This month we reflect upon the following verse as it relates to our journey to the Other Shore of enlightenment:
The Name embodying the Primal Vow is the act of true settlement, The Vow of entrusting with sincere mind is the cause of birth; We realize the equal of enlightenment and supreme nirvana Through the fulfillment of the Vow of attaining nirvana without fail.
From the Three Pure Land Sutras, Volume II: The Larger Sutra, pg. 20-29
“‘If, when I attain Buddhahood, there should be hell, the realm of hungry spirits, or the realm of animals in my land, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land, should, after their death, return once more to the three evil realms, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should not all be the color of genuine gold, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should not all be of the same appearance and should be either beautiful or ugly, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should not remember all their former lives, and thus be unable to know at least the events of the previous hundred thousand kotis of *nayutas of kalpas, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should not possess divine eyes, and thus be unable to see at least a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of Buddha‐lands, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should not possess divine ears, and thus be unable to hear the teachings being expounded by at least a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of Buddhas or remember them all, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should not possess the wisdom to see into the minds of others, and thus be unable to know the thoughts of the sentient beings of at least a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of Buddha‐lands, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should not possess divine feet, and thus be unable to go beyond at least a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of Buddha‐lands in a thought‐moment, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should give rise to any thought of attachment to their body, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should not dwell in the *stage of the truly settled and necessarily attain nirvana, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, my light should be finite, not illuminating even a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of Buddha‐lands, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, my life should be finite, limited even to a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of kalpas, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the number of sravakas in my land could be counted and known, even if all the sravakas and pratyekabuddhas in the *triple‐thousand great thousand worlds should spend at least a hundred thousand kalpas counting them, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
When I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land will not have a limited life span, except when they wish to shorten it freely according to their original vows. Should this not be so, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should even hear that there are names of evil acts, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the countless Buddhas throughout the worlds in the ten quarters should not all glorify and praise my name, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the sentient beings of the ten quarters who, with sincere and *entrusting heart, aspire to be born in my land and say my name even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment. Excluded are those who commit the *five grave offenses and *those who slander the right Dharma.
How do you practice these precepts in your daily life?
Is there meaning in doing one’s best, even though one is not able to practice these perfectly in daily life?
Which of these do you think our world needs most at the present moment?
Honen’s Perspective on upholding precepts (from ThePassages on the the Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow)
If the original vow required us to make images of the Buddha and to build stupas, the poor and destitute would surely have no hope of birth, but the fact is that the rich and highborn are few, while the poor and lowborn are exceedingly many.
On April 14, 2019, at 9:30 a.m. we will gather at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for our Hanamatsuri Service celebrating the birth of a child who grew up to bring a simple, but powerful, message into our world: “Hatred is never overcome by hatred in this world. By compassion alone is hatred overcome. This is a law eternal.” (Dhammapada, Chapter 1, Verse 5) These words were spoken by the wise teacher who we revere as Sakyamuni Buddha, “Sage of the Sakya Clan.” We commemorate his birth in Lumbini, Nepal 2,682 years ago by pouring sweet tea over a statue that depicts him as newborn baby, standing amidst the blossoming flowers with one hand pointed to the sky and one hand pointed to earth. It is said that at the time of his birth he took seven steps and declared “Above the heavens and below the heavens, I alone am the Honored One.”
I do not take these words to mean that he viewed his life as more precious than the lives of others. Sakyamuni is the Honored One because from an early age, he recognized the precious opportunity he received when he was born as a human being. He made the most of his human birth by realizing liberation from suffering and guiding others to realize liberation for themselves. The story of the Buddha’s birth expresses the truth that each single human life is precious because it holds the potential for realizing liberation from suffering. When a human life is cut short, a rare opportunity for realizing liberation is lost. The Buddha taught that even the most wicked murderer has the potential to awaken to compassion, feel remorse for the harm done to others, and discover a life directed by the light of wisdom.
