As we turn the page on the truly extraordinary year that was 2020, some of our Sangha members will be adorning their homes with branches of pine, bamboo, and plum (shōchikubai) to welcome the New Year 2021 with these auspicious symbols that embody the virtue of resilience in the face of adversity.
Pine remains ever green, even in the cold of winter. It expresses consistency and stability. Bamboo does not break when bent by winter storms or piling snow. It shows us that there is great strength in remaining flexible during challenging times. Plum flowers blossom in the cold months and remind us that winter gives way to springtime. Just as our pleasurable experiences do not last forever, neither do the times of pain and difficulty. The beauty of the plum flower blossoms in the season of cold and darkness.Continue reading “Pine, Bamboo, and Plum”
As the days grow shorter and the skies here in the Bay Area are increasingly overcast, we find ourselves spending more of our waking hours in the darkness of wintertime. Throughout the world, this season of darkness is a time when our attention turns to the light of wisdom taught by the true teachers of our faith communities. In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, December is the month in which we celebrate Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment seated beneath the Bodhi Tree and look to the light of his wise teachings for comfort and guidance.
With the dramatic increase in Covid-19 infections that we are seeing throughout the world, I find that the darkness is not only in the skies, but also in my own mind. As the holidays approach, I crave the freedom to invite a big group of family and friends over for a yearend celebration. In years past, we might have had five or six families crowded around our table, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder laughing loudly and enjoying exuberant conversation. The house reverberated with happy voices raised over the sound of squealing children who chased each other around the dining room, passing toys back and forth, and pausing occasionally to plunge their hands into a bowl of fruit to pluck out a strawberry or a grape.
When our lives were turned upside down with the outbreak of the pandemic in the spring, I had naively expected that we would be returning to our previous way of living by this point in the year. At times, I blame others and feel angry about the fact that this coronavirus continues to spread widely here in the United States, while it seems to be largely under control in some other countries.
I fear that I will catch the virus, or that someone I care about will. I sanitize my hands carefully as I walk out of the grocery store to rid myself of any germs I may have picked up from the other shoppers, but did I take the same care while entering the store to disinfect my hands from any germs I may have brought in with me? How often am I careful to preserve my own well-being, while being ignorant of my potential to harm others?
Craving, anger and ignorance—the Buddha referred to these as the three defilements or the three poisons. He taught that the three defilements are the root cause of suffering. The deeper I sink into craving, anger, and ignorance, the darker my world becomes.
The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life taught by Sakyamuni Buddha describes how the light of wisdom shines into our minds dispelling the darkness of craving, anger and ignorance when we hear the words Namo Amida Butsu. Namo Amida Butsu means “I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light!” The sutra assures us that “Sentient beings who encounter this light have the three defilements swept away, and they become soft and gentle in body and mind.”
One who becomes soft and gentle in body is able to comfortably adapt to new circumstances and situations for the benefit of others. Recognizing the importance of preventing the spread of Covid-19, they might wear a close-fitting mask over their mouth and nose for several hours on a winter break outing to the zoo. In lieu of a cozy indoor holiday gathering, a person who is soft and gentle in body might choose the safer option of getting together with one other household of friends at the park for an outdoor picnic, despite the possibility of cool and rainy weather.
One who is soft and gentle in mind is free from rigid expectations and inflexible self-interest. In this season of togetherness, they awaken concern for all those who are suffering from illness and those who have lost their lives as a result of becoming infected. Their thoughts turn to those who are struggling because they are unemployed or underemployed as various restrictions on businesses are reimposed in response to rising case numbers.
Shinran Shonin writes that Sakyamuni appeared in this world solely to bring the light of Amida Buddha’s wisdom into the lives of people like me who are mired in the darkness of the three defilements. As this extraordinary year comes to a close, I offer my heartfelt wish that all beings may encounter the light of wisdom and become soft and gentle in body and mind.
Namo Amida Butsu
At the time of writing this article, the students and staff at the Adams Ichinomiya Elementary School are enjoying fall break. This week, we have happily traded our usual Covid-19 distance learning routine of online meetings and trips back and forth between our desks and the scanner to submit schoolwork online for days spent freely playing samurai in the backyard, splashing around in the river at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and digging for sand crabs at the beach.
Even as I recognize how fortunate we are to be in good health and living in a neighborhood that has not been threatened by the Hurricanes and wildfires that have impacted so many people across the country in recent weeks, I have to admit that there have been times when I have felt exhausted by all the precautions that we have had to adopt over the past eight months to prevent the spread of coronavirus. When I think about a Halloween with no trick-or-treating, and a holiday season without the big gatherings of family and friends that we look forward to each year, at times it can be difficult to feel gratitude.
