Too Many Distractions

In the May issue of the auto club magazine, Westways, there’s an article about road safety in Sweden. It seems that the Swedes are finding ways to reduce traffic-related deaths, which is also relevant to us, given the high mortality rate on our roads and our dependence on cars here in California.

In essence, the Swedish government has decided to focus its efforts on eliminating collisions that lead to serious injuries and fatalities rather than trying to spread its resources to mitigate all infractions. Fender benders are going to happen no matter how careful a driver might be. However, studies show that ninety per cent of accidents are caused by human factors such as speeding, inattention, and intoxication, all of which are avoidable. We know the rules when we get behind the wheel and we know what the consequences can be, but when the phone rings, how do we react? It’s difficult to focus all of our senses all of the time. Have you ever missed a road sign while you were adjusting something in your car?

While we have devices like laws, seat belt requirements, tickets and other penalties to keep us safe and deter bad driving behaviour, all of these depend on us heeding them. We know that they exist for our benefit, but it isn’t always convenient and there are so many things to do besides focusing on staying alive. We need a little help.

In Sweden, not only do they rely on legislators to encourage people to drive safely, but they also involve engineers and city planners. Speed bumps make people slow down and pay attention. Roundabouts are found to be far better than four-way traffic lights because running red lights results in impacts that cause drastically more fatalities and serious injuries than accidents caused by merging. Drivers are even warned of upcoming speed cameras because the point isn’t to increase revenues but to get people to slow down. Safety experts are working with car manufacturers to deal with accident-causing smart-phone usage and some school buses will not start until the driver blows into a dashboard Breathalyzer. The article mentions how costly all of these measures are, especially given that they wouldn’t be necessary if everyone just paid attention to their driving.

In a similar way, people often observe that the dharma makes sense to them when they hear the messages, and they can understand how they might find lasting peace of heart and peace of mind and really flourish if they followed the teachings. But somehow, the moment they leave the hondo, everything goes out the window and their minds are generally on a million other things. We have so many distractions in our lives, whether we’re driving or walking or sitting or even trying to sleep. Add modern technology and the distractions at our fingertips increase exponentially. We never have time to just sit and be with ourselves, reflecting on who we are or what life is about. Even though we know it would be good for our wellbeing to follow the dharma, we need help. Have you ever been able to live by the Eightfold Path to perfection? How about the Six Paramitas? And the moment you think you have greed, aversion and delusion conquered, it means you haven’t.

We would be figuratively crashing all the time if we didn’t have a little help from the rest of life. The speed bumps of our lives, like setbacks, illness, or separation from a loved one, cause us to slow down and take stock of our surroundings. We may be brought to realize how much we have taken for granted, or how much we have to be grateful for. Usually, we aren’t mindful of the compassion we are constantly receiving and we just speed around in every direction. Fortunately, whether we realize it or not, we move in the great flow of life which operates much like a round-about. If it were up to us to pay attention to the traffic signals of life all the time, there would be a lot more tragedy and grief because as human beings, we’re so self-absorbed even when we don’t mean to be. We don’t have the single-mindedness that Shinran often speaks of, but we receive its benefits because it refers to the Oneness of all life and we are enabled to rely on it and simply relax in its light. Namo Amida Butsu.

Gassho,

Rev. Patricia Usuki

All Puffed Up

Many years ago while living in Ecuador, I had the opportunity to visit the Galapagos Islands, a Pacific archipelago that it claims and protects—from the ravages of people. Home to a vast array of flora and fauna, the islands were made famous by Charles Darwin whose theory of evolution arose from his observations there. His findings had a radical impact on religion in the western world, and on the understanding of life itself.

To this day, people are not allowed to inhabit most of the islands. Tourists sojourn well away on boats and may only go ashore with licensed naturalists. The simple rule is “don’t leave anything, don’t take anything, don’t touch anything,” and it seems to be effective. The birds, animals, and marine life, having no fear of people, allow close-up views of their daily activities. We can learn a lot from them.

Among the many fascinating species of birds is the magnificent black frigate bird with a wingspan of over seven feet, allowing it to soar over the ocean for weeks since it cannot land in water. The male has a beautiful bright red throat pouch, which when in season he inflates to such an extent that it completely covers his front. It’s so huge, it seems he can barely move or see what he’s doing! Having attracted a partner, a chick is eventually hatched. The male helps for a few weeks until leaving the female to continue the nurturing.

