Jodo Shinshu Buddhism
The Six Paramitas
The Mahayana Buddhist tradition places a strong emphasis on benefiting others as the goal of Buddhist practice. As an expression of this attitude toward the nature of Buddhist practice, the Mahayana tradition expresses the essential elements of Buddhist practice described the Eightfold Path in an alternative model called the Six Paramitas.
The literal of meaning of paramita in Sanskrit is “Crossing over to the Other Shore.” The paramitas are a set of Buddhist virtues, the perfection of which enables one to cross over from “this shore” in the deluded world of birth and death to arrive at the “other shore” of liberation in Nirvana. In Chinese and Japanese translation the term Paramita is sometimes rendered as tō higan 到彼岸 “arriving at the other shore.” This imagery of crossing over to the other shore is the basis for Japanese Buddhist celebrations of Ohigan observed at Spring and Fall Equinoxes.
In Mahayana Buddhist teachings, the paramitas refer to the perfection of bodhisattva practices that result in crossing from this shore of birth and death to arrive at the other shore of Nirvana. For this reason, paramita is often translated into English as “perfection.” The Six Paramitas, or Six “Perfections,” encompass the virtues of the Eightfold Path, while emphasizing benefit for others through the addition of dana, or generosity, as the first virtue. Wisdom is the final element of the Six Paramitas, implying that benefit to self of receiving wisdom comes through the practice of benefiting others.
The following six bodhisattva practices are included in the standard list called the Six Paramitas:
1) Generosity (Skt. Dāna, Jp. fuse 布施)
2) Moral conduct, upholding precepts (Skt. Śīla, Jp. jikai 持戒)
Corresponding elements of the Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Right Conduct, and Right Livelihood
3) Forbearance (Skt. Kṣānti, Jp. ninniku忍辱)
Corresponding element of the Eightfold Path: Right Effort with regard one’s state of mind.
4) Diligence (Skt. Vīrya, Jp. shōjin 精進)
Corresponding element of the Eightfold Path: Right Effort with regard one’s words and actions.
5) Contemplation (Skt. Dhyāna, Jp. zenjō 禪定)
Corresponding elements of the Eightfold Path: Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.
6) Wisdom (Skt. Prajñā, Jp. chie 智慧)
Corresponding elements of the Eightfold Path: Right View and Right Thought.
by Rev. Henry Toryo Adams
In memory of my grandfather, Harold Hanford Hammersland
My maternal grandfather Harold Hanford Hammersland passed away on Thursday, May 16 at the age of 90 at the Iowa Veterans Home where he had been living for several years receiving care for Alzheimer’s disease. In memory of my grandfather, I would like to share the following excerpt from my July 2011 Minister’s Message:
Our son Ryoma’s middle name is Hanford, which comes from the middle name of my maternal grandfather, Harold Hanford Hammersland. My great-grandfather who immigrated to the United States from Norway, was also named Harold Hammersland, so my grandfather is called “Hanford” by his sisters. My grandparents raised seven children on a farm in northeastern Iowa. Despite challenges faced over the years, maintaining the family farm that has been passed down over generations has been deeply rewarding work for my grandfather. My mother often relays stories from her upbringing that convey the dedication my grandfather has shown throughout his life to ensuring that his children would be well-provided for both materially and spiritually.
With seven children, the family did not have a large amount of disposable income. Nevertheless, my grandfather committed himself to purchasing musical instruments for each of his children, so that they could learn to express the power and beauty of the spirit through music. My mother also encouraged me to learn music as a child, and although I have never mastered a Western musical instrument, I believe that the tradition of valuing musical education that my grandfather worked so hard to maintain has enabled me to receive the great inspiration that I do from Buddhist ritual and sutra chanting. For me, the musical chanting of the sutras is an opportunity to directly hear the voice of the Buddha, unmediated by my discriminating mind. We have given our son the same middle name as my grandfather Harold Hanford Hammersland as an expression of our appreciation for all that Ryoma’s great-grandpa has done for our family.
The Meaning of Offering Incense
Many first-time visitors to our temple are impressed by our Hondo, or main temple hall. Some people comment on the beautiful Japanese Buddhist adornments in the onaijin shrine area. Others are appreciate the well-maintained the historic architecture of our building. One memory that stands out in my mind was a visit to one of our Sunday Services by Oxnard Chief of Police Jeri Williams, shortly after she assumed her duties. I recall greeting Chief Williams as she stepped to the Hondo, whereupon she immediately exclaimed, “It smells wonderful in here!”
What she was noticing was the familiar smell of incense that we offer during all our services at the Oxnard Buddhist Temple. The offering of incense at Buddhist temples is a tradition that has been transmitted from Buddhism’s Indian cultural roots. Because the pleasant fragrance of incense lingers in the air and permeates our clothing, hair and skin, one of the original purposes of burning incense was to purify a sacred space and the bodies and minds of the participants in a religious service.
In some Buddhist traditions this understanding of incense as a source of purification is expressed by the practice of holding granular incense up to one’s forehead before placing it on the charcoals. Holding it up the forehead indicates that it is being received by the person who is burning it so that they will be purified.
In the Jodo Shinshu tradition, it is customary to place the granular incense directly on the coals without the ritual of receiving it first. The Jodo Shinshu way of offering incense expresses our understanding that the fragrance is not something we receive for our own self-purification, but rather is something that we offer as an expression of our gratitude and reverence for the Buddha’s teachings. The words of the Buddha found in the Three Pure Land Sutras assure us that the Buddha’s great compassion embraces us just as we as are—with all our impurities of body and mind—so incense does not serve the purpose of purification in our tradition.
We have many ways of showing our appreciation for the great heart of the Buddha that accepts us just as we are. We say Namo Amida Butsu to express our joy with sound, we gassho and bow to express our gratitude with bodily movement, and we offer incense to allow our joy and gratitude flow into the air as a sweet and comforting fragrance.
By Kevin Yoshimoto, Youth Minister’s Assistant
As we approach the end of the academic year, I have enjoyed many opportunities to meet with students who come to the temple to gather information for projects in classes such as World Religions or Intercultural Communication. Recently a visitor to one of our major services asked me about the meaning of the ceremonial fan or chukei (中啓) that I carry in my left hand or place in my collar when I need both hands free. Many chukei are beautifully painted, or shine in brilliant silver and gold color coating.In the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Tradition, the chukei is actually a very utilitarian item. In Japanese temples where most people sit directly on tatami straw mat flooring, the chukei is opened out and placed on the floor so that sacred items, such as sutra books or onenju mindfulness beads, can be set down without being placed directly on the same surface where people walk. Unlike the sensu (扇子) or uchiwa (うちわ) fans we often see at Obon Celebrations, the chukei is not intended to be used for fanning oneself on those hot and humid Japanese summer days.
(This month’s article is an excerpt from the Sangha Award Final Essay Project completed by Eagle Scout and Oxnard Buddhist Temple Youth Minister’s Assistant Kevin Yoshimoto. For more information about Sangha Award studies for boys and girls, please contact Rev. Adams)
Essay question: Explain the meaning of one Major Buddhist Service that is observed each at your temple.
By Kevin Yoshimoto, Youth Minister’s Assistant
Hanamatsuri is the celebration of Sakyamuni Buddha’s birthday. It is held on April 8th but it used to be celebrated anywhere from April to June because the celebration was scheduled according to the lunar calendar, but when Japan as a nation switched over to using the western calendar, the date of Sakyamuni Buddha’s birthday was established as April 8th. According to history Sakyamuni was born on April 8th, 566 B.C.1 to king Suddhodana and Queen Maya. The traditional biography of Sakyamuni describes how he was born in Lumbini’s Garden with celestial birds singing beautiful songs, beautiful flowers, and a sweet gentle rain that came down on Siddhartha2. He walked seven steps, representing his resolve to go beyond the six realms of Samsara. He then raised one hand towards the heavens and pointed one hand towards the earth and said, “I am the one honored in Heaven and Earth.” vowing that he would become a Buddha in his lifetime.
