Late one night, a man walked along a mountain path when he slipped, tumbling down the side. Frantically reaching out, he suddenly grabbed hold of a tree branch, his legs dangling in the air. So dark was the night he couldn’t see anything around him.

“If I let go of this branch, I will fall into a deep ravine and die,” he thought to himself. He held on for dear life. As time passed, his arms ached and grew tired. Slowly, his grip began to weaken. “I will surely die,” he thought.

Just as he began to lose his grip, the morning sun suddenly peeked over the horizon, shining its light on the man. Looking down below, he saw the ground was a mere six inches beneath his feet. He let go and found himself safely standing.

This parable tells us how suffering, worry, fear and anxiety are often caused by ignorance and attachment to our beliefs. Not seeing clearly leads us astray. We may feel certain and confident in our view of the world, which makes it hard to let go. Sometimes, only when forced will we let go.

I had a cat once that taught me such a lesson. A bump appeared on her back so off to the veterinarian we went. It was a tumor. I hid medicine in kitty treats and food. She grew thin and ate little. I served her favorite foods; tuna, dry food, canned food, pieces of meat. All the little dishes around her water bowl looked like a fancy Japanese kaiseki meal. She refused to eat.

She looked dehydrated. Holding her, I used a toy squirt gun to shoot water in her mouth. She absolutely hated it and pulled away. I suddenly realized her body was shutting down, that she was dying, that there was nothing I could do. It was nature’s way of transition. I had no choice but to let go. A short time later, she died.

A month later, I found myself at my brother’s bedside. He was dying of cancer. He had grown thin and ate little. I encouraged him to eat, a few pieces of meat, fruit, even just jello. I read aloud the hospital’s daily menu, noting his favorites, hoping it would appeal to him. He refused to eat. I insisted, “At least a little juice!”

Then I remembered my cat. I let go. A short time later, he passed away.

We all face challenges in life when we face the challenge of letting go: for instance in relationships, jobs, health, aging and death.

The Buddha constantly reminded people that we live in a world of impermanence, that our lives are interdependent with many things, that we can’t control the universe; rather our lives are the result of the universe’s power. Yet we seek permanence and hold onto beliefs in our power and views. Until we let go.

Shinran Shonin once asked his disciples: “Does dawn break, then the sun appears? Or does the sun appear, then dawn breaks?” He explained it’s important to know the sun appears first.

The sun represents the light of wisdom; darkness represents ignorance, he said. Wisdom’s light begins shining in understanding, dispelling the darkness of ignorance.

Letting go is not a bad thing. When we do, we find ourselves standing on solid ground. Anxieties fade, a quiet calm returns. Life still is both happy and sad. That we know makes us human.

“Happy New Year” means I hope you find happiness this year. As we enter the New Year and reflect on the past, let’s consider the meaning of happiness.

Pondering the search for happiness, I recently saw a long line of people buying lottery tickets. The jackpot was a near-record $648 million! Nothing stokes the imagination like the thought “winning the lottery,” conjuring images of wealth, comfort and life free from worry. Surely it’s a ticket to happiness.

Of course, studies show lottery winners aren’t necessarily happier, and in many cases, face more problems than before. Don’t get me wrong. I hope you win. If you do, please remember your neighborhood Buddhist temple!

But it’s true. You know the saying, “Rich people are different than you and me: They have more money.” In other words, we’re all the same regardless of wealth. We all face difficulties in life, especially the great sufferings noted by the Buddha of sickness, aging and death. The “three poisons” of greed, anger and delusion afflict everyone.

Too often, people assume something will make us automatically happy, like saying, “I won the lottery,” meaning, “I’m set for life.” Just the thought of winning gives people pleasure. It’s fun to think, “If I won, I would buy…”

The Buddha called this thinking delusion. In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha described a man lost in the desert, thirsting for water. He thinks he sees an oasis, but it’s a mirage. Just the thought of getting there and drinking gives him pleasure, so he stumbles forth toward a place that doesn’t exist. The Buddha says we are like that man, forever searching for happiness in the wrong place.

If happiness doesn’t exist in satisfying our worldly desires, where is it?

Imagine one morning being told you won the lottery. You’d be happy, right? But that afternoon a medical test showed you had terminal cancer. Happiness would suddenly disappear.

Now imagine the opposite. In the morning you were told you lost the lottery, but in the afternoon you discovered a cancer test was negative, and really, you were healthy.

Which would you want? Which would you want if it were your loved ones? Which would make you happier? The answer I think would be health. Money can’t buy happiness if you’re not healthy.

We often lose sight of what’s important. Moreover, we’re distracted or misled by what we think we want. Consumed by desires, we forget what we have.

Realizing what we have here and now fills us with appreciation and gratitude, two great dimensions of joy, a much deeper and richer feeling than fleeting happiness. What we have now are family, friends, community, earth and life itself. We are blessed in ways money can’t buy.

