As the days grow shorter and the skies here in the Bay Area are increasingly overcast, we find ourselves spending more of our waking hours in the darkness of wintertime. Throughout the world, this season of darkness is a time when our attention turns to the light of wisdom taught by the true teachers of our faith communities. In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, December is the month in which we celebrate Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment seated beneath the Bodhi Tree and look to the light of his wise teachings for comfort and guidance.
With the dramatic increase in Covid-19 infections that we are seeing throughout the world, I find that the darkness is not only in the skies, but also in my own mind. As the holidays approach, I crave the freedom to invite a big group of family and friends over for a yearend celebration. In years past, we might have had five or six families crowded around our table, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder laughing loudly and enjoying exuberant conversation. The house reverberated with happy voices raised over the sound of squealing children who chased each other around the dining room, passing toys back and forth, and pausing occasionally to plunge their hands into a bowl of fruit to pluck out a strawberry or a grape.
When our lives were turned upside down with the outbreak of the pandemic in the spring, I had naively expected that we would be returning to our previous way of living by this point in the year. At times, I blame others and feel angry about the fact that this coronavirus continues to spread widely here in the United States, while it seems to be largely under control in some other countries.
I fear that I will catch the virus, or that someone I care about will. I sanitize my hands carefully as I walk out of the grocery store to rid myself of any germs I may have picked up from the other shoppers, but did I take the same care while entering the store to disinfect my hands from any germs I may have brought in with me? How often am I careful to preserve my own well-being, while being ignorant of my potential to harm others?
Craving, anger and ignorance—the Buddha referred to these as the three defilements or the three poisons. He taught that the three defilements are the root cause of suffering. The deeper I sink into craving, anger, and ignorance, the darker my world becomes.
The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life taught by Sakyamuni Buddha describes how the light of wisdom shines into our minds dispelling the darkness of craving, anger and ignorance when we hear the words Namo Amida Butsu. Namo Amida Butsu means “I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light!” The sutra assures us that “Sentient beings who encounter this light have the three defilements swept away, and they become soft and gentle in body and mind.”
One who becomes soft and gentle in body is able to comfortably adapt to new circumstances and situations for the benefit of others. Recognizing the importance of preventing the spread of Covid-19, they might wear a close-fitting mask over their mouth and nose for several hours on a winter break outing to the zoo. In lieu of a cozy indoor holiday gathering, a person who is soft and gentle in body might choose the safer option of getting together with one other household of friends at the park for an outdoor picnic, despite the possibility of cool and rainy weather.
One who is soft and gentle in mind is free from rigid expectations and inflexible self-interest. In this season of togetherness, they awaken concern for all those who are suffering from illness and those who have lost their lives as a result of becoming infected. Their thoughts turn to those who are struggling because they are unemployed or underemployed as various restrictions on businesses are reimposed in response to rising case numbers.
Shinran Shonin writes that Sakyamuni appeared in this world solely to bring the light of Amida Buddha’s wisdom into the lives of people like me who are mired in the darkness of the three defilements. As this extraordinary year comes to a close, I offer my heartfelt wish that all beings may encounter the light of wisdom and become soft and gentle in body and mind.
Namo Amida Butsu