Reflecting on Wisdom, Joy, and Authenticity (July 18)

San Mateo Buddhist Women’s Association Corresponding Secretary and Young Buddhist Editorial member Juliet Bost shares a Dharma Talk on the topic of “Reflecting on Wisdom, Joy, and Authenticity”

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Transcript

Please join me in Gassho.

From Shinran’s “Hymns of the Pure Land” (“Jodo Wasan”):

“The light of the Buddha of Unhindered Light

Harbors the lights of purity, joy, and wisdom;

Its virtuous working supasses conceptual understanding,

As it benefits the beings throughout the ten quarters.”

(#57)

Thank you everyone for joining us for this morning’s service. I am very grateful to Rev. Adams for inviting me to share my Dharma reflection with you all today.

I chose this wasan to share today because it holds a lot of meaning for me, especially these two first lines: “The light of the Buddha of Unhindered Light / Harbors the lights of purity, joy, and wisdom.” Even if you haven’t read a lot of texts like these, you may notice that “light” is a recurring theme or motif used to describe Buddha-like attributes — indeed one name for Amida Buddha the “Buddha of Unhindered Light,” as noted in this wasan, and a common translation of “Buddha” is the “Enlightened One.” “Light” appears in a lot of our everyday language too. For example, “bright smiles” means we’re happy; “bright eyes” means we’re alert and prepared. A single kind gesture can “brighten” our day; our loved ones who bring us much happiness can be the “light of our lives.” Light is all around us, whether it’s light we can see or light we can feel, and every being is nurtured by this light, all of us in our similarities and our differences. 

When I first read this, I couldn’t help but think of a moment from one of my favorite movies: The Lion King. In one scene, the king of the savannah, Mufasa, teaches his son, Simba, about the borders of the kingdom, illuminated by sunlight and contrasted by the shadows of forbidden territory. He also teaches him about the “circle of life,” the cycle of interdependence among all animals. Here I’d like to invite everyone to watch the scene together, and notice what light and dark represent for Mufasa and Simba.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JawCb15MWLc (00:03 – 01:10)

There’s a lot to unpack in this short clip: the teaching of impermanence, illustrated by the setting sun; the teaching of interdependence and interconnectedness; the circle of life, which may be compared to the cycles of birth and rebirth we know as samsara. For now, let’s just look at the role light plays in Mufasa’s lesson to Simba. He says, “Everything the light touches is our kingdom”; then, later, when Simba asks about the shadowy place, he says, “That’s beyond our borders. You must never go there.”

This division between the light and dark places maps neatly into categories we’re familiar with: light vs. dark parallels known vs. unknown, seen vs. unseen, and good vs. evil. But as we know in life, light is not always good, and the dark is not always bad. For example, sunlight brings warmth, but spend too long outside and you may get sunburnt. The darkness of the night makes it difficult for us to see, but many nocturnal animal species find safety in the dark.  

In many ways, the light of the lion’s kingdom mirrors the limitations of our own perspectives. We may not be the rulers of kingdoms, but the distinction between “mine vs. not mine” and “me vs. not me” deludes our worldview just the same. This mindset prevents us from recognizing and understanding that we are profoundly linked to all people and all beings, in ways we may not even understand.

There are a lot of complex and insightful explanations as to why it is easy for us to see the world in these divisions. One common teaching we’re all familiar with is bombu — we are all foolish beings, limited by the fact that we only experience the world through one body and one mind in the present life. Yet I believe this is the crux of the wasan I shared: In order to understand our place in the circle of life, so to speak, we can start by recognizing the “lights of purity, joy, and wisdom” that we encounter in all our lives.

