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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The Dance Comes to Us

The first time my parents came from Minnesota to California for a visit during Obon season, I was headed out the door one evening and said to them, “See you later! I’ll be back after the dance practice finishes.” My father adjusted his hearing aids and said, “Wait, did you say you are going to dance?” To which I replied, “Of course, dancing is one of my duties as a minister.” He got up from his chair, grabbed his camera and said, “This I’ve got to see.”   I always cringe when I see someone pointing a camera in my direction during Obon dancing. I have seen many beautiful photographs of Obon dancing posted on Facebook and Instagram over the years. One that stands out in my memory features a harmonious line of dancers making elegant halfmoon shapes with their arms up around their head. There I am at the center of the frame with my hands spread wide and low down near my waist like a baseball umpire calling “safe!”

When I stepped into the circle and joined the dance for the first time, I discovered that no-one was judging my dancing. As I struggled to keep up, one of the more experienced dancers kindly came over to dance alongside me and walk me through the steps. Momentarily forgetting my embarrassment and my pride, I encountered the joyful liberation of simply dancing. If the purpose of Buddhist practice is to let the ego fall away and realize liberation from attachment to “me” and “mine,” then I am hard-pressed to think of a better ground for this practice than Obon dancing. Obon dancing is not a show; it is a Buddhist tradition through which the Dharma transforms our lives quite outside our own efforts.

The people of Santa Barbara love a good dance party, so attendance at my first time dancing at the Santa Barbara Obon far exceeded my expectations. As the dancing was about to begin, our dance instructors dressed in beautiful summer yukata gathered in a small circle at the center of the church parking lot. A crowd quickly gathered around them. About half of the crowd was made up of regulars on the Southern California Obon dance circuit who had come to join the dancing. However, it was many of the attendees’ first encounter with Obon dancing, and not knowing what to expect, they jostled their way toward the center in anticipation of a performance by those beautifully dressed dancers.

Those who had come to dance were interspersed throughout the crowd, some close to the center near the instructors, some on the outer edges, and many in between. There was a beautiful moment when the music started. The assembled dancers took their cue from the instructors at the center and began the dance, forming concentric rings of motion rotating around a common axis at the center of the instructors. Those who thought they had come as spectators suddenly found themselves right in the middle of the dancing. Some stood startled for a moment before making a panicked dash for the outer edge of the parking lot where they could stand on the sidelines and watch the dance. However, a few of those who unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of the dance were delighted by the dancers all around them. Noticing that the movements of the dance were simple and repetitive, they opted to joined the dance rather than flee to sidelines. In joining the dance, they were able to taste the liberating joy of Obon dancing for themselves.

In the life of Other Power nembutsu, we let go of our calculating mind that attempts to impose our ideas of how things should be on the situations we encounter in life. The following passage from the Tannisho elegantly expresses this character of Other Power nembutsu:

The nembutsu, for its practicers, is not a practice or a good act. Since it is not performed out of one’s own designs, it is not a practice. Since it is not good done through one’s own calculation, it is not a good act. Because it arises wholly from Other Power and is free of self-power, for the practicer, it is not a practice or a good act.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 665)

We think we can control when it is time to dance and when we get to sit back and watch, but the truth is that that’s not how life works. In life, the dance comes to us, sometimes quite unexpectedly. It may be the birth of a child or the start of a new relationship. It may be a serious illness, the loss of a job or the passing of a loved one. When we struggle against the flow of life, thinking “I will decide for myself when I am ready to dance,” we have an uncomfortable time. When we bravely step into the circle, we find that a world of joy and companionship opens up to us as we dance.

 

Namo Amida Butsu

The Buddha’s Light Shining in the Heartland

In our Buddhist tradition, Obon is a time when we reflect on the lives of those loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore. This month as our observance of Obon on August 12 and 13 draws near, I am gratefully remembering my grandmother’s older brother, Earle Kenyon, who crossed over to the Other Shore on June 22, 2017.

The last time I met my Uncle Earle in this world he had driven his motorhome up from Kansas City to my parents’ house in Minnesota to join us for a family gathering to celebrate the birth of our son, Ryoma. He parked his motorhome in the driveway and came into the house where he gave me a big hug and greeted me, saying, “It’s great to see you, Henry! Since I became a Buddhist, I’ve been looking forward to sitting down with you to hear about your studies in Japan and discuss the teachings of the Buddha.” While I am certain in my belief that the teachings of the Buddha speak a truth that illuminates the lives of all people without exception, I have to admit that I did not expect my 84-year-old great-uncle living in Kansas City, Missouri to become the only other Buddhist on my side of the family.

In the course of our conversation, Uncle Earle described the peace of mind that practicing meditation and attending services with a community of Buddhists in Kansas City brought him while he was navigating his grief following the passing of his wife of 60 years, whom he had cared for as she faced the challenges of living with Alzheimer’s disease. He told me about how the teachings of the Buddha gave him the strength to discover moments of gratitude in the midst of sadness and the insight to treasure each day of this precious human life.

I remember visiting Uncle Earle and his wife Willa at their previous home in San Antonio, Texas, when I was boy. As my second-cousin (Earle’s grandson) Caleb and I ran in and out of their house playing games, he kindly cautioned us to make sure to check our shoes for scorpions before putting them on. During that trip, Caleb and I became great friends. When I think back on that visit, the atmosphere of caring and kindness that Earle and Willa cultivated in their home stands out in my memory as the circumstance that made that joyful time possible.

