Saturday, March 27, 2010
Sunday, March 7, 2010
When I came to Hawaii five years ago, I had many goals in mind for my time here. One of them was to pursue Buddhism and, possibly, become a Buddhist. Because I was new to the island and knew nothing about Buddhism, I opened up the phone book to the Buddhist Temples section and chose a listing at random. The listing that I chose was the Wahiawa Hongwanji. Needless to say, at that time the term Jodo Shinshu meant nothing to me. Words like “dharma”, “sangha”, and “karma” were very unfamiliar to me, therefore, words like “nenju”, and “motoshikisho” were as yet unheard of. But the welcome I received at the Temple was exactly what I was looking for at that time. I was greeted, guided, listened to, and invited back. After having attended many services and visiting the temple on my own many times, I concluded that this religion, and this church, was for me.
My understanding of Jodo Shinshu has only just begun. While I feel like I’ve come a long way since that first day, I know that I have only scratched the surface. At this point in my religious journey, I interpret Jodo Shinshu as the most realistic way to practice a religion in today’s day-in-age. As human beings, we cannot escape our own human nature, some would say especially in modern times. But instead of insisting we resist our hurtful human nature, Jodo Shinshu endures it as a tool that we can use to see the path to Shinjin. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is able to take my flaws as a human being and hold them in the same hand with the vow of The Pure Land. Using concepts like gratitude, community, self-less giving, and interdependence, Jodo Shinshu Buddhism doesn’t so much teach me as it allows me to see the Eight Fold Path in front of me.
Looking back on my life before I encountered Shin Buddhism, I can see that I was lacking something very important. My parents taught me to be a “good” person and to do the “right” thing, but what those things were, and why I had to do them were questions left unanswered. My own religious curiosity led me to Jodo Shinshu, but since then, it has required very little of my own effort to continue to come back to temple or to sit and listen to a dharma talk. When I’m at temple, in gassho in front of the altar, I feel like I’ve found what I was lacking. Since joining the temple, my wife, two sons, and myself have all been confirmed Buddhists. We have an altar set up in our house and we give offerings before meals. We say thanksgiving and we try to teach our boys why it’s important to swish out a bug instead of killing it. The teachings and traditions of Jodo Shinshu have begun to permeate my life and that of my family’s, and I feel we are better people for it.
For many millions of years, the sun has set in the west every single day. And every time this happens, a beautiful sunset occurs. It is probably one of the most beautiful sights we can witness, and it is so common! Why is it then that even to this day, people still paint sunsets and take pictures of sunsets? I would say that it is because when you see something that beautiful, you want to share it with those who weren’t there. When you’re fortunate enough to witness something of this magnitude, it doesn’t matter how easily accessible it is, you want to share it! This is why I want to attain my Tokudo. I feel like an extraordinary chain of events occurred that led me to being a member at the Wahiawa Hongwanji Buddhist Mission, and now that I’ve discovered something this beautiful, I want to share it in the most efficient and accurate way as possible.
The past five years of my life have been the most influential I’ve ever lived through, mostly due to my experience with and exposure to Shin Buddhism. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism has changed my life, and with a little luck, and a lot of hard work, will also change my career. We all look for ways to leave a mark on this world and we hope that when our time here is done, we will be remembered for what we accomplished. This is, perhaps, just our ego talking, but what better way is there to truly feel like you have given something back to your brothers and sisters on this planet than to help spread the dharma? To be a humble teacher of the most profound wisdom… what more can one ask for in life?
I’m writing this quarter’s Hakujin Perspective in Singapore. I’m here on business and decided to wait until I had experienced the island a little before writing this piece. I must say that Singapore is a beautiful country! Not only have the people here been wonderful to me, but the city is clean, safe, fun, exciting, and educational.
While my purpose here is not related to Buddhism, there is clearly an opportunity here to explore a different aspect of our religion. It was recommended to me that I visit the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple so that was my main religious goal coming here. I was worried that I’d have a hard time finding the temple, being in a foreign country and all, but as it turns out, the very first day I was here, I accidentally found it in Chinatown! A friend of mine and I were walking through the hawker plaza in Chinatown, we turned a corner, and BAM… there was a huge temple with monks in bright orange robes wandering about. We were fortunate enough to go into the temple during a ceremony of some sort. We stayed and took pictures.
I’ve been back to the Tooth Relic Temple 3 times since I’ve been here and each day there has been a different experience, but today was the best of all. I learned that there are many Buddha’s you can pay respects to at the temple. There is a hall with dozens of statuettes, each with a placard stating the name of the Buddha. And in front of these small altars, men and women are bowing and chanting and making offerings. I quickly found Amida Buddha (although here he was called Amitabah) and discovered that Amida is considered the protector for those born in the year of the Dog. So after a quick search of the table listings, I found out that I was born in the year of the Dog! What an awesome coincidence that Amida ended up being my Buddha of Protection!
