March 2018 Message

Infinite Lives

“The Buddha’s light shines boundlessly and without hindrance over all the worlds in the ten directions. It is for this reason that he is called Amida (Amitabha). Again, Sariputra, the lives of the Buddha and the people of his land last for innumerable, unlimited and incalculable kalpas. It is for this reason that the Buddha is called Amida (Amitayus)”

After a meal at a Chinese Restaurant, I received the following fortune from a fortune cookie:


I wondered what could be my next job? What would I like to do as my next career? However, after thinking about “What would I be qualified to do,” I jokingly told the family that I was dining with, “Well, maybe I could be a garbage collector!” This made me think of how we treat trash in general and in particular how we treat trash at the temple.

A number of years ago, there had been a movement to get the citizens and households of Palo Alto to conserve and recycle. In fact, the temple was noticed for its efforts in a citywide newsletter. Here at the temple we have three separate dumpsters: A beige one for trash or landfill, a green one for compost. and a blue one for recyclables.

But there have been a number of times when I have gone out to throw out the trash, compost and recyclables into their corresponding dumpsters and found greasy pizza boxes, used and soiled paper plates and napkins in the blue recycle bin and plastic bottles in the beige landfill dumpster. So I fish out as much of the pizza boxes and paper plates and napkins along with some of the left over pizzas and put them in the green compost dumpster. I then fish out those water bottles, but before I can put them in the blue recycle dumpster, I have to empty some of the bottles that still have water in them.

That’s when I thought, people are just careless and lazy. Not only do they not sort the garbage, they don’t sort it correctly. For them, they treat trash just as something that is of no use to them anymore and needs to just be gotten rid of anyhow and in any way. It doesn’t make a difference to them. Getting rid of garbage is someone else’s job or responsibility.

Sometimes I see trash left on the tables at the shopping mall food court or parks. This is particularly frustrating when you’re looking for an empty table to eat your lunch. I don’t want to touch someone else’s trash. So instead we all look for a clean table instead. It is only when there is no other table that you will clean it up. Right? But perhaps we need to look at trash in another way.

One day, Rennyo the 8th head of our Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji tradition, was walking down a hallway when he spotted a scrap of paper lying on the floor. He picked it up and placing it between his palms in Gassho, he bowed to it respectfully and humbly as a show of respect. He then said, “We should treat even this piece of paper as if it comes from the Buddha.”

Rennyo understood that all things, a scrap of paper, a soda can or even a plastic water bottle are a teaching of the Buddha. They can all lead us to an understanding of wisdom and compassion. They are great teachers of the truth of interdependence. For example, Science now explains that the effects of plastic is unending. The plastic that we do not recycle does not decompose and vanish. It may get broken down into smaller particles, but these particles may end up in the ocean, which are then mistakenly eaten by plankton. Small fish eat plankton. Bigger fish eat small fish; we eat the big fish and then the chemicals of the plastic end up in our body system and create many health problems.

“To treat everything as if it comes from the Buddha,” is a tremendous teaching. As my senior colleague, Rev. Don Castro once explained, “To live is to live interdependently. To live interdependently is to live at the expense of other forms of life. It is not that we deserve what we receive. Consequently we should humbly treat with reverence even a scrap of paper and not waste it. To waste is to disregard its life for our own selfish reasons such as being lazy or careless.”

I think this teaching from Rennyo was at the very heart of a special project by our Hongwanji almost twenty years ago.

In preparation for the 750th Memorial service for Shinran Shonin in 2012, our mother Temple, the Nishi Hongwanji, began a ten-year renovation project in 1999 of the Go-Eido or The Founders Hall, which houses the life-size image of Shinran. In 2003, I happened to be in Kyoto and I was able to tour the progress of this project by climbing the scaffolding up to the roofline of the Goeido, some 75 feet high. What was unique about this project was that they recycled and re-used as much of the original materials of the original building. The clay used to plaster some of the walls some two hundred ago was re-mixed with new clay. Many of the original tiles were used with new replacement tiles to give the roof a salt-and-peppered-look. And it was discovered that many of the original timbers and pillars that had been standing for 400 years had inscriptions describing where, when and from whom they were donated.

Hongwanji realized the depth of the hearts of those who not only help build the actual Hall but also those who sacrificed and made donations of the building materials itself hundreds of years ago so that the teachings of Shinran Shonin could be propagated today. They restored the building by not taking lightly that heart by reusing as much of the original materials that they could. In other words, they truly respected and acknowledged the infinite lives of not only the people, but also of the trees and dirt as well. In this way, the Hongwanji is not here just for the present, but is truly a reflection of honoring the past for the sake of all lives to come in the future as well.

We often have heard that our Amida Buddha is the Buddha of Unobstructed Light and Infinite Life. The term Infinite Life does not mean just a life of eternity. I think it really refers to the infinite number of lives that allow each one of us to live.

Isn’t this how we should look at our lives as well? Usually we think that our lives consist of only our individual bodies and minds. We tend to think that our human life will last 80 or maybe 100 years if we are lucky. But that is only looking at our life in terms of “my” life. If instead, we look at our lives as being inter-dependent and is the culmination of all life that has been given to us from the past; something that we are to take care of in the present; a life that can be shared through others in the future, then our lives take on another dimension--not one just of lengthening, but also one of deepening. This is what I think is referred to as “Infinite Life.” This sharing of life is the core of the heart of compassion. It is recognizing that all things come from the Buddha. All life is interdependent. All things are manifesting Wisdom and Compassion. It is for this reason that it is called Amida’s Infinite Life.

So to help us recognize that even a scrap of trash should be treated as if it comes from the Buddha, we should do what we can to treat it with respect and honor by recycling and conserving as much as possible (and sorting them into the proper bins!) And if we are able to do this, I think we are living in complete accord with the heart of gratitude and appreciation for the interdependent life that we call Namo Amida Butsu.

Rev. Dean Koyama

10-year renovation project begun in 1999 of the Go-Eido or The Founders Hall