- Rev. Ryoko Osa
Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It also happens to be the name of a movie. The Butterfly Effect refers to how a very small and seemingly insignificant occurrence could influence the world in a substantial way. The term was originally coined by a scientist named Edward Lorenz who discovered that a small change in the input of data could result in a completely different result from what was expected. The term came about when a fellow researcher posed the following question: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
An old Japanese proverb goes, “When the wind blows, the tub makers profit.” The reasoning is, when a strong wind comes, dust flies into people’s eyes, and the numbers of those without sight increases. In olden days, blind people often became shamisen (traditional three-string instrument) performers. So the sales of the instrument increased. The front of a shamisen is made of the skin of cats. So when shamisen sales go up, cats become scarce. When cats become scarce, the number of mice increase. Mice love to gnaw on wooden tubs, and so people need to replace their tubs. Thus the proverb, “When the wind blows, the tub makers profit.”
In this way, a small and insignificant cause can bring about a big and unexpected effect that could not have been predicted. Simply put, it is to say that there is no way that we can predict what will happen in the future.
I began to think that the Butterfly Effect is similar to the important concept of dependent origination in Buddhism. It is to say that causes and the countless conditions that affect those causes lead to some kind of effect. Things, in other words, do not happen solely on their own. This is what Buddhism refers to as karma. It may be easier to understand by thinking about the following story.
A young man was asked by his mother to buy her pick up something at a store. So after work, he took a different way home in order to stop at the store. On the way, he saw a motorcycle shop with a sharp looking bike on display. It’s exactly what he’d been looking for, and so he buys the bike. On the way home, tragically, he’s killed in a collision with a truck.
This tragedy occurs because the young man decided to take a different way home. What would we think if we were the mother? In her despair, she might think, “If only I didn’t ask him to go shopping for me,” and feel tremendous guilt for what had happened to her son.
We have the tendency to search for the one cause of an effect. But Buddhism teaches us that there is no one cause for something to happen. There are many causes and those causes are influenced by many conditions to bring about the natural course that is the effect we are looking at.
In reflecting on the young man in the previous story, there is no one cause for his death. At each turn, if there was even a slight change, he might not have been killed. If he were not asked to go shopping, if he hadn’t stopped at the motorcycle shop, if he wasn’t interested in motorcycles, if that truck hadn’t come in his direction…any of these things would have prevented his death.
When we look at the causes of an effect, we see that there are so many different conditions that could have resulted in a different effect. This is the Butterfly Effect – a multitude of small causes and conditions changing the effect – something that can happen infinitely.
If is for this reason that the mother cannot be blamed for “asking her son to go shopping for her.” “If this had happened, that would not have happened.” It is useless to think in such ways.
However, as human beings, we cannot help but feel guilt when a bad result occurs. The reason why is life does not proceed simply due to those causes and conditions. We consciously (or unconsciously) make decisions at every moment of our lives. But those choices are influenced by our environment in the same way that our personalities are shaped. Conditions are accumulated to push us to make the decisions we make. That means that we cannot totally control the things that happen in our lives. In a real sense, we do not have the power to control our lives.
When we reflect on the past in the context of the present, we see that the effects occurring now are the products of causes and conditions of the past. This is what Buddhism calls karma.
A cup is filled with water. When another drop of water is inserted into the cup, the cup overflows. The reason the cup overflows is that the seemingly insignificant addition of one small drop is inserted into the cup. It may be a small change, but it can have the effect of changing one’s life. How that result affects a person may differ from one person to another.
A mistake often made is to equate fate with karma. Fate is when one looks at the future in the context of the present and determines that a certain result will occur. Buddhism looks at the causes from the result to see that the causes and conditions of the past have brought forth the result at hand. This is what we call karma.
To be distressed by or be proud of what happened in the past, to feel anxiety or anticipation for what is to come in the future…for any human being, these are feelings that one cannot help having. But when we get too caught up in such thinking, it can only lead to suffering. The past did not occur through our own power; the future will not pan out in the way we hope due to our own capabilities.
We cannot predict the future. There is no way we can predict what will happen, but it is there that the endless possibilities of the future exist for us. That’s why life is so interesting and full of promise. Experiencing both sadness and joy, we try to live with strength the lives we have been given.
- 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.
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