The New York Buddhist Church



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331-332 Riverside Drive
New York, NY 10025
Phone: 212-678-0305
Fax: 212-662-4502

Each week on this page we'll post Rev. Earl's shared thoughts and messages

As we celebrate the birthday of our founder Shinran Shonin this week, I wonder what he would be thinking and doing today in the midst of a global pandemic.  Maybe he would just be doing what he did hundreds of years ago during the turbulent Kamakura era in Japan, bringing awareness of the unhindered light and unconditional love of Amida Buddha to EVERYONE.  His understanding and propagation of the meaning of The Primal Vow which assures each persons birth in the Pure Land gave strength and hope to people at that time.  It is the core of Jodo Shinshu teaching.  By reciting the nembutsu, or the name Namo Amida Butsu, we acknowledge our gratitude to Amida Buddha and become truly awakened by his great compassion and wisdom.

My first memory of the o-nembutsu was listening to my grandmother saying Na Man Da Bu over and over again when I was growing up in Hawaii.  She came from Hiroshima, a stronghold of Jodo Shinshu, and she was very devout.  Grandma, I would say, Not so loud!  Do you have to say that all the time?  Its getting bothersome!   At that time, I did not yet realize how I would come to think of her as one of the greatest influences in my spiritual life and to understand the importance of the o-nembutsu then to her and later for me.

Years later, when I was a foreign student at the mother temple in Kyoto, I was asked to be a guide during the commemoration of the 800###sup anniversary of Shinrans birthday.  What a special opportunity!   For over a month I eagerly listened to the morning and afternoon services as thousands of people from all parts of Japan and the world came to pay homage.   Many would rush to sit closest to the altar, putting their hands together in gassho to recite the onembutsu, their voices getting louder and louder.  Na Man Da Bu, Na Man Da Bu, Na Man Da Bu.  It felt as though I was again a young boy living with my grandmother listening to her fervent recitation of the nembutsu.  I began to realize that it was an expression of deep gratitude and wanted to learn more.  Im still learning!

After my studies, I returned to Hawaii and served as minister in temples there.  During that time I went on several pilgrimages to Japan to follow the path of Shinran and the spread of the influence of the onembutsu.   I often asked myself, why Shinran, why the onembutsu?   Perhaps one answer is the 18###sup vow of Amida, the Primal Vow, includes  everyone, universally.   It is completely inclusive and does not discriminate on the basis of social or economic status, gender, race, age, nationality or even religious belief.  The Primal Vow affirms that we are all equal and we are all accepted, just as we are.  The great wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha embraces everyone, everywhere, unconditionally.  It is timeless.

The Kamakura period was a time of war and violence, great poverty and distress, disease and a rigidly stratified class system.  In response, many new schools of Buddhism were started.  Shinran in his interpretation of the teachings opened the door of Buddhism more widely and brought hope and comfort to everyone, regardless of their background.   He taught that however imperfect we may be, we are all embraced by the vow of the Buddha and we all have value.  For him, the onembutsu was the answer confirming that one is not alone.  There is something out there that embraces each one of us unconditionally and we are all in the same condition, we are in this together.   That was true during his time and it may be true now.  I really dont know, what do you think?

Namo Amida Butsu.

During the early stages of the coronavirus I was overjoyed to hear so many people saying that we are in this together, united in the fight against this dreadful global pandemic. But now I am extremely disappointed over all the arguments that have recently arisen.  Arguments like whos to blame, whats  in it for me, when can I go out, where do I go for answers, why is there not more cooperation, and how is this crisis ever going to end so that we can get back to normal?

I certainly do not know all the answers, but putting politics and such arguments aside, it seems to me that we should not forget how critically important it is to continue working together with one heart and one mind toward one common goal  to get rid of this terrible danger that is a threat to everyone.

Trusting that the experts in science and medicine and our leaders in business and government and elsewhere will come up with the necessary solutions, the only thing that I can do is to contribute in my own way by supporting their efforts.

