May 17, 2020 Service by Rev. Ryoko Osa
Service to Commemorate the Birth of Shinran Shonin, Born April 1st, 1173
Today we celebrate the birth of Shinran Shonin.
Every year in April our temple holds the Hanamatsuri Service, to celebrate the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. If you watched online my Hanamatsuri Service of April 5th, you saw that there was a Baby Shakyamuni Buddha’s statue and that I poured the sweet tea over it.
But today we are celebrating the birthday of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, the True Pure Land tradition.
It is said that Shinran Shonin was born on April 1st 1173, using the old lunar calendar, and if you convert the date to our current Gregorian calendar, it is May 21st, right around now. So that’s about 850 years ago. Of course, we live in tough times, as we continue to face the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Shinran Shonin also went through some very tough times. I think he faced even harder situations than we are facing now.
When he was 4 and 7 years old, there were big earthquakes. When he was 5, a big fire burned down one third of Kyoto city. And when he was 8, there was an epidemic and many people died.
There were many natural disasters during his lifetime. He was ordained when he was a young boy, just 9 years old—around the same age as many of you children. Ordained means that he became a monk, entering the life of monkhood.
People have wondered why Shinran Shonin was ordained at such a young age. And many reasons have been given. Some people think it was because, by the age of 9, he had already gone through many tragic experiences in his family life. Others say the main reason is because it was the custom that the sons of noble families would often enter the monkhood.
At any rate, one day, his uncle Hino Noritsuna took him to Shoren-in temple in Kyoto. But as they were waiting for the process to be completed, it started to become late, the night growing dark. So Reverend Jien said to them, “Let’s have your ordination ceremony tomorrow because it is getting dark.” But right then little Shinran wrote out one poem and gave it to Reverend Jien.
“Cherry blossoms that look like they will stay on the tree till tomorrow, may well blow away during the night”.
In fact, composing poems was the one of the cultural activities of educated people in old Japan.
Our temple has a sakura tree. Usually its cherry blossoms last for just about one week. If the wind blows, the light small petals are easily blown away. This year I enjoyed the beautiful cherry blossoms, but it was rainy and windy at night, so the petals were blown away quickly. And soon I mostly saw the petals scattered on the ground. We Japanese have a special connection to Sakura trees, and see the world’s impermanence reflected in the cherry blossoms.
This episode in Shinran’s life shows us his strong determination to enter to the monkhood and seek truth in life. He then studied for 20 years on Mt. Hiei, until he became 29.
At that point he left the mountain and then began teaching many people what he had learned from his master, Honen. He worked to save and guide ordinary people both spiritually and mentally. Over 800 years later his teaching is still here, and people are still inspired and awakened by it.
In the Buddhist tradition it has been common to commemorate death. Last week, I told you about memorial services and the Shotsuki monthly memorial service. The purpose of this service is not to try to do something for the soul or spirit of the deceased, but to create the opportunity to remember the deceased and the kindness we received from them. At these memorial services, we think of the legacy the deceased has left behind, which strengthens our tradition. In contrast to these ceremonies, cerebrating “Birth” represents an auspicious moment filled with new possibilities.
This pandemic has arrived in the internet age. We have YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, lots of videos we can watch anytime. But if we lost our internet connection in this situation, while sheltering in place, how would we, of the modern generation, survive?
We live in a world where we can easily search for whatever we want to know. And many of us wish to get more and more information. We even feel that we don’t have enough time to follow each day’s news. It is a flood of information.
But the main way we become fuller human beings is not through acquiring information. Let’s think more simply. The central issue is how we are motivated by boundless compassion or love—and how, in turn, our motivation may help others.
Take the example of a birth. When we think of this occasion, we think of celebration, of looking forward to the future potential of a new human being. But at the same time, at the moment of birth, we see the boundless compassion or love that benefits others. The same meaning holds at the memorial service.
