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

“Where am I going?”

One of the great heroes in our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition is a humble farmer and handyman named Shoma who lived in Sanuki province (present day Kagawa Prefecture) on the Japanese island of Shikoku from 1799 to 1871.  Shoma helped to maintain the Shokakuji temple, where the resident priest had much affection for him.  Shokakuji is affiliated with Koshoji, a large Jodo Shinshu temple located adjacent to Nishi Hongwanji in Kyoto.  In Shoma’s time, Koshoji was part of the Hongwanji School.  It became the head temple of the independent Koshoji School of Jodo Shinshu in 1876.

Shoma visited Koshoji for the first time with a group of five or six fellow practicers of the Nembutsu.  Together they received the Sarana Affirmation Ceremony, a ritual in which the abbot of the temple places a razor on the head of the Nembutsu follower three times, representing the shaving of the head, which since the time of the Buddha, has expressed the resolution to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (the community that lives guided by those teachings).  The abbot of the temple proceeded through the group one by one administering the Three Refuges.  After he administered the refuges to Shoma, the abbot started to move on to the next person when Shoma grabbed hold of the sleeve of his robe and said, “Brother, are you prepared?”

When the ceremony was finished, the abbot told his assistant “Summon the fellow who pulled on my robe.”  The assistant went into the crowd of fellow practicers and said, “Is the fellow who just pulled on the Great Abbot’s robe here?  You will go before him now.”  Hearing these words, Shoma sat there with a serene face, but the fellow practicers who had accompanied him to the temple were shocked and alarmed.  They immediately began pleading with the abbot’s assistant saying, “We are truly sorry for this grave disrespect!  Had we known he would do something like this, we wouldn’t have brought him along.  We will take back him with us.  We can only humbly beseech you to forgive him.  He’s just a simple-minded fool.  We implore you to take compassion on him and forgive his rudeness.”

“I see.” said the assistant and returned to the abbot to recount what they had said.  However, the abbot replied, “No matter, bring him here.”  There was no choice but for Shoma to be brought before the abbot.  Being ignorant of formality and refined manners, Shoma just plopped himself down and sat cross-legged right in front of the abbot.

At that time, the abbot asked him, “Was it you who pulled on my robe?”

Shoma replied, “Yeah, it was me.”

“What were you thinking when you pulled on my robe?” asked the abbot.

“You are wearing a fancy red robe, but that red robe won’t help you escape rebirth in hell, so I was wondering if you are prepared for your next rebirth,” said Shoma.

“Yes, I summoned you here because I wanted to hear this understanding of yours.  Many people treat me with reverence and respect.  However, you are the only one who has shown concern for my rebirth.  I’m glad you asked, but have you received the heart of entrusting (shinjin)?” inquired the abbot.

“Yeah, I have,” answered Shoma.

“In one sentence, tell me what you’ve received,” said the abbot.

“It’s nothing at all,” replied Shoma.

“With that, are you prepared for your next rebirth?” asked the abbot.

Shoma replied, “You’d better ask Amida about that.  It’s not my job, so why would I have the answer?”

The abbot was most satisfied with Shoma’s reply and said, “As you say, there is nothing beyond entrusting in Amida.  One must not rely on the working of one’s own mind.  You are an honest man.  Today, let us share a drink as brothers!”  With that he called his servants to bring a bottle of sake.  The abbot poured Shoma’s drink and they enjoyed a feast together.

After that initial encounter, Shoma would regularly visit the abbot.  Shoma was quick to forget matters of this world, so before he returned to his village the abbot tucked a letter in his waistband, indicating that Shoma was to be given an audience whenever he visited Koshoji.  From then on, every time Shoma arrived in Kyoto, he would call out “Where am I going? Where am I going?”  As soon as someone noticed the letter, he would be taken to visit the abbot straightaway.