An inspiration for what I am doing right now, which is basically to stay home, comes from the experiences of my own mother who I spoke about during this past Sunday service, on Mothers Day. When I was about ten years old she became infected with tuberculosis and was isolated in a special hospital for two years. The hospital building was very high, and the only contact I was allowed to have with her was to look up and wave to her from the ground while she looked down and waved to me from her window. Hi Mom, I would say, not really understanding why I could not be with her. Everybody assumed that she would die, but nobody had the heart to tell me, not even my father. Fortunately however, and as she believed, miraculously, she did fully recover. It completely changed her life! Before her illness, her whole life was centered around the family business, making money, how to make it and how to use it. After her illness, her thinking became very different and she would say that the most important thing was to take care of your health. Without health, she would often say, there is no way you can make a living, or for that matter, sustain a living. It took a life-threatening illness for her to be able to say something like that, and with deep gratitude, she turned from devoting most of her time to business, to also finding the time to help others, as she herself had been helped. 

I also spoke on Sunday about how Buddhas love is like a mothers love, unconditional, and I spoke about the Bodhisattva Kannon (Kuan-yin) a mother-like figure, widely revered for her many compassionate qualities. Within the crown of Kuan-yin sits the image of Amida Buddha, who through skillful means (upaya) brings the Dharma in the midst of suffering to save us all. How thankful we are.

Our reading on Sunday was The Threefold Reguge which for me emphasizes the relevance of our need, especially now, for spiritual togetherness even as we are physically apart. I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha, the community,(May we, together with all sentient beings, become units in true accord, in harmony with all things).    

The concept of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha does not exist independently. Collectively they express the oneness of all things. This oneness can overcome any form of negativity and disunity, bringing us back to positivity and unity. It constantly reminds us that the pieces of the puzzle scattered by the pandemic need to come together in order to make us whole again. 

Namo Amida Butsu.   

Our recent reading during this past Sunday service was The Way of the Bodhisattva.  I chose this reading because more than one person in recent weeks has asked me if all the people who are putting their lives on the line during this terrible pandemic -- doctors, nurses, first responders, numerous other health and essential workers -- are actually themselves bodhisattvas.

 After contemplating this question, I have come to the personal conclusion that yes, they certainly are bodhisattva-like in the way that they are devoting all of their energy to relieve the suffering, and to meet the needs of others.  They choose to go out and help us all by selflessly placing and risking their lives in front of everything else in order to embrace and save us from the many dangers of Covid-19.  To them, I will be eternally grateful.

It is hard to believe that there are seemingly ordinary people like that who are performing extraordinary and heroic acts of kindness and courage every single day, and who often say I am just doing my job.  It is simply amazing to me.  I find myself feeling a little bit guilty for gradually becoming too comfortable staying inside, and not personally experiencing any of the suffering that is going on outside.  I wish I could do more, and others have mentioned that same sentiment to me.

 The people who are out there endangering their own lives to fight the dreadful virus and to help others are doing a lot more than just their jobs.  They are inspiring us with their commitment, determination, and sense of purpose.  They are examples of how important it is to have compassion, and to understand the interconnectedness and interrelationships of all things, and that when one sentient being suffers, we all suffer as well.

In Buddhism we are taught that inside each and every one of us there is a bodhisattva.  We all have a special skill, a purpose.  Everyone in their own way has something to offer.  Everyone has a Buddha nature.  We may not feel it is particularly profound, but it is there nonetheless, moving us in the direction of slowly realizing the things we can be doing, instead of thinking about what we feel we should be doing.  The essence of the Buddha nature is doing something spontaneously, without any form of calculation or expectation of anything in return.  That is true dana, selfless giving.  Someone recently said to me that she now wakes up every morning by first saying thank you, and then asking herself what can I do today to help others?  Make a phone call?  Wear a mask?  Write a letter?  Donate to a food bank?  Stay home?  Her thoughts, words and actions embody the many, many things we can be doing to give our lives meaning and purpose for ourselves and for others in this uncertain time.  This person has found herself by just being herself and shows us that we dont need todo anything to prove ourselves, we just need to be ourselves.  As I perceive it, she is thinking, speaking and acting like a bodhisattva.  How wonderful!

The ever-present and infinite light and immeasurable life of Amida Buddha embraces me unconditionally, and brings to mind the two attending bodhisattvas, Seishi, expressing Wisdom and Kannon (Kuan-yin), expressing Compassion.  Through the promise of the vows of these three revered figures we are able to wake up to the seeds deep within us.  We are able to awaken and see the possibility of our own potential for goodness, knowledge, and positivity, helping us to be true to ourselves, and thus to others, especially now.    Namo Amida Butsu.