When I first read through this particular line, “Harbors the lights of purity, joy, and wisdom,” I wasn’t so sure what to make of “purity.” “Joy” and “wisdom” are much easier to identify; we have all experienced happiness, even if the source of that happiness was different. We have also all encountered someone wise in our lives, and gained wisdom ourselves by learning and by doing. But “purity” is a little different. Not only is it extremely subjective, changing depending on who you ask, but the word carries with it a lot of assumptions and judgments. A pure substance is devoid of all traces of other substances, like chemical elements or precious minerals, and we value pure substances much more than substances we consider to be tainted with other materials. When we ascribe “purity” to people, we tend to think of innocence and goodness, maybe imagining someone who is optimistic and even naive. But what does it mean to be “pure”?

In my quest for answers, I looked up “pure” in a dictionary — the Merriam-Webster dictionary to be exact. It defines “pure” many times over, but my favorite is “being thus and no other.” This definition makes slightly more sense when used to describe stuff, but still doesn’t make much sense when describing people. What does it mean for a person to “be thus and no other”?

I’m sure you all may have answers to this question, but I’m going to offer my interpretation. I liken “purity” to “authenticity” — a self-awareness unburdened by outside expectations and an expression of that knowledge of oneself as one exists in the world. In other words, someone who is authentic is someone who is true to one’s own values, personality, and interests. 

But there is more to authenticity than just “the self” — and more to “you” than just “you.” The teachings of non-self, interdependence, and interconnectedness caution us against clinging to an idea of an independent self and independent being as the end-all be-all of our existence. The “you” in this moment is the product of many causes and conditions that brought you here, some even beyond the realm of our understanding.

Another way of thinking about this teaching of “non-self” can be to position yourself at the intersection of many different histories. These histories can be specific to your family or shared by the communities you call home. For example, as a Yonsei, a fourth-generation Japanese American, I inherit specific legacies from my grandfather’s military service during World War II in the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team as well as his family’s story with forced relocation and, for some of his siblings, incarceration. As a queer Asian American, I also inherit legacies of the historical queer liberation movement and the unique struggle of queer Asian Americans to have their voices heard in both the queer community and Asian communities. And finally, as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist in America, my experience as a religious minority is also greatly shaped by the collective history of the Buddhist Churches of America and the temples residing here.

In learning the stories that have brought us to where we are, we can be mindful of and acknowledge this complexity in others we meet as well. Within everyone are countless experiences we may never know first hand — wisdom outside our grasp. Yet this complexity is universal among all humans and all beings, something worth tapping into as a uniting force, rather than a divisive element. I’d like to share a video with you all that illustrates this point concisely.

I love this simple yet profound explanation. Just as leaves of all colors, shapes, and sizes need sunlight to grow, so too do humans of all colors, shapes, and sizes need the lights of purity, joy, and wisdom to grow and flourish. In this way, we can acknowledge diversity of conditions, contexts, and cultures, and recognize our shared desire to live as our authentic selves, in similarity and in difference.

Let us revisit the words of Shinran Shonin. Please join me in Gassho.

From Shinran’s “Hymns of the Pure Land” (“Jodo Wasan”):

“The light of the Buddha of Unhindered Light

Harbors the lights of purity, joy, and wisdom;

Its virtuous working supasses conceptual understanding,

As it benefits the beings throughout the ten quarters.”

(#57)

Shōshinge: Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Session 11)

In this session we will reflect upon the Dharma truth expressed in the lotus, a symbol of pure awakening that blossoms, not in pristine clear water, but from the messy muck of everyday life.

All foolish beings, whether good or evil,
When they hear and entrust to Amida’s universal Vow,
Are praised by the Buddha as people of vast and excellent understanding;
Such a person is called a pure white lotus.

Full text of Shōshinge

Handout

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Shōshinge: Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Session 10)

This session will delve into the meaning expressed the following metaphor of the sun that shines through clouds and mists, and how the Buddha’s wisdom illuminates our lives even in times of difficulty and confusion.

The light of compassion that grasps us illumines and protects us always;
The darkness of our ignorance is already broken through;
Still the clouds and mists of greed and desire, anger and hatred,
Cover as always the sky of true and real shinjin.

But though light of the sun is veiled by clouds and mists,
Beneath the clouds and mists there is brightness, not dark.
When one realizes shinjin, seeing and revering and attaining great joy,
One immediately leaps crosswise, closing off the five evil courses.