To honor the Buddha’s birth a small statue of the Buddha is placed in a special alter called the Hanamido and is decorated with flowers to represent Lumbini’s Garden. During service the congregation will offer incense, may offer more flowers, and will bathe the statue of the Buddha by pouring water or a sweet hydrangea tea. Pouring sweet tea and adorning flowers around the Hanamido became popular in Japan during the Tokugawa era after the 17th century.
1 Date from Northwest Ministerial Association. Buddhist Churches of America.
2 Sakyamuni Buddha’s given name.
Among Buddhist families, it is customary conclude funeral and memorial services with a meal, called otoki お斎 in Japanese. In its original sense, the word otoki refers to a meal at a temple where the rules of Buddhist monastic life are closely observed. At such temples, only two meals are eaten each day: one in the morning and one just before noon. No food is eaten after noon unless one is sick or on a journey. In Japanese, the word toki also means “time,” which expresses the importance of strict mealtimes in traditional Buddhist temples. Otoki at such a temple is strictly vegetarian and drinking alcohol is prohibited.
In our living Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, the word otoki has come to refer to a meal that takes place in conjunction with a Buddhist service, such as a funeral or memorial service. Whether the meal occurs as part of our annual Hoonko Memorial Service for our founder Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) or a yearly memorial service for a family member or loved one, it should be understood as a part of the service, not just a meal that is eaten after the service. For example, in a case where the service is held at home, it is common to partake of the meal sitting in front of the butsudan family shrine. In this case, the living room becomes a little temple.
The Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition has historically thrived among communities of householder Buddhists who were immersed in work and family life, rather than in secluded monasteries. In Jodo Shinshu communities, it is customary for the ministers to live among the lay people, sharing a common lifestyle, marrying, raising children and gratefully enjoying whatever food is readily available, including occasional meat and fish. This family life flows into the life of temple, and the home is seen as a wonderful place for Buddhist practice.
These days, it is not always possible to prepare strictly vegetarian otoki meals for our Buddhist services. It is also common to gather at a restaurant following a service that takes place at the gravesite. In the case where the meal is enjoyed a different location from where the sutra chanting and memorial Dharma talk take place, it is important to maintain the attitude of grateful remembrance that characterizes our Buddhist services.
(This month’s article is an excerpt from the Sangha Award Final Essay Project completed by Eagle Scout and Oxnard Buddhist Temple Youth Minister’s Assistant Kevin Yoshimoto. For more information about Sangha Award studies for boys and girls, please contact Rev. Adams)
Essay question: Discuss at least one element of Boy Scout Law and how it supports or reflects your life as a Buddhist.
By Kevin Yoshimoto, Youth Minister’s Assistant
There are many aspects of Buddhism that relate to the Boy Scout Law. A scout is kind; he knows that there is strength in being gentle. He treats others the way he wants to be treated, and without a good reason a scout would never try to harm or hurt another living thing. In the Buddhist religion we are taught to be kind and compassionate to all things on earth. Kindness comes up in Buddhist teachings frequently. For example, the teaching of Dana is based on kindness. You need to think kind thoughts to be able to give without wanting anything in return. Kindness in Buddhism follows the Eight-fold Path; you must have the right view of what is right and wrong to be able to start the Eight-Fold Path in kindness.
A scout is courteous: he tries his best to be polite and kind to all people regardless of age or stature, he knows that having good manners helps him to get along with others. Being courteous is similar to kindness in the sense that through being kind and courteous you will be able to make people happy. Sharing happiness is related to all aspects of Buddhism, becoming enlightened is the ultimate goal for many Buddhist and becoming enlightened is the only way you can attain lasting happiness. Everything that makes a person happy will not keep that person happy forever, that is why enlightenment is what all Buddhist men and women try to attain. To become enlightened is to gain wisdom as deep as the ocean, that wisdom is reflected when we treat others with kindness and courtesy.
(This month’s article is an excerpt from the Sangha Award Final Essay Project completed by Eagle Scout and Oxnard Buddhist Temple Youth Minister’s Assistant Kevin Yoshimoto. For more information about Sangha Award studies for boys and girls, please contact Rev. Adams)
Essay question: Describe one important historical event in the life of Shinran and how it provides you with inspiration.
By Kevin Yoshimoto, Youth Minister’s Assistant
Shinran Shonin did not have an easy life to say the least; he was born while his family’s fortune was on the downfall and Japan was in turmoil due to the struggle over power by many powerful families. On top of that Japan was hit by many disasters such as earthquakes and famine. Shinran and his brothers were forced into priesthood to survive in these difficult times. At the age of nine he was ordained as a monk at Shoren-in-temple in Kyoto. At the age of 29 he left Mt. Hiei because of his failure to attain enlightenment through the Tendai School. Shinran met Honen, another Tendai monk and realized that Honen’s teachings were right for him, so he became his disciple. Under Honen’s teaching Shinran learned the most about Buddhism and is the foundation of what the Jodoshinshu religion is based off of. Shinran learned from Honen that the nembutsu is the only practice that is needed in Buddhism, and that all people from all different walks of life can attain enlightenment.
Honen left the life of a Tendai monk to teach the Nembutsu as the only Buddhist practice for realizing birth in the pure land. He also said that it was the only practice required to become a Buddha. The monks of other Buddhist schools, such as the Tendai, opposed Honen’s teaching because they believed the Nembutsu was not the only thing needed to become a Buddha, and to become a Buddha meant to practice many things including reciting the Nembutsu. Honen’s defense to this was that all other practices would get in the way of the Nembutsu, because you would rely on your own efforts too much. Not only did Tendai monks have many different Buddhist practices such as meditation and making spiritual pilgrimages, but they also believed that to become a Buddha you must be born with the ability to attain enlightenment, which also meant you could not attain enlightenment if you were a woman. Back then it was thought to be unfavorable to be born a woman, meaning you must have built up a lot of bad karma in your previous life to become a woman. When word got out about Honen’s pure land teachings many lower class citizens and women started following Honen, including the emperor of Japan’s two favorite concubines, Suzumushi and Matsumushi. The two women left the Emperor and became nuns under Honen’s guidance, this enraged the emperor and triggered him to banish Shinran and Honen as well as put a ban on practicing the Nembustu in 1207.
Shinran and Honen never met again in that life. Shinran along with Honen and several other disciples of Honen got stripped of their monk positions and were given lay names. Shinran was exiled to Echigo and Honen was exiled to Tosa provenance. While at Echigo Shinran did not consider himself a lay person or a monk, and he continued to spread the Nembustu to the people of Echigo. Shinran got married to Eshinni shortly after arriving in Echigo. Shinran and Honen were pardoned in 1211. The event that inspires me the most from Shinran’s life is how he got exiled to Echigo, he was stripped of his priesthood, he was separated from his master Honen, and yet he still found purpose in his life. He spread the Nembustu, he got married, he had seven kids, and he got pardoned in 1211, only five years after his exile. This inspires me to never give up on life and to always look towards the bright side of things because nothing is permanent in life and things will always be changing for better or for worse.
Essay question: Describe one aspect of Jodo Shinshu Buddhist ritual (ex. offering incense, kansho, etiquette for chanting sutras, etc.), including its meaning and why we do it.
By Kevin Yoshimoto, Youth Minister’s Assistant
Ringing the Kansho tells people that a Buddhist service is about to begin and that they should ready themselves physically and mentally. The Kansho is rung seven times then is rung ascending louder then descending quieter. The speed of the ascending and descending order should be similar to running up a hill; fast at the beginning, slow at the top, and fast descending. It is then rung five times and then rung the ascending and descending order, after that it is rung one time loud, then one time softly, then one last time loud. The Kansho is often not rung by the officiating minister, so that it accompanies his or her entering the onaijin. At the Hongwanji temple in Kyoto, Japan the Kansho ringer rings the bell in time with the movements of the minister leading service. At special occasions such as funerals, the pattern of ringing the Kansho changes to 2-5-3 instead of 7-5-3 to provide a familiar yet unique atmosphere. The numbers seven, five, three, and nine are favored over even numbers, but their meanings have been lost over countless years.
