May 2020 Message

Life to its Fullest
by Reverend Dean Koyama

It is saddening that so many people, both young and old, men and women, have died this year and last. But the Tathāgata taught the truth of life’s impermanence for us fully, so you must not be distressed by it.

I, for my own part, attach no significance to the condition, good or bad, of persons in their final moments. People in whom shinjin is determined do not doubt, and so abide among the truly settled. For this reason their end also—even for those ignorant and foolish and lacking in wisdom—is a happy one.
(Shinran, Lamp for the Latter Ages, Mattōshō, Letter #6, CWS. P. 531.)

As of this writing, we are approaching close to 750,000 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 virus in the United States and 2.2 million world-wide. There have been over 150,000 people who have died from this virus in the world and the United States leads the world in deaths approaching 40,000. Over 20 million US citizens have filed for unemployment due to the stay-at-home orders mandated by the state and local governments. And now there are people protesting these same stay-at-home orders, which were done to protect the public health and safety for all, because they feel that it impinges upon their own personal liberties and freedoms. It is truly a chaotic time for all of us. It is no wonder that there has been an increase in mental stress and anxiety.

Shinran, the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition of Buddhism also lived during a very turbulent time in 13th century Japan. It was a period of great unease as there was a clash and transition from the ruling aristocracy class to the samurai warriors. Among the samurai, different clans were fighting with each other for domination of the whole country. This was also a period of great earthquakes leveling towns, fires destroying villages, famine, drought, and disease. Life, itself, was uncertain at best.

Shinran had witnessed these calamities. When Shinran was 88 years old, he sent a letter to one of his followers, Jōshin-bō. He begins with the lines that I placed at the very start of my article. Without the aid of modern medicine, nutrition, science, farming and technology, Shinran lived to the age of 90. That is a truly remarkable achievement since the average life span of a person during that time was probably only 40 to 45 years at the most. So in one sense, Shinran was fortunate to have two lifetimes worth of living. But in those lifetimes, Shinran must have been saddened by the loss of so many of his family, friends and followers.

Although it appears that Shinran dismisses these tragedies because the Buddha had taught us of the truth of impermanence of all life simply as a matter of fact, in reality, he is encouraging each one of us to truly become aware of our own mortality and to settle the important question of: “Are we truly living our life to the fullest potential?” Here, living our lives to the fullest potential doesn’t mean trying to satisfy our every wish and whim. It is not about satisfying our own personal demands as those who were protesting the stay-at-home orders. Rather it is about being aware that this moment will never occur again and all the more reason we need to realize the depth and limitations of our ego passions. And as such we are totally undeserving of it, yet we are embraced within the infinite causes and conditions of the kindness, wisdom and compassion of life itself, that we call Amida Buddha. Those who truly awaken to this realization are in Shinran’s words, People in whom shinjin is determined.

Similarly, Takeko Kujo also witnessed and experienced great tragedies in her lifetime. She was born in 1887 as the second daughter of the 21st Monshu or head priest of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha tradition. Although born in an aristocratic environment, she first attended school where she studied with both rich and poor students. Takeko later married a man of Nobility. However having been raised in a Buddhist environment she continued to advocate for the under privileged. She helped to sponsor many humanitarian efforts following the Great Kanto earthquake which destroyed much of the Tokyo region in 1923. Later she continued to work in the neglected parts of the Tokyo slums helping the poor, the injured and the orphaned. While doing so, she contracted blood poisoning and passed away in 1928 at the age of 40.

In an essay, she writes,

When compared to the distant origins of the natural world, the story of human life is short and fleeting. And on this brief page of history, though our teeming numbers are like countless grains of millet, we are no more than a single form of existence.

Both Shinran and Takeko Kujo are encouraging us to reflect deeply upon the realities with which we find ourselves living and to find that which will give meaning and purpose so that we can live a full live, whether it is to last only 40 years or, if we may be so lucky, even 90 years.

During this time of uncertainty, we are witnessing many catastrophic events and milestones. We are witnessing an ever-increasing number of those contracting a potentially dangerous virus. We continue to see the number of fatalities rise every day throughout the world that we have not seen since an outbreak of a major war. And yet at the same time, we are witnessing those who are truly rising to the occasion, at the risk of their own individual lives. They are helping those truly in need. Of course these are the workers on the front line: the doctors, nurses, hospital janitors, care givers, first responders, police, fire, paramedics and sanitation workers. But they also include the farmers, the migrant field pickers, grocery workers, those who make cloth masks, the restaurant people providing meals, the delivery people, the volunteers at the food banks and I am sure that I am leaving out countless others. For those of us who are fortunate to be able to stay-at-home, we may think that we are isolated and alone. But the reality is that there are still so many who are working for our benefit so that we can stay home. How can we not do our part to help, to repay a debt of gratitude? Perhaps we may not have the skill set, talent or expertise to be out and about, but staying-at-home is our way of contributing to stopping the spread of the Covid 19 virus.

One of the very last poems Shinran had written is what we call Ondokusan. Because it is one of the very last things he had written, I like to look at it as a message that he wanted his follower to remember.

Nyorai daihi no ondoku wa
Mi o ko ni shi temo hōzubeshi,
Shi shū chishiki no ondoku mo
Hone o kudakitemo shasubeshi

Such is the benevolence of Amida’s great compassion,
That we must strive to return it, even to the breaking of our bodies:
Such is the benevolence of the masters and true teachers,
That we must endeavor to repay it, even to our bones becoming dust.
(Shozomatsu Wasan, CWS, p. 412.)

To repay a great debt of gratitude begins with first becoming aware of all the wonderful treasures that we have been enjoying in our lives. To live our lives to its fullest potential, is to realize that we are embraced with the infinite kindness and compassion of others. For that we must try to be mindful of living, not just for our sake, but by repaying our debt of gratitude by extending wisdom, kindness and compassion to others as well.

Rev. Dean Koyama