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Nembutsu of Gratitude

G Sakamoto

A few weeks ago a young family came to visit the temple. They had arrived in San Jose a few months earlier. The large company the husband worked for had transferred him from their offices in Japan to San Jose. They were still exploring their new home when they found our temple. It was nearly New Year’s and as is customary in Japan they had come into the temple to burn incense. I lit some incense and invited them to oshoko. As they burned incense they also gently scooped the rising smoke over their head and body. The mother motioned to their daughter to give special attention to her mouth. Whether the mother was concerned about how her daughter said things or if she had oral problems was not clear. Once everyone had finished and their rituals fulfilled they thanked me and left the hondo stopping to bow as they went out.

This family’s visit reminded me of the incense burner at Sensoji in Asakusa, Japan where everyday hundreds of people stop to pass incense smoke over their body. The hope is that the incense smoke will improve circumstances. Whether a physical condition or a financial problem or a relationship that has become strained, the hope is that difficult circumstances will improve or good conditions will continue.

It is a hope we probably all share. We may not pass smoke over our body, but we may have other rituals that we perform to effect an outcome. The ritual may be to do something or not do something. Athletes may wear the same sock through out a season. We might say the nembutsu before an important event. In Harry Potter we’re not supposed to say the name of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. When someone sneezes, do you say “Bless you”? Its a common behavior that has several possible origins. One description has this practice begin with an outbreak of bubonic plague in sixth century Europe. The response to a sneeze with “Bless you”, was a prayer to stop the spread of the disease. It probably also held the hope that the person who sneezed would not die from plague. Today we’re are not terribly concerned with plague, yet saying “Bless you” is something we still do. Although, the origins of this custom are rooted deeply in European religious practice, it is not uncommon to hear members of our temple use this phrase. The origins of this phrase may be lost to us, but the hope for well being remains.

The Bodhisattva Dharmakara’s aspiration to free all from difficulties is not very different from our hope for our own well being and the well being of others. That hope is a common experience we share, whether in 6th century Europe or 25 centuries ago in India. The way we see the world however limits our experience. We see the world through the narrow window of what I like or don’t like. My preferences, which can be truly difficult to see, influences how I engage the world; things I like I affirm, things I don’t like I criticize. We live in a bucket bounded by our prejudices. We believe our view of the world is complete yet it is a view only of the sky over head. We argue based on what we see while trusting what we see is complete.

Within the mythology of Jodo Shinshu, Dharmakara becomes Amida when he fulfills his aspiration to provide a means for all to be free of difficulties. Whether I truly believe this or not, if I trust Shinran’s understanding that the difficulties I encounter will absolutely be resolved as a result of Amida, I can then look more carefully at my prejudices, begin to see my limitations simply as they are. Without expectation, without judgement, just as I am. Then when I see myself scooping smoke or start questioning what others are doing scooping smoke, I can begin to recognize how limited my view is from the bottom of a bucket. This is not a matter of judging others, it is acknowledging my small view of the world.

Amida’s promise continues to move me toward the resolution of difficulties. Even though I may not understand I am still moved toward enlightenment. If I recognize this, knowing the limitations and difficulties of my view, my view of the world can change, from one focused on my likes and dislikes to one of gratitude.

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