Monday, December 21, 2009

Hakujin Perspective - Terrific Honorifics

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.

In Gassho,

Hank (Henry-san)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Finally! My Transfer Credit is IN!

Man, I think it took almost 6 weeks! But, AMU has finally told me what classes I'm getting credit for towards my BA degree! Here's the breakdown:

I requested that credits be transferred from DLI, HPU, AP, and CCAF. When those transcripts were applied towards my degree plan, I was awarded 72 credits of 121! That means I'm only 49 credits away from my Bachelor's degree. I'm so excited about this!

I have to go to Language class starting next week, and that will pretty much take up all my time. I'll have to leave the house at 6am and won't get home until 7:30pm. That being the case, I don't think I can start taking any classes at least for the next 6 weeks. But after that... it's game on!

In Gassho,

Monday, November 30, 2009

Informative Site

Hey all,

I was doing some surfing on the net and found this great page on the IBS Site. IBS is the Institute of Buddhist Studies and it's where I'll have to get my Master's degree. Anyway, check it out if you have the time. I'll post it here and put the main page in the links list on the right.

In Gassho,

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's been awhile

Sorry it's been so long since my last post. I was waiting for my Transcripts to post to American Military University so that I could see exactly how far I was from my BA, and then report. However, the date kept getting pushed back. As of now, I still don't know what my transcripts will yield. But since I have other information, I will post that.

My involvement in the Tokudo program is getting more formalized and more involved. First, I become increasingly more involved with the weekly services. I am going to start attending the Japanese service every week before the English service. My responsibilities include setting up the altar, ringing the kansho bell, keeping the incense burning, and then closing down the altar and temple after service is over.

Another bit of news: the Minister's Assistant currently assigned to my temple, Reverend David Nakamoto, is being relocated to Kailua. The Bishop said that we will not be getting another assistants because they have ME! In other words, increased responsibility and presence. Also, if Reverend Kevin ever needs to leave for whatever reason, then it will be my responsibility to lead service! I won't be able to do that from up on the Altar, as I'm still a lay person, but it's still a big deal, and I'm really nervous!

So here are some more technical details. Pasted below is a summary of my entrance into the Tokudo Training Program. Please forgive any spelling, grammatical, or formatting errors, as these pages were just scanned in.

PRELIMINARY INFORMATIONAL SESSION (Conducted by State Ministerial Training Committee):

What: A half day session for people interested in Tokudo to learn about Tokudo and the commitments, sacrifices, and rewards.

Who: Aspirants who are actively involved in the Hongwanji for not less than a year during which time the membership has accepted the aspirant as a part of the congregation. (Recommended by Minister)

Why: Provide individuals interested in Tokudo with an opportunity to learn about the process and procedures.

PRE-ORDINATION TRAINING PROGRAM (POTP) (for those interested in going for Tokudo)

1. Candidate submits application to the Office of the Bishop
a) One page double-spaced essay to address the question "Why do I want to enroll in the Pre- T okudo Program?
b) One page recommendation by a minister.
c) Interview with the following questions:
How does your education relate to the pre-tokudo program?
What do you plan to do with this pre-tokudo program?
What qualities do you think a good temple minister has?
What is your understanding of Buddhism?
What is the role of religion in life?
As a minister, how can you contribute to the Jodo Shinshu movement?
How have you participated in the J odo Shinshu movement?
How do you relate to, work with people?

2. Office of the Bishop will give written acknowledgement of receipt of application, and will forward the application to the Ministerial Training Committee for disposition.
a) Bishop sends out copies of the application, recommendation and essay to the committee members before the Interview session.
Minister's Recommendation Form Application for Pre- T okudo Session

1. Applications and the attachment received by the Bishop will be reviewed by Ministerial Training Committee for recommendation. The Bishop will inform the applicants and temple ministers of the final decision.

