the lines of Hanamatsuri (Sakyamuni Buddha’s Birthday) or Obon (the grateful remembrance of departed loved ones that we hold every summer).  Of all the Buddhist services we observe throughout the year, why is Shinran’s Memorial Service traditionally given the most emphasis? 

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The Medicine of Amida Buddha

In our family we have three children from preschool to middle school in age, so as the cold and flu season arrives, it seems that someone in our house is always coming down with a fever or starting to cough.  Sakyamuni Buddha taught that birth, illness, aging, and death are four inescapable kinds of suffering in this life, so there is no choice but to accept the reality that getting sick is part of being alive.  That said, when we get sick, we naturally seek medicines to alleviate our symptoms and speed our recovery.  There are also medicines we may take before we get sick to avoid the most severe illness.  When choosing medicines to take it is best to follow the advice of a good doctor.

The Buddha is often described as a good doctor because, just as a good doctor carefully investigates an illness before providing an appropriate prescription, the Buddha arrived at a deep understanding of the troubles of human life before providing suitable teachings for all people.  

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Thankfully This Life Continues

When I was in my twenties, I found satisfaction in getting things done quickly, so I could move onto my next task.  Now that I am in my forties, I find that I appreciate more the activities that I am able to continue over time.  For example, I took up cycling as a hobby in my late twenties while I was living in Miyazaki, on the island of Kyushu in southern Japan.  Most weekday mornings, I would wake up early so I could spend an hour or so cycling along the coast before work.  On those days my goal was to quickly cycle out to my destination, quickly return home, quickly eat breakfast, quickly shower, and quickly commute to get to work on time.  I was trying to get as much done as possible in a short time, so my attention was naturally focused on my efforts to complete each task as quickly as possible.  In that busy frame of mind, my thoughts turned to what I could accomplish through my own efforts.

When I first I became a parent with small children at home, I found fewer opportunities to go out cycling for fun.  However, these past few years as my children get bigger, we are now able to go for bike rides as a family.  Also, now that I am supervising the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, I often use a combination of bicycle and commuter trains to make my way back and forth to San Francisco for services.  On days when I have some time after service, I’ve taken to biking home from San Francisco to San Mateo.  The first time I managed to bike home from San Francisco, I was grateful that I was able to continue pedaling until I finally arrived at our house.  I find that at this point in my life, I enjoy being able to continue riding at a comfortable, steady pace, more than racing to arrive at my destination.

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The San Mateo Buddhist Temple is Open!

A new Dharma School Year has begun and the temple is open!  Seeing Sangha members of all ages gathering in the Hondo for services gives me a deep sense of gratitude for our temple.  The temple is a precious place where people who delight in the Nembutsu can come together to share in one another’s happiness in times of joy and comfort one another in times of sadness. 

Those who arrive at the temple before service begins can offer incense and quietly reflect upon the past week as they enjoy the calming aroma of the incense and gaze upon the beauty of the Buddha shrine while they wait for the sound of the bell to begin service.  At the end of service, Sangha members greet one another and enjoy catching up while making their way down the center aisle to offer incense. 

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Caring and Being Cared For

As the summer comes to an end and we prepare to welcome the change of seasons with our Autumn Ohigan Equinox Service, we turn our minds to the working of great compassion as we consider the causes and conditions that have sustained our lives up to this point and look to the light of wisdom to clarify our path forward to a life of peace and bliss. 

Over this past summer, my family and I had a chance to visit my grandmother at the assisted living in Iowa where she is now living.  She was alert and energetic during our visit and kindly shared stories that I had never heard before of her life growing up as a city girl in Kansas City, Missouri, and then adjusting to life on a farm in rural Iowa after she married my grandfather.

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Gathering of Joy

The Obon observances that we hold during the month of August originate in a teaching on the practice of giving (Dana) that Sakyamuni Buddha shared with his disciple Mahamaudgalyayana.   Following his mother’s departure from this world, Mahamaudgalyayana saw that she had fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, a world of hunger, thirst, and unsatisfied desire.  He immediately went to the Buddha and asked for guidance on how he could liberate his mother from that world of suffering.  The Buddha instructed him to present a gift of food, clothing, and other essential items to the monastic Sangha.  After offering the prescribed gift to the Sangha, Mahamaudgalyayana saw that his mother had been liberated from suffering and he was filled with joy.    

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Sweetness and Bitterness

The other day, my son went with a friend to the San Mateo County Fair.  When he returned home, I asked him if he had eaten anything at the fair, to which he replied, “Yes, cotton candy.”  The flavor of cotton candy is pure sweetness and I liked it myself when I was a kid.  When I recently tasted cotton candy for the first time in years, I found the sweetness to be a bit too much.  As a child, my favorite foods were simply sweet or salty, but as I get older, I find that I appreciate a much wider variety of flavors.

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