By Rev. Yushi Mukojima, Resident Minister
The Six Birds of the Pure Land
year, there were many events which I will never be able to forget.
First, this past May, I made a pilgrimage with eight members of our temple to the Hongwanji in Kyoto to
participate in Shinran’s 750th Memorial Observance. The anniversary is only held every 50 years so we couldn’t
help but rejoice at how fortunate we were to be able to encounter Amida Buddha’s primal vow while
praising the virtues and lifetime efforts of our founder, Shinran Shonin.
In October, the Buddhist Temple of San Diego’s 85th Anniversary commemorative service was conducted
with due solemnity and splendor in the presence of Bishop and Mrs. Ogui, our former minister Miyaji Sensei and
his wife, and many Sangha members. It was a fruitful opportunity for us to pledge to maintain and develop
our treasured temple which holds the great wish of our predecessors to perpetuate the Nembutsu teaching.
That same day, 41 members took part in the Kieshiki Affirmation Cer-emony, taking their first step as true
disciples of the Buddha. I was so moved by their smiling faces as they received their Buddhist names be-cause
it was as their faces reflected a bright future for our temple.
The event which was the most difficult for me to bear was the huge earthquake that occurred on March 11
in the Tohoku region. In an instant, about 15,000 people living there were killed by the great tsunami caused
by the terrible earthquake. Even now, nine months later, 4,000 people are still missing. And the
unprecedented accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has left the prospects for an eventual
solution far from certain. There are many suffering people who have not been able to go back to their home
towns which remain contaminated by high radioactivity.
A day after the earthquake, we hurriedly conducted a memorial service at the temple for those who had
been killed by the disaster. Despite the short notice, the service drew not only temple members and Japanese
living locally, but many concerned people from the greater community. We had a silent meditation to offer
our deepest sympathy to all the victims and to wish for the rapid rehabilitation of Japan.
That evening and for weeks afterwards, many donated generously to the temple to offer victim relief and to
support Japan in its dire situation caused by these phenomenal events. Various fundraising activities hosted
or supported by the temple resulted in about $40,000 sent to Japan. Even though I am here in the U.S., a long
distance from Japan, the hope that these gestures expressed for the rehabilitation of Japan encouraged me
greatly. I can never thank you enough.
Although the effects of this disaster cast a shadow on my mind, I would like to express my sincere
appreciation for the thoughtfulness of all the members who have continued to encourage and support me
and shared both happiness and sadness with me. My family sincerely hopes all of you will continue to give us
your support and guidance next year.
As I mentioned, we celebrated the 85th Anniversary of our temple in October. As I was preparing the Onaijin
(altar area) and also calming myself down the day before the ceremony, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for
the beauty of our Buddhist altar. As you know, just five years ago, we had a major Onaijin restoration project
to mark the 80th Anniversary of our temple. Because of your generous and precious donations, the many
elements of the Onaijin were painstakingly repaired and restored. I am really proud that our temple has such
a beautiful Onaijin.
The Onaijin is an important space which symbolizes the beauty of Amida Buddha’s Pure Land. There are
many delicate sculptures and gorgeous ornaments, each with a deep and wonderful meaning. When we
look at the Onaijin, most of us first see the wooden statue of Amida Buddha enshrined in the central altar and
then we notice the six colorful birds carved into the large table in front.
There is an important Sutra in Shin Buddhism called the Amida Sutra. In it, the founder of Buddhism,
Sakyamuni Buddha, describes in great detail both the Pure Land and Amida Buddha’s outstanding virtues to
his disciple Sariputra.
There is an interesting passage in it, as follows: “Sariputra, in the Buddha Land there live a number of
wonderful birds of different colors—crane, peacock, parrot, myna, Kalavinka, and Gumyo bird, or the bird of
double lives. Six times each day and night, these birds sing melodious tunes.”
According to Sakyamuni Buddha’s words, there are six kinds of birds in the Pure Land. These are depicted as
carvings in the large front table in our Onaijin.
Although the first four birds really exist, the Kalavinka and Gumyo bird are imaginary and exist only in Sutras
and stories. It is said that these birds always sing elegantly and all those who listen to their song cannot help
but have the mind of seeking the Buddha Dharma.
For these reasons, I would like to explain to you the symbolism of these birds living in the Pure Land.
First, the crane and peacock are birds which grace the Pure Land with their beautiful and graceful form. The
crane has been valued as a myste-rious bird as well as a bird of good omen because of its noble form. As the
Japanese proverb says, “A crane lives one thousand years, a turtle lives ten thousand years,” so the crane
When the peacock spreads its tail open like a fan, the beauty of it makes us agree that it is worthy of residing
in the Pure Land. However, the wonderfulness of the peacock is not only its colorful tail.