In many Buddhist communities the Bonsho serves as a way of telling time to the local neighborhood, it is rung in the evening and in the morning to keep time. The Bonsho is rung 108 times to ring in the New Year. At temples with no Bonsho the Kansho may be used as a substitute. Ringing the Temple Bell 108 times is to welcome in the New Year with the aspiration to awaken from the 108 base passions. The Kansho is a medium sized bell in comparison to other bells in Buddhism; it is two to three feet in length and is hung near the onaijin area. The Kansho is struck with a wooden mallet and had not been used in the Jodoshinshu religion until the 17thcentury; the first use of the Kansho was in the year 1688.
Essay question: Choose at least one quotation from the English translation of one of the following texts and explain how it provides wisdom and guidance for your daily life: Sanbutsuge, Juseige, or Shoshinge.
“Practicing the Holy Way—selflessness, depth in right reflection and pure wisdom, aspiring toward the highest path, I will be the teacher of devas and men” – Juseige.*
Selflessness reminds me of Dana, the act of selfless giving. There are three kinds of Dana that the Buddha teaches, the gift of material goods, the gift of Dharma, and the gift of freedom from fear. I don’t have a job and I am still in high school, so I don’t have the pleasure of giving material goods. However, I still experience Dana by sharing the gift of the Dharma to all my family and friends in Buddhism. I have brought many of my friends who were interested in Buddhism to our temple to give them more information about Jodoshinshu Buddhism, and since I have been meeting with Reverend Henry Adams I have been coming home and teaching my family all about what I learned that day. I can teach them about the Buddha’s teachings and why we should be thankful.
*Translation from Shin Buddhist Service Book. Buddhist Churches of America Department of Buddhist Education, 1994.
In this quote from the Juseige the qualities of being selfless are established. It helps guide me towards enlightenment. Depth in right reflection really means to follow the Eight-Fold Path. Pure wisdom is what we all strive towards but will never attain as humans. That is why we recite the Nembutsu, to thank the Buddha for his immeasurable wisdom and compassion. Aspiring towards the highest path means to want to become a Buddha, aspiring to be a Buddha is what we as the Sangha all have in common with each other, we realize that attaining enlightenment on our own is impossible so we recite the Nembutsu to thank the Buddha for his immeasurable compassion.
The light that dispels all fear
On Sunday, October 28 at 10:00 a.m. Rev. Kiyonobu Kuwahara will be joining us as a guest speaker for our Sunday service. Following the service, we will be enjoying our annual Halloween Party, so many Sangha members will be coming to service in their Halloween costumes. As a minister, it’s an interesting experience to look out from the naijin central shrine area on the day of our Halloween party and address the Dharma message to the assembled fairies, pirates, firefighters, vampires, wild animals, and goblins.
For many people, Halloween is a time for enjoying the thrills of ghost stories, scary movies, haunted houses, frightening costumes and playing startling pranks on friends. Our natural fears of injury, death, and the grotesque play a central role in many of our traditional Halloween celebrations. Halloween is a time when we can confront our fears in a playful atmosphere. After we get all worked up in to a fright, we enjoy the relief of realizing that the ghouls in the haunted house or the scary movies are just actors, the monsters walking down the streets are just our friendly neighbors wearing latex masks, and all that blood our friend’s shirt is just ketchup.
One of the precious insights of the Buddha’s wisdom is the realization that so many of the things that we fear in life are merely illusions or figments of our imagination. In vowing to become a Buddha of who would shine the light of wisdom in all places, Dharmakara Bodhisattva made the following vow, which we regularly chant during our services as part of the Sanbutsuge (Verses in Praise of the Buddha’s Virtue):
IS-SAI KU KU I SA DAI AN
. . . to all beings who live in fear. / I will give great peace.
We fear people who are different from us, ignoring the truth that all human beings share the same basic feelings, hopes, and values. We worry and fret about the misfortunes that may befall us in the future, when the best way to prepare for the unforeseen challenges of the years to come is to learn to live with peaceful presence of mind dealing with our situation as it is right now. The light of the Buddha’s wisdom constant shines into the dark rooms of our minds, and brings us peace by showing us that those monsters in the closet are simply bathrobes and ironing boards.
Becoming our foolish selves
Among the various schools of Buddhism, the Pure Land tradition has long been celebrated as a path to liberation from suffering that is attainable by anyone, regardless of their aptitude for study or circumstances in life. The reason the Pure Land offers such an accessible path to Buddhist practice is that it does not rely on the efforts of the individual practitioner. In the Pure Land tradition of Shinran and his teacher Honen, who both lived in 12th century Japan, ultimate liberation is realized through entrusting oneself to the working of the Buddha’s great compassion. In a letter to one of his close companions in the Dharma, Shinran writes:
You have been explaining to people that one attains birth through the Tathagata's working; it is in no way otherwise. What I have been saying to all of you from many years past has not changed. Simply achieve your birth, firmly avoiding all scholarly debate. I recall hearing the late Master Honen say, "Persons of the Pure Land tradition attain birth in the Pure Land by becoming their foolish selves." Moreover, I remember him smile and say, as he watched humble people of no intellectual pretensions coming to visit him, "Without doubt their birth is settled." And I heard him say after a visit by a man brilliant in letters and debating, "I really wonder about his birth." To this day these things come to mind.
(Lamp for the Latter Ages, Chapter 6)
Hearing the Dharma and reading the sacred scriptures can certainly help us deepen our appreciation of the Buddha’s compassion. However, Shinran teaches that it is important not to get so attached to the idea that “I am right” that one stops listening to other people’s points of view. The Pure Land teaching helps us let go of our ego and attachment to the ideas of “me” and “mine,” including attachment to “my understanding” and “my point of view.” When we become our foolish selves, we are able to learn from our encounters with all people, no matter how humble they may appear.
The moment of departure from this world
Shinran, the 12th Century Japanese Buddhist priest who we look to as the founder of our tradition, taught that the true meaning of a person's life and their birth in the Pure Land (i.e. arrival at a state of perfect peace and bliss) after passing from this world is determined by living with awareness of the Buddha's compassion moment to moment throughout one's life, not one's state of mind at the moment of death.
Shinran’s perspective on the moment of death contrasts significantly with the understanding put forth by some Buddhist priests of his day, who taught that a person must be calm and concentrated on the Buddha at the moment of death in order to go forth and be born in the Pure Land. Practically speaking, that understanding can cause anxiety for patients and family members when a person is heavily sedated, expressing considerable discomfort, or otherwise struggling at the moment of death.
In the letters of Shinran’s wife Eshinni to their daughter Kakushinni, who was present with Shinran in his last days, we find the following kind words of reassurance from mother to daughter, “Above all, concerning the birth of my husband [Shinran] in the Pure Land, nothing whatsoever needs to be said anew.” (Letters of the Nun Eshinni, trans. James C. Dobbins, p. 26) Perhaps Shinran appeared to be in great discomfort in his last days. Perhaps Kakushinni had heard stories of miraculous occurrences that accompanied great Buddhist masters departing this world and going forth the Pure Land and was concerned when she didn’t see those signs when her father passed away. We don’t know exactly what concerns Kakushinni may have expressed in a letter to her mother, but in Eshinni’s reply we see a wonderful affirmation of Shinran’s teaching that it is the life that has been lived moment to moment, not the moment of death, in which we can see the true significance of a person’s existence.
Applied to our own encounters with the impermanence of human life, Shinran's teaching helps the patient and family member to greet death however it finally comes, without having to reconcile the reality of the moment of passing with a preconceived expectation of how things should be. Furthermore, after a loved one has passed, the family can take comfort in recalling memories of kindness from any time in the deceased's life, rather than fixating on the last moments, which may have been very difficult.
