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. 

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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. 

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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.” 

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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.

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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.

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Receiving the Gift of Kind Eyes

There are gifts that we can give to others even if we do not have material wealth to share, such as the gift of kind eyes that look upon others with loving concern, free from judgement and ill-will.  Kind eyes do not just see what is happening but move us to respond to the suffering of others with deep compassion.  

The Buddhist observance of Obon is inspired by the story of the Buddha’s compassionate teaching to his disciple Mahamaudgalyayana.  An enlightened disciple of the Buddha by the name of Mahamaudgalyana had a special ability to see the workings of cause and effect beyond the boundaries of birth and death.  On one occasion he used this power to search for his mother throughout the six realms of existence*.  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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Compassion for Silverfish

Summer has arrived, the children are enjoying a break from school, and the weather is beautiful.  At this time of year, we look forward to relaxing at the beach and perhaps taking a family vacation.  While we all aspire for a life of comfort and enjoyment, the path to lasting happiness can be difficult to discern.  One of the basic teachings of Buddhism tells us that our actions, words, and thoughts determine what kind of person we become and what sort of environment we wind up living in the future.  From this perspective, striving to become an intelligent and kind person could be seen as the way to live a happy life.  An intelligent person accumulates wisdom by studying to obtain knowledge and listening closely to the guidance of those who have already attained happiness.   A kind person is constantly mindful of the feelings of others, showing compassion by refraining from treating others in a way that they would not wish to be treated themself.

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Impressions from the Pilgrimmage Tour

Last month I had the opportunity to travel with Rev. Takashi Miyaji of the Southern Alameda County Buddhist Temple and several members of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on the Bay District Pilgrimmage Tour to attend the 17th World Buddhist Women’s Convention, held in conjunction with the Joint Service Celebrating the 850th Anniversary of Shinran Shonin’s Birth and the 800th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Jodo Shinshu Teaching, followed by an excursion to sacred sites related to hidden Nembutsu practice in the Kagoshima region.  A pilgrimmage tour differs from ordinary tourism, in that the sites we visit are connected to the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings and the Nembutsu, and therefore provide us with a precious opportunity to reflect on the causes and conditions that have supported our lives up to this moment and guide us to clarify the direction of our lives moving forward.

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