156th London Eza report: “To have good friends is everything”
The 156th London Eza took place on 27th February 2022, the fourth day following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite the anxiety caused by the outbreak of a new war in Europe, as well as the ongoing pandemic, friends of Three Wheels were glad to gather in the peaceful atmosphere of the Sangha. Around fourteen friends also joined those meeting at the temple itself via video link; including from Nairobi (Kenya) and South Bend, Indiana (USA).
The Eza began with a memorial service for Anne Montgomery, a founding trustee of Three Wheels, who recently passed way. Rev. Sato read out a letter of thanks in which he spoke of Mrs Montgomery’s unstinting help, love and support for the Sangha. He recognised that her devout Anglican Christian faith deeply informed this work, and said that it was a wonderful expression of true interfaith practice.
After the service, Mr Sam Kelly and Mr Christopher Duxbury each gave a talk reflecting on their experiences as regular members of the Three Wheels Sunday Service during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sam’s talk was entitled, Amida’s Light Reveals a Silver Lining from the Cloud of Lockdown. He talked about how he was weekly visitor at Three Wheels before the pandemic, often helping with DIY jobs around the temple, and how it was strange to be unable to visit and contribute. However the move of Sunday Service online was ‘wonderful’ and allowed him to “build relationships with Dharma friends through listening to their weekly experiences and reflections.” Sam said he was, “pleasantly surprised by the intimacy of the discussions and our ability to have real online encounters.” He also explained how preparing for Sunday Service became part of his weekly spiritual routine, “[it has] given me the opportunity to reflect on what has taken place in my life each week, and to not just let each week slip into a kind of similarity with events just passing me by as though they had not happened…”
Sam, like Chris later on, also described how “Amida’s Light shone through as [Prof. John White’s memorial service] brought Dharma friends from the U.K. and Japan together at Three Wheels to share in a celebration his life and achievements, during which we became even more aware of all he had done for Three Wheels and the Sangha.”
He concluded by saying that:“Shinran Shonin speaks of ten benefits in a life of faith in Amida Buddha, two of which are; The Benefit of being protected constantly by the Light of Amida’s Heart and the benefit of having great joy in our hearts. Through the medium of online Sunday Service Amida’s Light has truly revealed a silver lining from the cloud of lockdown and given the Three Wheels Sangha added joy in our hearts, a true silver lining that may not have occurred without the intervention of the pandemic!”
Christopher’s talk was entitled, Awakening to the Omnipresence of Amida Tathagata. He spoke of the great inspiration he and other Dharma friends got from Goinge-sama’s letter which encouraged us to view the period of pandemic restrictions as a kind of ‘rainy season retreat’ in which we could look more deeply into ourselves. This advice gave him great determination not to waste the precious opportunity, and he sought to follow Kemmyo-sensei’s advice about maintaining a steady and consistent practice.
Christopher talked about how participating in Sunday Service, and making the most of the lockdowns as a time of reflection, made him more aware of other’s suffering, of all that has been done for him, and also of the Buddha-nature in others. He said that, “Without the Dharma in my life, I have no doubt my own feelings would have been heavy and negative, consumed with worry and other frustrations, and I would have only made those around me feel worse. In this way, I see the Buddha’s working as small ripples of positive energy flowing out from the Buddha via Shogyoji and Three Wheels, but that ripple out well beyond just those people who have direct contact with the temple.”
Going for walks each day, after spending time quietly at home, Christopher found that “the Dharma very much comes alive in connection with others.” He said, “[I] become more aware of the beauty in the world around us and the people we interact with as we go about our lives, which in the past I was missing as I hurried from one situation to another… The trees on my walking route seemed to take on personalities of their own. I am in awe of how they gently and naturally constantly adapt to the changes of the weather. Their impermanence reminded me that the world isn’t fixed and rigid, and I reflected how this also extends to my own sense of self.”
Christopher also recalled that when, “an elderly lady fell in the street in front of me… [so] many people were so kind and helpful as we assisted her. […] This experience was a powerful reminder of how everyone has Buddha nature. It was so moving to see this depth of kindness in so many strangers. If it hadn’t been for that event, I would have just passed them by without knowing they had such wonderful compassion in their hearts. I hope to hold that memory with me as I go forward.”
In conclusion, Christopher said that, “In the stillness I experienced in some of the quieter times during lockdown, I received an awareness of how much I am supported. Not just in the obvious ways of friends and family, but by innumerable contributions with others over the course of history that have got me to the point of now being warm, safe, well fed and able to live a fulfilling life. I feel like now I have become more aware of this, it is easy to feel gratitude for all that has been done for me. All I can do is to kneel before the Buddha and say Namu Amida-butsu with gratitude.”
Following the talks the chairman Mr Andrew Webb thanked the speakers and said that it sometimes felt difficult to look back over the past two years, as they have been at once so tumultuous and yet also in many ways somewhat monotone. However the two Dharma friends, he said, showed us all how to digest these experiences in our spiritual practice and faith experience.
Next, the floor was open for questions and comments. Mr Sammy Richards asked the two speakers about how one can avoid one’s practice wavering when caught in a sort of foggy, numb and lost state of mind. Sam and Christopher both felt that, for them, consistency of practice over time illuminates a reliable path forward, and Christopher said, “Something small like just kneeling in front of the Buddha shrine can bring you back to the right state of mind.”
Among the online participants, Mr Neil Chase, from the USA, said that the theme of ‘a silver lining’ really resonated for him. He said that, “About two years ago my sense of ‘vow’ as being ‘my vow’ changed to an understanding of ‘a vow working in me. This shift coincided with the invitation to start attending the London Eza meetings online.” Neil added, “In Christopher’s talk he spoke about ‘the Dharma coming alive for him’. That is something that I feel is true about this sangha and clearly expressed in the emphasis on interpersonal spiritual encounter.” Kemmyo-sensei said he was very pleased to hear that Neil had picked up the point that encounter is the source of truth.
Mrs Sanae Ishii spoke emotionally about her impression of how sincere Dharma friends are in their practice and her happiness to feel that she is walking the same road together in Sangha with them. Her daughter Miss Hitoe Ishii also spoke through tears to say that hearing Sammy’s sincere question earlier made her realise that she shouldn’t take for granted how fortunate she has been to be born and live in a temple.
Reverend Kenshin Ishii said that Shakyamuni Buddha’s expression, “to have good friends is everything” summarised the meaning of everyone’s reflections. He said that even living in the temple his spirit is always trying to escape and that he is often lazy, self-centred and attached to his own point of view. It is this way of life, he said, that causes wars like we are seeing with Ukraine and Russia now. He said that, “I have been given wonderful friends. Such friends already surround me but my mind is dark. My spiritual eyes are covered, that is why I cannot realise that they surround me. Outside there is blue sky with no clouds today – Spring is just there. I have to look into my mind and feel the light of Amida that is always shining in my heart.”
Reflecting on the role of online meetings in recent Sangha activities, he also reminded us, “The technology has been valuable but it is whether people minds are with the Three Treasures that decides if they join activities or not.”
Concluding the meeting Reverend Sato thanked everyone and said, “My master D. T. Suzuki said that Amida Buddha represents the altruistic impulse or Buddha-nature that comes up… unconditional love. We become aware of this wonderful working of the truth through individuals like Mrs Anne Montgomery. I am so relieved to be able to report to her husband, my friend, Mr Stephen Montgomery about the present good condition of the Sangha which Anne’s wisdom and love helped to grow.”
In gassho, Andy B.
28th February 2022