- Rev. Ryoko Osa
The teenage years are an especially bright time. At that time I had lots of imagination, passion, energy, strength, beauty. Unfortunately, I have lost most of those things now. But all of you have all of them now.
On the other hand, the way the world is today, I think you might also be experiencing some stress, some anxiety. You are finding out the world is not perfect. And so as you start out in life I want to give you these three words of advice. First: Don’t compare. Second: Don’t rush. Third: Don’t give up. Got it? Never compare, never rush, never give in. In Japanese 比べず、焦らず、あきらめず. So what do I mean by this.
First: Don’t compare. Kurabezu (比べず)
Don’t compare your life to others. There is no comparison between the sun and the moon. They shine when it’s their time. You do not have to compare yourself to your friends. One day you will realize how much beauty you have inside of you.
But since we are human beings, we cannot stop comparing ourselves to others. What others do with their life, what others decide in their lives are very useful for thinking about what you want to do, what you want to decide. But you don’t have to switch your criteria. If you think about it, you realize you have your own criteria, your own way of thinking, and that is enough.
And I hope that Budddhism helps you to form your own criteria. If you listen to Buddhism for a long time, you may come to the conclusion we don’t need any criteria, we just have to accept life as it comes, naturally.
Second: Don’t rush. Aserazu (あせらず)
Aseru (あせる) means to feel rushed, to feel irritated, to feel nervous. Imagine, if you feel like you are drowning, first you have to calm down. If you panic then the more you wave your arms and legs around, the more you drown. You have to calm down, take a deep breath and take things step by step.
Third: Don’t give up. Akiramezu (あきらめず)
Sometimes you feel like you just want to give up. You cannot keep on going like this. But you know you should keep going. You cannot give up. Pick yourself up with a bright thought. Celebrate in your heart. You might be having a hard time in one class. But do your homework. And after it is done give yourself a reward. Play a game, have some ice cream, do whatever you want. Indulge yourself after your hard challenge. It is behind you.
Never give up. Right now the world might seem to be an unforgiving place. But thanks to that experience, one day you realize the Universe is filled with Love. One moment you are drifting on the sea of suffering. And the next your life is floating on an ocean of loving kindness. And because of that your life is not your own to give and take. Your life belongs not just to you. It belongs equally to your parents, to your family, to your friends. Your life is infinitely interconnected equally with everything there is. But if ever you feel like you are at the end of the road and you want to give up, please come to talk to me or one of your ministers. We are here to help.
And so as you start out in life I want to give you these three words of advice. First: Don’t compare. Second: Don’t rush. Third: Don’t give up.
- Rev. Ryoko Osa
Why do you think we hold Shotsuki services or any Buddhist memorial service? Are we doing these services for the benefit of deceased people?
No. We hold memorial services to express our appreciation for the people who have passed away, and we hold these services to receive lessons from them.
Therefore, we hold these services for our own benefit, not for the benefit of deceased people. Remembering and honoring people who have died are things we do for ourselves, not for them. For example, if you hold a memorial service for your mother, the service reminds you that your mother wished for your happiness.
Our temple’s name is Hongan-ji, which means true wish temple. Not only your mother, but there are countless numbers of mothers in this world and in history who wished that their children would be liberated from suffering. Not only the mothers, not only the fathers, not only family and friends think this way, but all human beings want to be liberated from suffering. And they also wish for others to be liberated. This is the meaning of Hongan, true wish.
One woman asked me to conduct a memorial service for her parents. She said to me, “Please chant so that my parents can go to the Pure Land so that they can rest peacefully.”
I told her, “You don’t have to worry about them. They are already in the Pure Land, where they have become Buddhas to you. Buddha means teacher, so you can still listen to them and learn from them. They may not be here in this world anymore and you cannot see them with your eyes physically, but if you remember them, you can meet them many times. Remember how they loved you, how they smiled at you, how they enjoyed being with you.
Your parents loved you. Being loved by somebody is a necessary experience in life. Your life is not only yours. Your life also belongs to the people who love you.
Last March, I had to plan a ministers’ retreat in Los Angeles, so I invited Rev. Hideo Okamoto to be the speaker. He is from Shimane prefecture in Japan. To be honest with you, it wasn’t my idea to invite him. A temple member had asked him to come.
Rev. Okamoto came to Los Angeles and he paid for the airfare and lodging by himself. We only paid a small honorarium “orei” for his lecture. I wanted to know what motivated him to pay his own way in order to come the America to talk about Buddhism.
Since I worked in the North America District Office in LA, I often had the opportunity to meet and talk to the lecturers. For our seminar, I asked Rev. Okamoto to speak about the people who influenced his Buddhist path. He spoke about his Buddhist teacher, his grandmother and his mother. I was impressed by all of his stories. I would like to tell you a little about his mother’s story.
