In light of the Buddha’s Birthday (Hanamatsuri in Japanese), and the ongoing global pandemic, I wanted to share something I found a while back. This comes from Prof. Bodiford’s excellent history of medieval Sōtō Zen.
In Tōtōmi Province in 1498, the countryside of Japan had already been ravaged by war and bad weather when the worst happened: on the twenty-fifth day of the eighth month a powerful earthquake hit Japan followed by a tsunami. This is very likely the same tsunami that washed away the temple that originally housed the Great Kamakura Buddha statue in the neighboring province, leaving only the statue behind.
According to records presented by Bodiford, people were in a great state of despair “waiting to die, while the elderly called out the name of the Buddha” (pg 119). Among them was a village monk of the Sōtō Zen sect named Shōdō Kōsei (松堂高盛 1431-1508) who sought to calm them with these words:
This old man [himself] has spent more than thirty years in the rinka [monasteries], sitting in Zen meditation, quietly withering away my desires, without expectations for the morrow. When hunger comes, I eat. When the time comes, I sleep….The present does not persist. The past and future do not exist….Eternally, I dwell in Nirvāṇa. This is the called the mind that is not possessed by the three states [of time, past, present and future]. This mind-not-possessed (fukatokushin) is itself the diamond wisdom (kongō hannya). This mind withstands the blowing storm winds without moving, withstands eons of rising flames without burning, and withstands the tremors of earthquakes without cracking….This is why the scripture says:1 “The Tathāgata [Buddha], having left the burning house of the three states [of time], lives in quiet seclusion within the woods. Now within the three states [of time], everything belongs to [him]; All the beings therein are [his] children.” As this old man reflects on recent events, I keep recalling these two lines. (pg. 119)translation by Professor Bodiford
These may seem like strange words for some, but I think it touches upon something important in Buddhism: life happens whether we want it to or not. In fact, this is basically the point of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: Shit Happens. Doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, smart or foolish, all of us have to put up with some crazy misfortune from time to time, as well as almost daily annoyances. It is unavoidable.
What the Zen monk Shōdō Kōsei is saying though is that a mind that is untrained, unable to see the bigger picture and thus wobbly will tend to fret about things they can’t control and when life goes against them, they will be distraught and blame anything they can.
But a mind that is settled, like a mountain, is unmoved by the things that are out of control anyway. Instead, they focus on the things they have control over, focus on the here and now, and do what they need to do. This does not make someone aloof or detached. As he said, he still has basic needs, but he attends to those, and does not get caught up in other things outside his control because there’s no predicting what will happen tomorrow.
When we’re tempted to ask the question “why me?”, the answer is “it was never about you, because you’re not the center of the Universe”.
Thus, when we step outside our self-centered viewpoint for a moment, one can see the suffering of those around you and maybe help them out, just as Shōdō Kōsei did.
Also, it’s very interesting to imagine a tragedy like this that happened in Japan centuries ago, a time when things like Red Cross, bottled-water or Twitter didn’t exist, and how people coped with it. When I think about it, the COVID-19 virus doesn’t care that my kids’ schools have been cancelled for the rest of the year, or that job-hunting is kind of hard right now thanks to a ruined economy. There’s no convenient time for it to spread around the globe, either. It just does what viruses do. But in spite of all that, here I am at home with my wife and kids, we’re safe, and we’re able to carry on somehow. We do our small part to help others both through observing proper social-distancing, hygiene, we take it one day at a time home-schooling our kids, and also by helping others with the resources we can spare.
If you’re reading this, please take heart. You are not the center of the Universe (and neither am I), but here we are, and I hope you’re safe and well. Just take it one day at a time, and it’s ok to be upset and feel lost, but also remember that it will pass, and whatever happens in life just happens.
Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu
P.S. On a less depressing topic:
1 I am not 100% certain, but I think this passage is from the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra. I am too lazy to verify though. Update: confirmed. A more modern translation by Burton Watson reads:
The Thus Come One [the Buddha] has already left
the burning house of the threefold world
and dwells in tranquil quietude
in the safety of forest and plain.
But now this threefold world
is all my domain,
and the living beings in it
are all my children.