Our Parents of Great Compassion

Mother’s Day is celebrated in the month of May.  Some people feel the closest maternal connection to the woman who gave birth to them.  Others have a special connection with mother figures who are not their birth mother, but those who have given them great care and kindness over the years.  I recall one temple member whose mother lived far away, but they would often say “I am fortunate to have so many mothers here at the temple in the Buddhist Women’s Association.”  When one of the BWA ladies would correct them on a mistake, they would graciously reply.  “Yes, Mom.  I’ll do it that way from now on.”  If one of the BWA ladies helped them with a task, they would gratefully say, “Thanks, Mom!”  Those “Moms” were not their birth mothers, but they were a consistent presence of care and support.

Continue reading “Our Parents of Great Compassion”

Flowers that Bloom in the Springtime

Growing up in Minnesota, I spent many hours in the autumn helping my mother in our family flower gardens.  We would clear out the dead plants and prepare the soil for the flowers my mother had planned for the following spring.  I remember one afternoon in early November when I was planting flower bulbs and thinking to myself, why are we putting these plants in the ground now, when the soil will be frozen for the next four months?

The following year in April when the snow finally melted, a bed of beautiful tulips and crocuses bloomed in the spot where the bulbs had been planted.  I marveled at how life had carried on through a long period where it seemed that everything in that place had died and then resurfaced with such striking beauty.  Life had not ceased in the garden.  It simply took on another form.  Today, recalling the understanding of the cycle of nature that I learned seeing those flowers bloom as a child, I can appreciate how conditions from the past bear fruit in the present.

This month of April we hold our Hanamatsuri Service at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple celebrating the birth of Siddhartha Gautama over 2,500 years ago in Lumbini, Nepal.  During his lifetime, Siddhartha attained awakening and came to be revered as Sakyamuni Buddha, the compassionate teacher whose way of living and words of wisdom continue to inspire and guide seekers of the truth around the world.

The traditional story of Siddhartha’s birth tells how he was welcomed into this world with the abundant blooming of flowers.  Upon arriving in this world, he is said to have taken seven steps, with a lotus flower blooming on the ground in each place that his foot touched the earth. Having passed through the six paths[1] of death and rebirth countless times, he was steeped in causes and conditions from the past.  The seven steps represent his resolute intention to transcend the cycle of birth-and-death and realize the path to lasting peace, not just for himself but for all beings.

Sakyamuni Buddha’s final human birth came to an end when he passed into the lasting tranquility of parinirvana at age 80.  Like a beautiful flower that blooms temporarily in our garden, the Buddha’s human life expressed the truth of impermanence.  And yet, the wisdom and kindness he brought into this world continues to guide and support all those who take refuge in his teachings.   

Among the many teaching that Sakyamuni Buddha imparted during his lifetime, the teaching of Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow provides our gateway into the garden of awakening.   Amida Buddha vowed that those who live with deep mindfulness of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion and express their sincere gratitude in the words “Namo Amida Butsu” will unfailingly attain the life of lasting peace and joy.

This flower of truth blossoms in our hearts each moment we say “Namo Amida Butsu” with a heart of grateful entrusting.  In The True, Teaching, Practice, and Realization, Shinran Shonin offers the words of Master Tz’u-min as an expression of his joy in the Nembutsu:

Considering then this human existence – hard is it to obtain;
It is like the blossoming of the udumbara.
Truly we have come now to hear the Pure Land teaching so rare to encounter;
Truly we have encountered the opening of the dharma-gate of the nembutsu.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 41)

The udumbara is a flower that requires very specific conditions to bloom, such that it rarely blooms.  Lifetime after lifetime we have cycled through a long winter in traveling the paths of birth-and-death.  Finally, the causes and conditions have matured for us to encounter the teachings of the Buddha.  Now springtime blooms in our hearts and we can appreciate how truly precious is this human life we have received.  Let us cherish and make the most of this life by listening carefully to the Buddha’s teachings and settling our path to liberation from suffering.

