Living Together in the Nembutsu

In late twelfth-century Japan, an unusual Buddhist gathering took shape around a charismatic monk called Honen-bo Genku who was living in the Yoshimizu district of Kyoto. Honen had spent much of his life as a student on Mount Hiei, one of the great centers of Buddhist learning in Japan at the time. The depth of Honen’s knowledge and understanding was well-known. Leading monks of his day referred to him as “The Most Wise Master Honen,” and he was regularly summoned to conduct Buddhist services for the imperial family and high-ranking members of the nobility.

Given the high esteem in which he was held, it was no wonder that a gathering of Honen’s regular students in Yoshimizu included ladies from the prominent families of the capital and erudite monks from Mount Hiei. However, a first time visitor to Yoshimizu would likely have been surprised to find a motley assembly of samurai warriors, common peasants, fishermen, monks who had broken the precepts, prostitutes and even notorious outlaws sitting down together with the high-class ladies and dignified monks to listen to what Honen had to say. All these people came to hear one simple teaching: “Entrust yourself to the great compassion of Amida Buddha and say the Nembutsu. If you live in the Nembutsu completely free of doubt, then you will surely realize liberation through birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.”

One of the ladies who heard these teachings given by Honen at Yoshimizu was the daughter of Miyoshi Tamenori, the head of a powerful family in Echigo province (modern-day Niigata Prefecture). It was a common practice in the provinces for young women from prominent families to be sent to Kyoto to learn the ways of sophisticated society by serving as a lady-in-waiting to an aristocratic family. While in Kyoto, Tamenori’s daughter encountered Honen’s teachings and became one of his dedicated students, eventually taking the Dharma name Eshinni.

Around that same time, a monk by the name of Hannen joined Honen’s Sangha at Yoshimizu, eventually taking the Dharma name Shinran. Shinran had studied on Mount Hiei from the age of 9 to 29, and like Honen became disillusioned with the life and practices of the elite monks there. Shinran sought out the teachings of Honen after having a vision in which the World-saving Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Jp. Kannon Bosatsu) appeared before him and gave the following instruction:

“If you, practicer, are obliged to have sexual contact with a woman through some past karma,

I will transform myself into a beautiful woman and become your partner.

I will adorn you with virtues throughout your life,

And at your death I will guide you to the Land of Utmost Bliss.”

(An Illustrated Biography of Shinran,

As a monk who had been observing a strict vow of celibacy for the previous twenty years, Shinran must have been at a loss regarding how to understand this profound vision that he received from the Bodhisattva of Compassion himself.

When Shinran met Honen at Yoshimizu, he surely confided in him and sought guidance on how to continue his study and practice of the Dharma now that he had abandoned his life as a monk on Mount Hiei. Honen, for his part, taught that the most important matter of Buddhist practice is not conforming to one specific lifestyle, but rather finding a life style that supports your life in the Nembutsu. He emphasized this matter such that we find the following words in “The Sayings of Honen-shonin as Stated by His Disciples”:

“To live this life means to create the conditions in which one is able to recite nembutsu in a natural way. . . . If one cannot practice nembutsu as a monk, one should take a wife and recite nembutsu. On the contrary, if one cannot practice nembutsu with a wife, one should recite nembutsu as a monk. If staying in one place makes nembutsu impossible, go on a pilgrimage and practice nembutsu. Conversely, if nembutsu is difficult on a pilgrimage, stay in one place and recite nembutsu.. . . If the practice of nembutsu in seclusion is impossible, practice it with other nembutsu devotees. Conversely, if practice with other devotees is impossible, recite in seclusion. Food, clothing, and housing are considered to be supporting elements for nembutsu.”

(The Promise of Amida Buddha, Wisdom Publications, p. 319)

While we have few details about how Shinran and Eshinni first met, it is clear that Honen’s nembutsu teaching was a key karmic circumstance that brought them into each other’s lives. We know from a letter written by Eshinni to their youngest daughter, Kakushinni, that by 1211 they were married, living together in Echigo with three children. In the subsequent years, they would continue to have children and live their lives as a family dedicated to sharing the Nembutsu teaching they received from Honen.

At 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 18, 2015, we invite you to join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for a special service in remembrance of Eshinni, Kakushinni, and Lady Takeko Kujo, a descendent of Shinran and Eshinni who worked tireless to share the Nembutsu teaching in the early decades of the 20th Century.


Namo Amida Butsu

The weight of a table

I am very much looking forward to our annual temple bazaar on Saturday, June 27 and Sunday, June 28. Thanks to all of you who make time in your busy schedules each year to help—whether setting up, helping on bazaar day, or helping with clean up and putting things away afterward. As we were setting up for the bazaar last year, I was impressed by how we are able to continue using the materials and equipment that have been passed down from previous generations. Many summer festivals I have been to use only commercially available pop-up tents and lightweight plastic tables. However, here at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple I was awed by the sturdy booths we construct with steel pipes and joints that have been custom fitted to make the best use of the space that we have.

Last year during the bazaar setup, I was admiring the construction of the tabletops made from thick plywood and two-by-fours as teams of volunteers were carrying them across the parking lot. As we paused for refreshments, one of the younger crew members shared a memory from his first year helping out with the bazaar set-up. When he suggested to one of the senior Nisei members that it was about time to replace the heavy wooden tables with a more modern and lightweight plastic model, the Nisei member proceeded to tell him the story how his Issei father hand-crafted those tabletops in the years after they returned to San Mateo from the internment camps at the end of the Second World War. As the young crewmember recounted the story he had heard of how the tabletops were made, I realized with deepened appreciation the caring wishes for future generations that went into their construction. The temple is a treasure in our community where we continue to receive the benefits of the Buddhist way of seeing our lives of that has been passed down by previous generations.

