Welcome everyone - again - thank you for joining us today. We are always happy to gather together and offer a refuge to all who need it. Regular life can be difficult and demanding. This is a place to let that go. Take an easeful breath and calmly apply the teachings to your life.
We have not met for two weeks. We said b on voyage to Tomo-sensei on Friday - He had been living at your temple for 5 weeks! I think he will report to Tokyo that we are heartily pursuing the Dharma a nd that we have excessively large dessert portions. Thanks to all the members who participated and included him in activities during his stay. He gave the Bukko flower arrangement on the upper altar as a goodbye gift to all of the sangha.
Today we will talk about this bracelet. Many of you have them. I f you do please raise your hand...yes. There is a smaller version on at the incense altar. Normally there are 108 beads on the Nenju. They represent the 108 impediments to enlightenment - Things that hold us back in life. They hold us back in our understanding of the Dharma - Truths the Buddha taught.
At newcomers circle after the service people often ask why the bracelet has 108 beads? Where does the number come from?
Six senses are recognized in Buddhism: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and [what's number six?] mind - or consciousness. Now, each of these six senses is associated with pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings, making a total of 18 feelings. For each of the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings has two classifications: those feelings that are attractive or aversive. When we multiply the 18 different kinds of feelings with the two classifications, we arrive at the figure 36. These 36 are the basic passions of sentient beings. They are manifested - past, present, and future. Thirty six multiplied by past, present, and future will give us the total of 108 impediments we experience. Sometimes it seems like 1,008 - other times we are doing pretty well.
It's quite a list...lets look at them.
hunger for power
desire for fame
talking too much
lack of comprehension
As I read them, I find some that ring true and some that I seldom experience - but none that I have never experienced in body speech or mind. I had to look four of them up. That is just what human life is like. We are held back from understanding what the Buddha taught by our habits of mind, our heavy burden of karma these states of mind sow.
These are the mental states the Sakayamuni Buddha overcame in his enlightenment 2500 years ago. Under the Bodhi he was no longer troubled any of these states. Or sometimes we say - “He conquered Mara the undoer”. Mara the un-doer can be seen as the author of these impediments. He is a conceptual device that serves to group the difficult aspect we experience. We don't really see these impediments as imposed from the outside. Mara lives in every sentient being - I can see I’ll need to explain a bit about Mara. Understand the Buddha’s teachings are intended to help us all with Mara, as manifest in these impediments.
Mara is a figure often referred to in Buddhist writings in gattas from monks and nuns of Buddha’s time. In stories of the Buddha's enlightenment, Mara’s forces attacked the bodhisattva Siddhartha as he sat under the Bodhi tree, on that last night. In the sutras there are many versions of that moment... here is an abbreviated version from the Mara Upasata Sutra...
As Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi Tree, Mara realized that something wondrous was about to happen. And he set out to stop the Buddha's Enlightenment. But Siddhartha's meditative calm proved so powerful that when Mara's deadly forces hurled spears and arrows at him they were transformed into flowers of offering that showered gently down.
Siddhartha was equally unmoved when Mara sent his beautiful daughters - Tanha (Craving), Arati (Boredom), and Raga (Passion)- in an attempt to seduce the bodhisattva by dancing before him.
In a final attempt to unseat Siddhartha, Mara insisted that he, not Siddhartha, had a right to the throne of enlightenment by virtue of his previous meritorious deeds. Mara's hordes thundered forth their support. In response, the solitary bodhisattva reached down and touched the Earth, calling upon the earth to bear witness to his countless past deeds of merit. In acknowledgement the earth gave a great shudder, at which Mara's fearsome elephant bowed down before the Buddha in submission, and Mara with his armies fled in terror. At that moment hosts of devas arrived to proclaim Siddhartha's great victory and to witness his Enlightenment.
In the first watch - The Buddha didn’t k ill the demons - he transformed their arrows into flowers. In the second watch, he didn’t e liminate the sensual daughters of Mara, he tolerated and was unmoved by them. When Mara got clever and calculating, Buddha simply touched the earth. He was well grounded in his view. No fighting or arguing.A quiet calm centered response. It was a victory in that Mara bowed down, seeing he could not break Buddha’s integrity. His wholeness was complete. Buddha had no impediments for mara to pry him apart.