For the past couple of days, I have been experiencing lower back pain that is quite severe unless I am lying down and staying very still.  It feels very real, as opposed the sometimes disorienting and at times seemingly surreal experience of the coronavirus pandemic with its eerie empty streets, mask covered pedestrians and emergency sirens.  This unexpected and uncertain global crisis has consumed my attention, and it is my sharp back pain (and warnings last week of a possible tornado) that reminded me of the immediacy of matters other than my preoccupation with the spread of Covid-19. There are still many other pressing daily problems and that need attending to, and even though the pandemic has taken precedence, we should not forget those other matters.

Normally, when my back pain flares up, I go out and seek medical attention, but under the present circumstances I cannot, so I just stay inside and deal with it as best I can. Staying inside my apartment for weeks has not been the worst thing.  Hats off to the people who have kept us connected, and even reconnected to friends, family, and others.  Thanks to technology, I do not feel isolated.   Praise to all the people who have become everyday heroes who are maintaining our essential services and functions even at great risk to themselves and families, and keeping us safe, protected, and fed.  Thanks to them I have been able to sustain myself in what has become my own little confined universe.

The current situation reminds me of the fable of the turtle and the birds which I spoke about during the most recent live-streaming of our Sunday Service.  My retelling of the fable goes like this:

###i/i###

 For me, the moral of the story is not whether or not the turtle should have stayed in the safety of the deep well, or if he should have held firmly onto the stick.  As we contemplate his fate, we realize that in a way, he represents each and every one of us.  Quite often the universe that we have created for ourselves is largely of our own making and perceptions, and we forget that there is a greater reality beyond our perceptions and personal beliefs.  We sometimes limit our world  and forget to consider the perspective of others in our words, thoughts and actions. 

In Buddhism, the concept of impermanence teaches us that there are countless numbers of causes and conditions where situations are always changing.  It helps us to realize the importance of continually thinking about all those things which give us meaning and purpose.  My life is not just necessarily about me.  The global pandemic has reminded us that we are all universally interconnected, we all belong to this world, together.

Slowly but surely, my pain that shook me out of pandemic preoccupation will gradually diminish.  Slowly but surely, the threat of the coronavirus will lessen through medical and scientific advances.  My heart goes out for the tragic loss and disruption of so many lives.  We are all in this together, and I just need to remember in my own choices and decisions that the larger world outside my small world also needs my full attention, and my unending gratitude.

Namo Amida Butsu.

 

This week I find myself going back to the parable taught by the Buddha about The Poisoned Arrow.  It is a great parable, one of my favorites, and goes like this: 

Suppose a man were pierced by a poisoned arrow, and his relatives and friends got together to call a surgeon to have the arrow removed and the wound treated.  If the wounded man objects saying, Wait a minute.  Before you pull it out, I want to know who shot the arrow.  Was it a man or a woman?  Was it someone of noble birth or was it a peasant?  What was the bow made of?  Was it a big bow or a small bow that shot the arrow?  Was it made of wood or bamboo?  What was the bow string made of?  Was it made of fiber or of gut?  Was the arrow made of rattan or of reed?  What feathers were used?  Before you extract the arrow, I want to know all about these things.  Then what will happen?  Before all this information can be secured, no doubt, the poison will have time to circulate through his body and the man may die.  The first duty is to remove the arrow and prevent its poison from spreading.

 In this parable, as in all his parables, Shakyamuni Buddha took a very practical approach to solving problems, asking us to pay attention to what is most useful, and not get distracted from useless and unimportant things.  To survive, all the man pierced by the poisoned arrow had to do was to take it out, but he over-thought his perilous situation, asking way too many questions, and wasting precious and valuable time.  

 For me, the parable of The Poisoned Arrow is very relevant to what we are going through in these difficult times by reminding us not to over-think the causes and the problems of the global pandemic, but rather to focus on our own roles and responsibilities in the solutions.  The teachings of the Buddha are very personal ones, and the concept of being practical and taking responsibility is very important to me right now.  Are we being driven by fear and lack of understanding in our thoughts, or are we taking those actions that are most beneficial to others as well as to ourselves?  The reality is that probably one of the most useful and important things we can do right now is to follow the rules and guidelines of our public health and government officials whose goals are to protect us and keep us safe.  

