The Company of Good Friends

              For the third month in a row, I am writing my Temple newsletter under the Shelter in Place Order.  While our Sangha has pulled together wonderfully to continue many of our regular Temple activities online, including weekly Sunday Services and Dharma Discussions via Zoom Meeting, my family and I really miss spending time with all of you in-person at the Temple.  All in-person Temple activities through June have been cancelled or moved to a virtual format.  Regrettably, that means that we will not be able to gather for our annual Temple bazaar this year, which is a great disappointment for our whole community.  Bazaar is one of the most fun and significant times of the year for us to gather at the Temple and deepen our Sangha friendships through work and play.  While the summer will not be the same this year without bazaar, we are working on plans for an online Sangha activity that will provide a fun opportunity to come together with our hearts and minds on Saturday, June 27. 

With all the changes that this pandemic has brought to our lives, I have come to truly appreciate the in-person encounters in my life.  These days I find myself delighting in across-the-sidewalk conversations from at least six feet away with neighbors with whom I had only exchanged passing greetings in the past.  As I reflect upon the importance of spending meaningful time together with friends and family, I am reminded of the deep affection and warmth that exists between people who rejoice together in the Nembutsu.  The great modern-day Jodo Shinshu Buddhist priest Rev. Jitsuen Kakehashi shares the following example of a friendship in the Nembutsu that blossomed in Japan during the 19th century:

There was man named Shinjiro who heard that there was Dharma teacher of profound insight called Ichiren’in living in Kyoto.  Shinjiro travelled to Kyoto to receive Ichiren’in’s teachings and went straight to the teacher’s home to request guidance in the Dharma.

As he waited in the entryway, Ichiren’in came out and abruptly asked him, “So you’re the one who wishes to see me.  What is your business here?”

“I have humbly come to hear the meaning of the six kanji characters ‘Namo Amida Butsu (南無阿弥陀仏)’.” said Shinjiro.

When Shinjiro replied in this way, Ichiren’in’s expression softened and he said, “In that case, I’m glad you came.  However, if you’ve come for that reason, then you must have already heard something about the meaning of the six characters.  What have you heard?”

“Namo Amida Butsu is the voice of the Tathagata [Amida Buddha] calling to me and welcoming me with the message ‘I will liberate you without fail.’  I receive these words as the flawless truth.” replied Shinjiro.

Hearing this reply, Ichiren’in delighted in his whole being, and stepping down into the entryway where Shinjiro was standing, grasped his hand said, “That is indeed the meaning of the six characters!  That is the meaning of relying upon and entrusting [in Amida Buddha].  An excellent Dharma friend has come to visit me today.  Please, please, come on in.”  With these words, Ichinen’in ushered Shinjiro into his private room where they talked extensively about the Dharma.

(Myokonin no Kotoba by Jitsuen Kakehashi, trans. H. Adams, p. 220-221)

The two became close friends, and in Ichiren’in’s later years, Shinjiro moved in with him to assist with housework and other various tasks, so that he could hear the Dharma morning and night.  The following story captures the profound joy that they shared in the Nembutsu.

On one occasion, Shinjiro was summoned to the room of Ichiren’in.  When he arrived at the room, Ichiren’in simply recited the Nembutsu without giving any indication as to why he had summoned Shinjiro.  Shinjiro waited patiently expecting that Ichiren’in would eventually say something to him, but no word of explanation was offered.  Having been summoned, Shinjiro could not just walk out of the room, so he eventually began reciting the Nembutsu himself, at which point his teacher redoubled the vigor of his Nembutsu recitation.  Before they knew it, it had gotten late and it was the middle of the night.  At that point, Ichiren’in finally paused in his Nembutsu recitation and said, “Shinjiro, thank you for your company this evening.”

