Vesak Day – 2018 Dharma Talk

by Kakuyo Sensei,

I would like to welcome everyone to our Hanamatsuri festival today, which is also called Vesak day – where Buddhist of many traditions celebrate the Buddhas appearance into the world – but not just his appearance –

The Buddha was once asked: Are you a god?” “No,” he replied. “Are you a reincarnation of god?” “No,” he replied. “Are you a wizard, then?” “No.” “Well, are you just a man?” “No.” “So what are you?” They asked, being very perplexed at answers. The Buddha simply replied: “I am awake.”

Today we are not only celebrating his birth but also celebrating his awakening and not just his awakening but also his passing away – indeed we are celebrating the whole life of the man we call Buddha – the awakened one.

Together we celebrate the amazing birth of the Buddha, and we are also celebrating our own miraculous birth – the very fact that we are alive is a precious gift – in a meaningful way Vesak day is also a celebration of our miraculous birth -we celebrate the fact of being alive – We celebrate knowing that the Buddha’s birth, and our birth and our awakenings are mutually dependent.

Some may wonder why we celebrate when we do – And I don’t think that it is by accident that Vesak is in the spring – I love the spring –

So -in our front yard is this stick of a peach tree – We planted it late in the season last year, and I was wondering just a week ago if it was even alive, just standing there in its naked stick-ness and then on Wednesday Linnea pointed out its new shy dress of flowers!  Then after that, I started noticing all the flowering trees at the end of our street – how did I not notice them before –

Now no one has any idea of when Shakyamuni was actually born– April or August is unimportant – Vesak is celebrated during Spring allowing nature to be a teacher – to be a poet – During Spring the natural world awakens from its winter sleeping – and the Buddha coming into the world is like the world waking up – many of us understand this, we who were sleepwalking before we found the teachings of the Buddha –  the first exuberant blossoms of spring waking from within the peach tree remind  us of the possibility of our awakening.

This day is also a day to reflect on the miracle of birth itself – we are grateful for the birth of the Buddha and our precious birth – Each of our individual  lives are utterly unique and unrepeatable, and today we can reflect on this fact how precious life is and not just a life to endure, but through the Buddha’s example and teaching  – an “awakened” life be lived in gratitude and joy.

In the Buddhist tradition, our human birth is seen as precious, more valuable than any treasure.   In the Chiggala Sutra, the Buddha speaks of the chances of being born a human being. Those chances, he observes, are infinitesimally small. They are comparable to those of a blind tortoise swimming in an ocean as large as the planet, where an ox’s yoke is afloat on the waves. Every one hundred years, the tortoise surfaces. The chances of being born human are no better than those of the tortoise surfacing with his head in the yoke. Human birth is extremely rare and therefore most precious.

So to put into modern terms instead of an Ox Yoke, let’s say a life preserver – so what are the chances –that our turtle could do just that? Actually, someone has figured that one out – a Dr.  Ali Banazir took the size of all the oceans and the size of the opening of a life preserver and calculated the odds and calculate that they would be about 1 in 7 trillion – and this scenario the ocean is still as glass and there are no winds blowing our life preserver.

Dr. Benazir did not stop there. He wondered about each of us; what were the odds of just our parent’s meeting (I will post the math on our FB page).  To be concise, he found that the odds of your parents just meeting was 1 / 20,000.  Talking to one another is another 1 in 10 and wanting to talk again is also 1 in 10. So the probability of them liking each other enough to have children is about 1 in 400 million – not stopping there, the chance that one sperm carrying ½ of your DNA and that one egg carrying the other half meeting and go to full term…that number is 1 in 400 quadrillions!  But hold on – if we go back in time to all of your ancestors which are about 150,000 generations all with about the same odds that you had to be born – the number works out to be about the 400 Quadrillion number raised to the 150,000 power – that number is a ten followed by 2,640,000 zeros. Think about that for a moment.  All that has happened for us to be here- and we complain about traffic or our neighbor, we worry needlessly about this or that – we try hard to seem special.  You already are. Ten followed by 2,600.00 zeros!

From this simple example of probability, we can see the Buddha’s teachings of interdependence, of all the causes and conditions that have conspired to make you and I – we can see from this what a rare and wonderful gift our births are.  When this really sinks in then we may even ask ourselves the same question Mary Oliver asks in her poem

The Summer Day,” when she writes,

“what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Vesak Day is a good day to ask ourselves this very question –  “what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Rev. Shelley Fisher of the Reno Buddhist Temple has written:

“Realizing this we can see that our birth is truly a rare and wonderful gift. We have a deep obligation to live this life in mindfulness and Joy and compassion.

