Reverend's Message - May 2016
"Birthday and Memorial Days"
Rev. Dean Koyama
In the months of April and May, we observe two very important birthdays. In April we observe Hanamatsuri to mark the birth of Prince Siddhartha who later becomes the Buddha. In May we observe Go-tan-e the birthday of Shinran Shonin, who helped us understand the teachings of the Buddha through the Nembutsu. Their birthdays help remind us that as anyone who has experienced the birth of a child, it is truly a remarkable and miraculous event. Without a doubt, when one experiences the birth of a newborn, one is filled with a joy that is second to none. And in our western culture, birthdays are celebrated with great fanfare, holidays, parties, cake and presents for the birthday person.
But if you think about it, on the day you were born, you really didn’t have much to do or say about your birth. Most of us probably don’t even remember being born, but I bet our parents do, especially our mother. It was our parents, who got together some 9 months earlier and had a good time. Then it was our mom who had to carry an extra load that kept getting heavier and bigger until …POP!! Out we came.
So I think we need to look at this idea of giving gifts from a Buddhist perspective, I think, it should be the other way around. It shouldn’t be that the birthday person gets gifts on their birthday because they really had no choice in the matter at all. It should be that the birthday person gives gifts back to those to repay a debt of gratitude for that lucky day their parents chose to have some fun and gave us life.
In our Buddhist culture, there is more emphasis on the death anniversaries. Hoonko the annual memorial service for Shinran is considered by the Hongwanji to be the most important observance of the year. Obon is the observance honoring long past ancestors along with the recent passing of loved ones, culminating in festivals and Obon dancing. But today, our current society does not hold death with the same regard as birth. We tend to avoid the topic of death; we tend to negate it. At funerals and memorial services we emphasize and “celebrate the life” of a person. We value happiness and try to deny or mask the true natural emotion of sadness and grief when we experience the loss of a loved one. Yet, the Buddha explained that the only cure for death is not to be born. This, of course, is impossibility. In other words, birth and death are not two separate entities but rather they are ultimately the front and back of a single sheet of paper called life.
Perhaps that is the reason in many Asian cultures, the importance of a whole lifetime also recognizes the end not just the beginning. Certainly birth represents the potential for great things to happen. But the death of a person marks the achievements accomplished in one’s entire life span.
And that brings us to the question that I have been posing for the past several months now: “How do we want to live this precious life that we have received?”
For me, Shinran answers this question in one of his poems:
Having met with the Power of the Primal Vow,
One's life does not pass in vain.
Although the muddy waters of passions are not set apart,
It is completely fulfilled with the ocean of virtuous treasure.
Shinran was orphaned as a small child and entered the Buddhist monastery at the age of 9. For 20 years on Mt. Hiei he endured the strictest and most severe religious practices that any monk could undertake. Yet he felt like he was banging his head against the wall and was not making any progress toward the attainment of enlightenment. At the point of utter frustration and desperation, he climbed down from the mountain monastery and happened to have met a teacher named Honen who taught of the single path of Nembutsu. Through Honen, Shinran encountered the teaching of Amida’s Primal Vow of infinite wisdom and compassion, which changed his Life.
Through Honen's guidance, Shinran was able to achieve his spiritual peace, and Shinran spent a lifetime sharing his understanding with others. Shinran could have said that since he attained the way, that he himself, would be the sole reason for others to attain the same spiritual peace. Instead, with his deep insight and awareness of the infinite karmic causes and conditions, he attributed everything to his meeting with Honen. In a poem written in his latter years, Shinran writes this:
Through countless kalpas and innumerable lives,
We did not know the strong condition of liberation;
Were it not for our teacher Honen,
This present life, also, would pass in vain.
Shinran was deeply aware of the indebtedness that he owed to others. "If you should come to realize this practice and Shinjin, rejoice at the conditions from the distant past that have brought it about."
Through his association with Honen, Shinran met certain adverse situations such as the Persecution of Nembutsu as an independent path to enlightenment, Honen was exiled to the remote area of Shikoku, and some of his disciples were beheaded. Others were imprisoned. Shinran was stripped of his priesthood and exiled to Echigo, now know as Niigata, a Northern province facing the Japan Sea known for its bitter cold winters. Yet Shinran said, if it wasn't for his association with Honen, he never would have been exiled to this remote area of Japan and had the opportunity to spread Nembutsu with those people. For Shinran, the turning point in his life was this chance encounter with Honen.
In Japanese, there is a saying, "Sodeburi au mo tasho no en- meaning: A chance meeting such as just brushing the sleeves of another is due to infinitely many karmic conditions being just so."
Shortly after I arrived in Kyoto, Japan to study to become a minister, a friend of mine took me around Kyoto to become acquainted with the city. He took me to a festival in Arashiyama. There must have been some 30,000 Japanese people lining both banks of the river watching these ancient boats with people dressed in historic court robes, writing haiku poetry and placing the poems in the water. As we walked along, I kept thinking I couldn’t get separated from my friends because I may not be able to find them again among all the 30,000 people who all looked the same. I just happened to look up at some people walking in the other direction and I caught the eye of this elderly man walking toward me. I kept thinking that he looked just like one of our old family friends from Sacramento. As we approached each other, we both stopped with our mouths wide open in astonishment. It was he. Who would have thought that we would run into each other some 6000 miles from home, in Arashiyama among 30,000 other people. Imagine if I had just arrived 5 minutes earlier or later, would I have been able to meet with them, would I have been able to even spot them in the crowd where the majority of the people looked the same? What are the chances of that occurring?
To meet with another is truly a matter of great importance. Realizing the great improbability of it occurring, all the more so should make us cherish each meeting that we encounter. The karmic conditions and cause that have enabled us to live the way that we have is truly infinite. "Difficult is it to receive life in human form, now we have received it. The chance meeting with some family friends 6000 miles from home is difficult to fathom. But how much more so are the continued meetings of our loved ones who we may see every day, every hour for twenty years, fifty years or eighty-five years? To have received life from another, to touch the lives of others is truly an ocean of virtuous treasure that should be cherished. By living your life to its fullest potential, by remembering your debt of gratitude for the infinite causes and conditions this is meeting with the world of Truth, the world of the Working of the Primal Vow, the world of Nembutsu. In this way, both the issues of birth and death are resolved and more importantly we are able to live our lives with deep meaning filled with wisdom and compassion. These are the lessons that we can learn not only from the birth and death of Shinran, but through the sum totality of his entire life.
Rev. Dean Koyama