Pre-Ordination Program - Local Training Program Pre-Ordination Program (at temple, district, or state level)


Morning and Evening Service
Flower Arrangement
Altar Clean Up
Temple Situation and Ministers Life

Infant Initiatory Rites
Dedication Service
Wedding Ceremony (Temple & outside)
English Language Service
Japanese Language Service
Major Service
Special Service
Pre-school Service
Interfaith Service
Bedside Service (Makuragyo)
Service before cremation
Funeral Service at Temple
Funeral Service outside
Appreciation Service (Reimairi)
First 7-day Service
49-day Service
100-day Service
One-year Service
Inurnment (Burial) Service

Staff Meeting
Pastoral Counseling
(Wedding Counseling, Crisis Center counseling, Religious Counseling (Jidan)
Hospital Visitation and Home Visitation
Study Class & Workshop
Community Services
Ministers' Meeting (Kyogakkai)

Radio Broadcasting Program and related activities
Newsletter and related activities
Pre-school and related activities
Dharma School and related activities
Jr. YBA and related activities
Adult Group and related activities
Fujinkai and related activities
Martial Arts group and related activities
Scouting and related activities
Choir and related activities
Cultural and Fellowship activities
Various Temple Committees
Temple Board Meeting
Temple Kyodan activities

5. Familiarization and Memorization
1. Sutras, Chants, Sayings:
(Shinshu Pledge, Homages (Kikyomon), Vandana Ti­Sarana, Creeds (Ryogemon), Shoshinge, Wasan and others)
2. Excerpts from letters of Rennyo Shonin
Shinjin gyakutoku-sho
Shonin ichiryu-sho

6. Proper Manner of Handling Sutras and Religious Texts
Triple Sutra

Stage B - Overview of Total Scope of Services
1.Rites of Passage (pages 61-78)
2. Altar Arrangements (See Traditions oft Jodoshinshu Hongwanji­Ha, pages 45-48)
3. Etiquette and Liturgy (See Traditions of Jodoshinshu Hongwanji-Ha, pages 45-48)
4. Protocol for ministers (Reigi-Saho)
a) Sitting in Naijin
b) Entering Temple
c) Funeral Service
5. Clergy Attire on Appropriate Occasions (See Traditions of JOOoshinshu Hongwanji-Ha, pages 33-38)
6. Chanting of Shoshin-ge, other sermon and Gobunsho training (refer to service book) (See Traditions of Jodoshinshu Hongwanji-Ha, pages 61-78)

Stage C
a Brief history of Jodo Shinshu (Shin Buddhist Handbook, pages 51-61)
b Outline of Jodo Shinshu Teachings
c Basic Texts of Jodo Shinshu


Stage D
1. Minister's role in temple finances

1. Verification of a college degree (copy of diploma) or proof of pursuing a college degree (copy of current transcript).
2. Person with serious willingness and reasonable intent to assist the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.
3. A letter of Intent
4. Prerequisites submitted to the Office of the Bishop. The Bishop must approve the applicant's entry into the Pre-Ordination State Training Program.
5. Pre-Tokudo candidate must agree to participate in:
a. Statewide Training Program sponsored by the Ministerial Training Committee which will take up to (3) three full (not necessarily consecutive) weekends.

Thanks everyone! I'll post again when I know more.

In Gassho,

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Chuggin' Away

Reverend Kevin is in Kyoto this week, so not much has happened. My main goals right now are:

1) Read "Buddha's Wish For The World"
2) Study Hirigana
3) Practice chanting
4) Finish transfering credits so I can see how close I am to a BA degree

Man, it seems like such a short list... but wow! Trust me, it's a lot more intimidating in real life!

In Gassho,

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Tokudo Program

Last Tuesday when I met with Rev Kevin, he gave me a list of important dates regarding my Tokudo. Tokudo is the name of the lower-level ordination in the Buddhist seminary. The upper level is called Kyoshi. When you are a Kyoshi minister, you can have your own temple. In either case, the level of ordination I'm working towards right now is Tokudo. Here is a copy of the schedule:

November 2009 - Orientation to the ministers.
January 2010 - Preliminary Informational Session
April 2010 - Start one year Local Pre-Tokudo Training Program at local temples
April 2011 - Hold two months State Pre-Tokudo Trining Program at local temples. Screening of candidates by Bishop
Fall 2011 - Send candidates to Honzan for ten day Tokudo Program

In summary, my training "officially" begins in April of 2010. Then, in April of 2011, I'm interviewed by the Bishop to see if I'm qualified to go to Japan for the ordination. If I am, then in Fall, I go to Japan and go through Tokudo Basic Training.

Pretty exciting stuff!

