Remembering our Spiritual Teachers
How are you all doing this morning? Welcome to new folks who are here again. It seems to take a few visits to get a feel for our temple. Founders dinner last weekend was a friendly gathering in honor of our dear teachers. We got to know each other. Played a few icebreaker games that Rev. Shelley came up with. It was fun.
What a beautiful day! Spring is coming soon.
We remember the founders of RBC this month because Dr. Matsunaga died in February - the anniversary brings them to mind. They were our spiritual teachers. Really all these people with pictures up here were the spiritual teachers in our lineage.
What is a spiritual teacher? We have all had thesel teachers in our lives. Please consider that the obvious people are not always the actually ones. A priest or Sunday School leader - sometimes. Often the most significant spiritual teachers in our lives are other folks. Who naturally teach us - sometimes through their actions rather than their words - to see reality as it is to be grateful for our lives and to become more fully human.
For many that is a grand mother or an important acquaintance. Sometimes it is a brief encounter that sets the mind just so - to see well and clearly. They help us to see wisely. They help us to see compassionately. These two are so important - in the triptych scroll here - Amida Buddha is supported by two Bhodisattvas - Seishi and Kannon. Wisdom and Compassion. These are gifts a student experiences in relationship with a teacher.
When we start to think about our place in this great mystery of being, we are still mostly stuck in habituated patterns. Teachers help with that. We are limited in our perception in a world colored by old habits of thinking. We often benefit from a teacher, who, standing outside our world, can show us how to proceed. They challenge us to clarify our view and give up what was not working for us.
In Shin Buddhism we don't put too much stress on this teacher-student relationship - In Shinran’s view we are all “Fellow Travelers on the path” - we are all “bonbunin”. Embracing our limited nature with humor and acceptance. Shinran saw that infatuation with the guru becomes an impediment to learning the Dharma and so valued everyone equally as a source of wisdom and compassion. He did always referred to Honen as his teacher and referred to what he taught as a simple sharing of what he learned from Honen. Shinran would be embarrassed that we call him the founder of our lineage, because all his insights and guidance came from his interaction with Honen Shonin.
What about our own spiritual teachers. In my case spiritual teachers have been many, in early days I learned so much from my older brother - he’s 12 years older than me - so more of an uncle. We camped and took weekend trips together - I asked questions and he was always active and engaged and kind. Answering every question in great detail.
My first Buddhist teacher was the Theravada monk Silvamsa at the Seema Malaka temple in Sri lanka. That is a beautiful little temple in the middle of a lake in the city of Colombo. He taught meditation and the Dharma. In my time studying with him I realized what it meant to be a Buddhist and took refuge for the first time.
Another important teacher of mine is Rev. Sam Wright he really put me back on a path to studying and teaching. My favorite way of explaining the idea of non-self came on a canoe trip with Sam on Lake Tahoe. As we watched little silver balls of water skitter across the surface of the lake. Each one thinking of itself as separate, but really being part of One Lake. Most of all my teachers are the Doctors Matsunaga - Daigon and Alicia. Their kind attention and shining example is what I want to talk about today.
Alicia was a very wise woman. Not only smart, but wise. She got her masters and PHD from Claremont College. She taught at UCLA or 20 years - Japanese culture and history of Buddhism . Her parents Henry and Alvira Orloff retired in Reno. I think that's really how RBC - we - got here today. She came here to care for them and started the temple. Coming from UCLA this must have been quite a change, Alicia only lived and taught here for nine years. She was the temple master of Reno Buddhist Church - at that time. Daigan was the temple master of Eikyoji in Hokkaido. Weakened by cancer, Alicia passed away at the age of 66 from a heart attack on July 27, 1998.
We heard Rev. Alicia’s voice and her way of thinking and teaching during the reading. It was about the Simsapa Sutra. Where the Buddha counsels us to focus on one path and one goal - a joyful life and leave the other stuff for later when we have that sorted. As we heard in the reading. Rev. Alicia was a very careful and precise person - you can hear that in her voice. She was very scholarly.