At a time when we hear of so many lives being cut short by hate-fueled acts of violence, I was heartened by Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent decision to place a moratorium on executions by the state of California. In August 2016, the Buddhist Churches of America Ministers Association voted to issue a resolution calling for the repeal of the death penalty in the United States. In the discussion that led up to that vote, I recall one of my colleagues saying, “It is easy for me to declare my opposition to the death penalty, having never lost a loved one to an act of violence. However, I do not know how my feelings might change if one of my loved ones was murdered. From that perspective, I could not say to someone whose dear loved one had been murdered, ‘You should not seek the death penalty.’” As the discussion progressed, I felt honored to be part of an association that was able to explore such a complex and contentious issue with frank open-minded discussion that affirmed the legitimacy of many points of view.
Amidst the wide range of views that were expressed by my colleagues, there was one comment by a senior minister that clearly illuminated the matter at hand and enabled our ministerial association to arrive at a consensus in opposition to the death penalty. That senior minister said “When I consider the death penalty from my perspective as an unenlightened being, I can certainly understand the desire to seek the death penalty for the person convicted of murdering my loved one. However, when I consider this matter in light of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow that contains the wish to liberate from suffering those who are most heavily burdened with karmic evil, I am compelled to oppose the death penalty on the grounds that when an execution is carried out, one person’s opportunity to encounter the Buddha’s wisdom, realize awakening, and guide others to enlightenment is cut short.”
Living in this world that is so often marked by greed, hatred and ignorance, I find Hanamatsuri to be a hopeful time when we come together as a Sangha to celebrate the preciousness of human life and affirm our commitment to the wisdom of Sage who taught that “by compassion alone is hatred overcome.”
I recently got together with an old Dharma friend who I had not seen in over a decade. Though it had been years since we had last met, the closeness of our friendship was in no way diminished. Reminiscing and laughing about our college days, it felt as if not a day had passed since our last meeting. Catching up about our lives today, we shared stories about our children’s antics and debated the merits of lightweight “umbrella” strollers versus luxury stroller models with sturdy aluminum frames and air-cushioned tires.
As we talked, I felt that as we had each grown and matured in the intervening years, we were discovering new depth in our friendship. Even though we had spent years journeying down separate roads in life, our lives were guided by the same principles of wisdom and compassion and directed toward a common destination. While the causes and conditions that have guided us have been different over the years, our paths have been flowing in the same direction and will eventually converge with awakening in the realm of Peace and Bliss.
In the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, we find great meaning in the following words spoken by Sakyamuni Buddha in the Amida Sutra:
Sariputra, the people who hear of that [Pure] land [of Amida Buddha] should aspire to be born there. Why? It is because they will be able to meet together with such sages of supreme virtue there.
(The Three Pure Land Sutras, Vol. I, Section 5)
Our Dharma teachers often call our attention to this passage when reflecting on the truth that all people who entrust in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and say the Nembutsu will meet each other in the Pure Land at the end of their present life. In the midst of the sadness and grief we experience when a loved one passes over to the Other Shore, those who are sustained in the Nembutsu find solace in the Buddha’s teaching that we will meet again at the end of our own lives when we are born in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.
Shinran Shonin expresses this understanding in the following words from one of his Uncollected Letters:
I have carefully read your letter of the first day of the intercalary tenth month. I am truly sad to hear about Kakunen-bo. I had expected that I would go first [to the Pure Land], but I have been left behind; it is unutterably saddening. Kakushin-bo, who left us last year, has certainly gone [to the Pure Land] and is awaiting us there. Needless to say, I will surely meet them there; it is beyond words. Kakunen-bo’s words did not differ at all from what I have said, so we will certainly go to the same place [the Pure Land]. If I am still alive in the tenth month of next year, it will undoubtedly be possible to meet again in this world. Since your mind of entrusting also does not differ at all from my own, even if I go first, I will await you in the Pure Land.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 579-580)
If we read these words of Shinran with close attention, we find a depth of meaning that goes beyond simple reassurance that we will be reunited with our loved ones in the afterlife. Shinran emphasizes that he and his companions share the same mind of entrusting. Because this mind is received through the working of Amida Buddha’s vow to liberate all beings from suffering, the end result of birth in the Pure Land is exactly the same for all who share that entrusting heart (Jpn. shinjin 信心).
