Sustained by the Nembutsu

As Spring arrives, we prepare to observe our Spring Ohigan Service on Sunday, March 20. The word higan 彼岸 means “Other Shore,” and in the Buddhist tradition refers to crossing over the ocean of suffering in the realm of birth and death to arrive at the Other Shore where one enjoys a life of awakening. As I consider my own journey to the Other Shore, I am reminded of the lives of those whose unwavering dedication to seeing the Nembutsu thrive here on the shores of North America has made it possible for me to discover my own path to a life of peace and bliss.

In 1919, there was a growing a community of Japanese Buddhists working on farms around the town of Guadalupe on California’s Central Coast. Many of these intrepid Issei lived in camps near the fields with few comforts and amenities. As families began to take shape with young children, it became clear that these camps did not provide a suitable environment for children to grow and receive an education. Responding to the urgent needs of one family and then another, the local Buddhist minister Rev. Issei Matsuura and his wife Mrs. Shinobu Matsuura opened the doors of the temple and began taking in children one by one until they found themselves caring for over twenty children in what became the Guadalupe Children’s Home.

Later in life, Mrs. Matsuura recalled her experiences caring for the children in her memoir Higan: Compassionate Vow. I find the following episode from her memoir to be a particularly inspiring account of how the Nembutsu sustained that early Buddhist community here in California in the face of the great difficulties they faced in those early years:

When the children were healthy, life was comfortable. But frequently, when epidemics struck, we spent many sleepless nights worrying. Measles, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough and other illnesses were common occurrences. When one became ill, we expected others to soon follow. Caring for the sleeping children, who bravely endured high fever, I realized how they must have yearned for their own mothers, and I was deeply touched.

Once [a girl named] Akiko came down with Scarlet Fever. For one whole month, the Children’s Home was quarantined. No one was allowed to leave the compound, and no visitors were permitted to enter. There was no time for tears. I had to immediately concentrate on nursing Akiko back to health with the help of her older sister, Toshiko. Her father, Mr. Tanaka, came to the front gate every day, handing fresh vegetables and other food over the fence, pleading, “Please take care of Akiko. I appreciate your care. But if she does not survive, she is in the temple and in good hands!” Many parents came to the fence to hand over food and gifts. Fortunately, after four weeks, recovery at last! The other children were given preventative shots, nutritious meals, exercise, play, and study during the quarantine and were spared from catching the disease. When, after a month, the isolation was ended and quarantine lifted, the parents rushed over and a joyous reunion took place. I could only gassho, for surely the Nembutsu had sustained us.

(Higan: Compassionate Vow, Selected Writings of Shinobu Matsuura, p. 90)

In this story, we see how the Nembutsu has given generations of people living here in America the strength to face the most trying times of their lives. We see the Buddha’s compassion at work in the life of Mrs. Matsuura who cared for so many children, as well as the dedicated care of the older sister Toshiko who stayed close to Akiko throughout her illness, helping to nurse her back to health. As a father, I am particularly inspired by the example of Mr. Tanaka who visited the temple each day to bring nutritious food for the children and show his love and devotion to his daughter. While Mr. Tanaka is deeply concerned for Akiko’s well-being, his heart is at peace knowing that she is in good hands. The Nembutsu gives him the courage to face whatever may come without fear or anxiety. Having directly faced the possibility of death without shying away, these pioneering Buddhist families were able to truly savor the preciousness of their lives together when they were reunited after the quarantine.

Namo Amida Butsu.