Some people give lots of money to Buddhist temples, thinking, the more I give, the more "good luck" and "good fortune" I'll receive. Is this what it means to be Buddhist? Not really.
People tell me, “I haven’t been to Sunday service in awhile—I’ve been a bad Buddhist.” Are they really? Other people describe themselves as “nightstand Buddhists” because they like to read Buddhist books before going to bed, but don’t belong to any sangha or follow any practice. Are they real Buddhists?
When I was first ordained as a priest over twenty years ago, I had to shave my head and wear traditional robes. As I walked through the temple grounds in Kyoto, people reverently bowed to me because they saw someone who “looked” like a real Buddhist. Feeling uncomfortable, I wanted to shout: “Hey, I’m just like you.”
Sitting in a dull college lecture that lacked personal feeling and emotion, I once commented to a friend, “Sometimes, I wish these Buddhist professors were Buddhists!” To which my friend said: “You think only people who call themselves Buddhists can talk about Buddhism? Well I know some Christians who are more Buddhists than Buddhists. And I know some Buddhists who seem more Christian than Buddhists!”
Who is a true Buddhist?
My brother Bill I believe became a true Buddhist. For most of his life, he wasn’t religious. Aside from attending Dharma school for a short time as a child, he didn’t do anything in his adult life connected with Buddhism. Instead, he focused on his career as an advertising executive, first in San Francisco and then in New York City. There, he rose to a high position at a large company while enjoying the fruits of his labor—a condominium in a fashionable part of town, a luxury automobile, imported clothes, and a life of jet setting to faraway places.
One day, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a particularly deadly and fast-spreading condition. The world of luxury and comfort he strived to create, suddenly crumbled, leaving him in a state of shock. He telephoned our mother and while telling her about his condition, broke down and asked, “Why did this happen to me?”
He fought the disease with various treatments, but to little effect. As his condition worsened, he became more thoughtful and introspective. He began spending more time with his two children. When he was busy climbing the ladder of corporate success, he often didn’t have time for them. Now they were a priority. During the winter holidays, he brought his sons to their grandparents in California. He asked me to drive them to Lake Tahoe to see the snow. While parked near the lake, the two boys played outside while my brother lay in his seat, too weak and in too much pain to go out.
The way he thought was changing. He told people not to work so hard, not to think about money so much, but rather, to appreciate life more, and to spend more time with family and friends. This advice was the total opposite of the way he lived while he strived for riches and career success.
On New Year’s Eve, our temple held a year-end service. Although my brother was sick, he insisted we go. Standing before the altar, he put his hands together in gassho, quietly recited “Namu Amida Butsu,” then slowly and deeply bowed his head. Watching him, I thought: “This is the act of a truly spiritual person.” My brother’s journey in life had ultimately turned inward.
A similar kind of experience took place in the early life of the Buddha. Born into a royal family, Prince Siddhartha, as he was called, lived in a palace surrounded by luxury. He ate the best food available, wore expensive garments, lived in a big house, had horses and chariots, and basked in a life of comfort. One day, Siddhartha ventured out of the palace with his servant. He encountered a person on the side of the road who was pale and weak. “What is wrong,” he asked his attendant. “He is sick; sickness affects all of us,” came the answer.
Another day, Siddhartha saw a person walking very slowly, hunched and with scaly skin. “What is wrong,” he asked. “He is old; aging affects us all,” came the answer.
On another day, Siddhartha saw a procession of people who were crying and quite sad. They carried upon a board a person who was stiff and white. “What is wrong,” Siddhartha asked. “He is dead; All people meet with death,” came the answer.
All that Siddhartha had seen greatly disturbed him, upsetting his comfortable life. He began to question life and its meaning. All that he believed—that life was about pursuing pleasure for oneself, accumulating wealth, and surrounding himself with comfort—was fleeting and empty, for when he thought about it, those things only lead to a temporary feeling of happiness, but ultimately, they fade away. “What is the true meaning of life,” he asked himself. “Who am I? Why am I here?”
One day he encountered an ascetic who was walking serenely down the road. “Who is he?” “He is a spiritual seeker looking for life’s answers,” came the answer. Siddhartha decided to follow a spiritual path.