Namo Amida Butsu

[1] A traditional Buddhist worldview describes six possible states of existence into which a person may be reborn: hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting titans, humans, and heavenly beings.

Heading to the Western Shore

Prior to coming to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, I served for three and half years at the Oxnard Buddhist Temple and the Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara.  One day, a Dharma friend in Santa Barbara called me to say that a church member by the name of Mr. Baba was in the hospital and would be cheered by a visit from me.  Mr. Baba was 95 years old, and while born in the United States, had spent much of his childhood in Japan.  He would attend every service I led at the Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara smartly dressed in a suit and tie.  He was a man of few words who listened to the Dharma with deep attention.

At that time, our eldest son had just turned one year old, so I was still getting used to life as a parent and feeling a little frazzled.  When I stepped into Mr. Baba’s hospital room, there were various medical devices beeping and clicking at his bedside.  He immediately greeted me, saying, “Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to visit me.”  I asked him how he was feeling, and he responded warmly, “So-so, but I’m still here.  How is your wife and your baby boy?”

The visit lasted about thirty minutes.  As I recalled our conversation on the drive home, I felt a little sheepish when it struck me that we had spent more time talking about my family than how Mr. Baba was doing.  He seemed much more interested in the people around him than his own health problems.   

A few days later, I received a call from Mr. Baba’s daughter informing me that he had crossed over to the Other Shore.  He may have been aware that the time for his birth in the Pure Land was drawing near at the time when I visited him in the hospital.  As one who had deeply heard the teaching of Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow, Mr. Baba was free from all worry, knowing that his birth in the realm of peace and bliss was settled.

Few people are able to enjoy good health to the age of 95 the way that Mr. Baba had.  Looking at the world around us, we are reminded that we may cross over to the Other Shore at any moment.  This truth is expressed in the following words from Rennyo Shonin’s “Letter on White Ashes”:

Who in this world today can maintain a human form for even a hundred years? There is no knowing whether I will die first or others, whether death will occur today or tomorrow. We depart one after another more quickly than the dewdrops on the roots or the tips of the blades of grasses. So it is said. Hence, we may have radiant faces in the morning, but by evening we may turn into white ashes.

In this month of March, we observe our Spring Ohigan Service.  Ohigan means “Other Shore,” and is observed on the equinox when the sun sets directly in the west.  This is a time to reflect our journey from this world of suffering, across the ocean of birth-and-death, to arrive at the Other Shore of awakening.  Our journey to the world of awakening does not begin at the moment of death.  Each day of our lives is a precious opportunity to direct our minds to the Pure Land of wisdom and compassion.

A person like Mr. Baba who deeply hears the truth of the Buddha’s teachings lives each moment of their lives with their mind directed toward Amida Buddha’s land in the west.  Cherishing each encounter with fellow travelers on this shore as he approached his own birth in the Pure Land, he proceeded to the west with a settled mind in the Nembutsu.

Namo Amida Butsu

The Peace of Mind We Receive from Sakyamuni Buddha

In February, we observe our Nirvana Day Service commemorating Sakyamuni Buddha’s passing from this world into the lasting peace of parinirvana.  In departing from this world, Sakyamuni embodied the essential truth that all who are born into human life will eventually pass through the gate of death.  Given that our bodily form will not last forever, where shall we find meaning and purpose in this life?  Observing the world in which we live, it seems that many lives are devoted to the pursuit of fame and profit.  Shinran Shonin himself concludes his Hymns of the Dharma-Ages with the following verse:

I am such that I do not know right and wrong
And cannot distinguish false and true;
I lack even small love and small compassion,
And yet, for fame and profit, enjoy teaching others.

The pursuit of fame and profit pervaded life in Shinran Shonin’s time, just as it does in our own time.  Reading these words of Shinran Shonin, I recognize how the desire for fame and profit often compels my own life.

