The Vow of the Buddha is Deep

In late 1206, while the Japanese Emperor Gotoba was away from the capital on a pilgrimage to the Kumano Shrine, his consorts Suzumushi and Matsumushi joined a Nembutsu gathering led by Honen’s followers Juren-bo and Anraku-bo.  After hearing the Nembutsu teaching, the emperor’s consorts experienced a great change of heart and took ordination as Buddhist nuns. 

When the emperor returned and discovered that Suzumushi and Matsumushi had renounced their lives in the imperial palace to join Honen’s Nembutsu Sangha, he became enraged and ordered Juren-bo and Anraku-bo to be executed along with two other leading followers of Honen.  Honen was ordered to be exiled on the island of Shikoku.  Seven more of his followers, including Shinran, were dispossessed of their priesthood and sent into exile, scattering the community throughout Japan.  While many lamented the exile, Honen instructed his disciples that this too should be accepted as the flow of karmic causes and conditions in their lives.  The following were his parting words to the Sangha:

“Do not resent my being sent into exile, for I am approaching eighty years of age.  Even if we were living together as teacher and students in the capital, my departure from this saha world is drawing near.  Even if we are separated by mountains and oceans, do not doubt that we will meet again in the Pure Land.  Though we may reject this world, our human existence carries on.  Though we may cling to life, our death will come.  Why insist upon being in a certain place?

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When the Buddha Appears in this World

On April 11, we will observe an online Zoom Hanamatsuri Service, our Annual Celebration of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama in the gardens of Lumbini, present day Nepal.  Siddhartha realized awakening at age 35 and is revered by Buddhists as Sakyamuni Buddha, so we celebrate his birth as the appearance of the Buddha in this world.  At the same time, we find that, for each of us, the Buddha appears in our lives in the moments when his wisdom and compassion shine the light of truth on our daily activities.

Perhaps it was a time when you were grieving the loss of a loved one that the Buddha appeared in your life to assure you that there is nothing more real in life than the truth of impermanence.  The Buddha’s teachings show us the path to live with peace of mind in the midst of impermanence, reminding us that our lives are but a moment in the flow of causes and conditions that began long before we were born and will continue on long after our time in this world has passed.

Perhaps it was a time when a difficult coworker or a bullying classmate was causing you distress and the Buddha appeared in your life to remind you of the unchanging truth that hostility is never subdued through hostility, but that by freedom from hostility alone is hostility subdued.

Perhaps it was during a moment of pandemic fatigue during this past year of living under the cloud of Covid-19 that the Buddha appeared to remind you that the lives we lead today are the result of what was done and not done in the past, and what we do and do not do today will determine how we will live the future.  Taking to heart the law of cause and effect taught by the Buddha, we recognize that when we all practice social distancing and mask wearing, Covid cases go down.  We also notice that in times when we as a nation have thrown caution to the wind, we have seen Covid cases go up

              In the moments that the Dharma supports us in our lives, we feel that Sakyamuni was born into this world for the purpose of guiding us on our path.  Reflecting on the most essential teachings of the Buddha, Shinran Shonin wrote that Sakyamuni was born into this world to impart the teaching of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow, the compassionate wish for all beings to realize a life of peace and joy:

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.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 70)

Sakyamuni Buddha, the Tathagata, appeared in this world to provide us with a path to liberation from the greed, anger and ignorance that have long been the cause of our suffering and stress.

The Nembutsu that embodies Amida Buddha’s compassionate wish for all beings to realize a life of peace and bliss, sustained Shinran Shonin in his time and it sustains us today.  In the Nembutsu, we receive the clear insight of the wisdom taught by Sakyamuni.  We also receive the peace of mind and diamondlike confidence of the Buddha mind that enables us to face with calm and clear resolve whatever difficulties we encounter in this world and these times.

