Our Parents of Great Compassion

Mother’s Day is celebrated in the month of May.  Some people feel the closest maternal connection to the woman who gave birth to them.  Others have a special connection with mother figures who are not their birth mother, but those who have given them great care and kindness over the years.  I recall one temple member whose mother lived far away, but they would often say “I am fortunate to have so many mothers here at the temple in the Buddhist Women’s Association.”  When one of the BWA ladies would correct them on a mistake, they would graciously reply.  “Yes, Mom.  I’ll do it that way from now on.”  If one of the BWA ladies helped them with a task, they would gratefully say, “Thanks, Mom!”  Those “Moms” were not their birth mothers, but they were a consistent presence of care and support.

Continue reading “Our Parents of Great Compassion”

Flowers that Bloom in the Springtime

Growing up in Minnesota, I spent many hours in the autumn helping my mother in our family flower gardens.  We would clear out the dead plants and prepare the soil for the flowers my mother had planned for the following spring.  I remember one afternoon in early November when I was planting flower bulbs and thinking to myself, why are we putting these plants in the ground now, when the soil will be frozen for the next four months?

The following year in April when the snow finally melted, a bed of beautiful tulips and crocuses bloomed in the spot where the bulbs had been planted.  I marveled at how life had carried on through a long period where it seemed that everything in that place had died and then resurfaced with such striking beauty.  Life had not ceased in the garden.  It simply took on another form.  Today, recalling the understanding of the cycle of nature that I learned seeing those flowers bloom as a child, I can appreciate how conditions from the past bear fruit in the present.

This month of April we hold our Hanamatsuri Service at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple celebrating the birth of Siddhartha Gautama over 2,500 years ago in Lumbini, Nepal.  During his lifetime, Siddhartha attained awakening and came to be revered as Sakyamuni Buddha, the compassionate teacher whose way of living and words of wisdom continue to inspire and guide seekers of the truth around the world.

The traditional story of Siddhartha’s birth tells how he was welcomed into this world with the abundant blooming of flowers.  Upon arriving in this world, he is said to have taken seven steps, with a lotus flower blooming on the ground in each place that his foot touched the earth. Having passed through the six paths[1] of death and rebirth countless times, he was steeped in causes and conditions from the past.  The seven steps represent his resolute intention to transcend the cycle of birth-and-death and realize the path to lasting peace, not just for himself but for all beings.

Sakyamuni Buddha’s final human birth came to an end when he passed into the lasting tranquility of parinirvana at age 80.  Like a beautiful flower that blooms temporarily in our garden, the Buddha’s human life expressed the truth of impermanence.  And yet, the wisdom and kindness he brought into this world continues to guide and support all those who take refuge in his teachings.   

Among the many teaching that Sakyamuni Buddha imparted during his lifetime, the teaching of Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow provides our gateway into the garden of awakening.   Amida Buddha vowed that those who live with deep mindfulness of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion and express their sincere gratitude in the words “Namo Amida Butsu” will unfailingly attain the life of lasting peace and joy.

This flower of truth blossoms in our hearts each moment we say “Namo Amida Butsu” with a heart of grateful entrusting.  In The True, Teaching, Practice, and Realization, Shinran Shonin offers the words of Master Tz’u-min as an expression of his joy in the Nembutsu:

Considering then this human existence – hard is it to obtain;
It is like the blossoming of the udumbara.
Truly we have come now to hear the Pure Land teaching so rare to encounter;
Truly we have encountered the opening of the dharma-gate of the nembutsu.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 41)

The udumbara is a flower that requires very specific conditions to bloom, such that it rarely blooms.  Lifetime after lifetime we have cycled through a long winter in traveling the paths of birth-and-death.  Finally, the causes and conditions have matured for us to encounter the teachings of the Buddha.  Now springtime blooms in our hearts and we can appreciate how truly precious is this human life we have received.  Let us cherish and make the most of this life by listening carefully to the Buddha’s teachings and settling our path to liberation from suffering.

Namo Amida Butsu

[1] A traditional Buddhist worldview describes six possible states of existence into which a person may be reborn: hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting titans, humans, and heavenly beings.

Heading to the Western Shore

Prior to coming to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, I served for three and half years at the Oxnard Buddhist Temple and the Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara.  One day, a Dharma friend in Santa Barbara called me to say that a church member by the name of Mr. Baba was in the hospital and would be cheered by a visit from me.  Mr. Baba was 95 years old, and while born in the United States, had spent much of his childhood in Japan.  He would attend every service I led at the Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara smartly dressed in a suit and tie.  He was a man of few words who listened to the Dharma with deep attention.