(Myokonin no Kotoba by Jitsuen Kakehashi, trans. H. Adams, p. 222-223)

I often think that I need to be saying or doing something special in order to spend meaningful time with my loved ones.  When we hear the Nembutsu, the six characters “Namo Amida Butsu,” with the open heart exemplified by Shinjiro and Ichiren’in we are reminded that Amida Buddha has already taken care of everything that needs to be accomplished for our liberation.  With that deep awareness of the Buddha’s compassion, we can let go of our striving and simply cherish the time we have together.  As we live in these extraordinary times, may the voice of the Buddha calling to you in the Nembutsu bring you great comfort and peace of mind. Namo Amida Butsu

Hearing one another, hearing the Buddha

One month ago, as I sat down to write my newsletter article for April, we were just beginning our life of staying at home under the Shelter in Place Order.  My mind was filled with uncertainty about what the coming weeks would bring. I did not imagine the extent to which this coronavirus would affect the lives of so many people across the globe. As I sit down to write this article for May, I see the following headline in today’s edition of the Washington Post, “Covid-19 is rapidly becoming America’s leading cause of death.” It has been deeply saddening and distressing to hear of so many people near and far falling ill with Covid-19.  The loss of life is heartbreaking. In the midst of my anxiety and fear, I find myself turning to the words of Shinran Shonin for comfort and guidance.

In my reading this past month, I came across a letter that Shinran wrote at a time when famine and epidemic disease had devastated communities all over Japan. To me, Shinran’s words shine the light of wisdom on the challenges we face today.  Shinran writes:

It is saddening that so many people, both young and old, men and women, have died this year and last. But the Tathagata taught the truth of life’s impermanence for us fully, so you must not be distressed by it.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 531)

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The Sangha Treasure

I hope this message finds you well, and that you are receiving comfort and clarity from the boundless wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha in these stressful times.  As my good friend Rev. Harry Gyokyo Bridge of the Buddhist Church of Oakland reminded me in a recent e-mail, “Don’t forget to say the Nembutsu.”  Even if our minds drift from Amida Buddha, Amida Buddha never forgets us.

Continue reading “The Sangha Treasure”

Heading Westward

We will be observing our Spring Ohigan Service on Sunday, March 22 at 9:30 a.m.  Ohigan is observed twice a year during the spring and autumn equinoxes, when days and nights are of equal length and the sun sets directly in the West.  The Pure Land Sutras describe the Pure Land of Amida Buddha as a realm of enlightenment located in the west, so Ohigan is an ideal time to reflect on the direction of our lives and reorient ourselves on the path to liberation from suffering.

The following passage from the Amida Sutra describes how the Pure Land of Amida Buddha is located in the western quarter: “Beyond a hundred thousand kotis* of Buddha-lands westwards from here, there is a land called ‘Perfect Bliss.’ In that land there is a Buddha called Amida who is expounding the Dharma at this moment.” (Section 2)  Once, after I gave an Ohigan Dharma talk on the subject of Amida Buddha’s Pure Land in the western quarter, one of the Sangha members approached me and asked, “If the Pure Land of Amida Buddha is located in the Western Direction, can I travel there on spaceship?”  At the time, I was so caught off guard by the question that I had no idea how to respond.  While I am certain of the existence of Amida Buddha’s Pure Land, I do not believe it is the kind of physical place that one could fly to on a spaceship.

Some time later, I had the opportunity to meet with Rev. Sasaki Giei, one of my teachers from the Chuo Bukkyo Gakuin Buddhist Seminary where I studied for the ministry.  In our classes, Sasaki Sensei always provided clear and understandable explanations of the essential aspects of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist teachings, so I asked him how he might respond to that question about the spaceship.  In reply, he shared with me the following explanation, which is found in his book Naruhodo Jōdo Shinshū (Now I get it! Jodo Shinshu):

The light of the beautiful stars that we see shining in the night sky must travel hundreds of millions of light-years to reach us, such that by the time we see those stars here on earth, some of them have already ceased to exist. Therefore, not all the stars we see in night sky are in existence.

All things that come into being eventually pass out of existence. This is true of the stars in the night sky and it is true of our lives on this planet.  If the Pure Land were a world that could be seen with a telescope, then just like the stars in the night sky, it would eventually cease to exist.

