One month ago, as I sat down to write my newsletter article for April, we were just beginning our life of staying at home under the Shelter in Place Order. My mind was filled with uncertainty about what the coming weeks would bring. I did not imagine the extent to which this coronavirus would affect the lives of so many people across the globe. As I sit down to write this article for May, I see the following headline in today’s edition of the Washington Post, “Covid-19 is rapidly becoming America’s leading cause of death.” It has been deeply saddening and distressing to hear of so many people near and far falling ill with Covid-19. The loss of life is heartbreaking. In the midst of my anxiety and fear, I find myself turning to the words of Shinran Shonin for comfort and guidance.
In my reading this past month, I came across a letter that Shinran wrote at a time when famine and epidemic disease had devastated communities all over Japan. To me, Shinran’s words shine the light of wisdom on the challenges we face today. Shinran writes:
It is saddening that so many people, both young and old, men and women, have died this year and last. But the Tathagata taught the truth of life’s impermanence for us fully, so you must not be distressed by it.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 531)
Shinran begins this letter with the words “It is saddening . . .” With these words, he compassionately acknowledges and shares in the sadness that we all feel when parting with loved ones. He then proceeds to remind us that Sakyamuni Tathagata taught fully the truth that all who are born into this world will one day be separated by death. When I consider the many lives that have been lost through Covid-19 infections, and the difficult conditions that our heroic healthcare professionals are working under as they strive to save lives, I cannot help but feel distressed. Kobayashi Issa, a poet of the Nembutsu, wrote the following verse in 1819 after losing his young daughter to a smallpox epidemic:
Tsuyu no yo wa
Tsuyu no yo nagara
The dewdrop world
is a dew drop world,
and yet. . .
Even though we have heard and accepted in our hearts Sakyamuni Tathagata’s teaching that birth, aging, illness, and death are unavoidable in this life, as human beings who have yet to realize enlightenment, sadness and distress well up in our hearts when we part from our loved ones.
Where can we turn to find peace of mind as we live in this world where illness and death abound? Shinran calls us to open our hearts and receive the unshakeable peace of mind (shinjin) that comes from entrusting in Amida Buddha’s vow that all beings will receive complete liberation from suffering through birth in the Pure Land:
I, for my own part, attach no significance to the condition, good or bad, of persons in their final moments. People in whom shinjin is determined do not doubt, and so abide among the truly settled. For this reason their end also – even for those ignorant and foolish and lacking in wisdom – is a happy one.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 531)
Amida Buddha established the compassionate vow precisely because there are people like me who lack wisdom and are mired in the suffering of this world. When I hear the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” I hear the voice of the Buddha calling to me and assuring me that there is nothing to fear in life and death.
The life of the Nembutsu is the life of hearing the voice of the Buddha calling to us in our moments of joy and in our moments of distress. Great peace of mind comes in hearing the Nembutsu with others, which can seem particularly difficult in our present circumstance, where we find ourselves severely limiting our in-person contact with others. And yet, the Nembutsu continues to thrive in our Sangha as we open our hearts and minds to find ways to stay connected.
Over the past month, our Sangha members have reached out to one another by phone and by email to check-in and offer support for those who are not able to freely leave their homes for fear of contracting the virus. Sangha members have also gathered in virtual spaces like online teleconference meetings to hear the Dharma together and practice compassionate listening with one another. As we encounter the distress of others, we explore our own feelings of distress. Hearing one another, we are reminded that the Buddha heard the suffering of all beings, and therefore established the compassionate vow for each and every one of us. Hearing the Nembutsu, we receive diamondlike peace of mind in these distressing times.
Namo Amida Butsu