At this time of year we have many opportunities to eat delicious food as we gather to celebrate the winter holidays with our friends and families. During New Year’s many of our temple members will enjoy traditional Japanese dishes like ozōni stew or the traditional osechi menu. When we eat these traditional Japanese dishes we feel a deep connection to the past and the lives of those who have come before. This past year I had the opportunity to try mizuame, a thick, sugary syrup that has been enjoyed by Japanese children for centuries.
It was my first time tasting mizuame, but I had been curious about it since first hearing of it in an apocryphal story about the Zen Buddhist monk Ikkyu Sōjun Zenji (1394–1481). Ikkyu was a contemporary of Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499) the eighth abbot of our mother temple, the Hongwanji. Ikkyu and Rennyo were renowned Buddhist priests active in the Kyoto area, and while there are no authoritative historical records of their relationship, legend has it that they were good Dharma friends.
Ikkyu is said to have been an unrecognized son of the Emperor Go-Komatsu (1377–1433). His mother left him in the care of a temple in Kyoto at the age of six to be raised as a monk. The tales of Ikkyu’s youthful exploits and sharp wit continue to delight and inspire children and adults in Japan to this day.
One day the abbot of Ikkyu’s temple received a gift of mizuame. It seems the abbot had a sweet tooth. To discourage his young students from pillaging this special treat, he told them that the jar did not contain candy, but rather a special medicine that was safe for adults, but poisonous to children.
Later, while the abbot was away from the temple on official business, young Ikkyu accidentally broke the treasured inkstone that the abbot used for brush painting and calligraphy. His fellow monks immediately began speculating about what severe punishment they would all face upon the abbot’s return. Ikkyu, however, remained calm and reflected on the situation until he arrived at an elegant solution to their dilemma.
Ikkyu invited all the other young monks to join him in eating up the mizuame. When they had finished off the whole jar, he instructed them to lie on the tatami mat floor as if they were dead. They waited there on the floor until the abbot came home. When the abbot walked into his quarters, he was astonished to see all the young monks lying on the floor of his room, next to the broken inkstone, and the empty jar of mizuame. When the abbot demanded an explanation, Ikkyu confessed, “We broke your precious inkstone, so we tried to give our lives in apology. We ate all this poison, but for some reason, we haven’t died yet. I’m sure it will take effect soon, so we’ll just keep lying here until it does.” When the abbot heard this explanation, he knew that he had been bested by Ikkyu’s quick wit. The abbot burst into laughter, admitted defeat and dismissed the young monks.
It is our custom to take the arrival of the New Year as an opportunity to reflect deeply on our daily activities over the past year and ask ourselves if we have lived in a way that reflects the light of the Buddha’s wisdom that we receive in the Nembutsu. It is in my nature to tell lies and twist the truth at my own convenience. The real test of our character is how we respond when someone shines the light of wisdom on our actions and reveals our attempts to deceive ourselves and others. Do we freely admit our deception and gracefully own up, or do we double down on the falsehood? The abbot’s ability to gracefully own up to his deception shows that he is free from pride and ego.
Legend has it that when he saw a portrait of Jodo Shinshu founder Shinran Shonin (1173-1263) wearing the white scarf that indicated his mastery of the Tendai Buddhist doctrine, Ikkyu remarked, “The Dharma taught by this monk in the warm scarf and the black robe is the finest in the world.” In the Chapter on Shinjin from Shinran’s True Teaching Practice and Realization, he quotes the follow passage from the writings of Shandao:
We are filled with all manner of greed, anger, perversity, deceit, wickedness, and cunning, and it is difficult to put an end to our evil nature. In this we are like poisonous snakes or scorpions. Though we perform practices in the three modes of action*, they must be called poisoned good acts or false practices. . . . To seek birth in the Buddha’s Pure Land by directing the merit of such poisoned practice is completely wrong. Why? Because when, in his causal stage, Amida Buddha was performing practices as a bodhisattva, in every single moment – every single instant – he performed his practices in the three modes of action with a true and real mind. [True practice] depends on this.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 84-85)
*three modes of action: bodily action, words, thoughts
In the Nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin, we begin by recognizing the light of Amida Buddha that continually shines into our hearts and minds, showing us that our path to liberation is found in deep entrusting in the true and real mind of the Buddha.
Namo Amida Butsu