Summer has arrived, the children are enjoying a break from school, and the weather is beautiful. At this time of year, we look forward to relaxing at the beach and perhaps taking a family vacation. While we all aspire for a life of comfort and enjoyment, the path to lasting happiness can be difficult to discern. One of the basic teachings of Buddhism tells us that our actions, words, and thoughts determine what kind of person we become and what sort of environment we wind up living in the future. From this perspective, striving to become an intelligent and kind person could be seen as the way to live a happy life. An intelligent person accumulates wisdom by studying to obtain knowledge and listening closely to the guidance of those who have already attained happiness. A kind person is constantly mindful of the feelings of others, showing compassion by refraining from treating others in a way that they would not wish to be treated themself.
A buddha is one who has perfected both wisdom and compassion. We express our appreciation for the virtues of the Buddha in the reading of “Our Pledge” during temple services. I find the following words from “Our Pledge” to be particularly meaningful in this regard:
Not putting myself first
I will share in the joy and sadness of others
Just like the compassionate Buddha
While aspiring to live like the compassionate Buddha, I must also recognize how I am actually living day to day.
The compassionate Buddha shows equal concern for the welfare of all beings, such that the Buddha’s teachings instruct us to make every effort to avoid taking the lives of living beings. On one occasion, my son asked if he could keep a pet jumping spider. Considering the fact that spiders are carnivorous, and someone would have to capture insects to feed to the spider, I encouraged him to take a leaf-eating insect as a pet instead, thinking that that would be the way to avoid taking the lives of living beings for our own entertainment. I could tell that my son was disappointed by my suggestion.
Later that day, I found myself at the playground with my sons, where I happened to see the exact species of jumping spider that my son was wishing to keep for a pet. In that moment, I did not hesitate to capture the spider and bring it home for my son to enjoy. After I brought the spider home, I suggested we feed the spider a dead fly I found in the windowsill, hoping that perhaps we could provide it with nourishment without having to take the lives of various insects. The spider showed no interest in the dead fly, so I proposed to my son that if we were not able to capture an insect for the spider to eat by the following day, that we release it back into the wild while it still had sufficient energy to hunt for its own food. My son agreed to that proposal, which brought me some relief, thinking that I would be able to avoid catching insects to feed to the jumping spider.
The following morning as I prepared to take a shower, I noticed a large silverfish in the bathtub. Even though I had spent a lot of time the previous day thinking about ways to avoid taking the lives of insects, when presented with a large juicy silverfish, I did not hesitate to capture it and imprison it in a plastic container with holes punched in the lid for ventilation to present to my son when he woke up. Looking forward to his reaction when he saw that I had secured a meal for his new pet, I must admit that I had fun capturing the silverfish.
Despite my aspiration to live like the compassionate Buddha, I show concern for the happiness of my own son and the welfare of his beloved pet, and little concern for the life of the silverfish. Here we can see the difference between the compassion of the Buddha and an ordinary unenlightened being like me. Living with mindfulness of the gap between the boundless compassion of the Buddha and my own limited ability to show concern for the lives of others is an important aspect of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist path. Without a trustworthy teaching to help me find direction in my life, I am like one drifting aimlessly on the vast ocean. However, in Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow to guide foolish beings like me to a life of peace and bliss, I have encountered the great ship that will carry me across the ocean of suffering to the Other Shore. I find that the following verse from Shinran’s Hymns of the Dharma-Ages beautifully captures the appreciation I feel for the Buddha’s vow:
Lacking even small love and small compassion,
I cannot hope to benefit sentient beings.
Were it not for the ship of Amida’s Vow,
How could I cross the ocean of painful existence?
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 422)
Namo Amida Butsu