Each year during our Obon and Hatsubon Service, I am reminded of the power of the Buddhadharma to provide guidance and support for us as we navigate our feelings of grief. As school for my sons usually begins a few days after our San Mateo Buddhist Temple Obon Observance, I have come to associate our Obon with the end of summer. Opening the freezer at the temple to put away the Obon service manju for an occasion when we can all enjoy them together, I noticed three large bags of frozen hamburgers. I was suddenly reminded of the delicious hamburgers grilled at the temple picnic and all the experiences that we did not get to have this summer: bazaar—which marks the start of summer in my mind, the annual BWA service at the Japanese Cemetery in Colma, followed by brunch with BWA members at Denny’s in South San Francisco, a family trip to Japan, our summer Terakoya day camp, spam musubi at Obon Odori practices, and chanting together with a Hondo full of attendees at our Obon and Hatsubon service.
Naming these lost experiences in my mind, I felt a kind of resonance with the Hatsubon reading of the names of the Dharma friends who have crossed over to the Other Shore this past year. I find myself experiencing feelings of grief and loss as the summer comes to an end without having enjoyed many of the activities I had looked forward to. Grief, the pain we feel when we are separated from the people, things, and experiences that we love is one of the eight kinds of suffering described by Sakyamuni Buddha in the First Noble Truth. The Buddha’s teachings are provided as our path to liberation from that suffering. We look to those teachings during our observance of Buddhist holidays like Obon, Hatsubon and Ohigan, so that we may awaken to the light of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion shining in our lives, even as feelings of sadness and loneliness wash over our hearts. Gathering for services via Zoom or the telephone is our way of receiving support from the Sangha during this unprecedented time in our lives.
The initial Shelter in Place Order went into effect just before our Spring Ohigan Equinox Service in March. At 9:30 a.m. on September 20, we will observe our Autumn Equinox Ohigan Service via Zoom, marking the end of summer and beginning of the fall, finding that we have gone through the entire seasonal cycle between the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes living under restrictions of Covid-19. During Ohigan, we reflect on crossing over to the Other Shore. As our recent guest speaker Rev. Harry Gyokyo Bridge of the Buddhist Church of Oakland reminded us in his Obon Dharma talk, our departed loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore and realized birth in the Pure Land immediately return from that world of awakening to guide us in our daily lives. Rev. Bridge pointed us to the following verse from Shinran’s Hymn of True Entrusting and the Nembutsu (Shōshinge):
. . . when they reach that lotus-held world,
They immediately realize the body of suchness or dharma-nature.
Then sporting in the forests of blind passions, they manifest transcendent powers;
Entering the garden of birth-and-death, they assume various forms to guide others.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 71)
Having been transformed and liberated through Birth in the Pure Land, our departed loved ones take a different form from what we are used to seeing. We feel that they are here with us as bodhisattvas returning from the Pure Land when we recall the wise lessons they taught us or reflect upon how the kindness they shared with us while in this world continues to sustain our lives today.
Covid-19 too shall pass. Our favorite activities at the Temple will return, perhaps with some modifications. When they do, we will have a new and deeper appreciation for the opportunity to gather in person as a Sangha. I was awakened to this insight while watching a video parody of the Broadway musical Hamilton that was written by Rev. Todd Tsuchiya of the Twin Cities Buddhist Association Sangha and performed by Koichi Mizushima of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento, which contains the following lyrics:
When we meet, we will smile
Cause our sacrifice was worth the while
Cause when push comes to shove
Our temples have endured so much
But always thrive through boundless love!
Namo Amida, Namo Amida Butsu
Just say the Nembutsu.
Namo Amida Butsu