Giving Thanks

During this month of November, we have some special opportunities to express our gratitude for all the precious gifts we receive in our lives.  On Sunday, November 17, we will observe our Eitaikyo Service, which is dedicated to grateful remembrance of those temple members whose families felt inspired to donate to the temple Eitaikyo Fund, which exists to ensure that the San Mateo Buddhist Temple will continue to be a place where we can gather to hear the Dharma and joyfully recite the Nembutsu.  On Sunday, November 24, we will hold the Shichigosan Observance at the temple for the families of children ages three, five and seven to express our gratitude and wishes for continuing healthy growth of the children.  On Thursday, November 28, many families and friends will also come together in their homes to celebrate the wonderful American holiday of Thanksgiving.

While gratitude is a theme that we return to throughout the month of November, living in the Nembutsu, we find that gratitude is a daily practice that brings peace and joy to our hearts.  One of the ways in which we cultivate gratitude in our daily lives is by pausing to join our hands in gassho and utter the word “Itadakimasu (I humbly receive)” before beginning a meal, and “Goshisosama deshita (It was feast created through great effort)” at the conclusion of the meal. 

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Let the waters of Amida’s Dharma flow

I would like thank all of our Sangha members who supported the World Buddhist Women’s Convention that was held in San Francisco over this past Labor Day Weekend.  Our San Mateo Sangha was well-represented on the committees that handled registration, translation and interpretation, the marketplace, and the organizational leadership for the convention.  The planning and preparation for the convention was in the works for ten years leading up to the event, and I am truly inspired by the dāna of time, energy, and resources that our Sangha generously provided at every step along the way.  1,700 attendees joined the conference from Japan, Hawaii, Canada, South America, and the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA).  In addition to a large number of lay Buddhists who attended, many ministers—women and men—also participated in the gathering.

At one point during the conference, I had the opportunity to provide interpretation for a frank conversation that occurred over lunch among a group of ministers from Kyoto, Japan and the BCA.  A minister from Kyoto had been speaking on the topic Shinran Shonin’s teachings regarding birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.  A question came up about whether birth in the Pure Land must be understood to be an event that occurs after death, or if one can experience aspects of birth in the Pure Land during this present life.  Citing several examples from the writings of Shinran Shonin, the minister from Kyoto set out to demonstrate that for a person who entrusts deeply in Amida Buddha, birth in the Pure Land will be realized after this present life comes to an end.

One of the ministers from the BCA said, “This is a matter of keen interest for us because many newcomers to the temple are seeking practices to guide their lives in the present moment.  These seekers are unconcerned with matters of the afterlife.”  The BCA minister went on to say, “Don’t you think that, as ministers working to propagate the Jodo Shinshu teachings, we should endeavor to share the teachings in a way that speaks to the interests and concerns of the people who are walking through the doors of our temples seeking the Dharma today?”

“I agree that it is important to speak to the concerns of everyone who comes to the temple seeking the Dharma.  At the same time, it is also important to faithfully maintain the traditional teachings that have been passed down over the generations.” replied one of the ministers from Kyoto.

“Setting tradition aside for a moment, how do you personally understand this matter of birth in the Pure Land?” inquired a BCA minister.

“I don’t intend to share my own personal views.  My purpose as a minister is only to clarify what I have understood based on my reading of the writings of Shinran Shonin.” said a minister from Kyoto.

“Here in the BCA, I find it necessary as a minister to share my own personal understanding of the Dharma as it relates to this world that we live in right now.”  said a BCA Minister.

Hearing this comment, another of the ministers from Kyoto offered the following insight, “In Japan, great value has been placed on the authority of tradition.  The desire to maintain and uphold tradition has been particularly strong in our Jodo Shinshu community since the Edo Period (1603-1867).”

“You’re talking about 400 years ago!  What about right now?” countered the minister from the BCA.

“Many people in Japan are inclined to continue the values and perspectives that have served their ancestors well over the centuries.  As such, they are not inclined to be the one to stand up and call for a new direction.”  said a minister from Kyoto.

“That sounds like stagnation to me.  Without movement, a body of water becomes stale and lifeless.” said one of the ministers from the BCA.