The teaching that people of Nembutsu all meet again in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha at the end of this life not only provides comfort in our time of mourning, this teaching affirms the truth that those whose lives are guided by the working of Amida Buddha’s vow are settled on a common destination in the realm of peace and bliss. That certainty of direction enables us to appreciate the companionship of our fellow travelers and inspires us with the confidence to face whatever comes in life with equanimity and peace of mind.
We welcome you to join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on Sunday, April 9, 2017, at 9:30 a.m. for our Hanamatsuri Service, the “Festival of Flowers” where we celebrate the birth of Sakyamuni Buddha in present-day Nepal about 2,500 years ago.
The Buddhacarita, a traditional biography of the Buddha, tells us that his mother Queen Maya longed to retreat from the chaos of the world to live a life of peaceful contemplation: “In her weariness she railed at the commonplace and longed to stay in a secluded forest, in the excellent garden of Lumbinī, where springs flowed and flowers and fruits were luxuriant. She wanted to meditate in quietude and beseeched the king for permission to travel there. The king understood her earnest wish and thought that it was wonderful.”
We are told that while delighting in the beauty and serenity of the of the gardens, Queen Maya gave birth to the child who would grow up to become the Buddha. The Buddhacarita, describes his moment of birth in the following verses:
Upright and clear of mind, he walked seven steps with dignity. On the bottom of his feet his level soles were well placed. His brightness was as penetrating as the seven stars.
Stepping like a lion, king of the animals, he observed the four directions. With thorough insight into the meaning of the truth, he thus spoke with the fullest assurance:
“As this birth is a buddha’s birth, it is my last birth. Just in this one birth I shall save all!”
The seven steps taken at the time of his birth represent the Buddha’s intention to transcend the six paths of rebirth and realize final liberation from the chains of birth and death.
Buddhist teachings reflect a traditional Indian worldview that describes six paths of birth-and-death, or samsara, through which sentient beings continuously cycle lifetime after lifetime. These six paths of existence also provide insight into the way our thoughts and feelings change moment to moment. Below is a brief summary of the six paths described by the Genshin (942-1017) in the Essentials for Birth (Ojo Yoshu):
The hells are paths of uninterrupted physical and emotional torment. In Buddhism, a hell is not a place to which a person is permanently doomed according to the judgment of a divine being. Rather, hell is the unhappiness that results from hateful and violent living. As with all six paths, life in a hell path is not permanent and will eventually give way to birth in another path.
Hungry ghosts have insatiable appetites, but any food or beverage they try to enjoy bursts into flames the moment it touches their lips. Birth as a hungry ghost occurs as the result of greed, as in a case where a person receives something good but fails to appreciate it because they want something even better.
To dwell in the animal path is to be shameless, unconcerned with the results of one’s foolish behavior. Some animals live as predators and prey in the wild; others are subjected to lives of servitude and grueling labor. One who dwells in the animal path is ruled by fear of punishment and the desire to be rewarded. Birth as an animal occurs when foolishness and ignorance rule one’s mind.
Asuras (Fighting Titans)
Asuras are constantly competing, envious of those who appear to have better things than they do, especially the devas. Life among asuras is divided into winners and losers, and they suffer from the terror of being surrounded by enemies and the wounds of battle.
Genshin describes three characteristics of human life: 1) Impurity: the human body is subject to disease and decay in all its parts, 2) Suffering: human life is characterized by suffering, and 3) Impermanence: all human life comes to an end. Nevertheless, human birth is most favorable among the six paths because it is an ideal circumstance for hearing the Dharma and breaking free from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Devas (Heavenly beings)
Devas lead lives of power, pleasure, and satisfied desire. However, at the end of their lives, devas experience the same suffering of separation and death shared by all beings in the six paths. As their death approaches, devas find themselves rejected by their companions who turn blind to their suffering, cast out of their heavenly palaces to die alone. Following death as a deva, any manner of rebirth may occur, even into the lowest hell of uninterrupted misery.
