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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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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