Among all things of this world, there is nothing that continues forever. That is why the sutras tell us that the Pure Land is a “realm of enlightenment” that differs from this world of ours in that it cannot be apprehended in our limited way of seeing and thinking. Thus, the Pure Land is a realm that exists in order to liberate us who dwell in this world of impermanence and bring us to the realization of enlightenment.

(Naruhodo Jōdoshinshū, p. 13, H. Adams translation)

Just as the sun that rises in the east will eventually set the west, all of us who are born into this world will one day die. The Dharma taught by the Buddha teaches us that those who realize awakening are liberated from the continual cycle of suffering in the realm of birth and death. The realization of awakening and liberation from suffering is the goal of Buddhism. It is taught that the Buddha provided 84,000 Dharma gates that provide paths to liberation. The Buddha also taught the Pure Land gate, which assures us that those who entrust in Amida’s compassionate vow to liberate all beings from suffering will surely enter into the realm of enlightenment in the western quarter at the end of this very lifetime. Ohigan is our precious opportunity to reflect on the direction of our lives as we journey westward toward the realm of enlightenment.

Namo Amida Butsu

*koti: A term used in ancient India to express a high numerical value equivalent to one hundred thousand, ten million, or one hundred million.

 

True Victory

In a recent address to the Sangha, our temple President began his remarks with the words, “I would like to offer my condolences to Reverend Adams. . .”  Wondering what loss I should be grieving, I momentarily searched my memories of the preceding weeks.  Then he finished his sentence with the words, “. . . for the inhospitable treatment your Minnesota Vikings received from the San Francisco 49ers yesterday afternoon.”  I grew up in Minnesota and the previous day those two professional football teams had faced off for the Division Title.  Having suffered defeat at the hands of the 49ers, the Minnesota Vikings lost their chance to play in the Super Bowl on February 2.  For many families, Super Bowl Sunday is a major social event that rivals the traditional winter holidays as an occasion for gathering friends and loved ones for elaborate feasting and celebration—or drowning your sorrows in bean dip and hot wings if your team happens to be losing.

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20/20

Earlier this week, I was dozing off in my office at the temple while attempting to read a challenging passage from Shinran’s writings in Japanese when the chime for the outside doorbell woke me with a start.  As I sprang to my feet to answer the intercom, my glasses slipped off my face and fell to the ground.  The hinge that holds the right temple in place broke apart as it hit the floor, rendering my glasses unwearable.  Ideal vision is traditionally described as being able to see clearly at a distance of 20 feet the same object that a normal person can see at 20 feet, often expressed as the fraction 20/20.  The largest letter at the top of a standard eye chart that you find at an optometrist’s office often corresponds to 20/200 vision, which is the eyesight of a person who needs to be 20 feet away to see an object that a normal person can see from a distance of 200 feet.  Without my glasses, I have a hard time seeing that big letter E at the top of the chart.

I searched through my drawers and found an old pair of glasses I had purchased when I was living in Kyoto.  The first time I bought a pair of glasses in Japan, I remember complaining to the optician, “You got my prescription wrong.  Every time I have gotten new glasses in the past, I could see more clearly.  With these glasses, I can see less clearly than with my old glasses.”  When I suggested that they switch out the lenses to give me my old prescription back, the optician calmly explained to me, “From our perspective, your previous prescription was too strong.  Your left eye is stronger than the right, so you favor your left eye.  By slightly reducing the strength of your prescription in the left eye, we are creating a balance so that you will use both eyes equally.  This will reduce fatigue.”  I was skeptical, but the optician was adamant, so I decided to give the new prescription a try.  Prior to moving to Japan my prescription would increase slightly every couple of years.  During the six years I spent living in Japan, my prescription didn’t change at all, so in time I became a believer in the approach my optometrist in Kyoto was advocating.

When I went to update my glasses here in California for the first time after moving back from Kyoto, my new optometrist made the comment, “The prescription for your right eye remains the same, but we’ll need to increase the prescription in your left eye.”  When I explained the rationale for the prescription I had from Kyoto, my optometrist was dismissive.  “You want to be able to see as clearly as possible.  I am not aware of any research that supports deliberately under-correcting in one eye.”  I was not about to argue the science of optometry with a doctor, so got my new glasses and enjoyed being able to read distant signs on the freeway in time to change lanes and avoid missing my exit.

