This week’s Dharma message is from Ann Rogers Carman, author with Minor L. Rogers, of “Rennyo Shonin: The Second Founder of Shin Buddhism.” Ann says that throughout the history of Japan, there have been many pandemics over the centuries. There were no vaccines in Rennyo’s day; many Jodo Shinshu followers wanted to know why so many were dying. So Rennyo wrote a letter to his fellow nembutsu followers, which Ann translated, and it is here in this Dharma message.
Thank you, Ann, Namu Amida Butsu
According to a New York Times database, as of February 3, 2021, more than 26,472,800 people in the United States had been infected with Covid-19; there had been 446,643 deaths. This pandemic has changed all our lives over the past year. However, crises like our present one have occurred many times in the past, including during Rennyo’s time in Japan. He was no stranger to epidemics. For a remarkable history of the widespread disease in Japan, please see here
to see. To quote just a few sentences:
Although the historical record is difficult to read for the era 1421-1540, it appears that disease remained an important factor in demographic change. The period contains 45 epidemics of various descriptions, or one outbreak of pestilence for every 2.7 years, representing an increase over the previous era. Smallpox was particularly active, coming in 1452-3, 1477, 1495, 1523, 1525, 1531, and 1537. In all years excepting 1495 and 1525, however, the disease struck only children. ….Measles appeared more frequently, attacking the populace in 1441, 1471, 1484, 1489, 1506, and 1513. The outbreaks of 1471, 1484, and 1512 were harsh, killing many people of all ages. Influenza is recorded as an epidemic in 1428 and 1535. Dysentery and chickenpox are not documented. The era 1460-1550 was a period of chronic warfare in Japan, which leads one to suspect a link between the increased social strife and the higher incidence of pestilence (Fujikawa 1969; Hattori 1971).
In 1492, Rennyo wrote a letter (4:9) to his followers entitled, “On an Epidemic.” He begins, “Recently, people have been dying in great numbers, reportedly from an epidemic,” but he understands the cause somewhat differently than our CDC physicians might and continues:
It is not that they die primarily because of the epidemic. It’s [because of] determinate karma that has been settled from the first moment of our birth. We shouldn’t be so deeply surprised by this. And yet, when people die at this time, everyone thinks it strange. It is really quite reasonable.
Later, however, he reflects particularly on the unavoidable fact of impermanence in a well-known letter (5:16), “On White Bones.” It rings true, too, in our times and is perhaps the reason why it has served as a touchstone for so many through the generations:
When we deeply consider the transiency of this world, [we realize that] what is altogether fleeting is our own life span—it’s entirely like an illusion. So, we haven’t yet heard of anyone living ten thousand years. A lifetime passes quickly. Can anyone now live to be a hundred? Will I die first, or will my neighbor? Will it be today or tomorrow? We don’t know. The ones we leave behind and those who go before us are more numerous than the dewdrops briefly resting under trees and on their leaf tips. So, we may have radiant faces in the morning, but only white bones in the evening.
With the coming of the wind of impermanence, both of our eyes are instantly closed, and when a single breath is forever stilled, the radiant face is drained of life, and its vibrant glow is gone. Family and relatives may gather and grieve broken-heartedly, but this is to no avail. As there is nothing else to be done, [the once-familiar form] is taken to an outlying field, and when it has vanished with the midnight smoke, nothing is left but white bones. This is indescribably sad.
And so, because the impermanence of the world creates a condition of uncertainty for all of us, we should immediately take to heart the most important thing, the afterlife, and deeply entrusting ourselves to Amida Buddha, say the nembutsu.