July is the month in which we hold services and festive celebrations for the Buddhist holiday of Obon. Obon (pronounced “Oh-bone”) has its origins in the scripture Ullambana Sutra Spoken by the Buddha. The scripture describes how the monk Maudgalyāyana, who possessed supernatural powers of perception, saw his deceased mother suffering in the realm of the hungry ghosts and consulted the Buddha regarding what could be done to ease her pain. The Buddha advised him to practice generosity by making an offering of food for monks who had finished their rainy season retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. Having completed these instructions, Maudgalyāyana saw his mother relieved of her suffering. At that time, Maudgalyāyana and his fellow monks were so overwhelmed with gratitude that they began to dance with joy.
Many people think of Obon as a time to make offerings to the spirits of the deceased and generate merit or “good karma” as a way to help departed loved ones find peace in the afterlife. While this understanding is certainly affirmed by many Japanese Buddhist traditions, the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition of the Oxnard Buddhist Temple focuses our Obon celebrations on joyful gratitude for what we have received from those departed loved ones, rather than what we might be able to do for them in the afterlife.
As Shinran, the founder of our tradition, once said to his followers, “I have never said the nembutsu even once for the repose of my departed father and mother.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 664) The nembutsu, or reciting the name of the Amida Buddha in the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” is celebrated in our tradition as the most powerful Buddhist practice, and yet Shinran tells us that he has never once done this practice as a way to aid his departed parents in the afterlife. The reason is that the power of the Nembutsu practice comes from the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion, not from our own efforts. Virtue and merit are received through the working of the Buddha, not created through the activity of our egos.
For those who take refuge in the Nembutsu teaching, Obon is a time to reflect on how the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion are at work in our relationships with departed loved ones who shared so much kindness and wisdom with us. Even though they are gone from this world, they continue to guide and support us on the path to a life of awakening.
Nam mô A di đà Phật
I recently had the opportunity to join an International Vesak Celebration of Sakyamuni Buddha's Birthday at the Westminster Mall in Orange County organized under the leadership of our friends at the An Lac Buddhist Mission in Ventura. The event lasted for three days from April 20-22, and included sutra chanting, Dharma talks, bathing statues of the baby Buddha, cultural performances, delicious vegetarian food, and Buddhist activities for children. There was even a carnival with a Ferris wheel, rides, and games that created a wonderfully festive atmosphere for celebrating the birth of the Buddha.
I was honored to be invited to participate in a ceremony on that Sunday afternoon that included sutra chanting by nearly one hundred Buddhist priests, including representatives of Sri Lankan, Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese, and Vietnamese schools of Buddhism. I also took part as an emcee for a cultural show that featured performances of music and dance from Japan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, China, Thailand, Korea and Bangladesh.
It was wonderful to see the rich diversity of the Buddhist cultures represented at the event. At the same, I was deeply moved to see how much we all have in common as Buddhists. Although we chant the sutras in different languages and may embrace different aspects of the 84,000 Dharma Gates taught by Sakyamuni, we all trace our spiritual heritage back to that same Great Sage whose birth in Lumbini garden we came together to celebrate.
The City of Westminster has one of the highest concentrations of Vietnamese Americans in the United States, so just as we conduct our services and events at the Oxnard Buddhist Temple in English and Japanese, the activities of this International Buddha's Birthday Celebration were conducted in English and Vietnamese. I have never studied the Vietnamese language and yet there was one phrase that I recognized right away. Whenever one of the Vietnamese speakers would address the audience, he or she would begin with the greeting “Nam mô A di đà Phật (sounds like: Nammo Ayida Fut),” which is the Vietnamese pronunciation of the Nembutsu “Namo Amida Butsu 南無阿弥陀仏 (I take refuge in Amida Buddha).” Hearing that Vietnamese Nembutsu throughout the afternoon, I was reminded that the Pure Land teaching that we receive from Sakyamuni Buddha has already transcended the boundaries of language and culture many times on its way to take root here in the United States.
On Sunday, May 20 at 10:00 a.m. we invite you to join us for a joint Gotan-e Service at the Oxnard Buddhist Temple with our friends from the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. Gotan-e is the observance of Shinran Shonin’s birthday, which tradition tells us occurred on May 21, 1173. Shinran, the Buddhist teacher who we revere as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition, was born in Japan at a time of great social turmoil, when warlords battled for control of the country and severe famines caused widespread starvation. Shinran’s mother is said to have passed away when he was just eight years old.
As a young boy, Shinran surely encountered a great deal of suffering. At the age of nine, he became a Buddhist monk and sought refuge in the Dharma. He arrived at the temple late in the day, so the priest who would perform the ordination told him to return the next day for the ceremony. Upon being told to return the next day for the ordination ceremony, he is said to have composed the following poem expressing his determination to receive ordination that very day:
For those who count on tomorrow,
Like the fragile cherry blossom,
Tonight, unexpected winds may blow.
Even at a young age, Shinran recognized the impermanence of all things in this world, and felt an urgent need to take refuge in the Dharma. Our lives and the world around us are constantly changing. We take comfort in the idea that the things of this world that we rely on will always be there for us to enjoy—the companionship of friends and family, our homes and neighborhoods, our favorite pair of shoes, and our healthy bodies. However, experience shows us that all these things change overtime, sometimes through a process of gradual decline, sometimes in a sudden transformation that leaves us shocked and dismayed. The Buddha’s teaching helps us to live fully amidst the constant flow of impermanence by showing us how to face uncertainty with calm and clear wisdom, so that we can appreciate our lives in the moment just as we are.
The White Elephant
Along with the beautiful floral shrine hand-decorated with fresh flowers, another distinctive adornment that we enjoy each year at Hanamatsuri is our statue of the white elephant. You may be wondering what the relationship between the white elephant and the birth of Sakyamuni Buddha in the human world is.
In traditional Buddhist cosmology, beings who are destined to attain Buddhahood in their next lives are described as dwelling in a splendid cosmic abode called Tusita Heaven while they wait for the circumstances to ripen for their appearance in this world. In the traditional biography of Sakyamuni Buddha, it is said that at the time of his conception, his mother Queen Maya had a dream in which a white elephant entered her womb from the right side. The scriptures say that this white elephant was the form taken by Sakyamuni Buddha for his descent from Tusita Heaven into this world. Therefore, the white elephant expresses Sakyamuni Buddha’s firm resolve to live out his life in this world of suffering in order to guide all beings to liberation.
Buddhism teaches that all things that exist in this world are impermanent, such that even the Dharma teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha will one day become extinct. It is said that at this moment in Tusita Heaven there is a bodhisattva named Maitreya who is waiting to be born in this world after Sakyamuni Buddha’s teaching vanishes, so that he can attain enlightenment and introduce the Dharma into this world once again.
Shinran teaches that those who have realized shinjin, or the entrusting heart of the Nembutsu, are equal to this bodhisattva Maitreya because they too are settled on the path to Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings. In a letter to one of his close companions, he writes, “Since persons of shinjin will definitely attain the supreme enlightenment, they are said to be the same as Maitreya.” (Collected Works of Shinran, Lamp for the Latter Ages, Chapter 3)
March is the month when we observe our Spring Ohigan Service. The word Ohigan お彼岸 means “Other Shore” and refers to departure from the shore of this world of suffering and crossing over to the Other Shore of Buddha’s Realm of Enlightenment. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that the Oxnard Buddhist Temple belongs to, we embrace the ideal of bodhisattva practice based the establishment of vows not to cross over to the Other Shore of Enlightenment until all other beings have been safely carried across. Although each bodhisattva may establish unique vows that express a particular compassionate character, there are Four Universal Bodhisattva vows made by bodhisattvas, which are said to arise one by one out of the Four Noble Truths:
1. Sentient beings are limitless, I vow to save them all. (The Truth of Suffering)
2. The base passions are innumerable, I vow to sever them all. (The Truth of Arising of Suffering)
3. The Dharma Gates are endless, I vow to learn them all. (The Truth of Liberation from Suffering)
4. The Way of the Buddha is unsurpassed, I vow to become perfected in it. (The Truth of the Path)
In addition to these four universal vows, bodhisattvas may establish particular vows, such as the 48 Vows of Bodhisattva Dharmakara that were fulfilled when he realized perfect enlightenment and became Amida Buddha. In the Path of Sages, the Mahayana bodhisattva vows are made by the practicer as an expression of his or her personal aspiration to realize perfect compassion through his or her own efforts (I vow to liberate all beings). In the Pure Land Path the subject of the bodhisattva vows is shifted from the practicer to Dharmakara Bodhisattva (i.e. Amida Buddha) (The Buddha vowed to liberate all beings, including me). Thus, it is through the perfection of the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva vows by Amida Buddha that awakening is assured for those who embrace the Pure Land Path of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition.
