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.

On Unskillful Means: Cultivating Ignorance

The cause of all pain and suffering is ignorance.
Gautama Buddha

I have been thinking of this lately. About how many of us suffer but we do not know why we suffer, we are ignorant to the real causes and conditions of our suffering.  I have also been thinking of a different kind of ignorance.   It’s funny the things that bring other things more in focus. It was the simple reflection on the sound of the word itself. Mouthing out the word slow, by its syllables, I realized a simple thing, the word Ignore is at the heart of ignorance.

The word ignorance in English is passive, “a lack of knowledge, information or experience.” This kind of ignorance refers more to how we don’t realize our reality is not reality, or that there is no abiding self.  We are ignorant to the inherent emptiness of all things. This kind of ignorance can be as simple as never having heard of the Four Ennobling truths, or a guy name Siddhartha.   But the ignorance I have been thinking of the more active form which takes its energy from the verb; to ignore. This is different from the other ignorance since this ignorance is not passive. One who ignores is one who, “refuse to take notice of or acknowledge; to disregard intentionally.” This active ignorance is different from cultivating a not knowing mindset,  which can be a powerful practice of freeing ourselves of fixed ideas. It is a kind of active, ego preserving ignorance that I have been thinking about.  I was thinking of this because of something I read recently in a book titled, Awakening from the Daydream by David Nichtern, a book about the Buddhist Wheel of life.

In the Buddhist Wheel of life there are the six realms of existence at the hub of the wheel is ignorance; both passive and active.  The more active ignorance is the core aspect, the core mindset found in the Animal realm.  As Chogyam Trungpa’s writes, “The animal realm is associated wit stupidity: that is preferring to play deaf and dumb, preferring to follow the rules of available games rather than re-define them. ” Here we are “ignore” information that would require us to change. We do that alot.  Trungpa goes on to say, [we] completely ignore such possibilities. If somebody attacks you or challenges your clumsiness, your unskilled way of handling a situation, you find a way of justifying yourself, find rational to keep your self-respect. You are not concerned with being truthful as long as your deception can be maintained in front of others.

This is an active ignorance.  But this type of cultivation doesn’t just happen in the animal realm of being but, according to Nichtern,  is also found in the other realms, especially when looked at through the lens of our everyday experience. How does ignorance play out even when we find ourselves in what could be considered one of the god realms? Let’s look at it from an everyday mindset perspective.
For us Westerners, it could be said we live in both of the god realms, we are dancing between them from moment to moment, generation to generation. Most of the things we want we can go to the story a select from 12 different kinds and get immediate satisfaction. We live at a level of wealth and prosperity that most of the world can only dream of. We consider all of this not a gift but a “right”, I have earned this. Traditionally, those in the god realm find themselves there because of good karma and from a small perspective we could think that they have “earned” the right to be there. We do that.  Many Americans see our country, or “way of life” as proof of our social virtue, as if we are somehow special and “exceptional” and deserve our prosperity. And that is not just socially constructed but has seeped into religious thinking, think of the popularity of the “gospel of prosperity” taught in some churches. Far from the homeless, communalist, and agitator that was Jesus.

Being in a god realm frame of mind, we like it, we want to stay in it, we want to freely enjoy it, we don’t want to think of consequences, or it ending, of how it affects others, etc. As Nichtern writes,

“we have to cultivate a certain kind of ignorance, actively ignoring any aspect of our experience that is unsettling or disruptive in mood. “

This is very true when we are faced with our impact on the planet as westerners. It is also true that the cost has been more felt by the poorer nations where we get the raw materials from. Those is the god realm mindset, “cultivate ignorance” by denying global warming, by buying cheap products and ignore the fact that they are produced by child labor or that the children making our jeans work in dangerous and toxic environments. This is also true in the Jealous god realm mindset, where we want what the ‘gods of finance” have and we don’t care if we have to get rich on the backs of others so we can live the high life, live in the realm of the gods above us. We cultivate an ignorance of the other and the suffering, anything that can get in our way of achievement. Maybe the election of 2016 was symptom of living in the jealous god realm too long. Some forms of Ignorance are not passive but active. We want we have and don’t want to lose it. That being said, how are you in your own life cultivating ignorance?  I think in a real way, the reason we are trapped in the endless wandering of samsara is because we are continually cultivating the opposite of  awareness. Each time we turn aways from the teachings that sing to us everyday, when we refuse to see ourselves reflected in the faces of others, when we refuse to open up, or accept things as they are, when we feed every self-justification and machination to get or keep that insubstantial thing that is desperately hoped will give final satisfaction and security, we cultivate ignorance and perpetuate our suffering.

As I look at my life, I realize how much I have cultivated ignorance. I have ignored things that looked me straight in face, and were so close I could feel their breath on my skin…a failing marriage, smoking, a drinking problem, childhood wounding, the fact that what I was doing was re-wounding myself and others. This was true when I spent days or years in the mindset of the Animal realm, I chose not to see but to seek after the distraction of sex or alcohol. Sometimes I think my television watching and Facebook scrolling is how I still cultivate ignorance. Doing so has only given me a first class ticket to spend sometime in the arid environs of the Hungry Ghost realm, or subway ticket to the cold and hot Hell realms of the world’s injustice perpetrated against me. Even with all the Buddhas that were always there waiting for me,  I chose darkness over light, I cultivated ignorance, gloried in it.  But the compassionate light of the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas found me. It was the clanking of the six ringed staff (representing the six realms) of Jizo that finally woke me up. …. and still, at times I find myself cultivating ignorance. I don’t want to do this anymore.  As Dogen taught, I am going to seek to know myself to forget myself to be awakened by a myriad of things.

Now my aspiration, my vow is to be like Haya Akegarasu, to dispel ignorance by heeding what he wrote in Shout of Buddha,

“Don’t pass by things you don’t understand as though you didn’t see them at all…. want to see everything.. want to see through the bottom of things,…want to touch everything, to taste everything, to transcend, to enlighten, to embrace everything.”

Yes! I want to embrace everything. Let us free ourselves of ignorance by opening our eyes, our minds and our hearts to everything, having the courage to look into the heart of life, to look into the darkness, to look into the light and not turn away from any of it, to no longer cultivate ignorance and by not doing so wake up.

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.

Boundless: The SLBF Newsletter

Read our latest newsletter by clicking on the Buddha.

Featuring:  An essay by Jennifer Munson on finding her way to the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship. Elesha Morris gives us a guided meditation for grounding and gratitude, Myoshin looks at writing haiku as Buddhist practice, plus Buddhist spoken word, and teachings from  Koyo Kubose.

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