Wisdom and kindness ran through Uncle Earle’s life, so it strikes me as quite natural that he would discover a refuge for his big welcoming heart in the Buddhadharma. Shinran Shonin writes:

The light of wisdom exceeds all measure,
And every finite living being
Receives this illumination that is like the dawn,
So take refuge in Amida, the true and real light.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 325)

My great-uncle Earle’s life affirms the truth that the light of the Buddha’s wisdom truly does shine brightly throughout this world, dispelling darkness like the dawn and brightening countless lives in the heartland.

 

Namo Amida Butsu

Dharma School Teacher Interview: Mrs. Yuko Suruki, San Mateo Buddhist Temple

This interview by Rev. Ryuta Furumoto originally appeared in the Japanese section of the Wheel of Dharma BCA Newsletter in September 2016. Rev. Adams translated it into English so that our English-speaking readers could enjoy hearing from one of our most energetic Sangha members.   For this month’s interview I spoke to Mrs. Yuko Suruki, a Dharma School teacher at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple. In this interview, we hear from a Dharma School teacher who is working to share the Buddhadharma with the children who will carry the Buddhist Churches of America into the next generation. I was particularly interested in Mrs. Suruki’s perspective as an English-Japanese bilingual Dharma School teacher who knows the cultures of both the United States and Japan.   Where were you born? Toyama, Japan   Toyama is known as a place where Jodo Shinshu Buddhism thrives. Does your family in Japan belong to a Jodo Shinshu temple? Yes, my father is the second son of a temple priest, so our family is Jodo Shinshu Buddhist. My father worked as a school teacher and did not become a priest, but I recall that whenever I visited the temple where my father grew up I would run around in the temple and the grounds playing with my cousins. However, I wasn’t a very serious student of the Dharma back then and wouldn’t chant the sutras every day at home.

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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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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

 

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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Remembering Loved Ones on the Other Shore

On the morning of Saturday, August 8, we will begin our Obon Observances by visiting the graves of our loved ones to conduct memorial services at four local cemeteries. Later that evening we will have our Obon Odori Dancing at the temple. The following morning, on Sunday, August 9, we will have our Obon Service in the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, including the Hatsubon Observance, which is an opportunity for all the families who have also lost a loved one this past year to come together and find comfort and support in the Sangha. All of these activities are treasured Buddhist rituals that help us to appreciate the truth that birth and death are not two opposite ends of our lives, but constantly present with us in each moment.

A few years ago when my parents were visiting from Minnesota, we observed the Fifty Year Memorial Service for my paternal grandmother Norma Elizabeth Corcoran Adams, who passed away suddenly during a routine operation when my father was just fourteen years old. As an only child, losing the single mother who was raising him turned his whole world upside down. He rarely speaks of that difficult time in his youth, and when I first suggested that we observe the Fifty Year Memorial, he did not seem particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of revisiting memories of his mother’s passing. He was even less enthusiastic about my suggestion that one day we might visit her gravesite in Montana. However, as the date of their trip drew near, he began to take an interest in the memorial service.

My father loves to digitally archive photos, and enjoyed going back through the scanned pictures he had of his mother to find a beautiful image of her as a young woman in military uniform from her service during the Second World War. On the day of the memorial service, we set the framed photograph along with a simple arrangement of flowers made by my mother on a small table in front of the incense burner in the main hall of the Oxnard Buddhist Temple. It was a simple service with just my parents, Shoko, Ryoma, and me. After the service, my father told me that it had been decided when his mother passed away that it would be too troubling for him to attend the funeral. The Fifty Year Memorial that we held was his first opportunity since her passing to formally express the gratitude he feels for his mother.

Prior to the service I explained that while offering incense is a Buddhist tradition, one need not be a Buddhist in order to participate in the ritual. Offering incense in remembrance of someone does not make you a Buddhist, nor does it negate any other religious beliefs you might have.  Likewise, if the person who passed away was not a Buddhist, offering incense in their memory is not an attempt to convert them to Buddhism in the afterlife. Even though my parents are Christian and my grandmother Norma was a good Irish Catholic, a Buddhist memorial service provided an opportunity for us to come together in the remembrance of her life and the way she touched us all.During the service, we discovered a special closeness as a family remembering the wonderful woman who raised my father to become the kind and caring husband, father, and grandfather we love.

A few years later after we moved to San Mateo, my parents drove out here for a visit. Along the way they stopped in Montana to visit my grandmother’s grave. My father called me up on his cell phone from the cemetery and talked about the feeling of peace it gave him to visit his mother’s gravesite. My father would not call himself a Buddhist. And yet, I have observed how participation in these Buddhist memorial practices has helped to transform the sadness he felt when his mother passed away into gratitude for the life they lived together. Indeed, that togetherness of mother and son continues today in the care my father shares with his own wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandsons.

Even though I never met my grandmother Norma, the love she gave my father and the appreciation for stable family life that he learned from parting with her at such a young age had a great influence on the way my father cared for me as I grew up.  In her life and our experience of remembering her, I encounter the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha at work in my life. Now her photo sits next to the Buddha Shrine in our living room in San Mateo. We remember her daily as we light incense and join our hands in gassho. Visitors to our house often ask questions about the photo. As we share her story with friends, we are reminded that her life made the lives we live today possible, and in that way she is always present in our lives.

May this Obon season be an opportunity for all of us to come to a deeper appreciation of how our family and friends who now dwell on the Other Shore and continue to guide and support us each day.

 

Namo Amida Butsu

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