A dharma talk by Bishop Eric Matsumoto at the March 22, 2020 online service coordinated by the State Ministers Association and livestreamed from Hawaii Betsuin (our first online-only service during the coronavirus outbreak).
Guided by Wisdom and Compassion; a Balanced Perspective
Aloha Kakou and welcome to this virtual Hawaii Betsuin Spring Higan Service. My deepest gratitude to all of you who have joined us, today, for this live stream service.
As we, as individuals and/or families, as local communities, as a nation, and as the World grapple with COVID-19, let us, affirmatively and positively, do what we can to help curb its spread. Please keep yourselves updated on the directives and advisories that are being issued by world, national and local governmental and health care agencies which are trying their best in battling the Coronavirus, but they need our help too.
In this respect, on March 16th the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii Headquarters Office, for the time being except for emergency religious services and within the guidelines of the CDC, directed all its temples and affiliated organizations connected with HHMH to curtail religious services and activities which require people to gather, out of consideration for the health and well-being of one and all, but especially the elderly who comprise a large portion of our membership, for the cause of stopping the spread of the Coronavirus.
May we avail ourselves to the Wisdom of the Dharma by keeping in mind the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all people and all things. What we each do, and for that matter do not do too, matters for all of us!
For many, I am sure, it is difficult to just stay at home. It is not what you are used to doing. Culturally, we are taught that to be productive and contributing member of society and/or that we should be industrious and always do our part. Thus, staying at home, limiting our activity, is extremely challenging. However, these are highly unusual times, not normal, and thus it behooves us to adjust our daily routines. In a sense, we need to see things differently and understand what needs to be done.
As Jodo Shin Buddhists, our first and foremost response would be to keep the Nembutsu/Namo Amida Butsu which arises from Shinjin or True Entrusting directed to us by Amida Buddha close to our hearts and minds, not as a prayer for protection against the virus, but as a source of strength and balance in our life and to reflect on the Jodo Shinshu Teachings as did Dr. Benjamin Bruch, a Hawaii Betsuin Temple Member and also Instructor at Pacific Buddhist Academy. Dr. Ben, as he is affectionately referred to, took this opportunity to reflect on “The Golden Chain of Love.” He writes:
…as I was reflecting on the current coronavirus pandemic and the steps we are all being asked to take to minimize the spread of the disease, I reflected on how the Golden Chain of Love offers us guidance on how to live our lives during challenging times.
I ask you to please visit the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin Buddhist temple website and look for Guidance from the “Golden Chain of Love” in a time of crisis. I was very touched by it. Thank you, Dr. Ben for sharing your reflections. This Japanese Buddhist Observance of Higan is the perfect time for such reflection and rededicating ourselves.
However, beyond religious affiliations, our greatest contribution, temporarily, at this time, is to remain at home and thus lessen the possible transmission of the virus to each other. Yesterday, the Governor mentioned his hope that everyone would voluntarily practice self-isolating as much as possible. Of course, except for medical care and other extremely urgent needs.
I recently came across the words of Dr. Lindsay Jernigan, a physician scientist who is also an immunologist and she says,
Try this perspective shift. Instead of seeing “social distancing” and travel bans as panic, try seeing them as acts of mass cooperation intended to protect the collective whole. This plan is not about individuals going into hiding. It’s a global deep breath… an agreement between humans around the planet to be still. Be still, in hopes that the biggest wave can pass without engulfing too many of the vulnerable amongst us.
Furthermore, let us have hope. Let us not despair. Let us be resilient. This COVID-19 Pandemic is not the first and not the last that we will experience. Perhaps COVID-19 is a pandemic and unprecedented in some ways and that is why we must be even more stringent this time, but throughout humankind’s history, we have faced tremendous challenges in both recent times and also in centuries past.
There is a comment by Shinran Shonin written in one of his Letters dated 1260, in which he refers to devastating calamities: natural disasters, famine and epidemics that struck in the years preceding 1260. He says “It is saddening that so many people, both young and old, men and women, have died this year and last. But the Tathagata taught the truth of life’s impermanence for us fully…”
I hope no one misinterprets this comment. This comment is, by no means, expressing apathy or indifference or not caring or saying that life is not important. Buddhism emphasizes that every life is precious. A direct descendant of Shinran Shonin, His Eminence Koshin Ohtani’s shares, “In this world, there is no life that was ever lived in vain. There is no life that is meaningless. All life is linked together. All of us share in the light that Amida Buddha shines upon us-this is what Buddhism teaches.”
Please remember that Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Infinite Light, no matter where you are is always with you! Thus, it is said that, this is why this Buddha’s name is “Amida,” who “embraces never to forsake.” The renowned Jodo Shinshu Scholar, the late Rev. Jitsuen Kakehashi said, “Thus, ‘Amida Buddha’ is not simply a name of the Buddha, but the Buddha’s declaration that he will without fail save us.
Later, Rennyo, the eighth abbot of the Hongwanji Temple, said in the same line of thought, “The three characters of A-MI-DA can be read ‘take in,’ ‘nurture,’ and ‘save’ for profound reasons.” So, please do not feel and think you are all alone. The Buddha, as Namo Amida Butsu is always with you at every moment. You are already in the fold of Great Compassion no matter where you are!