This memory came to mind when I began thinking about writing an article on humility, which is an important mark of our Shin Buddhist teaching. On the surface, humility may seem like a difficult attitude to sell in a “me”-centered culture and society that laps up braggadocio and conspicuous displays of power. But we are not like male frigate birds that return to life as usual once their mission is accomplished. Instead, we human beings are addicted to puffing our­selves up, if only in our own minds at least. Yet the reality is that we cannot soar above the world or even exist without relying on everything outside of ourselves to support us and help us to flourish. The frigate bird doesn’t need to think about this—it just lives. We, on the other hand, create an entire fiction around who we think we are or who we want to be and spend our time trying to live up to it, lamenting it, or inflating it further. Not only do we miss the joy of being fully in the present moment because our attention is elsewhere, but we also miss the enduring sense of serenity and freedom that comes with the realization that we’re fine just as we are. No need for embellishment, no need to perfect the rough spots or add unnecessary color, no grasping that only gives rise to frustration, dissatisfaction, and disappointment.

Sono mama, just as we are, we float on the wings of interdependence that gives us all that we need and much more. Awakening to the delusion that anything about us is self-made, we can catch a glimpse of our foolishness. We are like the old cartoon buffoon rooster, Foghorn Leghorn, “I say, I say!” All that I am, I receive from Great Life. Sunshine, water, food, warmth; friendship, love, care, nurturing and learning; but also scorn, adversity and hardship—all and everything that come to me are part of me and I in turn am a part of the infinite web of all being. That’s what makes any of us great.

I admire Shinran because he could admit that he enjoyed fame and fortune and in the same breath recognized that he was just as deluded as any of us. For this, he humbly bowed his head and expressed gratitude to immeasurable wisdom and compassion.

We humans, the superior species capable of complex thought and deep emotions, are so arrogant and proud of ourselves. When places like the Galapagos are finally gone, will we be brought to feel humility and experience a true sense of gratitude for our lives?

Namo Amida Butsu.

In gassho,

Rev. Patricia Usuki

 

 

A Life of Harmony

Of organizations, there are three kinds. First, there is the kind that is organized on the basis of the power, wealth or authority of great leaders.

Second, there is the kind that is organized because of its convenience to the members, which will continue to exist as long as the members satisfy their conveniences and do not quarrel.

Third, there is the kind that is organized with some good teaching as its center and harmony as its very life.

Teachings of the Buddha, 241-242

As we edge into 2017, much has been said of the strife, division, and discord of the past year in this country and all over the world. Whether a country, a business, or even a religious institution, if it depends on the power, wealth or authority of one person, widespread and lasting stability is impossible. History has shown us this lesson again and again.

The second kind of organization is very common and exists as long as it is convenient to the members. Think athletics, community groups or some special interest clubs. This makes sense since people and interests may change with age, friendships or priorities. Even within our temples, organizations for specific groups do not stay the same and may even disappear, which is entirely in keeping with our Buddhist teaching of impermanence.

The members of the third kind of organization share in common the same good teaching, and are guided by this teaching not only when they are together but in every moment throughout their lives. This teaching is not subject to impermanence for it is true for all people, everywhere, at all times. The Buddha-dharma is such a teaching.

Also at the core of our dharma teaching is the truth of interdependence, the Oneness of all life. Nothing exists in and of itself. Everything relies on a myriad of causes and conditions and other lives—not just human—in order to be. As human beings, nothing about us could come about without “other.” If even one element of the interconnected web of life were different, then we would be different or we might not even exist.

It is awareness of our reliance on the interdependence of life that gives us insight into things as they really are, rather than as we may believe or wish them to be. Guided by this teaching, we aspire to work together understanding that either all benefit or none benefit. In other words, harmony is the very life of our teaching and the lifeblood of a Buddhist sangha. Thus, the sutra reading goes on to say that this is a true organization in which the members live in one spirit without regard to their conditions or circumstances.

As much as ever, our world would undoubtedly benefit by being guided by this principle. The reality is, how­ever, that even a Buddhist sangha is composed of human beings and as such, it is extremely difficult to rid ourselves of the causes of our sense of disharmony. As individuals or as a group, there may at times be disagreement on issues other than the dharma. Indeed, we need to be aware of and rely on the benevolence of Infinite Life to smooth over the rough spots in order to focus on our true purpose.

All we can do is keep our eye on the ball—our reason for being a sangha, which is to be guided by the teach­ings of the Buddha and to treasure this precious dharma because it is the most important gift we have. This is not a convenience. It is a necessity, as is becoming more and more evident on an increasingly chaotic planet. If everyone in our organization remembers that a sangha is a group of people who are walking the path of the dharma together, then we will always be able to keep going regardless of other differences. It is no wonder that to disturb the harmony of the sangha is considered one of the gravest offenses in a Buddhist organization.

