Pine, Bamboo, and Plum

As we turn the page on the truly extraordinary year that was 2020, some of our Sangha members will be adorning their homes with branches of pine, bamboo, and plum (shōchikubai) to welcome the New Year 2021 with these auspicious symbols that embody the virtue of resilience in the face of adversity. 

Pine remains ever green, even in the cold of winter.  It expresses consistency and stability.  Bamboo does not break when bent by winter storms or piling snow.  It shows us that there is great strength in remaining flexible during challenging times.  Plum flowers blossom in the cold months and remind us that winter gives way to springtime.  Just as our pleasurable experiences do not last forever, neither do the times of pain and difficulty.  The beauty of the plum flower blossoms in the season of cold and darkness.

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From Issa’s The Year of My Life

It is a commonplace of life that the greatest pleasure issues ultimately in the greatest grief.  Yet why—why is that this child of mine, who has not tasted half the pleasures that the world has to offer, who ought, by rights, to be as fresh and green as the vigorous young needles on the everlasting pine—why must she lie here on her deathbed, swollen with blisters, caught in the loathsome clutches of the vile god of pox?  Being, as I am, her father, I can scarcely bear to watch her withering away—a little more each day—like some pure, untainted blossom that is ravished by the sudden onslaught of mud and rain.
              After two or three days, however, her blisters dried up and the scabs began to fall away—like a hard crust of dirt that had been softened by the melting snow.  In our joy we made a boat with fresh straw, and pouring hot wine ceremoniously over it, sent it down the river with the god of smallpox on it.  Yet our hopes proved all in vain.  She grew weaker and weaker, and finally on the twenty-first of June, as the morning-glories were just closing their flowers, she closed her eyes forever.  Her mother embraced the cold body and cried bitterly.  For myself—I knew well it was no use to cry, that water once flown past the bridge does not return, and blossoms that are scattered are gone beyond recall.  Yet try as I would, I could not, simply could not cut the binding cord of human love.  

The world of dew
Is the world of dew,
And yet . . .
And yet . . .

(The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa’s Oraga Haru, by Nobuyuki Yuasa, p. 103-104)

Hanging by One Arm

We have a tradition at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple of observing a Pet and Plant Memorial Service each year in early October, during which we gratefully remember the animals who provide us with companionship as our pets. We also show our appreciation for the plants that support our lives, including the cut flowers that adorn the Buddha Shrine and bring us joy through their beauty.  This year 2020, the Pet and Plant Memorial Service will be held online via Zoom Meeting on Sunday, October 4 at 9:30 a.m.

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Hearing one another, hearing the Buddha

One month ago, as I sat down to write my newsletter article for April, we were just beginning our life of staying at home under the Shelter in Place Order.  My mind was filled with uncertainty about what the coming weeks would bring. I did not imagine the extent to which this coronavirus would affect the lives of so many people across the globe. As I sit down to write this article for May, I see the following headline in today’s edition of the Washington Post, “Covid-19 is rapidly becoming America’s leading cause of death.” It has been deeply saddening and distressing to hear of so many people near and far falling ill with Covid-19.  The loss of life is heartbreaking. In the midst of my anxiety and fear, I find myself turning to the words of Shinran Shonin for comfort and guidance.

In my reading this past month, I came across a letter that Shinran wrote at a time when famine and epidemic disease had devastated communities all over Japan. To me, Shinran’s words shine the light of wisdom on the challenges we face today.  Shinran writes:

It is saddening that so many people, both young and old, men and women, have died this year and last. But the Tathagata taught the truth of life’s impermanence for us fully, so you must not be distressed by it.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 531)

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Bouncing into the New Year

Happy New Year! According to Japanese custom, we all become one year older together on New Year’s Day. In that sense, Japanese New Year Celebrations are like a big birthday party for everyone, complete with gifts for the children. One of the joys of parenthood is experiencing the wonder of childhood once again through the eyes of my children. Often this means setting aside my idea of myself as a “dignified adult” and accompanying my children in their rambunctious playtime activities.

At a recent birthday party, I was compelled by begging and arm tugging to join my son inside a bounce house. A bounce house is a large inflatable room that can be set up on a lawn or driveway. It has a giant inflated cushion of air for a floor and soft yet sturdy netting for walls, supported by a large inflated pillar in each corner. The floor is both soft and springy, so that you can jump even higher than normal and it does not hurt if you fall over. Inside the bounce house, my son delighted in jumping around, chasing the other children and being bounced about by the cushion of air underneath.

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As summer draws to an end and we prepare to welcome the change of seasons with our Autumn Ohigan service on September 24 at 9:30 a.m., I have been enjoying the following haiku by the Japanese poet Issa (1763-1827) that captures the atmosphere of our temple in recent weeks:

Kobōzu ya
tamoto no naka no
semi no koe.

Little monk, I hear the cicada in the sleeve of your robe.

Buddhist Temples have long played an important role in children’s education in Japan. Today many temples run preschools and kindergartens that are attended by local children. In Issa’s day, it was not uncommon for children whose families were not able to provide for them to be placed in the care of a Buddhist temple
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“I alone am the Honored One”

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 Service on Sunday, April 12, 2015 at 9:30 a.m. This year, we will also have a special “Kids’ Hanamatsuri” for children to celebrate the birth of the Buddha with snacks, sweet tea and crafts from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 11.

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, “Above the heavens and below the heavens, I alone am the Honored One.”

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