Urabon Sermon

A Dharma Talk by
Ryuei Michael McCormick
July 2003

Today we have come together for the Urabon and Segaki service in order to offer our chanting of the Lotus Sutra and Namu Myoho Renge Kyo to our relatives and ancestors who have departed from this world as well as to those who have passed away unable to benefit from the Buddha’s teaching.

I would like to briefly tell you the story of the Buddha’s disciple, the Venerable Maudgalyayana and his mother. The Venerable Maudgalyayana was one of the ten major disciples of the Buddha, and he was the one who was particularly famous for his miraculous powers. In Buddhism, one of the side-effects of the intense yogic disciplines that the Buddha’s disciples practiced was the development of powers that today we would refer to as E.S.P, clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, and the ability to pass through walls, walk on water or even fly through the air. In the sutras, the Buddha emphasized that these powers were not the point of meditation, and that they should never be used to show off or to gain followers. The Buddha taught that insight and liberation from suffering was infinitely more important than flashy miracles. Nevertheless, these powers could be used to help others, just as our modern miracles of science and technology can help others even if they can not enable us to realize enlightenment.

Now, it seems that Maudgalyayana’s mother had passed away, and he was concerned about her well-being. Apparently she had been a very loving and devoted mother who had done all that she could to ensure the happiness of her son Maudgalyayana. Therefore, when he used his supernatural powers to find her in the afterlife, he was very disturbed to discover that she had become a hungry ghost. A hungry ghost is an unfortunate being whose cravings have prevented them from attaining birth in the relatively more pleasant human or heavenly realms. Hungry ghosts are usually depicted as having big mouths and stomachs but only tiny, needle thin throats, and that whatever they try to digest turns into something disgusting and indigestible. This is in fact what happened to Maudgalyayana’s mother when he tried to send her food and drink to relieve her suffering using his supernatural powers. The food and drink turned into fire when she tried to consume it. Now Maudgalyayana was truly upset. Not only was his mother unfairly consigned to hungry ghosthood, but he was not even able to help her with his miraculous powers.

At this point, the only thing left to do was to seek out the help of the Buddha. After hearing this story, the Buddha informed Maudgalyayana that his miraculous powers of perception had overlooked a very important point. His mother had indeed been very loving and very kind - but only to Maudgalyayana! She had not cared about the children of others and in many ways her care had become a clinging obsession with his welfare. It was not love that had caused her to become a hungry ghost, it was the narrow and obsessive nature of that love. And when Maudgalyayana tried to help her with his powers, her pride in her son and her gratitude to him caused her to exclusively love him even more. In trying to help her, he had in fact made the situation even worse. But the Buddha, as always in these kinds of Buddhist fairy tales, had a plan. If Maudgalyayana would wait until the end of the rainy season practice retreat, when the rest of the Sangha, the monastic community, was busy cultivating insight through various practices, then the Buddha would call all of the monks together to hold a service for the sake of Maudgalyayana’s mother. And so, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, just before the monks left to wander India in order to spread the Dharma, they all gathered together with Sakyamuni Buddha and Maudgalyayana and held a service and offered food for all those who were suffering and in need.

This, finally, was able to open the eyes of the mother. She realized that one must care for others and not just for one’s own family. In other words, she must develop an impartial love and compassion for all beings just as Sakyamuni Buddha and the members of the Sangha did. In this way, she was released from the realm of the hungry ghosts. I do not know what happened to her after that, but according to the Urabon Gosho of Nichiren Shonin, Maudgalyayana’s faith in the Lotus Sutra enabled both of them to attain Buddhahood.

In reflecting on this story over the years, it seems to me that there are two very important points. One is that it is not enough to just love our own family, or to love those who we find lovable. Such a narrow outlook can lead to all kinds of suffering for ourselves and others. The Mahayana view is that we should care for all sentient beings as our extended universal family. Mahayana means “Great Vehicle”, and the Mahayana view would enable us to realize that we are all in the same boat. If we do not open ourselves up to those who are part of this larger sense of the family of all beings, then that boat will become the Titanic. But if we realize, as Maudgalyayana’s mother did in the end through the compassion of not just her son but the whole Sangha, that all beings or our fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers, sons and daughters then that boat can become a Noah’s Ark that will allow us to float above the flood of suffering and attain the dry land of the Pure Land of Tranquil Light.

The other lesson is that Maudgalyayana may have been endowed with powers far beyond those of most mortal men, and he may have had a universal love and compassion that extended to all beings as befitted a good disciple of the Buddha, but even he could not help even his own mother by himself. Just as our gratitude and love must extend to all beings and not remain tied down to just our own family and friends, our willingness to help must also be a willingness to work with others. Just as our lives would not be possible without our parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, co-workers, and all the many people and beings who provide us with food and shelter and relative safety and security; we must also learn that to accomplish anything of lasting value we must accept the help of others and work with them in order to realize the pure land here and now. We should each develop our own special talents, just as Maudgalyayana developed his supernatural powers to a degree unrivaled by his fellow disciples of the Buddha. However, from the point of view of the Mahayana, we develop self-reliance and cultivate our own unique talents so that we can take care of each other and contribute to the community. We must learn, like Maudgalyayana, to work with others instead of just depending on them or trying to do everything on our own.

Urabon is about gratitude and the offering of our prayers, thoughts, words and deeds to all those who enable us to live and to work with our universal family both in this world and in all worlds, in this and in all lifetimes, so that we may all attain Buddhahood.

May we remember all those family and friends who have passed away, and may we especially remember Louis Shijo who passed away in December 2002, Hatsue Nakasora who passed away last March, and Chiyoko Nakamura who also passed away in March. Their families are here today to observe the first Obon after their passing.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2003.

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