Flowers that Bloom in the Springtime

Growing up in Minnesota, I spent many hours in the autumn helping my mother in our family flower gardens.  We would clear out the dead plants and prepare the soil for the flowers my mother had planned for the following spring.  I remember one afternoon in early November when I was planting flower bulbs and thinking to myself, why are we putting these plants in the ground now, when the soil will be frozen for the next four months?

The following year in April when the snow finally melted, a bed of beautiful tulips and crocuses bloomed in the spot where the bulbs had been planted.  I marveled at how life had carried on through a long period where it seemed that everything in that place had died and then resurfaced with such striking beauty.  Life had not ceased in the garden.  It simply took on another form.  Today, recalling the understanding of the cycle of nature that I learned seeing those flowers bloom as a child, I can appreciate how conditions from the past bear fruit in the present.

This month of April we hold our Hanamatsuri Service at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple celebrating the birth of Siddhartha Gautama over 2,500 years ago in Lumbini, Nepal.  During his lifetime, Siddhartha attained awakening and came to be revered as Sakyamuni Buddha, the compassionate teacher whose way of living and words of wisdom continue to inspire and guide seekers of the truth around the world.

The traditional story of Siddhartha’s birth tells how he was welcomed into this world with the abundant blooming of flowers.  Upon arriving in this world, he is said to have taken seven steps, with a lotus flower blooming on the ground in each place that his foot touched the earth. Having passed through the six paths[1] of death and rebirth countless times, he was steeped in causes and conditions from the past.  The seven steps represent his resolute intention to transcend the cycle of birth-and-death and realize the path to lasting peace, not just for himself but for all beings.

Sakyamuni Buddha’s final human birth came to an end when he passed into the lasting tranquility of parinirvana at age 80.  Like a beautiful flower that blooms temporarily in our garden, the Buddha’s human life expressed the truth of impermanence.  And yet, the wisdom and kindness he brought into this world continues to guide and support all those who take refuge in his teachings.   

Among the many teaching that Sakyamuni Buddha imparted during his lifetime, the teaching of Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow provides our gateway into the garden of awakening.   Amida Buddha vowed that those who live with deep mindfulness of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion and express their sincere gratitude in the words “Namo Amida Butsu” will unfailingly attain the life of lasting peace and joy.

This flower of truth blossoms in our hearts each moment we say “Namo Amida Butsu” with a heart of grateful entrusting.  In The True, Teaching, Practice, and Realization, Shinran Shonin offers the words of Master Tz’u-min as an expression of his joy in the Nembutsu:

Considering then this human existence – hard is it to obtain;
It is like the blossoming of the udumbara.
Truly we have come now to hear the Pure Land teaching so rare to encounter;
Truly we have encountered the opening of the dharma-gate of the nembutsu.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 41)

The udumbara is a flower that requires very specific conditions to bloom, such that it rarely blooms.  Lifetime after lifetime we have cycled through a long winter in traveling the paths of birth-and-death.  Finally, the causes and conditions have matured for us to encounter the teachings of the Buddha.  Now springtime blooms in our hearts and we can appreciate how truly precious is this human life we have received.  Let us cherish and make the most of this life by listening carefully to the Buddha’s teachings and settling our path to liberation from suffering.

Namo Amida Butsu

[1] A traditional Buddhist worldview describes six possible states of existence into which a person may be reborn: hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting titans, humans, and heavenly beings.

The Great Sage, the World-honored One

From The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 3, Letter 4

When we carefully consider the transiency of human life, we realize that the living will certainly end in death and that the prosperous will eventually decline. This is how life is in the human world. Even so, we vainly live days and nights, spending months and years to no purpose. Indeed, we may lament about it, but I feel that we could never really comprehend the true extent of this pitifully sad situation.

How true it is that impermanence is difficult to escape for all, from the Great Sage, the World-honored One, at the highest level, to Devadatta, who committed evil acts and grave offenses, at the lowest.

Moreover, to receive life as a human being is indeed rare and difficult, and even more so is it the opportunity to encounter the Buddha Dharma, the way of emancipation from birth-and-death through practices of self-power is difficult to follow at the present time in the latter days. Therefore, our lives would be spent in vain unless we encountered the Primal Vow of Amida Tathagata.

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The Peace of Mind We Receive from Sakyamuni Buddha

In February, we observe our Nirvana Day Service commemorating Sakyamuni Buddha’s passing from this world into the lasting peace of parinirvana.  In departing from this world, Sakyamuni embodied the essential truth that all who are born into human life will eventually pass through the gate of death.  Given that our bodily form will not last forever, where shall we find meaning and purpose in this life?  Observing the world in which we live, it seems that many lives are devoted to the pursuit of fame and profit.  Shinran Shonin himself concludes his Hymns of the Dharma-Ages with the following verse:

I am such that I do not know right and wrong
And cannot distinguish false and true;
I lack even small love and small compassion,
And yet, for fame and profit, enjoy teaching others.