Further, let us be motivated by our gratitude for this Unconditional Compassion of Amida Buddha. Let us take to heart, the encouragement of His Eminence Kojun Ohtani, he says “I will share a smile and gentle words.” “I will try to live in peace and harmony.” “I will share a life of joy and sorrow with others.” “I will strive to live life to the fullest with an attitude of gratitude.” I mean no disrespect to His Eminence, and I believe he knows it too, that we will all acknowledge “Easier said than done.” However, just because it is hard does not mean we should not try. After all, we are being gently encouraged by the Buddhas.
In many of us, there is a battle being fought. Besides the external battle with COVID-19 with all the good hygiene practices we should be following and the race to find a vaccine, there is also an internal battle or struggle that we should be aware of that is also taking place. This battle/struggle is also very complex.
For any living being, self-preservation is a basic instinct, but being human beings, we also have the ability to live not by instinct alone, but also by reason and learned and/or nurtured behaviors. As we think of our own health and safety, let us also consider the well-being of others by not hoarding and being thoughtful of others.
Though it may be challenging for me as a (bonbu) “spiritually, foolish being” because of my self-centeredness, let us think of how we might be able to mutually benefit and help each other especially in these difficult times. Let us be careful and attentive to our thoughts, words and actions.
When driven by fear and anger, we can easily fall into unwholesome actions and behaviors. Sadly, even in our own Hawaii Nei, we have heard of instances in which a certain demographic group or groups of Asian origin have been targets of insult and discrimination based on the place of origin of the Coronavirus. This should not be happening. We must be vigilant about fighting the Coronavirus, but we must also keep an eye on ourselves and actions.
Very recently, I was introduced to something very interesting that was pointed out to me about a term that we are using so often today, which I used myself too, “social distancing” and a potential danger that lurks with the usage of that term. To quote Rev. Professor Duncan Williams, author of the book American Sutra, he says,
There is also conversation in online social justice communities about re-framing how we talk about the precautionary measures and methods taken — specifically, instead of saying/writing “social distancing,” we think of our collective cautionary maneuverings as “physical distancing and social solidarity.”
More than ever, in this very fluid situation with so many unknowns, though we may be unable to be physically close to each other, we must become closer together and work together to overcome this huge challenge which threatens our very life by respecting that physical distance between us. At this time, the physical distance between us should be interpreted as a sign of respect and caring for each other.
As I am sure you have noticed many alternate gestures of greetings like fist and elbow bumping are gaining popularity. I am reminded of an ancient greeting common in the Buddhist world of bowing with hands placed in Anjali or gassho at chest level which could also serve as safe, deeply respectful alternate way of greeting one another.
Most important to remember is, though the situation is grave and not to be taken lightly, let us not be driven into panic, despair and hopelessness and instead be steadfast with a balanced perspective. Even under these dire circumstances, there are still things we can do for ourselves, our families, our temples, our communities and the world which does not require us to physically gather.
Right now, is a time to think differently and behave differently instead of being bound by routines and custom so that the most important part of our traditions will not be lost. Forms can change, but the essence of matters will be perpetuated for Wisdom and Compassion are timeless and not bound by space!
To slowly close, as I offer my well-wishes to you and offer my condolences to those who have lost dear family members and friends, may I finally share that Wisdom guides Compassion and Compassion fulfills Wisdom. In these challenging times, may we go to the Wisdom and Compassion of Enlightenment for guidance and assurance.
Finally, as the Bishop, I would like to express my gratitude to, first, the State Ministers Association chaired by Rev. Yuika Hasebe and the Live Stream Audio-visual Team of Dave Atcheson, Alan Kubota and Rev. Kazunori Takahashi including Chief Minister Rev. Toyokazu Hagio and the Hawaii Betsuin Temple which has made this live stream possible from this temple.
Secondly, to all of the Sangha Members and especially the ministers and lay leaders of the local temples for the extra attention and effort needed from you at this time as we try to be safe and yet still be available to provide for those in need of spiritual guidance. Local Temple Leaders, please keep abreast of new directives from federal, state and county agencies.
Thirdly, to those first responders and especially those in the health care professions and other essential workers in every field, who literally at the risk of their own life are caring for us, “Thank you for your dedication and commitment!”
Lastly, I would like us to express our gratitude to Amida Buddha who from the Other Shore of Enlightenment/Higan calls, nurtures, and embraces us with Great Wisdom and Compassion, ultimately promising us the Great Enlightenment with our birth in the Pure Land of Enlightenment. However, before that, please join me in Anjali/gassho, for a closing reflection. I would like to recite Gomonshu’s Kojun Ohtani’s “Our Pledge” in its entirety.
Reaching out to others, I will share a smile and gentle words.
Just like the Buddha who always calls out with Aloha.
Breaking away from my greed, anger and ignorance, I will try to live in peace and harmony.
Just like the Buddha who shares tranquility and kindness with all.
Moving forward from self-centeredness, I will share a life of joy and sorrow with others.
Just like the Buddha whose caring heart always embraces us.
Realizing that I live because of others, I will strive to live life to the fullest with an attitude of gratitude.
Just like the Buddha who promises to embrace us all.
Namo Amida Buddha, Namo Amida Butsu, Namo Amida Butsu/Entrusting in All-Inclusive Wisdom and All-Embracing Compassion