Shinran Shonin went to Mount Hiei where he obtained deep and profound knowledge. However, his teaching is summarized in a simple phrase: Namu Amida Butsu
And learning the meaning of Namu Amida Butsu is not something done just by acquiring knowledge. It is not anything like digital information. The meaning of Namu Amida Butsu is captured by the image of someone working in the Summer bazaar, or cleaning in the temple garden. It is someone’s gashō; it is someone’s bowing to show their respect. It is the trusting hearts of others. We are the ones receiving their boundless compassion.
Even when we strive to learn new things, we are not by ourselves; we are connected to, and learning from, someone else’s efforts.
Is this not true with love? Love is not created from scratch, from nothing. It is transferred from person to person, from people to people, through all of us. In a sense, each of us is a relay station in the transmission of love.
Thinking of Peace in August
A mass shooting occurred again in August. This time it was in El Paso, Texas. On that day while driving home from our temple camping trip, I listened to the radio news.
A 25-year-old mother shielded her two-month-old son. She was shot. They were at a Walmart store, shopping for back-to-school supplies. “From the baby’s injuries, they said more than likely my sister was trying to shield him,” a woman said. “When she was shot, she was holding him and fell on top of him. That’s why he broke some bones. He pretty much lived because she gave up her life.”
Of course nobody knows what happened exactly at that moment. There’s a possibility the mother shielded her baby without thinking. It may have been a mother’s conditioned response.
While listening to the news, I recalled tragedies of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many people burned and perished lying atop one another. I imagined parents and grandparents trying to protect their children and grandchildren without even thinking.
For most Japanese, August is a special month to think about human life. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki on August 9. Japan surrendered on August 15.
When I was growing up in Japan, there were many TV programs in August devoted to memorials related to the bombings and to events promoting World peace. I watched many movies and TV programs about World War II. There even were anime films about the horrors of war, such as Grave of the Fireflies (Japanese: Hotaru no haka). Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
Why do people hate each other? Why do people kill one another?
According to Buddhism, complex conditions make us hate others. There are political and historical conditions. However, the primary reason why human beings hate each other is because we are foolish beings.
Politics may be debated but there is no single answer on which everyone agrees. Too many things in this world we don’t know whether they’re true or false.
What’s certain is that human beings are fools. I am foolish. It’s imperative to come to this understanding. The Buddha taught within each of us are Three Poisons: Greed, Anger, and Ignorance. These poisons cause suffering and make us disregard the sanctity of human life.
If we understand and are conscious of our Greed, Anger, and Ignorance, we’ll be more respectful of life—both the lives of others and our own.
Consider greed. We really don’t need to consume so many natural resources. After all, originally, we possessed nothing.
Consider anger. It’s hard to forget you hate someone. In history, ethnic hatred has been passed down from generation to generation.
Consider ignorance: People often forget it’s human to make mistakes. We think we are right and others are wrong and therefore we’ll fight wars.
Individually, we cannot overcome Three Poisons by ourselves.
We need help. This help is the Buddha’s voice encouraging us to gain wisdom. It’s the voice of people who came before us, including our teachers, family members and friends, who have passed away. They even include people who we don’t know, such as those who perished in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and El Paso.
What would the victims of mass shootings and of the atomic bomb wish for us? What would our loved ones, who have passed away, wish for us? What kind of world would they hope for us?
I think they would tell us to create a world of peace and understanding. Their wish represents a great Wish for humankind. To me, this is the meaning of Hongan, Amida Buddha’s great wish for us.
I’d like to share a letter written by a young army officer near the end of World War II. On May 4, 1945, Corporal Nobuo Aihana took off from Chiran air base in Kyushu, Japan, for a special (suicide) attack (Kamikaze-tokkotai) near the island of Okinawa. He died in battle at age 18 years.
In a letter to his stepmother, Corporal Aihana wrote:
How are you? Thank you for what you’ve done for so long. You raised me since I was six years old. Although you’re my stepmother, I never felt mistreated the way people often think of stepmothers. You were a mother who looked after me with loving care, a kind mother, a precious mother. I was happy. But I never once called you "mother." I resolved many times to say the word, but I must’ve been weak-willed. Please forgive me. How sad you must have been. Now it’s time for me to say loudly: "Mom! Mom! Mom!"
