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May 2012: Chicken

May 2012 Message


Chicken 
By Rev. Henry Toryo Adams 

Every year I look forward to the California Strawberry Festival that is held in Oxnard on the third weekend in May. At the festival, I enjoy eating delicious fresh strawberries, strawberry short cake, and drinking strawberry margaritas. There are also opportunities to sample unexpected strawberry concoctions like tamales with a strawberry on top or a glass of beer with strawberry floating in it. One of the most tasty and popular items at the Strawberry Festival is the chocolate covered strawberries dipped right there in the booth by members and friends of the Oxnard Buddhist Temple. 

The location of our booth changes from year to year, and it’s always an interesting surprise to see which other booths and attractions will be our neighbors during the festival. Last year we found ourselves in an exciting location right across from the bungee jump. The bungee jump appeared be a kind of tall construction crane specially outfitted with a basket that would be lowered down to ground level so that a paying customer could climb in and then be lifted up to several stories for the bungee jump. A large bungee cord like a giant rubber band was secured on the customer’s ankles and then he or she was lifted to the very top of the crane where they would jump from the basket and be caught by the bungee cord before hitting the safety net below. 

Throughout the day, while we worked busily in the strawberry stand melting chocolate, dipping berries, setting them in racks to dry, and packing them in containers, our attention would occasionally be drawn outside of the booth by the sound of cheers and the site of a person bouncing up and down in the air on the end of a bungee cord like a human yo-yo. 

A few times when I stepped outside of our booth for a break, I had the opportunity to take a seat on a straw bale and watch a drama unfold at the top of crane while a reluctant jumper tried to work up the courage to take the leap. If a person hesitated for long at the top of the crane, I would start hear cheers, clapping, and whistling from friends of the jumper and random spectators gathered below. A few times, the crowd even broke into a chant of “Jump! Jump! Jump!” In general, it seemed that the more expectation built up in crowd before the jump, the more excitement was heard when the person finally stepped off the platform and began hurtling towards the ground, only to be caught by the bungee cord and sprung back up into the air with comparable force and velocity. 

On a few occasions, people who had paid the handsome sum to ride to the top of the crane for the jump wound up changing their minds at the top and were lowered back down without jumping. These people didn’t get their money back, but they did receive a consolation prize: a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of a chicken. The meaning implied by this is that the person who decided in the end not to jump from the crane several stories above the ground is “chicken” or cowardly. 

Some might say that a person who did not jump from the crane lacked courage and a spirit of adventure. Others might say that the person came to their senses and realized the wisdom of not jumping. It takes one kind of courage to disregard one’s instincts for self-preservation and survival and hurl one’s fragile body into the air from a great height. It takes another kind of courage to disregard the eager calls and expectant gaze of a crowd of friends and spectators and choose follow the truth of own insight. 

The teachings of the Pure Land Buddhist Tradition are an expression of the Buddha’s compassionate wish for those who burdened with karmic obstacles and foolishness to realize a life of awakening and wisdom. It is very difficult to cast off our foolish nature. And yet, if we are able to recognize our foolish ways as they arise in our minds, we can avoid being carried away by them. The Nembutsu—the name of Amida Buddha that we recite in the words “Namo Amida Butsu”—is a light shining into our hearts and minds illuminating our foolish ways and help see the clear way forward to a life of wisdom. 

Our foolishness and karmic burdens in no way impede the working of the Buddha’s compassion on our behalf. However, when we realize the truth of the Buddha’s wisdom shining into our lives, we can avoid being carried away by the foolish habits that cause continual suffering for ourselves and others. In the words of Shinran, the venerated founder of our School of Buddhism, “Do not take a liking to poison just because there is an antedote.” (, p. 670) In our Buddhist tradition, it is not necessary to pile on feelings of guilt over one’s shortcomings and misdeeds. At the same time, we are called to honestly look within and recognize the working of our foolish minds. It is only in the recognition of one’s own foolish tendencies in this very moment, that one can avoid causing suffering for oneself and others and decidedly direct oneself toward a life of wisdom and compassion. 

There will be times in your life when you encounter a tension between the expectations of those around you and the wisdom of your own insights. In those moments, I hope that the Nembutsu will give you the strength to affirm the truth of your own realization. 

In gassho,

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