In recent weeks, we have seen a deeply troubling series of attacks on Buddhist and Asian American communities.  These attacks stoke anger and fear in our minds, as we worry for the safety of our family, our friends, and ourselves.  In moments like this, the Buddha appears in our lives to inspire us with the courage to stand in solidarity with our neighbors and speak up with a bold voice that echoes with the wisdom of the Tathagata’s words of truth.  Let us take the Buddha as our guide and work tirelessly so that all beings may live with care and respect for one another as fellow travelers who share a common wish for a life of peace and bliss.

Namo Amida Butsu

A Joyous Reunion

As Spring arrives, we find ourselves once again preparing to welcome the Spring Equinox with an online Ohigan Service via Zoom on Sunday, March 21, 2021.  We have now completed one full cycle of the seasons living under the necessary restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19 in our community.  Cautious optimism is in the air as more and more of our family members and friends are receiving the Covid-19 vaccine and new infections seem to be on the decline.  Even though the shore of post-pandemic life appears to be coming into clearer view, we are still very much at sea in the ocean of this coronavirus. 

While finding my way in life in the time of Covid-19 feels like sailing on uncharted waters, pausing to reflect on the long arc of history, I find that epidemic disease has always been part of human life.  We can look to the wisdom of previous generations to find the compass of truth that will illuminate our journey across the ocean of birth and death to arrive at the Other Shore. 

In 1919, there was a growing community of Japanese Buddhists working on farms around the town of Guadalupe on California’s Central Coast.  Many of these intrepid Issei lived in camps near the fields with few comforts and amenities. As families began to take shape with young children, it became clear that these camps did not provide a suitable environment for children to grow and receive an education.  Responding to the urgent needs of one family and then another, the local Buddhist minister Rev. Issei Matsuura and his wife Mrs. Shinobu Matsuura opened the doors of the temple and began taking in children one by one until they found themselves caring for over twenty children in what became the Guadalupe Children’s Home.

Later in life, Mrs. Matsuura recalled her experiences caring for the children in her memoir Higan: Compassionate Vow.  I find the following episode from her memoir to be a particularly inspiring account of how the Nembutsu sustained that early Buddhist community here in California in the face of the great difficulties they faced during an epidemic:

When the children were healthy, life was comfortable.  But frequently, when epidemics struck, we spent many sleepless nights worrying.  Measles, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough and other illnesses were common occurrences.  When one became ill, we expected others to soon follow.  Caring for the sleeping children, who bravely endured high fever, I realized how they must have yearned for their own mothers, and I was deeply touched.

Once [a girl named] Akiko came down with Scarlet Fever.  For one whole month, the Children’s Home was quarantined.  No one was allowed to leave the compound, and no visitors were permitted to enter.  There was no time for tears.  I had to immediately concentrate on nursing Akiko back to health with the help of her older sister, Toshiko.  Her father, Mr. Tanaka, came to the front gate every day, handing fresh vegetables and other food over the fence, pleading, “Please take care of Akiko.  I appreciate your care.  But if she does not survive, she is in the temple and in good hands!”  Many parents came to the fence to hand over food and gifts.  Fortunately, after four weeks, recovery at last!  The other children were given preventative shots, nutritious meals, exercise, play, and study during the quarantine and were spared from catching the disease.  When, after a month, the isolation was ended and quarantine lifted, the parents rushed over and a joyous reunion took place.  I could only gassho, for surely the Nembutsu had sustained us.

(Higan: Compassionate Vow, Selected Writings of Shinobu Matsuura, p. 90)

In this story, we see how the Nembutsu has given generations of people living here in America the strength to face the most trying times of their lives.  We see the Buddha’s compassion at work in the life of Mrs. Matsuura who cared for so many children, as well as the dedicated care of the older sister Toshiko who stayed close to Akiko throughout her illness, helping to nurse her back to health.  As a father, I am particularly inspired by the example of Mr. Tanaka who visited the temple each day to bring nutritious food for the children and show his love and devotion to his daughter.  While Mr. Tanaka is deeply concerned for Akiko’s well-being, his heart is at peace knowing that she is in good hands.  The Nembutsu gives him the courage to face whatever may come without fear or anxiety.  Having directly faced the possibility of death without shying away, these pioneering Buddhist families were able to truly savor the preciousness of their lives together when they were reunited after the quarantine.