While many of my favorite activities are being severely curtailed this year in accordance with the guidelines provided by our public health officials, I receive my mail and packages, my garbage gets collected on schedule, my children’s education continues, crops are harvested, and the grocery stores remain open, all thanks to the dedication of essential workers who have continued to work long hours in challenging—and often hazardous—situations. San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow continues to highlight the sacrifices these workers are making for us in his public statements. On July 20, he wrote:
A majority of people we are seeing infected now are front line workers (people who allow the rest of us to eat, and have electricity, and have our garbage picked up, etc.), live in crowded multigenerational conditions, live with lack of trust in, and in fact have downright fear of, government. Remember to stem the spread of this very transmissible virus, people who are infected need to be separated from others (isolation and quarantine), not go out in public, and not go to work while they are infectious. Try getting compliance with isolation and quarantine when the infected person is the breadwinner for the family and the family will be out on the street if they don’t go to work.
In this way, it is not only the front-line workers themselves, but also their families who are bearing the brunt of this pandemic in our community.
From the beginning of this Covid-19 pandemic, doctors, nurses, medical staff, and first responders have continued to courageously step up to provide care for those in need. They have made great sacrifices working long hours at risk to their own health in order to treat patients and better understand this disease. Dr. Li Wenliang, a doctor working at Wuhan Central Hospital and one of the first to sound the alarm about the serious threat posed by this new coronavirus, contracted the disease while battling the epidemic in the early days and crossed over to the Other Shore on February 7, 2020.
We can show our gratitude for the courage and sacrifice of those on the front lines by heeding their guidance and taking care not to further spread the virus through negligence and disregard. Always remembering to wear a mask out in public and maintain at least six feet of social distance requires mindfulness, concentration and diligence. The Buddha teaches that the way to deepen our practice of these virtues is to let go our attachments to “me” and “mine.”
When my perspective shifts from “all these rules make my life inconvenient” to “so much is being done by others each day to support and preserve my life,” a window of gratitude opens in my mind as the light of the Buddha’s wisdom shines in and dispels the darkness of my ignorance. In those moments, I reach for my mask and say Namo Amida Butsu in gratitude for the Buddha’s wisdom and the kindness of the many bodhisattvas who are hard at work supporting and guiding me through this life.
Namo Amida Butsu
We have a tradition at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple of observing a Pet and Plant Memorial Service each year in early October, during which we gratefully remember the animals who provide us with companionship as our pets. We also show our appreciation for the plants that support our lives, including the cut flowers that adorn the Buddha Shrine and bring us joy through their beauty. This year 2020, the Pet and Plant Memorial Service will be held online via Zoom Meeting on Sunday, October 4 at 9:30 a.m.Continue reading “Hanging by One Arm”
Each year during our Obon and Hatsubon Service, I am reminded of the power of the Buddhadharma to provide guidance and support for us as we navigate our feelings of grief. As school for my sons usually begins a few days after our San Mateo Buddhist Temple Obon Observance, I have come to associate our Obon with the end of summer. Opening the freezer at the temple to put away the Obon service manju for an occasion when we can all enjoy them together, I noticed three large bags of frozen hamburgers. I was suddenly reminded of the delicious hamburgers grilled at the temple picnic and all the experiences that we did not get to have this summer: bazaar—which marks the start of summer in my mind, the annual BWA service at the Japanese Cemetery in Colma, followed by brunch with BWA members at Denny’s in South San Francisco, a family trip to Japan, our summer Terakoya day camp, spam musubi at Obon Odori practices, and chanting together with a Hondo full of attendees at our Obon and Hatsubon service.Continue reading “When we meet, we will smile”
In Japan, Obon is traditionally one of the busiest travel seasons, as family members who have moved away from their ancestral hometown will travel great distances to return home during Obon. At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple too, there are many Sangha members who return to the Temple and reconnect with the Sangha each year during Obon odori dance practices and for the dance itself. Our Hatsubon service is one of our most well-attended services of the year, as families gather from great distances to remember loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore since the previous year’s Obon. In this year of Covid-19, when we are unable to gather in person at the Temple, we will be conducting the Obon services online and over the telephone via Zoom Meeting on Sunday, August 9 at 9:30 a.m. This unusual Obon observance gives us pause to reflect upon the meaning of returning home for Obon.
The Buddhist observance of Obon is inspired by the story of the Buddha’s disciple Mahamaudgalyayana, who felt deep gratitude toward his loving mother. After she passed away, he entered into deep concentration and searched for his mother throughout the many paths of birth and death. At that time, he saw that his mother had fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, a state of suffering from unsatisfied desire.Continue reading “Returning Home”
Over the past month we have seen the gradual relaxing of the Shelter in Place guidelines that have dramatically reshaped our lives since they were first ordered in March. Many stores are now offering curbside pickup for shoppers and restaurants have started to open for outdoor dining. Our neighborhood pool is open with new rules, such as masks should be worn at all times when not in the water and no pool toys are allowed. If you wish to relax on the pool deck, bring your own chair from home because all common pool furniture has been replaced with large squares of red tape guiding the families to sit six feet apart from one another.
San Mateo County restrictions on gathering at houses of worship have also been relaxed, which has prompted several Sangha members to ask, “When will we be able to return to the Temple for in-person services?”Continue reading “What is necessary?”
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