- Written by: Rev. Ryoko Osa
In the Higashi tradition we call it the Sansei-ge, The Nishi members call it Jusei-ge. The word ju means to repeat, and so Jusei-ge means the gatha of the repeated vow.
The three vows the Buddha makes are:
- I vow to establish the most incomparable vow in the world.
- I vow to become a great provider and give support to the poor and suffering.
- I vow not to become a buddha unless my name is heard throughout ten quarters.
Usually we think, Oh, this is a story about a great person who became a Buddha. But I don’t think of it that way. Instead, I want you to think of it as my story or Our Story. That is, it is the secret story of our life that is being described by the Gatha of the three vows.
What do we really want to do with our lives? Ask yourself: What is the deepest innermost wish in my heart? In our hearts? And now let’s try to think of these three vows as the expression of our innermost aspiration, our deepest wish.
Normally no one thinks, “Oh, I know. I want to vow to become a great provider and give support to the poor and suffering”. That is because we know our limitations. We know it is impossible for us to do. Even if we had the greatest compassion for others, we automatically think “Well, even though I really wish to free everyone from suffering, it is impossible for me to help them all. And so I will start with what I am able to do and go about the task in a responsible way.” That is a more normal response.
If you watch any TV documentaries, there are refugees trying to enter Greece, there are people living in refugee camps in Somalia, there are street children in the Philippines. And you might think that “people are not supposed to live in such terrible environments, I wish they could live without suffering. I want to help them but I can’t. My hands are tied. ” If you did not have to think about your limitations, you would think “I wish all sentient beings were free from suffering. I want to help all of them”. This is the same wish as the Buddha’s wish for our world.
If you just listen to your heart, instead of thinking about how to do things responsibly or how you are limited by your conditions, just simply listen to your heart, then you might think “I want to become a great provider and give support to the poor and suffering”.
As a human, we know we have limitation. We have to live responsibly and within the limits of our human condition. And we also know we tend to follow our selfish minds.
So we give up trying to help everyone. And we try not to think or see the tragedies that others are suffering all around us.
I believe each person would wish that “I wish no one would be harmed and everyone would live fully and freely in this world”.
This is the Buddha’s wish for this world and it is also our innermost aspiration.
But how often we tend to forget this wish or run away from listening to our heart’s innermost aspiration. we are living within the narrow space between our limitations and our selfishness mind. And that is as far away from compassion as the other side of the moon.
I think that Sansei-ge, this poem of the Buddha’s wish, makes us reflect on ourselves and lets us recall our innermost aspiration, the deepest wish in our heart.
So now, I want you to forget about your limitations. Forget about your limiting conditions that tie your hands, forget about your selfishness only for a moment. And just simply think, “Oh this is what I wish, this is what we wish for others in this world.”
In the 三誓偈 (Sansei-ge, gatha of the three vows), we chant 普済諸貧苦 (fusai-shobingu).
This means “ I vow to become a great provider and give support to the poor and suffering.”
- Written by: Rev. Ryoko Osa
Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It also happens to be the name of a movie. The Butterfly Effect refers to how a very small and seemingly insignificant occurrence could influence the world in a substantial way. The term was originally coined by a scientist named Edward Lorenz who discovered that a small change in the input of data could result in a completely different result from what was expected. The term came about when a fellow researcher posed the following question: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
An old Japanese proverb goes, “When the wind blows, the tub makers profit.” The reasoning is, when a strong wind comes, dust flies into people’s eyes, and the numbers of those without sight increases. In olden days, blind people often became shamisen (traditional three-string instrument) performers. So the sales of the instrument increased. The front of a shamisen is made of the skin of cats. So when shamisen sales go up, cats become scarce. When cats become scarce, the number of mice increase. Mice love to gnaw on wooden tubs, and so people need to replace their tubs. Thus the proverb, “When the wind blows, the tub makers profit.”
In this way, a small and insignificant cause can bring about a big and unexpected effect that could not have been predicted. Simply put, it is to say that there is no way that we can predict what will happen in the future.