These impediments always have overarching elements of ego and arrogance. The Buddha recognises the spiritual potential within all of us. The teachings don’t rid the student of his demons, but allows us to live with them! This is our Shin method of dealing with Mara. Mara impedes us from becoming enlightened and actively traps us in this world of constant suffering - samsara. In the shoshinge we chanted, the negative elements are referred to as b onno or faults rooted in the “I-Me-Me-My” self. They are b lind passions. Passions that make us blind - obscure the true nature of everything and trap us in suffering. The goal of Buddhism is to become free of these demons so that we can be joyfully awake, spiritually free, and really able to work toward r elieving the suffering all beings.
All Buddhism does this in different ways. 84,000 paths. The genius of our founder Shinran Shonin, is he showed a way to l ive with our demons by awakening to a deeper understanding of the world around us. We all have faults and limitations - ok. Realizing this imperfection of self, we begin to appreciate the love and concern of Amida Buddha. We can objectively see wisdom and compassion around us even though we are struggling. In s pite of and really because of those limitations the Wisdom and Compassion of the Universe is here for us. The Buddha is a refuge for the small self. By relying on the vow of Amida Buddha - promising to free us from this world of constant suffering - we are rescued from the grinding mess of samsara. The clouds that obscure our view can clear.
Amida is the Buddha of Infinite Life and Infinite Light. Among all Buddhas, he is the only one who promised that he will l ead to Buddhahood all beings no matter their spiritual capacities, especially those whose karma is so heavy that they probably deserve to be born in hell. All that beings need to do is to entrust themselves in Amida, say his Name in deep trust, and aspire for birth in his “Buddha Field” - What we come to call the Western Pure Land...
When I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, will be born there.
We are saved from the grinding mess by looking deep within our limited self and rediscovering and accepting the “real people” that we actually are; W e are ok just as we are. We may be drowning in a deep ocean of suffering - ok. We may be tortured by our own greed, anger, and stupidity - ok. Shinjin or true entrusting, is the key to our freedom from l ifetimes of suffering. Entrusting in the vows of the Buddha and calling the name of the Buddha, Namu Amida Butsu relieves our burden. We may try very hard to “ get rid of” all those impediments read out. No matter how earnest and sincere we are, it may be impossible to be free from our demons. Ultimately, that is what Shinran found when he studied the Dharma for 20 years on Mt. Hiei. Amida Buddha offers a different way out - not by striving, but by accepting. Amida Buddha accepts me just as I am, and that transforms my experience of life from a world of demons to a world of joys in the present moment.
We can take a specific impediment and see it in our life. When we do that and really accept it as part of us. Its power diminishes. If we h ate that thing about us, or fight to make it go away, we actually empower the impediment - we send energy to Mara. If we accept and acknowledge that limitation in our nature, then its power diminishes. Not until it is gone, but until it is no longer holding us back. We can rely on the compassionate ocean of Amida Buddha to absorb or buffer what is too much for us to bear alone. When we decrease this artificial tension inside us the impediments diminish. Not with the old goal of eradicating them, but to just let them be. We see them with clarity and the demon quality is lost.
While we usually hide our faults and limitations, the founder, Shinran shonin, was very upfront with his acceptance of his own faults. Many times Shinran writes of his inner experience. He writes about his own blind passion as a plague of snakes and scorpions in his own mind.
“My mind is full of snakes and scorpions,
And since even the good I try to do
Is tainted with the poison (of my self-centered effort), It must be called the practice of an idiot.”
The difficult thoughts - images - memories we carry are really like poisonous snakes and scorpions - Mara’s minions. We can be ok just as we are when we see that the wonderful teacher Shinran lived with these same snakes and scorpions his whole life. He clearly taught they are not removed in this life, in Shinjin we accept these Bonno in ourselves and others. We don’t have any expectation that our snakes and scorpions won’t be part of our karmic baggage for the remainder of this last life as a non-Buddha.
Shinran teaches us this by the example of his life. He never claims perfection. He actually accepts himself as limited. This is Amida Buddha accepting us, holding us, just as we are, never to be let go.
What I am truly grateful for - really beyond words - is that one gift of the Buddha - the incomparably priceless opportunity to listen deeply to Shinran’s plain teaching: to hear, and to understand, and to accept the gifts of Amida Buddha - the assured and easy path to the end of suffering - at long last.
Grateful for this, I say the nembutsu. It is just the most visible part of a grateful life. Deep down, our practice is to respond with gratitude in all areas of our lives. Every day brings innumerable gifts -- life, love, nourishment, shelter, challenges, friendship, and more. These beautiful gifts are lost when our view is clouded by the impediments. But by accepting Mara we deflate him. By recognizing our limitations we diminish them. On the basic level, just try to remember the presence of this acceptance in our lives, say the nembutsu, and do our best to, Give back, Be patient, Be helpful, and Be caring.
