This month’s session will continue to explore the teachings of the Pure Land Master Nagarjuna, who clarifies that mindfulness of Amida Buddha is the path swiftly realize the settled mind.
He teaches that the moment one thinks on Amida’s Primal Vow, One is naturally brought to enter the stage of the definitely settled; Solely saying the Tathagata’s Name constantly, One should respond with gratitude to the universal Vow of great compassion.
As we welcome the New Year, many of us are enjoying a long-anticipated return to family holiday gatherings. My family and I are happy to be travelling to visit my relatives in Minnesota for the first time in two and half years. Getting together in one place with family and friends, we are reminded how wonderful it is to spend time together in person. Sitting together in a cozy room, enjoying the flavors of favorite family dishes shared at a common table, breathing in the delicious aromas while laughing together and sharing stories—these are experiences we have come to truly savor after a long separation.
A Dharma friend recently shared with me their family’s experience of coming together this year to celebrate Thanksgiving. The whole family gathered around the dinner table to enjoy the traditional feast and lively conversation. A few days after the gathering one of the attendees began to feel flu-like symptoms and then came down with a fever. Even though they had been fully vaccinated and received a booster shot, when they received a Covid test, the result came back positive. The rest of the family members got tested and two more came back positive for Covid. Fortunately, everyone in the group had been vaccinated, so those who were infected did not get seriously ill. Nevertheless, my Dharma friend encourages everyone to get tested for Covid prior to getting together with family and friends this holiday season.
These days our attention is focused on the latest variants of Covid-19, but there are other things in our lives that can pass unnoticed from one person to another. Illness-causing germs can spread easily, but we can also pick up good thoughts and behaviors when we spend time with wise and compassionate companions. One of my teachers once said, “Spending time with good people is like walking in the fog. You don’t realize that you’re getting wet at the time, but when you get home, you find that your clothes are soaked through.”
Spending time with good Dharma friends who delight in the Nembutsu, I find that the direction of my mind shifts toward the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion and the Nembutsu flows freely from my lips. Asahara Saichi (1850-1932) was a humble man who lived deeply in the Nembutsu and wrote profound poems like the one below to express his appreciation of the Dharma:
When I catch a cold, I cough.
I’ve caught a Dharma cold,
I cough the Nembutsu again and again
These days, I take all manner of precautions to avoid catching a cold. I wash my hands, wear a mask, and make sure to dress warmly on cold days. However, no matter how careful I try to be, I still wind up coming down with a cold from time to time. It seems to me that whether I catch a cold or not cannot be entirely determined by my own efforts.
The Dharma that Saichi speaks of in this poem is Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow to liberate all beings from suffering. Shinran Shonin describes his own encounter with this Dharma in Chapter 2 of the Tannisho (A Record in Lament of Divergences):
As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, “just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida”; nothing else is involved.
The liberation brought about by Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow is not determined by one’s own efforts. Shinran Shonin received this Dharma when he was together with his teacher Honen Shonin and the Nembutsu continuously flowed from his lips. The Nembutsu Dharma continued to be passed down through the generations, eventually arriving in Saichi’s life. Having received that Dharma, the Nembutsu recitations followed one after another flowing from Saichi’s mouth in the words “Namo Amida Butsu.”
During 2021, a year in which the vast majority of our services and Dharma activities were conducted online, I came to realize that while you will never contract Covid-19 from meeting on Zoom with good Dharma friends, you may catch a Dharma cold.
This month’s session will continue to explore the teachings of the Pure Land Master Nagarjuna, which open our minds to the easy path of entrusting in Amida Buddha.
Proclaiming the unexcelled Mahayana teaching, He would attain the stage of joy and be born in the land of happiness. Nagarjuna clarifies the hardship on the overland path of difficult practice, And leads us to entrust to the pleasure on the waterway of easy practice.
“Do not resent my being sent into exile, for I am approaching eighty years of age. Even if we were living together as teacher and students in the capital, my departure from this saha world is drawing near. Even if we are separated by mountains and oceans, do not doubt that we will meet again in the Pure Land. Though we may reject this world, our human existence carries on. Though we may cling to life, our death will come. Why insist upon being in a certain place?
“What’s more, while I have spent all these years sharing the Nembutsu teaching here in the capital, it has been my heartfelt wish to go into the outlying regions and share the teachings with the farmers who work the fields. However, a time had not come when I was able to fulfill that wish. That I am now able to pursue this long-held wish is thanks to the great benevolence of the emperor.
On Sunday, December 5 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 when he conquered Mara’s army of delusion and fully realized the path to liberation from suffering. If you would like to attend the Bodhi Day service in person, please email email@example.com call (650) 342-2541 to reserve a seat. Full Covid-19 vaccination is required. A maximum of 30 in-person attendees will be allowed, so please contact us at your earliest convenience if you wish to attend. You also have the option of continuing to join the service from home via Zoom Meeting.