We will be observing our autumn Ohigan Service on September 22, 2019.  Ohigan is an ideal time for us to pause and reflect upon the direction of our lives and ask ourselves whether we are living with the teachings of the Buddha as our guide.  If we are able to meet a Dharma friend like Shoma who is able to look past all the superficial concerns of this world and remind us what is truly important, let us take this time to treasure their company and show our appreciation for their companionship in the Nembutsu.


Namo Amida Butsu

The Lantern of Wisdom

I always leave one high-efficiency LED light on in the hallway and open the door just a crack when I go to bed.  At some point in middle school, I stopped sleeping with my Snoopy nightlight, and for many years, I tried to make my room as dark as possible before going to bed.  Even a little bit of light in the room would make it hard for me to get to sleep.  That habit changed suddenly for me one night almost ten years ago, shortly after my wife and I moved to Oxnard, California, where I had received my first assignment as a minister in the Buddhist Churches of America.  We were settling into life in California and getting used to living in a spacious single-family home after having spent a couple of years in a tiny downtown Kyoto apartment.  Our entire Kyoto apartment would have fit inside the kitchen of our Oxnard house.

This was before our children were born, at a time in our lives when we slept soundly through the night without interruption.  We had yet to develop the attuned nighttime listening of parents with small children who are accustomed to waking up in the middle of the night to change diapers or comfort crying children.  Late one night we were awakened from a deep sleep by the ear-piercing screech of an alarm sounding in the hall outside our room.  In a panicked daze, I jumped out of bed and rushed toward the bedroom door to investigate.  Running through the pitch-dark room in my groggy state, I miscalculated the location of the door, both in terms of distance from the bed and position in the room.  I was running at a full sprint when my face collided with the wall two feet to the right of the door to the hallway.  I reeled momentarily before fumbling on the wall to find the light switch.  Once I switched on the lights and opened the door, I could see that the noise was coming from the smoke alarm where the “change battery” light was flashing.  I climbed up on a chair, removed the battery from the screeching smoke alarm, and the device fell silent.  I then staggered through the house to the kitchen, made an ice pack, and climbed back into bed, where I eventually drifted off to sleep with a wet towel filled with melting ice cubes resting on the bridge of my nose.

Today we can light up a dark hallway instantly with the flip of a switch, but for much of human history lanterns have been used to bring light into darkness.  The Buddha’s teachings are likened to a lantern that shines the light of wisdom and dispels the darkness of ignorance.  Japanese Buddhists have a custom of hanging lanterns at this time of year in observance of Obon, the festival of grateful remembrance for deceased loved ones.  According to popular Japanese folk belief, lanterns are hung outside the home during Obon to guide the spirits of deceased loved ones back home to rejoin the family for the three days of Obon, during which the deceased enjoy a brief respite on their journey through samsara, the cycle of continuing death and rebirth.

In contrast, followers of the other power nembutsu extolled by Shinran Shonin take comfort and guidance from the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, which assures us that those who take refuge in Amida Buddha attain final liberation from birth and death when they are born in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha at the end of this life.  The lanterns that we hang at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple during Obon are not intended as a guide for our deceased loved ones because they have already arrived at their true destination.  It is I who am in need of guiding light as I fumble through life, mired in the darkness of delusion.  When I run through the darkness as fast as my legs will carry me, it is no wonder that I continually crash into the walls of greed, anger and misunderstanding.  How many hours will I spend nursing my aching head before I turn about and allow the lantern of the Buddhadharma illuminate my mind?  In his Hymns on the Pure Land, Shinran writes:


The light of wisdom exceeds all measure,
And every finite living being
Receives this illumination that is like the dawn,
So take refuge in Amida, the true and real light.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 325)


As we light the lanterns this Obon season, let us open our hearts to the true light of wisdom that illuminates the path to liberation from suffering.  Let us gratefully receive the guidance of those loved ones who have already arrived at the Other Shore of liberation.  As we remember their lives, we awaken to the truth that they continue to guide us with the light of wisdom each and every day throughout the year.