We will eventually get through this crisis.  We are all in it together, and it has united people all over the world as one family.  How grateful I am for the many, many ways people are helping each other however they can to endure the demands it has brought on us, not only here in New York City, but everywhere.  It gives us the opportunity to refocus more clearly on the most important things we need to do each day, and it brings hope for a better tomorrow.

Take a deep breath, isnt it great to be alive during uncertain times like this?   Dont let negativity and fear control you, make room for positivity and hope!  As human beings were always looking to do things one way, but the coronavirus has taken us out of our comfort zones and pointed us in the direction of doing things in other ways, maybe even in ways weve never thought of before.

If we give in to the darkness of negativity, then were trapped with doubt and fear, but if we open ourselves up to positivity then were letting in the light that brings hope, and our minds become clearer  and better able to explore different means of perceptions and connections.  We can now begin to enter the vast ocean of Dharma, universal truths!  Slowly by slowly, we notice more aha moments that change our perceptions and expand our personal abilities to see, through a newly realized awareness, a bigger and more universal picture of all things.  As human beings there is always in us this inner desire to survive, to live, and through mindfulness and deep listening, we can find answers that guide us toward a more hopeful and better tomorrow.

Even though almost everyone is confined to their homes right now, people are breaking out of their shells and doing such things as phoning people they havent spoken to in a long time, and shedding tears and having compassion for people theyve never met.  There is an overwhelming sense of gratitude and deep feeling for everything they had taken for granted in the past, and in particular experiencing gratitude for all the heroic acts of kindness and selflessness that are taking place all over the world.  These renewed and new connections, this sense that were all in the same boat, have opened our hearts and minds to connect with everyone else.  This awakening has helped us to realize that we truly are one with all things!

Sadly, thousands have already passed away and still more will come because of the virus.  However, their deaths should not go in vain!  Their passing should always make us further aware of the reality of whats going on, and constantly remind us to be grateful and thankful for their lives, and our own.  We should acknowledge them by openly saying thank you.  Their passing will help future generations understand the actuality of this terrible illness, and help scientists and researchers create a cure that will provide us with much needed optimism and hope.

In Buddhism, by reciting the Onembutsu, we express our deep thankfulness and feel a deep sense of gratitude that we are not forsaken, and not alone.  There is something out there that unconditionally accepts us for who and what we are, and enlightens our paths and our shared humanity toward all.

So take a deep breath, listen to comforting music, take time to smell the flowers, to hear the birds sing, or even to look at photos of your family and friends.  Just as I am thinking and concerned about them, I now know that they are also thinking and concerned about me.  Namo Amida Butsu.

Staying home for weeks now because of the coronavirus has made me keenly aware of all the things Ive taken for granted, but at the same time its awakened in me a sense of gratitude for those very same things, the people in my life, my health, science, technology, the gift of planet Earth itself, which sustains us all.  During this difficult time, Ive come to appreciate everything, and everyone, more than ever.  Although being confined to my apartment in New York City for a very long time, I still feel very connected to everyone throughout the world.   As the world has come to a standstill, the global pandemic has drawn us closer.

Im grateful for the researchers who are working hard together worldwide to find a cure, for the environmentalists and geoscientists who are hoping we can learn long-lasting lessons from the global improvement in air quality and the drop in seismic noise due to the lockdown on human activity, and for the heroism and loving kindness shown by so many people all over the world as they support each other.  Living in New York, its heartwarming to hear the nightly cheers and applause in gratitude for the health care workers and others on the front lines who are risking their lives for us.   Its greatly helped me realize more clearly our vastness, and also our oneness.

Will we be doing things differently once this crisis is over?  I really dont know, but if the world can come together and collaborate for this one purpose, then perhaps we can mutually address other serious issues as well.  Its a matter of looking deeply within our hearts and minds and waking us up to the causes and effects of our actions.  Although it takes much more time to mend than to destroy, its never too late to turn things around toward a more positive outcome.   Its basically our ego, our foolishness, that keeps us from working together, but if we can overcome that and wake up to our own responsibility for ourselves and for each other, then anything is possible. 

The teachings of the Buddha, which guide us toward an understanding of the consequences of our thoughts, speech, and actions, also provide us with the universal truths and practices that can lead us to an enlightened future.  Change begins with me.  The choice for a better tomorrow is now ours!