In Gassho,

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Faith-Related Conversation

Today, I had a conversation that has affected me deeply. I was asked how I viewed a certain controversial topic as a Buddhist. The response I gave was not one that the person was expecting and he wanted to argue with me. There was a very clear tone of disgust in this man's voice as he tried to interpret my words into something that was easier for him to discredit. Sparing you the details, I'll just say that it was a frustrating conversation, and I felt the need to defend myself. But, I didn't want to argue at all with this person and I ended the conversation as quickly as I could while still being polite.

I think that this feeling that I felt tonight, and in fact still feel right now, is going to be something I have to learn to live with. It's too obvious to say something to the effect of, "I'm a Buddhist living in a Christian society so I need to learn to deal with people who don't understand my faith." I don't think that is the case. Most of my Christian friends find my faith interesting, not disgusting. I think the real meat of the matter is that the Dharma can be hard to hear sometimes. The Dharma is some hard-hitting, no bullshit truth! The Dharma doesn't cater to your feelings, and it doesn't try to sugar coat anything. It lays it all out there, and you can take it or leave it.

Fact #1) Life can suck sometimes, and it sucks for everyone, not just you.

Fact #2) The reason why life sucks is probably because of you, not the other guy.

Honestly, that's one of the things I love about Buddhism is that it's shooting me straight! I think anyone who fully adopts those two facts from above, would also be fully adopting the first two noble truths, and be a better Buddhist for it. So my point is: The Dharma can be hard to hear sometimes.

So because the Dharma talks a straight talk, I think it can be hard to explain some of the harsher concepts to someone who might not be so familiar with them. If someone came to me and asked "Why am I suffering?", it would be improper of me to say, "Well, you must have done something wrong! Stop doing it, whatever it is." The remedy to that person's suffering might ACTUALLY BE that very answer... but that is not at all what that person needs to hear, and they probably will not accept it.

I guess what I'm trying to say, as my frustrated rambling thoughts are pouring onto the keyboard, is that ultimately, the reason why the conversation I had went badly was because I chose my words poorly. I was trying to talk about a very sensitive topic, and I probably should have chosen my words a bit more carefully. THIS is a skill I will need to develop!

In Gassho,


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ringing the Bell

Tuesday, at temple, Reverend Kevin taught me how to ring the temple bell, or the Kansho Bell. Back in the day, they would ring the temple bell a certain way to tell the village that the temple was about to start service. They would also ring the bell another way to signal a fire alarm, but I didn't learn that one. Anyway, these days, the temple bell is rung more as a tradition to start service each week.

This first picture is our Kansho Bell. It's about 2 feet tall and made of really thick metal. It produces a very loud thick sound, almost like a gong, without the splashy sound.

<---- This is a picture of our GIANT bell outside the Temple. I've only heard this one rung on special occasions like Patriot's Day and New Years Day.

I've heard the regular Kansho bell every time I've attended, and could probably have guessed correctly how the rhythm was supposed to go... but actually performing that task myself was a lot harder than it sounded! The way you do it is you ring the bell 7 times, slowly, at a medium volume. Then you ring it really fast and really soft, but get louder and slower, then back down again. Then you hit it 5 times... do the crescendo/decrescendo one more time, then hit it 3 times. Sounds simple right? Believe me... it's not.

Reverend Kevin wanted me to ring the bell for church next Sunday... but it's such a big responsibility, I think I'm going to hold off and get some more practice in. When I go to Japan for my Tokudo Ordination, this aspect is going to be a really big deal, so I want to make sure I get it right. Anyway, that's it for now!

In Gassho,


Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Hakujin Perspective - Rough Draft

Here is the rough draft for my first issue of "The Hakujin Perspective". It may change a little, but tell me what you think! Remember, to subscribe to HOZO, please email

The Hakujin Perspective

Shin Buddhism from a Non-Japanese point-of-view

By: Hank Sims

In this issue of HOZO, we are going to start a new column. The Hakujin Perspective is going to be a down-to-earth, bare-bones, no nonsense view of this religion that we share, but with one interesting twist: written by a White-Boy.

The first time that I came to temple, I was going there to just “check it out” and see what Buddhism was all about. As you can imagine, I noticed right away that everyone was Japanese. At this point in my life, I really didn’t know anyone who was Japanese despite living in Hawaii for a couple years already. The entirety of my exposure to Japanese culture, language, and customs came from Hollywood. In other words, Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid I, II, and III was just about it (Thanks, Pat!).

