Rev. Gregory Gibbs of Nishi Honganji Buddhist Temple, Speaks at West Covina Buddhist Temple Ohigan
On September 17, WCBT was very fortunate to have Rev. Gregory Gibbs of the Nishi Honganji Temple as guest speaker at our Fall Ohigan service. He spoke briefly first to the children and, after the children were excused to their classrooms, spoke movingly to the adults.
In his talk to the children, he showed them a simple drawing of an animal he had made with a marker and asked them to identify it. Some children thought it was a rabbit, since it seemed to have two big ears. However, some thought the "ears" were a beak, and thus the animal appeared to be a duck. Rev. Gibbs explained that what we "call" something can depend on how we look at it. "This is also a Buddhist teaching," said Rev. Gibbs.
Rev. Gibbs continued, "Everything is constantly changing, including objects, relationships, situations...this is a 'good news/bad news' kind of thing." And, just as with the rabbit/duck, our reaction to this reality of change depends on how we look at it. The "bad" part of course, is that as much as we'd like certain things to stay the same (our friends, family, etc.), they don't. "However," explained Rev. Gibbs, "the good part is that new things can happen and sometimes things can turn out better than we expected."
To further illustrate how our point of view can change, Rev. Gibbs recalled a recent Christmas eve in Japan when he had gone out on a date with his friend Yukie. She had given him a sweater as a present, which he was pleased to receive since it was very cold in Japan at the time. Rev. Gibbs then recalled that when he was a child of 7, he had also received a sweater for Christmas. But at that time, he had been very disappointed because what he really wanted was a certain toy gun. "Thus," said Rev. Gibbs, "gradually, we come to appreciate receiving clothes as presents. In a similar way, we can also gradually come to appreciate receiving the Buddhist teaching."
Rev. Gibbs closed his talk to the children by recalling a scene from the movie The Lion King, where the king Mufasa tells his young son Simba that one day, the kingdom will be Simba's. However, this doesn't mean Simba can do as he pleases. He must respect all life; that even though lions eat antelope, the antelope eat grass, and the grass is nourished by the bodies of dead lions. Thus all life is connected; all life is interdependent. Rev. Gibbs pointed out, "This is the Buddhist teaching; the oneness of all life...the great circle of life."
In his address to the adults, Rev. Gibbs began by asking "What is Buddhism?" He explained that the difficulty in communicating the meaning of Buddhism is that the Buddhist teaching is not made up of concrete doctrine as are other major religions, such as Christianity. It's also somewhat difficult to pin down due to the different sects of Buddhism. But there is something that is common to all Buddhists. "It is the dynamic relationship between three things: Teaching, Practice, and Realization."
Regarding the teachings, Rev. Gibbs said that the teachings common to all Buddhists are the Four Marks: First, the truth of impermanence, second, that there is no unchanging, permanent soul (or atman), third, that our lives are shadowed by suffering as long as we are unenlightened, and fourth, that the solution to suffering is enlightenment or awakening to the oneness of all life." Rev. Gibbs illustrated this oneness of life with what he called "one of Buddha's favorite images...that each and every one of us is a wave in the great ocean of life...if we don't realize this oneness, we will suffer."
Rev. Gibbs recalled a passage from a popular Chinese sutra in which Buddha is said to be questioning a group of new monks and nuns. Buddha asks the students "What is the length of a human life?" After several incorrect answers, one student finally said, "It is the length of one breath," to which the Buddha replied, "You have well understood the teachings." Everything is constantly changing and constantly new. With each inhalation we are, in essence, born anew; with each exhalation, we "die," in the sense that we cannot hold onto that moment and must let it go.
Rev. Gibbs summarized the Buddhist teaching by saying that "Buddhism is really whatever sensitizes us to the oneness of all life." To illustrate this, Rev. Gibbs told of how he had lost his wife many years ago due to a heart problem. It was autumn in Japan and, with the grief of his wife's passing still weighing heavily on him, he was visiting a certain Japanese village to view the momigi, or the falling of the leaves. This is an example, explained Rev. Gibbs, of how Japanese culture and Buddhism have historically nurtured each other. To Rev. Gibbs, the momigi is another good news/bad news or happy/sad type of situation. The sad part is that the leaf's falling means the end of life for the leaf; it is dead. But Rev. Gibbs reminded us that the "happy" part is that the leaf was never "just" a leaf, it was part of the tree, it was nourished by rain water which originated from the sea, and its decaying will in turn, nourish the tree and other life. Rev. Gibbs remembered that there was a moment when he was viewing the leaves when the realization of this oneness of life suddenly "hit him," and he felt a lightening of his grief.
"It is in these moments," said Rev. Gibbs, "when the Buddhist teaching comes alive. This is the true meaning of Namu Amida Butsu, which is in essence, 'Buddha calling to me through my own voice...it is the coming into our lives of wisdom and compassion.'" Rev. Gibbs recalled how he had tried other spiritual paths, including Soto Zen, and has studied extensively other sects of Buddhism, such as Tibetan. Somehow, however, his spiritual needs weren't satisfied because he needed something "concrete, simple and experiential." This is what he has found in the Jodo Shinshu teaching.
Rev. Gibbs closed his talk by saying "Every now and then, something touches me, something is there which is true, reliable and worthy. This is what it means to say Namu Amida Butsu."
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