Prior to his birth in Lumbini, Sakyamuni passed through all these paths over the course of countless lives. That is why his teachings speak directly and clearly to our experiences. In the words of Shinran Shonin:
Sakyamuni Tathagata appeared in this world Solely to teach the ocean-like Primal Vow of Amida; We, an ocean of beings in an evil age of five defilements, Should entrust ourselves to the Tathagata’s words of truth.
As we celebrate the appearance of our true teacher Sakyamuni Buddha in this world, let us continually turn our minds to the Nembutsu of the Primal Vow, so that we may follow in his footsteps, and cease our confused wandering through the six paths of birth-and-death.
Our annual San Mateo Buddhist Temple Obon observances will be held this month with cemetery services and Obon Odori dancing on Saturday, August 9, and our Obon Service at the temple on Sunday, August 10. The Buddhist observance of Obon is inspired by the story of the Buddha’s compassionate teaching to his disciple Mahamaudgalyayana.
Mahamaudgalyayana felt deep gratitude toward his loving mother, and after she passed away, he would reflect on how all the things she had done for him continued to bring benefit to his life. As an enlightened disciple of the Buddha, Mahamaudgalyana had a special ability to see the workings of cause and effect beyond the boundaries of birth and death. On one occasion he used this power to search for his mother throughout the six realms of existence*. At that time, he saw that his mother had fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, a state of suffering from unsatisfied desire.
Mahamaudgalyayana immediately went to the Buddha to ask what he could do to ease his mother’s suffering. Because there is nothing that we can do directly for a loved one once they have passed away and ceased to dwell in this world, the Buddha advised Mahamaudgalyayana that the best way for him to express the feelings of gratitude he felt for his departed mother would be to practice generosity toward the people he lived with everyday. Mahamaudgalyayana followed the Buddha’s instructions and made a gift of food, clothing and other necessary items to his fellow monks at the conclusion of their rainy season retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month.
After making this gift, his thoughts turned once again to his mother. Again, he used his special power of vision to seek her out in the various realms of birth and death. He was delighted to see that his mother had been released from suffering in the realm of the hungry ghosts. At that time, we are told that the usually reserved and dignified monk Mahamaudgalyayana was so overjoyed by the power of the Buddha’s teaching to bring about freedom from suffering that he began to leap and dance about without any regard for what others might think of him. This unselfconscious dance of joy serves as the basis for the Obon Odori dancing that we will enjoy at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on the evening of August 9.
The forty-eight vows established by Bodhisattva Dharmakara express his aspiration to liberate all beings from suffering. The Larger Pure Land Sutra tells how these vows were fulfilled when he realized perfect enlightenment becoming the Buddha Amitabha (Amida Buddha). Of the forty-eight vows, the eighteenth vow is called the Primal Vow because it is the vow that establishes the path for all beings to realize awakening through the Nembutsu. In the Jodo Shinshu Nembutsu tradition, the other forty-seven vows are considered to be further elaborations on the meaning of the eighteenth vow. I find that the sixth vow quoted below has special meaning for us during this Obon season:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should not possess divine eyes, and thus be unable to see at least a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of Buddha-lands, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
(Three Pure Land Sutras, Volume II: The Larger Sutra, p. 20)
The expression “divine eyes” in this passage refers to that special power of vision possessed by Mahamaudgalyayana and all awakened beings.
The loved ones we remember during Obon now dwell in Amida Buddha’s land of peace and bliss. The Larger Sutra tells us that they have realized the same awakening as Mahamaudgalyayana along with that special power to observe the workings of cause and effect throughout the six realms of existence. In that sense, those departed loved ones view us living in this world of difficulty and confusion in the same way that Mahamaudgalyayana viewed his mother in the realm of the hungry ghosts. Just as Mahamaudgalyayana worked for the liberation of his own mother after he realized enlightenment, the loved ones we remember at Obon are constantly working to guide us to awakening. They are not ghosts who come into our lives for a few days every summer during Obon. They return to us as bodhisattvas, compassionate guides who support us in each moment of our lives.