To quote a poem by the Myokonin Saiichi - The sea is just full of water;
there is the seabed that sustains it. Saiich is just full of evil karma; there is Amida that sustains it. How happy I am!
We triumph over Mara everyday in small ways and that is thanks to Amida Buddha. We can handle our many difficulties with humble gratitude for the infinite life that sustains us. The great wish of Amida Buddha for all beings - let's share it out loud -
May you be happy; May you be free from harm: May you receive boundless compassion;
And may peace and harmony fill your heart
- Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu -
READING: Mara Comes for Tea -
Retold from Thich Nhat Hanh's Heart of Understanding
One day the Buddha was sitting in meditation in his cave on Vulture Peak while his trusted disciple, Ananda, was outside collecting food for their next meal. Ananda looked up from his chores when he saw, coming toward the cave, the Buddha's nemesis, Mara. Mara was a demon king who tried to prevent the Buddha from reaching enlightenment under the Bodhi tree many years earlier. Since then, he had continued to be a perpetual thorn in the Buddha's side, so to speak, cultivating greed, desire and hatred in men. Ananda knew this and was immediately enraged by his appearance at the Buddha's cave. Ananda approached Mara: "Get out of here! The Buddha does not wish to have his cave invaded by demons!"
"Go and ask him for yourself. I simply wish to speak with your master."
Reluctantly and nervously Ananda did as the demon king asked and entered the Buddha's cave. "World Honored One, the demon king, Mara approaches your cave and seeks an audience with you. I have already told him to leave but he insisted I ask you myself."
The Buddha's eyes opened from his meditation and he smiled, widely. "Mara is here!? Really? It has been so long since we have spoken.
Yes, yes, ready some tea and invite him in and we'll talk."
Dumbfounded, Ananda did as the Buddha asked, putting a pot on the fire to boil and then going outside to tell Mara that he was welcome in the Buddha's cave. "As I knew I would be, little Ananda," said the demon king arrogantly, brushing past the Buddha's humble disciple.
When Mara entered the cave the Buddha sprang to his feet, nearly leaping into the air with excitement. "Mara, my good friend, it has been so long since we have seen each other. Please sit, have some tea and tell me why you have come to visit."
Ananda was very nervous now and listened to the conversation between his master and the demon. Mara sipped his tea slowly and then spoke. "Buddha, things are not going well. I wish to be something else. Something other than a Mara."
"But, Mara, you are so good at being Mara. Remember when you sent images of sense pleasures and warnings of how difficult it would be for me to fully reach enlightenment when I sat beneath the bodhi tree? That was a fantastic job of being Mara. I really had to struggle to get where I am now.
I truly owe you a debt of gratitude."
Now Ananda was getting very fearful. He did not like the idea of Buddha having a debt of gratitude to Mara. This was very upsetting but he listened further.
"Well, I suppose you are right," said Mara, "but being Mara I always have to be sneaking around in the shadows, talking in riddles and half-truths. It is such hard work always trying to think of the clever things to say and do. I just...I think.
it would be easier to be something else. And the worst part: my disciples have heard about your the Dharma and are talking about non-duality, justice, non-violence, and peace...it is so frustrating being Mara. I think it would be much better if you took my disciples. Maybe we could switch for a while?
You could be Mara and I could try being Buddha?"
At this request Ananda's heart really began to pound. He knew that his master had just said he owed Mara a debt and he also knew how profound his master's compassion truly was. He had seen him give to others when he had almost nothing. He was terrified that he would now become the disciple of Mara and the Buddha would become a demon king. No worse thought was imaginable.
The Buddha thought. He sipped his tea. And then he spoke: "Mara, do you think it is just frustrating being Mara? Being the Buddha is equally...no, doubly frustrating, I guarantee. You think you have trouble with your disciples? Mine put words in my mouth and write them into sutras that I have never said. I teach them about non-attachment to material things and what do they do? They build stupas and erect shrines in my name! They even build enormous statues of me out of gold just to pray to even though I have told them time and time again that I am not a god. And they sell trinkets in temples. It is an absolute pain. But I do not give up being Buddha because that is what I am."
Mara sighed and vanished into the shadows. Ananda felt slightly relieved but continued to worry that one day Mara would get what he ultimately wanted.