As I consider the way in which our San Mateo Buddhist Temple parking lot is completely transformed each year during the last weekend of June, it occurs to me that if we relied solely on cookie-cutter manufactured booths that come in two or three standard sizes, we probably wouldn’t be able to create the kind of comfortable and efficient space we have during our bazaar, where each booth fits perfectly into its place. When I think back to last year’s bazaar and the way my son spent a gleeful afternoon running back and forth between the game booths, I realize that it is those special spaces designed by our temple’s pioneering generation that create the lasting memories for our Sangha and our guests at bazaar time.

The wisdom and creativity to take what we have in our life and make the happiness we need, enables us to create the circumstances that perfectly meet our needs and the needs of the people around us. There is infinite possibility in this way of truly appreciating the value and potential of what we have in this very moment. The Japanese expression mottainai captures the spirit of a life lived with deep gratitude for all that is received.

The San Mateo Buddhist Temple is our place for gathering in the Nembutsu. To say the Nembutsu is to hear the words “Namo Amida Butsu” and encounter the light of wisdom that has been passed down over generations, through Honen and Shinran , all the way back to Sakyamuni Buddha himself. The Nembutsu is the Buddha’s message to each of us that we already have everything we need; we already are everything we need to be to realize true peace of mind. We do not need to acquire something new. What is necessary is a shift in perspective—to turn and see that our purpose in life is not to accumulate and grasp more and more, but to recognize the boundless potential of what is here right now.

It seems to be in my nature to be dissatisfied with what I have. Part of me says, “This can’t be enough. There must be something more that I can get that will make me happier.” However, in the rare moments when my mind turns to the Nembutsu and I am able to pause in my constant chasing after the next pleasure, I glimpse the truth of profound peace of mind and boundless joy. As Shinran writes:

When beings just turn about at heart and often say the nembutsu,

It is as if bits of rubble were turned into gold.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 42)

Namo Amida Butsu.

Sakyamuni and Amida are our father and our mother

We hope to see you at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on May 17, 2015 at 9:30 a.m. for our Gotan-e Service celebrating the birth of Shinran, the Buddhist teacher who we look to as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition. Shinran was born in Hino near Kyoto on May 21, 1173, during a time of great social turmoil in Japan when warlords battled for control of the country, severe famines caused widespread starvation, and epidemic disease took many lives. Shinran’s mother is said to have passed away after falling ill when he was just eight years old. Shortly thereafter, Shinran left home at the young age of nine years to receive ordination as a Buddhist monk from Jien, the abbot of the Shoren-in Temple. For the next twenty years, he dedicated his life to Buddhist training in the Tendai tradition on Mount Hiei outside Kyoto.

As a young monk growing up on Mount Hiei, Shinran spent the remaining years of his childhood and adolescence under the care of the temple community rather than with his parents. Even though Shinran spent relatively few years living with his parents, we find that he uses metaphors of father and mother in several key passages of his writings to express the deep gratitude he feels for the Buddha’s compassion. The following passage from the Hymns of the Pure Land Masters (Koso Wasan) is a personal favorite of mine:

Sakyamuni and Amida are our father and our mother,

Full of love and compassion for us;

Guiding us through various skillful means,

They bring us to awaken the supreme shinjin.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 380)

I do not believe that Shinran would have the deep appreciation of compassion that we encounter in his writings had he not encountered great kindness and nurturing from the monks with whom he spent the formative years of his youth. After leaving the monastery on Mt. Hiei at the age of 29, Shinran joined Honen’s Nembutsu community that included men and women of all walks of life. Under Honen’s guidance, Shinran continued to dedicate his life to studying and sharing the Dharma, but with an expanded view of the possibilities for Buddhist practice in any lifestyle. Eventually, Shinran married Eshinni and they raised several children together.

At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we continue to follow Shinran’s example of Buddhist practice in family life. On Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 10), we will celebrate the arrival of new babies into our Sangha family with our Hatsumairi Service. We will also express gratitude toward our parents by dedicating that Sunday Service to Parents’ Day activities. This service is an opportunity to express the gratitude we feel for our parents, but also to reflect upon the many people who care for and nurture us with the same loving commitment of a mother for her child.

I recently heard one of our Buddhist Women’s Association members whose mother lives far away refer to the senior BWA members as “my temple moms.” This reflects the deep insight that the compassion we encounter through the Buddha goes beyond blood relations. It even goes beyond gender. The wisdom often associated with a father’s love can be received from a woman. The kindness often associated with mothers can be received from a man. When Shinran refers to Sakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha as our father and mother, he is pointing to the deep love and compassion that goes beyond the difference between man and woman.

For some people, the most familiar kindness comes from their mother. But it could come from a father too—or a grandmother or grandfather. It could come from a teacher, a coach, a coworker, or a friend. While that experience of kindness comes into our lives through many different karmic relationships, it is something we all encounter in life. The nembutsu that we recite with a sincere heart of entrusting is our everyday celebration of the Buddha’s boundless compassion that we encounter through the kindness of others.


Namo Amida Butsu.