In this coming year of 2014, let’s together listen to the Buddha Dharma, contemplate the true meaning of our lives, and go forth with appreciation, gratitude and joy.

My uncle loved golf. He liked to watch it, talk about it—and most of all—play it. While at work, he dreamed of retiring to a life of golf.

Once retired, he played with friends every weekday at a course near his house. Whenever he missed a day, his friends would say, “Hey, where were you?” He began to feel obligated to play. He played in rain, in cold, in wind, and in heat. Even when he didn’t feel like playing, he went. After awhile, my uncle said to me, “Golf has become work!”

I’m pretty sure the Buddha didn’t play golf, but if he did, he’d probably say the difference between work and play is attitude. Our outlook, or understanding, determines how we feel about something. It’s less about the “thing” itself and more about meaning.

In July every year at the temple, we collectively heave a sigh at the prospect of organizing another summer bazaar. It’s so much work! The thought of constructing booths, buying supplies, planning schedules, preparing ingredients, cooking foods, working shifts and so forth can be overwhelming. Somehow, some way, everything comes together.

The summer bazaar is a major fundraiser for us. Proceeds account for a third of our operating budget. It also has become a defining characteristic for Japanese American Buddhist temples. In Japan, Buddhist temples don’t have bazaars like ours. In America some churches, temples and synagogues have bazaars, but in no way are they ubiquitous.

A Jewish friend told me his synagogue doesn’t hold a bazaar. Instead, each family donates a thousand dollars a year, which multiplied the synagogue’s 100 member families amounts to its annual operating budget of $100,000. They don’t need to do any fundraising. At some places I hear rich donors contribute tens of thousands or even a million dollars or more to their favorite temples and churches (Buddhists included!). If anybody wants to donate as much to our temple, please do!

However such large donations can be a blessing and a curse. They’re a blessing in that a single $100,000 donation covers a year of our temple’s expenses. A million dollar donation covers 10 years worth. We wouldn’t need to worry about fundraising, asking for pledges or relying on the goodwill of members and friends. We wouldn’t even need a summer bazaar!

However it’s a curse because I think many of you would probably begin to ignore those pesky letters and announcements asking for your donations and help. Some people may say, “The temple is rich, why should I give money?” or “The temple doesn’t need my help, I don’t need to go.” I think many people would stop coming.

I think the fact our temple is supported by many, many small donations is a source of strength. It’s like a big tree supported by many small roots, which together allow it to stand. Where some roots disappear, other roots grow. A tree with just a few big roots is in trouble if just one dies.

Likewise, many, many hands coming together make our bazaar a success. The bazaar exists because of the help of many people. And many people come to our bazaar and enjoy eating, seeing friends and having a place where they feel part of a community.

Our bazaar exists, not only as a fundraiser, but more importantly, to bring us together as a sangha. In Buddhist terms, we can see and feel in our lives a sense of interdependence with other people and with a greater community through the bazaar.

Even if our temple were cash rich, I’d still want to have a bazaar. It’s a place where you and I can meet and have a good time. Come out, eat good food, talk to friends and enjoy this life we share together at the bazaar. As the Buddha might say, such play requires work. To do something we believe in and want to do requires effort. In making the effort, we find enjoyment and meaning. Work and play, they’re both the same.

By the way, if anybody has a spare million to donate, we still need it. On the to-do list is a new roof, temple windows, fence repairs and updated plumbing. The list is endless.

The Buddha’s first sermon stated the first truth to consider is “Life is dukkha.” This usually is translated “life is suffering.”

That’s how I started my first discussion group as a minister. According to Buddhism, I said, “Life is suffering.” Immediately, a young woman retorted, “I don’t think so!” After class, she never returned.

Later I realized most people probably don’t think “life is suffering.” In our society, people feel “Life is good,” or “Life is comfortable” or maybe “Life is sometimes easy, sometimes hard,” but not “Life is suffering.”

Actually, the Buddha used the word “dukkha,” which more accurately means “off-kilter,” as an ill-fitted wheel on a cart makes it wobbly. Therefore dukkha refers to life that somehow is bumpy, not quite right, somewhat off balance. In other words, life is not always smooth, difficulties appear and problems arise. When things don’t go our way, we get frustrated, angry, sad or depressed. We “suffer.”

Why do you suppose the Buddha began teaching with this simple, common sense observation? Even during his time, people must have thought, “I know that!” or “What are you talking about? My life is okay.”

Imagine if the first Noble Truth were “Life is good.” If this were true, there’s no need for anything else—no questions, no doubts, no spiritual path. A life happy and carefree is free from dukkha.

Alas, this is not the case. We encounter difficulties, there are bumps in the road and some problems seem insurmountable. Family problems, a relationship breakup, a job loss, a debilitating illness, old age and impending death often lead to sadness, depression, anger, frustration and hopelessness. Even worldly success sometimes feels empty with the realization that money, possessions, status and power don’t necessarily lead to happiness.