Rev. Okamoto’s mother was not an enthusiastic Nembutsu follower. He thought about what made her happy and what kinds of situations she likes to be in. He realized that when she helped somebody, or when she did something for someone else, and if that person smiled at her, then she felt great pleasure.
For example, she was happy cooking food and giving it to others, especially if they appreciated it and told her, “This is delicious.” She was happy if she could help someone else be happy. I thought maybe this was the reason why Rev. Okamoto came to the US to talk to us. If we could enjoy his talk, and if he saw us enjoying the lecture, then he would be happy.
We are here now living, thinking about all the people who came before us. Please think of them as Buddhas. They are Buddhas who would be happy seeing us living our lives as fully as we can. This is the wish of a Buddha. This is Hongan. Sometimes we may feel alone in life, but through these Buddhist services, we are reminded that we are not alone. We are together with countless Buddhas.
- Rev. Ken Yamada
What sounds remind you of summer? I think of children’s voices at swimming pools, music from an ice cream truck and crackling campfires. At our temple, I imagine Obon odori dance songs and a noisy bazaar crowd. Elsewhere in the world, nature makes its own sounds.
In Japan, people think of cicadas, also called “semi” in Japanese. They are big moth-like creatures that appear in August, which is usually the hottest month. They are not particularly cute, in fact, you may think they’re scary looking. Cicadas make a high-pitch buzzing noise mixed with a fast cricket-like clicking. They’re so loud that when dozens or even hundreds are perched in trees, they’d drown out a conversation.
Yet people think of these insects with great affection, depicting them in paintings, songs and poems. Buddhist teachers also like to speak of cicadas because they exemplify a great truth taught by the Buddha—impermanence.
Adult cicadas lay eggs, which hatch into a kind of larvae that burrows underground, where it will stay as long as 17 years. Only when the weather gets hot and the ground warms will the cicada rise from the ground and crawl up trees, where after a short time, it sprouts wings and is able to fly.
The now adult cicada begins to “sing” by vibrating its body, sometimes flying through the air and often resting in trees. Their sound can be overwhelming. You can hear them near farm fields, in forests and in cities. They seem to be everywhere.
However once above ground, cicadas only live for about four to five weeks. During that entire time, they seem to be singing at the top of their “voices.”
If we knew we only had a month to live, would we be able to sing so joyfully? Probably not. We’d frantically seek a medical cure, fret with worry, sink into depression, hide in fear, desperately pray, try to do something to change our situation or suddenly wonder about heaven or the Pure Land, thinking things will be better there. Meanwhile, time preciously slips away.
By contrast, cicadas seem unbothered by such worries and anxieties. Instead, they use whatever time they have to fully live, enjoy the summer and sing joyfully.
You may think, “Well, cicadas have such a short life, of course they must live as much as possible during that time. But humans live much longer. We have time to worry about those other things.”
Time is relative of course. At Calaveras Big Trees State Park, where we have our summer camping trip, there’s an old redwood tree that’s more than 1,200 years old. These giant redwood trees may be looking down at us, thinking, “Why aren’t these humans fully living and enjoying their lives? Their lifespan is so short. Why are they wasting time, fighting, worrying and chasing after unimportant things?”
With this kind of awareness, the poet Basho wrote this haiku 350 years ago:
Of an early death,
Showing no signs,
The cicada’s voice.
The cicadas’ singing also tells people that time is quickly passing, summer is coming to an end, the weather will soon cool and fall will be upon us. The cicadas seem to be saying, we’re all living in a world of impermanence.
The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said: “If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. When a flower dies, you don't suffer much, because you understand that flowers are impermanent. But you cannot accept the impermanence of your beloved one, and you suffer deeply when she passes away. If you look deeply into impermanence, you will do your best to make her happy right now. Aware of impermanence, you become positive, loving and wise. Impermanence is good news. Without impermanence, nothing would be possible. With impermanence, every door is open for change. Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation.”
Listen to the sounds of summer. Come to our Obon dance and hear the music. Enjoy our summer bazaar. Enjoy the summer weather. Stop fretting, stop chasing after frivolous things, driven by selfish desires. Nothing lasts forever. Now is the time to figure out what’s precious and important. Live fully now.
- Rev. Ken Yamada
When a person dies, many people don’t know what to do, having before never thought about it. In this regard, I’d like to clarify our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist traditions.
If a person is terminally ill or otherwise at the end of life, families typically contact their temple’s minister about the person’s condition. If possible, the minister will make a visit, but there is no “last rites” ritual.
Once a person passes away however, the minister performs a simple bedside service called “makurakyo.” Oftentimes, it’s impractical or impossible immediately to do a makurakyo, especially if the person is in a hospital, the hour is late and no family members are present. If so, a short service may take place the first opportunity family members meet.