In life, we encounter sickness, old age, and death, through our friends, through our family members, and ultimately through our own lives. In other words, we all experience hardship, suffering and conflict. In doing so, our life may turn upside down. At this point, it is easy to feel lost, anger, frustration, depression and sadness, feeling cheated that life isn’t going the way it should. The world of happiness that we were striving to create through our efforts, suddenly disappears and we’re left with a feeling of emptiness.
People naturally begin to question their assumptions about the way they were living. “What is my purpose? Just to make money and buy things? To make myself better than other people? Am I alone in this world? Why was I born? Why must I die? Where is my life going?”
To begin asking these questions—to become a “spiritual seeker”—is to follow the footsteps of Siddhartha. In setting out in our journey, fortunately we may tread on the path set forth by the Buddha, learning through his words, teachings, experiences, and practice. Asking questions, seeking answers and following the path of the Buddha is the true meaning of being “Buddhist.”
As the saying goes, “Seek and ye shall find.” In asking life’s questions, life’s answers will come. If there are no questions, then there are no answers. The Buddha dharma only makes sense to people who are seeking the deeper truths about life. People who go about life without any urge to see beyond the everyday world, of course have no need for “spirituality” or Buddhism. It makes no sense to them and has no value. This way of thinking is quite logical indeed. That’s why there’s no importance placed on “converting” people to Buddhism. If life is good, then there’s no need for Buddhism. Fine. As they say, “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
For the thirsty, however, Buddhism is a fountain of spring water. To people who are really seeking to understand their lives, to those “true Buddhists,” the Dharma is the light of infinite wisdom.
Putting our hands together in Buddhism is called “gassho.” Let’s examine what it means to gassho.
Firstly, there’s a proper way to do gassho. Hands are placed at the mid-chest level, palms together, fingers straight and pointed at a 45 degree angle upwards. The wrists should be close to the chest.
By contrast, other ways that people gassho may be to touch the elbows to the body, so the hands are away from the body. Or the elbows are held away from the body so the fingers are pointing straight up. Or the elbows jut out so the arms are parallel with the ground. A Chinese bow may have the left hand open and the right hand in a fist. In Shorinji kempo (a Buddhist martial art like karate), the fingers are spread apart. In certain parts of the world, such as in Sri Lanka and Thailand, people may greet each other with gassho.
When we gassho, we place our hands together and recite the Nembutsu, the words “Namu Amida Butsu.” Placing our hands together while reciting the Nembutsu is called “gassho” in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.
Gassho is more than a pose. It is symbolic of the Dharma, the truth about life. For instance, we place together our right and left hand, which are opposites. It represents other opposites as well: you and me, light and dark, ignorance and wisdom, life and death.
We also place a nenju (also called ojuzu) around both hands when we gassho. The nenju represents the Buddha’s teachings. Therefore, gassho means that through the Buddha’s teachings, we can see that these opposites are really one.
Gassho also symbolizes respect, the Buddhist teachings, and the Dharma. It also is an expression of our feelings of gratitude and our inter-connectedness with each other. It symbolizes the realization that our lives are supported by innumerable causes and conditions. Tradition has given us this symbol. I urge you to think deeply about why you gassho and to make it your own, so that it arises from your innermost being.
I heard of a group of American junior Youth Buddhist Association (Jr. YBA) students who visited Japan. One day they took a trip to Hiroshima to visit the Atomic bomb museum. If you’ve ever seen the memorial, you know that it can be a moving and emotional experience. The museum tells the story of how during World War II the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in Japan. In a flash, the entire city was destroyed and many thousands of people died, including many children.
As the teenagers looked at the memorial, tears started to well in their eyes. Then someone started to gassho. One by one, they put their hands together in gassho, quietly bowing their heads.
How else could they express their thoughts and feelings about what they saw and what they felt—sadness for those who perished, despair from knowing this was a real event and helplessness of knowing that wars continue to be fought, Those feelings meshed with hopes that such an event will never occur again and a wish for peace throughout the world. What more perfect way to express those conflicting feeling than to gassho?
Gassho is not an empty gesture. It is an expression of life and our innermost feelings. In Jodo Shinshu, it is said that it represents our deepest aspiration, symbolized by the vow made by Amida Buddha that we all will be awakened to the oneness of life, that we are all interdependent, and that we are all special because we share this life together. This is the meaning of gassho and this is the meaning of “Namu Amida Butsu.”
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