As we begin a new journey with the turning of the year, we pause for reflection, rest, and renewal. We reflect on the year that was and all that we experienced and learned. We seek rest from the weariness caused by overcoming the many challenges we have had to face. And we hope for the renewal of our spirit and fortitude as we venture into an unpredictable and uncertain future.
2021 was a hard year. Heck, the past two years have been difficult, haven’t they? We have had to manage our expectations and hopes with the unpredictable reality that is our lives. There have been many times we believed we were turning a corner, but we quickly realized the corner kept turning back to where we started from. We have had to struggle with more questions than answers. But maybe that is the point of living? If we had all the answers, what would there be to learn or to experience? How would we grow without having to live the questions of our lives?
I recently listened to a conversation between Krista Tippet and author Katherine May on the On Being podcast. They were discussing the topic of “Wintering.” In her opening, Tippet shares the following, “In so many stories and fables that shape us, cold and snow, the closing in of the light — these have deep psychological as much as physical reality. They draw us, even force us to do what Katherine May calls “deeply unfashionable things: slowing down, resting, retreating.” This is wintering, as she illuminates it in her book of that title: wintering as at once a season of the natural world, a respite our bodies require, and a state of mind; a cyclical, recurrent weather pattern, if you will, in any life. I’ve come to think of our pandemic world as one vast, communal experience of wintering.”
What a thoughtful and insightful way to describe our experience over the past few years and as we move into this new year. “Wintering” is a time of rest and renewal but also a time for reflecting and learning.
The true nature of awakening that the Buddha teaches is one of continual learning and growth. Every moment is an opportunity for self-discovery and for better understanding the fullness of life in all its joys and sorrows. We are becoming more fully human through all that we experience. From the simple to the extraordinary moments of our lives, we are being shown who we are and how we can be. This is the voice of Amida Buddha which is the sound of the universe calling us home to ourselves.
This is the inconceivable working of Amida Buddha’s Vow manifesting in our lives. In the Shōshinge (Hymn of True Entrusting) Shinran Shōnin says, “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 is reminding us that there is light even in our darkest moments and that we have the ability to persevere because of Amida’s embrace. This is why Shin Buddhism is a path of realistic optimism in which we learn to appreciate the fullness of life with all its ups and downs.
The late Shin Buddhist teacher Rev. Dr. Taitetsu Unno once described the Pure Land Path as taking place by descending into the valley, the shadow of the mountains. He believed that it was in the valley and shadows where Shin spiritualty flourishes because it is where we encounter the dynamic working of Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. This metaphor illustrates Shinran’s fundamental spiritual insight of accepting our full humanness which leads us to a life of transformation, healing, and compassionate action. Shinran’s spiritual path was one of critical self-reflection about his limitations as a human being by awakening to the activity of perfect wisdom and compassion in his life.
This radical shift in perspective is the promise of the Dharma. The Buddha’s Teaching help us to understand and to manage life with greater kindness, compassion, and equanimity. And haven’t we truly needed each of these virtues over the past several years?
In the Pure Land Path of Shinran, the Nembutsu 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. Namo Amida Butsu can help us meet life’s challenges with greater courage, comfort, and peace.
When we open our heart to the working of Amida, we can be led out of darkness and into light. In our daily lives, we often fail to recognize these quiet moments of awakening. However, simple acts of kindness remind us there is a light in the darkness and there is always hope for transformation and change. We simply need to open our eyes to see it.
If we attune our lives to truly hearing the call of Amida, we can live with profound appreciation for the many teachers we encounter every single day and these nembutsu moments reveal to us the world of awakening.
This is what Shinran discovered along his spiritual journey. That the world of Enlightenment was not something to be reached but rather something that we receive and encounter every single moment of our lives.
Shinran realized his true nature as limited and yet destined for Buddhahood through the working of Amida Buddha. In that place between being a foolish being and an eventual Buddha is the realization of our full imperfect humanness. This is the “Unhindered Path” that enables us to truly live in this world of imbalance, chaos, and disharmony. According to Shinran in the Tannishō (A Record in Lament of Divergences):
Practicers of nembutsu walk the single path of no hindrance. Why is this so? The reason is that to the practicers of nembutsu who entrust themselves to the Vow, the gods of heaven and the gods of earth reverently bow, and to them, no evil spirits or no followers of other faiths can cause obstruction, and that no evil acts can bear karmic fruit in them, and no good acts can surpass the virtue of nembutsu.
Zen teacher Joan Sutherland Roshi believes, “Perhaps enlightenment is that which comes toward us, a previously unimaginable grace, while awakening is that which arises inside us, to prepare for and meet the grace, and to hold it once it’s come.” This perfectly describes the Nembutsu Path in which the embrace of great wisdom and compassion enables us to live a life of wonder and opportunity where no experience is ever wasted.
In Buddhist scripture there is a story about boy named Sudhana who discovered a remarkable world of learning from everything he experienced.
He learned patience from a poor, crippled woman; he learned a lesson of simple happiness from watching children playing in the street; and from some gentle and humble people, who never thought of wanting anything that anybody else wanted, he learned the secret of living at peace with all in the world.
He learned a lesson of harmony from watching the blending of the elements of incense, and a lesson of thanksgiving from the arrangement of flowers. One day, passing through a forest, he took rest under a noble tree and noticed a tiny seedling growing nearby out of a fallen and decaying tree and it taught him a lesson of the uncertainty of life.
Sunlight by day and the twinkling stars by night constantly refreshed his spirit. Thus, Sudhana profited by the experiences of his long journey.
Sudhana’s story reminds us of how we should approach life with a sense of wonder opening our hearts and minds to the dynamic unfolding of wisdom and compassion. This is to live in naturalness which is the continual transformation our innermost being. This is the Nembutsu Path that Shinran followed where our ordinary life is the proper place of learning, practice, and awakening.
Each new year begins in winter which is a natural time of rest and renewal for our bodies and spirits. This is a time of letting go and going within so we can begin again with hope and a renewed ability to perceive the cry of awakening in all things. What lessons will we learn this year? What lessons will we learn today?
On January 16th, we reflect on Shinran’s life and teaching on his memorial day. During this Hōonkō observance we should take comfort and find joy in the Nembutsu because it is a life-giving gift for our whole lives. This Path leads us on a journey within ourselves, so we can move forward with resilience, compassion, and grace.
May the light of all-inclusive wisdom and all-embracing compassion guide us along the journey ahead. Namo Amida Butsu.