Familiar Flavors

A few years ago, my cousin from Missouri posted some pictures on Facebook of herself and her husband on vacation in San Francisco. It happened to be the weekend of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Bazaar, so I sent her a message inviting her to come down to San Mateo to visit the temple. She wrote back saying, “I knew you lived in California, but I didn’t realize you were so close to San Francisco. We’ll come this afternoon!”

I’m not sure if my cousin and her husband were hungry when they stepped off the train at the San Mateo station, but I am confident that the delicious smells wafting from the food booths piqued their appetite as they approached the temple parking lot. I gave them a brief overview of the food items available for their enjoyment. My cousin’s husband said, “We expected California to be hot and sunny like back home in Missouri at this time of year, but San Francisco is cold! I’ve been walking around in the fog all morning in a T-shirt and shorts, so I could go for something hot to warm me up.” A bowl of curry rice was just what he had in mind.

I had noticed my cousin’s eyes light up when I mentioned sushi, so I asked if she had any requests from the sushi bar. She said, “I’ll take whatever you recommend. Do you have any family favorites?” Of my two sons, the younger one Shoma loves farms and has more Midwestern tastes, so I figured his favorite sushi would be a safe bet. When my cousin took her first bite, she looked up with a slightly puzzled expression and said, “There’s a flavor here that is so familiar. For some reason it reminds me of breakfast on Grandma’s farm in Iowa. It’s definitely not the seaweed or the rice . . . what is this other ingredient?”

I told her, “Spam.”

She exclaimed, “Spam sushi?! It’s brilliant! Why have I never had this before?”

In the midst of unfamiliar surroundings, my cousin encountered the familiar and comforting flavor of breakfast in the kitchen of the old farmhouse that was built by our great-great-grandfather who immigrated to Iowa from Norway in 1851. My cousin did not expect to encounter the flavor of breakfast in our grandmother’s kitchen at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple bazaar. But in that moment, she was reminded of our caring and nurturing grandmother. From time to time in our lives, we have these moments in which we are reminded of the kindness that has nurtured us throughout our lives.

For those of us who live in the Nembutsu, the words “Namo Amida Butsu” express that same flavor of comfort and well-being. “Namo Amida Butsu” means, “I take refuge in Amida Buddha, the Awakened One of Immeasurable Light and Life.” In the Amida Sutra, we find the following description of Amida Buddha: “ . . . it is because that Buddha’s light is immeasurable and shines unhindered throughout the worlds of the ten quarters. That is why the Buddha is called ‘Amida’.” (Three Pure Land Sutras, Volume I, p. 7) The light of the Buddha is the wisdom that illuminates our lives through good times and difficult times, constantly reminding us of the loving-kindness and wishes for our well-being that have been at work sustaining our lives, stretching back in to the past even before we were born.

More often than not, the clouds of delusion hinder us from seeing things as they truly are. Nevertheless, there are times when we see the world around us and our relationships illuminated by the light of wisdom. In those moments, we marvel at the truth that we are always supported and sustained by the working of boundless compassion, and recall Amida Buddha’s vow to liberate all beings from suffering. The words “Namo Amida Butsu” transcend everyday language to express the inconceivable joy and gratitude we feel in those moments of clarity. In turn, as we continually recite the Nembutsu, our awareness of the working of wisdom and compassion in our lives deepens.


Namo Amida Butsu