In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, February is the month in which we observe our Nirvana Day Service, a remembrance of Sakyamuni Buddha’s parinirvana, the day he drew his final breath in this world and entered into the lasting peace of tranquility. Our observance of Nirvana Day is an occasion to remember the truth that death is a gate through which all who are born into this human life will one day pass. The fact that the enlightened Buddha himself was not exempt from passing through the gate of death shows us that the goal of the Buddha’s teachings is not to attain immortality. Sakyamuni Buddha taught clearly with his own life the impermanence of this human existence.
The Buddhadharma shows us the way to make the most of this human life, so that we can meet the moment of death with peace and clarity of mind. It was around this time last year that we first heard of a new coronavirus that had arrived here on the West Coast. In this past year we have had powerful reminders of the preciousness of this human life. I ask myself, have I awakened to the settled mind of one who is destined for birth in the realm of peace and bliss?
I spend most of my days chasing after the things that I think I need to be happy. As this Covid-19 pandemic began to spread, I was chasing after toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Lately, I’ve been scrambling to find a new bike for my oldest son, who has outgrown the one we bought for him a couple years ago.
Kids’ bikes have become a scarce commodity during the pandemic, with more and more families embracing cycling as a healthy outdoor activity at a time when gyms are closed and soccer practices suspended. When my desired items are in short supply, my mind goes into overdrive trying to obtain them, scheming and calculating, looking for an advantage. I called bike shops up and down the Peninsula looking for a bike in my son’s size. When the owner of a bike shop near my house told me he had a used kid’s mountain bike in good condition, I dropped what I was doing and drove straight there to purchase it.
When not chasing after attractive objects or pleasurable experiences, I am running and hiding from that which I find unpleasant. I avoid people who disagree with my views. I hide in an “information bubble” made up of news sources, podcasts, websites, and social media sites that affirm my ideas without challenging me to see things from another perspective. Rather than seeking a clear and accurate understanding of the world around me, I close my eyes and ears to those who may disagree with me.
In the midst of my relentless chasing and fleeing, there are moments when I am reminded how fragile and fleeting this human life is. This morning I read that the Covid-19 pandemic has claimed 2,077,628 lives throughout the world, 406,196 lives in the United States, 35,068 lives in California, and 309 lives in San Mateo County alone. Many more will have crossed over to the Other Shore by the time you read these words. As Rennyo Shonin writes, “We depart one after another more quickly than the dewdrops on the roots or the tips of the blades of grasses.” (Letter on White Ashes)
In this world of impermanence, Sakyamuni urges us to seek the path to true peace of mind.
When Sakyamuni was about to enter nirvana, he said to the bhiksus, “From this day on, rely on dharma, not on people who teach it. Rely on the meaning, not on the words. Rely on wisdom, not on the working of the mind.
“As to relying on wisdom, wisdom is able to distinguish and measure good and evil. The working of mind always seeks pleasure, and does not reach the essential. Hence it is said, ‘Do not rely on mind.’”
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 241)
Knowing the strong pleasure-seeking tendency of my own mind, I find it difficult to distinguish and measure good and evil without being led astray by my biases and prejudices. How grateful I am to the Buddha for shining the light of true wisdom into my life, dispelling the darkness of my mind and illuminating my path to awakening.
Namo Amida Butsu