At that time, our eldest son had just turned one year old, so I was still getting used to life as a parent and feeling a little frazzled.  When I stepped into Mr. Baba’s hospital room, there were various medical devices beeping and clicking at his bedside.  He immediately greeted me, saying, “Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to visit me.”  I asked him how he was feeling, and he responded warmly, “So-so, but I’m still here.  How is your wife and your baby boy?”

The visit lasted about thirty minutes.  As I recalled our conversation on the drive home, I felt a little sheepish when it struck me that we had spent more time talking about my family than how Mr. Baba was doing.  He seemed much more interested in the people around him than his own health problems.   

A few days later, I received a call from Mr. Baba’s daughter informing me that he had crossed over to the Other Shore.  He may have been aware that the time for his birth in the Pure Land was drawing near at the time when I visited him in the hospital.  As one who had deeply heard the teaching of Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow, Mr. Baba was free from all worry, knowing that his birth in the realm of peace and bliss was settled.

Few people are able to enjoy good health to the age of 95 the way that Mr. Baba had.  Looking at the world around us, we are reminded that we may cross over to the Other Shore at any moment.  This truth is expressed in the following words from Rennyo Shonin’s “Letter on White Ashes”:

Who in this world today can maintain a human form for even a hundred years? There is no knowing whether I will die first or others, whether death will occur today or tomorrow. We depart one after another more quickly than the dewdrops on the roots or the tips of the blades of grasses. So it is said. Hence, we may have radiant faces in the morning, but by evening we may turn into white ashes.

In this month of March, we observe our Spring Ohigan Service.  Ohigan means “Other Shore,” and is observed on the equinox when the sun sets directly in the west.  This is a time to reflect our journey from this world of suffering, across the ocean of birth-and-death, to arrive at the Other Shore of awakening.  Our journey to the world of awakening does not begin at the moment of death.  Each day of our lives is a precious opportunity to direct our minds to the Pure Land of wisdom and compassion.

A person like Mr. Baba who deeply hears the truth of the Buddha’s teachings lives each moment of their lives with their mind directed toward Amida Buddha’s land in the west.  Cherishing each encounter with fellow travelers on this shore as he approached his own birth in the Pure Land, he proceeded to the west with a settled mind in the Nembutsu.

Namo Amida Butsu

The Great Sage, the World-honored One

From The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 3, Letter 4

When we carefully consider the transiency of human life, we realize that the living will certainly end in death and that the prosperous will eventually decline. This is how life is in the human world. Even so, we vainly live days and nights, spending months and years to no purpose. Indeed, we may lament about it, but I feel that we could never really comprehend the true extent of this pitifully sad situation.

How true it is that impermanence is difficult to escape for all, from the Great Sage, the World-honored One, at the highest level, to Devadatta, who committed evil acts and grave offenses, at the lowest.

Moreover, to receive life as a human being is indeed rare and difficult, and even more so is it the opportunity to encounter the Buddha Dharma, the way of emancipation from birth-and-death through practices of self-power is difficult to follow at the present time in the latter days. Therefore, our lives would be spent in vain unless we encountered the Primal Vow of Amida Tathagata.

Continue reading “The Great Sage, the World-honored One”

On the Designation of Our Tradition

The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 1, Letter 15

Question: How has it come about that there is such a widespread practice of referring to our tradition as the “Ikkōshū”? I am puzzled about this.

Answer: Our tradition’s designation as the “Ikkōshū” was certainly not determined by our founder. Generally speaking, the reason everyone says [this] is because we “steadfastly” (ikkō ni) rely on Amida Buddha. However, since a passage in the [Larger] Sutra teaches “steadfast and exclusive mindfulness of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life” (Daimuryōjukyō, T.12:272b), referring to us as the “Ikkōshū” presents no problem when the implication is “be steadfastly mindful of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life.” Our founder, however, did indeed designate this sect as the “Jōdo Shinshū.” Hence we now that the term “Ikkōshū” did not come from within our sect. Further, others within the Jōdoshū allow the sundry practices. Our Master rejected the sundry practices, and it is on this basis that we attain birth in the true and real (shinjitsu) fulfilled land. For this reason, he specifically inserted the character shin (true).

