Reverend's Message - March 2017

"Sporting in the Forest"

Rev. Dean Koyama

And when they reach that Lotus-held world,
They immediately realize the body of suchness or dharma-nature.
Then sporting in the forest of blind passions, they manifest transcendent powers;
Entering the garden of birth-and-death, they assume various forms to guide others.
(Collected Works of Shinran, Shoshin Nembutsu Ge, page 71.)

We have been getting so much more rain than we have had the past four or five drought years now that many of the area reservoirs are full. I have been watching reports of the damage to the Oroville Dam caused by the water being released because Lake Oroville is so full due to these recent rains with more expected in the forecast. Although the dam itself is structurally sound, the spillways have eroded so much that over 180,000 people needed to be evacuated as a precaution. Let us hope that the engineers are able to fix the problems with the spillways so that all those who had to evacuate can return safely to their homes.

With the recent rains and moderate temperatures, I have a feeling that the plants and trees that were lying dormant during the winter are beginning to stir. At least that is what my allergies are telling me. Sometimes in the middle of the night I have a sneezing attack due to what must be my hay fever allergy. So spring must be right around the corner despite what Mr. Groundhog said.

As I think of spring, I think of my father. My father was a gardener in Sacramento. He worked usually six and a half days a week. Starting in 5th grade, as a young child, I had to go and help my dad on Fridays after school and all day Saturday. Actually, my dad was pretty smart in getting me to go to work with him. He had already been taking my older brother. And one morning I saw my dad fixing lunch to take with them to work. He made sandwiches and packed two 16 oz bottle of Pepsi: One for him and one for my brother. Well, naturally being the younger brother, I asked,
“Can I have a soda for lunch too?”
My father replied, “Well, you can, if you come and help work.”

The next Saturday, he made three sandwiches and packed three bottles and that is how I got started helping him gardening. And I did this all the way through high school and my first two years in college as well.

Shortly after I had moved to Seattle to start my career as a minister, we bought our first home in 1989. It was an older home that needed some work in a very wooded neighborhood. Soon after we had moved in, my father came up for a visit. Being a gardener, the first thing he did was to look at our yard. Carefully, he surveyed what was around, and what he needed. I had to drive him to all of the area nurseries to buy many plants and trees. Then I had to fit them into the back of a small Toyota Corolla hatchback and bring them home.

When my father began to work, I tried to be the dutiful son and help my father as he did his magic. I also hoped that maybe I could learn a few things along the way. As my father began, I asked him,
“Dad, do you have a plan of what you’re going to do?”
“No,” was his detailed reply.
“Well, Dad, do you have a design to work from?”
“No.”
“Well, Dad, how will you know when you’re done?
“When I’m finished, that’s when I’m done.”
I ceased asking any more questions and just tried not to get in his way.

Just to make me feel helpful, he would give me a few tidbits of work here and there. “Dig here.” he would say, and I would dig, not knowing how deep nor how wide, wondering what would fill in the hole.

Somehow by the end of the day, my father had created a beautiful Japanese Garden in the front yard complete with rocks, gravel, wooden logs, moss and a stone lantern.

And my father continued for the next couple of years to come up and visit. But every time he came up he would ask for my pruning shears and he would go out and prune and clip the trees and bushes and take care of his garden. My father actually built gardens for all of my brothers and sister.

Then unexpectedly my father died at the age of 65 in December of 1991. The following spring I remember going out to the yard wondering, “How am I going to take care of it now?” I didn’t know how to prune the bushes and pine trees to keep them looking like a Japanese garden.

I stood there helpless. , I thought about how I wished my Dad could come up and do his magic for me once again. I wish that I could watch him in action as every movement was part of a dance in his grand scheme of placing the trees and plants in its proper place. And then I remembered what my father said when he was building the garden,
“When I’m finished that’s when I’m done.”

Taking the pruning shears in my hands, I snipped here and then I snipped there. And after awhile I stopped and I said, “I’m done.” The way I had pruned the bushes and shrubs may not have been exactly the same way as my father would have done it, but I certainly felt that he was there by my side helping me. And as I stood back to look at the garden that my father gave to me, I realized that he had given me a lot more than just the garden.

Vasubandhu, the second of the Seven Masters of our Jodo Shinshu Tradition described Five Gates of Merit. The first four deal with the practices of Revering, Praising, Aspiring and Meditating. The Fifth Gate of Merit is to bestow merit to others. Vasubandhu equates this activity as Sporting in the Forest or Dancing in the Garden since this means to work for the benefit of others. The activity when one benefits others is not toilsome like “Work,” but rather it is like playing and frolicking in a forest or park. Shinran Shonin uses this concept by Vasubandhu to describe the compassionate activity of those who try to guide others toward enlightenment.

As I reflect upon my Father’s activity in making a garden, truly it was not work. It was something he enjoyed doing because he knew others would also enjoy the fruits of his labor. He did not do it to satisfy himself, but rather he did it because it came naturally and easily to him as if he was playing in the forest.

However, as Shinran expresses in his Shoshin-ge, when a person realizes the supreme enlightenment and becomes a Buddha, he possesses unlimited powers and works in a variety of ways to guide others to this same awakening. I will try to remember the natural compassionate activity of my father and the gardens that he created over the many years. Each garden has changed as the plants and trees age, but the purpose will always be the same. They are a reminder that there is greater beauty in our lives when we think of others. That is truly the Buddha mind. To awaken to this mind is to realize the compassion that we have already received and will continue to receive all through our lives. To truly understand this is to awaken to the reality of Amida Buddha's great vow of wisdom and compassion. And then Namo Amida Butsu can be said freely and naturally; just as if we were playing or “sporting” in a forest.

Happy Spring Ohigan, (Ah-choo),
Namo Amida Butsu
Rev. Dean Koyama