While affirming the validity of the BCA minister’s perspective, a minister from Kyoto offered the following insight: “Shinran Shonin’s teachings ought to be shared in a way that is suitable to the cultural background of the people who are hearing them.  It is natural that the Jodo Shinshu teaching will find one expression in Japan and another expression here in the United States.”

The conversation went on in this manner throughout the meal, continuing and over coffee and dessert, without reaching an elegant conclusion.  To me, this spirited dialogue was an uplifting reminder that our Nembutsu teaching continues to thrive thanks to our tradition of frankly and openly exchanging ideas.  As Rennyo Shonin wrote in the 15th Century, “time after time, [we must] clear the channels of faith and let the waters of Amida’s Dharma flow.”  (Rennyo Shonin Ofumi: Letters of Rennyo 2-1, BDK English Tripitaka Series, p. 61)


Namo Amida Butsu

Poison Candy

At this time of year we have many opportunities to eat delicious food as we gather to celebrate the winter holidays with our friends and families. During New Year’s many of our temple members will enjoy traditional Japanese dishes like ozōni stew or the traditional osechi menu. When we eat these traditional Japanese dishes we feel a deep connection to the past and the lives of those who have come before. This past year I had the opportunity to try mizuame, a thick, sugary syrup that has been enjoyed by Japanese children for centuries.

It was my first time tasting mizuame, but I had been curious about it since first hearing of it in an apocryphal story about the Zen Buddhist monk Ikkyu Sōjun Zenji (1394–1481). Ikkyu was a contemporary of Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499) the eighth abbot of our mother temple, the Hongwanji. Ikkyu and Rennyo were renowned Buddhist priests active in the Kyoto area, and while there are no authoritative historical records of their relationship, legend has it that they were good Dharma friends.

Ikkyu is said to have been an unrecognized son of the Emperor Go-Komatsu (1377–1433). His mother left him in the care of a temple in Kyoto at the age of six to be raised as a monk. The tales of Ikkyu’s youthful exploits and sharp wit continue to delight and inspire children and adults in Japan to this day.

One day the abbot of Ikkyu’s temple received a gift of mizuame. It seems the abbot had a sweet tooth. To discourage his young students from pillaging this special treat, he told them that the jar did not contain candy, but rather a special medicine that was safe for adults, but poisonous to children.

Later, while the abbot was away from the temple on official business, young Ikkyu accidentally broke the treasured inkstone that the abbot used for brush painting and calligraphy. His fellow monks immediately began speculating about what severe punishment they would all face upon the abbot’s return. Ikkyu, however, remained calm and reflected on the situation until he arrived at an elegant solution to their dilemma.

Ikkyu invited all the other young monks to join him in eating up the mizuame. When they had finished off the whole jar, he instructed them to lie on the tatami mat floor as if they were dead. They waited there on the floor until the abbot came home. When the abbot walked into his quarters, he was astonished to see all the young monks lying on the floor of his room, next to the broken inkstone, and the empty jar of mizuame. When the abbot demanded an explanation, Ikkyu confessed, “We broke your precious inkstone, so we tried to give our lives in apology. We ate all this poison, but for some reason, we haven’t died yet. I’m sure it will take effect soon, so we’ll just keep lying here until it does.” When the abbot heard this explanation, he knew that he had been bested by Ikkyu’s quick wit. The abbot burst into laughter, admitted defeat and dismissed the young monks.

It is our custom to take the arrival of the New Year as an opportunity to reflect deeply on our daily activities over the past year and ask ourselves if we have lived in a way that reflects the light of the Buddha’s wisdom that we receive in the Nembutsu. It is in my nature to tell lies and twist the truth at my own convenience. The real test of our character is how we respond when someone shines the light of wisdom on our actions and reveals our attempts to deceive ourselves and others. Do we freely admit our deception and gracefully own up, or do we double down on the falsehood? The abbot’s ability to gracefully own up to his deception shows that he is free from pride and ego.

