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Sitting Together in Our Pews

Editor’s note: Rev. Anne Spencer, of the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple, delivered the following Dharma message on Nov. 3, 2023. It marked the first time that the Sangha members were able to sit in the restored pews after a damaging fire on July 8, 2022. The Wheel of Dharma is pleased to reprint Rev. Spencer’s Dharma message with the permission of Rev. Spencer.


Please put your palms together in gassho as I read the English translation of three verses of “Tsuicho no Uta,” a song that we sang regularly in Japanese at many of our in-person Shotsuki monthly memorial services in the past.


Though you have gone to Buddha land, my thoughts are on you. As I long to see you, your face floats before my eyes as I intone the Buddha’s name.


Today, when spreading the mat to hear the teachings, I turn to you. Come to us now at this gathering for friends who remain.


How joyous! The Compassion of the Buddha now fills our being. As for us, we turn to you while intoning the Nembutsu.


Isn’t it fun to watch our temple being put back together after the fire? Today many of you are getting to experience having our pews back. These are the same pews we had before the fire, but with new upholstery. And we made some changes to the configuration here in the front and on the sides to make it easier for people to get in and out and to move around. But these are not new pews, they are our pews — the ones that have been at the temple for decades.


And in honor of the return of the pews, I wanted to share some thoughts on sitting. Not just sitting, but sitting together, sitting and being together with our Sangha. Not running around and doing things, not coming and going, but sitting together, sharing time and space together. Genuinely appreciating being in the presence of those around us.


The second stanza of the gatha I just read says, “Today, when spreading the mat to hear the teachings, I turn to you. Come to us now at this gathering for friends who remain.”   


Traditionally, in Asia, Buddhists sat on the ground or the floor to hear the Dharma. But because the ground is dirty or hard, people would bring special mats, cushions, or carpets to sit on while they, surrounded by their community, listened to the Buddhist teachings. Can’t you imagine people coming together, looking around for their friends, exchanging greetings, and then spreading out their mats near friends and family, to sit and listen to the Dharma surrounded by their loved ones?


It’s just like coming into the Hondo, the main hall of the temple, and looking around in the pews for a friend or family member to sit with. It’s a happy feeling when you find them. There are smiles and waves and gestures to “come sit over here.”  Or, “I saved you a spot.” 


How many friendships have these pews seen over the years? Who have you sat with here? For those of you who have been coming for many decades, who do you remember your parents or grandparents sitting with?  How many people have comforted friends and family in these pews during funerals or difficult times? Or maybe celebrated a holiday or a wedding here? A LOT has happened in these pews over the years.

And if you are a visitor, it is lovely when one of the regulars motions you over to a spot by them — it is so welcoming! Our pews, then, serve the same purpose as the mats referred to in the gatha. The mats and the pews represent the intention to stay in one place for a while. Sitting down shows a commitment of time and attention to the place we are in and the people we are with. Our sitting down demonstrates that we want to be here.


How many friendships have these pews seen over the years? Who have you sat with here? For those of you who have been coming for many decades, who do you remember your parents or grandparents sitting with?  How many people have comforted friends and family in these pews during funerals or difficult times? Or maybe celebrated a holiday or a wedding here? A LOT has happened in these pews over the years.


As I read the names on the shotsuki list, how many of you have memories of spending time with one or more of these people?  Do you remember sitting with them during service, or a meal afterwards, or at a family or community event? 



I have a memory that I wanted to share today of Debbie Ogura, whose name is on our list this month. I met Debbie on Sept. 12, 2005. The Dalai Lama was speaking in Sun Valley, Idaho. And Ruth and Hideo Harada invited both Debbie and me to come with them — I believe that they had four tickets and they wanted us to be their guests. Several of the Buddhist groups in Idaho got together and chartered a bus up there. 


Ruth wanted Debbie and me to become friends and so she arranged for the two of us to share a seat on the bus. Debbie and I sat together and talked the whole way up to Sun Valley and the whole way back — it was a great time and afterwards she and I planned to stay in touch. That was Sept. 12, 2005.  


On Nov. 30, 2005, Debbie died suddenly. It was shocking! And I was so grateful for that time we had together and so happy that we had had the drive to Sun Valley and back to just sit together and become friends that day. That was our only chance to be friends and I am so glad we took full advantage of our time together. 


Our Buddhist teachings tell us that everything is impermanent and death is a normal part of life. This teaching reminds us to appreciate each moment we have with each other and to not take our own life or the lives of others for granted. 


Getting to sit together with another person is a gift that we should appreciate whenever we have the chance. Inviting others to sit with us is something we can do to make the world a better place. The teachings also remind us that all things are interconnected and that our memories and connections with the deceased are real and meaningful even after death.  


As we sit in the temple, at home, in a coffee shop, or even on a bus, we can continue to remember and appreciate the time we get to share with others.  


And take a moment to appreciate the pews — oh, the stories of friendship they could tell!


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