I began to think that the Butterfly Effect is similar to the important concept of dependent origination in Buddhism. It is to say that causes and the countless conditions that affect those causes lead to some kind of effect. Things, in other words, do not happen solely on their own. This is what Buddhism refers to as karma. It may be easier to understand by thinking about the following story.
A young man was asked by his mother to buy her pick up something at a store. So after work, he took a different way home in order to stop at the store. On the way, he saw a motorcycle shop with a sharp looking bike on display. It’s exactly what he’d been looking for, and so he buys the bike. On the way home, tragically, he’s killed in a collision with a truck.
This tragedy occurs because the young man decided to take a different way home. What would we think if we were the mother? In her despair, she might think, “If only I didn’t ask him to go shopping for me,” and feel tremendous guilt for what had happened to her son.
We have the tendency to search for the one cause of an effect. But Buddhism teaches us that there is no one cause for something to happen. There are many causes and those causes are influenced by many conditions to bring about the natural course that is the effect we are looking at.
In reflecting on the young man in the previous story, there is no one cause for his death. At each turn, if there was even a slight change, he might not have been killed. If he were not asked to go shopping, if he hadn’t stopped at the motorcycle shop, if he wasn’t interested in motorcycles, if that truck hadn’t come in his direction…any of these things would have prevented his death.
When we look at the causes of an effect, we see that there are so many different conditions that could have resulted in a different effect. This is the Butterfly Effect – a multitude of small causes and conditions changing the effect – something that can happen infinitely.
If is for this reason that the mother cannot be blamed for “asking her son to go shopping for her.” “If this had happened, that would not have happened.” It is useless to think in such ways.
However, as human beings, we cannot help but feel guilt when a bad result occurs. The reason why is life does not proceed simply due to those causes and conditions. We consciously (or unconsciously) make decisions at every moment of our lives. But those choices are influenced by our environment in the same way that our personalities are shaped. Conditions are accumulated to push us to make the decisions we make. That means that we cannot totally control the things that happen in our lives. In a real sense, we do not have the power to control our lives.
When we reflect on the past in the context of the present, we see that the effects occurring now are the products of causes and conditions of the past. This is what Buddhism calls karma.
A cup is filled with water. When another drop of water is inserted into the cup, the cup overflows. The reason the cup overflows is that the seemingly insignificant addition of one small drop is inserted into the cup. It may be a small change, but it can have the effect of changing one’s life. How that result affects a person may differ from one person to another.
A mistake often made is to equate fate with karma. Fate is when one looks at the future in the context of the present and determines that a certain result will occur. Buddhism looks at the causes from the result to see that the causes and conditions of the past have brought forth the result at hand. This is what we call karma.
To be distressed by or be proud of what happened in the past, to feel anxiety or anticipation for what is to come in the future…for any human being, these are feelings that one cannot help having. But when we get too caught up in such thinking, it can only lead to suffering. The past did not occur through our own power; the future will not pan out in the way we hope due to our own capabilities.
We cannot predict the future. There is no way we can predict what will happen, but it is there that the endless possibilities of the future exist for us. That’s why life is so interesting and full of promise. Experiencing both sadness and joy, we try to live with strength the lives we have been given.
- Written by: Rev. Ryoko Osa
The teenage years are an especially bright time. At that time I had lots of imagination, passion, energy, strength, beauty. Unfortunately, I have lost most of those things now. But all of you have all of them now.
On the other hand, the way the world is today, I think you might also be experiencing some stress, some anxiety. You are finding out the world is not perfect. And so as you start out in life I want to give you these three words of advice. First: Don’t compare. Second: Don’t rush. Third: Don’t give up. Got it? Never compare, never rush, never give in. In Japanese 比べず、焦らず、あきらめず. So what do I mean by this.
First: Don’t compare. Kurabezu (比べず)
Don’t compare your life to others. There is no comparison between the sun and the moon. They shine when it’s their time. You do not have to compare yourself to your friends. One day you will realize how much beauty you have inside of you.
