Nītha the Scavenger

Translation by Henry Adams from the Sutra on Wisdom and Folly (Xiangujing), Fascile 6, Chapter 30 (賢愚經卷第六 T0202_.04.0397a24)

Thus I have heard. At one time the Buddha was dwelling at Jetavana in the country of Sravasti.

At that time, many people lived inside the walled city of Shravasti.  There were few lavatories, so most people went outside the city to urinate and defecate.

There were also wealthy people of high status, who did not venture outside the city walls.  They would use containers for toilets and hire people to take them outside the city.

There was one man named Nītha who was extremely poor and destitute.  He had nowhere to go and earned a meager living taking out the toilet pots.

At that time, the World-Honored One came to know of his situation and resolved to liberate him.  He instructed Ananda that they would go into the walled city with the intention of bringing Nītha out and saving him.  When they arrive a short distance from the city, they happened upon Nītha carrying a clay pot filled to the brim with filth on his way out to dispose of it.

When Nītha saw the World-Honored One, he was extremely ashamed and went back to find another road by which he could discreetly leave the city. 

Again, he saw the Buddha and was doubly embarrassed, so he went back again trying to run away.  In his haste, he bumped the clay pot filled with filth against a wall, where it shattered dousing his body in urine and feces.  He was deeply ashamed and could not bear to meet the Buddha.

At that time, the World-Honored One went straight to Nītha and said to him, “Would you like to leave this life and join the Sangha, or not?”

Nītha replied, “The Tathāgata is more honored than a king adorned with gold jewelry.  You are surrounded by disciples who are all of noble birth.  I am the most destitute and despised.  How could I join them and be ordained?”

The World-Honored One told him, “My Dharma is pure and marvelous.  It is like pure water that can completely wash away any defilements.  Moreover, it is like a great fire that can burn anything.  Large or small, beloved or despised, it can burn them all up.  My Dharma is like that.  It is vast without boundary.  Among the poor and the rich, male and female, those who practice it all bring an end to their various desires. 

At that time Nītha having heard what the Buddha said, received shinjin (faith in the Dharma) and awakened the desire to leave [his life of destitution and join the Sangha].  The Buddha instructed Ananda to take Nītha outside the city to the edge of a great river, where he cleansed his body.  Once he was cleaned up, they proceeded to Jetavana so the Buddha could teach the sutras of the Dharma. The principle that all people suffer, renouncing birth-and-death, and that nirvana is lasting peace.  Nītha quickly understood the meaning of the teachings and attained the first fruit of understanding.  Joining his palms he faced the Buddha and asked to become a sramana (monk).

The Buddha then said, “Welcome, Bhikkhu (monk).”  Nītha’s hair dropped away and he was clothed in the Dharma robes.  The Buddha once again taught the essential Dharma of the Four Noble Truths.  All Nītha’s remaining defilements where eliminated and he became an arhat (one who has attained enlightenment), fully endowed with the three kinds of awareness and six supernormal powers.

At that time the citizens of Shravasti heard that Nītha had joined the Sangha.  They became very upset and angry, saying, “How could the World-Honored One ask this low-class man to join the Sangha and study the Way.  How could we bow before him and make offerings of alms to him.  When we invite the Buddha and his disciples to our homes, if he comes along, he will pollute our floors and chairs.”  Carrying on this manner, they asked the king what should be done.

When the king heard of it, he too became enraged and felt that he needed to lodge a protest.  Thereupon, he mounted his chariot, and accompanied by his many vassals, set out for Jetavana to inquire with the Tathāgata regarding what the meaning of this was. 

When they arrived in front of the gate, they paused for a brief rest outside the gate to Jetavana.  There was a large boulder there, upon which sat the Bhikku Nītha sewing his robe.  Seven hundred heavenly beings had each brought flowers and incense as offerings.  Circumambulating with their right shoulders facing him, they bowed in reverence. When the king saw this, he felt deep joy having arrived at the place of the Bhikkhus, and said, “I wish to see the Buddha, please let him know I am here.” 

The Bhikkhu Nītha’s body sunk into the stone, and he emerged inside the grove out where the Buddha was dwelling.  The Buddha instructed Bhikkhu Nītha that he should lead the king into the grove.  Bhikkhu Nītha returned to the gate, emerging from the stone as easily as if passing through water.

Bhikku Nītha conveyed the Buddha’s invitation for the king to enter and ask his question.

The King thought, “Let me set aside the question I came ask.  Let me inquire as to what virtuous practices this monk has accomplished, such that he has such marvelous abilities.”  The king then entered to meet the Buddha.

The king bowed before the feet of the Buddha and circumambulated him three times to the right.  He then sat facing the Buddha and addressed the World-honored One, saying, “This monk who greeted us at the gate has marvelous abilities that are hard to attain.  He passed through stone as if it were water and emerged from the stone without leaving an indentation.   Please tell me what his name is.

The World-honored One told him, “This is the lowly scavenger I saved from your walled city.  He is now an arhat.  He is the person you came here to complain to me about.”

