Reverend's Message - December 2016
Where there's smoke, there's a...smoke detector?
Rev. Dean Koyama
Often overlooked when we get into the month of December is an important holiday for us. That Holiday is Bodhi Day where we pause and reflect upon the day that Prince Siddhartha Gautama finally achieved attaining Enlightenment some 2500 years ago. Of all the important observances, including Hanamatsuri, if it were not for this one event, we would not be here today. Usually we call Hanamatsuri as the birthday of the Buddha but in reality it is the birthday of Prince Siddhartha Gautama who later becomes the Enlightened Sakyamuni Buddha. December 8th is the day we observe that Prince Siddhartha actually became Sakyamuni Buddha. At the heart of his understanding is a transformation, the changing, of greed, anger, and ignorance into an awakening experience. In other words the essence of all Buddhism is to turn delusions into enlightenment.
Some years ago while we were still living in Tacoma, we had to make a quick unexpected trip to and from Sacramento in a span of four days. It took approximately 14 hours each way, driving virtually non-stop one-way and I was the only driver.
For our return, we left Sacramento around 9:00 AM and arrived back home around 11:30 PM. Much of the time was spent in the car and so by the time that we got back, we were all very exhausted. On top of that, some of us caught colds during this short trip including me. After getting the boys to bed, I took some cold medicine to help with my stuffiness and runny nose. The cold medicine and the exhaustion from the trip put me to sleep quickly. In fact I must have been sound asleep. However, around 1:30 in the morning, I heard a loud “BEEP.”
I was awakened so suddenly that I wondered if I had just been dreaming. I immediately put my head back down on the pillow and went back to sleep. A few minutes later, I heard it again....”BEEP.” Now I knew I wasn’t dreaming. But what was that sound? Where was it coming from? Could it be someone’s watch? Again, I heard it. I then realized that it was a smoke detector.
Remember, I’m totally exhausted from driving to and from Sacramento, a total of 1500 miles in a span of four days; I had taken some cold medicine with an antihistamine to help me sleep; and this smoke detector is waking me up in the middle of the night because the back-up battery is running out of energy. I decided that maybe, if I could just get back to sleep before it beeped again, I wouldn’t hear it through the night and then I'll change the battery in the morning. So I put my head down and pretended that I didn’t hear it.
A BEEP sounded. Okay, it will be quiet for the next few minutes, maybe I can fall asleep while it is quiet and then I won’t hear it again until I’m ready to wake up.
“OKAY, OKAY YOU WIN!!” I muttered to myself as I realized that I was going to have to get up. Again, I knew the exact location of the smoke detector that was toying with me, keeping me up. This smoke detector was the one that I always wondered “How would I ever change the battery,” because it was located in the front entryway of our two story house...20 feet high! This night would be the night when I would find out.
As I lay in my soft warm bed, I realized that I would have to go to the garage, move the car out and get the extension ladder.
I went to the garage in my pajamas and realized that I couldn’t get the ladder in through the garage entry to the house. Instead I would have to carry the ladder out of the garage to the front door through the wind and the rain. As I reached for the front door knob, I discovered that I forgot to unlock the front door. Once again, I had to run back into the garage through the wind and rain in my pajamas and go through the house to unlock the front door at 1:45 in the morning.
As I mentioned earlier, the smoke detector is located about twenty feet above in the entryway of the house. Out of curiosity I checked the extension ladder to see how high it would get. 16 feet! That’s if it is standing straight and standing on the top most rung. It doesn’t mean that it’s 16 feet while it is leaning against the wall. I also noticed a yellow caution warning saying, “Do not stand above this rung,” which was placed two to three rungs from the highest rung. That meant I had to make up the distance of at least 4 feet plus. I had to still be within an arm’s reach once I got to the top of the ladder leaning against the wall.
As I climbed up the wobbly ladder without anyone spotting or holding it steady, I remembered that I have a fear of heights. “I don’t believe this is happening. Of all the times that the smoke detector could be asking to have its battery changed it had to be after I had driven 750 miles straight.” Plus, “I have a cold; I don’t feel good, and I had to go out into the rain in my pajamas.” I grumbled and complained.
For the next few minutes, my mind is full of sadistic things that I could do to a smoke detector. “Let’s throw it in the fire place and see if it can detects its own smoke,” I visualize.
It was only after I had changed the battery, climbed down the ladder and returned to the comfort of my warm bed that I thought about the purpose of a smoke detector. It is to detect smoke from a fire inside the house. It is to warn me in case of a fire so that I may escape safely. In other words, the smoke detector is working for my own benefit. It works while I am sleeping. It works while I am awake. It works while I am at home or while I am gone from the house. It is working not only for me but also for the benefit of my family or whoever may be in the house. It is making no distinction when or who it warns.
Despite doing what it is supposed to do, despite working for my benefit, when it needed my attention and care, what did it get? It got my complaints, my anger, and my resentment for its inconvenience. The beeping from the smoke detector in the middle of the night, not only revealed the shallowness of myself, it reminded me that despite the unending working of my ego-centered self, the smoke detector continues to work for my benefit. My complaints, my anger, my resentment are all delusions. They are the cause of my suffering. But at the same time, they are the cause for me to reflect and realize how fortunate I am to have a smoke detector. This is turning delusion into enlightenment. It may not occur immediately. Certainly while I was at the top of the ladder muttering and grumbling and ready to just bash that stupid smoke detector, I wasn’t enlightened.
But upon reflection afterwards, I, at least, came to an understanding.
For one who truly does not deserve to be saved, the smoke detector works to save me. The “BEEP” in the middle of the night that woke me from my blissful slumber is like the Name of Amida Buddha. The “Namo Amida Butsu” is a call warning me of the working of my ego-centered self. At the same time it is the call, a voice of reassurance that it is ceaselessly working for my safety and concern. Truly I don’t deserve to be protected; yet I am protected.
And so, although Bodhi Day may get lost in the grandeur of the “other” holidays in the month of December, we who claim to be Buddhist should take special note of this day. Truly without Prince Siddhartha attaining Enlightenment and sharing his teachings with others, we would not have Buddhism, we would not be here in the temple. It is through the teachings of the Buddha that we can come to appreciate this life just as it is. To turn delusion into enlightenment is a wonderful gift that we have received from the Buddha.
During this time of the year, let us be reminded that perhaps we may not deserve the love and kindness that embraces our lives. Perhaps we may not deserve all the presents that we hope to receive. Yet in spite of all that, we are continually embraced within the endless understanding and care, the infinite wisdom and compassion, which enhances and enriches our lives. We can only respond then in humble gratitude.
"BEEP." Namo Amida Butsu. Happy Bodhi Day.