But since we are human beings, we cannot stop comparing ourselves to others. What others do with their life, what others decide in their lives are very useful for thinking about what you want to do, what you want to decide. But you don’t have to switch your criteria. If you think about it, you realize you have your own criteria, your own way of thinking, and that is enough.
And I hope that Budddhism helps you to form your own criteria. If you listen to Buddhism for a long time, you may come to the conclusion we don’t need any criteria, we just have to accept life as it comes, naturally.
Second: Don’t rush. Aserazu (あせらず)
Aseru (あせる) means to feel rushed, to feel irritated, to feel nervous. Imagine, if you feel like you are drowning, first you have to calm down. If you panic then the more you wave your arms and legs around, the more you drown. You have to calm down, take a deep breath and take things step by step.
Third: Don’t give up. Akiramezu (あきらめず)
Sometimes you feel like you just want to give up. You cannot keep on going like this. But you know you should keep going. You cannot give up. Pick yourself up with a bright thought. Celebrate in your heart. You might be having a hard time in one class. But do your homework. And after it is done give yourself a reward. Play a game, have some ice cream, do whatever you want. Indulge yourself after your hard challenge. It is behind you.
Never give up. Right now the world might seem to be an unforgiving place. But thanks to that experience, one day you realize the Universe is filled with Love. One moment you are drifting on the sea of suffering. And the next your life is floating on an ocean of loving kindness. And because of that your life is not your own to give and take. Your life belongs not just to you. It belongs equally to your parents, to your family, to your friends. Your life is infinitely interconnected equally with everything there is. But if ever you feel like you are at the end of the road and you want to give up, please come to talk to me or one of your ministers. We are here to help.
And so as you start out in life I want to give you these three words of advice. First: Don’t compare. Second: Don’t rush. Third: Don’t give up.
- Written by: Rev. Ken Yamada
Perhaps you’ve heard of a new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” by Amy Chua, who argues that a Chinese-style of pushing children to excel in school and other activities is best, even at the expense of play dates, sleepovers and sports. Her book caused a firestorm of criticism and debate.
After one of her daughters came in second in a math competition, Chua forced her to do countless math problems nightly until she came out on top. Chua constantly prodded and pushed her children to excel in school and music. She threatened to burn all of a daughter’s stuffed animals unless she played a musical piece perfectly. As a result, the girls won musical competitions and got straight A’s in school.
As you can imagine, many people denounced Chua’s methods, saying for example that they will result in unhappy children who may have skills, but won’t have a true love for what they are doing, nor will they have initiative or creativity of their own. This debate parallels as similar one in Buddhism and which I think holds an important lesson for us.
New York Times columnist David Brooks made an interesting argument in a January 18th piece. He wrote critically that actually, Chua is protecting her children “from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.”
“Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group—these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring or a class at Yale.”
Brooks goes on to say: “Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together. This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences.”
I think there is an underlying equation in these opposing arguments which goes like this: “Superior skills result in a good job, high salary and success in life” versus “A well-rounded person will have a well-rounded, fulfilling life.” To me, these two kinds of reasoning mirror an ages-old debate in Buddhism.
Many people think spiritual enlightenment is the result of leading a monk-like life, filled with rigorous practices such as meditation, severe fasting, scholastic study, denial of earthly comforts and extreme self-control of mind and body. As the thinking goes, practices that foster self-discipline by pushing oneself to human limits will result in a breakthrough of understanding. Only through such practices will a person overcome one’s passions and emotions to achieve true enlightenment.
Shinran Shonin made the exact opposite argument, saying the true Buddhist path does not lie in self-discipline and self-denial, but rather in just living everyday life. As if to underscore the point in Shinran’s master text, Kyogyoshinsho, the chapter titled “Gyo,” normally interpreted as “spiritual practice,” was translated into English as “true living,” by the great scholar D.T. Suzuki.