So what has finding the dharma mean to you and your life?

All of the events that we contemplate on Vesak day – the Buddha’s birth, awakening, and death all of these events are linked to the Buddha’s message, they are all connected to the result of Shakyamuni Buddha’s search to know himself, and by so doing know each of us.  Tara Brach writes that we learn from each of these events that   “We each have the potential to realize and live from an awakened heart and mind.”  –

And when this happens; we all become Buddha, when we are awakened to our own Buddha nature.

We all become Buddhas – a good question could be what does that mean in an everyday sense?  I want to share a quote that I shared at our last Vesak celebration. That gives us one possible answer that might just ring true for you.  It was written by one of the head priests at the Stone Creek Zen Center = Dojin – she writes the following,

“And today is as good a day as any to deeply thank this person for what he brought to the world. But, today of all days is also a great day to really think about what a Buddha is because what a Buddha is, is not limited to one person.  What Buddha really is, is a moment whenever great wisdom and compassion come together in this world in a thought, or action, in-kind word, a moment of selfless generosity, and helps to free up this world. That’s what Buddha is. What Buddha showing up in this world really is, is when any one of us, or anyone else in this world suddenly remembers how precious we are, and how important all the beings and things around us are, and how we are all so closely connected, and we act or speak or even think from that place.”

 

Washing the Buddha

We are now going to participate in the washing of the Buddha – a tradition practiced on Hanamatsuri – on Vesak day for over a thousand years by Buddhists all over the world. Those who would like to are welcome – there is no expectation that you do. We wash the baby Buddha as a welcoming into our lives and as a representation of the washing away the dust from our eyes, washing away our ignorance to reveal our innate Buddha-nature to give birth to the Buddha within each of us – and to turn our hearts to all sentient beings.

 How to wash the Buddha

How is it done?  First, we approach the table and bow. Then we take the ladle and pour the water over the Buddha three times – representing the washing away of all that which obscures our awareness of our innate Buddha-nature. The first time we say to ourselves, May I eliminate harmful thoughts – the second, may I practice kindness to all beings – and then lastly, may I help awaken all living beings.  Then bow and silently say Namu Amida Butsu.

I will ring the bell three times once – after the last ring you may stand a walk slowly to the table with the water and the Infant Buddha and begin – the rest of us will recite THE Hanamatsuri Aspiration handed out earlier –

Ring the bell three times

Closing

I want to close with the words of Rev Fisher again,

“We celebrate the Buddha’s birthday today.  We remember to be grateful for all that he has taught us – grateful to be born human – this wonderful unrepeatable life, grateful for showing us that we are all connected to each other, grateful to know that we all are born with Buddha nature, and grateful for Amida’s Vow reaching out to all of us, no matter how troubled, no matter how happy – that we may find Joy in life.

 

Namu Amida Butsu.

Ku Yo – Offerings to all the Buddhas

“ Ku Yo, making an offering is a very important virtue in the Buddha’s Way…Ku Yo is done in relation to someone who is more worthy than oneself…to do Ku Yo is one way of expressing profound gratitude and nourishment for the very source of our gratitude…it is an honor to do Ku Yo.” – Gyomay Kubose

 

The concept of Ku Yo resonates with me. To make offerings to all the Buddhas is something that brought me back to Buddhism, after being away for a while. I have no idea of why this is what brought me back. If I look at my history, one would think that this is what would drive me away instead of drawing me nearer. Recently I was re-reading the Shorter Pure Land Sutra about how one of the practices in the Pure Land being was to make offerings to countless Buddhas of other Buddha lands. In Sukhavati, it rains Mandarava blossoms all the time, and those flowers are gathered up and then offered to numerous Buddhas across the universe. Along with other meditative or Bodhisattva practices, there is also the practice of Ku Yo. I love that fact that the offering to the Buddhas is not something that is rare but something that is continuously unfolding. I like to think of the flowers as a representation of the compassion and practice of those living in the Pure Land; the flowers raining from the sky represent the fruit of practice and awakening. As Mark Healsmith has written, “The flower is a wonderful exemplar of the uniqueness yet interconnectedness of all life “ and makes the offering of them an expression of the interconnectedness of all life and “profound gratitude, for the very source of our gratitude.”