Namo Amida Butsu

The Real McCoy

At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on Sunday, July 7, 2019, at 9:30 a.m. we will observe our annual memorial for the past Bishops of the Buddhist Churches of America.  Throughout the history of the Buddhist Churches of America and its predecessor, the Buddhist Mission of North America, our bishops have responded to the challenges of their times, showing courageous leadership and empowering the Sangha to work tirelessly to share the joy of the Nembutsu in this land.  One of the greatest challenges faced by the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist community in North America was the mass incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry during the Second World War.  Following the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, organizations like the Buddhist Mission of North America that had close ties to Japan and were led by immigrants from Japan were subject to severe suspicion and hostility.

Following the mass relocation and incarceration of the Japanese American community on the West Coast in makeshift camps in desolate inland areas of the United States, an emergency Buddhist National Conference was convened in 1943 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  At that time, the decision was made to file articles of incorporation with the State of California for a new organization called the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) that would succeed the Buddhist Mission of North America.  In American Sutra, Duncan Ryuken Williams’ recently published history of Buddhism in the Japanese-American community centering on the World War II incarceration, Dr. Williams describes how a group of 47 American-born nisei leaders were chosen to sit on the board of directors that would run the BCA (p. 146).  With the support of Bishop Ryotai Matsukage, the American-born Rev. Kenryo Kumata was chosen to head the board of directors.

Under the leadership of Bishop Matsukage, Rev. Kumata had been charged with actively ministering to the younger generation of English-speaking Japanese-Americans.  He also served as the English-language spokesman for the Buddhist Mission of North America during the critical time-period at the outbreak of the war.  Bulletins and Dharma messages written by Rev. Kumata were widely distributed across the various incarceration camps, bringing comfort and guidance to those who took refuge in the Nembutsu in the midst of tremendous adversity.

I recently came across the following message written by Rev. Kumata that was circulating in October 1943 and recorded in the Denson YBA Bulletin, a publication of the Young Buddhist Association at the incarceration camp in Jerome, Arkansas:


DENSON YBA BULLETIN, Vol. I, No. 2, Oct. 3, 1943

Hidden Qualities

Many of us can find agreement in saying that “tempura” is indeed a tasty dish. Once in a while, the enjoyment lies in guessing what is covered by the “koromo”* and in the anticipation of finding your guess come true.  But the “koromo” itself does not constitute the whole of the meal; the essence lies in what is underneath.  Just so, no matter how glittering and beautiful a trinket may look, it is still a trinket, a bauble, and may not be classed as a jewel unless the innards are of the same quality as the surface.  In other words, it must be “solid”, or “sterling”.  Superficial education, sophistication and all may pass for the “real McCoy” once in a while, but cannot compare with true wisdom and humility; qualities which are endowed upon those with Faith in the spiritual guidance of the Buddha. —Rev. Kenryo Kumata


*koromo: a batter coating; koromo may also refer to robes and clothing, often used to refer to the robes worn by Buddhist priests.


Reading Rev. Kumata’s words over 75 years later, I am in awe of his ability to provide a profound and impactful Dharma message with striking economy of language.  Writing messages for wide distribution at a time when paper and printing would have been precious resources for his community, he was able to make every word count.  He manages to evoke the comfort and fond recollection of delicious food and family gatherings for readers who were likely subsisting on cafeteria-style meals that lacked the flavors of Japanese home-cooking and the intimacy of the family dinner table.  Writing in the vernacular of the youth of his day, incorporating everyday examples and slang expressions like the “real McCoy,” Rev. Kumata’s message conveys the penetrating depth of Buddhist faith, or shinjin, which is the essence of Shinran Shonin’s Nembutsu teaching.

The tireless efforts of wise and dedicated leaders like Bishop Matsukage and Rev. Kumata created the circumstances for me to hear the Nembutsu here in the United States.  Thanks to their leadership, we enjoy a thriving BCA Sangha and the San Mateo Buddhist Temple continues to be a place where we gather to encounter the Buddha’s heart of great compassion in our daily lives.  Reflecting on their legacy, I can only join my palms in gassho, bow my head in gratitude, and say “Namo Amida Butsu.”