Outside of our own reliance on the dharma and our Nembutsu teaching, once we have received the settled heart-mind, let us not keep it to ourselves but share it with others. In the words of our teacher, Shinran Shonin, “May there be peace in the world and may the Buddha’s teaching spread!”

Namo Amida Butsu

In gassho,

Rev. Patricia Usuki

Attitude of Gratitude

The temple, after all, is not a gas station where one fills up with spirituality for the rest of the week at so many cents per liter. It is a living organization, not a mechanical machine. For this reason, temple life is to be valued because it is not ‘business-like’, efficient or even useful. We need not make perfect manju to sell, because we are not in the manju business. Every helper, whether they are experienced or not, is able to help make manju. They donate their time for the sake of the temple. The temple is involved in the business of getting human beings to be more ‘truly human’, to get them to see who they truly are, what their true nature is and to be transformed by that Truth. To bend religion to suit our own needs is to miss the point of religion. Religion essentially transforms us to see the Truth. We are not here to transform religion to suit our needs.

By permission, Rev. Tatsuya Aoki, 2016 JSBTC Day – “What is Dana?”

Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to enjoy hearing the dharma from Rev. Tatsuya Aoki, Bishop of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada when he was our guest at Spring Ohigan. After I came across a recent article he wrote for the Canadian temples called “What is Dana?”, I read excerpts to our Board and was asked to share them here.

In reference to the passage quoted above, if being transformed to see the Truth sounds too difficult or lofty for us to fathom, perhaps we could ask why it is important to be able to see things (including ourselves) as they truly are. How does Truth transform our dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction, frustration, struggle, etc.) regardless of the magnitude of discomfort? Whether we are vexed by the daily cares of modern life or facing major challenges, our teaching has been there for ordinary people through the ages.

Life in medieval Japan (1185-1600) was marked by poverty, starvation, warfare, persecution, and natural disasters. It is not a coincidence that many new schools of Buddhism, including Jodo Shinshu, flourished during this time as well. People were so grateful for a teaching that helped them to understand life and the meaning of their own lives by learning to reflect on their true nature and the interdependence of all life. Through this teaching, they acquired the strength and resilience to meet challenges and transcend them.

During Rennyo’s time, eight generations after Shinran, peasant farmers felt so empowered by the Nembutsu teaching that they rose up against the daimyo feudal lords and, for the first time in history, took control of their lands. This eventually led to Jodo Shinshu being banned far away in Kyushu, on pain of imprisonment, torture, or death. Still, “Kakure Nembutsu” followers practiced in secret, often hiding in caves, and some surreptitiously continued to send donations to the Hongwanji in Kyoto to ensure that the teachings would continue.

Many of the Japanese emigrants to Hawaii, the US Mainland, Brazil, and Canada brought their reliance on the Nembutsu teaching with them and empowered by this, were able to rise above daunting obstacles and move forward. People marvel at the resilience, inner strength, dignity and self-esteem shown by those who were discriminated against, unjustly incarcerated in camps, or otherwise persecuted. Though some wonder if this is simply Japanese character, the influence of our Buddhist teaching has proven over the centuries to be a major factor in the shaping of a valuable perspective grounded in seeing Truth-Reality.

Do people today need this sense of resilience and empowerment born of Infinite Wisdom and Compassion? Yes, more than ever before, if you witness the turmoil that still rages in our world and affects everyone. Even in our everyday lives, we all need help. Some, knowing that this teaching is priceless, spontaneously express their gratitude and appreciation for it. Like those who came before us, it is too precious to keep the benefits to ourselves. In the spirit of dana, we do what we can to ensure that the teaching will always be available. Yet truth be told, the future of many temples is precarious. In his article, Rev. Aoki explains:

In the early days, the temple was financed largely by donations called ‘dana’. In Japanese, this is known as ofuse or orei. Over the years, temple members established the tradition of donating money to the temple treasury for various occasions such as Buddhist holidays, family weddings, funerals, and memorial services. As well, donations were offered for monthly memorial services (Shotsuki) as well as, for a wide variety of occasions, such as a return to good health, birth of children and grandchildren, graduation of children and grandchildren and for joyous events including return from trips abroad, etc. In other words, the Issei tended to make donations to the temple on any occasion which they felt was meaningful to them. The idea of a membership due or fee was not a consideration.

