The Company of Good Friends

              For the third month in a row, I am writing my Temple newsletter under the Shelter in Place Order.  While our Sangha has pulled together wonderfully to continue many of our regular Temple activities online, including weekly Sunday Services and Dharma Discussions via Zoom Meeting, my family and I really miss spending time with all of you in-person at the Temple.  All in-person Temple activities through June have been cancelled or moved to a virtual format.  Regrettably, that means that we will not be able to gather for our annual Temple bazaar this year, which is a great disappointment for our whole community.  Bazaar is one of the most fun and significant times of the year for us to gather at the Temple and deepen our Sangha friendships through work and play.  While the summer will not be the same this year without bazaar, we are working on plans for an online Sangha activity that will provide a fun opportunity to come together with our hearts and minds on Saturday, June 27. 

With all the changes that this pandemic has brought to our lives, I have come to truly appreciate the in-person encounters in my life.  These days I find myself delighting in across-the-sidewalk conversations from at least six feet away with neighbors with whom I had only exchanged passing greetings in the past.  As I reflect upon the importance of spending meaningful time together with friends and family, I am reminded of the deep affection and warmth that exists between people who rejoice together in the Nembutsu.  The great modern-day Jodo Shinshu Buddhist priest Rev. Jitsuen Kakehashi shares the following example of a friendship in the Nembutsu that blossomed in Japan during the 19th century:

There was man named Shinjiro who heard that there was Dharma teacher of profound insight called Ichiren’in living in Kyoto.  Shinjiro travelled to Kyoto to receive Ichiren’in’s teachings and went straight to the teacher’s home to request guidance in the Dharma.

As he waited in the entryway, Ichiren’in came out and abruptly asked him, “So you’re the one who wishes to see me.  What is your business here?”

“I have humbly come to hear the meaning of the six kanji characters ‘Namo Amida Butsu (南無阿弥陀仏)’.” said Shinjiro.

When Shinjiro replied in this way, Ichiren’in’s expression softened and he said, “In that case, I’m glad you came.  However, if you’ve come for that reason, then you must have already heard something about the meaning of the six characters.  What have you heard?”

“Namo Amida Butsu is the voice of the Tathagata [Amida Buddha] calling to me and welcoming me with the message ‘I will liberate you without fail.’  I receive these words as the flawless truth.” replied Shinjiro.

Hearing this reply, Ichiren’in delighted in his whole being, and stepping down into the entryway where Shinjiro was standing, grasped his hand said, “That is indeed the meaning of the six characters!  That is the meaning of relying upon and entrusting [in Amida Buddha].  An excellent Dharma friend has come to visit me today.  Please, please, come on in.”  With these words, Ichinen’in ushered Shinjiro into his private room where they talked extensively about the Dharma.

(Myokonin no Kotoba by Jitsuen Kakehashi, trans. H. Adams, p. 220-221)

The two became close friends, and in Ichiren’in’s later years, Shinjiro moved in with him to assist with housework and other various tasks, so that he could hear the Dharma morning and night.  The following story captures the profound joy that they shared in the Nembutsu.

On one occasion, Shinjiro was summoned to the room of Ichiren’in.  When he arrived at the room, Ichiren’in simply recited the Nembutsu without giving any indication as to why he had summoned Shinjiro.  Shinjiro waited patiently expecting that Ichiren’in would eventually say something to him, but no word of explanation was offered.  Having been summoned, Shinjiro could not just walk out of the room, so he eventually began reciting the Nembutsu himself, at which point his teacher redoubled the vigor of his Nembutsu recitation.  Before they knew it, it had gotten late and it was the middle of the night.  At that point, Ichiren’in finally paused in his Nembutsu recitation and said, “Shinjiro, thank you for your company this evening.”

(Myokonin no Kotoba by Jitsuen Kakehashi, trans. H. Adams, p. 222-223)

I often think that I need to be saying or doing something special in order to spend meaningful time with my loved ones.  When we hear the Nembutsu, the six characters “Namo Amida Butsu,” with the open heart exemplified by Shinjiro and Ichiren’in we are reminded that Amida Buddha has already taken care of everything that needs to be accomplished for our liberation.  With that deep awareness of the Buddha’s compassion, we can let go of our striving and simply cherish the time we have together.  As we live in these extraordinary times, may the voice of the Buddha calling to you in the Nembutsu bring you great comfort and peace of mind. Namo Amida Butsu

Hearing one another, hearing the Buddha

One month ago, as I sat down to write my newsletter article for April, we were just beginning our life of staying at home under the Shelter in Place Order.  My mind was filled with uncertainty about what the coming weeks would bring. I did not imagine the extent to which this coronavirus would affect the lives of so many people across the globe. As I sit down to write this article for May, I see the following headline in today’s edition of the Washington Post, “Covid-19 is rapidly becoming America’s leading cause of death.” It has been deeply saddening and distressing to hear of so many people near and far falling ill with Covid-19.  The loss of life is heartbreaking. In the midst of my anxiety and fear, I find myself turning to the words of Shinran Shonin for comfort and guidance.

