By Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi, Resident Minister
A SHIFT IN MINDSET
A few weeks ago, I was enjoying good health, when I was suddenly struck with the flu, and was
very debilitated for most of a week. Life wasn’t working for me, or so I thought. I wasn’t able to
attend to some duties and some fun events. This illness really highlighted the imbalance and
predominance of my thoughts of “please, I desire what I don’t have: a healthy, young body.”
Where were my thoughts of “thank you,” for what I do have: the experience of aches, pains, and
exhaustion of my body and mind? How can the benefits of the Nembutsu help with a runny nose,
sore throat, cough, and body aches? How can I compare the benefits of Namo Amida Butsu with
the biochemical effects of antibiotics, Theraflu, and cough syrup (codeine)? How do I relate my
bout with the flu, with the birth of the Buddha?
April is the month that we celebrate the birth of Siddhartha Gautama (Hanamatsuri). For some
of us, it may be convenient to place this event in a separate religious category of rituals and
celebrations, that are distant from our usual, mundane way of life. Religion in America, seems to be
considered in the realm of providing a hopeful possibility. Even Buddhism has been identified with
the means to this idealized potentiality. This was also a part of Shinran’s understanding, as a monk
on Mt. Hiei. But his practice as a Tendai monk was not addressing his daily issues as a young priest.
Fortunately, he heard the call of the Nembutsu, and followed Honen’s teachings. What did he
hear, and what might we hear, as we acknowledge Siddhartha’s birth?
We know that when the young prince ventured out of the castle walls, he experienced the
human conditions of sickness, old age, death, and the life of a monk. It is significant that the
progression of old age leading toward death, two of the four experiences, would not have a
hopeful future. Even sickness or physical injury challenges our hopes of a better future. Yet these
are the very life experiences that call each of us to awake from the slumber of ordinary life. It is
because of the suffering of these experiences that places us on a similar search conducted by the
My ordinary mind, focused on the ability of ME, reinforced by the American ethic of the “self-
made” person, would have me attempting to replicate Siddhartha’s six years of self-mastery. But
his Enlightenment allowed him to share different methods of resolving the discontent/bliss,
(duhkha/nirvana) duality. Shinran’s teachings lead the way for us ordinary people, too involved
with the necessities of sustaining our lives, to devote much time for spiritual practice. For Honen’s
followers of 13th century, medieval Japan, a better life might only be envisioned after life, in a
place described in the sutras as the Pure Land. However, Shinran shifted the total experience of
our awakening to the here and now.
What is evident to me from the writings of Shinran and others, is that the experience of life itself,
is the gift of Amida. Amida Buddha may be represented by a human form, or by the written or
recited name, or by the words of Light and Life, Wisdom and Compassion. All of these
representations are invitations for each of us to experience the True Reality of life itself, as it is
experienced when we are truly awake. I think this is what Shinran heard when he encountered
Honen; I think this is his invitation for each of us.
Jodo Shinshu may seem different because it doesn’t seem to fit the model of most religions in
promising a better future. The emphasis is on the present moment, and its dependence on each
past moment. What we may fail to realize is that it is our expectation, of what might be better,
that is the cause of our discontent. Our entire, ordinary day is flush with gifts so plentiful, that we
have become accustomed to assuming them to be mandatory. It may only be in times of
personal illness or death of a loved one that we begin to realize what has always surrounded us – It
does take duhkha to bring us to nirvana.
What “thank you’s” came to me as I lay suffering the pains of the flu? I was very grateful for
the superb medical system we enjoy in the USA; with the availability of treatment and drugs for
ordinary people at an affordable price. But the biggest “thank you” comes from the opportunity
of appreciating what I usually don’t notice, which is the state of good health. I realized that this
insight has not always been a part of me; but it is due to the compassion of others that my eyes
are beginning to open. A daily Nembutsu practice of a mixture of Namo Amida Butsu and “thank
you” has allowed me to notice the gifts of ordinary life that are so spiritual, such as the wild flower
blooming between the sidewalk crack.
Just as firemen, medical personnel, and emergency responders are trained to practice
procedures until they become automatic, we might practice these habits of gratitude, until they
become a natural part of our lives. Then Hanamatsuri and other Buddhist holidays, need not be
restricted to one specific day. Each day can be a day of gratitude. Each day can be a day of
Nembutsu; especially the last day.
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