Her last sermon was in the spring of 1998. It was on Impermanence - Anicca in pali - the quality of change that characterizes everything in our conditioned universe of samsara. Anicca means - changefulness. The Buddha taught, life is like a river. A series of different moments, joining together to give the impression of one continuous flow. It moves from cause to cause, effect to effect, one point to another, one state of existence to another, the river looks like one continuous and unified thing. But in reality it isn’t. The river this morning is not the same as the river this afternoon. The river in this moment is not the same as the river of the next. And so flows life. It changes continuously, constantly becoming from moment to moment.
In her Dharma talk, Alicia started by placing all kinds of medications and prescription bottles along the top of this rail here. “Look at all these pills!” she said. “I take all of these to try to make it so things don’t change.” But they do.
If we don't understand the ephemeral nature of life we get attached to things and when they do fall away we suffer. Not because they fall away, but because we cling to them as they fall. She said “It is like falling off a horse.” - She had done that many times in her youth- If you try to stay on the horse and grasp at the saddle and hook your foot in the stirrup what happens? Nothing good. Suffering, injury, maybe death. If you accept the fall - accept the change - and look forward to what comes next you are better off. Anicca- changefullness is the nature of all conditioned reality. Things come and go. They become and they decay. If we understand and adapt to this reality of life - we don’t suffer so much.
Unrealistic expectations of life are the cause of suffering. The Buddha called it ignorance. We can do what we can, but need to accept reality. When we consider our loved ones. We fear their parting from us. Even if we are just dating someone, we fear they will break-up with us. That can get so bad that they want to dump us just to get away from the crazy time. If we can just see that we two are flowing through life with our own karma and we spend time together with each other according to that karma, when those causes and conditions are spent we wont be together any more. That life we can live and love fully without any of the pain.
At Book group on Wednesday we discussed this. If we think of all the other humans as flowers instead of possessions, their beauty and transience is interdependent. We love them so much more for the brief experience we have together. What do you call a flower that never dies? A cheap plastic flower. I’ve seen them in the desert, someone has cast them off and they are just garbage. But come upon a solitary lily growing in the desert and it is a most beautiful experience. People are the same way - if we can see their changefulness as the essence of their beauty - we will feel joy. We treasure the moments together and never wait to share our love.
Alicia pointed out another aspect of Anicca - impermanence - that unfortunate conditions or unpleasant circumstance - these too will change. The good stuff is wonderful because it is only with us for a short time, and the difficult things are bearable because they will only last a short time. I remember Alicia said “Things don’t stay the same --- It’ll will either get worse - or it will get better”. And everyone laughed.
When things are difficult we remember the Persian proverb - “This too will pass” - it gives us some respite - a quantum of solace - to know it won’t be like this forever. In this way too impermanence is our friend.
In Buddhism, impermanence is the number one inescapable - sometimes painful - fact of life. It is the singular existential problem that all Buddhist practice seeks to address. To understand impermanence at the deepest possible level, and to merge with it fully, is the whole of the path to joy. The Buddha’s final words express this: “Impermanence is inescapable. Everything vanishes. Therefore there is nothing more important than continuing on the path with diligence.”
Appreciating Anicca we focus on what is important. Alicia was dying, she was taking to heart an aspect of Buddhism she had taught many times before. Finally, she quoted Rennyo Shonin...
“In view of these facts, it does not make sense to focus on the things we can not change? We cannot control the passing away of both young and old alike, but each of us can take refuge in the Buddha of Infinite Life who promises to embrace, without exception, all beings who simply bring to mind Amida Buddha - Namo Amida Butsu - This you can do here and now, freeing yourself of any worries concerning life.”
That’s all I can remember from her Dharma talk. She’s still with us every day. Her character was very much that of Seishi Bhodisattva. A wise teacher sharing the Dharma with all of us.
I’ve been sharing my teachers thoughts for a bit. Lets take a moment and consider each one of you your own spiritual teachers -
Lets take a few deep breaths - naturally and easily, from deep down. Relax the tummy and let it rise and fall... And close our eyes to meditate on these questions….
