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.  Just as a good doctor begins by examining the conditions of an illness, the Buddha looked deeply into the nature of human existence and identified the pervasive nature of suffering in birth, illness, aging, and death.  Like a good doctor, who proceeds to investigate the cause of the illness, the Buddha awakened to the truth that our suffering arises from clinging to and being carried away by the three poisons of greed, anger, and delusion.  Having identified the cause of an illness, a good doctor, will set a goal and encourage the patient to achieve optimal health.  The Buddha assures us that we can awaken from delusion and realize the state of ultimate liberation from suffering.  Like a good doctor who prescribes suitable medicines and care to treat an illness, the Buddha offers teachings that make clear the path to awakening and freedom from discontent.

The medicines we receive from our doctors may take the form of pills or shots.  There are some medicines that we take to get relief when we have already gotten sick.  There are other medicines, such as vaccines, that we receive before we get sick in order to prevent serious illness.  From time to time, people do contract illnesses after they have been vaccinated, but because the vaccine strengthens their immune response, they often do not get as sick as they might have had they not been vaccinated.

In the eyes of the Buddha, suffering is the fundamental illness of human life, and the Buddha provides the medicine of the Dharma, the teaching of true reality, as the medicine.  We receive the medicine of the Dharma by hearing the Buddha’s teachings and entrusting in the truth that the teachings impart for our lives.  It may be personal crisis or deep sadness that leads a person to seek guidance from the Buddha’s teachings.  In those cases, the crisis or the sadness is the precious karmic circumstance which brings the comfort of the Buddha’s wisdom into one’s life.  Just as a vaccinated person can have a strengthened immune response, one who regularly hears the Dharma in daily life receives a mind grounded in the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings and can draw on that wisdom for strength in times of crisis or loss.  Shinran Shonin offers the following words to describe the medicine of Amida Buddha:

There was a time for each of you when you knew nothing of Amida’s Vow and did not say the Name of Amida Buddha, but now, guided by the compassionate means of Sakyamuni and Amida, you have begun to hear the Vow. Formerly you were drunk with the wine of ignorance and had a liking only for the three poisons of greed, anger, and folly, but since you have begun to hear the Buddha’s Vow you have gradually awakened from the drunkenness of ignorance, gradually rejected the three poisons, and come to prefer at all times the medicine of Amida Buddha.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 553)

“To prefer at all times the medicine of Amida Buddha” is to recognize the way in which we have been led astray and caused to suffer by our greed, anger, and folly.  No longer lost in a state of confusion, we are resolved to follow the path to awakening that is illuminated by the wisdom of the Buddha.  There will be moments of stress and sadness as long as this life continues, but if we steadfastly turn our ears to the Buddha’s teachings, we will not stray from the path to liberation.

Namo Amida Butsu

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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Resting My Mind

As we enter the month of June, another school year comes to an end and we welcome the arrival of summer vacation.  Before students get to enjoy their summer vacation, there is hard work to be done preparing for final exams and big end-of-the-year projects.  At this time of year, I find myself reminiscing about my college days, and I remember something my college Japanese professor Larson Sensei would say at the end of the semester.  As she collected our final exams, she would smile and say, “Congratulations on all the hard work you did this term.  I hope you will find some opportunities to use your Japanese over the break, so that you don’t forget all that you’ve learned this year.  That said, for the next week please give yourself a good break and don’t open your textbook or do any studying.”  Having finished a big task, it is important to have a good rest.  During the time of rest, we can think back on what we have accomplished and consider what our next project should be.

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The Home of Little Birds

(“Kotori no ie” by Akamatsu Gessen, illustrated by Tateno Yasunosuke, in Bukkyo Dōwa Zenshū, Vol. 8, p. 139-147, Translation by Henry Adams)

Long ago in the Latter Han Dynasty, there was a family named Yang who lived in the Chinese capital.  They had one son named Bao.  This story takes place when Bao was nine years old.

            Bao’s father worked for a government official of low rank, but he was a dedicated and hard-working man.  Bao’s mother was a quiet and deeply caring woman.  While she did not make a particularly strong impression at first, even a passing conversation with her would give a genuine sense of her true kindness.

            Bao’s mother was kind to little birds.  She did not keep them as pets, but they would be naturally drawn to her, because she always set scraps of food outside the kitchen for them to eat. 

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Parents and Children

In the month of May we observe our Gōtan-e Service celebrating the birth of Shinran Shonin, the founder of our Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism.  During the Gōtan-e Service, we place a statue of Shinran Shonin as a young boy in the temple hall and recall the story of his childhood.    May is also the month in which we celebrate Mother’s Day and express the gratitude and appreciation we feel for the mothers in our lives.  As we observe these two holidays of Gōtan-e and Mother’s Day, the month of May provides us with precious occasions to reflect upon the karmic bond between parents and children.  The parental figures in our lives are not limited to our biological parents.  Grandparents, teachers, coaches, and mentors are other examples of those who can provide the care and guidance of a parent in our lives.

According to tradition, Shinran Shonin was separated from his mother at a young age and left home to receive ordination as a Buddhist monk at the age of nine.   While the time that Shinran spent living with his mother and father was brief, he had a profound sense of receiving parental love and care in his life. 

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