Wearing my old glasses from Kyoto these past few days as I wait for my current glasses to get repaired, I find that indeed my eyes do not get fatigued as much when I am reading.  That first optometrist I saw here in California was most intent on bringing the object of sight into crystal clear optical focus.  To him, the best prescription was determined by how clearly I could see an object across the room from where I sat.  For the optometrist I saw in Kyoto, the best vision was determined by taking into account both the subject who saw and the object that was seen.  Rather than focusing on the external object of sight as the sole criteria for determining the prescription, my doctor in Kyoto also took into account my experience of seeing through the lenses all day long.  In our conversation, I was encouraged to consider not just “What can I see?” but also “How do I see?”

A plaque hangings in the Buddha Hall of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple that reads “見真 kenshin” which means “see truth.”  Kenshin Daishi is the honorific title bestowed upon Shinran Shonin by the Meiji Emperor of Japan.  These words capture the spirit of our life in the Nembutsu, in which we endeavor to see the truth that is illuminated by the wisdom of Amida Buddha.  In reflecting on his own experience of seeing, Shinran composed the following verse in his Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu:

The person burdened with extreme evil should simply say the Name:
Although I too am within Amida’s grasp,
Passions obstruct my eyes and I cannot see him;
Nevertheless, great compassion is untiring and illumines me always.

The clear sight that I receive in the Nembutsu arises from seeing my life illuminated by the light of the Buddha’s wisdom, which helps me see how my perceptions are clouded by the greed, anger, and ignorance that arise moment to moment in my mind.  As I welcome the New Year 2020, I am grateful for the light of Amida Buddha that guides me to clearly see the truth of wisdom and compassion each day.

 

Namo Amida Butsu

A Place for Awakening

This past month the San Mateo Buddhist Temple had the honor of hosting a tour group from the San Francisco Foundation that was visiting sites in North Central San Mateo to learn more about the history of our neighborhood, how it is changing, and the current challenges faced by its residents.  The tour organizers were eager to include SMBT on the tour to highlight the important role that the Japanese-American Buddhist community has played in our neighborhood over the past 120 years.

During the visit, our guests heard from four SMBT Sangha members and longtime residents of North Central about their memories of life in the neighborhood and their hopes for the future.  Each shared a moving story of how their family had overcome challenges to establish meaningful lives here in San Mateo.  I’d like to share one of those stories, as I find it particularly relevant as we prepare to observe our Bodhi Day service on Sunday, December 1, 2020, at 9:30 a.m., in celebration of Sakyamuni Buddha’s realization of enlightenment seated beneath the Bodhi Tree:

The most significant event that happened as a child was the U.S. evacuation order in Feb. 1942.  I was 6 years old then and vividly remember the black-out drills the city had where all lights in the homes and streets had to be turned off until the all-clear sirens would go off and curfews were set at 8:00 PM. 

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Giving Thanks

During this month of November, we have some special opportunities to express our gratitude for all the precious gifts we receive in our lives.  On Sunday, November 17, we will observe our Eitaikyo Service, which is dedicated to grateful remembrance of those temple members whose families felt inspired to donate to the temple Eitaikyo Fund, which exists to ensure that the San Mateo Buddhist Temple will continue to be a place where we can gather to hear the Dharma and joyfully recite the Nembutsu.  On Sunday, November 24, we will hold the Shichigosan Observance at the temple for the families of children ages three, five and seven to express our gratitude and wishes for continuing healthy growth of the children.  On Thursday, November 28, many families and friends will also come together in their homes to celebrate the wonderful American holiday of Thanksgiving.

While gratitude is a theme that we return to throughout the month of November, living in the Nembutsu, we find that gratitude is a daily practice that brings peace and joy to our hearts.  One of the ways in which we cultivate gratitude in our daily lives is by pausing to join our hands in gassho and utter the word “Itadakimasu (I humbly receive)” before beginning a meal, and “Goshisosama deshita (It was feast created through great effort)” at the conclusion of the meal. 

