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A Light in the Darkness

It has been one week since wildfires raged across Maui causing unimaginable death and destruction. My heart breaks for the Sangha of Lahaina Hongwanji and for everyone who has been affected by this disaster. The loss of life, livelihood, and property has been immense and the journey to recovery and healing will be long and difficult.

The first seven days marks the beginning of the forty-nine-day period of mourning after the death of a loved one in Buddhist tradition. This time is traditionally marked by a series of services held every seven days culminating on the forty-ninth. These forty-nine days are a spiritual journey of awakening to the reality of loss but also to the realization that our loved ones have become one with timeless reality. In this most sacred journey, we come realize we are not alone because we grieve together and are embraced by Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion.

In Our Pledge, Gomonshu Kojun Ohtani encourages us as fellow Nembutsu travelers to “…share a life of joy and sorrow with others. Just like the Buddha, whose caring heart always embraces us.” This is a time for us to embody Amida Buddha’s compassion by caring for our Sangha and all who are in distress. This is the living Nembutsu that is grounded in our everyday lives. I encourage everyone to support relief efforts on Maui in whatever way you can.

Shakyamuni Buddha teaches that “On the long journey of human life, faith is the best of companions; it is the best refreshment on the journey; and it is the greatest possession.” However, faith in Buddhism is not blind but rather is a profound confidence in what we have learned and experienced. Living with faith as a constant companion, we are able to appreciate all our struggles and joys equally along this remarkable and unpredictable journey we call life.

In the Shin Buddhist tradition, we say the Nembutsu or Name of Amida Buddha in gratitude for this profound awakening to true and real life. We come to realize that Namo Amida Butsu is not a mindless phrase but a grand affirmation of life in which we discover that each moment of our lives contains infinite significance and meaning. It is with this deep appreciation we gain new strength and courage to live each moment of our lives with awe and wonder.

The Buddha’s Teaching helps us to understand and to manage life with greater kindness, compassion, and equanimity. Namo Amida Butsu, is a promise from Amida Buddha to embrace and never abandon. Namo Amida Butsu holds us in both our joys and our sorrows and transforms our ignorance into wisdom, our greed into generosity, and our anger into love. The Nembutsu can help us meet life’s challenges with greater confidence and peace of mind.

Namo Amida Butsu is boundless love and compassion which is ever-present in our lives. We are always embraced and sustained by its light. The Nembutsu is our comfort when we are sad and is our strength when we need courage, it is truly the foundation of our lives.

One of my favorite stories about the power of Nembutsu comes from Bishop Marvin Harada’s book Discovering Buddhism in Everyday Life. In it he shares a lesson from his teacher, Rev. Ashikaga who in turn, learned it from his teacher Yasuda Sensei who once said, “Many people think that the Nembutsu, Namuamidabutsu, means something like this—that you take a big load off of your shoulders, like a big backpack, and you sit down and you let out a big sigh of relief. That’s what people think Namuamidabutsu means, that you relax and feel relieved, with a burden lifted from your shoulders. But I don’t think that is what Namuamidabutsu means. I think Namuamidabutsu means the opposite—that instead, you put a big load on your shoulders, a big responsibility or task, and now you have the power to stand up on your own two feet and move forward in life. That to me is what Namuamidabutsu means.”

Rev. Harada goes on to say, “If we find the teachings of Buddhism and Jodo Shinshu to be of value to us in our lives, if we find that the Nembutsu has illuminated our hearts and minds, then we must do what we can to allow it to be shared and carried on by others. That is the power to stand up and to move forward. It is a power that comes from beyond our own ego self. It is a power that makes the load on our shoulders lighter than what it really is. It is a power that not only allows us to stand up on our own two feet, but somehow it feels as if it is pushing us up from behind.” I reflect on this story often and it helps me to face the challenges of life with greater acceptance and perseverance.

The Nembutsu path goes beyond hope and fear. It is a spiritual journey of stepping into the unknown, just as we are, continually moving forward with clear-eyed optimism and resolve. It is a path where no experience is ever wasted because life is the ultimate teacher which opens our heart to the complex truths of the human experience and the reality of Amida’s compassionate embrace.

My wise seminary instructor, Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka once said, “To come out of darkness we must open our eyes to the light.” In times of tragedy when there are no words, there is still the Nembutsu. Namo Amida Butsu is truly a light for us in dark places when all other lights go out. This is Amida’s embrace which comforts and heals. His simple yet profound words remind me that we can cultivate realistic hope in times of difficulty and how we can meet our challenges with determination and grace.

This is the inconceivable working of Amida Buddha’s Vow manifesting in our lives. In the Shōshinge (Hymn of True Entrusting) Shinran Shōnin writes, “But though the light of the sun is veiled by clouds and mists, beneath the clouds and mists there is brightness, not dark.” Here, Shinran reminds us that there is light even in our darkest moments and that we have the ability to persevere because we are embraced and sustained by Amida’s compassion.

This radical shift in perspective is the promise of the Dharma as it offers us hope for transformation and change. When we open our heart to Amida’s working, we can be led out of darkness and into light. As we have seen in the aftermath of the wildfires, the outpouring of aloha for the people of Maui and the simple acts of human kindness reminds us there is indeed light in the darkness of tragedy.

May we always take comfort in Amida’s compassionate embrace and be guided by the Dharma in these challenging times. Namo Amida Butsu.

(PHOTO CREDIT: Matthew Thayer / The Maui News / Associated Press)

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