The other reason why Ku Yo resonates with me is it is something that I have been contemplating. I have been thinking about Ku Yo in the frame of the “Way of Gratitude” and some of the barriers that impede our cultivation of it. I have been thinking about the role of humility and gratitude and how humility is one of its prerequisites. I think, at times, we struggle with gratitude because we struggle with humility. As I have been thinking about this and asking others, I found that for many of us we struggle with humility because we have not experienced it, only its unhealthy sibling; Shame. In humility we are open, we are ready to learn, we show both sides of the leaf. With shame, we close our self off from the outside world and bury our leaf in the darkest hole. In this state of mind when we see someone with boundless compassion or great practice we do not see it as something we can learn from, but they become a source of further comparison and a deepening shame of our failures. That which could give us hope and insight into our Buddha Nature only becomes a testament to our failures. Gratitude gets choked off in the darkness. Humility, on the other hand, opens us up to awe and the acceptance of our limitation, it frees us to “keep going” without the burden of judgment and shame.

As Gyomay writes, Ku Yo practice is being done in relation to someone or something that is more worthy than oneself. More worthy than me? A part of us does not like such a statement. Here is where many of us live in a paradox. In our shame we feel unworthy and yet we bristle at the idea of someone being more worthy than us? Why is this concept so challenging for some of us? Maybe it is because we have inherited the karma of “rugged individualism” and a misplaced meaning of “equality”? In opening services at our Sangha, we recite lines from the opening they use at Plum Village Sangha in France. One of the lines says, “may we be free from the “equality complex””, to remind ourselves that there are things greater than ourselves, like the three refuges for example; the Dharma, The Sangha and the Buddha. I am grateful that there are things in this world greater than me! I feel a sympathetic joy and gratitude to those I make offerings to. I think that Ku Yo is the fruit of “sincerely seeking the true life” (46) There is no Ku Yo without “true life” and no true life without “Ku Yo”, they “co-arise”. Offerings to the Buddha inspire us to become Buddhas, they come from the heart, there is no ego in it.” (46) all the time realizing that what bows and is bowed to are the same.

I have great appreciation for the more psychological and secular forms of Buddhism and they have been companions with me on my journey. At the same time I appreciate the idea of something greater than my small ego-self, a point of reference that elicits awe, a devotional expression within samsaric dualism, that works dynamically through poetry, metaphor and experience to dissolve all dualisms into the great ocean of compassion.

The Grace of Oneness

“ This realization of oneness. It involves the highest type of communication and respect.  IF your life is realized in the this sense…you would see that the whole world supports you.  You exist because others; everything supports your life.  This totality, this oneness evokes a gratitude and a great joy beyond explanation.” Gyomay Kubose

 

We live a life immersed in grace;  the grace of being supported by all things at all times. We are supported by the solar system, by the sun that continually lights our world and drives the processes that help the earth to give us air to breath, water to drink and food to eat, that helps us to see, We are supported by the smallest things, to the largest. We are supported by microbes and bees that help create the food we eat, and by all the trees that help us breathe.   The bees give us grace every day, the trees give us grace, and there is also the grace given by our ancestors down through long passages of time; so much grace given that is still within in us now.  We are all interdependent and existent in this very moment.  In the midst of our diversity and interdependence we can come to direct realization of Oneness and by doing so we can communicate our respect and gratitude for them, for all of life, for all the gifts which in oneness we have received  and which are unmerited.

 

For me, namu amida butsu is an expression of this oneness and grace, an expression of Buddha-nature.  The Oneness that Gyomay Sensei is writing about in the above quote, is for me personified as Amida Buddha.  Because of Oneness I exist and therefore I exist because of namu amida butsu. This is how I understand the idea among some teachers, that  the nembutsu is simply an expression of gratitude for all that Amida Buddha has done for us. My practice of chanting the nembutsu is a form of the highest form of  communication and respect. Through this practice I cultivate a recognition / realization of Oneness, and all that Oneness does for me every day, and this brings forth the fruit and joy of gratitude.

 

This has tied into something that I have been thinking about  and that is gratitude, gratitude as a form of awakening.  A few years ago I had an experience in the midst of great suffering, where something shifted and I was overwhelmed with an intense gratitude for everything I had experienced and everyone I have ever known, even for just a moment.  I spent hours going through my email list sending out heart felt thank yous to everyone on. I think even companies whose email list I was part of even got a thank you and I am sure a few who received the emails, shook their heads. I called friends, I reached out to as many as I could to share my gratitude for their very existence.   In this space of gratitude, I wept and I laughed.  It was confusing at first because of the amount of tears that fell.  I remember thinking why am crying so hard?  I am  not sad so why am I crying? I realized that for me this is how deep and profound gratitude expresses itself.  Later on, this experience also helped to me realize that for many years I had seen “love” as the highest emotion, the goal of religious practice.  I have had experiences of profound love for all things,  where I loved even the street sign that I was standing under, and yet that night I experienced something even more expansive and sublime than “love”;  I experienced an unbounded gratitude. Writing this now and remembering what it was like, the lines from last week’s report are even more profound  “ We should always be ready to die, able to say, “thank you for everything”.  In some ways, that is what I experienced that night, the “thank you for everything” and remembering it helps me to understand what Gyomay Sensei was teaching.