Legend has it that when he saw a portrait of Jodo Shinshu founder Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) wearing the white scarf that indicated his mastery of the Tendai Buddhist doctrine, Ikkyu remarked, “The Dharma taught by this monk in the warm scarf and the black robe is the finest in the world.” In the Chapter on Shinjin from Shinran’s True Teaching Practice and Realization, he quotes the follow passage from the writings of Shandao:

We are filled with all manner of greed, anger, perversity, deceit, wickedness, and cunning, and it is difficult to put an end to our evil nature. In this we are like poisonous snakes or scorpions. Though we perform practices in the three modes of action*, they must be called poisoned good acts or false practices. . . . To seek birth in the Buddha’s Pure Land by directing the merit of such poisoned practice is completely wrong. Why? Because when, in his causal stage, Amida Buddha was performing practices as a bodhisattva, in every single moment – every single instant – he performed his practices in the three modes of action with a true and real mind. [True practice] depends on this.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 84-85)

*three modes of action: bodily action, words, thoughts

In the Nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin, we begin by recognizing the light of Amida Buddha that continually shines into our hearts and minds, showing us that our path to liberation is found in deep entrusting in the true and real mind of the Buddha.

Namo Amida Butsu

Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu

At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we look to Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition. However, Shinran himself never set out to found his own Buddhist school. Throughout his writings and teachings, he describes himself as a humble student of his teacher Honen Shonin (1133-1212), as we find in the following words from A Record in Lament of Divergences (Tannisho):

As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, “Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida”; nothing else is involved.

I have no idea whether the nembutsu is truly the seed for my being born in the Pure Land or whether it is the karmic act for which I must fall into hell. Should I have been deceived by Master Honen and, saying the nembutsu, were to fall into hell, even then I would have no regrets.

The reason is, if I could attain Buddhahood by endeavoring in other practices, but said the nembutsu and so fell into hell, then I would feel regret at having been deceived. But I am incapable of any other practice, so hell is decidedly my abode whatever I do.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 662)

What is the nembutsu that Honen taught? The Japanese word nembutsu is made up of two Chinese characters nen(m) 念 “to be mindful of” and butsu仏 “Buddha,” so one way to translate the word “nembutsu” would be “mindfulness of the Buddha.” In the teachings of Honen and Shinran, the nembutsu refers to the recitation of the words “Namo Amida Butsu.” Namo Amida Butsu is a Chinese transliteration of a phrase from the ancient Sanskrit language of India. A literal translation of the meaning of “Namo Amida Butsu” would be, “I take refuge in Amida Buddha, the Awakened One of Immeasurable Light and Life.” The light of the Buddha represents wisdom and the life of the Buddha represents compassion.

Shinran tells us that to say the words “Namo Amida Butsu” is to hear Amida Buddha calling us to take refuge in the boundless wisdom and compassion of awakening. When we say Namo Amida Butsu, we hear the voice of Amida Buddha is calling to us, saying, “Hey you! Take refuge in me (Amida Buddha).” Hearing the nembutsu in this way, we discover the joy and peace of mind that arise from entrusting in the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. Realizing the settled mind that we call shinjin, the nembutsu of joy and gratitude flows forth from our mouths throughout the day and throughout our lives. Thus, the simple practice of saying Namo Amida Butsu becomes an expression of profound awareness of the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha constantly guiding and sustaining us.

Because the flow of the nembutsu comes from Amida Buddha, Honen and Shinran call this Other Power nembutsu. Despite the clarity of Honen’s simple instruction to “Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida,” disputes and confusion arose regarding the true intent of this teaching and the spirit in which the nembutsu should be recited. Among Honen’s students, Shinran was one who made a concerted effort throughout his life to clarify misunderstandings, so that future generations would be able to encounter the same great peace and joy that he found in the nembutsu.

Among the many volumes of teachings that Shinran has left for our guidance, perhaps the clearest and most concise crystallization of the teaching of Other Power nembutsu can be found in a selection of verse called the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Shoshin Nembutsu Ge), commonly referred to as the Shoshinge. A teacher of mine once said, “We chant Shoshinge in the morning, and we chant Shoshinge in the evening. This is the culture of Jodo Shinshu.” The Shoshinge begins with the heart of Namo Amida Butsu:

I take refuge in the Tathagata of Immeasurable Life!
I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light!

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 69)

Shinran’s descendent Rennyo (1415-1499) established the practice of chanting of Shoshinge and Wasan as a daily liturgy in the Hongwanji School. Revered as the eighth generation leader (Gomonshu) of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha (Nishi) and Otani-ha (Higashi) Schools, Rennyo revived Shinran’s Nembutsu teaching in his time by consolidating the many small and scattered Nembutsu communities under the leadership of the Hongwanji. As part of his project to establish standard practices across the diverse communities he brought together under Hongwanji leadership, he published the “Bunmei Edition” of the Shoshinge and Collected Wasan in March of 1473. The Bunmei Edition utilized printing-press technology for mass production and widespread dissemination, so that practicers of the nembutsu throughout Japan could deepen their familiarity with Shinran’s teachings and realize peace of mind and joy through entrusting in Amida Buddha.