In this internet age, we may find ourselves spending considerable time and energy curating an image of ourselves on social media platforms.  When our posts accumulate more and more “likes,” we taste the fleeting pleasure of fame and recognition.  This is what makes social media platforms so addictive.  When our lives are driven by the quest for fame and recognition, it is easy to become preoccupied by how we are evaluated by others.  This preoccupation with our own image can cause our hearts to become narrow and self-serving.  We may worry that if others receive attention and recognition that we will be forgotten and ignored.  We become resentful of those who receive praise, thinking that the recognition they receive signals a lack of regard for our own accomplishments.  Rather than leading to peace of mind, chasing after fame and recognition tends to lead to increased stress and anxiety.

When our lives are driven by the desire for profit, we are at risk of losing sight of what it is that makes this human life precious.  In our contemporary society, there is a tendency to attribute more value to the lives of those who have the ability to accumulate great profits.  As a result, those who dedicate their lives to helping others through vocations like teaching and care-giving often struggle to maintain their livelihood.  While recent advances in artificial intelligence raise the prospect of even more efficient and profitable operations for businesses, many workers now have great anxiety that they will no longer be needed in their current job and that their value as an employee will disappear.  When the guiding principle of life is maximizing profits, anxiety and fear are pervasive and peace of mind is rare.

Ordinary unenlightened beings fall into confusion and anxiety in their pursuit of fame and profit.  In the following verse from Shinran Shonin’s “Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu,” he expresses his deeply held belief that the true purpose of Sakyamuni Buddha’s life in this world was to provide peace of mind for ordinary unenlightened beings:

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.

The Primal Vow expresses Amida Buddha’s steadfast commitment to liberate all beings without discrimination.  The quest for profit can lead to discriminatory treatment of others if we value them only according to how much they are able to contribute to our own profit.  Sakyamuni taught the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in order to liberate all those who are lost and suffering in this world dominated by the quest for fame and profit.

Our lives are precious not according to how much fame or profit we attain.  Our lives are precious because we have the potential to realize liberation from suffering through the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.  The words “Namo Amida Butsu” that I hear are the voice of the Buddha calling out to me, saying “I will liberate you without fail.”  The words “Namo Amida Butsu” that I recite are my joyful response saying, “Thank you for liberating me.”  Sakyamuni Buddha’s true purpose in life was to bestow upon us the genuine peace of mind that we receive in the Nembutsu.

Namo Amida Butsu

Year of the Dragon

Best wishes for the New Year!  In the traditional zodiac calendar of East Asia 2024 is the Year of the Dragon.  In Buddhism, dragons are revered as protectors of the Buddha’s teaching, or the Dharma.  Many temples feature dragon images on incense burners, painted doors, and altar adornments.  In his Hymns in Praise of Prince Shotoku¸Shinran Shonin describes how a dragon protects the Dharma at the Shitennoji Kyoden-in temple built in the sixth century by Prince Shotoku in the area of present-day Osaka:

On this site, there is a body of pure water;
It is called Koryo pond.
An auspicious dragon constantly dwells therein;
It protects the Buddhist teaching.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 436)

Living in modern society, we tend to think of protection as something for our property and our bodies.  We lock the doors to our house to protect ourselves and our belongings from intruders.  We install alarms in our cars to protect them from thieves.  People who play rugged sports like skateboarding, football, and ice hockey wear pads to protect their bodies from injury.  Whenever I go for a bike ride, I wear a helmet to protect my head and sunglasses and sunscreen to protect my skin from harmful ultraviolet rays.  Protection generally implies keeping something harmful out, like keeping burglars out of our homes, keeping thieves out of our cars, and keeping harmful ultraviolet rays from penetrating the delicate tissues of our skin and eyes. 

Continue reading “Year of the Dragon”

Great Compassion is Untiring and Illumines Me Always

Heartbreaking news arrives daily from the Middle East, the war in Ukraine rages on, and gun violence in America continues unabated, reminding us that the darkness of greed, anger, and ignorance continue to prevent the people of this world from recognizing our shared humanity.  In discouraging times like this, I find comfort and hope for the future in gathering with friends from other religious traditions to affirm our shared wishes for a world in which peace and kindness prevail.  Recent conversations with Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Christian friends have reminded me that many of the world’s religious traditions observe festivals that celebrate light transforming darkness, such as Ramadan, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Diwali.

