This past month we were truly honored to have Rev. Donald Castro, Rimban Emeritus of the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, join us as the guest speaker for our Nembutsu Seminar on the topic of EcoSangha—Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Ecology. In his talks, Rev. Castro challenged us to consider how the Buddhadharma guides us to respond to the great ecological crises of our time, such as the man-made climate change that has contributed to the terrible wildfires that have ravaged communities here in Northern California with increasing frequency in recent years, or the vast swaths of floating garbage that pollute our oceans. As an individual, I try to reduce my individual carbon footprint by taking the train to meetings in the East Bay rather than driving my car. I also make an effort to use paper bags rather than the cheaper plastic alternatives. That said, I cannot help wondering what difference my limited efforts make in the face of the monumental ecological challenges we face today.
When I find myself losing hope, I look to the Buddha’s teachings to illuminate my path forward in these difficult times. Reflecting on my life in the nembutsu, I find inspiration in the following four vows that are established by all bodhisattvas—beings who aspire to arrive on the shore of true awakening carried across the ocean of birth and death by the great vehicle of the Mahayana sutras:
1) “Living beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them all.”
2) “Base passions are inexhaustible, I vow to sever them all.”
3) “Dharma gates are immeasurable, I vow to know them all.”
4) “The way of the Buddha is unsurpassed, I vow to perfect it.”
The paradoxical nature of these four expansive vows initially struck me as overwhelming. I have a hard-enough time realizing liberation for myself, how could I ever liberate all beings? I struggle when I try to reign in even one of my base passions, how could I possibly sever them all? After more than twenty years of studying the Dharma, I feel like I know less than ever, how could I know all the Dharma gates? It seems impossible for me to perfect the way of the Buddha through my own efforts.
However, when I take the nembutsu as my guide on the bodhisattva path, I am reminded that the important matter is to carry on in the direction illuminated by the Buddha’s wisdom, even when it seems impossible to fulfill my aspirations through my own efforts. The spirit of the bodhisattva path is to persevere in the face of insurmountable odds, trusting that if I set my life on the path of truth, the inconceivable working of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion will ultimately bring about liberation, not just for me, but for all beings.
In his talks, Rev. Castro reminded us that, as Buddhists, our ethical principles are not handed down to us by a divine authority. Buddhist ethical living is rooted in compassion for all beings. Our concern for the natural environment arises from compassionate awareness of the people, animals, and plants that suffer when a wildfire sweeps through their home or toxic plastics clog the ocean waters that they depend upon for survival. When I feel overwhelmed by these environmental problems, the following words of Shinran, recorded in A Record in Lament of Divergences, Chapter Four, shine the light of the Buddha’s wisdom on my path:
Concerning compassion, there is a difference between the Path of Sages and the Pure Land Path.
Compassion in the Path of Sages is to pity, commiserate with, and care for beings. It is extremely difficult, however, to accomplish the saving of others just as one wishes.
Compassion in the Pure Land Path should be understood as first attaining Buddhahood quickly through saying the nembutsu and, with the mind of great love and compassion, freely benefiting sentient beings as one wishes.
However much love and pity we may feel in our present lives, it is hard to save others as we wish; hence, such compassion remains unfulfilled. Only the saying of the nembutsu, then, is the mind of great compassion that is thoroughgoing.
Thus were his words.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 633)
This teaching does not imply that it is no use making efforts to help others and care for the natural world because I am incapable of solving the problems all by myself. Shinran’s words offer me encouragement to do my best to actively address the needs of this world, at peace in the knowledge that, even though I will not be able to alleviate all the suffering I encounter, the mind of great compassion constantly works in the nembutsu to guide me and all beings to liberation.
Namo Amida Butsu