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.

The flowers that we place before the Buddha in the temple hall, and the flowers that adorn our home obutsudan Buddha shrine, express our gratitude to the Buddha for the teachings that guide us in this life.  These flowers also provide us with a precious lesson on impermanence, as we observe the fresh and vibrant blossoms wilting and falling with each passing day.

In many homes, the closeness and affection we feel for our pets approaches that which we feel for our human family members.  For this reason, the grief we feel at the loss of a pet can be profound.  The moments when we come to face the impermanence of life are a precious opportunity to reflect on the Buddha’s teachings and awaken a deeper appreciation for what a wonder it is that we are alive today.

One afternoon this past year, my sons came running into the house shouting, “Mom! Dad! Come quick!  There’s a giant praying mantis in the back yard!”  I had never seen a wild praying mantis, so I hurried outside, hoping I would get to see it before it dashed off in pursuit of its next meal.  As I turned the corner around the house, I was astonished to find a four-inch-long insect crouching on the concrete path that runs along the side of our house.  It was the largest praying mantis I have ever seen, and here it was in our back yard!

A few years prior, in the month of March, we had purchased a pair of praying mantis egg sacks in the hope of having some backyard pets that would also help keep the caterpillar population in our vegetable garden under control.  The week the egg sacks hatched, we found hundreds of tiny praying mantises on a single bush in our back yard.  The population thinned very quickly as hungry mantises will not hesitate to prey on their own siblings and many surely became meals for the birds that visit our garden.  By the start of summer, praying mantis sightings in the back yard had become increasingly rare.  The last sighting was in June, three months after they hatched, that sole surviving mantis had grown to a length of about one and a half inches.

Having seen how tiny praying mantises are when they hatch, and how fragile their lives are as they grow, gave me a deep appreciation for what a wonder it was to see a four-inch adult praying mantis with my own eyes.  In that moment, I was reminded of a favorite haiku poem of mine, written by Kobayashi Issa, whose life was illuminated by the Nembutsu:

The praying mantis

Hangs by one arm

From the temple bell

Tōrō ga

katate kaketari

tsurigane ni

There are moments in our lives when we awaken to the truth that the winds of impermanence continually blow through this human existence.  While we strive throughout our lives to create stability and security, in truth we are like that praying mantis hanging to life by one arm. 

This truth has been made clear to me this year in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and then again, this past month with the record-setting wildfires that have been burning up and down the West Coast.  Despite the difficulties we face, we can be grateful to live in times like these that awaken us to the truth of impermanence, and remind us to take to heart the following words of Master Tz’u-min that were cherished by Shinran Shonin:

Considering then this human existence – hard is it to obtain;
It is like the blossoming of the udumbara.
Truly we have come now to hear the Pure Land teaching so rare to encounter;
Truly we have encountered the opening of the dharma-gate of the nembutsu.

(Collected Works of Shinran, pg. 41)

To be alive today is wonderous indeed.  How will you make the most of this precious life?  As for me, I turn my ears to the dharma-gate of the Nembutsu and recite the words Namo Amida Butsu.

Namo Amida Butsu.