“This is enough for me”

This past month at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple we were honored to host our friends from the Pacifica Institute, a local Muslim community active here on the San Francisco Peninsula, for an evening of Muslim-Buddhist interfaith conversation that culminated with a delicious Iftar dinner.  Iftar is the traditional meal that is shared by Muslims after sunset to break the fast that begins each morning at dawn during the holy month of Ramadan.  We began our encounter in the Buddha Hall, where I briefly introduced the history of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple and our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition before we chanted Juseige and offered incense. Our guests enjoyed a taste of our Buddhist practice, and several came forward to join in the offering of incense.

We then adjourned to the Social Hall where my good friend Imam Yilmaz Basak provided a clear and informative introduction to the Muslim observance of Ramadan and the significance of fasting in Islam.  Following a prayer at sunset by Imam Yilmaz and our customary Buddhist Words of Thanksgiving before the meal, we enjoyed some dates and water that had been set out on the table while we waited for our turn to go to through the buffet line to receive a delicious Mediterranean meal.  While we were chatting and getting to know one another, an elderly gentleman who was sitting across from me at the table turned to me and said, “I have a gift for you.”  He then reached into his pocket and took out a tangerine, which he offered to me, saying, “I brought two tangerines, but one is enough for me.”  Bear in mind that this gentleman had been fasting since dawn and had not had anything to eat or drink all day.  As I bit into the juicy tangerine, I thought to myself, if I had been fasting all day and had two tangerines in my pocket, would I so readily share one with a stranger who had eaten two meals and several snacks in the time that I had been fasting?  Would I be able to hold one tangerine in the palm of my hand and say, “This is enough for me”?  If I were in his shoes, I would probably be thinking, “This guy has been eating and drinking all day.  I need this tangerine more than he does.”

As I savored that tangerine, I realized that I was receiving a truly precious gift of Dana.  In Buddhism, Dana, or selfless giving, refers to a gift that is given with a pure heart, free of self-interest.  Imam Yilmaz explained to us that for Muslims, fasting during Ramadan deepens one’s appreciation and gratitude for what one has received and enables the faithful to cultivate awareness for the needs of those who are less fortunate.  As gratitude for what one has received deepens, one’s practice of charity grows.  Through this encounter with the Muslim observance of Ramadan, I discovered a deeper appreciation for the virtue of selfless giving.  Dana is the first of the Six Paramitas, or perfected virtues, that Mahayana Buddhists aspire to embody in our daily lives.  Similarly, selfless giving to those in need constitutes one of the Five Pillars of the Muslim faith.  While Muslims and Buddhists follow the unique teachings of our respective traditions, when we come together in friendship and mutual respect, we are reminded of the common values shared by all who seek a path to liberation from the narrow confines of self-centered living.


Namo Amida Butsu

Buddha Loves You Little Shark

Raising children can be a challenge.  My wife and I have three sons, and there have been times when their behavior has been entertaining for others but exasperating for us as parents.  Our third son is still a baby, but before we know it, he will be crawling, then walking, then running, then talking and making animal sounds.  If he is anything like his big brothers, he will do all these things in the middle of Sunday service.  I once overheard a conversation between a temple member who attended service most Sundays and her daughter, who rarely came to the temple.  The temple-going mother said, “You should come to service more often.  It’s fun to see what mischief Sensei’s son is going to get into next.”  When she noticed me standing within earshot, she hastily added, “I mean you should come to service to hear Sensei’s Dharma talk.”

A few years ago, when one of our older sons was at the height of his “terrific twos,” he was thoroughly enjoying himself crawling around under the pews during the Hanamatsuri Service.  He was having so much fun playing cat-and-mouse with my wife, who was desperately trying to contain his antics, that he scurried off under the pews until he popped out from under the first row and stood grinning back at my wife from the floor right in front of the podium where our guest speaker was delivering the Hanamatsuri Dharma Talk.  The instant my wife moved to get up from her seat to retrieve him, he gleefully dove under the table upon which the Hanamido floral shrine sat at the front of the Hondo.  The table was completely covered from front to back with carefully arranged potted plants to evoke the luxuriant Lumbini’s Garden in which baby Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, was born.  The front of the table was covered with a large sheet of white paper, so no-one but me could see my son as he sat happily in an enclosed little space beneath the Hanamido.

