Reverend's Message - November 2016
Rev. Dean Koyama
Difficult is it to receive a human life, now we are
living it. Difficult is it to hear the Dharma of the
Buddha, yet now we hear it. If we do not cross over to the
Truth in this present life, in what life shall we cross over?
Greetings everyone, I am writing this article just a few day before our Palo Alto Buddhist Temple Tour Group leaves for Japan. As you may know, on June 6 of 2014, the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-haTradition was transmitted to our new 25th Head Priest- Sennyo Monshu, Kojun Ohtani. His father, Koshin Ohtani took on the position of Monshu in 1977 at the age of 31 serving for 37 years. The Jodo Shinshu community is able to participate in a series of services commemorating this transition and our opportunity to witness the public ceremony will take place on October 21st.
But by the time you may be reading this, we will be on the verge of Thanksgiving.
As I think about the origins of Thanksgiving, certain idyllic images dominate although recent scholarship has shown that it may not have been as harmonious as I may have learned when I was an elementary school student. Nonetheless, I picture a warm autumn day, a sense of harmony between foreigner and native, and the land being smooth and fertile. But of course, this represents only half the true picture. Many of the Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic Ocean seeking freedom from the oppression to practice their religious faith died. Almost half of the 100 who completed the journey died that first winter. Not knowing the climate, they had to deal with the extremes of Mother Nature. Yet despite the struggles, or perhaps because of it, the Pilgrims took time out after the autumn harvest to give thanks for what they had rather than focus on what they did not.
Most likely, the first Thanksgiving was a simple, perhaps even a spur of the moment observance as it is customary for a people of religious faith to be aware and give thanks to the many causes and conditions which have allowed one to live. It wasn't until 1776 when the Continental Congress formally set aside one day a year for the duration of the Revolutionary War to boost the morale. George Washington declared a Thanksgiving observance in 1789 and 1795 but it still was not a permanent yearly observance. Almost a century later, during a war which put neighbors on opposing sides, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day in 1863 in an attempt to bring the North and South together. On the brink of another war in 1941 and not having fully recovered from the Great Depression, Congress finally and officially declared the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. It is interesting to note the course of the development of the Thanksgiving observance took place during times of crisis and the future was uncertain.
At our monthly Shotsuki Monthly Memorial Service, I am trying to make it a practice to read the Threefold Refuge. Some of us may know this reading as the Three Treasures as it has undergone a few changes. Fundamentally, the first two sentences begin with: Difficult is it to receive a human life, now we are living it. Difficult is it to hear the Dharma of the Buddha, yet now we hear it.
A statistics professor once described the probability of being born as a human as the chance of rolling a pair of dice and getting the number 7, a thousand times in a row.
In other words, the probability of us to be born as a human being is astronomically against the odds. Yet, here we have received human life. It is the result of the infinite causes and conditions being just so. Some of these causes and conditions we may be able to identify, but simply because of the multitudes, it is beyond our human comprehension. Perhaps for this reason, some people may attribute this occurrence to God or a divine being. Others may attribute them to chance, luck or destiny. In Buddhism, it is not about attributing the responsibility of these events to a particular power or being, but rather simply being aware of the improbability becoming probable. Realizing the great improbability of it occurring, all the more so should make us cherish this gift of live that we have received.
About ten years ago I attended a World Buddhist Women’s Conference in Hawaii. Over 4000 people coming from Japan, South America, Canada, Hawaii, and the Mainland US attended the conference. It was packed with excellent speakers and panelist. To hear the dharma from these world-renowned speakers was truly a once in a lifetime occurrence but the most profound and valuable lessons that I heard that weekend came from a completely different and unexpected teacher. It came from a taxi driver.
After the conference, the BWA ladies, who accompanied me to the conference, and I needed to get from our hotel to the airport. So we arranged to have a cab pick us up. There were 4 of us: me and three other little ladies. Of course being the gentleman that I am, I let the ladies get into the cab first. They all dashed into the back of the cab forcing me to sit up front with the taxi driver.
After telling the driver our destination of the airport, I notice that he had a little picture of the Buddha on his dashboard.
So I pointed to it and said, “Buddha?”
He smiled and said with a Vietnamese accent said, “I like the Buddha very much.”
I said, “You do? I am a Buddhist minister.”
He pointed to a book written in Vietnamese that he called the Buddhist Bible. He said that he is trying to study and learn about Buddhism and he wanted me to quiz him on the important dates.
I asked him: When was the Buddha born? (April 8th) When did he attain enlightenment (Dec. 8th) and when did the Buddha die? (February 15th). He got all the dates right. He was so animated and full of life. I asked him,
“How old were you when you came to Hawaii?”
He said he came when he was 14.
I then asked him, “How old are you now?”
He replied, “49.”
I exclaimed, “49???!!! I’m 49, too, but you look so much younger like 26. You could be my son!”
With a big grin on his face he said,
“It because I love life and I love the Buddha’s teaching.” He continued, “You know what I like most about the Buddha’s teachings? I like the part where the Buddha said, ‘Don’t believe in the teachings just because I said so. You have to try to discover the truth yourself.’”
We arrived at the airport, and I commented how quickly we had gotten there. And this cab driver said, “It is because we had good conversation. We talked about the Buddha’s teachings so time goes by fast.”
As I thought about his comments, I realized what a tremendous teacher this taxi driver was. He was very profound. When we are engaged in something we enjoy, time seems to go by very quickly. When we are not engaged, time seems to drag on forever. It is important for us to be engaged, become connected, be involved and live this life.
Hard is it to be born into human life. Yet now we are living it.
The karmic conditions and causes that have enabled us to receive our human life are truly unfathomable. But how much more so are the continued meetings with loved ones who we may see every day, every hour for twenty years, fifty years or eighty-five years? To have received life and to touch the lives of others is an ocean of virtuous treasure that should be truly cherished. By living our lives to its fullest potential, by remembering our debt of gratitude for the infinite causes and conditions this is crossing over and realizing the world of Truth- the world of the Working of the Primal Vow- the world of Nembutsu. Thus we should not sit back idly wasting this precious time. We should engage and enjoy with a deep heart of gratitude, this wonderful life that we have received.
That is Thanksgiving.