The main altar on the first floor is where the major ceremonies are held, and the Buddha statue there is HUGE! The sangha there kneel on pillows in order to perform religious acts, so it was a bit awkward for me, but I found a pillow and kneeled down in front of the altar and chanted the Juseige. I got a few strange looks, and I think a few people took a picture of me, but I could tell that the only people who took interest were the tourists. The monks were completely at ease with me chanting there, and I could almost feel that Buddha knew what I was doing.
Then I went upstairs to where the actual Tooth Relic is displayed. It is in an amazingly ornate altar behind glass. You can’t take pictures and you can only get so close. In this room, people sit and meditate and make offerings. There were also two monks there that were giving blessings to the sangha. Basically, if you gave them a red envelope with money in it, they would say a blessing for you! So I gave them my envelope and kneeled before the monk in gassho. He placed an object on my head and chanted in Chinese, then we bowed to each other and I moved to the next monk. I kneeled in front of him and he splashed some liquid on my head and shoulders, then held beads to my forehead and chanted in Chinese again. I have no idea what happened… but it was AMAZING! Definitely a once in a lifetime experience!
Being in Singapore during the Chinese New Year has been an incredible learning opportunity for me! I’ve seen many ceremonies and performances, and whether they be of a religious nature or cultural one, everyone seems to be unified in the spirit of being renewed. I watched a large group of people start a blazing bonfire one night in the middle of an open field. Once the fire had started they all bowed in unison over and over again. Then after about 10 minutes, they all stood up and walked away without looking back! They just left the fire there. When I asked someone, I was told that normally that sort of thing would not be allowed, but because it is part of their religious practice, the police allow them to leave the fire.
The people of Singapore are mostly of Chinese decent, but there are also Malaysians, Indians, and many other Asian minorities. Despite the stark language and cultural differences, the people here do not see each other as anything other than Singaporean. I wouldn’t say that this perspective would go so far as an “Ang Mo” like me, but I’ve definitely felt welcomed here, and I will always remember my time in this foreign place.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Monday, December 21, 2009
We were fortunate enough to have our Monshu, Koshin Ohtani, come visit Oahu in September. Of course, all of the temples on the island were busy in anticipation for such a special event. Helping out with, but mostly eavesdropping on, the preparation, I was confused to hear that sometimes the Monshu was called Monshu, but other times he was called Gomonshu.
After a few weeks of this, I concluded to myself that I was hearing the words incorrectly. After all, how many times do you actually hear a full Namo Amida ButsU? It’s usually just Namo Amida Butssss. Therefore, since dropping syllables has already been established, I was confident in my “knowledge” that the “Go” was simply a part of the word that was dropped for grammatical purposes now and again.
But there was a nagging at my brain. I had never heard syllables being dropped at the beginning of a word. Thus, the “Go”, or lack thereof, must have some other explanation. Next, I determined that the Monshu, and the Gomonshu, must simply be two different people! The Monshu was the religious leader of Shin Buddhism, and the Gomonshu was his assistant. Resolved, I put the issue to rest once more.
Based on context though, I later decided that this last assumption could not be true either. Finally, I worked up the courage to ask my Minister what the difference was. The explanation, of course, was that “Go” is an honorific.
According to Wikipedia, Japanese uses a broad array of honorific [prefixes and] suffixes for addressing or referring to people. These honorifics are gender-neutral and can be attached to first names as well as surnames. Some of the more common honorifics are San (most common), Kun (used by senior status members addressing junior status members), Chan (a term of endearment), Senpai (used to address someone senior in your school or organization), Sensei (teacher or authority figure), and Sama (a more respectable version of San).
Of course, there are many, many more and I don’t pretend to know even this short list, much less any more obscure honorific than presented here. But I find the idea and practice of honorifics very fascinating! Aside from the story presented in the beginning of this article, another incident caused me to have great interest in honorifics.
One day while a group of members and I were preparing the altar, another member, Elaine, said to me, “Please hand me that candle holder, Henry-san.” It was said very casually, and I’m not sure Elaine even noticed the difference. But the use of the honorific in this way had an impact on me!
Perhaps there is nothing significant about the honorific San, but in my case it was a very big deal. It validated my belonging to the temple. Her casual use of this word in reference to me brought me closer to the culture of our religion. I genuinely felt like I had achieved something! I don’t think that I was lacking this feeling before; I’ve always felt welcome and like a member of not only the temple, but the family there as well. But I can’t deny that there was something else there that I had so far not experienced. There was something there in being called Henry-san. There, at the altar, I simply handed her the candle holder as if I’d been called this a million times, but inside, I was giggling like a school girl!
I’ve realized that it is an honor to both give and receive these titles. It is my honor and pleasure to address our Monshu as Gomonshu. I feel included when I do so. It is also a great honor and pleasure to be addressed as an insider would be addressed.
These honorifics are purely Japanese in essence and while links can be made between honorifics and Buddhism, it is more of a cultural phenomenon than it is religious. But in Shin Buddhism, being closer to the culture is synonymous with being closer to the religion; or so it would seem, at least, from the Hakujin perspective.