In my reading this past month, I came across a letter that Shinran wrote at a time when famine and epidemic disease had devastated communities all over Japan. To me, Shinran’s words shine the light of wisdom on the challenges we face today.  Shinran writes:

It is saddening that so many people, both young and old, men and women, have died this year and last. But the Tathagata taught the truth of life’s impermanence for us fully, so you must not be distressed by it.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 531)

Shinran begins this letter with the words “It is saddening . . .”  With these words, he compassionately acknowledges and shares in the sadness that we all feel when parting with loved ones. He then proceeds to remind us that Sakyamuni Tathagata taught fully the truth that all who are born into this world will one day be separated by death. When I consider the many lives that have been lost through Covid-19 infections, and the difficult conditions that our heroic healthcare professionals are working under as they strive to save lives, I cannot help but feel distressed. Kobayashi Issa, a poet of the Nembutsu, wrote the following verse in 1819 after losing his young daughter to a smallpox epidemic:

Tsuyu no yo wa

                            Tsuyu no yo nagara

                                          Sarinagara

The dewdrop world

                     is a dew drop world,

                                     and yet. . .

Even though we have heard and accepted in our hearts Sakyamuni Tathagata’s teaching that birth, aging, illness, and death are unavoidable in this life, as human beings who have yet to realize enlightenment, sadness and distress well up in our hearts when we part from our loved ones.

Where can we turn to find peace of mind as we live in this world where illness and death abound?  Shinran calls us to open our hearts and receive the unshakeable peace of mind (shinjin) that comes from entrusting in Amida Buddha’s vow that all beings will receive complete liberation from suffering through birth in the Pure Land:

I, for my own part, attach no significance to the condition, good or bad, of persons in their final moments. People in whom shinjin is determined do not doubt, and so abide among the truly settled. For this reason their end also – even for those ignorant and foolish and lacking in wisdom – is a happy one.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 531)

Amida Buddha established the compassionate vow precisely because there are people like me who lack wisdom and are mired in the suffering of this world.  When I hear the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” I hear the voice of the Buddha calling to me and assuring me that there is nothing to fear in life and death.

The life of the Nembutsu is the life of hearing the voice of the Buddha calling to us in our moments of joy and in our moments of distress. Great peace of mind comes in hearing the Nembutsu with others, which can seem particularly difficult in our present circumstance, where we find ourselves severely limiting our in-person contact with others. And yet, the Nembutsu continues to thrive in our Sangha as we open our hearts and minds to find ways to stay connected.

Over the past month, our Sangha members have reached out to one another by phone and by email to check-in and offer support for those who are not able to freely leave their homes for fear of contracting the virus. Sangha members have also gathered in virtual spaces like online teleconference meetings to hear the Dharma together and practice compassionate listening with one another. As we encounter the distress of others, we explore our own feelings of distress. Hearing one another, we are reminded that the Buddha heard the suffering of all beings, and therefore established the compassionate vow for each and every one of us. Hearing the Nembutsu, we receive diamondlike peace of mind in these distressing times.

Namo Amida Butsu

The Sangha Treasure

I hope this message finds you well, and that you are receiving comfort and clarity from the boundless wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha in these stressful times.  As my good friend Rev. Harry Gyokyo Bridge of the Buddhist Church of Oakland reminded me in a recent e-mail, “Don’t forget to say the Nembutsu.”  Even if our minds drift from Amida Buddha, Amida Buddha never forgets us.

In keeping with the guidance for preventing the further spread of Covid-19 infections provided by the San Mateo County Health Department, the San Mateo Buddhist Temple plans to remain closed for in-person activities throughout the month of April.

The April Shotsuki Memorial will be postponed to a later date.

The Hanamatsuri Celebration of the Buddha’s Birthday will be conducted via live internet broadcast as scheduled on the morning of Sunday, April 19 at 9:30 a.m.

We are working to provide regular opportunities for our community to take comfort in the Sangha and find guidance in the Buddhadharma as we face the many challenges presented by this coronavirus outbreak.  One simple thing you can do is pick up the telephone and call your friends and relatives to check in. 

While we are not able to gather in person, there are now many opportunities to take part in temple activities by telephone and through online programs.  If you are comfortable using communication technology, please consider supporting your less technologically-inclined friends and family members, so they can maintain this vital link to the Sangha.