Mappo, the final period of the Dharma
The concept of Mappo 末法 or the dawning of the last Dharma age is one of the important factors in contributing to the rise of Honen’s Pure Land Buddhist movement. This teaching describes how following Sakyamuni Buddha’s Parinirvana, the Dharma has passed through three periods: True Dharma, Semblance Dharma, and Decline of the Dharma. In Buddhist scriptures, there is some variation in the relative length time attributed to these periods, but one common teaching is that the period of True Dharma lasted for 500 years following the Parinirvana of Sakyamuni, the period of Semblance Dharma lasted for 1,000 years following the period of the True Dharma, and that the period of the Decline of the Dharma that we are in now will last for 10,000 years following the Semblance Dharma. It is taught that at end of the period of the Decline in the Dharma, even the teachings of the Buddha will have vanished from this world. At that time, the bodhisattva Maitreya will appear in this world to realize perfect awakening and as a Buddha, turn the wheel of the Dharma ushering in another age of True Dharma.
The three periods of the Dharma describe the gradual decline and disappearance of three essential elements of the Dharma: teaching, practice and realization. During the period of True Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha are well-preserved, authentic Buddhist practice is possible, and true realization or the attainment of Nirvana is possible. During the period of Semblance Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings are preserved, and authentic practice is possible, but the true realization of Nirvana within the bounds of a human lifetime became impossible. During the Decline of the Dharma, so much time has passed since there was a Buddha in this world that although the true teachings are well-preserved, genuine practice and the realization of nirvana are no long attainable by people.
A series of calamities struck Japan in the 12th century around the time that Honen’s Nembutsu teaching was beginning to flourish. These calamities reinforced people’s belief that they were living in the period of Decline of the Dharma. Honen’s teaching that the Nembutsu provided a path to liberation even in the last
period of the Dharma added to its relevance for the people of Japan in the Kamakura Period.
Nagarjuna Bodhisattva (Jpn. Ryuju Bosatsu 龍樹菩薩 lit. “Dragon-tree”) is one of the most important figures in the development of Mahayana Buddhism. Nagarjuna lived in India around 150-250 C.E. and is famed for his writings on Madhyamamaka, or the principle of the Middle Way taught by Sakyamuni Buddha. The Buddha’s teaching on the Middle Way provides the guiding principle for Buddhist practice, which rejects both extreme life-denying asceticism as well as hedonistic living based on the pursuit of sensual pleasures. In his writings, Nagarjuna explored the philosophical implications of this teaching, showing how the practice of arguing by stubbornly denying or defending a certain position is ultimately based on misguided clinging to the idea that one has the only correct point of view. When people hold unquestioningly to a position of “is” or “is not,” they are so wrapped up in their own idea of being right that they are unable to recognize the truth when it is shown to them.
Nagarjuna is revered by Mahayana Buddhists in many traditions throughout the world. In the Pure Land tradition, we find great meaning the Chapter on Easy Practice from The Discourse on the Ten Stages and The Twelve Verses of Veneration (Junirai), which have long been considered to be Nagarjuna’s invaluable contributions to the clarification of Pure Land Buddhist teachings.
Sakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha
Sakyamuni Buddha is the historical Buddha who lived in this world of ours about 2,500 years ago in India. The word “Buddha” means “Awakened One,” and is not a personal name but rather is a title that refers to one who has realized complete and final liberation from suffering in the realm of birth and death. In addition to Sakyamuni Buddha, there are many other Buddha’s who are revered by various schools of Buddhism. In the Jodo Shinshu School of Buddhism we revere Amida Buddha, whose image is present as the central object of reverence in all Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temples either in the form of a statue, a painting, or the Name of the Buddha written in Chinese calligraphy.
So what is the relationship between Sakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha? Sakyamuni Buddha is a historical figure. After he realized enlightenment at the age of 35, he dedicated himself to tirelessly teaching the Dharma for 45 years until he passed from the world at the age of 80. Sakyamuni’s teachings are called the sutras and it is said that he taught 84,000 teachings or Dharma Gates through which one can enter the truth. The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life Delivered by Sakyamuni Buddha (The Larger Sutra) tells the story of a king who renounced his throne to pursue the path to perfect enlightenment and Buddhahood. This king was called Dharmakara Bodhisattva and he established forty-eight vows expressing his aspiration to deliver all beings from suffering. In the sutra, Sakyamuni Buddha tells us that Dharmakara Bodhisattva fulfilled his vows when he attained perfect enlightenment, and henceforth was called Amida Buddha, the Awakened One of Immeasurable Light and Life.
At our temple, we revere Amida Buddha as a tangible expression of the marvelous truth of enlightenment, a truth that cannot be expressed using ordinary speech and concepts. Amida Buddha is not a historical person like Sakyamuni Buddha, rather Amida Buddha is an expression of the religious truth that was taught by Sakyamuni. In the Jodo Shinshu Tradition, we are deeply grateful for the teaching on Amida Buddha, which of all Sakyamuni’s 84,000 teachings is the one that serves as our guide to the realization of perfect enlightenment.
This month we will be holding our annual Eitaikyo service in conjunction with our November Shotsuki Hoyo on Saturday, November 12 at 10:00 a.m. “Eitaikyo” literally means “perpetual sutra.” It is a shortened way of referring to “service in which we chant sutras in perpetuity to honor those who have left this world before us.” Eitaikyo Services are conducted as long as a temple exists. The funds to conduct the General Eitaikyo Service come from donations made when an individual’s name is added to the Eitaikyo ledger. Traditionally, Eitaikyo donations have been made by the family of the deceased when a loved one passes away. This practice of dana, or generosity, in grateful memory of a loved one is what has allowed this service to be conducted without interruption since the establishment of our temple. The Eitaikyo service will continue to be conducted as long as our temple exists. This service allows us to express gratitude towards those to whom we were indebted while they were in this world, and also to praise the Buddha’s virtue. By continuing the Eitaikyo service, we ensure that our temple will remain a place to gather and hear the Dharma into the future without end.
Eshinni and Kakushinni
The nun Eshinni (1182-1268?) was the wife of Shinran (1173-1262) and his close companion for much of his life, including the years he spent in exile in Echigo (modern day Niigata) and the two decades that they spent together in the Kanto region of eastern Japan. Eshinni’s family had significant land holdings in Echigo, and while Shinran spent his later years living and writing in Kyoto, Eshinni returned to Echigo to oversee her family’s estate.
The depth of Eshinni’s spiritual connection to Shinran can be seen in a series of letters that she wrote to their youngest daughter Kakushinni (1224-1283), who was living in Kyoto with Shinran in his final years. In these letters, Eshinni describes her experiences living the life of the Nembutsu through her relationship with Shinran. At one point in her letters, Eshinni reveals that she came to see Shinran as a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Kannon, a being of profound compassion in her daily life.
Following Shinran’s passing from this world, Kakushinni was instrumental in establishing his gravesite at the Otani memorial in Kyoto as a place for Jodo Shinshu Buddhists to gather in remembrance of their teacher. This memorial site moved several times and eventually grew to become the Hongwanji Temple that is the world headquarters of the Hongwanji-ha Jodo Shinshu School of Buddhism. The hard work and dedication that Kakushinni showed in serving the Sangha following Shinran’s passing helped make it possible for the nembutsu teaching to survive to into the modern age to provide us with guidance in our daily life.
