“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal — a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire —
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.
The Buddha’s Last Instruction
Those who know me well know that I have a rather obsessive personality. I latch on to things and have a hard time letting them go. When I get obsessed with something, I think about it for hours and there are times I wake up early in the morning to try to write my thoughts down or at least put them in some sort of order. Last month I spoke of and wrote about the poet Mary Oliver. I have been reading so many of her poems; I have been obsessed with them. Therefore, this month I am sharing one of her more obviously Buddhist poems about what the Buddha must have thought in his last moments. His last words were said to have been, “Make of yourself a light.” What did he mean?
This month we are celebrating the birthday of Siddhartha Gautama who become the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. It is still being argued by scholars as to whether he was born in 568 or even 480 BCE. Let’s just say he a lived a very long time ago. We are still celebrating his birthday on April 8, after 2600 years. What is it that made this man so important and why do you think we still celebrate his birth, death and enlightenment? Buddha was said to have become the Buddha at the age of 35 and died at 80. He taught for 45 years.
I have been a BCA minister for 32 years. I’ll be 62 years old this year, which feels pretty old. I have put most of my adult life trying to ensure that our temples and the Buddhist Churches of America continue for a little while longer. There is no comparison between my little life and Shakyamuni Buddha’s life, but if you add it together with the thousands of ministers before me, the sum total is countless! Take for example the life of Rev. Koyu Uchida. He was the first person to hold the office of the Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America, the fourth person to be the director of the Buddhist Mission of North America. He said,
Nishi Hongwanji was the first Japanese (Buddhist denomination) to start an American mission, which in itself exemplifies the history of an eastward transmission of the Buddhist teachings (Bukkyo Tozen). This means that American Buddhists have considerable responsibility as pioneers for spreading the teachings around the World.
Bishop Koyu Uchida, Bishop of the Buddhist Mission of North America (1930)
Issei Buddhism in the Americas
What I am getting to is this; “Why is it important that the Buddhist Teachings or our temples continue?” Why have these thousands of years, filled with teachers, give of themselves to this simple sentence uttered by this Indian man? The other day, I filmed an interview about our temple. The interviewer asked some very interesting questions, but the one question that he asked that really stuck with me and was a catalyst for this article was, “If someone were to walk through those doors right now and they knew nothing about Buddhism, what would you tell them to summarize/explain your faith?” I really had to think about what I would want someone to know. Do I talk about the Doctrine? Do I talk about the history? The Japanese American experience of Buddhism in America? I really wasn’t sure. I don't really remember exactly what I said. But now that I have had some time, to further obsess about this question. I would like to tell you why I think this temple is worth my life’s work, why people for the past 2600 years have worked, given their lives and were inspired by this man’s words.
I know that when I give Dharma talks on Sundays or funerals and memorial services, I don’t give a lot of details. When a person comes to the temple, I would first make it clear that there are many types of Buddhism and this temple is a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple. However, just the fact that there are a variety of forms of Buddhism and they are all valid and true for the people following them, is one of the reasons I love Buddhism. Then I explain why I chose Jodo Shinshu Buddhism as right for me, over the myriad forms of Buddhism now available. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism was the first organized form of Buddhism to establish itself in the United States in 1899. It’s about time we Jodo Shinshu Buddhists shared these teachings with the larger American community and world. So this is my answer to the question, “Why Jodo Shinshu?”
Within Buddhism I have found one of the most non-judgmental, compassionate teachings in the history of mankind. The historical Buddha Shakyamuni has said, “There are 84,000 paths to enlightenment.” What he means by 84,000 paths is that there is an infinite number of ways to awaken to Truth. Each of us human beings are individuals, with our own histories and various causes and conditions which make up our lives. We each have our own stories and truths that make us who we are. Buddhism recognizes that the teachings must be flexible to encompass so many different viewpoints. There cannot be only one true and real teaching, just as there cannot be only one story or history to identify each and every one of us. Yet why is Jodo Shinshu, among all those 84,000 paths, the right truth for MY life?
Jodo Shinshu has enabled me to see myself as “the foolish being” I know I am. When Shinran said we are “foolish beings” this rang true for me. I know without a doubt that I am a foolish being, filled with greed, anger, ignorance; however, I recognize how my life has been blessed and I am alive as a result of the wondrous compassionate embrace of Amida Buddha, the essence of the relationships that surround me and allow me to exist. Jodo Shinshu has shown me my life is not about just me, the foolish being, but in the relationships the world has given me. The words, the terminology, the rituals, the traditions all resonate with who I am. This is why I am Jodo Shinshu Buddhist. Jodo Shinshu has allowed me the foolish being, to truly be myself, and appreciate my relationship with the world. This is why I celebrate the birth of the Buddha. This wise, wondrous man allowed millions of my forefathers to become lamps unto themselves which in turn, allowed me to see my foolish self and show me how the Universe loves me as I am. Now if you are reading this article, you must have some connection to the temples I am a part of. If so, I would like you to ask yourself, “Why should you celebrate the Buddha’s birth?”