The family then plans a funeral with the minister’s guidance. Depending on timing, the funeral may be followed by a seven day service. Nowadays, funerals often take place past the seven day period so it may be combined with the funeral.
Afterwards, there is a 49 day service, along with other services held on certain memorial date anniversaries, such as the first year, third year, seventh year, 13th, 17th, 25th, and 33rd year. Of course, it’s entirely up to the family how strictly they want to follow or ignore these traditions.
Instead of a service, I’ve seen instances where families held a “Celebration of Life” banquet in honor of the deceased, including pictures, toasts, and remembrances. I’ve also known cases where nothing was done at the deceased’s last request, leaving family and friends feeling a lack of closure.
Toasting to a recently deceased friend at a dinner is nice but from a Buddhist perspective, our worldview stays the same. We’ll go back to our daily lives without any deeper understanding of life and death. It’s a lost opportunity. Confronting a loved one’s death is perhaps the most painful experience we face. It’s a time when important questions slap us in the face, and it’s a time when answers lay within reach.
To clarify, memorial services aren’t conducted for the deceased’s benefit, to somehow send a person to the Pure Land. Rather, it’s a time to remember and honor a person, and also a way to express our appreciation. But there’s a bigger reason.
In Buddhism, any service is an opportunity to hear the Buddha dharma, or Buddhist teachings. We are asked to self reflect and deepen our understanding of life, encouraged by rituals and chanting, and by the dharma talks. Our everyday thinking is challenged. By shifting our perspective, we hope to gain a new way of seeing the world.
These services also help people feel a sense of connection with a person, help them deal with feelings of loss and loneliness, and help them find a sense of peace.
Many people hold funerals, 49 day services, and even one year services but the number of people holding a memorial afterwards drops drastically. Perhaps they’re busy, they forget or don’t think it’s important, which is unfortunate because I think memorials provide families with a strong spiritual foundation. Often, it’s the only time when family members come to the temple, and done over time, they at least periodically have a chance to listen to the dharma. In this way, they’re encouraged to reflect on their karmic connection to one another and feel a sense of appreciation for their lives.
Done over decades, it’s also a way for children and grandchildren to feel a sense of connection with their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and with the Buddhist teachings.
Many people, especially parents thinking about their children, wonder how they can cultivate a more spiritual life. Our memorial service tradition was handed down to us through countless generations for just that reason. It’s a path open to all, that is, if you choose to follow it.
- Rev. Ken Yamada
In our world today, people are suffering from war, terrorism, intolerance, hunger, sickness and oppression. Many of them are fleeing their homes and countries. Likewise, even in our own cities, people face great hardships.
The Buddha once said, “See yourself in others.” As we tell kids in dharma school, “we all are links in the golden chain of life.” We are interconnected and ultimately One. But the Buddha also pointed out it’s hard to see beyond our selfish desires and self-centeredness, blocking our connection to each other.
Guess where I saw this Buddhist teaching nicely explained? In the Christian bible! It’s in the story of the “The Good Samaritan.”
To summarize, a lawyer asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling this parable: A man walking down from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by robbers, who took his possessions and clothes, beat him and left him to die.
A priest came by, saw the injured man, and continued walking. Another man did the same. A Samaritan, from a race hated by the Jews, saw the hurt man, poured oil and wine on his wounds, bandaged him, and took him by donkey to an inn. He gave the innkeeper money to care for the hurt man and said he would return to pay for any additional expenses.
Jesus asked who had been a neighbor. The lawyer answered the man who showed mercy. Jesus told him, “You go and do likewise.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader, commented on the story and tried to think of reasons why the first two men didn’t stop to help. Perhaps they were in a hurry, or restricted from helping because of some religious law, he said.
Dr. King had driven down that same road and saw it was steep and treacherous. During the days of Jesus, it was known as “Bloody Pass.” Perhaps the men were afraid that robbers were still there, or that maybe the man was faking and was himself a robber. He imagined those two men asking themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
Dr. King said the Samaritan came by and reversed the question, “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Flipping one’s perspective is a classic Buddhist technique that can teach us much about ourselves. For example, instead of looking outwardly to satisfy our desires, we are encouraged to look inwards at ourselves. Instead of directing our anger outwardly at other people, we are encouraged to see anger’s source within ourselves.
Many people, communities and even nations are confronting the same challenges posed by this parable. At the international level, countries are wondering if they should welcome refugees. Many of them wonder that if they did, “What will happen to us?” They fear terrorism, crime, overcrowding, and job loss. Consequently some of them shut their borders.
Many people in our world today are in need—the homeless, the poor, the sick, the elderly and all those less fortunate than us. We must ask ourselves, “If I don’t help, what will happen to them.”
Please try to think about and help others, not only during the holidays, but always. Namu Amida Butsu.