Relying entirely on personal donations meant no fixed fees for services rendered. As a member became more active and involved the more the member understood the ofuse/orei system. The prevailing attitude was, therefore, one of offering a donation as a token of one’s appreciation and gratitude, rather than one of paying a fee for specific services rendered.

As the nisei and sansei generation gradually took responsibility in managing the temple, the idea of membership dues became more popular. There was growing frustration not knowing how much one should donate for weddings, memorial services, etc. Thus, today we are torn between two ways of think­ing; between the dana/ ofuse system and a set price system for services rendered. There has been reluc­tance in abandoning the ofuse system. To do so would reduce the temple to a place of business with set fees for individual services. The consequence of this would eliminate the spirit of dana, an important fun­damental of Buddhist practice. In short, the difference between ofuse versus set fees is attitude. For bud­dhists, in particular Japanese buddhists, a person’s attitude in society has always been considered very meaningful and significant. There is a prevailing view that it is not the amount that is significant, but rather the spirit in which it is given. Therefore, a donation has no fixed amount but rather depends on what the giver wishes or can afford to give. This can be confusing to someone who is unfamiliar with the ways of the temple. And while it is not as efficient as a so-called “price list” it is in keeping with the spirit of dana.

Ofuse in Japanese consists of two Chinese characters. O-fu means “to spread”, and se means “giving charity”. Dana or ofuse gives one an opportunity to practice gratitude, which arises from the awareness of the inter-relationship of all sentient beings.

People have many reasons for being temple members but we should all realize that without supporting the religious purpose, there would be no reason to have a temple. The real tragedy is not that a temple would be lost, but that we could let our true treasure slip away.

As 2016 draws to a close, I would like to thank all of you for your dedication, hard work, and support. May you and yours be happy and well; may you awaken to the Light of Truth and find comfort and joy in the Immeasurable Compassion and Infinite Wisdom that is Amida. Namo Amida Butsu.

In gassho,

Rev. Patricia Usuki

No Hocus Pocus

As Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, we shall seek to be mindful of our words and deeds, be responsible citizens of our society, and share with others the truth and reality of Jodo Shinshu. Understanding fully the principle of causality, we shall not practice petitionary prayer or magic, nor shall we rely upon astrology or other superstitions.

From Kyosho: The Essentials of Jodo Shinshu

As the saying goes, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” August 1st marked the beginning of my thirteenth year as resident minister of our temple. Good thing we’re not superstitious about numbers or anything else. I’m looking forward to another fabulous year with you, filled with gratitude and joy. Along with our temple growth, we’ve laughed and learned together, and we’ve been there for each other through sadness and challenges. Thanks to your devotion, dedication, and hard work, and especially owing to your warm and welcoming spirit, you’ve made it possible for everyone who comes through our doors to encounter the Three Treasures of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Children who were starting grade school back in 2004 might be getting ready for college now. Think of all the learning that must have taken place over that time. Even if your school days were already long past when I arrived, I hope your spiritual life has continued to develop, causing you to truly flourish and lead a meaningful life.

The opening passage is from a one-page outline called Kyosho, or the basic Essentials of Jodo Shinshu. You can usually find it in the front of our service books. The tenets are fundamental to our way of living. Though we cannot always fulfill these aspirations, being aware of them, reflecting on them and allowing them to guide us is a sure and straightforward way of being brought to awaken genuine peace of heart not only for ourselves but for those around us too. We certainly need that in the world today.

As the last sentence in the opening passage indicates, ours is not a “belief” system. There are no gods or deities to pray to, no magic, no superstitions, no blind faith in the unknown. Rituals do not bring good luck or dispel bad luck. Luck is a creation of the mind. The principle of causality, on the other hand, is indisputable. Simply put, every­thing is dependent on everything else. You are the person you are and things happen as they do due to innumerable, ever-changing causes and conditions that make it so. Thinking of the endless interconnections, you come to realize that all life is a part of you, and that you in turn are a part of all life, either directly or indirectly.

With this in mind, the Golden Chain that we recite reminds us that our thoughts, words and deeds affect not only ourselves, but also others. Knowing this, how can we not aspire to be responsible citizens of our society? Ultimately, either all benefit or none benefit, whether regarding the well being of people or the general welfare of our planet.

