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Dharma Talk – October 2021

The Toronto Buddhist Church held Fall Ohigan service in September. Ohigan services are held twice a year around the spring and fall equinox when the daylight and nighttime are equal. In many ancient cultures, it was a time of celebration to remind us of our deep connection with people who have passed away.

“彼岸HIGAN” means “the other shore.” It is short for “渡彼岸TO HIGAN,” meaning “reaching the other shore of nirvana.” There is a metaphor for crossing from this shore of ignorance, anger, and greed to the other shore of nirvana. Today, I would like to introduce you to one poem, which was written by Rev. Shinsui Haraguchi who was a Kangaku Ryoto in Japan.

“I say Nenbutsu and I hear it. The Nembutsu guides me to Amida Buddha’s Pure Land.
The Nenbutsu is like my parents’ voice.”

When we recite Nembutsu “Namo Amida Butsu” we hear the Nembutsu at the same time. But Rev. Haraguchi’s poem lets us know that the Nembutsu doesn’t come from our mouths, but it’s from Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow, because Amida Buddha embodied the Primal Vow in Nembutsu. His poem tells us that we encounter Amida’s great compassion when we hear the Nembutsu. He also said even though he was saying Nembutsu, he felt like he was being called by his mother and father “Don’t worry. I am here.” When he recited the Nembutsu, he relied on the Amida’s great compassion and felt relieved. When I read this poem, I feel that Amitabha Buddha is not an absolutely powerful Buddha, but rather a very kind Buddha who is always with me whether I am sad or happy.

To return to the topic a little further, Higan means the Pure Land. Ohigan Day is the day when daylight and nighttime are equal. In Japan, people used to look at the sunset and they think of the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, and put their palms together in remembrance of the deceased who had passed on to the Pure Land. I believe that each person has his or her own background in which they place their hands together to Buddha. Even so, I think that most people naturally put their palms together when they are saddened by the loss of a loved one. When I was a child, I saw my parents, grandparents and siblings always placed their hands together. So it was no surprise to me to do Gassho and recite the Nembutsu. However, when I attended the Makuragyo service of my grandmother, I recited the Nembutsu from the bottom of my heart and I really relied on Amida Buddha’s Primal Vows.

When I arrived at the hospital, my grandmother was in a critical condition and I did not know what I should say to her. When my grandfather arrived at the hospital a little late, he held my grandmother’s hand and said, “Thank you for being in my life.” Then he recited Nembutsu. My family asked him, “Is that all you want to say to Ba-chan?” But he said, “I’ll leave the rest to Amida Buddha” and recited Namo Amida Butsu again. His words told me that he had peace of mind because he was relying on Amida Buddha and entrusting everything to Amida. His back was getting rounder and smaller as he got older, but I still remember how he seemed to be firmly supported by Amida Buddha’s compassion. I think that there are many people who encounter Nembutsu as a result of losing someone. However, I have recently come to realize that it is not only the deceased who give us an opportunity to encounter Amida Buddha.

For example, when I place my hands together in the Hondo, I am reminded of my family who lives in Japan. I haven’t been back to Japan to see my family for four years now. I’m not a good son for my parents, but when I call them once in a while, they always ask me, “How are you doing?” or “Are you eating well?” When I talk with my parents, I sometimes remember my childhood. My family always chanted Shoshin-ge, Jusei-ge and Sambutsu-ge together at 6 am and 6pm everyday. But when I was still too young to read a chanting book, I used to nap on my mother’s lap. My mother’s Nembutsu must have been a pleasant lullaby. I think the reason why I am still able to recite the Nembutsu now is because even though I took a nap, I was watching my father’s behavior to hold a Buddhist service.

When I think of my family, I really appreciate them because the memory of them reminds me of the many
things they have done for me. At the same time, I worry about how they are doing now because of COVID19 and I hope that they will be safe and healthy. Therefore, when I put my palms together, I sometimes think of my family who lives far away from me.

When I told this story to my sensei, he said, “Ouchi-kun, the important thing is to realize that you were though of before you thought of. I think he wanted to tell me that before we wished for our family to be happy or healthy, our parents had already wished for us to be happy or healthy. Even before we were born, they had already wished for us that we would live a long and happy life without any serious injuries or illnesses. In my case, when I call my parents, they still ask me “How are you doing?” or “Do you eat well?” to check if I’m okay. One person said that no matter how old we get, children are still children to their parents. Parents are the ones who worry about their children and wish them well.

The poem by Rev. Shinsui Haraguchi, which I introduced at the beginning of this Dharma message,
expresses this in a very meaningful way. “I say Nenbutsu and I hear it. The Nembutsu guides me to Amida
Buddha’s Pure Land. The Nenbutsu is like my parents’ voice.” When you put your palms together and recite Nembutsu, you may not only show gratitude to Amida’s virtues, but also to your loved ones who connected you with Buddha. Because both the nembutsu that came out of my mouth and the nembutsu that reached my ears were the Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow. The Primal vows tell us that we don’t have to worry about anything, because Amida will take care of everything. Amida will surely welcome us to the Pure Land. Or we could say that the Nembutsu is like a parent wishing for his or her child’s well being.

If you go to a local temple in Japan, you may find that the temple members call Amida Buddha “親様Oyasama”. “親Oya” means a parent. “様sama” means dear. They call Amida “Oyasama” with gratitude to the Buddha for always caring for them, so that we could feel closeness, that they are children of Amida Buddha. When we recite Nembutsu, we feel Amida’s great compassion because Amida Buddha embodied the Primal Vow in Nembutsu. The Nembutsu is compassionate to our sadness and joy, and is always there for us. I believe that Amida Buddha is like the setting sun, shining brightly but warmly on us and embracing us.

In Gassho
Rev. Yoshimichi Ouchi