Reverend's Message - August 2016
"What will makes us so "Great"?"
Rev. Dean Koyama
Self-Benefit and benefiting others having been perfectly fulfilled as the Pure Land.
The compassionate means skillfully adorned to lead us to take refuge,
Cannot be grasped by the mind or by words,
So take refuge in the Inconceivable Honored One.
Shinran, Jodo Wasan #37
This summer is flying by. Already we are in the midst of August, which means that in a few months, we will be electing a brand new President of the United States of America. Both the Republican and Democratic Conventions will soon begin. The campaigning is in full swing and I am certain that mud will be slung in all directions. More than ever, it seems that we must choose a side. But by so doing, we are seeing that when one party tries to enact a law or change, there is vehement opposition and it gets defeated and nothing gets done. Our government is in a stalemate and we have become a polarized society. We are a nation that is becoming more and more divided rather than “United.”
Not only is this happening in the government and political circles but also can be seen in the very societies where we live. Recently we have witnessed the tragic shooting of black citizens by police officers. Then we witnessed the tragedy in Dallas where one gunman was motivated and took it upon himself to avenge this wrong by tragically killing white police officers. We have people who come out to protest the killings of these black citizens under the theme of “Black Lives Matter.” And then we have others who come out to show their support for the police. I am in complete agreement with the comedian and news commentator, Trevor Noah who has recently pointed out: "You know, the hardest part of having a conversation surrounding police shootings in America, it always feels like in America, it's like if you take a stand for something, you automatically are against something else. But with police shootings, it shouldn't have to work that way. For instance, if you're pro-Black Lives Matter, you're assumed to be anti-police, and if you're pro-police, then you surely hate black people. When in reality, you can be pro-cop and pro-black, which is what we should all be."
With these recent events in the news, it truly is a troubling time and the need for wise and compassionate leadership is so crucial.
The other part to this is the emphasis on making America great. Again, I think this is a wonderful sentiment, but I have to ask, “What does it mean to be Great?” Is it to try to regain our economic prosperity where we can be lavished with every luxury imaginable? Is it to be able to become so independent that we are not in want of anything from anybody? Is it to flourish and enjoy a carefree life? By “Making America great” are we willingly and purposefully doing so at the expense of others? Is it to show that we have the military capability to blow up any and every country or region that may pose a threat? Does being great mean that we can have the economic structure in place to withstand any outside influence while others see the value of their currency fall to zero? Does being great mean that you are at the top looking down on everyone else? Does being great mean that you are alone?
If I may, I would like to provide an interpretation of what “Great” means in Buddhism.
Several hundreds of years after the historical Sakyamuni Buddha died, Buddhism divided into two major streams of thought. The older version used to be called Hinayana in Japanese, which later became Therevada Buddhism. This is the Buddhism that went in the southern direction of Asia toward Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand and many other Southeast Asian countries. It can be referred to as the Path of the Sages and it emphasizes the hard work of the individual in reaching nirvana or enlightenment. In this school of Buddhism, the historical Sakyamuni Buddha is considered to be a great teacher and one strives to be like him, following his lifestyle and rules of conduct in a monastery. They live separately from the mundane or lay or householder life.
The newer school is called Mahayana Buddhism. In Mahayana, the historical Buddha is revered for what he was able to accomplish, however, there is the thought that there are infinite Buddhas. While the Therevada school is thought to be conservative, the Mahayana school is said to follow the spirit or intent of the Buddha. And that spirit or intent is based upon Compassion. If truly moved by compassion, can one become Enlightened when all other beings are still suffering in delusions? Wouldn’t a truly compassionate person who is capable of becoming a Buddha sacrifice or postpone his attainment until all others also were able to become Buddha as well? A being with such a compassionate heart is called a Bodhisattva.
Let’s examine the terms Hinayana and Mahayana. Hina means small or little and yana means vehicle or vessel like a ship. Therefore Mahayana means great or large vessel. Because of the emphasis on enlightenment for only one’s self, all you need is a small boat. But if you are trying to help all beings reach enlightenment you need a large ship. If I may generalize, and I don’t mean to offend or degrade another’s religious tradition, I am just using this as an example. We all know the story of Noah’s ark? Noah built his ship, which was gigantic. He was tasked to gather all the different species of beings on the earth, but he was limited on the number of living beings as he could only take two of each species and of those two, one had to be male and the other had to be female. This meant that hundreds and thousands of others of the same species would not be able to make it. Even Noah’s ark would be considered Hinayana because not all beings could get on board. For the Mahayana, no one would be left behind.
The Mahayana understanding of compassion is based around the idea of Jiri-rita 自利利他 to benefit one’s self by benefiting others. This would be in contrast to jiri-riji 自利利自 to benefit one’s self by benefiting one’s self. For Shinran, in the wasan quoted at the beginning, the Self-benefit refers to the Bodhisattva Dharmakara becoming Amida Buddha. Dharmakara Bodhisattva was only able to become Amida Buddha after fulfilling the vow of having all sentient beings without exception realize birth in the Pure Land and thus also guaranteed their eventual enlightenment. Thus Dharamkara Bodhisattva benefits when all sentient beings benefit.
So if the United States of America were to become “Great” once again, my hope and dream would be that “Great” is defined in a similar way as the Great is in Mahayana. In other words, America would not only prosper by itself, but it would prosper while watching the rest of the world do the same. This may be far-fetched and perhaps seemingly improbable. But I have to have hope that it is possible. And the way that I think it is possible and attainable is by remembering the Buddha’s compassionate heart and following his intent and spirit of Jiri-rita. We should also be reminded that as human beings we all aspire to live a life of peace and prosperity, free of fear and discrimination. What makes us truly human is recognizing that we are indeed and in fact, dependent upon each other. We need each other. We need to foster and nurture that human-to-human relationship with a simple gesture of making eye-to-eye contact and saying “Hello” as we pass each other walking along the street, coming out to help at Obon, or just waking up from our night’s sleep. We need to acknowledge that we are all a living, breathing human being with simple acts of kindness. And possibly, in this way it does not become a matter of us vs. them, and instead becomes a matter of we.
Rev. Dean Koyama