With the coronavirus all around us, everything has changed, even my cooking.  People who know me know that I love to cook, but I didnt realize until now how much I often wasted some of the ingredients.  Usually I cook vegan, but the other night I roasted a chicken together with carrots, onions and potatoes.  From the leftovers, I was able to create other dishes.  The next morning I fried the potatoes and put an egg on top for breakfast, I made a chicken salad sandwich for lunch, and I made a Chinese ginger soup using the broth from the chicken bones for dinner.  Last night, I even made banana bread from some overripe bananas I had put in the freezer!
The necessity of being more resourceful in my cooking combined with the stay-at-home restrictions makes me appreciate all the things that I had always taken for granted, the freedom to go outside and shop as I pleased, the ability to freely socialize with others, the pleasure of having dinner in restaurants with friends. Theres a sense of resistance that lies deeply within me and I wonder if we all feel the same, that we dont like being told what we can or cannot do!  But despite this feeling, its critically important not only for ourselves but for others to follow the orders and instructions of the public officials and medical professionals, and take all the necessary precautions theyve given us.  We need to understand that everything they do, theyre doing for us, for our safety and for our health.  We thank them, and we thank all the unsung heroes who are risking their health and their lives for ours.
In reality, even in isolation, we still have many freedoms, and many things we can do.  Besides cooking, Im paying more attention to my feisty cat Mikey who unconditionally wants to play and keep me company, Im speaking more often with sangha members, family, and friends on the phone, some of whom I havent spoken to in awhile, and Im spending more time trying to get my thoughts together and to be mindful of how whats going on out there isnt about me, its about the hundreds, thousands, and millions of people all around me.  We are all in this together, and thankfully we are still able to communicate and to connect.  Now that I have so much extra time, I might just work on my Japanese sumi-e ink paintings, or even get around to getting rid of some of the clutter in my apartment!
As we look to medicine, science, government and business to help us cope and navigate through this crisis, lets remember the teachings of the Buddha that remind us that because of impermanence, that because things are always evolving, situations will change.  When conditions are right, anything can happen, positive as well as negative.  Individually, were all trying our best, but could you imagine if we positively put our thoughts, speech, and actions all together, how powerful the outcome would be?  Although were apart right now, the Nembutsu embraces us as one!


 I wish I could simply say to the coronavirus, GO AWAY, SORRY, THERES NO ROOM FOR YOU IN MY LIFE, OR ANYONE ELSES.  But I cant.  I cant even control my own life, how can I control a virus?  It is causing so much fear and uncertainty.  By lessening my self-centeredness, the only thing I can control is my response to it by following the advice of health and public officials who are striving to keep us safe, and leaving the cure to the medical experts and scientists who are working so hard to stop it. 
The virus is controlling us.  It is negativity controlling us, resulting in extreme stress in our thinking caused by the unknown.  But we have a choice.  Obviously I cant tell the virus to go away, but I can forcefully and with all my might and my very being tell the negativity to go away.  In Buddhism, the sources of negativity, the causes of our suffering, are the Three Poisons, greed (want), anger (hatred), and ignorance (lack of knowledge or understanding), and the remedies are the practices of loving kindness, compassion, and wisdom.  These practices can also serve as the answer to overcoming the negativity caused by the invisible virus we cannot see, and the means by which one can transform that negativity into positivity.
Another enduring and valued antidote is the goodness and generosity of spirit shining through in the courage and selflessness of the health care workers and of so many others behind the scenes who are on the front lines of this battle.  We should be so grateful to them.  In point of fact, as difficult as times are right now, we still need to get on with our lives.  I never dreamed Id be giving my Sunday Dharma message to a camera, but thanks to technology, Im still able to reach out to you.  I really miss seeing you, and our lively interactions, but Im so glad I can continue to fulfill my role and responsibility as a minister despite the disruption in our normal routines.
One of the influences in my becoming a minister was the positivity, inspiration, and hope provided by Rev. Dr. Mitsuo Aoki, a religion professor at the University of Hawaii whose favorite saying was there is nothing greater than love!  For me, love is a dot in that all-inclusive, ever-widening circle of wisdom and compassion that is at the core of Buddhist teachings.  Please take a moment to reflect upon the countless blessings that we are constantly receiving, and think about ways to share these positive awakenings with all. 
Namo Amida Butsu