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. 

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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.

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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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What is necessary?

            Over the past month we have seen the gradual relaxing of the Shelter in Place guidelines that have dramatically reshaped our lives since they were first ordered in March.  Many stores are now offering curbside pickup for shoppers and restaurants have started to open for outdoor dining.  Our neighborhood pool is open with new rules, such as masks should be worn at all times when not in the water and no pool toys are allowed.  If you wish to relax on the pool deck, bring your own chair from home because all common pool furniture has been replaced with large squares of red tape guiding the families to sit six feet apart from one another. 

San Mateo County restrictions on gathering at houses of worship have also been relaxed, which has prompted several Sangha members to ask, “When will we be able to return to the Temple for in-person services?”

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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.

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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.