If you prefer to participate by telephone, simply call us at (650) 342-2541, and we will add you to a list for telephone updates.  We are also developing a set of e-mail distribution lists to provide you with the specific information you seek, without overwhelming your inbox in this time when we are relying heavily on our e-mail accounts to maintain essential lines of communication.  You will only receive messages regarding the categories you select when you subscribe.  You may unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time.  Subscribe to the lists.

You may also e-mail me at sanmateo.buddhist@gmail.com with your preferences and I will add you to the lists of your choice.

You may choose updates from the following categories:

Live Broadcast of Services: Services will continue to be broadcast live over the internet every Sunday.  You may also call in to listen to the service over the phone.  Details for how to view or call in to that week’s service will be provided each week.

Dharma School: We are working on plans for Dharma School Activities that your family can participate in from home.  As a parent of two school-age children myself, I recognize that our Dharma School families are scrambling to balance working from home, attending to our children, and implementing the distance learning programs that our heroic school educators have managed to create on very short notice.  Nevertheless, in the midst of this hectic and stressful time, there are opportunities for gratitude as families are reunited in the home in a way that is increasingly rare these days.

Study Classes and Seminars: Our Sunday Adult Discussion program is continuing using internet and telephone conferencing.  I’ll be surveying interested Sangha members to identify the best days and times for additional Dharma conversations and study activities, as we adjust our schedules to implement social distancing.

Community Service (ex. Support for Homebound Elders)

While we work to identify needs for community support in areas such as shopping for groceries or picking up prescriptions from the pharmacy, we can begin by reaching out by phone to our fellow Sangha members to provide social and emotional support, which is so vital as we navigate these stressful times in a state of social distancing.

The psychological and emotional impact of extended isolation is hard on everyone, particularly our elders.  Regular intellectual stimulation is key to maintaining wellness, and for many in our community, the temple is their primary provider of those precious interactions.  While we are not able to gather in person at the moment, a simple phone conversation can do wonders for maintaining spiritual and emotional vitality.  We are recruiting volunteers to call up our Sangha friends on the phone to check in and have a friendly conversation.

日本語の法話: Japanese Language Services and Dharma Talks will be broadcast by telephone and online.

General Announcements: We will provide updates and announcements regarding temple events such as Shotsuki Hoyo Memorial, Memorial Day Cemetery Services and Bazaar.

Feel free to call Rev. Henry at (650) 342-2541 anytime if you have questions, concerns, or would just like to chat.

Namo Amida Butsu

Heading Westward

We will be observing our Spring Ohigan Service on Sunday, March 22 at 9:30 a.m.  Ohigan is observed twice a year during the spring and autumn equinoxes, when days and nights are of equal length and the sun sets directly in the West.  The Pure Land Sutras describe the Pure Land of Amida Buddha as a realm of enlightenment located in the west, so Ohigan is an ideal time to reflect on the direction of our lives and reorient ourselves on the path to liberation from suffering.

The following passage from the Amida Sutra describes how the Pure Land of Amida Buddha is located in the western quarter: “Beyond a hundred thousand kotis* of Buddha-lands westwards from here, there is a land called ‘Perfect Bliss.’ In that land there is a Buddha called Amida who is expounding the Dharma at this moment.” (Section 2)  Once, after I gave an Ohigan Dharma talk on the subject of Amida Buddha’s Pure Land in the western quarter, one of the Sangha members approached me and asked, “If the Pure Land of Amida Buddha is located in the Western Direction, can I travel there on spaceship?”  At the time, I was so caught off guard by the question that I had no idea how to respond.  While I am certain of the existence of Amida Buddha’s Pure Land, I do not believe it is the kind of physical place that one could fly to on a spaceship.

Some time later, I had the opportunity to meet with Rev. Sasaki Giei, one of my teachers from the Chuo Bukkyo Gakuin Buddhist Seminary where I studied for the ministry.  In our classes, Sasaki Sensei always provided clear and understandable explanations of the essential aspects of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist teachings, so I asked him how he might respond to that question about the spaceship.  In reply, he shared with me the following explanation, which is found in his book Naruhodo Jōdo Shinshū (Now I get it! Jodo Shinshu):

The light of the beautiful stars that we see shining in the night sky must travel hundreds of millions of light-years to reach us, such that by the time we see those stars here on earth, some of them have already ceased to exist. Therefore, not all the stars we see in night sky are in existence.

All things that come into being eventually pass out of existence. This is true of the stars in the night sky and it is true of our lives on this planet.  If the Pure Land were a world that could be seen with a telescope, then just like the stars in the night sky, it would eventually cease to exist.

Among all things of this world, there is nothing that continues forever. That is why the sutras tell us that the Pure Land is a “realm of enlightenment” that differs from this world of ours in that it cannot be apprehended in our limited way of seeing and thinking. Thus, the Pure Land is a realm that exists in order to liberate us who dwell in this world of impermanence and bring us to the realization of enlightenment.