Sakyamuni left home at age 29 to seek the path to awakening. What he sought was not merely a path that led to his individual enlightenment, but rather a path that all beings could follow to realize liberation and cross into the world of awakening. When he realized awakening under the Bodhi Tree, not only did he arrive at the destination he had been progressing toward for years up to that moment in his life, his path forward to guide all beings to liberation also became perfectly clear.
Having clarified the path to awakening, Sakyamuni Buddha dedicated his life to teaching the Dharma to guide all beings on their journey to realize liberation from suffering. There are countless Buddhas who have followed that same path to awakening. The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life includes the following description of their life on that path:
Traveling freely, he roared with the thunderous voice of a Buddha. Beating the Dharma-drum, blowing the Dharma-conch, wielding the Dharma-sword, hoisting the Dharma-banner, rolling the Dharma-thunder, flashing the Dharma-lightning, pouring down the Dharma-rain, and extolling the Dharma-gift, he continuously awakened the people of the world with the sounds of the Dharma.
The light he emitted illuminated countless Buddha-lands and shook the entire world with six kinds of tremors. The light entirely encompassed Māra’s realm and made his palace shake. Māra and his assembly, trembling with terror, all surrendered without exception. He tore to shreds the net of falsehood, extinguished all wrong views, swept away the dust of affliction, and destroyed the moat of desire. He firmly protected the Dharma-castle, and opened widely the Dharma-gates. Washing away the grime of passions, he revealed his original purity. He elucidated the Buddha Dharma, guiding people to the right teaching.
(The Three Pure Land Sutras, Volume II, Section 2)
Because each person is unique, Sakyamuni Buddha is said to have taught 84,000 Dharma Gates through which living beings can enter into the path to awakening. From the moment of his enlightenment at age 35 until he entered final Nirvana at age 80, he spent 45 years continuously teaching the Dharma. While it is essential for each of us to identify our own path to awakening among those many teachings, we must keep in mind that the path to true liberation does not just benefit me alone, but rather is one that brings great benefit to all beings.
I find my path to awakening in the Nembutsu of entrusting in Amida Buddha. It is Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow that carries me into the world of awakening. Furthermore, the Dharma taught by Sakyamuni assures us that those who realize awakening through birth in Amida Buddha’s Pure Land unfailingly return to this world as bodhisattvas to guide the people who are mired in delusion to the right teaching. Sakyamuni appeared in this with the clear purpose of attaining Buddhahood, so that he could teach the path to liberation through the Nembutsu of entrusting in Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow.
Conducting funerals and memorial services is one of the characteristic activities of a Japanese Buddhist temple. As a result, Buddhism is closely associated with death in the minds of many people in Japanese communities. When I became a Buddhist priest, one of my friends who had lost her mother at a young age asked me, “Isn’t it depressing to be around so much sadness all the time?”
Certainly, every encounter with death is deeply saddening. At the same time, sadness is deeply connected with the Buddha’s compassion that liberates us from suffering. Shinran Shonin shares the following reflection on compassion (jihi 慈悲) in his major work The True Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way:
[Concerning compassion (jihi慈悲):] To eliminate pain is termed ji 慈; to give happiness is termed hi 悲. Through ji 慈, one eliminates the pain of all sentient beings; through hi 悲, one becomes free of thoughts that do not bring them peace.
When I first encountered the Jodo Shinshu teaching, I remember being startled to hear the minister giving a Dharma talk say, “In a house full of good people, the fighting never ends.” My idea of a “good person” was someone who knows what is right and always does the right thing. I had been studying Buddhism in the hope of becoming that sort of good person, so I was taken aback by the minister’s words.
I figured that if a house was full of good people, everyone would think and act correctly and they would all live together in harmony. However, recalling the various houses I had lived in up to that point, it occurred to me that differing perspectives on what was “correct” had given rise to many fights over the years. Between parents and children, spouses, and roommates there are a variety of different ideas about what is correct with regard to childrearing, politics, driving, cooking, clothing, and even hairstyles. When people living together think of themselves as good people who have the right ideas and know the correct way of doing things, conflicts easily arise and the fighting never ends.
The nembutsu is the easy path to awakening because its liberating power does not come from our own efforts. In this month’s gathering we will explore the challenges of entrusting our lives to Amida Buddha’s compassionate Vow.
For evil sentient beings of wrong views and arrogance, The nembutsu that embodies Amida’s Primal Vow Is hard to accept in shinjin; This most difficult of difficulties, nothing surpasses.