Friday, November 2, 2012

The 53 Buddhas: Sudhana Walks In the Door

On Halloween night, our study group continued in our reading of the Larger [Sukhavativyuha] Sutra. For the section where the historical Buddha rattles off the names of 53 Buddhas who preceded the teacher Lokesvararaja (Seijizai-o) of his story’s protagonist Dharmakara, I wanted to use a reference to the Avatamsaka Sutra and I found this intriguing article by Dr. Alfred Bloom called “Sudhana’s Quest.”

My teacher Dr. Haneda and probably many other Jodo Shinshu scholars see the Avatamsaka (aka Garland, Flower Ornament, Hua-yen, Kegon) Sutra as a foreshadow of the Pure Land tradition’s Larger Sutra. The list of 53 Buddhas is an echo of the 53 teachers mentioned in the Avatamsaka Sutra who are visited by the young seeker named Sudhana (Zenzai doji).


I was struck by what Dr. Bloom wrote about seeking as the expression of enlightenment.

… An aspect of the teaching in the Sutra is that the search for enlightenment is itself the indication that enlightenment is already actively present within us. What we seem to be striving for on our own is already given in our striving. In effect we do not gain enlightenment which we could not know even if we gained it. Rather, it is because of enlightenment that we are striving.

I told the study class that each of them by showing up are already manifesting enlightenment. And also it means anyone who steps into our temple is already on the path of enlightenment because they have the seeking spirit – whether they are a long-time member or a first-time visitor who chose to write about our temple for their high school social studies class.

About midway through our class, there was a knock on the front door. One of the study class members opened the door and in walked a woman and a tiny boy about 4-5 years old. When I saw the boy was carrying a pumpkin-orange tote bag, I realized he was on his Halloween rounds. Since we didn’t have any wrapped candy around, we offered them the cookies we had out for our class refreshments. The boy probably had a costume on under his winter coat but we didn’t inquire what he was dressed as.

Since the woman and boy were African American, I assumed they were from the neighborhood (besides the subsidized unit buildings around the temple, there is a shelter for homeless women with children just around the corner). At the temple we talk a lot about getting more involved with the neighborhood and at least we had a few occasions to invite kids inside who happened to be passing by – for Dharma School parties or Bon Odori dancing. But we wish we could reach out to more kids in the Uptown area, for them to come in and enjoy some fun and treats along with the members’ kids who mostly come from the suburbs. Having their presence in the temple  is not for us to introduce them to Buddhism but for us to deepen our understanding of the Dharma in our interaction with them. The Avatamsaka Sutra uses the metaphor of the jeweled net to describe our interdependence with all other lives. If we cannot see those jewels sparkling so close to the temple building, our sense of oneness is woefully inadequate.

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