May 8, 2011, our temple celebrated Mother’s Day, Memorial Day and Elder’s Day all at the same service. The temple was full of busy, happy, people. There were several children present so we all felt the warmth of family as we ate together after the service. During the service I talked about the importance of mother’s in our lives. The children heard a story about an Inuit mother’s love for her child. The Dharma talk was based on the experiences three important men in the history of our faith. They were Gautama Siddhartha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, Shinran our founder and Rennyo the renewer of Jodo Shinshu.
Shakyamuni (563 BC-483BC), the historical Buddha of this era, was born in unusual circumstances. The birth took place outside in a forest glade. Maya his mother grasped a tree branch and gave birth standing up, as was the custom of her tribe. There was a difficult birth. Maya died a few days after giving birth to the future Buddha. His auntie, Prajapati, became his step-mother. She was so committed to this special child that she saw to it that he had enough to eat along with all the care a baby requires. Still there was something missing in his life—the unconditional love of a mother. Perhaps, too, he felt bad that his mother had died giving birth to him. How could he ever thank her?
Later, after he had become a Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, his Buddhahood was criticized by his detractors as mere selfishness. Buddha answered that he had cared for the sick and dying and had given alms to the poor. Mother Earth spoke up to guarantee the truth of his words — he was a true Buddha she declared. Thus Mother Earth validated his Buddhahood! The young Shakyamuni’s spiritual and psychological struggles led him to a deep insight about our shared life on earth as well as the Source beyond both being and non-being. Is it possible that Shakyamuni’s experiences with his mother’s death moved him in the direction of Buddhahood?
Shinran (1173-1263), the founder of Shin Buddhism, was taken to a Buddhist monastery at the age of nine. His family was involved in a turbulent political situation and a serious war. They did not fare very well so the father apparently retreated to a monastery. The mother died when Shinran was 8 years old. When he was much older Shinran left Mt. Hiei, then a Tendai monastery complex, and felt a re-birth in Honen’s teachings about the unconditional acceptance in the Vow of Amida to embrace all beings without condition of discrimination. In one of his Wasan Shinran declared that Shakyamuni was our father and Amida was our mother. Contrary to later very patriarchal tendencies in the history of Shin Buddhism, it is quite clear that Shinran found something of a mother’s love in the Vow’s embrace. Is it possible that the absence of a personal experience with a mother’s love was the very thing that moved Shinran to come down the mountain? Would it denigrate or enliven the teachings in people’s eyes to consider Amida the embodiment of a mother’s love for all her children, the way the ancients felt about Mother Earth?
Rennyo (April 4, 1415-May 5, 1499), the renovator of Shin Buddhism was the 8th Gomonshu. He discovered the organization of Shinshu in confusion. Some of the dojo had been taken over by people dedicated to control and self-glorification. Petty wars and crime were unchecked. Rennyo faced this situation with courage and insight. His birth was the result of a liaison between his father of 18 years and a servant girl. Her name is to this day unknown. When Rennyo’s father took a legal wife she also became the legal mother to Rennyo. His biological mother had to leave the compound and return home to other employment. She took two things with her when she left. One was a picture of Rennyo her son.
The other was his promise to her to revitalize Jodo Shinshu. Rennyo spent his life making good on this promise. He created a stable organization . He also wrote a large volume of inspired letters in which he gave meaning to Shinran’s teachings for not only his own generation but also for generations to follow.
Rennyo himself married twice and had 27 children, more than half of which were girls. In the Japan of his day, and indeed in many Buddhist countries, it was thought that women could not attain enlightenment nor nirvana as women. They were, supposedly, dependent, unclean, weak and prone to karmic evil because of their attachment to their children. One of the greatest criticisms levelled against Buddhism was that it had abandoned women and family life. These attitudes were not native to the Buddha Dharma, but became accepted by people in general as the politically correct stance to take. Rennyo accepted this but found in Amida Buddha the source of acceptance of women as equal to men in the Vow. Reciting the Nembutsu women unfailingly became Buddhas. Rennyo had to work his way through the myth-mess of his day to find a means for those he deeply loved to join him on the path to Nirvana. While admitting that women may be as they were claimed to be, men were no better.
We are all weak in some way, dependent and caught up in the conflicts of life as finite, limited beings. That is the very reason that Amida made his vow to embrace all living beings with wisdom and compassion without exception—including both men and women. The women of Rennyo’s day widely supported Shin Buddhism, as they continue to do so in our own time. Buddhism has benefitted greatly from the feminist movement. Modern scholarship has proven that the anti-female stance of Buddhist teachers over the centuries does not reflect the heart of the Buddha Dharma. Rennyo had the courage to question the accepted attitudes of long standing. When he was older, he tried to find his mother, but to no avail. He even set one day a month for a memorial day, especially for her. Is it possible that Rennyo too, like Shakyamuni and Shinran, were motivated by a great need to find an unconditional acceptance we humans often find in our mother’s arms? I think they took their deepest anguish and transformed it into their deepest insights. Both men and women have benefitted from their courage.
As for me, this is my first Mother’s Day without my mother—no more cards, no more flowers, no more long-distance phone calls. But we are together in the Nembutsu to which she was deeply devoted. For that alone I am grateful to the three women who gave birth to these three spiritual leaders.
May 22, 2011
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