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Honoring My True Teacher on the Nembutsu Path – My Mother


I would like to begin with the words of Shinran Shonin from the Jodo Wasan.


Please join me in gassho,


It is difficult to meet true teachers

And difficult for them to instruct.

It is difficult to hear the teaching well,

And more difficult still to accept it.


This passage is taken from the Larger Sutra and is in reference to the Buddha’s statement to Maitreya of the importance of hearing the name in the age of the decline of the Dharma.


My journey coming to the ministry is a second career for me occurring later in life. Aligning with the theme of this meeting of “Nembutsu: Appreciate Every Encounter,” I would like to share my personal encounter with the Nembutsu and why I am here today.


The reason I chose this passage is that in my childhood, I didn’t understand what it meant to hear the name and live with the Nembutsu. I grew up in Minnesota in a Jodo Shinshu family, but we didn’t have a temple or a minister to meet with very often. The opportunity to listen to Dharma messages was infrequent. However, I have come to realize I was surrounded by people who lived with the Dharma in their lives.


I would like to tell you about one person who was my true teacher who had a significant influence on my path, and that was my mother.


My mother was a loving mother and wife, who unselfishly took care of our family. But she also suffered a great deal in her life. She and her family survived the internment camps of World War II along with so many others. As a result, their family lost everything they owned.


My Mother’s Sadness


But what I think contributed most to my mother’s sadness was the death of her daughter — my sister — to cancer when my sister was 26. This deeply affected and changed the lives of our entire family. As many of you know, my sister’s husband was a young attorney named David Matsumoto. His life direction certainly changed from this experience.


I now have a son who is the same age as my sister when she died and I understand more deeply the impact this had on my parents. When I reflect back, I see how the compassionate working of Amida Buddha was a guiding light in my mother’s life. Through her, I have come to realize that the Dharma was being taught to me every day.


It would be natural for a parent to look for blame or to deliberate unanswerable questions after the death of one’s child. Although the passing of time helped ease her grief, her grief did not fully go away. She began to do better because her life grew richer. My mother found seeds of wisdom through her sadness, pain and loss.

If we can come to understand that we are different as the result of our experiences and what that is for each of us, we can learn to continue our changed life with fullness and meaning. She began to let go and entrust in Amida Buddha.


With the outpouring of support after my sister’s death that continued throughout my mother’s life, she became aware of being supported by something even greater. She understood the compassionate activity of the Buddha as she still lived her life with kindness and humility.


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 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. The Nembutsu was alive within her heart and mind.


I came to understand her sense of the Dharma better in her later years as she developed Alzheimer’s disease. Her cognitive decline affected her memory, but did not seem to affect her Buddhist understanding.


However, I wondered if Alzheimer’s disease would change her attachment to her ego-self. I wondered if it would affect her ability to allow for the working of Amida Buddha into her life.


I watched as she interacted with the staff and fellow residents in her care facility and also observed their reaction to her. After her death at the age of 92, caregivers and family members of other residents reached out to express their appreciation for the gratitude my mother extended to each of them. I understood then that the Nembutsu, Amida Buddha’s presence, was in her kind smile, her gentle reactions, and her profound gratitude even with her cognitive decline.


On Nembutsu Path


We often intellectualize our understanding of hearing the name and shinjin, but through my mother, I realized that it is not directly correlated with cognitive ability.


When living with the reality of Alzheimer’s disease, we cannot help but develop a different lens of understanding as we are stripped down to a basic, yet deeper understanding of our life. Through my mother, I began to understand what it meant to live a life of Namo Amida Butsu. Shinran Shonin quotes from Shandao when he states, “Now, encountering a true teacher, I have been able to hear the Name that embodies Amida’s Primal Vow.”


When I think about my family’s history and the causes and conditions our path has taken us, it certainly has not always been a smooth and unencumbered path. But as Shinran is quoted as saying in the “Tannisho,” the Nembutsu is the single path free of hindrance. If we think of the Nembutsu like a stream, there may be pebbles or rocks in the way. But the stream always finds a path. It does not push the obstructions out of the way, but it works its way beyond them. Being part of the whole, we are carried through by the flow of the stream itself, by the flow of others. When we say Namo Amida Butsu, we hear the calling voice of the Buddha. It is a path that is always there for us even if we don’t see it.


As I look back, I now realize I have always been on the Nembutsu path. In reflecting on my journey, I have been walking with and carried by countless others. Without them, I would not be where I am.


We tend to think of our path as a means to an end — to get to a destination. That is not what the Nembutsu path is. The path of the Nembutsu is the journey and the journey is the destination. It does not mean that we don’t come across difficulties. When we look back, we can see more clearly the things that we have received, then our hearts are filled with gratitude. That is our life of Namo Amida Butsu.


When we say Namo Amida Butsu, we hear the calling voice of the Buddha. It is a path that is always there for us even if we don’t see it.


With the sadness of my mother’s death, I now see that the tears I shed were the cleansing of my eyes to see more clearly. I have been able to hear the name through the Buddha activity embodied by my mother. This has allowed me to encounter Amida Buddha and the teachings of Shinran Shonin through her.


In closing, I would like to again read the words of Shinran Shonin from the Jodo Wasan. Please join me in gassho,


It is difficult to meet true teachers

And difficult for them to instruct.

It is difficult to hear the teaching well,

And more difficult still to accept it.


Namo Amida Butsu


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