Gotan-e & Mother’s Day

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We find ourselves approaching the month of May already.  Soon a half of the year will have gone by.  The month of May brings us our Jodoshinshu holiday called Shuso Gotan-e or Sect Founder’s Birthday Gathering and Mother’s Day.  Both holidays are very important and significant days for us and are very much related.

The founder of Jodoshinshu[1] was Shinran Shonin.  He was born on May21st, 1173 C.E.  in a small town of Hino southwest of Kyoto, Japan.  At birth he was given the name Matsuwakamaro.  Today if you visit Hino the temple that stands at the site of his birth is called Hino Tanjoin or the Birth Temple in Hino.  It located in a very quiet area and typically does not see a flock of visitors as some other sites in and around Kyoto.  As you stroll around the temple grounds you will find statues of Shinran as a young boy of 9 when he entered the priesthood.   Below the statue is the poem said to be written by Shinran on the eve of his ordination.

Shinran @ Tanjoin

Like cherry blossoms are the hearts that
Tomorrow they think they might.
For who can tell but there may be
A tempest in the night.

Shinran had lost both parents at an early age, and this most likely prompted him to enter the priesthood.  Traveling from Hino to the great Tendai monastery, Shinran arrived late in the night and requested admission into the order.  The head priest at Shoren-in[2] temple advised Matsuwakamaro to wait until morning and they would perform the ordination.  Shinran wrote the now famous poem above and the head priest was so impressed he ordained Shinran that same night.

When I first visited Hino Tanjoin with Rev. Russell Hamada, we were taken aback by a very interesting spot on the temple grounds.  There stands a tree with a plaque reading that the umbilical cord of Shinran Shonin is buried there.  We were wondering then why they would put the umbilical cord in a place of honor. Now years later, I realize that the umbilical cord or the heso no o 臍の緒 (tail of the belly) deserves to be honored and saved for prosperity because it is a link to one’s mother.  This is a notion rooted in Japan’s strong and sentimental views on the connection between a mother and her child, even into adulthood.

As we contemplate the beautiful poem written by the young Shinran, we can imagine not only his deep understanding of the impermanent and fragile nature of human life, but his sorrow at having lost his mother.   It was that sorrow and pain that moved Shinran to seek out the dharma and it was his mother’s death that sent him in that direction.

During Shinran’s study and practice at Shoren-in he encountered the writings of Genshin Shonin.  Genshin wrote the following after his mother died.

“It was my mother who made me perfect in practice.

And it was I who had enabled her to attain the end well.

A mother and a child each becoming the teacher.

This could only be the happy fruit of past Karma.”

Undoubtedly, Shinran thought of his own mother when he came across this passage.  He realized that his mother continued to be an influence on his life. And to have encountered the teachings of the Buddha was due in large part because of his mother.  Shinran must have felt a deep sense of gratitude to his mother at that moment.

This month we celebrate Shinran’s birthday and we celebrate Mother’s Day.  If your mother is no longer with you, I hope you can, like Shinran, know that your mother’s influence continues in your life, and your encounter with the dharma is a large part because of your mother.  If your mother is still with you, please thank her for all she has given and taught you through the years. If you are a mother, Happy Mother’s Day, (Rev. Hamada used to say, “every day is mother’s day.”), and I hope you will embrace the dharma and pass on the teachings of the Buddha to your children as well.  The dharma is a wonderful gift to share, a gift that is lasting and precious.

Namoamidabutsu,

Rev. Hosei Shinseki

 

 

[1] True Pure Land Buddhism

[2] Established in 1150 also known as the Awata Palace, located in Higashiyama