The pursuit of fame and profit pervaded life in Shinran Shonin’s time, just as it does in our own time.  Reading these words of Shinran Shonin, I recognize how the desire for fame and profit often compels my own life.

In this internet age, we may find ourselves spending considerable time and energy curating an image of ourselves on social media platforms.  When our posts accumulate more and more “likes,” we taste the fleeting pleasure of fame and recognition.  This is what makes social media platforms so addictive.  When our lives are driven by the quest for fame and recognition, it is easy to become preoccupied by how we are evaluated by others.  This preoccupation with our own image can cause our hearts to become narrow and self-serving.  We may worry that if others receive attention and recognition that we will be forgotten and ignored.  We become resentful of those who receive praise, thinking that the recognition they receive signals a lack of regard for our own accomplishments.  Rather than leading to peace of mind, chasing after fame and recognition tends to lead to increased stress and anxiety.

When our lives are driven by the desire for profit, we are at risk of losing sight of what it is that makes this human life precious.  In our contemporary society, there is a tendency to attribute more value to the lives of those who have the ability to accumulate great profits.  As a result, those who dedicate their lives to helping others through vocations like teaching and care-giving often struggle to maintain their livelihood.  While recent advances in artificial intelligence raise the prospect of even more efficient and profitable operations for businesses, many workers now have great anxiety that they will no longer be needed in their current job and that their value as an employee will disappear.  When the guiding principle of life is maximizing profits, anxiety and fear are pervasive and peace of mind is rare.

Ordinary unenlightened beings fall into confusion and anxiety in their pursuit of fame and profit.  In the following verse from Shinran Shonin’s “Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu,” he expresses his deeply held belief that the true purpose of Sakyamuni Buddha’s life in this world was to provide peace of mind for ordinary unenlightened beings:

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.

The Primal Vow expresses Amida Buddha’s steadfast commitment to liberate all beings without discrimination.  The quest for profit can lead to discriminatory treatment of others if we value them only according to how much they are able to contribute to our own profit.  Sakyamuni taught the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in order to liberate all those who are lost and suffering in this world dominated by the quest for fame and profit.

Our lives are precious not according to how much fame or profit we attain.  Our lives are precious because we have the potential to realize liberation from suffering through the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.  The words “Namo Amida Butsu” that I hear are the voice of the Buddha calling out to me, saying “I will liberate you without fail.”  The words “Namo Amida Butsu” that I recite are my joyful response saying, “Thank you for liberating me.”  Sakyamuni Buddha’s true purpose in life was to bestow upon us the genuine peace of mind that we receive in the Nembutsu.

Namo Amida Butsu

Great Compassion is Untiring and Illumines Me Always

Heartbreaking news arrives daily from the Middle East, the war in Ukraine rages on, and gun violence in America continues unabated, reminding us that the darkness of greed, anger, and ignorance continue to prevent the people of this world from recognizing our shared humanity.  In discouraging times like this, I find comfort and hope for the future in gathering with friends from other religious traditions to affirm our shared wishes for a world in which peace and kindness prevail.  Recent conversations with Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Christian friends have reminded me that many of the world’s religious traditions observe festivals that celebrate light transforming darkness, such as Ramadan, Hanukkah, Christmas, 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. 

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, he knew that Siddhartha was about to transcend the world of illusion and break free from Mara’s control in the unending cycle of birth and death.  Mara came at Siddhartha with the full force of his army of illusion in the hope of disrupting Siddhartha’s meditation. 

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All the Sacred Scriptures

From The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 5, Letter 9

The essential point of the settled mind in our tradition lies simply in the meaning of the six-character Name, “Na-mo-a-mi-da-butsu” (literally, paying homage to Amida Buddha).

This means that when we pay homage - “namo” - to Amida Buddha, we are immediately saved by the Buddha. So the two-character word, “na-mo,” means to take refuge.

“To take refuge” means that we, sentient beings, setting aside various practices, entrust ourselves unwaveringly to Amida Buddha for our emancipation in the afterlife Accordingly, Amida Tathagata, knowing this fully, saves all of us, without exception.

Thereupon, since Amida Buddha saves the sentient beings who entrust themselves - “namo” - to the Buddha, the six-character Name, “Na-mo-a-mi-da-butsu,” manifests how we, sentient beings, are all saved without discrimination.

For this reason, when we speak of attaining the entrusting heart of Other Power, we find that it is exactly what the six-character Name, “Na-mo-a-mi-da-butsu,” means. We should, therefore, realize that all the sacred scriptures indeed are solely meant to make us entrust ourselves to the six-character Name, “Na-mo-a-mi-da-butsu.”

Humbly and respectfully.