A further question: I understand clearly that, long ago, [the founder] designated our tradition as the “Jōdo Shinshū.” However, I would like to hear in detail how it is that in the teaching of our sect, although we are laypeople of deep evil karma, burdened with evil acts and grave offenses, we are to be born readily in the Land of Utmost Bliss through reliance on the working of Amida’s Vow.

Answer: The import of our tradition is that when faith is decisively settled,
we will unfailingly attain birth in the true and real fulfilled land. And so if you
ask what this faith is, [the answer is that] it is just [a matter of] relying single-
heartedly and without any worry on Amida Tathāgata, giving no thought to
other buddhas and bodhisattvas and entrusting ourselves steadfastly and withoutany double-mindedness to Amida. This we call “settlement of faith.” The twocharacters shin-jin are [literally] read “true mind.” We say “true mind” because the practitioner is not saved by his mistaken mind of self-power (jiriki no kokoro) but by the right mind of other-power given by the Tathāgata.
Further, we are not saved simply by repeating the Name without any understanding of it. Hence the [Larger] Sutra teaches that we “hear the Name
and realize faith and joy” (Daimuryōjukyō, T.12:272b; Kyōgyōshinshō,
T.83:601a, 605a). “Hearing the Name” is not hearing the six-character Name
na-mu-a-mi-da-butsu unreflectively; it means that when we meet a good
teacher, receive his teaching, and entrust ourselves (namu) to the Name
(namu-amida-butsu), Amida Buddha unfailingly saves us. This is explained
in the [Larger] Sutra as “realizing faith and joy.” Consequently, we should
understand that namu-amida-butsu shows how he saves us.

After we have come to this realization, we must bear in mind that the
Name we say walking, standing, sitting, and lying down is simply an expres-
sion of gratitude for Amida Tathāgata’s benevolence in saving us. With this,
we are to be declared other-power nenbutsu practitioners who have attained
faith and will be born in the Land of Utmost Bliss.


The compilation and writing of this letter were completed between 9:00 and 11:00 A.M. on the second day of the latter part of the ninth month, Bunmei
5 (1473), at the hot springs at Yamanaka, Kaga province.
Shōnyo, disciple of Śākyamuni
(written seal)

The Peace of Mind We Receive from Sakyamuni Buddha

In February, we observe our Nirvana Day Service commemorating Sakyamuni Buddha’s passing from this world into the lasting peace of parinirvana.  In departing from this world, Sakyamuni embodied the essential truth that all who are born into human life will eventually pass through the gate of death.  Given that our bodily form will not last forever, where shall we find meaning and purpose in this life?  Observing the world in which we live, it seems that many lives are devoted to the pursuit of fame and profit.  Shinran Shonin himself concludes his Hymns of the Dharma-Ages with the following verse:

I am such that I do not know right and wrong
And cannot distinguish false and true;
I lack even small love and small compassion,
And yet, for fame and profit, enjoy teaching others.

The pursuit of fame and profit pervaded life in Shinran Shonin’s time, just as it does in our own time.  Reading these words of Shinran Shonin, I recognize how the desire for fame and profit often compels my own life.

In this internet age, we may find ourselves spending considerable time and energy curating an image of ourselves on social media platforms.  When our posts accumulate more and more “likes,” we taste the fleeting pleasure of fame and recognition.  This is what makes social media platforms so addictive.  When our lives are driven by the quest for fame and recognition, it is easy to become preoccupied by how we are evaluated by others.  This preoccupation with our own image can cause our hearts to become narrow and self-serving.  We may worry that if others receive attention and recognition that we will be forgotten and ignored.  We become resentful of those who receive praise, thinking that the recognition they receive signals a lack of regard for our own accomplishments.  Rather than leading to peace of mind, chasing after fame and recognition tends to lead to increased stress and anxiety.

When our lives are driven by the desire for profit, we are at risk of losing sight of what it is that makes this human life precious.  In our contemporary society, there is a tendency to attribute more value to the lives of those who have the ability to accumulate great profits.  As a result, those who dedicate their lives to helping others through vocations like teaching and care-giving often struggle to maintain their livelihood.  While recent advances in artificial intelligence raise the prospect of even more efficient and profitable operations for businesses, many workers now have great anxiety that they will no longer be needed in their current job and that their value as an employee will disappear.  When the guiding principle of life is maximizing profits, anxiety and fear are pervasive and peace of mind is rare.