In the Buddhist Churches of America, it is a common custom at local temples to honor Eshinni and Kakushinni during the month of October, as we remember the women who rejoiced in the nembutsu teaching and made tireless efforts so that the light of the Dharma would continue to illuminate our lives.
A teacher without disciples
As we observe the 750th Memorial Services for Shinran, I have had compelling conversations with Jodo Shinshu Buddhists from all over the world about how to best sustain our Sangha for future generations. Innovative projects like the Pacific Buddhist Academy in Hawaii and the Center for Buddhist Education at the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley reflect the dedication of our international Sangha to seeing Shinran’s teachings thrive in modern society, so that they can sustain our families and communities for generations to come. As we strive to carry on the Pure Land Buddhist tradition with gratitude to Shinran, we can gain valuable insight by reflecting on Shinran’s own attitude to his spiritual legacy. In A Record in Lament of Divergences, well known by its Japanese title
, Shinran’s close companion Yuien relates the following statement made by Shinran:
For myself, I do not have even a single disciple. For if I brought people to say the nembutsu through my own efforts, then they might be my disciples. But it is indeed preposterous to call persons "my disciples" when they say the nembutsu having received the working of Amida.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 664)
Shinran did not present himself as the founder of a new Buddhist sect and never claimed to have spiritual authority over others. The essence of Shinran’s Pure Land Buddhist teaching is to confirm the truth of the Dharma through one’s own experience, such that one realizes unshakable trust in the guiding power of Amida Buddha. It is up to each of us to discover the meaning of the Buddha’s enlightenment in our own lives. When we directly feel the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion working in our hearts and minds, the words Namo Amida Butsu will come forth as an affirmation of the peace and joy that we experience in the Dharma.
It is common for Buddhists of many different traditions to carry a string of Buddhist mindfulness beads called nenju or juzu for Buddhist religious services, or throughout the day. The custom of carrying strings of beads goes back to ancient India, so these beads are carried by Buddhists throughout the world. Traditionally, nenju had a set number of beads, and even today the formal type used by ministers for special services are made of 108 beads. There are several possible interpretations of the number 108, but it generally represents the human tendency toward base passions and the potential for personal transformation and the realization of virtue.In many traditions these beads are used for counting recitations of sacred phrases, which is where the name juzu 数珠, or “counting beads” comes from. Shinran, the founder of our Pure Land Buddhist tradition, taught that the spirit of mindfulness and gratitude in which the words “Namo Amida Butsu” are recited is more important than the number of recitations, which is why Jodo Shinshu Buddhists tend to call these beads nenju 念珠 or “mindfulness beads.”
Nenju don’t have magical power and they won’t bring you good luck. Carrying nenju and reciting the words “Namo Amida Butsu” at services and in your daily life is a way to feel the support of the Buddha’s wisdom guiding you from moment to moment. In commenting on the importance of carrying a nenju, the venerable fifteenth century Pure Land Buddhist teacher Rennyo writes, “ . . . we notice that those who have attained the true entrusting heart never fail to express it in their voice and manifest it in their manner.” (Letters of Rennyo, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, p. 35) The true entrusting heart joyfully receives the guidance of the Buddha’s teachings that illuminate the path to awakening.
At the end of May during Memorial Day weekend, I had the opportunity to visit nine cemeteries in the Tri-County Area to hold graveside services with our Sangha. Some of the graves at the sites where we held services honor Issei pioneers who came to this country from Japan in search of a better life and whose lifelong dedication to the Sangha laid a strong foundation for the Buddhist communities that continue to support our lives. We also honor those of later generations who have passed from this world of suffering, and yet continue to be part of our lives, guiding us through our memories with the wisdom and compassion of awakening.
Whether performed in late May for Memorial Day or in July and August for Obon, I think that yearly cemetery services are one of our most meaning Buddhist traditions. Whether it’s a cool foggy morning or a bright sunny afternoon, whether we have a refreshing breeze or buffeting winds whipping across the fields from the ocean, holding a service at a loved one’s gravesite is an opportunity to gather at a place specially dedicated to those who have departed this world before us and express our gratitude through sutra chanting and offering incense with the palms of our hands joined in gassho.
In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, our feelings of gratitude extend to all those whose lives have made our existence possible, regardless of whether or not that person was of Japanese ancestry or a Buddhist. Likewise, we gladly welcome non-Buddhists to join us at cemetery services in remembrance of their deceased loved ones who were part of our Sangha.
Wasan: Japanese Hymns
At Oxnard Buddhist Temple, we recently added a new program of chanting Shoshinge and Wasan (Japanese Hymns) on Sunday mornings at 9:00 a.m. before regular Dharma Services. We have also been chanting the Shoshinge in the formal gyofu style at 7:00 a.m. on the 16th of the month in a Monthly Memorial Observance for Shinran Shonin. In our Hongwanji School of Jodo Shinshu, we are taught that Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499) established this tradition of chanting Shoshinge and Wasan as a daily practice. Shinran’s Wasan Japanese Hymns are beautiful poetic expressions of the essential elements of the Pure Land Buddhist teaching. It is recorded that on one occasion Rennyo Shonin was so overwhelmed by the power of Shinran’s verses that he forgot his turn while he was chanting with his companions:
One day, at the time of service, the Shonin forgot his turn in junsan. After retiring to the Southern Hall, he remarked, “The hymns which Shinran Shonin taught us were so wonderful that I forgot my turn in junsan.” “How sad it is,” he commented, “that very few accept his exhortation and attain birth in the Pure Land.”
[Note] Junsan: A liturgical order in the Jodoshin school; while chanting, priests seated in the inner sanctuary take turns reciting the first line of wasan. This seems to have started at the time of Rennyo at the Honganji head temple, but it is now commonly practiced at ordinary temples.
Southern Hall: Rennyo’s residence for retreat at Yamashina Honganji.
(Rennyo Shonin's Goichidaiki-kikigaki translated by Z. H. Inagaki, p. 26)
If you are interested in discovering the rich liturgical tradition of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, I invite you join us for the chanting of Shoshinge and Wasan. Please check the temple calendar for the schedule of services. Even if you don’t understand all the words of the chanting, I think you will find that the beautiful rhythm and melody of the chanting invigorate your spirit.
Neither beautiful nor ugly
This past month I was honored to receive an invitation along with other local religious and community leaders to participate in an Anti-Bullying Summit sponsored by The Center for Multicultural Engagement at California State University Channel Islands. The summit was a student-organized conference that highlighted the increasingly serious problem of bullying, particularly for school-aged children.
As we heard the voices of youth and their families who have suffered as a result of bullying, my thoughts turned to the compassionate heart of the Buddha for guidance to understand and respond to this heart-wrenching problem. In our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, the Forty-eight Vows established by the Bodhisattva Dharmakara provide a concrete expression of the Buddha’s Great Compassion. Of the Forty-eight Vows, the Fourth Vow in particular speaks to the problem of bullying that so often targets children who look or act a little different from their peers. Perceiving the suffering experienced by those who are singled out based on their appearance, the Bodhisattva makes the following vow for the benefit of all beings:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should not all be of the same appearance and should either be beautiful or ugly, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
This Vow expresses the Buddha’s wish that all people should be equally accepted whatever their appearance may be. The meaning is not that we should all have identical facial features, body type, or way of dressing. Rather, each one should be appreciated just as he or she is, with none considered to be more beautiful or ugly than the others. Viewed under the light of the Buddha’s wisdom, each of us shines equally in our splendid individuality.
Seeing the powerful images on television of the devastation wrought by the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I found myself overwhelmed with sadness imagining the suffering that people in the effected areas must be experiencing. In response to my feelings of uncertainty, I turned to the Buddhist teachings for guidance. Paging through the Japanese hymns or Wasan composed by Shinran (1173-1262), I came upon the following verses:
Out of compassionate concern for the people of the land,
Master Saicho of Mount Hiei said that
One should utter "Namu-amida-butsu"
As a spell for eliminating the seven calamities.
spell: to recite from memory
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 352)
Saicho (767-822) established the Enryakuji Monastery on Mt. Hiei, and is revered as the founder of the Tendai School of Buddhism in Japan. Saicho was a highly regarded spiritual leader of his day, so much so that the Emperor Saga approached him for advice at time when a series of disasters were causing terrible suffering for the common people.