This letter, along with Nobuo's scarf, military sword, and other items were kept together at the family’s Buddhist altar. Aki, his stepmother, considered the letter her most precious treasure.
Nobuo's brother Shunichi returned to Japan from China in June 1946 and learned of his younger brother's death. After reading the letter, Shunichi resolved to honor his brother's wish to treat his stepmother like his real mother.
If we think deeply and connect with voices from the past, then World War II doesn’t seem so long ago. Those mass shootings are not so distant. They involved people who are very much like us. They have something to teach us. We have a connection to them.
In this way, if we listen to the voices of people who have passed away, they help guide us. Their voices represent the Buddha’s voice, guiding us to the world of wisdom and compassion. In this way, we walk the Buddha’s path.
An international team of scientists shared the first image of a supermassive black hole on April 10th.
That image shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun. It is the hisotrical unveiling of the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow.
This black hole resides 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun.
If we say that our life’s starting point is a black hole. We can say that each life on earth has a history of 13.8 billion light-years behind it even though we haven’t been born yet.
Our parents and grandparents handed over the baton to us. We are also living our parent’s life.
The theme of 750th Shinran Shonin memorial service was “Now, life is living you.”
If we think of this big Life as an Ocean, then our individual life is a wave on it.
We are living in a big ocean and it is not separate from the wave, we are part of the ocean.
We won’t disappear when we die, we just return to the big wave of the Big Life.
The theme was “Now, life is living you.” It is not “we are live our own individual life.” You don’t own the life you are living. Regardless of whether we see it or not, regardless of whether we understand it or not, we are part of the Big Life and its history that goes back billions of years into the past.
The black hole, far far away, 55 million light-years from here, is connected to us. It is a part of us.
We can restate the theme “Now, life is living you,” as “Now, your parents’ life is living you” or “Your grandparents’ life is living you” or “Your great grandparents’ life is living you” or “Your ancestor’s life is living you”
“If you ate a tomato for breakfast then the tomato’s life is living you.”
Countless things sustain your life, our life. It is working now, working now to keep you alive. Long ago people called this working of the Big Life “Amida”.
Two Chinese characters
(April 14, 2019)
In Japan, the current big news is that “Japan has revealed the name of its next imperial era to be "Reiwa," set to begin May 1 as Crown Prince Naruhito is expected to take the throne.”
Reiwa is written with two kanji characters. While there was some deliberation over the exact meaning, the two characters that make up the new name, or the "gengo," translate roughly to "good fortune" and "peace" or "harmony,"
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said two Chinese characters was taken for the first time from an ancient Japanese book instead of from Chinese classics. He said it comes from a section about plum blossoms in “Manyoshu,” a poetry anthology from the 7th to 8th centuries, and it suggests that “culture is born and nurtured as the people’s hearts are beautifully drawn together.”
The imperial era name, or “gengo”, is used on documents, newspapers, calendars and coins. It is the way many Japanese count the years, although use of the Western calendar is becoming more widespread, and many use the two systems interchangeably.
ORIGINS OF GENGO Japan imported the imperial calendar system from China about 1,300 years ago. (Starting with the Meiji era (1868-1912), it adopted the practice of “one emperor, one era name.” Previously, era names were sometimes changed mid-reign, such as after disasters. )
There have been four era names in the modern period: Meiji, Taisho (1912-1926), Showa (1926-1989) and the current Heisei. Emperor Akihito is set to step down on April 30 in the first abdication of the throne in over 200 years.
