Eyes that See the Needs of Others

For the August 2, 2020 Shotsuki Hoyo Monthly Memorial Service, Rev. Adams reflects on the story of Mahamaudgalyayana from the Ullambana Sutra and the remarkable powers attained by those who realize true awakening.

Returning Home

In Japan, Obon is traditionally one of the busiest travel seasons, as family members who have moved away from their ancestral hometown will travel great distances to return home during Obon.  At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple too, there are many Sangha members who return to the Temple and reconnect with the Sangha each year during Obon odori dance practices and for the dance itself.  Our Hatsubon service is one of our most well-attended services of the year, as families gather from great distances to remember loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore since the previous year’s Obon.  In this year of Covid-19, when we are unable to gather in person at the Temple, we will be conducting the Obon services online and over the telephone via Zoom Meeting on Sunday, August 9 at 9:30 a.m.  This unusual Obon observance gives us pause to reflect upon the meaning of returning home for Obon. 

The Buddhist observance of Obon is inspired by the story of the Buddha’s disciple Mahamaudgalyayana, who felt deep gratitude toward his loving mother. After she passed away, he entered into deep concentration and searched for his mother throughout the many paths of birth and death.  At that time, he saw that his mother had fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, a state of suffering from unsatisfied desire.

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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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Shared Ancestors

As summer vacation draws to a close we prepare to welcome the Autumn Equinox with our Ohigan Service on Sunday, September 23. Looking back on the lively season of temple activities that we enjoy between our bazaar in late June and our Obon in mid-August, I fondly recall the week of our Summer Terakoya Buddhist summer camp, when the sound of joyful children’s voices could be heard all day long at the temple.

This year our theme for Terakoya was Buddhist Holidays from around the world that commemorate important events in the life of Sakyamuni Buddha.
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Dancing with Mahamaudgalyayana

As a child growing up in Minnesota, my birthday party in July was one of the highlights of summer that I looked forward to each year, along with camping trips to the North Shore of Lake Superior and Fourth of July fireworks. I would eagerly anticipate having all my friends come over to eat cake and ice cream and play on the “slip and slide,” a large plastic sheet that we would spread out on the lawn and wet down with a garden hose.

I have wonderful memories of my birthday parties as a child and now I do my best to create those memories for my own children. For our oldest son, summer begins with his birthday party in June and culminates with treats, dancing and staying out late for Obon Odori in August. This year, our San Mateo Buddhist Temple Obon observances will occur with cemetery services and Obon Odori dancing on Saturday, August 13, and our Obon Service at the temple on Sunday, August 14. 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 Saturday, August 13.

In one version of this story, Mahamaudgalyana questions the Buddha regarding how his kind mother could have fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, the destination of those who fail to practice true generosity. The Buddha explains that while Mahamaudgalyayana’s mother was kind to him, she always restrained her generosity so that she would be able to provide her son with the best things.

I have yet to meet a parent who does not give ultimate preference to their own children. Now that I am a parent myself, I realize all the attention and planning that goes into hosting a successful birthday party. Venues have to be reserved, menus planned, and cakes ordered or baked. In making all these decisions, the preferences of our birthday boy get first priority. Usually we try to teach our children that guests get served first, but when hosting a birthday party, our custom is for the birthday boy or girl to choose the first slice of cake.

Sakyamuni Buddha and the enlightened monks and nuns who have followed his example all left home so that they could seek the path of freedom from karmic bonds. My karmic bonds are too deep to leave home and abandon my bias towards my own family. For this very reason, I find my Dharma home in Shinran’s path of the Nembutsu. Shinran himself married and raised several children with his wife Eshinni. He lived with deep awareness of the karma that bound that bound him to this world, and yet he was confident that the great compassion of the Buddha would carry him to liberation through the Nembutsu. He expresses his joy in the following words:

How joyous I am, realizing as I humbly reflect that my heart and mind stand rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and that my thoughts and feelings flow within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 303)

In this season of Obon, we join Mahamaudgalyayana in remembering those who for our sake have taken upon themselves the karmic burden of special concern for us above all others. We join Mahamaudgalyayana and Shinran in the dance of joy at encountering the power of the Buddha’s compassion to bring about liberation for all who bear a heavy burden of karma.

Namo Amida Butsu

 

*hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, fighting titans, and heavenly beings

 

Seeing and Dancing

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.

 

In gassho

 

*hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, fighting titans, and heavenly beings