It is thought in India that peacocks eat poisonous snakes. If a person takes poison, he will die. But a peacock
has the uncommon ability of detoxification which allows it to eat poisonous snakes and plants.
In Buddhism, this wonderful power of detoxification was deified and Ma-hamayuri, the Great Peacock Fierce
Spirit, appeared in Buddhist literature. He is a Bodhisattva who can remove by his great virtues the three
poisons—greed, anger and ignorance—which represent our blind passions. When the peacock eats poisonous
things, it frees us from our delusional mind so that we are able to achieve enlightenment. For this reason the
peacock is honored as a sacred bird.
It’s well known that the parrot and myna can imitate human voices. Because of this uncommon ability, they
grace the Pure Land, singing the Buddha Dharma. The parrot and myna often appear in the Sutras and they
recite the Nembutsu and chant phrases from the Sutras. And also there are many Buddhist tales about the
parrot which portray it as a noble bird embodying the Buddha’s mind while doing good deeds.
Like the parrot, the myna is also a wise bird which can preach the Dharma by using human words.
The four birds described above are real, of course, but the remaining two exist only in legend. The first is
Kalavinka. In a Sutra, the clear and beautiful voice of the Buddha which brings our mind peace is compared
to Kalavinka’s singing. In the Great Wisdom Discourse Sutra, the saying goes, “With its beautiful voice,
Kalavinka sang in the egg before it was born. Its voice is superior to that of all other birds.” Like the Buddha’s
voice, Kalavinka graces the Pure Land, singing the Three Treasures in an elegant voice nobody ever tires of
The last one is the Gumyo bird. In a Sutra, it is depicted as a rare bird with two heads and minds sharing a
common body. There is a Buddhist tale about the Gumyo bird which goes like this.
A long time ago, there were many beautiful Gumyo birds. There was one in particular with a most beautiful
shape and song. Its two heads boasted about themselves, asserting things like, “The feathers on my head are
incomparably lovely and my voice is the most beautiful.” Each head hated the other and there was no end
to their quarreling. Then one day, one head happened to think, “If the other head were to die, I would truly
be the best in the world!”
The next day, this head made the other head eat fruit which it had secretly poisoned. Of course, the head
that ate the fruit died soon after so the head that survived finally became the most beautiful bird in the
world. At that moment, the bird started flying while singing proudly.
However, its joy was short-lived. The head that died gradually rotted and eventually even the body they had
in common rotted as well. So this Gumyo bird lost its life.
Two heads and a common body. If one head dies, the other must, too, before long. I think that there is much
meaning in this tale.
Because we each have our own personality, values, culture, religion, and way of feeling, we are all different
from one another. There is also gender, nationality, skin color and ability that make each of us unique. Thus we
believe without any doubt that our minds and bodies are ours alone. Yet we cannot live by ourselves alone.
We are able to live only because we depend upon the sacrifice of many others’ lives. We cannot live without
the loving support of our families, friends and many others. The body itself is just one entity, but it is intricately
connected to others like a net made up of a series of knots. So we can truthfully say that we are living the
same life together, influencing and supporting each other. Namely, we are just like the Gumyo bird.
However, if I deny the reality that our lives are linked with innumerable others’ lives, and misunderstand that I
alone am just and superior, and choose a way of living that denies and hurts others, then my life will surely be
on a course of self-destruction like the Gumyo bird.
Despite a Gumyo bird's foolishness, these birds now grace the Pure Land to teach the dignity of life in their
lovely voices: “The way we destroy others is the same way we destroy ourselves. The way to let others live is
exactly the way that we should live.”
With this story, Shakyamuni Buddha teaches us that the six birds living in the Pure Land are calling to us
meaningfully so that we might realize the truth. There is a saying in the Amida Sutra: “All these birds were
miraculously created by Amida Buddha with the desire to let them spread the voice of the Law.” That is to
say, Amida Buddha transforms himself into these beautiful birds in order to spread the Buddha Dharma.
Well, there are not many days left in this year, so before seeing the year out, please take the time to look
carefully at our Onaijin. The six birds of the Pure Land will surely welcome you with their graceful forms. I’ll be
really glad if you realize through my message that each ornament in the Onaijin with its beautiful brilliance
and meaning is leading each one of us to the way of the truth. I sincerely hope that all of you will greet
the New Year while listening to the precious teachings from the Onaijin which symbolizes the Pure Land of
Please look forward to welcoming a wonderful New Year.