Over the past 20 years or more, Rev. Masami Hayashi provided the calligraphy for the New Year Buddhist Thoughts. We all miss him. This year I downloaded a traditional Japanese New Year’s Greeting card. The Japanese basically says “Thank you for all that you have done over the past year. Thank you in advance, for the coming year.” I especially liked the imagery that was on the card, the “Maneki Neko”, “Daruma san” and the cute little boar twins. I thought I would write a story about this card and why these four images are meeting up.
The story of the Asian Zodiac has a variety of versions. Some say that the High God in the Daoist Pantheon was the Jade Emperor, while some say it was the Buddha. The story is basically the same in either version. In the Daoist version, the Jade Emperor wants to see what the animals of Earth look like. In the Buddhist version, it says the Buddha was holding a meeting for animals to name the months of the calendar. In this case, I will use the Buddha.
Once upon a time, there were two good animal friends, the cat and the rat. They both heard about this meet up and agreed to go. They had heard the Buddha wanted to create a calendar and name each month after one of the animals. Not all the animals were interested, but the cat and rat thought it would be cool to have a month named after them. As with many good friends, the cat and rat didn’t always share their deepest thoughts or feelings with each other. The rat was actually jealous of the cat. He felt that the Buddha would naturally pick the cat over himself since the cat was sleek and loved to play. The rat was quite self-reflective and knew most people thought he was rather suspicious-looking and as a result, didn’t have a very good reputation. The rat was an early riser compared to the cat and the rat had promised to wake the cat, so they could go to meet the Buddha together. The meeting was on a first come first served basis so the cat trusted the rat to wake him up on time.
However, the rat, because of his insecurities about his looks, broke his promise and ran to the front of the line of animals to meet the Buddha. By the time the cat woke up and ran to where the animals were to meet the door had closed. The cat got there just as the pig (wild boar) walked into the room and the door closed behind him. Legend has it that this was the beginning of the cat and rat’s traditional hatred towards each other. Of course, this really wasn’t true.
Understandably, the cat was upset about not getting on the calendar. However, there were other reasons for her bristly and agitated nature. Although the rat had feelings of insecurity about himself, the cat was also filled with a variety of anxieties. She was jealous of her bigger siblings, the tiger and the lion. She now didn’t know who to trust, as her best friend the rat had lied to her. She was a psychological mess. She decided to go talk to this Buddhist teacher she had heard about named Daruma-san. Daruma-san was well known for his motto, “Na na korobi, ya oki,” (“fall down seven times, get up eight.”) At one time in his life, Daruma-san was also quite a neurotic mess. He had meditated so long that his arms and legs withered and fell off. It was during these days that it came to him, “I keep falling down, but if I keep on getting up, I will be all right.” He got up one more time and went straight to his friends, who happened to be the wild boars twins, and owners of a fortune cookie factory. He thought to ask them if they wanted to use this cool saying he came up with for their fortune cookies. It was at the fortune cookie factory that the cat saw Daruma-san. He heard Daruma san explaining his realization about falling down and getting up to the Boar twins. When the cat heard this, he thought, “Wow, I can do that!” She immediately felt better and decided to go visit one of her priest friends in Tokyo to tell him about her good fortune. Her friend’s temple was called Gotoku-ji.
After that visit, the cat happened to be hanging out in front of the temple when a sudden rainstorm struck. It was a downpour, the cat never understood why some people used the phrase “raining cats and dogs.” A cat would never purposely go out in the rain! Then she saw an old samurai standing under a tree. She thought, “What an idiot! Rainstorm + tree + lightning = duh!” She frantically waved to the old man to get out from under the tree and come over to the veranda where she was. Just in the nick of time, as a bolt of lightning struck the tree he had been standing under. The old samurai turned out to be a very rich samurai and became a benefactor to the temple. Since that day, the cat has become a symbol of beckoning (“maneki”) fortune, or “maneki neko.”
The moral of the story is that you just never know how things turn out. Sometimes, things that seem to be bad, turn out to be good. In reality, sometimes things that seem rather good turn out to be bad. Just remember, nothing is good or bad, all is impermanent. We should just be grateful for what we have, embraced in Amida Buddha’s compassion. That said, it’s always a good thing to come to the temple, even just to hang out and bring or call a friend to join you, because you never know. Hope to see you this upcoming year! Namo Amida Butsu!