Hearing the words of the Buddha, the king abandoned his pride, and his joy was immeasurable. 

The Home of Little Birds

(“Kotori no ie” by Akamatsu Gessen, illustrated by Tateno Yasunosuke, in Bukkyo Dōwa Zenshū, Vol. 8, p. 139-147, Translation by Henry Adams)

Long ago in the Latter Han Dynasty, there was a family named Yang who lived in the Chinese capital.  They had one son named Bao.  This story takes place when Bao was nine years old.

            Bao’s father worked for a government official of low rank, but he was a dedicated and hard-working man.  Bao’s mother was a quiet and deeply caring woman.  While she did not make a particularly strong impression at first, even a passing conversation with her would give a genuine sense of her true kindness.

            Bao’s mother was kind to little birds.  She did not keep them as pets, but they would be naturally drawn to her, because she always set scraps of food outside the kitchen for them to eat. 

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Hōnen Shōnin’s parting words to his students on the occasion of his being sent into exile

“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?

“What’s more, while I have spent all these years sharing the Nembutsu teaching here in the capital, it has been my heartfelt wish to go into the outlying regions and share the teachings with the farmers who work the fields.  However, a time had not come when I was able to fulfill that wish.  That I am now able to pursue this long-held wish is thanks to the great benevolence of the emperor.

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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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The Four Universal Bodhisattva Vows

Living beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them all.

Blind passions are limitless, I vow to sever them all.

Dharma gates are inexhaustible, I vow to know them all.

Unsurpassed is awakening, I vow to realize it.

Commentary from Genshin’s Ojoyoshu, Section on the Correct Practice of the Nembutsu

To begin with, the manifestation of practice is generally called the mind that vows to become a Buddha.  It is also referred to as the mind that seeks the highest awakening while transforming living beings below.  The manifestation of practice is also expressed as the Four Universal Vows.

These vows can be understood in two ways.  The first way is to understand the Four Universal Vows as they arise from life situations.  This is compassion conditioned by a feeling of sympathy for living beings[1], or compassion conditioned by an appreciation of the Dharma[2].  The second way is to understand the Four Universal Vows as they arise from true reality.  This is unconditioned compassion[3].

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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:

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Living as a Buddhist in a Christian Society

Voices of the Nembutsu Echoing in America, No. 5

From Hongwanji Journal, No. 3366, Thursday, February 20, 2020

(Translation by H. Adams)

Michael Ishikawa (age 57) is a third generation Japanese American.  Apart from the two days a week when he receives dialysis treatments, he begins each morning by chanting Shoshinge at the obutsudan Buddha shrine in his home in San Mateo, California.  On Sundays, he also attends services at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple.

              He says, “Shoshinge is the most important chanting practice for me.  I find the opening lines ‘I take refuge in the Tathagata of Immeasurable Life! / I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light!’ to be deeply meaningful.  To me, these words contain Shinran Shonin’s feeling of gratitude toward Amida Tathagata.  I deeply appreciate the heart of Shinran Shonin who expresses his gratitude to Amida Tathagata at the start of the Shoshinge.”

              Born to Christian parents, Mr. Ishikawa was baptized as a young child.  He attended church until the age of sixteen but did not feel at home with the Christian teachings. 

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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.

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Learn from the Buddha’s heart of great compassion

On Sunday, May 20, 2018, at 9:30 a.m., we will hold our annual Gotan-e Service at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, celebrating the birth of Shinran Shonin, the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition.  As I reflect on the profound impact that Shinran’s life and teachings have had on my own journey in the Nembutsu, I find myself recalling memories from ten years ago, when I was just beginning my formal study of Jodo Shinshu as a newly enrolled student at the Chuo Bukkyo Gakuin Buddhist Seminary in Kyoto.

I remember sitting around a cluster of desks while we ate our bento lunchboxes during my first week in the seminary, listening to my classmates speak about their varied backgrounds and life experiences.  The eldest in our group was a retired firefighter who was looking forward to pursuing his personal interest in Buddhism.
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The Seed of the Buddha

On April 8, 2018, we warmly welcome you to join us for our Hanamatsuri Service, a joyful celebration of the Birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama 2,641 years ago in Lumbini, Nepal.  After realizing awakening seated under the Bodhi Tree at age 35, Siddhartha dedicated the rest of his life to teaching the path to liberation from suffering.  From that time, down to the present he has been revered as Sakyamuni Buddha, the Awakened One, Sage of the Sakya Clan.

Sakyamuni Buddha is a great hero to all those whose lives are guided by the wisdom and compassion of the Dharma he taught.  His teachings have provided the strength and clarity needed to face great challenges for people of all walks of life through the generations.  When I reflect on the difficulties we face in our world today, I am guided by those who, inspired by Sakyamuni Buddha’s presence here in our world, have walked the path of the Nembutsu before me.

Rev. Daisho Tana, the first full-time minister to be assigned to our San Mateo Buddhist Temple is one of my heroes.  Tana Sensei was living in Lompoc on the Central Coast of California in December 1941 when the United States declared war on Japan following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. 

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