I think you know that we have a Dharma name which is composed of two Chinese characters, like this imperial era name, Gengo”. This is a common way to make a name by combining two Chinese characters such as a person’s name, school name so on. Usually we put our wish on that name by using two Chinese characters. In Japan, when we introduce our name, people ask “how do you write it in Kanji, Chinese characters”
In the funeral service of our Shin tradition, we have a presentation of the Dharma name. Basically, we are supposed to get a Dharma name as a guide for our life at the confirmation ceremony. So we are supposed to have a Dharma name already when we die. An officiant introduces the dharma name at the funeral service. If the deceased person didn’t take the confirmation ceremony, then the officiant would give a new dharma name at the service.
By the way, I have received the question that “Should we call the service as a memorial service if we don’t have a casket.” The answer is no; we call it a funeral service only if it is officiated by Buddhist tradition.
That question came from Christian tradition. They call it a “memorial service” even if we don’t have the casket.
That is about how to call the rituals, so I actually don’t mind the name, but it seems like a few people are concerning about the name. So I am explaining it now.
In Shin tradition, we call it a “funeral service” lonly if we present the Dharma name at the service.
We present the Dharma name at the service of the first official service of the deceased person. Here in the US, a few people wish to have the pillow side service. Usually it is for close family, while the first official service is for everyone who have a connection with that person. That is the funeral service. But sometimes, we have a funeral service only for the immediate family.
The reason we present the dharma name at the first official service of the deceased person is that we, the survivors, will listen to and receive his or her life energy and wish into ourselves at the service. It is the instructive education and transference of love and energy working (回向) from deceased to us. The life wish of the deceased is being turned over to us and we are being immersed in it. We need to listen and receive it.
That is why we have a presentation of the Dharma name and it is different from other memorial services.
There is a wish that is being turned over to us for our lives. We have to listen to the wish. We cannot see the wish ourselves, and so we are given a name for it.
The meaning of the wish is put into words when we apply the two Chinese characters to a name.
We need quiet and peaceful time
Rev. Ryoko Osa
These days, the air is full of music, images, even 3-D movies that create our world. Such media are stimulating to people. But I heard some psychiatrists say that modern people living this busy and noisy life are losing it. They are losing patience and are becoming more vulnerable now than ever before. The reason is that we are receiving too much stimulation, too much information,too much noise. We need the peace and quiet that our temple offers.
Maybe you prefer to have a casual and friendly atmosphere. But in our life, there are times when we stand before something greater than ourselves, something infinite. At those times we stand in quiet awe before the sacred and the holy. The very quiet feeling it brings is not something we can create. We can only sit by and observe it. It is very simple and quiet. So when we are here in the temple, we want to try to calm down and reset our mind to the simple quiet mode. These quiet rituals are meant to refresh ourselves. You might call them a form of quiet meditation.
There was a Japanese comedy show called “Frankly speaking about temple life” in Japan. About 12 ministers were featured along with a group of comedians. In the show, there were some videos on temple life or Japanese history. And the ministers gave some comments. The ministers were from all denominations of Buddhism. My friend was among them.
Shin Buddhism is very different from the image, which ordinary people have of it. I often tell people that “Shin Buddhism is different from other forms of Buddhism. Other forms of Japanese Buddhism is blah blah blah ..but, Shin Buddhism is blah blah blah ..” So I thought the different ministers might affirm my assumption and have different explanations about Buddhism, because they come from different teachings. But to my surprise I found that the basic teaching is the same. To live simply rather than have desires, to know that everything is changing, to appreciate our life because we are supported by countless people and things. To respect something greater than ourselves, to stand in quiet awe before the infinite.
And so Japanese Buddhist teachings used to look quite different to me. After all there are very big differences among them. But now I see it is only our points of emphasis and choice of words that are different. Our original teaching is the basically the same.
I think all of Japanese Buddhism, as well as other religions, is useful for our daily life. We enter the temple grounds to attend the services leaving our busy and noisy world behind. As we sit through the services we can quietly reflect on our lives. As we stand in awe before the infinite we receive the power to live and are refreshed again for whatever tomorrow brings.
So everyone please come to our Sunday service to put aside your busy minds and feel the quiet atmosphere here.
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