Most of us probably mean to be “good” and mindful, but it’s very difficult to accomplish this to perfection. If we’re even a little bit mindful and honest with ourselves, we will see the reality of our true nature that often manifests instances of greed, aversion and selfish delusion despite our best intentions. Yet if we also awaken to the unbounded, unconditional compassion we receive from life just as we are, complete with our imperfections, we are brought to understand the wisdom of the oneness of life. This wisdom and compassion are encapsulated in the name Amida, from the Sanskrit, Amitabha (boundless light, equating to wisdom) and Amitayus (boundless life, equating to compas­sion). So, being mindful of the Buddha (literally, Nembutsu) is being brought to see that we have no recourse but to rely on the unlimited wisdom and compassion of infinite life, for we do not have the capacity to attain ultimate peace through our own calculations. Through this understanding, gratitude and joy spontaneously arise.

Once we test this within our own lives and find that it is indeed true and real, we can rest assured of ultimate peace, and end up naturally sharing it with others. Hear the teachings, reflect, let them speak to you and give your life meaning. No hocus pocus involved.

Namo Amida Butsu.

In gassho,

Rev. Patricia Usuki

What Do We Really Know?

Long ago, when I was a young student living in France, one of the locals proudly proclaimed that his country was home to 365 delicious varieties of cheese—one for every day of the year. When asked how many kinds we had, I quipped, “Three: mild, medium, and sharp.” Naturally, I meant cheddar, which seems to be by far the most popular type of cheese on our continent. Shortly after, I happened upon a tasty cheddar cheese in England, but it was white rather than orange. At the time this seemed rather strange and my senses were confused.

I saw a minor news item on this topic recently, when a well-known American company decided to eliminate some dyes in its cheese products. Apparently the Brits were right—the garish orange colour of cheddar cheese that most of us take for granted is artificial. It is said that back in the 17th century people in England were used to cheddar cheese with a yellowish-orange tint, since grass-fed cattle produced cream with a beta-carotene pigment. Then dairies realized they could make a profit by skimming off the cream, but the cheese made from the remaining milk was white. To continue the deception that the product was still of creamy high quality, colouring was added. They must have ended the practice later, but not in North America. Do you ever wonder about other items we eat or drink?

How often do we accept things or insist on doing them just because it’s traditional, or it’s what others do, or because we believe it is correct? In recent decades, scholars and clergy in Japan have been studying the demise of Buddhism—that is, the actual practice of and interest in the Buddha-dharma, and not just family affiliation with a particular temple. In a survey taken a few years ago, it was found that most Japanese had no particular religious inclination and knew little or nothing about the dharma, but fully 94% felt it necessary to hold funerals at a Buddhist temple even if they did not understand the reason for the rituals or necessarily agree with them, and most did not care about the religious aspect anyway.

At a seminar I gave recently, it was heartening to hear that participants understood that our Shinshu funerals and memorial services were not for the repose of the deceased, but for the living to remember, to reflect on the lessons of life received, and to express gratitude for having been associated with that person. We had a good discussion about the dharma on matters of life and death that raised a lot of questions. Questions are good. We should not do things just because that’s the way they have always been done. We need to verify the truth of their effectiveness through our present experience.

This is certainly true of the dharma. Shakyamuni Buddha reminded the Kalama people that “traditions were not to be followed simply because they were traditions. Reports (such as historical accounts or news) were not to be followed simply because the source seemed reliable. One’s own preferences were not to be followed simply because they seemed logical or resonated with one’s feelings. Instead, any view or belief had to be tested by the results it yielded when put into practice; and—to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results—they had to further be checked against the experience of people who were wise.”

Perhaps it would be impractical to question everything in our lives, just as it would be unwise to accept everything on blind faith. But our practice, as followers of the Nembutsu, is to hear the teaching and to test it in our everyday lives so that we know without any doubt that it is true. We cannot simply believe someone else, or presume upon immeasurable compassion. Once we know for ourselves that the teaching is true, we can proceed through life

with joy and peace in our hearts and minds. Therefore, the most important thing we can do at the temple is to hear the dharma and to be mindful of it in our interactions—our interbeing—with everyone else.

With deep gratitude, I thank you all for another wonderful year of walking this path together at SFVHBT. May you find peace, joy, and harmony; may you and yours and all beings be happy and well.

Gassho,

Rev. Patricia Usuki

If You See Something, Say Something

May all beings be happy and well

May no harm or difficulties come to them

May they live in peace and harmony

Adherents to the teachings of the Buddha are generally perceived as being guided by such benign tenets as harmony, not harming, non-discrimination and compassion. We have only to reflect upon our daily thoughts, words, and deeds to discover how difficult it is to put this into practice consistently, regardless of the sincerity of our intentions. It should not be surprising, then, that through the centuries, entire groups of people calling themselves Buddhist have engaged in or condoned acts of aggression, violence, and worse against those who are considered to be different. The incidences are too numerous to recount in this article, but economics, ethnicity, territory, and power resound as root causes. Do greed, aversion, and ignorance sound more familiar?