This Marvelous Human Life

This past month we had the opportunity to gather three generations of our family at the Grand Canyon when my wife and I traveled with our sons to join my parents in celebrating their golden wedding anniversary at a place they visited on their engagement trip 50 years prior.  We had all visited the Grand Canyon together five years ago on the occasion of my father’s 70th birthday.  Plans are already in the works for another visit in five years’ time to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday.

I find the Grand Canyon to be an ideal place to reflect upon the passage of time in our lives.  Viewing the layers upon layers of rock that were formed over millions of years, and then gradually carved out by the waters of the Colorado River, the flow of time is on display in a rare and magnificent fashion.

On this trip, we learned that the canyon continues to evolve as the river flows like sandpaper, carrying sediment and boulders in its current.  When the spring snowmelt comes down from the Rocky Mountains, strong flows of water carry boulders the size of automobiles that scrape against the riverbed, helping to carve the canyon even deeper through the layers of hard, dry rock. Even with all these dramatic and powerful forces of nature at work, a park ranger told us, “You can come back in 50 years and the canyon will be deeper by about the thickness of one Harry Potter book.” 

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A Place to Hear the Nembutsu

During the month of October we observe our annual memorial service in honor of Shinran Shonin’s wife Eshinni, their youngest daughter Kakushinni, and the many the Buddhist women who have passed the joy of the Nembutsu down through the generations.  Following Shinran Shonin’s birth in the Pure Land, Kakushinni provided land and received support from Shinran’s followers in the Kanto region to build a hexagonal mausoleum dedicated to his memory.

Kakushinni took responsibility for the care and maintenance of the mausoleum and made an agreement with the Kanto followers that her descendants would continue to serve as its caretakers in the future generations.  That hall is called the Otani Mausoluem (Jpn. Otani Honbyo) and is considered to be the precursor to our present-day mother temple, the Hongwanji.  Down through the generations, the descendants of Shinran Shonin have maintained the Hongwanji as a place where we can come together to share in the joy of the nembutsu.  In many ways the Hongwanji temple serves as model for our activities at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple.

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The 84,000 Dharma Gates (November 5)

It is said that the Buddha taught 84,000 Dharma gates, presenting a vast array of teachings in order to suit the needs of all different people. In this week’s Dharma Talk, Rev. Adams will share reflections on the importance of respecting the views and religious understanding of others while being clear about one’s own path to awakening.

From The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 5, Letter 9

We should . . . realize that all the sacred scriptures indeed are solely meant to make us entrust ourselves to the six-character Name, “Na-mo-a-mi-da-butsu.”

8:30 a.m. Shoshinge Sofu Chanting (click here for chanting text)
9:00 a.m. Radio Taiso Exercise
9:30 a.m. Dharma Service
10:30 a.m. Shotsuki Hoyo Monthly Memorial Service
10:30 a.m. Dharma Discussion

To join us for this hybrid service via Zoom, CLICK HERE to sign up for “Live Broadcast of Services”.

The Nembutsu Heard by Shinran Shonin

We hope to see you at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on May 21, 2023 at 9:30 a.m. for our Gotan-e Service celebrating the 850th birthday of Shinran Shonin, the Buddhist teacher who we look to as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition.  This year also marks the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Jodo Shinshu teaching. 

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.  As a young boy, Shinran surely encountered a great deal of suffering and sadness in the world around him.  At the age of nine, he became a Buddhist monk and sought refuge in the Dharma.  He arrived just before sunset on the day he was to be ordained at Shorenin Temple.  As night was beginning to fall, Jien, the head priest who would perform the ordination, told him to return the next day for the ceremony.  At that time, the young Shinran is said to have recited the following poem:

“For him who counts on tomorrow,
Like the fragile cherry blossom,
Tonight, unexpected winds may blow.”

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Ice Melts Into Water, Obstructions Melt Into Virtues

As temperatures warm and we prepare to welcome the arrival of Spring with our Ohigan Service on March 19, I am reminded of the following verse from Shinran Shonin’s Hymns of the Pure Land Masters:

Obstructions of karmic evil turn into virtues;
It is like the relation of ice and water:
The more the ice, the more the water;
The more the obstructions, the more the virtues.

(From Shinran Shonin’s Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, Hymn 40)

In the verse above, Shinran Shonin describes how, just as the warm spring temperatures melt ice into water, the warm light of the Buddha’s wisdom melts the hard obstructions in our minds into the flowing virtues of awakening.  Greed turns into Generosity.  Indulgence turns into Self-control.  Anger turns into Patience.  Laziness turns into Dedication.  Distraction turns into Concentration.  Delusion turns into Wisdom

Growing up in Minnesota, the springtimes of my childhood were filled with joy and wonder, as I experienced the warm sunlight melting away ice and snow, making way for blades of green grass to sprout up on the lawn.  During the long winter, the cold of the snow and ice had turned the grass brown.  The water of the melted snow and the warmth of the sun brought new life to the grass.

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