After recent encounters, I took a break from Buddhist stuff for a long while (that, and I was super busy with work lately). I was somehow burned out from my last visit to a temple, and just needed time away.
Then I got some encouragement from an unlikely place. My daughter goes to a Japanese preschool every Thursday afternoon,1 and the teacher is very creative and makes all of her own teaching material. The teacher made some pretend monsters with special powers, like in popular card-trading games. Some of these “powers” are silly, some are helpful. One character was a Buddha-like character who’s special power was that he didn’t move. He listens to people, but doesn’t do anything.
I found that character kind of inspiring actually. It reminded me that Buddhism isn’t about superstition, favorable rebirth, good fortune, etc. Yes, that is a part of Buddhist culture, but that’s not the core message of Buddhism.
Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism (Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, etc), emphasizes “faith”. Not faith in the Western, Judaeo-Christian sense (i.e. “blind faith”), but instead a sense of confidence in something. At first this “faith” might be weak, but in time if it is true, you develop greater and greater confidence in it.
I realized that of all the religious figures within Buddhism, and outside of Buddhism, the person I had the most faith in, the most confidence in, was Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha. When I felt a sense of crisis, the one person I always trusted was not Amida Buddha, nor an esoteric (密教) deity, nor a figure from another religion. It was Shakyamuni Buddha. Even when I was frustrated with religion including Buddhism, somehow I still felt a deep sense of trust in the Buddha himself.
I guess that’s why, across all Buddhist groups, we say the same phrase (different languages, same phrase):
I go to the Buddha for refuge, 南無帰依仏, buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
I go to the Dharma for refuge, 南無帰依法, dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
I go to the Sangha for refuge, 南無帰依僧, saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
There’s a sense of trust in these verses. You’re not saying “I believe in the Buddha” (e.g. believe in Santa Claus), you’re saying “I know the Buddha offers something helpful and I trust him, I take refuge in him”.
So, I’ve updated the little Buddhist shrine at home, and replaced the other images with Shakyamuni Buddha for now. That may change in the future, but it’s nice to get back to basics. Basics are important in one’s life.
P.S. Photo was taken in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward at Daienji. Thanks to Johnl for the tour that day.
1 My daughter seems to do really well in that class. The secret? I think it’s because her father (me) studies Japanese so much, she wants to study it too. I’ve seen other half-Japanese kids who seem uninterested in Japanese. I bet their fathers are not interested either.