Full text of Shōshinge

Handout

To join us for this online Dharma Session, CLICK HERE and sign up for “Study Classes and Seminars”.

Shōshinge: Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Session 9)

This month we consider the following verse which illuminates the the profound transformation that occurs with the arising of the one thought-moment of joy.

When the one thought-moment of joy arises,
Nirvana is attained without severing blind passions;
When ignorant and wise, even grave offenders and slanders of the dharma, all alike turn and enter shinjin,
They are like waters that, on entering the ocean, become one in taste with it.

Full text of Shōshinge

Handout

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Sangha Voices: David Chin

Sangha Voices is a collection of profiles and perspectives featuring our temple members. For our very first profile, David Chin, the current temple president, shares how he came to be involved with San Mateo Buddhist Temple.

David Chin

My name is David Chin and I have been going to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple since 1991. I have been here through the more traditional route of attending Dharma School as a young kid. My parents and I had just moved over from New York to start elementary school here in San Mateo. My Mom and her grandparents are from here and my grandma was still teaching Dharma School at the time. Everything about the temple was still new too me and I did not really understand even reciting Namu Amida Bustu. Being so young and shy, I barely spoke out loud when saying the nembutsu. I basically whispered it under my breath during class and when ever I had to go up for oshoko.

Of course, eventually I got more comfortable around the temple and now think of it as my second home. It is hard to say what impact a place or community has on you when it has essentially always been there in your life. Being part of a larger community is something I only realized the value of later during high school and college by really becoming friends with people that did not have the same in their own lives. Being Buddhist and being part of this temple is an integral part of my identity and likely how I approach life. I imagine I would be a quite different person if we had stayed back in New York and I never became part of a Sangha.

The Four Universal Bodhisattva Vows

Living beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them all.

Blind passions are limitless, I vow to sever them all.

Dharma gates are inexhaustible, I vow to know them all.

Unsurpassed is awakening, I vow to realize it.

Commentary from Genshin’s Ojoyoshu, Section on the Correct Practice of the Nembutsu

To begin with, the manifestation of practice is generally called the mind that vows to become a Buddha.  It is also referred to as the mind that seeks the highest awakening while transforming living beings below.  The manifestation of practice is also expressed as the Four Universal Vows.

These vows can be understood in two ways.  The first way is to understand the Four Universal Vows as they arise from life situations.  This is compassion conditioned by a feeling of sympathy for living beings[1], or compassion conditioned by an appreciation of the Dharma[2].  The second way is to understand the Four Universal Vows as they arise from true reality.  This is unconditioned compassion[3].

[The Four Universal Vows as they arise from life situations]

I will now explain the Four Universal Vows as they arise from life situations. 

The first vow is “Living beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them all.”  One should think, “All living beings have Buddha-nature, I will guide them all to enter the state of nirvana without remainder[4].” . . . This is the cause for awakening of the transformation body[5]

The second vow is “Base passions are limitless, I vow to sever them all.” . . .  This is the cause for awakening of the Dharma body[6]

The third vow is “Dharma gates are inexhaustible, I vow to know them all.” . . . This is the cause for awakening of the reward body[7]

The fourth vow is “Unsurpassed is awakening, I vow to realize it.”[8]  This is the vow to seek the awakening of Buddhahood.  It is said that because this vow contains the practice and vows of the previous three, it leads one to realize perfect awaking of the three bodies.  Moreover it enables one to broadly guide all beings to liberation.

[The Four Universal Vows as they arise from true reality]

With regard to the Four Universal Vows as they arise from true reality, all things are originally tranquil [as in the state of Nirvana].  They neither exist nor lack existence.  They neither continue nor cease.  They neither arise nor are extinguished.  They are neither defiled nor pure.  There is no form or fragrance that is not an expression of the Middle Way[9]. 

