By Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi, Resident Minister
WAKING UP AND DANCING
The 4th of July celebrates the birth of a nation. Obon reflects on the past lives and
contributions of those who have died. “Birth in the Pure Realm” is often associated with the death
of a Shin Buddhist. However, current Shin scholars suggest that “birth in the Pure Realm” indicates a
spiritual awakening in our present life. A new life is experienced now, not just something that
happens after death. Let us assess our understanding and experience of these “bookend” events
of our lives.
Birthdays are an important celebration in American life. Children look forward to it, as it is their
day of recognition. It has been said that Eastern cultures deem the death date of a person more
important than the birthdate, as the end of life is more indicative of their contribution to society.
From this perspective, a birthdate might be viewed as an accomplishment of the parents rather
than the newborn infant. It would be from this perspective that “birth in the Pure Realm” would be
a recognition of the efforts of others in causing the awakening of a person.
The term, “birth in the Pure Realm,” is often related to other sanctified terms such as shinjin and
Enlightenment. These terms point to rare experiences that seem far beyond our usual life. Since we
do not know many Enlightened people, or even those of shinjin, we may not be inspired to follow
a religious path. So spiritual values may become secondary to the practical values of ownership
and status. This is an unfortunate assumption for Shin Buddhist.
As Shin Buddhists, we acknowledge the limits of our human achievements; so we may be more
familiar and comfortable with the term “awakening.” We awake from sleep every morning and
awaken from inattention many times during the day. So waking up or becoming aware is
something that is familiar. A “spiritual” awakening can be a simple step beyond waking up. We can
appreciate the taste of an ume musubi wrapped in nori (rice ball filled with a pickled plum,
wrapped in seaweed). A spiritual awakening might mean that we acknowledge the multitude of
causes, conditions and effort in producing the rice, plum, and seaweed, from their seeds or
beginnings to their final configuration to be eaten by us. Our Shin Buddhist alarm clock wakes us, as
we recite, “Namo Amida Butsu, itadaki-mas.” Thus, our practice as Shin Buddhist is not seen as a
process of achievement toward a goal; our practice is to appreciate what we have received. If
understood in this manner, the recitation of the Nembutsu would acknowledge our receiving
Amida Buddha is our source of awakening, as articulated in the 18th, or Primal, Vow. The
mythic version envisions a Bodhisattva Dharmakara becoming Amida Buddha over 10 kalpas. If we
do not deify Amida in human form, we might envision a different model. Amida Buddha is also
defined as Light and Life, and is inherent in everything on our planet. Considering Amida as Light
and Life, we might interpret Amida as the whole evolutionary process from the Big Bang, to our
present moment. Our awakening would thus be a result of all the causes and conditions that
brought about our biological birth in this evolutionary process.
Acknowledging our own inconceivable birth in the incomprehensible, dynamic universe, brings
us into the realm of the spiritual. Human minds that deny the spiritual are like children whose reality
are limited to their present knowledge of the world and universe. Science has opened our minds to
see our present civilized world as the evolutionary result of billions of years: from star dust to sun,
planet earth, organic ooze, biological cells, plant and animal life, and human creativity. Can we
wake up to appreciate how we were able to be born at this time and in this place? Experiencing
this inconceivable process is the basis for a spiritual awakening. Namo Amida Butsu is our response.
Waking up is a continuous process. The Primal Vow assures us that all beings will wake up to
appreciate the unique gift of life. We dance with joy at our Obon, to acknowledge that our
awakening is due to the efforts of countless others. Of course there is sadness that we no longer
have the physical presence of those loved ones. But our dancing affirms that their lives had
meaning in bringing joy to our lives. It also assures us that our lives have meaning. We are the
continuing link from the past to the future. It is not our individual lives that live in eternity. Because
of our affirmation of interdependence and impermanence, we will live on in this life, in the form of
others. Awakening to Truth, we become a part of the dynamic Primal Vow. Dr. Taitetsu Unno
writes: “The fundamental purpose of the Name as namu-amida-butsu is awakening to the
incomparable worth of this unrepeatable life, this limited finite life that is inseparable from
boundless, infinite life.” (1998, p. 29) Namo Amida Butsu includes us in the process of the Primal Vow,
that our lives will benefit others in this awakening process. How could we not dance with joy, when
we experience this spiritual awakening: this birth of a new perspective of life?
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