March 2021 Message

One year ago...
by Reverend Dean Koyama

The Jodo Shinshu classic, Tannisho, is a collection of essays by one of Shinran’s trusted disciples, Yuien. In these essays, Yuien shares what he remembers hearing and experiencing with his beloved teacher. In Chapter Nine, Yuien shares a concern with Shinran that although he relies deeply upon the compassion of the Buddha and says the Nembutsu, he rarely feels a joyful happiness nor does he wish to immediately go to the Pure Land.

Yuien is surprised when Shinran has the very same concern and responds by saying, “Me too!”

Shinran goes on to explain that it is because of this hesitancy of wanting to go to the Pure Land and the lack of joy that all the more so is the Buddha’s compassion directed to such people. It is due to the working of the ego and blind passions that suppress any expression of joy and raises the doubt and hesitancy for one to desire to go to the Pure Land. In more detail, Yuien recalls Shinran’s words further:

The working of blind passions also causes us not to want to go to the Pure Land and makes us feel uneasy worrying about death when we become even slightly ill. Impossible it does not seem to leave this old house of agitation where we have wandered aimlessly since the beginning of time, nor can we long for the Pure Land of peace which we have yet to know. This is due to blind passion so truly powerful and overwhelming. But no matter how reluctant we may be, when our life in this world comes to an end, beyond our control, then for the first time we go to the land of Fulfillment. Those who do not want to go immediately are the special concern of true compassion. For this very reason, the Vow of true compassion is completely dependable and our birth in the Pure Land is absolutely certain.
(Tannisho, Chapter 9. Translated by Taitetsu Unno, p.14.)

We are reaching the one-year milestone since we have been asked to shelter-in-place due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I can vividly recall where I was when I got an emergency text message from the county health departing stating that a mandatory Stay-at-Home order was to begin at midnight that night. At the time, I had thought that we would need to isolate ourselves from others for a couple of weeks, perhaps a month, before we would be able to resume our normal lives. At first it was nice because it reminded of the Snow Days when we lived in Seattle and everything just shut down until the snow cleared. I took the Stay-at-Home order seriously and obeyed it with diligence. It was like a true Stay-cation. However after a month, the novelty of it all wore off.

Again, at the time, the then-president was on the news claiming that we may see at the most maybe 15 cases of the virus and then it would magically disappear, but sadly that was not the case. Here we are almost one year later. With 110,000,000 cases world-wide and 27 Million just in the US. Even sadder, is that 2.5 Million have died world-wide and we are approaching the half-a-million mark for deaths just in the US alone. That is slightly more than the city population of Sacramento, my home town. Imagine the population of a whole city had been wiped out!

And now with the different variants of the virus being discovered that are more readily contagious than the original, cities and countries around the world are going through another round of complete shut downs. These shut downs in other parts of the world forecast that the United States, which has the most cases and most deaths by far than any other country in the world, will need to shut down once again as these variants are being found here as well.

With that in mind, I am expecting to hear many grumblings and complaints once again about wearing a mask, keeping our social distances and avoiding big crowds. Those complaining may cite that because vaccines have become available and tens of millions have already received their shots, there is no need to worry. They will be opposed to shutting down stores, restaurants and bars. They will want to be able to be in-person at their sporting events and concerts. They will complain that shutting down is an infringement upon their individual rights of freedom and will hurt the economy causing many small business to close. Here I am reminded of something our founder, Shinran Shonin had once advised some of his followers.

Both Shinran and his teacher, Hōnen placed great emphasis on Amida Buddha’s fulfilled Primal Vow of Boundless Wisdom and Unconditional Compassion. According to them, the reason Dharmakara Bodhisattva selected this Primal Vow as the focus of his practice was to help all beings, especially those who were completely devoid of any ability to fulfill acts of goodness, attain birth into the Pure Land and attain Enlightenment. This was meant for those following the path of Nembutsu to reflect deeply upon the true nature of their being and ultimately realize and experience the compassionate heart and mind of the Buddha.

However, this teaching was distorted and misused. The simple logic behind this deviant understanding was that if the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha was meant for those who could do no good, then one should do no good on purpose. People took this to mean that monks no longer needed to protect their precepts and they were free and even encouraged to drink liquor, eat meat and other illicit behavior. And if the monks could behave in this way, why couldn’t the lay also break the law, gamble and do whatever they wanted to do to satisfy their own selfish whims?

In chapter 13 of the Tannisho,

Once there was a person who fell into wrong views proclaiming that he would purposefully do evil as a way for attaining birth, since the Vow is directed to those who commit evil. Thus saying, he performed many evil acts. When Shinran heard about this, he admonished in a letter, “Do not take poison just because there is an antidote.” He made this pint to correct such wrong attachments, but not at all to say that evil is an obstacle to attaining birth.
(Based on Taitetsu Unno’s translation. p. 24)

I am sure that we will all feel relieved when we are all able to receive the full treatment of the vaccine. But just because we have gotten the shots doesn’t mean that we can abandon the protocol of wearing a mask, keeping social distance and avoid big crowds. We will not be able to return to any sense of normalcy until the virus is totally eradicated or under total control.

March is the season for the Spring Equinox and Ohigan. Ohigan refers to the Shore of Amida’a Pure Land. The emphasis during this time is to focus upon our practice so that one day we may reach that shore of Utmost Happiness and Joy. Of course, through the power of the Primal Vow, our approach to the Pure Land is already determined and assured. The point of practice is to find the balance that is necessary in going towards the Pure Land and living in this world that is often filled with selfishness, greed, anger and ignorance. Perhaps we may not have the desire to go to the Pure Land early or unexpectedly, nor do we need to worry about whether or not we deserve to go. But that does not mean that we can go ahead and abandon all thoughts or actions of kindness, concern, and good will toward others. It is because of this assuredness and certainty of birth in the Pure Land when it is our time, that our actions should result in a willingness to express a desire to repay a great debt of gratitude for being able to enjoy this life that we have received. And yet, it is the working of our calculating ego that puts doubt into our minds preventing us from experiencing the joy of that assuredness. It is the Nembutsu that helps us keep our balance as we tread upon this path toward the Pure Land and live in this world of now.

Rev. Dean Koyama