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.