Bishop Eric Matsumoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The weather is warm, the breeze blows gently, the rain falls lightly and the flowers are blooming beautifully. Spring is such a beautiful time of year. Don’t you agree? It brings a new freshness, a stirring of excitement and a new awareness which warms and touches the mind-and-heart.
It is precisely at this time of the year that Buddhists around the world, especially Japanese Buddhists, gather at temples for one of the most significant religious observances of the Buddhist Tradition, the birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama or Sakyamuni Buddha.
As for any person, there are milestones in life. The milestones may differ depending on the individual, but to be sure a person’s birth, achievements in life and passing at the end of life are significant. In the case of Siddhartha Gautama, his birth at Lumbini Garden in present-day Nepal; attainment of enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya, India; and entering into the perfect peace of Nirvana at Kushinagar are celebrated by all Buddhists around the world with much joy, appreciation and reverence.
As part of celebrating the birth of the Historic Buddha for over 1,500 years the custom of pouring sweet tea over an image of the infant Buddha has been passed on. It originated in China and the first recorded observance in Japan dates to the year 606. The tea used in this ceremony is made from the leaves of hydrangea serreta and commonly referred to as amacha or “sweet tea.” Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we are not able to throng to our temples to celebrate Buddha Day and pour amacha, but it does not make this year’s celebration any less significant.
We are all familiar with the life of the Buddha marked by his birth, enlightenment and passing away. An epithet of the Buddha, which emphasizes this linear progression or evolution of the Historic Buddha, is “One who has gone to ultimate reality.”
The former Prince Siddhartha was a human being. But after years of searching, learning and deep reflection, he realized ultimate truth and became one with ultimate reality. Thereby, he attained enlightenment or nirvana. However, though the Buddha had attained nirvana, freedom from suffering, there was one last remaining qualification: the physical body. The physical body does not last forever and is subject to ailments. Thus, at the very end of his 80-year life, the Historic Buddha is known to have entered what is referred to as Parinirvana or the “Great Full Complete and Perfect Nirvana” in which there is absolutely no suffering. This aspect of the Buddha’s life, “One who has gone to ultimate reality,” is easy to understand and very obvious.
Today, I would like to highlight a fourth occasion or event of the Buddha’s life, the Buddha’s sharing of the Dharma or the contents of Enlightenment with others so that others may attain the same peace and happiness, and wisdom and compassion. This lets me also explore another aspect of the Buddha which may be unfamiliar to many readers, another epithet of the Buddha that includes the meaning, “One who has come from ultimate reality.” In this understanding Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Historic Buddha Sakyamuni, had a purpose,
a reason, for being born in this world. It was to share the Dharma, Ultimate Truth with us, the unenlightened, so that we could become pure, eternal, joyous, true and ultimate, as did the Buddha. Enlightenment, Nirvana, is not static, but positive and dynamic. The ultimate goal in Buddhism is not only one’s own enlightenment, but the enlightenment of one and all.
Unless all are happy and at peace, one cannot be happy and at peace; the reverse is also true in that the peace and happiness of one is dependent on the peace and happiness of all others. The aspiration is the peace and happiness of all existence — human or otherwise, animate or inanimate, visible or unseen, living in the past, present or future not limited to Earth, but includes the farthest reaches of space including other dimensions of existence. It is compassion, which literally knows no bounds and includes all.
This compassion is intricately linked/connected with wisdom. Sakyamuni Buddha became aware of many universal truths with enlightenment, but one of the most fundamental and basic realizations that the Buddha had was that all existence is equal, precious and interconnected. A simple word which encapsulates this wisdom is interdependence. Due to this new realization, this new mindset, the Historic Buddha was able to equally treat all the Buddha encountered with loving-kindness and compassion. My unenlightened mind in contrast makes all kinds of distinctions, judgements and is centered on myself. In my understanding, distinctions in themselves are not necessarily bad in that we need them for communication and identification. But it is when distinctions become discrimination that we are heading down an unwholesome path which will result in suffering for not only one or some, but all.
In this respect, the mind is crucial because it is from the mind, our thoughts, our thinking that our ensuing words are spoken and actions are produced. The gatha “The Teachings of All Buddhas” expresses it in the following way:
Commit no wrong but good deeds do,
And let thy heart be pure.
All Buddhas teach this doctrine true
Which will, for aye, endure.
Hate is not overcome by hate,
By love alone ‘tis quelled.
This is the truth of ancient date
Today still unexcelled.
Another well-known quote is Human beings tend to move in the direction of their thoughts. If they harbor greedy thoughts, they become more greedy; if they think angry thoughts, they become more angry; if they hold foolish thoughts, their feet move in that direction.
Of course, the opposite is also true in that if we have positive thoughts and act on them, they will lead to positive results. As Buddhists, we are encouraged [in this way]:
If one wishes to follow the Buddha’s teaching one must not be egoistic or self-willed, but should cherish feelings of good-will toward all alike; one should respect those worthy of respect; one should serve those who are worthy of service and treat everyone with uniform kindness.
Thus, this Buddha Day, let us take a moment to reflect upon the significance of the Buddha’s birth especially in these challenging times of the pandemic and also during the political and racial unrest and violence which plague our nation and world. Let us be guided and inspired by an all-inclusive wisdom and all-embracing compassion. May we have a happy and joyous, but most importantly, meaningful Buddha Day!
The Hawaii Buddhist Council’s Buddha Day service will be held on Sunday, April 4, at 9:30 a.m. via Zoom. The service will feature guest speaker Dr. Jeff Wilson, a professor at Renison University College of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. To register to receive the Zoom link, complete the form bit.ly/2021HBCBD_registration. For more information visit the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii website at hongwanjihawaii.com/event/hbc-buddha-day-service-2021/?event_date=2021-04-04.
Bishop Eric Matsumoto is the 16th bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.