Shinran also lived at time when disasters were widespread, so he surely also felt great compassionate concern for those who suffered. “Namo-amida-butsu” is the voice of the Buddha calling us to take refuge in his immeasurable wisdom and compassion. In the face of great suffering and hardship, the teachings of the Buddha remind us that we are not alone, as the light of the Buddha’s wisdom shines on our lives illuminating our deep connections with each other.
The scale of the disaster that has struck Japan is such that the devastating effects will be felt for some time to come. Let us be mindful of those who suffer, remembering that we all travel together through this world of difficulties and challenges.
The Radiant Countenance of Awakening
For my contribution to the service of sutra chanting in several languages at the Jade Buddha Exhibition at the An Lac Mission, I chose to chant the Sanbutsuge, one of the most familiar selections from The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life that we chant during our Dharma Services at Oxnard Buddhist Temple. The Sanbutsuge, or Verses in Praise of Buddha, is spoken by Dharmakara Bodhisattiva to Lokesvararaja Buddha, and is an expression of reverence for the exalted state of awakening. For me the golden face of the Jade Buddha shining under the California sun powerfully evoked the opening verses of the Sanbutsuge:
Your radiant countenance is majestic,
And your dignity is boundless.
Radiant splendor such as yours
Has no equal.
Even the blazing light of
The sun, moon, and mani-jewels
Is completely hidden and obscured,
And looks like a mass of black ink-sticks.
The countenance of the Tathagata
Is unequalled in the world;
The great voice of the Perfectly Enlightened One
Resounds throughout the ten quarters.
(The Three Pure Land Sutras, Volume II: The Larger Sutra, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, pg. 14-15)
When we encounter a beautiful image of the Buddha or the shining adornments of the naijin central shrine at a temple, we can appreciate the majesty of awakening in a visual expression that transcends the barriers of language and speaks to us on deep emotional level. The carefully crafted items that adorn the central shrine of our temple are rich in symbolic meaning. If you ever have a question about the significance of the adornments, please don’t hesitate to ask about it.
The Merit that I Receive
It is a common practice in many Buddhist traditions to conclude the chanting of sutras with a merit dedication, or ekō 回向. The practice of merit dedication is based in the understanding that merit is produced by the virtuous act of chanting the words of the Buddha found in the sutras. In this case, merit refers to a kind of good energy that will benefit one’s life. In a way, it is like a kind of “good karma.” In many schools of Buddhism, it is thought that merit produced through the chanting of sutras can be transferred to other beings as an act of generosity. Among Mahayana schools of Buddhism, it is customary to dedicate merit to all beings in keeping with the bodhisattva ideal of freely guiding others to awakening before attaining Buddhahood for oneself.
The merit dedication that we commonly chant in Jodo Shinshu Buddhist services comes from the writings of the 7th century Chinese Buddhist priest Shandao, who is revered as one the Seven Masters of our Pure Land tradition. The romanized text of the ekō is written below along with an English translation by the Ryukoku University Translation Committee:
GAN NI SHI KU DOKU
BYO DO SE IS-SAI
DO HOTSU BO DAI SHIN
OU JO AN RAKU KOKU
I vow to distribute this merit
Equally to all beings,
So that together we may give rise to the aspiration for awakening
And attain birth in the Land of Peace and Bliss.
Rennyo, the 8th abbot of Hongwanji, lived in the 15th century and is revered for revitalizing the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist community by inspiring the common people to embrace the teachings of Buddhism as a source of illuminating wisdom for their daily lives. One of Rennyo's followers, a man by the name of Doshu from the village of Akao, describes the culture of mindfulness in the Jodo Shinshu tradition in the following words:
Each day, one should practice mindfulness through a morning Buddhist service. Each month, one should practice mindfulness through a visit to a local temple where an image of the founder of our teaching (Shinran) is enshrined. Each year, one should practice mindfulness through a visit to the head temple of our school (Hongwanji).
(Rennyo Shonin Goichidaiki-kikigaki 46, Translation by H. Adams)
The mindfulness practice of the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism is based on hearing the Dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha, with an open mind and heart. Beginning each morning by hearing the Dharma in a Buddhist service sets a tone of mindfulness for the entire day.
The Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition teaches that the ekō expresses the Buddha’s wish that all beings should realize awakening in the Land of Peace and Bliss. Rather than thinking of the merit produced from chanting as the result of my own good works, I chant the ekō as a grateful confirmation of the merit that I receive through the immeasurable compassion of the Buddha. In Shandao’s words, we hear the voice of the Buddha assuring us that by entrusting our lives to wisdom of his teachings, we will arrive in the realm of awakening.
The Practice of Mindfulness
In Japan, it is common for people to gather their local temple once a month to hear the Dharma at a major service, such as Ohigan or Ho-onko. At the Oxnard Buddhist Temple, we have services every Sunday at 10:00 a.m., so there are many opportunities to gather and appreciate the Dharma together.
Since Rennyo's time, the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist teaching has spread throughout the world. For many people who embrace the nembutsu teaching here in the United States, to travel to Japan and visit Hongwanji in Kyoto is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Visiting Hongwanji is an opportunity to experience the rich heritage of our tradition and connect with Jodo Shinshu Buddhists from around the world.
A Buddhist practice for everyone
It is said that the various Pure Land Buddhist schools of Japan, based on the teachings of Honen and Shinran, when taken together as one group have the largest number of adherents of any Buddhist tradition in Japan. What is it that has made the nembutsu teachings of Honen and Shinran so appealing to average people over the centuries? Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of the Pure Land teachings is their inclusive nature, offering a path of Buddhist practice that open to all people regardless of their means and abilities. In the following passage from Honen’s seminal work, the Senchakushu, he describes the inclusive nature of the Buddha’s vow, which is the basis for the Pure Land Buddhist teachings:
If the original vow required us to make images of the Buddha and to build stupas, the poor and destitute would surely have no hope of birth, but the fact is that the rich and highborn are few, while the poor and lowborn are exceedingly many. If the original vow required us to have wisdom and intelligence, the dull and foolish would have no hope of birth, but the fact is that the wise are few and the foolish are very numerous. Again, if the original vow required us to hear and understand many teachings, those who have heard and understood little would surely have no hope of birth, but the fact is that those who have heard much are few and those who have heard little are very many. Further, if the original vow required us to observe the precepts and abide by the monastic rules, those who have broken the precepts and those who have never undertaken them would surely have no hope of birth, but the fact is that those who observe the precepts are few, while those who have broken them are exceedingly many. As for the other various practices, they should be understood in the same way.
(Honen’s Senchakushu published by the Kuroda Institute, page. 77-78)
This month’s Minister’s Message discusses how bodhisattvas are beings who aspire to become Buddhas and make vows to guide all beings to awakening and liberation from suffering. The “original vow” that Honen describes in the passage above is the vow made by the Buddha Amida while he was a bodhisattva. This original vow was made with the intention of providing all beings with a path to becoming enlightened Buddha’s through the nembutsu. With a deep appreciation for the Buddha’s desire to save all beings, Honen celebrates the nembutsu practice for providing a path to enlightenment for all people, regardless of the their circumstances.
The Adornments of the Pure Land
Temples in the Jodo Shinshu School of Buddhism are known for their brilliantly adorned central shrine areas, with elaborately painted woodwork and shining golden ornaments. The central shrine area, or naijin, is a visual representation of the realm of the Buddha’s immeasurable wisdom and compassion, which we often refer to as the Pure Land.