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Let the waters of Amida’s Dharma flow

I would like thank all of our Sangha members who supported the World Buddhist Women’s Convention that was held in San Francisco over this past Labor Day Weekend.  Our San Mateo Sangha was well-represented on the committees that handled registration, translation and interpretation, the marketplace, and the organizational leadership for the convention.  The planning and preparation for the convention was in the works for ten years leading up to the event, and I am truly inspired by the dāna of time, energy, and resources that our Sangha generously provided at every step along the way.  1,700 attendees joined the conference from Japan, Hawaii, Canada, South America, and the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA).  In addition to a large number of lay Buddhists who attended, many ministers—women and men—also participated in the gathering.

At one point during the conference, I had the opportunity to provide interpretation for a frank conversation that occurred over lunch among a group of ministers from Kyoto, Japan and the BCA.  A minister from Kyoto had been speaking on the topic Shinran Shonin’s teachings regarding birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.  A question came up about whether birth in the Pure Land must be understood to be an event that occurs after death, or if one can experience aspects of birth in the Pure Land during this present life.  Citing several examples from the writings of Shinran Shonin, the minister from Kyoto set out to demonstrate that for a person who entrusts deeply in Amida Buddha, birth in the Pure Land will be realized after this present life comes to an end.

One of the ministers from the BCA said, “This is a matter of keen interest for us because many newcomers to the temple are seeking practices to guide their lives in the present moment.  These seekers are unconcerned with matters of the afterlife.”  The BCA minister went on to say, “Don’t you think that, as ministers working to propagate the Jodo Shinshu teachings, we should endeavor to share the teachings in a way that speaks to the interests and concerns of the people who are walking through the doors of our temples seeking the Dharma today?”

“I agree that it is important to speak to the concerns of everyone who comes to the temple seeking the Dharma.  At the same time, it is also important to faithfully maintain the traditional teachings that have been passed down over the generations.” replied one of the ministers from Kyoto.

“Setting tradition aside for a moment, how do you personally understand this matter of birth in the Pure Land?” inquired a BCA minister.

“I don’t intend to share my own personal views.  My purpose as a minister is only to clarify what I have understood based on my reading of the writings of Shinran Shonin.” said a minister from Kyoto.

“Here in the BCA, I find it necessary as a minister to share my own personal understanding of the Dharma as it relates to this world that we live in right now.”  said a BCA Minister.

Hearing this comment, another of the ministers from Kyoto offered the following insight, “In Japan, great value has been placed on the authority of tradition.  The desire to maintain and uphold tradition has been particularly strong in our Jodo Shinshu community since the Edo Period (1603-1867).”

“You’re talking about 400 years ago!  What about right now?” countered the minister from the BCA.

“Many people in Japan are inclined to continue the values and perspectives that have served their ancestors well over the centuries.  As such, they are not inclined to be the one to stand up and call for a new direction.”  said a minister from Kyoto.

“That sounds like stagnation to me.  Without movement, a body of water becomes stale and lifeless.” said one of the ministers from the BCA.

While affirming the validity of the BCA minister’s perspective, a minister from Kyoto offered the following insight: “Shinran Shonin’s teachings ought to be shared in a way that is suitable to the cultural background of the people who are hearing them.  It is natural that the Jodo Shinshu teaching will find one expression in Japan and another expression here in the United States.”

The conversation went on in this manner throughout the meal, continuing and over coffee and dessert, without reaching an elegant conclusion.  To me, this spirited dialogue was an uplifting reminder that our Nembutsu teaching continues to thrive thanks to our tradition of frankly and openly exchanging ideas.  As Rennyo Shonin wrote in the 15th Century, “time after time, [we must] clear the channels of faith and let the waters of Amida’s Dharma flow.”  (Rennyo Shonin Ofumi: Letters of Rennyo 2-1, BDK English Tripitaka Series, p. 61)

 

Namo Amida Butsu