Heading to the Western Shore

Prior to coming to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, I served for three and half years at the Oxnard Buddhist Temple and the Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara.  One day, a Dharma friend in Santa Barbara called me to say that a church member by the name of Mr. Baba was in the hospital and would be cheered by a visit from me.  Mr. Baba was 95 years old, and while born in the United States, had spent much of his childhood in Japan.  He would attend every service I led at the Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara smartly dressed in a suit and tie.  He was a man of few words who listened to the Dharma with deep attention.

At that time, our eldest son had just turned one year old, so I was still getting used to life as a parent and feeling a little frazzled.  When I stepped into Mr. Baba’s hospital room, there were various medical devices beeping and clicking at his bedside.  He immediately greeted me, saying, “Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to visit me.”  I asked him how he was feeling, and he responded warmly, “So-so, but I’m still here.  How is your wife and your baby boy?”

The visit lasted about thirty minutes.  As I recalled our conversation on the drive home, I felt a little sheepish when it struck me that we had spent more time talking about my family than how Mr. Baba was doing.  He seemed much more interested in the people around him than his own health problems.   

A few days later, I received a call from Mr. Baba’s daughter informing me that he had crossed over to the Other Shore.  He may have been aware that the time for his birth in the Pure Land was drawing near at the time when I visited him in the hospital.  As one who had deeply heard the teaching of Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow, Mr. Baba was free from all worry, knowing that his birth in the realm of peace and bliss was settled.

Few people are able to enjoy good health to the age of 95 the way that Mr. Baba had.  Looking at the world around us, we are reminded that we may cross over to the Other Shore at any moment.  This truth is expressed in the following words from Rennyo Shonin’s “Letter on White Ashes”:

Who in this world today can maintain a human form for even a hundred years? There is no knowing whether I will die first or others, whether death will occur today or tomorrow. We depart one after another more quickly than the dewdrops on the roots or the tips of the blades of grasses. So it is said. Hence, we may have radiant faces in the morning, but by evening we may turn into white ashes.

In this month of March, we observe our Spring Ohigan Service.  Ohigan means “Other Shore,” and is observed on the equinox when the sun sets directly in the west.  This is a time to reflect our journey from this world of suffering, across the ocean of birth-and-death, to arrive at the Other Shore of awakening.  Our journey to the world of awakening does not begin at the moment of death.  Each day of our lives is a precious opportunity to direct our minds to the Pure Land of wisdom and compassion.

A person like Mr. Baba who deeply hears the truth of the Buddha’s teachings lives each moment of their lives with their mind directed toward Amida Buddha’s land in the west.  Cherishing each encounter with fellow travelers on this shore as he approached his own birth in the Pure Land, he proceeded to the west with a settled mind in the Nembutsu.

Namo Amida Butsu