Besides even if we’re happy, there’s surely dukkha in the world. How close must it come before it affects us: the next town, the next house, the next room? How long can we keep it at bay? A loved one’s dukkha quickly becomes our dukkha.

Facing this truth may seem like the end of the road, a cliff above a deep abyss. Some people certainly feel that way, giving up hope, succumbing to depression, acting in anger or even ending their lives.

The Buddha understood this point in life as a time when the world we think we know crumbles and disappears in darkness. Something went wrong and now we are lost.

Rather than the end of the line, the Buddha calls this the starting point. He encourages us to begin to question life, our assumptions, how we live and what we think we understand. We begin to seek answers. Thus begins our spiritual journey.

This is why I think the Buddha began teaching the First Noble Truth of dukkha. This is the starting point. When we encounter pain and suffering in life, we are forced to ask questions and to seek answers. We begin to see life differently, embarking on a less worldly and a more spiritual path. It is truly the beginning.

Once at a lecture on Buddhism, someone sitting across the aisle recognized me and said, “Sensei, why are you here? Don’t you already know this stuff?”

I don’t really so I welcome the opportunity to learn more. To me, following the Buddhist path is about constantly deepening our understanding of ourselves, and in turn, growing our appreciation for life. It’s a process that continues throughout our entire life. There is no “end.” No one ever becomes an “expert.”

Yet we live in a world of experts. Turn on the TV and you’ll see countless “experts” talking about the economy, politics, sports, health, beauty, food and so forth. Even young people in their twenties already talk as experts about social networking and the Internet. Experts speak with confidence and authority, fiercely defending their positions and rarely backing down or admitting their failings.

We human beings generally are the same. I think almost every one of us would say we are at least experts at knowing ourselves. These feelings come out when we say, “Don’t tell me what to do” and “I know what’s best for myself” and “I’m right and you’re wrong!”

Interestingly enough, I’ve seen a similar phenomenon among karate teachers. Many Americans receive a certain amount of training, feel they know best, and open their own martial arts schools, proclaiming themselves “grandmaster,” which really irks many tradition-bound teachers, who feel these self-proclaimed experts don’t give enough credit to their teachers and don’t follow traditional lines of lineage. If you’ve ever studied tea ceremony, flower arranging, koto playing, Minyo dance, judo, kendo or any other Japanese art, you know about the great emphasis put on the teacher/student relationship.

A student learns from, respects and appreciates his or her teacher, but the relationship doesn’t stop with two people. Even teachers have teachers, someone they studied under and learned from. Those senior teachers also have teachers, and so on all the way back to the founder. In Japanese arts, this lineage typically extends back to a headquarters in Japan, which symbolizes a tradition’s founder.

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism also follows this kind of traditional thinking, but in a deeper and more profound way. We can all look to Shinran Shonin as a teacher who helps us understand Buddhism and ourselves, even though he lived 800 years ago and we have never met him. Our temple represents his teachings and the Higashi Honganj mother temple in Kyoto symbolizes his life and works.

During his lifetime, Shinran expressed gratitude to his teacher, Honen Shonin, who illuminated to him the words “Namu Amida Butsu.” In his writings, Shinran also cited other Buddhist teachers, some of whom lived centuries apart and in different countries: Genshin (Japan), Shantao, Tao-ch’o, T’an-luan (China), Vasubandhu, Nagarjuna (India), collectively they are known as the Seven Patriarchs of Pure Land Buddhism. Shinran credited his spiritual understanding to this lineage, which ultimately traces its roots back to the Buddha in India.

In Buddhism, the teacher/student relationship transcends mere tradition. It is really representative of our state of mind and attitude in life. As long as we are confident in our views, defend our thinking, are attached to our opinions, think that we are right while others are wrong, that only we ourselves know best, then our minds will never be open to a higher wisdom, greater self-knowledge and deepening compassion. We must feel from the bottom of our hearts the emptiness and ignorance deep within that spurs us to find answers. When we come to realize these feelings, we become spiritual seekers and true students.

In this way, we naturally begin to learn from others, because we are seeking answers. We also naturally become humble, viewing others with appreciation and warmth for what they may teach us.

Only when we become true students does a true teacher appear. Only when we begin to have questions do answers begin to appear. This dynamic is symbolized in the sutras in which the Buddha remains silent, until a seeker approaches with a question. Once asked, the Buddha begins to speak. Likewise, once we become a true student, then the sutras begin to make sense, the rituals begin to take on meaning and the Nembutsu begins to touch our hearts. Anyone and everyone can teach us something.

Through the teacher, we begin to discover answers. Unless we become students, no teacher can help us. True students forever seek answers, constantly learning, constantly growing, in a never-ending process that deepens our understanding and appreciation for the rest of our lives.