Samsara itself is Nirvana.  The base passion themselves are awakening.   One by one, the gates of defilement themselves become the 84,000 perfected virtues.  Darkness changes into light, like ice melts into water[10].  It is neither far away, nor something that comes from another place.  The mind is completely endowed with virtues in a single thought-moment, as if receiving the wish-fulfilling jewel.  There is neither treasure nor lack of treasure.  To say it does not exist would be a lie.  To say it exists would be a false view.  It cannot be known by the mind.  It cannot be explained with words.

In the midst of this of inconceivable unbounded Dharma, living beings tie themselves down with concepts.  In the midst of the Dharma where there is nothing to cast off, they strive for liberation.  For this reason, [the bodhisattva] awakens great compassion and establishes the Four Universal Vows for all beings in the Dharma-realm.  This is called following true reality to the mind of aspiration.  It is the very highest mind that aspires for awakening.

Relationship between the Four Universal Bodhisattva Vows and the Four Noble Truths

Each of these two ways of understanding the Four Universal Vows has two meanings. 

[The Four Noble Truths and the Four Universal Vows as they arise from life situations]

From the perspective of the Four Universal Vows as they arise from life situations, the first and second vows express the removal of suffering of living beings as described in the Truth of Suffering and Cause of Suffering, the First and Second Noble Truths.  The third and fourth vows express bestowing upon living beings the joy that is described in the Path to Liberation from Suffering and the End of Suffering, the Fourth and Third Noble Truths.

[The Four Noble Truths and the Four Universal Vows as they arise from true reality]

From the perspective of the Four Universal Vows as they arise from true reality, the first vow refers to other beings, and the remaining three vows refer to oneself.  This is to say that both the removal the suffering described the First and Second Noble Truths and the bestowing of joy described the Third and Fourth Noble Truths are all contained within the first vow.  In order to realize absolute and complete fulfillment of this vow, one gives rise to the remaining three vows that refer to oneself.

(Jodo Shinshu Seiten Shichisohen Chushakuban, p. 903-906; Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo No. 2682, Vol. 84, p. 48-49, translated by H. Adams)


[1] Also referred to as “small compassion.” Cf. Shinran’s Hymns of the Latter Dharma Age:“Lacking even small love and small compassion, / I cannot hope to benefit sentient beings. / Were it not for the ship of Amida’s Vow, / How could I cross the ocean of painful existence?” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 422)

[2] Also referred to as “medium compassion.”

[3] Also referred to as “Great Compassion.”  This is the compassion of the Buddhas.

[4] 無餘涅槃the state of total liberation from all physical and mental conditions. This is in contrast to nirvāṇa with remainder 有餘涅槃, where the body still exists. (http://www.buddhism-dict.net/)

[5] The transformation body nirmanakaya: a body manifested to correspond to the different needs and capacities of living beings. (Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Terms, H. Inagaki, p. 237)

[6] The Dharma body Dharmakaya: the body of the ultimate reality (Ibid., p. 113)

[7] The reward body sambhogakaya: the body of a buddha received as the result of his meritorious practices (Ibid., p. 102)

[8] Genshin’s version of the Fourth Universal Vow (無上菩提誓願證), differs slightly from the more common Chinese version 佛道無上誓願成 “The way of the Buddha is unsurpassed, I vow to perfect it.”

[9] The Middle Way that rejects the two positions of “is” and “is not.”  This is characteristic of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy.

[10] Cf. Shinran’s Hymn’s 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.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 371)

Shōshinge: Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Session 8)

This month as we celebrate Sakyamuni Buddha’s Birthday, the following verse from the Shoshinge expresses our appreciation for the meaning of his appearance in this world:

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.

Full text of Shōshinge

Handout

To join us for this online Dharma Session, CLICK HERE and sign up for “Study Classes and Seminars”.

Rev. CJ Dunford’s Ohigan Spring Equinox Dharma Talk

Rev. Dunford shares their reflections on how Shinran Shonin’s Nembutsu teaching challenged the structures of oppression in 13th century Japan, and the inspiration we can find in the Nembutsu as we endeavor to reflect the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha in midst of our own troubled times.