Catching a Dharma Cold

            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.

Namo Amida Butsu

New Year’s Day Service

January 1

Join us to welcome the New Year 2022 as we look to the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha for guidance in coming year.

9:15 a.m. Shoshinge Gyofu Chanting
10:00 a.m. New Year’s Eve Dharma Service

To preserve the health and safety of our Sangha given the ongoing surge in Covid-19 infections in San Mateo County, our New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day services will be held via Zoom only, without in-person Sangha attendees in the Hondo.

Please do not come to the temple in person.

To join us for this online Dharma Service, CLICK HERE to sign up for “Live Broadcast of Services”.

New Year’s Eve Service

December 31

Join us to reflect the lives we lived during 2021 illuminate by the light of the Buddha’s wisdom.

6:00 p.m. Shōya Raisan Chanting
7:00 p.m. New Year’s Eve Dharma Service

To preserve the health and safety of our Sangha given the ongoing surge in Covid-19 infections in San Mateo County, our New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day services will be held via Zoom only, without in-person Sangha attendees in the Hondo. We apologize for the change in plans.

Please do not come to the temple in-person.

To join us for this online Dharma Service, CLICK HERE to sign up for “Live Broadcast of Services”.

The Path to Awakening

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 smbt@sanmateobuddhisttemple.orgor 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.

Namo Amida Butsu

Sadness and Compassion

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.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 169)

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In a House Full of Good People, the Fighting Never Ends

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.

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The Direction of our Lives

As autumn arrives, bringing with it cooler temperatures in the morning and evening, our family has been welcoming a long-anticipated return to fulltime in-person learning at school.  After a year and a half of staying home together every day, we are once again each heading off in our own direction on weekday mornings.  For our two older sons, who are in 2nd and 5th grades, it is back to elementary school and the routine of morning drop-offs, lunchtime recess on the playground, and hands-on work with Montessori materials in the classroom.

Our youngest son Tokuma had just turned one-year-old at the start of the pandemic and was just beginning to walk and say simple words at that time.  Now he is off to preschool and has entered a whole new world of spending time away from his parents and brothers, and playing in a group with other children his own age.  He began the preschool experience with a summer camp that was also attended by our middle son Shoma, who had attended that same preschool himself when he was younger.  This summer Shoma returned as a senpai, the oldest child in the group, and enjoyed helping the teachers provide care and guidance for the younger students. 

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Meeting Again

In East Asian Buddhism, Obon is traditionally understood to be the time once a year when loved ones who have departed this world for another destination in the cycle of birth and death, or samsara, return here to be with their families.  The next birth is traditionally believed to occur sometime during the 49-day period after death.  With this understanding, it is customary to avoid holding the Hatsubon service during the 49-day period of mourning, because in principle, the loved one may not yet have departed to another birth from which they would return at Obon.  If the Obon observance happens to fall during the 49-day period of mourning, Hatsubon is observed the following year.

However, in the Jodo Shinshu tradition it is taught that all beings who encounter the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha are completely liberated from samsara and realize birth in the Pure Land at the very moment of death.  From the Pure Land, they return as bodhisattvas to freely guide all beings to awakening moment to moment throughout the year, not just during Obon.  So, in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, Obon is time to reflect in gratitude on the power of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow to liberate all beings from suffering.  Our departed loved ones are present guiding us each day of our lives, but we observe Obon as a special occasion to reflect and express our gratitude.

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At the Fair, on the Farm

Having spent much of past sixteen months sheltering at home, this summer has brought a joyful return to some of our favorite pre-pandemic activities, including a visit to the San Mateo County Fair.  Even breathing through my mask, the smells of the county fair brought back waves of memories of past summers.  The smell of barbequed ribs, turkey legs, and French fries reminded me of leisurely summer afternoons enjoying fairs and festivals with my wife and sons.  The farm smells of pigs, goats and cattle in the livestock showcase brought back memories of summer visits to the family farms of my relatives living in Iowa.  I recall the first time my son received a tour of the cattle barns on my aunt and uncle’s farm.  At one point, he asked my aunt, “Can we see something that doesn’t smell?”  She laughed and replied, “Well, we are on a farm.”

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To go there is easy and yet no one is born there

As we come to the end of this extraordinary school year, my family and I are looking forward to celebrating what we hope will be the conclusion of our misadventure with pandemic homeschooling.  With much of our sons’ learning having taken place on the computer during this past school year, one of our greatest challenges has been staying on task with so many tempting distractions just a click away on the internet. 

In my complaints about this website or that YouTube Channel that I catch my sons looking at while they are supposed to be working on their online math programs, I find myself saying things like, “What is this junk you’re watching?”  Listening to myself speak, I hear echoes of my father’s comments on my own television viewing choices when I was in elementary school and he came home from work to find me camped out in front of the television during my daily latchkey kid binge on afterschool sitcom reruns.  

It seems that as each generation matures, it finds itself criticizing the distractions of the younger generation.  It feels to me like we live in a uniquely distracted time at the present, with various devices and internet sites vying for our attention from moment to moment throughout the day. 

Continue reading “To go there is easy and yet no one is born there”