In contemporary times, you may have heard about the oppression of Muslims in Myanmar (Burma), where 90% of the population is said to be Buddhist. A small but vocal faction of monks and nuns, named 969 to represent the supreme traits of the Three Treasures, argue that the country and its national religion are in danger of being overrun by Muslims. The latter account for less than 2% of the population, though this is difficult to verify since legislation has quickly been eroding the rights of these Burmese-born people who have been forced to live in concentration camps under inhumane conditions. Many have tried to flee in refugee boats, and many die on the open sea after being forced away from foreign shores such as those of Thailand. This is another largely Buddhist nation which is dealing with it’s own Muslim “crisis” by militarizing temples and arming soldier-monks in the conflict area. Again, the details of these realities merit an entire study in themselves, but we need to be aware that this is happening and be informed so that we can speak up, not only on behalf of the oppressed, but also in the interests of our teaching.

Why should this matter in a pluralistic country such as this, where freedom of religion is a much-trumpeted right? Because, unfortunately, ignorance is the primary cause of dukkha (suffering, dis-ease, dissatisfaction) and it is just as rife here as anywhere else. Coupled with this, media and politics thrive on controversy whether real or imag­ined. Hence, publications such as Time Magazine and the Los Angeles Times have featured major articles about the persecution of Muslims by Buddhists in Burma, leaving readers to send comments expressing disappointment and shock at what they once thought was a religion of peace.

Several months ago I had proposed to the BCA Ministers’ Association that we take action to address the claims of the 969 Movement in Burma. The intent at the time was to make a statement protesting the persecution that was taking place through the misuse of religious authority. Already, 381 Buddhist teachers in the United States had signed an open letter to President Obama asking him to speak out against anti-Muslim violence in Burma. Buddhist leaders all over the world also co-signed a letter to fellow Buddhists in Burma reminding them of the tenets of the dharma and offering support to stand up to the violent movement. American media articles did not seem interested in asking whether one small group represented the entire religion. Does this sound familiar?

Our Muslim friends here have for some time been dealing with similar bad press caused by certain groups who purport to be acting in the name of Islam. We need to be informed before even thinking of passing judgment on a religion. Sadly, ignorance and fear burn brightly together. People fear the unknown; they fear what is different. Like Muslims, unless we speak up to educate and inform others of what our teaching represents, we have only ourselves to blame if we are swept up in generalizations characterized by sensational headlines. A Pew Research survey of Mus­lims in America indicated that roughly half of them felt that their own religious leaders had not done enough to speak out against Islamic extremists.

In an ironic twist, recent pronouncements in this country have eclipsed my original intent of speaking out specifically against religious discrimination in another country. We have to start where we are. By understanding our teaching and truly knowing ourselves, we will gain the conviction to speak out in defense of others, not with sanctimony, but with humility and gratitude for the great compassion that we receive, even as we struggle with our own mind of discrimination. Then, it is incumbent upon all of us to set the record straight in a society in which religions like the Buddha-dharma are still relatively foreign and new.

Namo Amida Butsu.

Gassho,

Rev. Patricia Usuki

Many But One

“… in the Pure Land there are always many kinds of rare and beautiful birds of various colours, such as white geese, peacocks, parrots, saris (mynahs), kalavinkas and jivamjivakas. They sing with melodious and delicate sounds which proclaim the teachings. On hearing them, all the people of that land are mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.”

[The Smaller Sutra on Amitayus (Immeasurable Life), 3]

Violence. Hatred. Bigotry. In our world, the pervasiveness is numbing. How are we to understand the overwhelming sense of unease and fear that gnaws at us as a result? Is there any way to find peace for ourselves and for all beings?

The history of humankind is rife with ugly language and vile deeds. At the same time, less noticeable for its ubiquity is the universal goodwill that lies at the deepest heart of life. Considering that our species continues to exist after thousands of years of misguided views and destructive actions speaks volumes about the power of the immeasurable wisdom and compassion inherent in life to transcend even the most extreme acts of deluded ignorance. As imperfect beings, we would be lost without such profound benevolence.

The Amida Sutra passage quoted above depicts one aspect of a pure and perfect state of peace and harmony. It is not a place to which one goes after death, but exists here and now for us, if we can awaken to it. Like all sutras, it is meant to tell a story or paint a picture of something that is difficult to access through ordinary words alone, so mythological images are also used. A kalavinka is a songbird with the head of a woman. All beings without exception, regardless of appearance or other differences, are equally welcome and exist harmoniously in such an environment.

