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.” 

Considering the vast scale of time that it has taken for the canyon to arrive at its current shape, how brief and fleeting a single human lifetime would seem.  If I were to compare all that I might accomplish in this one lifetime with the magnificence of the Grand Canyon, my life could seem small and insignificant.

I, for one, feel that my life is all the more precious because I am alive today to behold the beauty of the canyon.  Hundreds of millions of years of geological activity have created the circumstance for me to be inspired by the view of the canyon right now in this very moment.  As the park ranger pointed out during our visit, “Grand Canyon has never been as grand as it is right now.”   With this perspective of gratitude, my life is deeply significant.  In one sense, the beauty of the canyon exists in my appreciation of its splendor. 

Likewise, the power of the words “Namo Amida Butsu” is at work in our lives when we appreciate and discover great joy in the Buddha’s compassionate vow, which has traveled down through the ages to arrive in our lives at this very moment.  As Shinran Shonin once said, “When I consider deeply the Vow of Amida, which arose from five kalpas of profound thought, I realize that it was entirely for the sake of myself alone! Then how I am filled with gratitude for the Primal Vow, in which Amida resolved to save me, though I am burdened with such heavy karma.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 679)

In this month of November, we observe our Eitaikyo Service in gratitude for all those who have come before.  Eitaikyo is our time to reflect on Amida Buddha’s vow and the vast causes and conditions over the course of countless lifetimes that have made our encounter with the true Dharma in this human life possible.  Each individual we remember at the Eitaikyo service lived a lifetime of experience that contributed in some way to this grand moment of our lives in which we hear the Name of the Buddha.  Just as one might stand in awe and gratitude of the Grand Canyon, we stand in awe and gratitude of the Primal Vow that echoes through countless lifetimes to arrive at this moment when I hear the words “Namo Amida Butsu” and feel the deep assurance of Amida Buddha’s liberating power.

Namo Amida Butsu