In other words, we don’t need to climb a mountain to meditate or live as an ascetic in the forest. The point is not to develop these skills or self-disciplines. The point is to understand who we are and what this life is all about. Only then, can we live true, fulfilling and joyous lives. And the best place to come to this understanding is right here, right now, in the midst of our very own lives.
When we are forced by everyday life to relate to the people around us at home, at school, at work and at play, we are forced to confront conflicts with others and within ourselves. We are forced to question our thinking, values and priorities. We are forced to consider the results of our actions. We are forced to confront the challenges of life, disappointment, hardship and frustration. We are forced to confront broken relationships and the death of loved ones. In short, we forced to confront impermanence.
Within the swirl of life’s uncertainties, we naturally question our understanding of who we are and what this life is all about. Guided by the words of the Buddha and Shinran Shonin, our awareness can grow deeper and fuller. This process of self-discovery is the great source of life’s joy, not the pursuit of wealth, status and worldly possessions.
Of course as Ms. Chua points out, it is important to study hard, develop skills, get jobs and earn money, all of which are necessary to live. But those pursuits do not result in true and lasting happiness and should not be ends unto themselves. True joy results from living life fully with a deep sense of understanding and inter-connectedness to everyone and everything around us.
- Written by: Rev. Ken Yamada
Putting our hands together in Buddhism is called “gassho.” Let’s examine what it means to gassho.
Firstly, there’s a proper way to do gassho. Hands are placed at the mid-chest level, palms together, fingers straight and pointed at a 45 degree angle upwards. The wrists should be close to the chest.
By contrast, other ways that people gassho may be to touch the elbows to the body, so the hands are away from the body. Or the elbows are held away from the body so the fingers are pointing straight up. Or the elbows jut out so the arms are parallel with the ground. A Chinese bow may have the left hand open and the right hand in a fist. In Shorinji kempo (a Buddhist martial art like karate), the fingers are spread apart. In certain parts of the world, such as in Sri Lanka and Thailand, people may greet each other with gassho.
When we gassho, we place our hands together and recite the Nembutsu, the words “Namu Amida Butsu.” Placing our hands together while reciting the Nembutsu is called “gassho” in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.
Gassho is more than a pose. It is symbolic of the Dharma, the truth about life. For instance, we place together our right and left hand, which are opposites. It represents other opposites as well: you and me, light and dark, ignorance and wisdom, life and death.
We also place a nenju (also called ojuzu) around both hands when we gassho. The nenju represents the Buddha’s teachings. Therefore, gassho means that through the Buddha’s teachings, we can see that these opposites are really one.
Gassho also symbolizes respect, the Buddhist teachings, and the Dharma. It also is an expression of our feelings of gratitude and our inter-connectedness with each other. It symbolizes the realization that our lives are supported by innumerable causes and conditions. Tradition has given us this symbol. I urge you to think deeply about why you gassho and to make it your own, so that it arises from your innermost being.
I heard of a group of American junior Youth Buddhist Association (Jr. YBA) students who visited Japan. One day they took a trip to Hiroshima to visit the Atomic bomb museum. If you’ve ever seen the memorial, you know that it can be a moving and emotional experience. The museum tells the story of how during World War II the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in Japan. In a flash, the entire city was destroyed and many thousands of people died, including many children.
As the teenagers looked at the memorial, tears started to well in their eyes. Then someone started to gassho. One by one, they put their hands together in gassho, quietly bowing their heads.
How else could they express their thoughts and feelings about what they saw and what they felt—sadness for those who perished, despair from knowing this was a real event and helplessness of knowing that wars continue to be fought, Those feelings meshed with hopes that such an event will never occur again and a wish for peace throughout the world. What more perfect way to express those conflicting feeling than to gassho?
Gassho is not an empty gesture. It is an expression of life and our innermost feelings. In Jodo Shinshu, it is said that it represents our deepest aspiration, symbolized by the vow made by Amida Buddha that we all will be awakened to the oneness of life, that we are all interdependent, and that we are all special because we share this life together. This is the meaning of gassho and this is the meaning of “Namu Amida Butsu.”