Our guest speaker that Sunday was a senior retired minister who carried on with his talk unperturbed.  When I glanced out at the Sangha hoping no-one had noticed, I could immediately identify which members had seen my son crawl under the Hanamido table because they were intently watching the floral shrine with facial expressions that ranged from seriously concerned to thoroughly amused.  I sat in my usual seat dreading catastrophe until my wife saved the day by deftly extracting my son from beneath the Hanamido.  It was one of those moments of public embarrassment that, as a parent, one hopes will soon be forgotten.  However, in a recent conversation a temple member delightedly recounted the episode in colorful detail.  She concluded by saying, “It warmed my heart to see that our temple is a place where children are allowed to be children.”

Last month following our Hanamatsuri service, we enjoyed our usual program of songs and skits by the Dharma School students.  Our preschool and kindergarten class contributed a heartwarming rendition of the classic children’s gatha, “Buddha Loves You.”  Each verse of the gatha features a cute little animal doing its cute and charming thing, complete with hand motions for little birds flying, pussy cats crying, little pups running and little fish swimming.  The verses conclude with the refrain “Buddha loves you little bird/pussy cat/etc.”  All the animals in the gatha are docile, well-behaved and endearing.

The preschool and kindergarten class took the stage dressed in adorable costumes, such as little birds and little pups. The little fish costumes struck me as somewhat unusual until we reached the last verse of the gatha and the children joyfully sang out, “Swim, swim, little shark, Buddha loves you little shark”—punctuated not with the sweet puckering mouths of little fish, but rather with the big chomping hand motions of a hungry shark.  One of my sons happened to be one of the little sharks, and after the performance he proudly announced to me that he and his classmate had come up with the idea for the little sharks.  I was duly impressed with the creativity of the students, but also filled with gratitude to our open-hearted Dharma school teachers who remind us that Amida Buddha’s compassion embraces all the hungry little sharks and even welcomes the sweet little fish.


Namo Amida Butsu

By compassion alone is hatred overcome

On April 14, 2019, at 9:30 a.m. we will gather at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for our Hanamatsuri Service celebrating the birth of a child who grew up to bring a simple, but powerful, message into our world: “Hatred is never overcome by hatred in this world. By compassion alone is hatred overcome. This is a law eternal.” (Dhammapada, Chapter 1, Verse 5) These words were spoken by the wise teacher who we revere as Sakyamuni Buddha, “Sage of the Sakya Clan.”  We commemorate his birth in Lumbini, Nepal 2,682 years ago by pouring sweet tea over a statue that depicts him as newborn baby, standing amidst the blossoming flowers with one hand pointed to the sky and one hand pointed to earth.  It is said that at the time of his birth he took seven steps and declared “Above the heavens and below the heavens, I alone am the Honored One.”

I do not take these words to mean that he viewed his life as more precious than the lives of others.  Sakyamuni is the Honored One because from an early age, he recognized the precious opportunity he received when he was born as a human being.  He made the most of his human birth by realizing liberation from suffering and guiding others to realize liberation for themselves.  The story of the Buddha’s birth expresses the truth that each single human life is precious because it holds the potential for realizing liberation from suffering.  When a human life is cut short, a rare opportunity for realizing liberation is lost.  The Buddha taught that even the most wicked murderer has the potential to awaken to compassion, feel remorse for the harm done to others, and discover a life directed by the light of wisdom.

