The New York Buddhist Church

Sept. 15, 2020

Will life ever be the same?  I have heard this question over and over in the last six months since the coronavirus turned our lives upside down, forcing us to do things differently and to reorder our priorities.  Its been an intensely challenging time for everyone.  With the number of Covid-19 cases in the United States approaching seven million, and sadly, with nearly 200,000 deaths, it is evident to me that we will have even more challenging times ahead.

But when you really think about it, weve been through this before.  Not only just a pandemic, its been 100 years since the last one, but weve also experienced wars, economic upheaval, political divisiveness, social unrest, climate crises, devastating wildfires, terrorist attacks, you name it.  I am reminded of all of these things from the persistent news headlines, and also because recently we marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the 19th anniversary of 9/11.  Both were earth-shattering events that have had a deep and long-lasting impact on our lives.   These impacts have had consequential and transformative effects on every aspect of the way we all live.

On the Sunday before our summer break, we held our annual Hiroshima & Nagasaki Memorial Service.  It usually takes place outside the New York Buddhist Church, in front of the 15-foot bronze statue of our founder, Shinran Shonin.  This year, because of Covid-19, the service was held inside, live streaming from the hondo.  The imposing statue survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb blast of August 6, 1945, a mile from ground zero.  It has been standing in front of our temple since 1955 as a symbol of lasting hope for world peace.   It was donated by Japanese industrialist Seiichi Hirose who together with Reverend Hozen Seki arranged to have it shipped to New York City.  I greatly missed being able to hold the service in person outside with the sangha this year, and was deeply moved when the pastor of a nearby Christian church, along with a few parishioners, stopped by in the afternoon to place flowers in front of the statue, in unity. 

This past Sunday we had our September Shotsuki Hoyo Memorial Service, and we also held our 9/11 Memorial Remembrance.   I cant imagine what it must have been like living in New York on that terrible day.  I was living in Hawaii at the time, and I still remember how some people were calling for immediate and swift retaliation.  We need to bust them up, they were saying.  I wondered, if we did that, what would it prove?  Would it really resolve anything?  Will we ever learn?  From a Buddhist standpoint, repeating the same harmful thing again and again only exemplifies our ignorance.  Pursuing our grievances, whether theyre small ones or large ones, never gets us anywhere.  We dont have to go far. Grievances can happen within our own homes just as easily as on a global scale.   We need wisdom to awaken to the causes and conditions. 

When I moved to New York City in 2014, it affected me profoundly to learn that after 9/11, many, many people would come to our temple just to look at Shinran Shonin, and to reflect upon the statues strong resiliency and inspiring symbolism.

Admittedly, each time something horrible happens people ask if life will ever be the same.  Our concerns are driven by fear, fear of the unknown.  But through past catastrophic events such as WWII and 9/11 along with this current pandemic, weve been given the opportunity to reflect upon the self and to gain deeper insight into the values and teachings of the Buddha which give us hope.   

In his last teaching the Buddha urged us to recognize the transitory nature of life, impermanence, when he said, the point of the teachings is to control your own mind.  Keep your mind from greed, and you will keep your behavior right, your mind pure and your words faithful.  By always thinking about the transiency of your life, you will be able to resist greed and anger, and will be able to avoid all evils.

I realize that I cannot control the thoughts, speech and actions of others, but I can strive to control my own.  We are all in the same situation.  By example, we can each make a difference.  As human beings, we tend to dwell on the tragedies and overlook all the good things.  By accepting the constancy of change, we can embrace our joys as we endure our tragedies.  Even the worst of situations is not forever.  Everything is subject to change.  The question is what the outcome of the change will be.

None of us can control the future either, but we always need to remember that the decisions we make today will have an impact on the future.  The teachings of the Buddha can be a guide in how we consider our decisions.  We simply need wisdom and compassion.  It is the path of the Nembutsu, the possible means by which we as fellow travelers can begin to open our hearts and minds, that can help awaken us to the voice that is calling.   

Namo Amida Butsu