• • Who was there for you when deep questions of life first came? Bring them to mind, Look on the person, smile broadly and say “thank you”.
• • When you had built some sense of things - the way existence works - Who was there to challenge those habits of mind with questions and puzzles? Bring them to mind, Look on the person, smile broadly and say “thank you”.
• • Who is your spiritual teacher now? A relationship of sharing
and insight, challenge and compassion.
Bring them to mind, Look on the person, smile broadly
and say “thank you”. • •
OK - open your eyes. That was good to do.
I want to do some remembering of Daigon as well. Daigon Matsunaga grew up in a Buddhist temple in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. His grandfather founded the “Temple of eternal light” - Eikyoji in 1900, and Daigon followed his father as the third temple master there. He had a strong connection to the United States. He learned english from cowboy movies as a boy. He was a great admirer of DT Suzuki and patterned his career after him. Following Suzuki’s example, Matsunaga went to Claremont College and received a master's and doctorate degrees in theology. He met Alicia there - she was a little ahead of him.
He taught cultural history and Buddhism at Cal State Northridge for 13 years. All along he knew that someday he would have to return to Japan as successor at the temple. He said "Fortunately my father lived a long time!"
Dr. Matsunaga’s personal goal was to ensure the future of American Buddhism. Well sensei - I think you did it!
He and Alicia chose Reno to do that because it had a very small Asian population. He had seen the limitations of the ethnic temples in Southern California - where assimilation quickly pulls the young folks away. His Temple here was founded in a community of common seekers with a bond of faith in the Dharma.
We are his experiment at age 27. After Alicia died Daigon visited us about four times a year. When he was in Japan, he would give his Dharma talks by Skype on a big 60” TV that used to be here. To pay the mortgage on this place he did fund raising in Japan. Many Japanese people were very skeptical. They didn't really understand why he was so eager to bring the Buddhism to Reno. But they gave just the same.
He really thought of the US as his second home and he wanted to see American Buddhism grow. The spirit of enlightenment enriches our culture and benefits everyone who lives here.
In 2009, I went to see him in Hokkaido at his temple. He was dying then. We were only able to talk a few times a day for just an hour before he needed to rest. The rest of the time I would walk in the snow or read.
My last conversations with Dr. Matsunaga were about RBC. We talked about its progress from something like a dependent child - to semi-autonomous teenager - and finally a mature temple. We talked about Amida Buddha - and the challenges of sharing the Dharma both in Reno and in Japan. Here its hard to introduce so many new ideas. In Japan, it is so ingrained they seem to not ask questions.
But mostly he told stories about his life and reflected on impermanence. When he was a student in Kyoto, one of his professors, a very famous Buddhist Master - wrote many books - and one was entitled Flowers Fade and Scatter. We always wish that beautiful flowers will last forever. Carlis was very kind and offered flowers for the altar, and I’m sure he hopes that the beautiful flower will last for days, but unfortunately they don’t last. I come here during the week and there are petals on the ground. They scatter and fade away.
Matsunaga talked about how the spirit of Buddha’s teaching has been depicted in different forms of statues, icons and carvings - a big variety of Buddha images have been created in 2600 of Buddhism. We’ve all seen these different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas - sometimes its confusing there are so many - The one Dr. Matsunaga talked about that day was the Buddha Master of Medicine. I assumed he came to this thought because of all the doctors in his life. He was only a couple months away from death and the colon and then liver cancer had made eating anything but liquid food impossible.
So he talked about why the Buddha is called Master of Medicine. The teaching is very practical - very scientific in a way - The Buddha’s method was to look at the pain and suffering of humankind - really all sentient beings - his approach to the problems was very logical. He taught us to observe our situation with it’s pains - what is the nature of the pain we feel. Longing, fear, illness - we face these difficulties in our lives.