Each aspect of the adornments of the central shrine area is based on a passage from the Buddhist scriptures describing the Buddha and his realm of awakening. If you look closely, you can see many different kinds of birds in the woodwork of the large table at the front of the central shrine area in the Oxnard Buddhist Temple. The following passage from the Amida Sutra describes how these various birds adorn the Pure Land:
. . . in that land there are always many kinds of wondrously rare and beautiful birds of various colors, such as white swans, peacocks, parrots, sarikas, kalavinkas, and jivam-jivakas.* Six times a day, all of these birds melodiously sing in elegant harmony . . . When the people of that land hear those birds singing, they all become mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
(The Three Pure Land Sutras, Vol. I, pg. 6)
These birds are one example of the many adornments of the Pure Land that are represented in the ornamentation of our central shrine area. These iconographic representations of the realm of the Buddha’s awakening convey profound religious meaning on an emotional level through visual beauty that inspires our imaginations.
The Buddha used many different methods to convey his teachings on the path to enlightenment. When you open your mind to receive the message conveyed by the beauty of Buddhist ornaments, you may discover new levels of insight that cannot be expressed through words and logic.
* sarikas, kalavinkas, and jivam-jivakas are birds from Indian mythology
The Warmth of Gratitude
In the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, the nembutsu comes forth from our lips in the words “Namo Amida Butsu 南無阿弥陀仏” as an expression of profound appreciation for the Buddha’s teaching of the path to liberation from suffering. In the following passage from a letter to one of his followers, Shinran describes the personal transformation that takes place through years of living in this gratitude:
Signs of long years of saying the nembutsu and aspiring for birth can be seen in the change in the heart that had been bad and in the deep warmth for friends and fellow-practicers; this is the sign of rejecting the world. You should understand this fully.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 551)
Here the words “aspiring for birth” refer to living a life directed toward the realm of the Buddha’s immeasurable wisdom and compassion expressed as the Pure Land. When Shinran writes of rejecting the world, he does not mean we should try to seclude ourselves from society or abandon our responsibilities. In the Pure Land Buddhist tradition, to reject the world is to recognize the flaws and limitations of a society that is focused on striving for fame, status, and the satisfaction of selfish desires. By clarifying the direction of our lives guided by the wise teachings of the Buddha, our priorities shift from our own self-centered concerns to feelings of caring and understanding for the people in our lives.
“Ondokusan” is one of the most beautiful gathas, or Buddhist hymns, that we sing during our services at the Oxnard Buddhist Temple. “Ondokusan” is one of the wasan, or Japanese Hymns, composed by Shinran to convey the depth of the Buddha’s teaching in vernacular language so that it could be understood and appreciated by the common people. Here is an English translation of Ondokusan:
Such is the benevolence of Amida’s great compassion,
That we must strive to return it, even to the breaking of our bodies;
Such is the benevolence of the masters and true teachers,
That we must endeavor to repay it, even to our bones becoming dust.
“Ondokusan” conveys Shinran’s profound sense of gratitude to the Buddha for provide the means for his liberation from suffering through the Nembutsu. This gratitude also extends to the Buddhist Masters of India, China, and Japan, who clarified the Nembutsu teaching and ensured that it could be passed down to us.
A Well-worn Scroll
One of the defining characteristics of our Jodo Shinshu tradition is the emphasis on the nembutsu as a daily practice that finds expression the homes and workplaces of lay people, as opposed to a monastic practice that is best suited a temple setting.
Rennyo, the eighth generation abbot of the Hongwanji temple in the fifteenth century, created nembutsu scrolls in his own calligraphy and sponsored the printing of sacred scriptures, which he shared widely among his fellow nembutsu practicers. At a time when sacred objects of reverence and Buddhist scriptures were almost all housed in temples and kept by educated monks, we can imagine the humble farmers and fishermen who received these scrolls and texts from Rennyo taking special care to prevent damage or wear and tear to the precious objects. Rennyo shared these scrolls and scriptures with the wish that they should be used on a daily basis to deepen his fellow practicers' appreciation of the nembutsu teaching. In that spirit, he instructed them as follows:
The scroll of the sacred object of reverence should be kept hanging until it wears away; the sacred scriptures should be read over and over again until they become thread-bare.
(Rennyo Shonin's Goichidaiki-kikigaki translated by Z. H. Inagaki, p. 27)
This doesn't mean that we should treat our sacred objects carelessly. Their purpose is to support us in our ongoing practice of the nembutsu way, so they should be embraced as close and intimate companions in our daily lives
The Name of the Buddha
If you have visited other BCA temples, you may have noticed that not all temples have the same central object of reverence in the inner shrine area that we refer to as the naijin. Many temples have a gilded wooden statue of Amida Buddha. Some temples have a painted pictorial image of Amida Buddha on a hanging scroll. At the Oxnard Buddhist Temple, we have a hanging scroll with the Name of Amida Buddha written out in the Chinese characters Namo Amida Butsu 南無阿弥陀佛. You might be wondering what the difference is between these three different representations of the Buddha.
In essence, there is no difference, as they are all expressions of the Buddha’s great wisdom and compassionate vow to liberate all beings from suffering. Rennyo, the fifteenth century Japanese Buddhist priest who served as the eighth abbot of the Hongwanji temple, expressed his regard for the Name as an object of reverence in the following words
In other schools, a pictorial image is preferred to the Name; a wooden statue is preferred to a pictorial image. In our school, a pictorial image is preferred to a wooden statue; the Name is preferred to a pictorial image.
(Rennyo Shonin's Goichidaiki-kikigaki translated by Z. H. Inagaki, p. 54)
The words Namo Amida Butsu are the voice of the Buddha calling us to his realm of awakening. In the Name of the Buddha, Rennyo found a concrete expression of the Buddha’s wish that all beings should be liberated from suffering and attain perfect bliss. On several occasions, he wrote the Name in his own calligraphy and presented it to his followers, so they could display it and be mindful of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion when they gathered together. The Sanghas that received these writings of the Name have treasured them over the centuries, and some of the scrolls are still on display over 500 years later at temples in the areas of Japan where Rennyo traveled.
When we join our palms in gassho and gaze upon the Name as the words “Namo Amida Butsu” come forth from our lips, let us be mindful of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion and grateful to those who have treasured the Dharma over the years, so that we are able to hear it now.
Tanluan’s inchworm: Why the Pure Land is “pure”
The Chinese Buddhist monk Tanluan (Jp. Donran, 476-572 C.E.) is one of the most important figures in the development of Pure Land Buddhist teachings. Shinran, the 12th century Japanese Buddhist teacher who we look to as the founder or our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition had such reverence for Tanluan 曇鸞, that he took the character luan鸞, which is pronounced ran in Japanese, to make his own name Shinran 親鸞. In his writings, Tanluan explains why we use the word “pure” to describe the realm of the Buddha’s infinite wisdom and compassion. He writes:
The Buddha originally attributed the virtue of purity [to his land and the beings that inhabit it] because observing the three realms of worldly existence*, he saw that they are empty and false, an unending cycle of confusion. We go around and around like an inchworm on a branch. We bind ourselves like a silkworm building a cocoon. The Buddha felt great pity for all beings who inextricably tie themselves to the three realms of worldly existence that are filled with ignorance and impurity. He longed to deliver them to a place that is free from empty falsehood, a place with no unending cycle of confusion. He wished for them to arrive at a place of ultimate bliss and great purity. For this reason, the Buddha attributed the virtue of purity [to his land and the beings that inhabit it].
* The desire realm, the form realm, and the formless realm.
From The Commentary on the Treatise on the Pure Land by Tanluan, translated by H. Adams
After many lifetimes observing the human condition and this world we live in, the Buddha felt great pity for the people who keep causing suffering for themselves and others through their mistaken understanding and self-centered way of living. Because life in this world is filled with so much suffering and ignorance, the Buddha described it as “impure.” A “pure” world is one where we can recognize the folly of self-centered living and practice kindness and understanding for all beings. The Buddha provides us with the Pure Land teachings to direct us from this world of suffering to that world of wisdom and compassion.