 

I like what Jeff Wilson,  a Jodo Shin minister has written,  “in Shin Buddhism our main focus is the practice of gratitude. We practice simply to give thanks for what we have received. It’s a small shift in one’s perspective, but when pursued, it can be transformative.”  This came home to me the other night when I was holding my little boy in my arms, he was cuddled against my chest and I was just feeling him breathe and thinking how much I loved him and I just repeated thank you, thank you, thank you and the love I was feeling already, expanded exponentially and was enfolded into an ever expanding gratitude.  I think the cultivation of  gratitude is an important practice because it acts as a catalyst that can expand positive states of consciousness. Cultivating gratitude, by recognizing  and by expressing it, manifests more gratitude and deepens our awareness of Oneness.

 

Namu amida butsu

Namu amida butsu

Namu amida butsu

 

May it be so.

The Three Hardest Words.

I don’t know.

From a young age  many of us are afraid to be someone  who doesn’t know. Maybe we are afraid to be seen as dumb and therefore unacceptable,  so we wing it and hope the other person doesn’t see that we actually don’t have a clue. This is not just anecdotal, studies have shown that when children are giving unanswerable questions, they makeup answers, to seem like they know rather than to be found not knowing.  This habit sticks with as we grow up, for some of us they become the three hardest words to say.   We all know that feeling; usually half way through, when we realize we really have no clue what we are saying and how much easier it would have to simply say, “ I don’t know”. Instead we find ourselves five years old again, dancing around with our made up answers, again  hoping no one will notice.

To act as a “knower”  is fraught with challenges and pitfalls. Deciding that we know this is the way it is.”….. has a tendency to close us off to a myriad of other possibilities.  We become fixed in our ideas and perceptions, our world gets smaller and smaller.  Another problem with knowing and being afraid of not knowing, is we can never really be confident that what we know is reality. To paraphrase Mark Twain. “…they think they know something that just ain’t so.

To be clear, the knowing I am referring to is not confusion or paralyzing doubt and it is not knowing in opposition to not knowing as in not knowing the capital of Nebraska, or  even a set of propositions such as the four noble truths.  When I say “I don’t know” I am talking the spirit of openness and curiosity a “I don’t know! Let’s find out!” or  “Let’s keep going and see what happens,” it is the not knowing of faith.  Suzuki Roshi wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “With beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert mind there are few.”  Beginner’s mind is the essence of not knowing”.  For those trapped in “knowing” the vista is limited, the questions are answered, all is settled, the world is fixed, but in the end, the light at the end of the tunnel is not more knowledge but the Dukkha Express and it is coming fast.

So how can we cultivate the non-dual spirit of “I don’t know”?  The first thing is to simply being willing to not know, to let go of the knowing.  I have found the world is lighter when I am free of having to know, I am more patient, less stressed, open. Here are two concrete things we can do to cultivate the not knowing.

First there is a  good practice suggested by Buddhist teacher, Gil Fronsdal, is to attach  “I don’t know” to as many thoughts as possible. For example, when thoughts arise like, this is good or this is bad or I can’t handle this; these become, I don’t know if this is good or I don’t know if this is bad or I don’t know if I can’t handle this.  As he says,  “the phrase “I don’t know” questions the authority of everything we think.”  It allows us to be free of fixed ideas, it can create curiosity and allows an openness to creativity.”  He goes on to say that this simple phrase can help us challenge tightly held beliefs and can  “pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs.”   Not knowing opens the world to us, it makes a way for us to be compassionate, patient, kind, honest and help cultivate equanimity.

The last thing that we can do to  cultivate the essence of “I don’t know”  is bowing.  James Ishmael Ford has written about not knowing and how it relates to the act of bowing.

“Don’t know. Not knowing. That is the ancient spiritual practice of bowing in a nutshell…The bow, I suggest, can open our hearts, can take us places we never dreamed of, to a palpable, transformative, endless world of possibility called not knowing. This is what I really want to underscore: this not knowing has endless creative possibilities, to throw in another metaphor, one or two simply aren’t enough for this place, this moment when we surrender to not knowing, when we bow to life: we discover a well that apparently is bottomless, bubbling with life-giving waters.”

I raise my hands in gassho and bow to each of you.

I would like to close with the words of Zen teacher of the 9th century, Dizang, “not knowing is most intimate.”

Namu Amida Butsu.