Ordinary unenlightened beings fall into confusion and anxiety in their pursuit of fame and profit.  In the following verse from Shinran Shonin’s “Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu,” he expresses his deeply held belief that the true purpose of Sakyamuni Buddha’s life in this world was to provide peace of mind for ordinary unenlightened beings:

Sakyamuni Tathagata appeared in this world
Solely to teach the ocean-like Primal Vow of Amida;
We, an ocean of beings in an evil age of five defilements,
Should entrust ourselves to the Tathagata’s words of truth.

The Primal Vow expresses Amida Buddha’s steadfast commitment to liberate all beings without discrimination.  The quest for profit can lead to discriminatory treatment of others if we value them only according to how much they are able to contribute to our own profit.  Sakyamuni taught the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in order to liberate all those who are lost and suffering in this world dominated by the quest for fame and profit.

Our lives are precious not according to how much fame or profit we attain.  Our lives are precious because we have the potential to realize liberation from suffering through the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.  The words “Namo Amida Butsu” that I hear are the voice of the Buddha calling out to me, saying “I will liberate you without fail.”  The words “Namo Amida Butsu” that I recite are my joyful response saying, “Thank you for liberating me.”  Sakyamuni Buddha’s true purpose in life was to bestow upon us the genuine peace of mind that we receive in the Nembutsu.

Namo Amida Butsu

Year of the Dragon

Best wishes for the New Year!  In the traditional zodiac calendar of East Asia 2024 is the Year of the Dragon.  In Buddhism, dragons are revered as protectors of the Buddha’s teaching, or the Dharma.  Many temples feature dragon images on incense burners, painted doors, and altar adornments.  In his Hymns in Praise of Prince Shotoku¸Shinran Shonin describes how a dragon protects the Dharma at the Shitennoji Kyoden-in temple built in the sixth century by Prince Shotoku in the area of present-day Osaka:

On this site, there is a body of pure water;
It is called Koryo pond.
An auspicious dragon constantly dwells therein;
It protects the Buddhist teaching.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 436)

Living in modern society, we tend to think of protection as something for our property and our bodies.  We lock the doors to our house to protect ourselves and our belongings from intruders.  We install alarms in our cars to protect them from thieves.  People who play rugged sports like skateboarding, football, and ice hockey wear pads to protect their bodies from injury.  Whenever I go for a bike ride, I wear a helmet to protect my head and sunglasses and sunscreen to protect my skin from harmful ultraviolet rays.  Protection generally implies keeping something harmful out, like keeping burglars out of our homes, keeping thieves out of our cars, and keeping harmful ultraviolet rays from penetrating the delicate tissues of our skin and eyes. 

Continue reading “Year of the Dragon”

On the Point of Departure

From The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 2, Letter 2

In the school founded by the Master, faith is placed before all else. If we ask the purpose of that faith, [the answer is that] it is the point of departure enabling wretched ordinary beings like ourselves, who lack good and do evil, to go readily to Amida’s Pure Land. Without attaining faith, we will not be born in the Land of Utmost Bliss but will fall into the hell of incessant pain (avīci). If we then ask how to attain that faith, [the answer is that], relying deeply on the single buddha, Amida Tathāgata, we give no thought to any of the various good deeds and myriad practices, and, dismissing the inclination to make petitions to the various buddhas and bodhisattvas just for this life, and discarding false, erroneous thoughts such as those of self-power, we entrust ourselves singleheartedly and steadfastly, without double-mindedness, to Amida; without fail, Amida embraces such people with his all-pervading light and will not abandon them.

Continue reading “On the Point of Departure”

On Practicing as Prescribed

From The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 3, Letter 2

The teachings of the various sects differ, but since they were all [expounded] during Śākya[muni]’s lifetime, they are indeed the incomparable Dharma. For this reason, there is absolutely no doubt that people who practice them as prescribed will attain enlightenment and become buddhas. However, sentient beings of this last [Dharma] age are of the lowest capacity; this is a time when those who practice as prescribed are rare.

Here [we realize that] Amida Tathāgata’s Primal Vow of other-power was made to save sentient beings in such times as these. To this end, [Amida] meditated for five kalpas and, performing practices for numberless kalpas, vowed that he would not attain perfect enlightenment unless sentient beings who commit evil and lack good reach buddhahood. Completely fulfilling that Vow, he became the Buddha Amida. Sentient beings of this last [Dharma] age can never become buddhas unless they deeply entrust themselves to Amida, relying on this buddha’s Primal Vow.

Continue reading “On Practicing as Prescribed”