Another mythical bird, the jivamjivaka, has one body with two heads. The story goes that one day, the two heads quarrelled over food. Succumbing to greed, anger, and self-centered delusion, one sought to take revenge over the other by eating something that caused a poisonous reaction. With an awakened mind, the bird would have known that what harms one harms all, and that what benefits one benefits all. Can we learn from this story? Can we awaken to the truth of oneness, or will we continue to insist on making distinctions where none really exist?

many but one

This does not mean that we all have to be the same. In fact, the beauty of life, whether for birds, flowers, or people, comes from the variety with which we enhance each other. In this same metaphorical Pure Land, there are gigantic lotus flowers of many colours, each radiating its own colour of light. How fortunate that we do not live in a monochrome world, but in one that is made beautiful by many hues and tints and shades.                                                                             Jivamjivaka on our main altar.

At our temple, all kinds of people are members for various reasons, and choose to participate or not in various ways. Everyone is equally precious to the lifeblood of the temple, each in his or her own way. Together, regardless of

differences, we embrace the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. All of us are beneficiaries of the light of wisdom and unconditional compassion of life that we call Amida (literally, Infinite Light and Life).

Such a world is not an unattainable ideal. One of history’s greatest leaders, King Ashoka, ruled most of the Indian subcontinent (present-day India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) until his death in 232 BCE. The empire flourished peacefully under him despite, or perhaps because of, its dark beginnings. According to verified records, Ashoka had been a brutally aggressive warrior until one horrific battle resulted in massive deaths, deporta­tions, and destruction. Walking amongst the carnage, he was filled with remorse. Thenceforth, he resolved to be guided by the Buddha-dharma as can be seen to this day in his edicts on pillars, boulders and cave walls throughout his kingdom. Thanks to Ashoka, Buddhism reached as far as the Mediterranean. His children caused it to become firmly established in Sri Lanka, from where it spread to the rest of Asia and eventually to the world. It is unfortunate that people and societies have been unable to continue such a legacy of peace. It starts with just one person – oneself.

In our daily lives or on a global scale, let us not be like the two-headed bird that annihilates itself before awakening to the truth of interdependence. Immeasurable Life means that Amida and I are One. Wake up! Wake up!

Namo Amida Butsu.

In gassho,

Rev. Patricia Usuki

 

Wonderful

A couple of blocks from our home in West Los Angeles, there’s a building topped with a glowing white sign bearing the name of the company that has offices there. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the excess of advertising that char­acterizes much of the city. Companies have to make their brand known in some way, and being accosted by signs and billboards 24/7 has become a way of life for all of us potential customers. Some people call it visual blight. However, every time I see this sign, it does make me smile and give me pause to reflect. It spells the company name Wonderful whose products include a number of items from pistachios to bottled water and pomegranate juice to citrus fruit.

The first time I noticed it last year, I was stumbling into the next room to close the blinds in the middle of the night, grumpy to have been disturbed by the bright light that pervades our neighbourhood even in the wee hours.

“Wonderful,” I was thinking acerbically, “commercial lighting creeps in everywhere.”

 

As I reached up to shut out the radiance, I was astounded to see the word Wonderful echoing back at me in cheerful white lights. I rubbed my eyes in amazement and had to go and get my eyeglasses. Indeed, Wonderful is what it said, with an endearing heart shape replacing the letter “o.” Despite my weariness, I had to smile.

My irritation evaporated and I fell asleep thinking about what an agreeable location we lived in. Right near shops and restaurants, it is also safe and appealing. People greet each other in the street. Gardens are lovely year round. Wonderful.

Wonderful might seem like a sort of fuddy-duddy word that ministers and grandparents might use. These days, we could also say awesome. In a positive sense, it’s meant to convey a feeling that words cannot express. We are filled with wonder. We are in awe that the unfathomable causes and conditions of life could bring something about. The situation or event may even bring us a sense of indescribable joy.

Sometimes I wake up in the night, not because of the bright light, but because my mind is still thinking about people for whom I have concerns, about the welfare of our temple and our organization, or about a dharma message

I’m trying to develop. In the haze of half-sleep, this is usually not very productive, though I have had moments of inspiration on the last item. Mainly I just become more fatigued trying to address a difficulty or figure out solutions. Rather than tossing and turning, I notice that when I look out the window now, the only thing I can see is Wonderful and it makes me smile and return to the present moment.

