Dharma Discussion: Concentration/Dhyāna (August 16, 2020)

Click here to read about the Buddhist Virtue of Concentration

Discussion Questions

  1. Have you ever experience a state of deep concentration that enabled to you do an activity skillfully and without distraction, sometimes described as a “flow state” or being “in the zone”? What gave rise to that state of mind? Were you able to replicate it on more than one occasion?
  2. Has Buddhist practice in general, and the Nembutsu specifically, helped you to cultivate a concentrated mind at times?
  3. What the greatest obstacles you face in maintain mental concentration?
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A Place for Awakening

This past month the San Mateo Buddhist Temple had the honor of hosting a tour group from the San Francisco Foundation that was visiting sites in North Central San Mateo to learn more about the history of our neighborhood, how it is changing, and the current challenges faced by its residents.  The tour organizers were eager to include SMBT on the tour to highlight the important role that the Japanese-American Buddhist community has played in our neighborhood over the past 120 years.

During the visit, our guests heard from four SMBT Sangha members and longtime residents of North Central about their memories of life in the neighborhood and their hopes for the future.  Each shared a moving story of how their family had overcome challenges to establish meaningful lives here in San Mateo.  I’d like to share one of those stories, as I find it particularly relevant as we prepare to observe our Bodhi Day service on Sunday, December 1, 2020, at 9:30 a.m., in celebration of Sakyamuni Buddha’s realization of enlightenment seated beneath the Bodhi Tree:

The most significant event that happened as a child was the U.S. evacuation order in Feb. 1942.  I was 6 years old then and vividly remember the black-out drills the city had where all lights in the homes and streets had to be turned off until the all-clear sirens would go off and curfews were set at 8:00 PM. 

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The Diamondlike Heart and Mind

On Sunday, December 2 at 9:30 a.m., we welcome you to join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for our Bodhi Day Service celebrating Sakyamuni Buddha’s awakening at the age of 35. Sakyamuni dedicated the remaining 45 years of his life to sharing the Dharma—the absolute truth to which he awakened seated beneath the Bodhi Tree. In time, the Sangha, or community of the Buddha’s followers, grew and the Buddha was revered by common people, kings and queens alike.

The Buddha’s cousin Devadatta had joined the Sangha, but was resentful and envious of the Buddha’s renown. Eventually he set out to split the community by calling for a more austere lifestyle, with the intention of building a large following of his own. During this period of conflict, there was a man who snuck up on the Buddha with the intention of assassinating him one day while he was sitting quietly in a forest. As the man approached and prepared to attack, the Buddha continued to sit in unwavering concentration.
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Konnichiwa Namo Amida Butsu Sayōnara

The poem above was composed by one of our Dharma School students during the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Summer Terakoya Program that was held from July 25 to 29. This poem was composed in the Japanese haiku format of five syllables (Ko-n-ni-chi-wa), seven syllables (Na-mo-A-mi-da-Bu-tsu), five syllables (Sa-yo-u-na-ra). In just seventeen syllables, a Haiku brings us deep into the mind and heart of the author. The moment I heard this Haiku, I felt that it perfectly captured the spirit of our Summer Terakoya Gathering.
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Summer Terakoya

I begin a typical day at the temple with a short service chanting in the Hondo. More often than not, I conduct this service by myself. However, for five days at the end of July, I was delighted to be joined by ten young Dharma friends from the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Summer Terakoya Program. Prior to the modernization of the educational system in the late 1800’s, one of the most important functions of Buddhist temples in Japanese towns and villages was to provide primary education for local children. One might say that the first elementary schools in Japan were these temple schools called terakoya. Starting on Monday, July 27, and concluding on Friday, July 31, the Summer Terakoya Program was a new program at our temple this year, in which ten participants from first through ninth grades started each morning at 9:00 a.m. with a short service in the main temple hall.

After forming an orderly line in front of the Dharma School classrooms, we walked mindfully down South Claremont Street, paying close attention to all the sounds around us as we made our way to the main entrance of the temple. Pausing to join our hands in gassho and bow before the statue of Shinran Shonin in the entryway, we entered the main hall, where we offered incense, chanted Juseige and had a Dharma talk about the theme for that day. Each day a theme was chosen based on aspects of the Eightfold Path to liberation from suffering that was taught by Sakyamuni Buddha during his first sermon. On Monday our theme was Right View; on Tuesday, Right Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action; on Wednesday, Right Livelihood; on Thursday, Right Effort; and on Friday, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

Following morning service in the Hondo, we embarked on a day of fun and educational activities that included art projects, games,
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Falling Short

As we welcome the arrival of autumn, we will be observing our Autumn Ohigan Service on Sunday, September 21 at 9:30 a.m. The Japanese Buddhist observance of Ohigan traditionally focuses on study and reflection on the Six Paramitas, a set of Buddhist virtues that, when perfected, lead us to cross over from “this shore” in the deluded world of birth and death to arrive at the “other shore” of liberation in Nirvana.

The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word paramita is “Crossing over to the Other Shore.” In Chinese and Japanese translation, the term paramita is sometimes rendered as tōhigan到彼岸 “arriving at the other shore.” This imagery of crossing over to the other shore is the basis for Japanese Buddhist celebrations of Ohigan observed at the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes. In many Buddhist communities, it is customary to hold seven-day observances of Ohigan, with the middle day dedicated to gratitude towards one’s ancestors and each of the remaining six days dedicated to one of the Six Paramitas.

The Six Paramitas are listed below along with a brief explanation of the meaning of each:

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Conquering the Demon Army

Since Daylight Saving Time ended last month, I have really noticed that the days are getting shorter.  Lately, it is often pitch dark outside by the time I return home from the temple for dinner.  Spending more hours surrounded by darkness as winter approaches, I find myself feeling a deeper appreciation for light and illumination.  Here in the United States there is a widespread custom of decorating homes and businesses with strings of lights, lending a festive mood to the long winter nights.  As I reflect on this custom, I am reminded that many of the world’s religious traditions have winter festivals that celebrate light transforming darkness, such as Hanukkah, Christmas, Eid al-Adha, and Diwali. In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, Bodhi Day, the day of Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, is observed on December 8.  This service is a time when we reflect on Siddhartha Gautama’s heroic journey in search of the light of clear wisdom that shines through the darkness of ignorance and mistaken thinking.  When he fully realized that light of wisdom in his mind, he became a Buddha, or “Awakened One,” who would come to be revered as Sakyamuni, the Sage of the Sakya Clan. In the traditional telling of the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, it is said that as the moment of his awakening approached, a brilliant light shone forth from the place where he sat in meditation.  When Mara, the Demon King of Illusion, saw this light,

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