Mahamaudgalyayana dances with joy because he sees the suffering of his mother as his own suffering, and experiences her liberation as his own liberation. To see with the eyes of awakening is not just to see what is happening, but to respond to the suffering of others with action motivated by deep compassion. That perspective of deep compassion is realized by all who receive birth in Amida Buddha’s realm of immeasurable peace and bliss. Reflecting on our loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore, we find that they are guiding us with compassion in this very moment. As we gather to dance with joy in gratitude for the ways that they continue to support and guide us in our lives, I find that the loved ones I remember are there with me, dancing with joy because I have encountered the path to liberation from suffering in the Nembutsu.
*hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, fighting titans, and heavenly beings
In the springtime, Buddhists throughout the world hold special observances in celebration of the birth of Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha who lived in Northern India roughly 2,500 years ago. Japanese Buddhist communities celebrate Sakyamuni Buddha’s birth on April 8, which is called Hanamatsuri, or the “Festival of Flowers,” inspired by the traditional account that flowers spontaneously bloomed at the moment when Sakyamuni was born. We hope you will be able to join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for our Hanamatsuri Celebration on Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 9:30 a.m.
Since the time of the Buddha, it has been customary in many Asian cultures for pregnant women to return to their ancestral home to deliver their babies. While on her journey home, the Buddha’s mother Queen Maya stopped to rest in the gardens of Lumbini, a site located in present day Nepal. We are told that while delighting in the beauty of the gardens, she gave birth to her son from her right side while standing up and holding onto the branch of a tree for support. Immediately upon being born, the future Buddha is said to have taken seven steps representing his resolution to transcend the six realms of death and rebirth. It is said that a lotus flower blossomed under each of those seven footsteps. We are told that he then raised one hand to the sky and declared, “As this birth is a buddha’s birth, it is my last birth. Just in this one birth I shall save all!” (Buddhacarita: In Praise of the Buddha’s Acts, translated by Charles Willemen, pg. 4; available online at http://www.bdkamerica.org) Flowers bloomed and rained down as heavenly beings called devas and people of this world paid reverence to him. At that time, two pleasant streams, one warm and one cool, poured down from the sky to bathe the future Buddha.
Although many of the events in this traditional story may be based on events that actually occurred, it is best appreciated as an expression of religious truth, rather than a record of historical fact. For Buddhists, the moment of Sakyamuni’s birth is imbued with marvelous significance because it marks the beginning of the life he lived in our world, during which he realized enlightenment sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree and then dedicated the remaining forty-five years of his life to teaching others the path to freedom from suffering.
During his lifetime, Sakyamuni is said to have taught 84,000 Dharma Gates, providing a variety of teachings according to the needs and temperaments of the people who sought his guidance. Among the vast body of teachings attributed to Sakyamuni, it is up to each person to find the path to freedom from suffering that is best suited to his or her life. I personally find great meaning in the teachings delivered by Sakyamuni Buddha on the Nembutsu and Amida Buddha’s vow to liberate all beings from suffering.
When I encountered the Nembutsu teaching, it spoke so directly to my own life that I felt as if Sakyamuni Buddha came into this world 2,500 years ago just to teach that single Dharma Gate for me. Shinran (1173-1262), the true teacher of the Jodo Shinshu School of Buddhism beautifully expresses this sentiment in the following passage from his Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Shoshinge):
Sakyamuni Tathagata appeared in this world Solely to teach the ocean-like Primal Vow of Amida; We, an ocean of beings in an evil age of five defilements, Should entrust ourselves to the Tathagata’s words of truth.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 70)
Despite my best intentions to live as “a good Buddhist,” practicing mindfulness and compassion, the karmic force of my bad habits leads me astray on a daily basis. Amida Buddha saw that there are foolish people like me in the world, and for that very reason made a commitment to provide a true teaching precisely for those of us who have a heavy burden of karma. We call that commitment to help the most foolish and misguided beings the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. I may find myself way off track from time to time, but that’s okay. There’s no need to beat myself up about it. The light of Amida Buddha’s wisdom is always shining into my life, illuminating my true path. In the light of the Buddha’s wisdom, I see that even when I think I am way off track, I have actually never left my true path. I find great peace of mind in this Nembutsu teaching, and so for me, when Sakyamuni Buddha taught the vast Dharma gate of Amida’s Primal Vow he fulfilled his promise to save all beings—including me—from suffering.