The doctor has to diagnose a patient carefully - by observing and examining carefully, and skillfully. Then a good doctor finds the cause of the problem. What is the cause of our pain and suffering? Then a good doctor will prescribe the appropriate method of a treatment to heal the patient. Any pain can be cured or healed. So the Buddha is a the Master of Medicine.
We face not only physical pain and trouble, also spiritual difficulties. Buddhist teaching is designed to localize the causes of our inward, spiritual pain and suffering. Then try to - without evading the issue - try to find the cause, and then to apply the best possible remedy or treatment - a Buddhist practice so that we will be able to liberate ourselves - free ourselves from that pain.
That has been the traditional Buddhist teaching and approach taught for centuries. The reason we often find Buddha called Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha Master of Medicine. When you see his statue, he sits cross legged with a jar of medicine in his hand.
Matsunaga wanted us to understand our situation. The fundamental teaching of the Buddha is the fact that we have to live in this world filled with pains - large and small. We all age, and we suffer from illness, and sooner or later, we all die. Ageing, illness and death is an inconvenient reality for all of us.
(Only a few of us want to age - right? - and they just went to Dharma school.)
None of us want to be ill. None of us want to die. But the fact of the matter is, we can’t escape from reality. As a symptomatic remedy we look for permanence in life. A job - a relationship - to be famous maybe - It is just a wish, contrary to the reality of life. I don’t think Matsunaga wanted to sound pessimistic. He never wanted us to have a pessimistic outlook on life. But life is impermanent. Our normal human wishful thinking wants things to last and be permanent. We want happiness last forever and our youth and health - last forever. But that’s not the way it is.
Lets stop for a moment to think.
What if none of us ever aged, and we’d stay young forever? Or if none of us will ever got sick - just healthy forever. Or what if none of us ever had to die? - live forever! The world would be a big mess! Think about that.
Our life is transitory, when our time comes we say farewell to this existence and move on to another birth, and another world of different dimension. Our world is so transitory, and our life is not that long.
We have good reason to learn to appreciate every day of our lives. If you think you are going to live forever - there is no reason to appreciate this day, this week, this month? But because life is short, and we have what Matsunaga called “an inconvenient reality” hanging over us, we learn to cherish every moment.
When we approach life with gratitude - we are happy and appreciate every moment. It really is great that we are mortal. And think about that, if no one ever died, the earth would be flooded with the humans - total chaos would prevail - Because our lives are brief we appreciate the little things. We look in wonder at the little crocus flower under a cap of snow and we appreciate it. It’s beautiful. It’s poignant. The birds singing in the morning outside the window. We appreciate the beauty of those happy little creatures.
Many things we think are inconvenient, when examined carefully are not so inconvenient at all. They are really very, very important reminders for all of us to be grateful, and appreciate every moment of our life.
He said he knew a lot of people who lived in a great, million dollar homes in So-Cal and Japan, but when you look inside their lives, often many of them lived very difficult, miserable lives. He knew many people who lived in very simple homes, with lives full of joy and happiness.
It’s all up to us, if we learn to appreciate every moment of our life, and what comes to us briefly. We will have less disappointment and worry less about difficulties. We can turn it around and learn to appreciate those things, those seemingly difficult things in life. Impermanence of our lives is the most inconvenient reality, but yet, because of impermanence, we seek out the teaching of the Buddha, and we decide we can take a step forward to follow the path to joy, ultimate liberation, and enlightenment.
Matsunaga sensei was a very kind man. Always smiling and energetic. He always took time with people who came to the temple. He wanted to share more time with us, but he returned to Amida Buddha’s Pure land on February 25th 2010. He was very much like the Bodhisattva Kannon - Compassionate and giving. Alicia reminds me of Seishi Bodhisattva - wise and clear. Wisdom and Compassion from these dear teachers. When we look at the triptych up there Amida Buddha is flanked by wisdom and compassion. The Buddha is accessed or experienced through the actions the two Bodhisattva's here in Samara.
Today I want to give our good wishes to these dear teachers - where ever they are, guiding sentient beings to the Dharma. Please send your good wishes too - just repeat after me...
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 -
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