May 17, 2020 Service

Service to Commemorate the Birth of Shinran Shonin, Born April 1st, 1173

Today we celebrate the birth of Shinran Shonin.

Every year in April our temple holds the Hanamatsuri Service, to celebrate the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. If you watched online my Hanamatsuri Service of April 5th, you saw that there was a Baby Shakyamuni Buddha’s statue and that I poured the sweet tea over it.

But today we are celebrating the birthday of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, the True Pure Land tradition.

It is said that Shinran Shonin was born on April 1st 1173, using the old lunar calendar, and if you convert the date to our current Gregorian calendar, it is May 21st, right around  now.  So that’s about 850 years ago.  Of course, we live in tough times, as we continue to face the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Shinran Shonin also went through some very tough times. I think he faced even harder situations than we are facing now.

When he was 4 and 7 years old, there were big earthquakes. When he was 5, a big fire burned down one third of Kyoto city. And when he was 8, there was an epidemic and many people died.

There were many natural disasters during his lifetime. He was ordained when he was a young boy, just 9 years old—around the same age as many of you children. Ordained means that he became a monk, entering the life of monkhood.

People have wondered why Shinran Shonin was ordained at such a young age. And many reasons have been given. Some people think it was because, by the age of 9, he had already gone through many tragic experiences in his family life.  Others say the main reason is because it was the custom that the sons of noble families would often enter the monkhood.

At any rate, one day, his uncle Hino Noritsuna took him to Shoren-in temple in Kyoto. But as they were waiting for the process to be completed, it started to become late, the night growing dark. So Reverend  Jien said to them, “Let’s have your ordination ceremony tomorrow because it is getting dark.”  But right then little Shinran wrote out one poem and gave it to Reverend Jien.

“Cherry blossoms that look like they will stay on the tree till tomorrow, may well blow away during the night”. 

In fact, composing poems was the one of the cultural activities of educated people in old Japan.

Our temple has a sakura tree. Usually its cherry blossoms last for just about one week. If the wind blows, the light small petals are easily blown away. This year I enjoyed the beautiful cherry blossoms, but it was rainy and windy at night, so the petals were blown away quickly. And soon I mostly saw the petals scattered on the ground. We Japanese have a special connection to Sakura trees, and see the world’s impermanence reflected in the cherry blossoms.

This episode in Shinran’s life shows us his strong determination to enter to the monkhood and seek truth in life. He then studied for 20 years on Mt. Hiei, until he became 29.

At that point he left the mountain and then began teaching many people what he had learned from his master, Honen. He worked to save and guide ordinary people both spiritually and mentally. Over 800 years later his teaching is still here, and people are still inspired and awakened by it.

In the Buddhist tradition it has been common to commemorate death.  Last week, I told you about memorial services and the Shotsuki monthly memorial service. The purpose of this service is not to try to do something for the soul or spirit of the deceased, but to create the opportunity to remember the deceased and the kindness we received from them. At these memorial services, we think of the legacy the deceased has left behind, which strengthens our tradition.  In contrast to these ceremonies, cerebrating “Birth” represents an auspicious moment filled with new possibilities.

This pandemic has arrived in the internet age. We have YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, lots of videos we can watch anytime. But if we lost our internet connection in this situation, while sheltering in place, how would we, of the modern generation, survive?

We live in a world where we can easily search for whatever we want to know. And many of us wish to get more and more information. We even feel that we don’t have enough time to follow each day’s news. It is a flood of information.

But the main way we become fuller human beings is not through acquiring information. Let’s think more simply. The central issue is how we are motivated by boundless compassion or love—and how, in turn, our motivation may help others.

Take the example of a birth.  When we think of this occasion, we think of celebration, of looking forward to the future potential of a new human being. But at the same time, at the moment of birth, we see the boundless compassion or love that benefits others. The same meaning holds at the memorial service.

Shinran Shonin went to Mount Hiei where he obtained deep and profound knowledge. However, his teaching is summarized in a simple phrase: Namu Amida Butsu

And learning the meaning of Namu Amida Butsu is not something done just by acquiring knowledge. It is not anything like digital information. The meaning of Namu Amida Butsu is captured by the image of someone working in the Summer bazaar, or cleaning in the temple garden. It is someone’s gashō; it is someone’s bowing to show their respect. It is the trusting hearts of others.  We are the ones receiving their boundless compassion.

Even when we strive to learn new things, we are not by ourselves; we are connected to, and learning from, someone else’s efforts.

Is this not true with love?  Love is not created from scratch, from nothing.  It is transferred from person to person, from people to people, through all of us. In a sense, each of us is a relay station in the transmission of love.