At a time when we hear of so many lives being cut short by hate-fueled acts of violence, I was heartened by Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent decision to place a moratorium on executions by the state of California.  In August 2016, the Buddhist Churches of America Ministers Association voted to issue a resolution calling for the repeal of the death penalty in the United States.  In the discussion that led up to that vote, I recall one of my colleagues saying, “It is easy for me to declare my opposition to the death penalty, having never lost a loved one to an act of violence.  However, I do not know how my feelings might change if one of my loved ones was murdered.  From that perspective, I could not say to someone whose dear loved one had been murdered, ‘You should not seek the death penalty.’”  As the discussion progressed, I felt honored to be part of an association that was able to explore such a complex and contentious issue with frank open-minded discussion that affirmed the legitimacy of many points of view.

Amidst the wide range of views that were expressed by my colleagues, there was one comment by a senior minister that clearly illuminated the matter at hand and enabled our ministerial association to arrive at a consensus in opposition to the death penalty.  That senior minister said “When I consider the death penalty from my perspective as an unenlightened being, I can certainly understand the desire to seek the death penalty for the person convicted of murdering my loved one.  However, when I consider this matter in light of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow that contains the wish to liberate from suffering those who are most heavily burdened with karmic evil, I am compelled to oppose the death penalty on the grounds that when an execution is carried out, one person’s opportunity to encounter the Buddha’s wisdom, realize awakening, and guide others to enlightenment is cut short.”

Living in this world that is so often marked by greed, hatred and ignorance, I find Hanamatsuri to be a hopeful time when we come together as a Sangha to celebrate the preciousness of human life and affirm our commitment to the wisdom of Sage who taught that “by compassion alone is hatred overcome.”


The Mind of Great Compassion that is Thoroughgoing

This past month we were truly honored to have Rev. Donald Castro, Rimban Emeritus of the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, join us as the guest speaker for our Nembutsu Seminar on the topic of EcoSangha—Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Ecology.  In his talks, Rev. Castro challenged us to consider how the Buddhadharma guides us to respond to the great ecological crises of our time, such as the man-made climate change that has contributed to the terrible wildfires that have ravaged communities here in Northern California with increasing frequency in recent years, or the vast swaths of floating garbage that pollute our oceans.  As an individual, I try to reduce my individual carbon footprint by taking the train to meetings in the East Bay rather than driving my car.   I also make an effort to use paper bags rather than the cheaper plastic alternatives.  That said, I cannot help wondering what difference my limited efforts make in the face of the monumental ecological challenges we face today.

When I find myself losing hope, I look to the Buddha’s teachings to illuminate my path forward in these difficult times.  Reflecting on my life in the nembutsu, I find inspiration in the  following four vows that are established by all bodhisattvas—beings who aspire to arrive on the shore of true awakening carried across the ocean of birth and death by the great vehicle of the Mahayana sutras:

1) “Living beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them all.”

2) “Base passions are inexhaustible, I vow to sever them all.”

3) “Dharma gates are immeasurable, I vow to know them all.”

4) “The way of the Buddha is unsurpassed, I vow to perfect it.”

The paradoxical nature of these four expansive vows initially struck me as overwhelming.  I have a hard-enough time realizing liberation for myself, how could I ever liberate all beings?  I struggle when I try to reign in even one of my base passions, how could I possibly sever them all?  After more than twenty years of studying the Dharma, I feel like I know less than ever, how could I know all the Dharma gates?  It seems impossible for me to perfect the way of the Buddha through my own efforts.

However, when I take the nembutsu as my guide on the bodhisattva path, I am reminded that the important matter is to carry on in the direction illuminated by the Buddha’s wisdom, even when it seems impossible to fulfill my aspirations through my own efforts.  The spirit of the bodhisattva path is to persevere in the face of insurmountable odds, trusting that if I set my life on the path of truth, the inconceivable working of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion will ultimately bring about liberation, not just for me, but for all beings.

In his talks, Rev. Castro reminded us that, as Buddhists, our ethical principles are not handed down to us by a divine authority.  Buddhist ethical living is rooted in compassion for all beings.  Our concern for the natural environment arises from compassionate awareness of the people, animals, and plants that suffer when a wildfire sweeps through their home or toxic plastics clog the ocean waters that they depend upon for survival.  When I feel overwhelmed by these environmental problems, the following words of Shinran, recorded in A Record in Lament of Divergences, Chapter Four, shine the light of the Buddha’s wisdom on my path:

Concerning compassion, there is a difference between the Path of Sages and the Pure Land Path.