This reminds me of another sign I can see from our windows, right across the street in the beautiful garden of West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. I can’t see it in the dark, but I know it’s there on a large vertical rock face. Written in kanji, it says Namo Amida Butsu. I don’t want to equate the two, but they stir related feelings. The electric sign reminds me that despite difficulties, life is good. The one written in Shinran’s hand centuries ago reminds me that Infinite Wisdom and Compassion—Immeasurable Light and Life—are present for us at all times, though we often cannot see it. Its working far surpasses our inadequate calculations.

Whatever our concerns and issues, we do our best and then get out of the way. We cannot rely on ourselves alone to resolve difficulties, nor do we have to. Fukashigi, fukasetsu, fukasho—the wonderfully awesome, inconceivable working of great life. Namo Amida Butsu.wonderful 3

In gassho,

Rev. Patricia Usuki

Be Aware, Beware

What do you stress about? Money? Work? Possessions? Family? Relationships? Lack of time? As we’re often reminded, the Buddha-dharma, our teaching, is only helpful to us if we are mindful of it and apply it to all aspects of our lives. While it may make sense to us when we listen to a dharma message, it is often quickly forgotten. It only becomes real when we experience the truth of it in our personal daily activities.

Everything is an opportunity to practice being aware. Becoming aware of our thoughts, feelings, and motiva­tions leads us to truly know ourselves. This is a step along the path of understanding that there really is no “me, myself, or I” and we get a glimpse of the interdependent nature of all things, a revelation of true Wisdom. At the same time, we may notice that we experience greed, aversion, and a preoccupation with a self that is totally delusional. The Four Noble Truths tells us that these “poisons” are the cause of our dukkha, meaning discontent, frustration, dissatis­faction, struggle, suffering, and sense of unease. If we are to find abiding peace and equanimity, we must walk the path of our teachings and wake up not only to our true nature, but also to the reality of the world in which we live.

Human nature never seems to change. In our main sutra, the Sukhavativyuha Sutra (commonly called the Larger Sutra) which came about over 2,000 years ago, for example, Shakyamuni Buddha is heard to say,

“Whether noble or corrupt, rich or poor, young or old, male or female, all people worry about wealth and property… Groaning in dejection and sorrow, they pile up thoughts of anguish or, driven by inner urges, they run wildly in all directions and thus have no time for peace and rest.”

Does this sound familiar? The Buddha goes on to point out that people are so busy trying to find happiness through attaining things and being attached to false ego that they don’t seriously seek a way to be freed from their dukkha struggle.

Compared to Shakyamuni Buddha’s era, our world has become fast-paced and complex in a relatively short time. While our human condition is still the same, the challenges are magnified by global production, marketing, and finance, not to mention technology-enhanced communication and media that present unlimited fuel for our desires and ego enhancement. Ours is a hyper-consumer society and with it come such related consequences as stress, anxiety, dissatisfaction, greed and envy, not to mention poverty, pollution, global warming, crime and even war.

In reality, we must consume in order to survive and thrive. The question is, how much is enough? We must each ask ourselves that question, if only to begin reflecting on what we are doing, and how we impact not only our own lives, but also that of others.

While being aware of ourselves, we also need to be aware of and knowledgeable about the world of which we are a part, and the social and economic paradigm that interpenetrates our lives. For example, something that did not exist in ancient Indian times was the multi-national corporation. Almost everyone in the world is affected by these entities, whether they own stocks in them or rely on them for work, food, information, or other products. Countries have thus come to believe that in order to prosper, we must have constant growth. It is generally thought that unlimited economic growth will cure all of the world’s problems. But think about it: we are asking for more people to want more endlessly—causing constant dukkha. Or, as Tim Jackson put it in a TED talk in July, 2010 (An Economic Reality Check), “It’s a story about us, people, being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that don’t last, on people that we don’t care about.”

How do we square our Buddhist teaching with the way we live our lives? We don’t have to abandon everything and become hermits, but let us be aware of our thoughts, words, and deeds. And as our Nembutsu teaching shows us, let us reflect on all that we have and all that we receive from life unconditionally, without striving, without greed or special efforts. In the gratitude that arises from that realization, perhaps we will be more thoughtful and aware of the kind of lives we are living, and take action accordingly not only for our own benefit, but also that of others.

Namo Amida Butsu.

Gassho,

Rev. Patricia Usuki

Note: If you would like to explore this issue further, please attend our Spring Seminar Series (p. 8) and our next Book Club meeting (p. 10)