In front of my house, there is a sequoia tree that has grown so large it seems to pierce the sky. In 1951, a University of California professor named Dr. Ralph W. Chaney came to Japan to promote the metasequoia and planted one at our temple, the Nishi Hongwanji. I was 6 years old at the time. Ever since then, it has grown tall, dropping its leaves every autumn and sprouting buds come spring. Despite Kyoto's cold winter and hot, humid summer, it has somehow managed to thrive. Sometimes, when I see this tree, I find myself lost in thought. Seeing it sporting fresh green leaves or its form flecked with snow, it would sometimes give me courage. I would find myself thinking, "I guess me and you are growing up together." On this great earth, we live surrounded by friends. This is what I thought as I looked at this tree that said not a word. It is at such times that I sense this tree has a wish for me.
During the Edo period, a poet named Issa (1763-1828) composed the following poem.
takenoko mo Even the lowly bamboo shoot
nanoru ka Proclaims to all the world:
yui ga dokuson to "Truly, I alone am the Honored One!"
When the bamboo shoot first pokes out its head, it is not so much its cuteness as the bearing with which it carries itself that wins us over. Issa must have noticed its commanding presence and related it to the event of Shakyamuni Buddha's birth. He didn't just plop it down at the market for so many pennies a pound. Issa saw in the bamboo shoot another existence living the same life that we all live. He sensed that the same life force that resided in Shakyamuni Buddha was at work in the bamboo shoot and expressed this significance with the words, "Truly, I alone am the Honored One!"
Issa also has another poem that reads,
Namo Amida Namo Amida:
Butsu no katayori Message from the Buddha
naku ka kana Buzzed me via mosquito
"Message from the Buddha" means the mosquito was the agent of the Buddha. The Buddha has the mosquito convey the message of the Nembutsu, the saying of the name of Amida Buddha, to Issa. "Hey Issa, yo!" says the mosquito, "Say that Nembutsu of yours for me!" What might have actually happened was the mosquito bit Issa, who then swatted him with his hand. But that tiny life form connected Issa to the Buddha from whom Issa received the wish that the Buddha hoped to convey. And so, this verse came into existence.
Whether fauna, flora, mountain, river, or work of art flowing up from out of the well of human emotions; what we can sense in all of these is the Buddha's wish for us.
The heart of the matter is we humans turn our backs whenever duty calls and protest that it is not our responsibility. "How come I am the only one who has to do this?" "It is not like I chose to be born in this place." "I didn't do anything wrong." As long as we respond to a situation in this way, we can never get rid of the nagging feeling that the world is unfair or that we are dissatisfied with our lives. We lose sight of the wish the Buddha places on us; we get frustrated with things that do not go the way we expect, and with people who do not do as we say. When we get swept away by our own desires-putting ourselves at the center of everything - we delude ourselves into believing that all of life should serve us.
All of us live life in this problematic way, with our hearts easily upset. When we are swept along in this way, we lose perspective on our lives and become filled with regret as life passes us by.
If we honestly see that this is the way we have been living, we should stop and recall the wishes that the Buddha places on us. In those wishes, we will be sure to discover the meaning of life as a whole.
- from "The Buddha's Wish for the World," by Monshu Koshin Ohtani. Metasequoia photo by Monshu Koshin Ohtani