In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, Bodhi Day, the day of Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, is observed on December 8.  This service is a time when we reflect on Siddhartha Gautama’s heroic journey in search of the light of clear wisdom that shines through the darkness of ignorance and mistaken thinking. 

In the traditional telling of the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, it is said that as the moment of his awakening approached, a brilliant light shone forth from the place where he sat in meditation.  When Mara, the Demon King of Illusion, saw this light, he knew that Siddhartha was about to transcend the world of illusion and break free from Mara’s control in the unending cycle of birth and death.  Mara came at Siddhartha with the full force of his army of illusion in the hope of disrupting Siddhartha’s meditation. 

Continue reading “Great Compassion is Untiring and Illumines Me Always”

This Marvelous Human Life

This past month we had the opportunity to gather three generations of our family at the Grand Canyon when my wife and I traveled with our sons to join my parents in celebrating their golden wedding anniversary at a place they visited on their engagement trip 50 years prior.  We had all visited the Grand Canyon together five years ago on the occasion of my father’s 70th birthday.  Plans are already in the works for another visit in five years’ time to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday.

I find the Grand Canyon to be an ideal place to reflect upon the passage of time in our lives.  Viewing the layers upon layers of rock that were formed over millions of years, and then gradually carved out by the waters of the Colorado River, the flow of time is on display in a rare and magnificent fashion.

On this trip, we learned that the canyon continues to evolve as the river flows like sandpaper, carrying sediment and boulders in its current.  When the spring snowmelt comes down from the Rocky Mountains, strong flows of water carry boulders the size of automobiles that scrape against the riverbed, helping to carve the canyon even deeper through the layers of hard, dry rock. Even with all these dramatic and powerful forces of nature at work, a park ranger told us, “You can come back in 50 years and the canyon will be deeper by about the thickness of one Harry Potter book.” 

Continue reading “This Marvelous Human Life”

A Place to Hear the Nembutsu

During the month of October we observe our annual memorial service in honor of Shinran Shonin’s wife Eshinni, their youngest daughter Kakushinni, and the many the Buddhist women who have passed the joy of the Nembutsu down through the generations.  Following Shinran Shonin’s birth in the Pure Land, Kakushinni provided land and received support from Shinran’s followers in the Kanto region to build a hexagonal mausoleum dedicated to his memory.

Kakushinni took responsibility for the care and maintenance of the mausoleum and made an agreement with the Kanto followers that her descendants would continue to serve as its caretakers in the future generations.  That hall is called the Otani Mausoluem (Jpn. Otani Honbyo) and is considered to be the precursor to our present-day mother temple, the Hongwanji.  Down through the generations, the descendants of Shinran Shonin have maintained the Hongwanji as a place where we can come together to share in the joy of the nembutsu.  In many ways the Hongwanji temple serves as model for our activities at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple.

Continue reading “A Place to Hear the Nembutsu”

When do you say “Namo Amida Butsu?”

As we welcome the Autumn Equinox in this month of September when the sun sets directly in the west, let us reflect upon the direction of our lives.  Living in San Mateo, when I look to the west these days, my thoughts turn to our friends in Maui who are enduring great hardship following the devastating wildfires that tore through their community and my heart is filled with wishes for their safety and peace of mind. 

The Lahaina Hongwanji Mission is located in the heart of the area that was burned by the fires.  Like the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, they had planned to hold their Bon Odori festival of dancing and gratitude on August 12.  A fellow minister sent me an aerial photograph of Lahaina taken after the fires, and as I saw the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission yagura dancing platform standing amidst the charred rubble at the very moment that the San Mateo Buddhist Temple yagura stood in the center of our temple parking lot, I deeply felt the impermanence of this world.

Continue reading “When do you say “Namo Amida Butsu?””