Namo Amida Butsu

Year of the Sheep

I would like to take this opportunity to wish you a Happy New Year and thank you for your continued Dharma friendship and generous support for the San Mateo Buddhist Temple! This year we welcome the Year of the Sheep in the Chinese Zodiac. The Chinese Zodiac consists of a twelve-year cycle with each year associated with a certain animal. People born in the year of the Sheep are said to be gentle, reliable and elegant.

A variety of traditional stories are told in East Asia to explain the origins of the cycle. My favorite version tells how the Buddha called all the animals in the forest to compete in a race across a fast flowing river, with the promise that the first twelve animals to arrive would receive the honor of their own year in the calendar cycle.

It is said that at that time the Rat and the Cat were the best of friends. Both were intelligent, but neither could swim well. They got together and convinced the Ox, who was strong and good-natured, to carry them across the river on its back. When they were halfway across, the Rat pushed the Cat into the river, knocking him out of the race and forever ruining their friendship. Then, just as the Ox was arriving at the shore, the Rat jumped off and ran ahead to claim the first place in the Zodiac with the Ox coming in second. Next arrived the Tiger who had struggled in the strong current, but was able rely on his strength to make it across.

The fourth animal to arrive was the Rabbit who had jumped from stone to stone partway across the river before falling into the water. The Rabbit would have been carried away down the river, but was able to catch hold of a floating log that eventually drifted to the shore. Surprisingly, the Dragon arrived in fifth place. Even though the Dragon could easily fly over the river, its journey was delayed when it stopped to make rain fall for the people and animals in lands below. Crossing the river, the Dragon saw the Rabbit drifting on a log and kindly blew a breath of air to carry it to the other shore.

Next came the Horse, who did not realize that the Snake had hitched a ride on its hoof. Seeing the Snake on the ground, the Horse reared back, allowing the Snake to race ahead to claim the sixth place, leaving the horse in seventh place.

Next the Sheep, Monkey, and Rooster arrived at the shore, having cooperated to cross the river together. The Rooster used his keen eyesight to spot a raft, and then the Monkey used its nimble arms and Sheep used its strong neck and jaws to clear the weeds and pull the raft across the river.

Although an excellent swimmer, the Dog arrived in eleventh place because he delayed his arrival by playing in the river after swimming across. Finally, the Boar arrived in twelfth place. The Boar had gotten hungry along the way, eaten a big meal, and then dozed off before waking up to finish the race.

Although I myself was born in the Year of the Snake, I most enjoy the characters of the Sheep, the Monkey, and the Rooster in this story. While many of the other animals chose to travel alone across the river, these three had the wisdom to make the journey easier and more enjoyable by working together. Indeed, they recognized that what could not be done by any one of them individually became possible when they worked to help each other. The Sheep, the Monkey, and the Rooster realized that the important matter is to all arrive together, not to try to get there first because they needed each other’s support if they were going to arrive at all.

I find that this part of the story beautifully expresses the Bodhisattva ideal of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. To journey through life on the Bodhisattva path is to live with the conviction that complete and final awakening will not be realized for oneself until it is realized for everyone. In our tradition, we revere Amida Buddha as the being who realized the great benefit of awakening by providing the Nembutsu as a path by which all of us can realize great peace and joy in our everyday lives. As Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499) writes in a letter:

Hence [we realize] all the more that—walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, irrespective of time, place, or any other circumstances—we should simply repeat the nenbutsu, saying the Name of the Buddha in grateful return for the Buddha’s benevolence.

(Rennyo Shōnin Ofumi, Numata Center Translation, p. 89

When we hear others say the Name of the Buddha in the words “NamoAmidaButsu,” the great compassion of the Buddha flows in our minds. When we say the Name, we hear the voice of great compassion ourselves and allow others around us to hear it as well. Thus, the Nembutsu is a Buddhist way of living in which we are constantly sharing together in the joy and peace of mind that the Dharma brings to our lives.