(Naruhodo Jōdoshinshū, p. 13, H. Adams translation)

Just as the sun that rises in the east will eventually set the west, all of us who are born into this world will one day die. The Dharma taught by the Buddha teaches us that those who realize awakening are liberated from the continual cycle of suffering in the realm of birth and death. The realization of awakening and liberation from suffering is the goal of Buddhism. It is taught that the Buddha provided 84,000 Dharma gates that provide paths to liberation. The Buddha also taught the Pure Land gate, which assures us that those who entrust in Amida’s compassionate vow to liberate all beings from suffering will surely enter into the realm of enlightenment in the western quarter at the end of this very lifetime. Ohigan is our precious opportunity to reflect on the direction of our lives as we journey westward toward the realm of enlightenment.

Namo Amida Butsu

*koti: A term used in ancient India to express a high numerical value equivalent to one hundred thousand, ten million, or one hundred million.

 

True Victory

In a recent address to the Sangha, our temple President began his remarks with the words, “I would like to offer my condolences to Reverend Adams. . .”  Wondering what loss I should be grieving, I momentarily searched my memories of the preceding weeks.  Then he finished his sentence with the words, “. . . for the inhospitable treatment your Minnesota Vikings received from the San Francisco 49ers yesterday afternoon.”  I grew up in Minnesota and the previous day those two professional football teams had faced off for the Division Title.  Having suffered defeat at the hands of the 49ers, the Minnesota Vikings lost their chance to play in the Super Bowl on February 2.  For many families, Super Bowl Sunday is a major social event that rivals the traditional winter holidays as an occasion for gathering friends and loved ones for elaborate feasting and celebration—or drowning your sorrows in bean dip and hot wings if your team happens to be losing.

A classic American tradition, the Super Bowl is the championship game that decides who can claim the honor of being the best team in American football.  In order to reach the Super Bowl, two teams must emerge victorious over the other teams in their division and conference.  Having played at the consistently superior level to reach the Super Bowl, the team that wins the championship game needs to have the inward attributes of motivation, strategy, and discipline, as well as the outward attributes of speed, strength, and good equipment.

Although few of us will have the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl, we enjoy the excitement of watching the game because we all face challenges in our own lives and receive inspiration from seeing others rise to the occasion and put forth their best effort, whether they win or lose.

Among the various challenges that we face in life, the Buddha teaches that the most important victory to pursue is the victory over greed, anger, and ignorance.  Greed, anger, and ignorance arise from our self-centered way of thinking, and are referred to as the three poisons because they poison our lives by causing all kinds of suffering for ourselves and others.  The way for us to overcome these three poisons is to attain enlightenment and receive the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.

The members of the winning Super Bowl team possess the inner and outward attributes of a superior athlete.  Likewise, one who conquers greed, anger, and ignorance and attains the victorious state of Buddhahood possesses the inner and outward merits and virtues of enlightenment.  The inner virtues of the Buddha include wisdom and fearlessness.  The Buddha also displays outward virtues, such as sharing the Dharma for the benefit of all beings.  By sharing the Dharma, the Buddha shines the light of his wisdom freely illuminating every aspect of our lives.

The nembutsu, or the practice of reciting the name of Amida Buddha in the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” has been provided for us by the Buddha as a way to receive the immeasurable wisdom and compassion of awakening.  In his writings, the eminent 12th century Japanese priest Honen describes how all the virtues of enlightenment are contained in the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” the name of Amida Buddha:

 

. . . into the name flow all of Amida’s uncountable virtues.  That is to say, in the name are contained all the merits and virtues of Amida’s inner enlightenment, such as the four kinds of wisdom, the three bodies, the ten powers, and the four kinds of fearlessness. Also contained in it are all the merits and virtues of his outward activities, such as the major and minor bodily characteristics, the emanation of light, the preaching of the Dharma, and the benefitting of sentient beings.

(Honen’s Senchakushu published by the Kuroda Institute, page. 76)

 

In providing us with the nembutsu teaching, the Buddha provided us with a means to receive all the merits and virtues of enlightenment.  To say the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” is to gratefully acknowledge the working of the Buddha’s wisdom in our lives.  We receive the benefits of the Buddha’s awakening as the light of the Dharma illuminates our lives, liberating us from the fear and darkness of ignorance.

As you face the challenges in your life, I encourage you to keep in mind that the Buddha has provided his teachings in the Dharma as a light to guide you on your path to awakening and a life of wisdom and compassion.  When you feel the presence of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion in your life, you may find the words “Namo Amida Butsu” coming forth in gratitude from your lips.

 

Namo Amida Butsu