Compassion in the Path of Sages is to pity, commiserate with, and care for beings. It is extremely difficult, however, to accomplish the saving of others just as one wishes.
Compassion in the Pure Land Path should be understood as first attaining Buddhahood quickly through saying the nembutsu and, with the mind of great love and compassion, freely benefiting sentient beings as one wishes.

However much love and pity we may feel in our present lives, it is hard to save others as we wish; hence, such compassion remains unfulfilled. Only the saying of the nembutsu, then, is the mind of great compassion that is thoroughgoing.

Thus were his words.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 633)

This teaching does not imply that it is no use making efforts to help others and care for the natural world because I am incapable of solving the problems all by myself.  Shinran’s words offer me encouragement to do my best to actively address the needs of this world, at peace in the knowledge that, even though I will not be able to alleviate all the suffering I encounter, the mind of great compassion constantly works in the nembutsu to guide me and all beings to liberation.


Namo Amida Butsu

Listening and learning

My wife Shoko recently gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Tokuma Monju Adams-Ichinomiya, at the Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Medical Center. Throughout the delivery and post-partum period, Shoko and Tokuma have received excellent care from the doctors, nurses, and other staff at Kaiser. The conscientious and compassionate treatment that our family has received inspires a deep feeling of gratitude in us for the quality of health care that we have access to.

When people first learn Tokuma’s name, they are often curious about its meaning. In Japanese, the name Tokuma 徳眞 is written with two Chinese characters: “Toku 徳” (virtue) and “ma 眞” (truth). During our Bodhi Day Service in early December, we chanted the “Verses in Praise of the Buddha (Sanbutsuge)” from The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. At that time, we were still thinking about possible names for the baby, and during the chanting the character “Toku 徳” in the following verses caught Shoko’s eye:


Your observance of precepts, learning, diligence,

Meditation, and wisdom—

The magnificence of these virtues (toku 徳) is peerless,

Excellent and unsurpassed.


Deeply and clearly mindful

Of the ocean of the Dharma of all Buddhas,

You know its depth and breadth,

And reach its farthest end.


In these verses, Dharmakara Bodhisattva recognizes and praises the virtues of Lokesvararaja Buddha. This passage from the Sutra reminds us that our path to awakening is fulfilled when we live with the humility to recognize great virtue in others and learn from their example. The character “ma 眞” means “truth,” and refers to the truth of the Buddha’s teachings as a guide for living with wisdom and compassion. Shoko and I chose the characters Tokuma 徳眞 for the name of our third son as an expression of our wish that as he finds his own path on the journey of life, he will be guided by the virtuous truth of awakening.

In our family, we have a custom of choosing the middle name of our children taking inspiration from the wisdom of the lives of those who have come before us. Our two older sons have middle names from ancestors on my side of the family. When we found out that we were pregnant with our third child, Shoko shared with me a Japanese proverb that has been passed down in her family over the generations and that she often heard from her mother growing up: “When three minds come together, they have the wisdom of Manjusri (Monju 文殊) Bodhisattva. (Sannin yoreba Monju no chie.)” In Mahayana Buddhism, Monju is revered as a bodhisattva of profound and penetrating wisdom. In the Amida Sutra, Monju appears as a representative of the beings of awakening who gather to hear the Buddha’s teaching. The truly wise recognize the importance of listening to others. The proverb above expresses the truth that three ordinary people who come together and listen to one another are able to realize great wisdom and insight. With the birth of Tokuma Monju, our wish is for our three sons to listen to one another and come together to realize profound wisdom, drawing on their unique perspectives to realize a greater depth of insight than they would each be capable of on their own. We are truly grateful to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Sangha for all your support and friendship as our family grows together in the Nembutsu.


Namo Amida Butsu