Rev. Reyn Yorio Tsuru
Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Almost 2,600 years ago in the gardens of Lumbini, a historical figure was born whose influence on humankind cannot be understated. Conceptually speaking, the ideas that Shakyamuni Buddha espoused were certainly not new, but the Buddha’s ability to present them in a way that could be understood and practiced by everyday people was for its time, very unique.
The Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the way that will lead to the end of all suffering — a road map called the Eightfold Path:
- Right view – the ability to view the nature of things as they really are.
- Right intention – avoiding thoughts of attachment, hatred and harmful intent.
- Right speech – refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech and senseless speech.
- Right action – refraining from physical misdeeds, including killing and stealing.
- Right livelihood – avoid trades that directly or indirectly harm others such as selling weapons, dealing in poisons, engaging in slavery.
- Right effort – avoiding a negative state of mind which in turn contributes to a negative state of being.
- Right mindfulness – being aware of your thoughts, feelings and your physical body and the total effect all of this has on the world.
- Correct concentration (samadhi) – the ability to focus your thoughts and being single-minded in following the first seven rules.
The notion that anyone could find some peace and validation for their existence without the classic leader in robes, one who was anointed by a higher authority was something extraordinary. Especially when one realized that such authority was necessary to keep social order amongst people who lived without laws and consequences that are commonplace today.
Rather than swift, sometimes violent divine punishment, digression off the path in Buddhism results in negative karma that could alter your chances of eternal bliss. Of course, humans will do as humans do, and we have managed to incorporate complex hierarchies and esoteric rituals to buttress a faith that was largely driven through individual introspection and exploration as encouraged by its founder.
There are countless texts, with millions of words written by scholars seeking to find meaning in the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path and ultimately breaking the cycle of Samsara: birth, death, rebirth, along with all of the pain associated with each of those stages.
I recall during my days in Buddhist Sunday School, how we managed to distill the learned words lectured to us, into the following: Life is suffering and then you die.
When you are in intermediate school, the amount of suffering one normally goes through is having to do household chores, go to school and get decent grades, and be in bed by a certain time. The result of breaking any of the Eightfold Path as set forth by your parents had an immediacy that someone who was 12 years old could comprehend. The thought of death and rebirth was not in the picture at all. Little did we know that our little saying meant for amusement does a nice job of summing up Samsara very informally.
Ending that cycle is far easier to say, and write about, than to do. Life has a way of throwing things at you that defy a “right” response. These past two years have been especially trying, and our resolve to attempt at least half of the Eightfold Path in daily living has been mightily tested. From annoyance that someone is standing within your six-foot sphere of safety, to something as serious as finding out your favorite cousin’s political views and thoughts on courtesy and personal responsibility is diametrically different from your own, will lead any normal person to think that perhaps this roadmap to Nirvana is missing a few sections that even Google could not sort out. The urge to simply pass judgment in our minds, even privately, is too delicious to ignore.
The present global stage isn’t making our journey towards some kind of enlightened peace any easier either. At every glance of the news, we see new horrors that must make us ask: Do world leaders need an Eightfold Path to guide them? We are going through a global pandemic, in conjunction with an escalation of violence not seen in Europe since the end of World War II. Coupled with malingering problems in our own country that range from extreme tribalism, racial inequality and violence, and an imbalance in the distribution of our country’s wealth, it is no wonder that we are hard-pressed to sit down and attempt meditation to center our minds and spirits.
We have yet to grapple with the deaths of almost one million of our fellow Americans over the past two years, and it seems our solution to endless suffering is to ignore it completely. While we try to parse through a literal avalanche of information, we witness the juxtaposition of hundreds of thousands of flags representing lives lost to COVID-19, displayed on the great lawn of our nation’s capitol sharing the same news page that insists on telling us which Kardashian is dating whom. Very hard to imagine that a world of tolerance and compassion could be the outcome of a combined effort to follow the right path when the path itself is blocked.
Where does this leave us then? Even as we set ourselves to observe the birth and gift of Shakyamuni Buddha, what does our present situation say of our evolution as Buddhists from that fateful day? The fact is, Siddhartha Gautama, emerged from his royal palace, leaving the protection of a privileged life of beauty and tranquility to observe the extreme suffering of the poor. Not unlike a Honolulu condo dweller leaving a Kaka‘ako high rise to walk the streets of Ala Moana. The Buddha used his observations, much like a savvy social media influencer, laying forth his findings to those who cared to listen through a series of lectures and sermons.
The Buddha did not find an NGO aimed at advocating for the disenfranchised, or start a movement to get people “woke.” Instead, he sought to teach that we are more than capable of being tolerant, compassionate, thoughtful individuals, able to do the right thing. The only obstacles placed on this path to some kind of inner peace and comfort were put there by a single culprit. You can find that perpetrator every time you look in the bathroom mirror.
We cannot change others but we can change ourselves. We cannot force our opinions on others, but we can listen to ideas other people have to contribute to a discussion, and perhaps offer our own thoughts then. We cannot change the whole world but we can certainly change the world immediately around us. This is because the gift that was granted to us with the birth of the Buddha and as a result of his teachings, was being made aware that the one place change must start is within. The power to understand that the quality of our existence is completely within our control. While it may seem simple, it is a monumental gift.
Maybe the Buddha didn’t mean that the end of all suffering was ultimate bliss, because that would mean the end of all existence wouldn’t it? Perhaps the Buddha knew that the destination wasn’t the point, that suffering was an inextricable result of living the journey so we must deal with it.
The Buddha’s gift may be that perhaps the breaking of Samsara by following the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as an impossible goal, but our persistent application of these ideas towards that goal may make our existence in this life beautiful for ourselves and the ones we love. I would be more than happy to celebrate the birth of a person who gave life to that idea.
The Shingon Mission of Hawaii will be observing Hanamatsuri on Friday, April 8 at 6:30 p.m. We will be bathing our Shakyamuni Buddha in sweet tea, and we will pray together. If time permits and the mood moves us, perhaps we will take some time to sit and contemplate in right concentration. The question posed shall be: How many markers of the Eightfold Path were you able to pass on this day? Wishing all of you a very happy and healthy 2022, take a look in your bathroom mirror and love what you see.
Rev. Reyn Yorio Tsuru has been with the Shingon Mission of Hawaii for 27 years, 12 years as chief minister. He enjoys Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Bon Dance music and studying obscure Buddhist sutras. Personal quote: “If you don’t want stuff burning in your stew, you gotta stir the pot.”