Hard is it to be born as a human being, hard is it to live the life of a human being, hard is it to hear the teaching of the true Dharma, and rare is the appearance of the Buddha. (Dharmapada, 182; Buddha Dharma, p. 438)
This verse from the Dharmapada reminds us of the great privilege of human birth. It also draws our attention to the role of those who gave us our life – our parents – and, with human life, the rare chance to hear the Buddha Dharma, which is the greatest blessing anyone can have.
Obon is also called Kangi-e: meaning, the ‘gathering of joy’.
In his writings, Shinran tells us that ‘kangi’ – joy – means to rejoice in body and to rejoice in mind. This is a great joy, true happiness. It is what Shinran found when he realised the true Dharma, true Buddhism.
Kangi-e, the gathering of joy, is based on the joy of Mogallana, who was a leader among Shakyamuni Buddha’s disciples. In the Ullambana Sutra we are told that Mogallana rejoiced in the knowledge that, by following the advice of the Buddha, his own mother had been saved from the suffering of the hell of hungry ghosts.
This is how the Ullambana Sutra describes that moment:
‘Thereupon, Bhiksu Mogallana, along with all the bodhisattvas in the great assembly greatly rejoiced.’ (Ullambana Sutra, BDK, English Tripitaka 25-V, p. 24)
Although the Ullambana Sutra, on which Obon or Kangi-e is based, tells us the story of the salvation of Mogallana’s mother, its essential message is that finding the Buddha Dharma – Buddhism – and putting it into practice is the best thing we can do to repay our parents for bringing us into the world.
When Mogallana discovers that his mother is suffering in hell, his first reaction is to go to the Buddha for guidance. As a result of this decision, Mogallana’s problem is solved and he rejoices.
To find Buddhism we have to first be born as a human being. That means that we have to have parents. Adoptive parents also nurture us through those dependent early years.
To be born human means to live a human life, and that offers us the chance to hear the teaching of the Buddha.
Shinran Shonin was someone who also fulfilled his birth as a human being by hearing the Dharma. Like Mogallana, it brought him great joy. For example, in this passage:
How joyous I am, my heart and mind being rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and my thoughts and feelings flowing within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension! I am deeply aware of the Tathagata’s immense compassion, and I sincerely revere the benevolent care behind the master’s teaching activity. My joy grows even fuller, my gratitude and indebtedness ever more compelling. (CWS, p. 291)
Shinran heard about the true Dharma from his teacher Honen Shonin and, in turn, told us about it in his teaching, and in the writing that he left for posterity, in the hope that others will find the same joy that he found. He sums up what he discovered in this way:
Those who, hearing Amida Buddha’s Name,
Rejoice in it with reverence and praise,
Receive its treasury of virtues;
The great benefit acquired with one utterance is supreme. (CWS, p. 332)
Shinran tells us that this ‘great benefit’ is to attain nirvana when we are born in the Pure Land at the end of our life.
In finding the Buddha Dharma, in accepting the working of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in Namo Amida Butsu, we truly repay our parents for bringing us into the world and giving us a human life.