I would like to tell you about two courageous men I met while in Edmonton many years ago. The first was a Chinese scholar who was employed to teach Buddhism at the University in Edmonton. We met on several occasions, socially and professionally. Both of us were so busy that we seldom had a chance to talk, one-on-one. We finally had an opportunity for a private talk. It was a farewell party. The host had a large house so we wandered to the study and sat down by the fireplace.
My Chinese friend then told me that he was indeed going away. In fact, he was returning to China to promote Buddhism there in a private school. He also was to be active in socially engaged Buddhism. This was very dangerous at that time in history. What he wanted to say to me was the he had found peace in the nembutsu, oamitafo. There are still many Chinese who use this phrase as a form of greeting in daily life. This professor explained that for him it carried the whole of Buddhism in one simple phrase. This was important to him since he could not return to his birth country with his library of books, especially books on Buddhism. He felt that “Reverence for Infinite Life and Infinite Light Awake” was the essence of the Dharma. He would carry the whole collection of Buddhist Scriptures in his heart—the whole daizōkyō contained in one dynamic phrase.
That was the last time we spoke. Our host for the evening heard from him several times, and then the letters stopped about the time of Tiananmen Square uprisings, 1989. They were crushed by the army. Whether my friend was languishing in prison or was among those who died on that day, I do not know. But I do know that his faith in the nembutsu, his oamitafo, gave him comfort and courage.
The second courageous man I met was from South Africa. He and his friends were studying at the University of Alberta preparing for the day when they could return to their native South Africa and fight apartheid. They admired the way Buddha sought to free the Indians from the caste system. Many untouchables, even today, convert to Buddhism to escape the caste system there. I was invited to ‘rap’, as they said in those days. We met four times. Each time our discussions lasted a little longer, sometimes way past midnight. Although they were not card-carrying Buddhists, they wanted to do for South Africa what Buddha attempted to do for India. He was one of their role models. They also found it interesting that something like the nembutsu—that Infinite Light and Infinite Life Awake was compassion and wisdom (both the warmth and brightness of the Light) in harmony with Life in the person who carried it in their hearts. It was a kind of silent power of truth, persistent and unwavering.
When the time came, this friend and his colleagues left to engage in a great struggle in South Africa. They represented several languages and several skin colours. Some undoubtedly met the same fate as my Chinese friend. It was a privilege and honour to have known them.
What I ask is this: is Buddhism just a simple faith for old folks who can’t let go of superstitions of the past? Is it just the burning of incense, or the mystical chanting in a strange language no one understands? Is it the teaching of a funny bald man who spends his time in the forest talking to animals? Is it just another pray, pay and obey religion?
There is a very deep inside to Buddha Dharma. When you encounter it you too will find courage and comfort. I have seen it happen with my own eyes. And every time I think of my friends in Edmonton, I shed tears of gratitude for having met such special beings. Oamitafo!!
November 23, 2008
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