In the sacred story of the Buddha’s birth, the baby is said to have taken seven steps and declared, “In heaven above and on earth below, I am the most honored one. I shall dispel the suffering that fills this world.” As we know, this probably didn’t happen, but this story is rich with symbolism and meaning. The seven steps signify that he would go beyond the six realms of suffering and take the extra step into the awakened life of a Buddha. His announcement proclaims his future attainment of Buddhahood, and it also reveals the desire of the Buddha to help all of us understand our own potential for enlightenment.
In these challenging times of conflict and war, we should reflect on this limitless life of equality and freedom that was promised by the Buddha and strive to walk the path of peace that he shared.
In the true spirit of the bodhisattva ideal, the goal of Shin Buddhism is not simply personal liberation but a universal awakening of all beings in this world of suffering. In the Hymns of the Pure Land, Shinran Shonin writes:
Those who attain the Pure Land of peace
Return to this world of five defilements,
And like Sakyamuni Buddha
Bring endless benefit to all beings.
The life of the historical Buddha offers a model for living in this world for the sake of others. The Dharma teaches us how to live with awareness, compassion, and grace. This life of continual self-reflection is how we awaken to the dynamic activity of wisdom and compassion always present in our lives. Living with this awareness, we should naturally embody and manifest the virtues of the Buddha in all that we do.
Yet, we know that the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance continue to influence our lives causing immense suffering. The ongoing war in Ukraine is just one example of how powerfully destructive our ego can be when left unchecked. In a letter to his followers, Shinran reflects on our capacity for unwholesome actions, “Human beings are such that, maddened by the passions of greed, we desire to possess; maddened by the passions of anger, we hate that which should not be hated, seeking to go against the law of cause and effect; led astray by the passions of ignorance, we do what should not even be thought.”
Only when illuminated by Amida Buddha's Light can our unexamined inner life be revealed and the darkness of the three poisons be neutralized. We must endeavor to listen deeply to the calling voice of wisdom and compassion returning us home to ourselves. This is the working of Namo Amida Butsu which transforms our ignorance into wisdom, our greed into generosity, and our hatred into love. We need to listen even more deeply in these dark and troubling times.
The ritual of celebrating the Buddha’s birth is a reenactment of the sacred story in which we adorn the hanamido with flowers representing Lumbini Garden and the sweet tea we pour over the statue of the baby Buddha symbolizes the fragrant rain that fell from the sky at the moment of his birth. This is a time for reconnecting with the life of the Buddha and by doing so we recommit ourselves to learning and living the Dharma that he taught.
Each of us is responsible for cultivating the conditions for spiritual awakening and for living with Shinran’s heartfelt wish, “May there be peace in the world and may the Buddha’s teachings spread!” Let us rejoice in being able to receive his life-giving and life-transforming teachings today. The Buddha’s birth truly offers hope for our troubled world.
Namo Amida Butsu.