Trial by Water

We arrived just as the bell was being rung at the beginning of the Hanamatsuri service. We bowed and entered the hondo, the baby on my hip, my daughter clinging to my husband’s hand. We slid into our pew and opened our service book.

Hanamatsuri is the Buddhist Flower Festival celebrating the birth of the Buddha as his mother rested in a garden on the way to her parents’ home on April 8, 563 BCE. (I didn’t realize they had April back then.)

At the Shin Buddhist Temple we’ve been attending, Hanamatsuri is celebrated with a special Dharma Service, then a luncheon (which unaccountably included fried chicken, baked beans, and cole slaw in addition to the onigiri and colorful but unidentifiable Japanese festival foods I’ve come to expect at food-related functions at the temple), then a series of skits and dances performed by the youth of the sangha. My daughter’s class was doing a dance about ebi and kani (shrimp and crabs). You can see the dance here on a Japanese kids TV show:

The kids weren’t quite so trippy as I find this video to be.

At any rate, this all happened after the Dharma Service. During all of the rising and sitting and sutra chanting of the service, my children entertained themselves by playing with the smaller service books, putting them on their heads and making each other laugh. When their laughs became too loud, I would put my finger to my lips and furrow my brow and quietly shush them. My son would then stick his finger in his nose and say, “Ssss!” at his sister, and my daughter would put her finger to her lips and very loudly say, “Shhh!” at her brother.

Despite the fact that I knew this course of events was going to repeat itself every time I shushed them and be a greater disruption than the thing I was shushing about, I continued shushing. Shushing is something of a reflex for me.

When Sensei began the Dharma Talk (like a short sermon), my son was sitting between my husband and me on the pew. We’d given him his sippy of water in flagrant violation of the “No food or drink in the hondo” rule posted on the outside of the doors. I go through life pretty sure that the rules are different for kids than they are for non-kids. Like if an event says “no outside food or drink,” I would still bring in fishy crackers or applesauce for my toddler. So while I wouldn’t drink in the hondo, even water, I don’t worry too much about my son drinking water there.

Sensei talked about how he and his friend disagreed about whether the story of the Buddha’s birth was literally true or just a legend.

“He was just a baby,” Sensei-as-a-boy would say. “Babies can’t walk and talk. It’s a myth.”

“No, it really happened,” his friend would argue back. “It says when Buddha was born he took seven steps, pointed at heaven and earth, and spoke. It happened.”

Sensei then segued into how regardless of whether you believe the seven steps were literal or figurative, they still have spiritual significance. The first six steps represent the hell-worlds that we travel during our daily lives. They are the thoughts and worries and anxieties that plague us and distract us from our true selves.

“But if we are lucky,” Sensei said, “we can take that seventh step and become fully realized in this life, just as the Buddha was.”

I sat reflecting on this and the sense of relief that would attend such a full realization. The hondo was quiet as others in the sangha reflected as well.

The only sound was my son’s breathless gulping as he chugged his water beside me. Then came a hitch and a sputter and a cough as water sprayed from my son’s mouth all over the pew in front of us, saturating the back of the shirt of the man sitting there. There were even droplets of water on the inside of the lenses of the man’s glasses. The man jumped, touched the water with his hand and smelled it.

“It’s just water, it’s just water,” I whispered repeatedly, alternately feeling mortified and commanding myself not to laugh as I tried to reassure him that he’d not just been vomited upon.

In the Zen tradition, sometimes when the practitioners are sitting deep in meditation, someone walks around and periodically hits with a stick a person who appears to need to be awakened, either physically or spiritually. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism doesn’t include this practice, but I hope that the impromptu shower helped bump our poor neighbor into some higher plane of spiritual existence.

He was very forgiving and engaged my husband in small talk after the service. I find myself feeling both thankful and amazed that we weren’t escorted out after that.

God bless those Buddhists and their equanimity.

7 Replies to “Trial by Water”

  1. Oh this sounds so much like our worship experiences with young children. It’s always an adventure no matter where or with whom you worship, and I am constantly thankful for the kindness (or ability to hide their agitation) of strangers!


    1. We were actually asked to leave our regular church for much less than this when my son was 6 months old. It was unsettling because it was a church in my husband’s and my chosen faith (not the faith either of us had grown up with). We’d been attending service at churches of that denomination across the country for more than ten years, and it knocked me for a loop wondering if we’d been wrong all along about the nature of that particular religion. I was very nervous when this happened at the Buddhist temple yesterday, but I was also reassured that we’d found a good place for our family. I can’t believe they still let us attend service after all of this!


  2. Great story. I can really visualize the events based off of how you describe everything. Thank you for sharing!


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