Namo Amida Butsu

Rely on wisdom, not on the working of the mind

In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, February is the month in which we observe our Nirvana Day Service, a remembrance of Sakyamuni Buddha’s parinirvana, the day he drew his final breath in this world and entered into the lasting peace of tranquility.  Our observance of Nirvana Day is an occasion to remember the truth that death is a gate through which all who are born into this human life will one day pass.  The fact that the enlightened Buddha himself was not exempt from passing through the gate of death shows us that the goal of the Buddha’s teachings is not to attain immortality.  Sakyamuni Buddha taught clearly with his own life the impermanence of this human existence.

The Buddhadharma shows us the way to make the most of this human life, so that we can meet the moment of death with peace and clarity of mind.  It was around this time last year that we first heard of a new coronavirus that had arrived here on the West Coast.  In this past year we have had powerful reminders of the preciousness of this human life.  I ask myself, have I awakened to the settled mind of one who is destined for birth in the realm of peace and bliss?

I spend most of my days chasing after the things that I think I need to be happy.  As this Covid-19 pandemic began to spread, I was chasing after toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  Lately, I’ve been scrambling to find a new bike for my oldest son, who has outgrown the one we bought for him a couple years ago.  Kids’ bikes have become a scarce commodity during the pandemic, with more and more families embracing cycling as a healthy outdoor activity at a time when gyms are closed and soccer practices suspended.  When my desired items are in short supply, my mind goes into overdrive trying to obtain them, scheming and calculating, looking for an advantage.  I called bike shops up and down the Peninsula looking for a bike in my son’s size.  When the owner of a bike shop near my house told me he had a used kid’s mountain bike in good condition, I dropped what I was doing and drove straight there to purchase it.

When not chasing after attractive objects or pleasurable experiences, I am running and hiding from that which I find unpleasant.  I avoid people who disagree with my views.  I hide in an “information bubble” made up of news sources, podcasts, websites, and social media sites that affirm my ideas without challenging me to see things from another perspective.  Rather than seeking a clear and accurate understanding of the world around me, I close my eyes and ears to those who may disagree with me.

In the midst of my relentless chasing and fleeing, there are moments when I am reminded how fragile and fleeting this human life is.  This morning I read that the Covid-19 pandemic has claimed 2,077,628 lives throughout the world, 406,196 lives in the United States, 35,068 lives in California, and 309 lives in San Mateo County alone. Many more will have crossed over to the Other Shore by the time you read these words.  As Rennyo Shonin writes, “We depart one after another more quickly than the dewdrops on the roots or the tips of the blades of grasses.” (Letter on White Ashes)

In this world of impermanence, Sakyamuni urges us to seek the path to true peace of mind.  

When Sakyamuni was about to enter nirvana, he said to the bhiksus, “From this day on, rely on dharma, not on people who teach it. Rely on the meaning, not on the words. Rely on wisdom, not on the working of the mind.

“As to relying on wisdom, wisdom is able to distinguish and measure good and evil. The working of mind always seeks pleasure, and does not reach the essential. Hence it is said, ‘Do not rely on mind.’”

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 241)

Knowing the strong pleasure-seeking tendency of my own mind, I find it difficult to distinguish and measure good and evil without being led astray by my biases and prejudices.  How grateful I am to the Buddha for shining the light of true wisdom into my life, dispelling the darkness of my mind and illuminating my path to awakening.

Namo Amida Butsu

Pine, Bamboo, and Plum

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.

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The Light of Wisdom Shining in the Darkness

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

Gratitude in the pandemic

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

Hanging by One Arm

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.

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When we meet, we will smile

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. 

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Returning Home

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.

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