That being my situation, my experience with Buddhism here in Hawaii has been an exciting adventure. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’ve been “immersed” in Japanese culture. I attend most Sundays and try to speak with the Reverend regularly. But considering my experience with the Japanese culture, I guess that I could say it has been an “absorption”.

I’ve heard of a method for teaching children to swim that is both dangerous, but effective. I’m sure you’ve heard of it as well. Essentially, you take the child out in a boat and when you get far enough out that they can’t touch the bottom or hold on to anything for safety, you throw them in the water. Of course, the kid is panic stricken… arms flailing wildly… gasping for breath. The adult, having already made the decision to teach this way, just watches with patience from the boat. This might seem very harsh (I thank goodness no one taught ME to swim this way) but I’ve only ever heard of one result of this method: The child learns to swim in about 90 seconds. Imagine, though, if you used the same method in water that the child could stand up in. Would it have the same effect? If the child could simply standup to avoid drowning, I think he probably would, and the lesson would be lost.

I think that for me, and probably a lot of Hakujin (Haole) boys like me, attending service or coming to temple for the first time is a lot like learning to swim in that shallow water. Everything is very foreign and very different. The people that you meet are very nice and welcoming, of course, but the things that you see and the way people talk are very “strange”. While we’re drowning in this new culture, we have the option to stand up at any point, in other words, say thank you very much and walk away. I’m not suggesting that any time you see a new member at your church you lock them up and keep them there… afterall, they’ll learn to swim, right? Instead, I’m suggesting that the option to standup, or leave and not come back, is a very easy one. And who isn’t a bit skittish in a strange environment?

In Gassho,


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

New Assignments

A lot happened today with my training. First off, I went to see my AMU Counselor. It turns out I'm closer to my BA then I thought I was... which is always good news. I've decided to major in Asian Studies. It seems like it will work for both my military and religious career.

Next, I went to see Rev Kevin regarding my Tokudo training. He gave me A TON of stuff to work on. The first thing I have to do is start reading Monshu Ohtani's book "The Buddha's Wish For The World". For those that don't know, Monshu Koshin Ohtani is the highest religious leader in the Jodo Shinshu faith. He is also visiting Hawaii this week, so everyone is really excited. For more on the Monshu's book, check the links side-column. So, other than reading the book, I also have to start studying my Hiragana, which is like Japanese phonetics.

I'm also going to start contributing to our temple's quarterly publication "HOZO". I've been helping with the editing for some time now, but now I'm going to start contributing on a regular basis. I'm going to write a column in the newsletter about how a white person might view some of the overtly Japanese aspects of our religion. I'm thinking of calling the column, "The Hakujin Perspective", which I'm told means: "The White-boy Perspective"... or something to that affect. I think it's pretty much awesome!

Anyway, my plate is magically full, so I'm going to get started on all of that. Wish me luck!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bachelor's Degree

One of the main obstacles for me in this process is education. I joined the military with absolutely no college under my belt. Since then, I've achieved an Associates Degree, but most of those credits were from my military training. I really don't consider that degree a product of my academic studies.

So the first thing I have to work towards is my Bachelor's degree. As far as I know, neither the church nor the military cares what my Bachelor's degree is in; therefore I'm going to go with whatever degree I can get the quickest.

This was actually a hard decision for me. I definitely see the value in studying a subject that is either interesting or applicable. For instance, setting my major as "Religion" makes a lot of sense. But I think that no matter what I study, I'll be able to apply what I've learned to my career. Also, I think that whatever major ends up being the quickest for me will be both interesting AND applicable as long as I adopt the old adage: "It is what you make it."

So tonight I sign up for my first class towards my BA through the American Military University (AMU). It's called "Foundations for Online Learning" and is a requirement for all students at this University. To learn more about AMU check out their site: Wish me luck!

In Gassho,

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Just getting started

Well, here's the first entry. I guess I should start with my current status.

I'm an E-5 in the USAF, stationed in Hawaii. I've always been interested in Buddhism, but didn't get serious until I got here. After attending service at the Wahiawa Hongwanji Buddhist Mission for about a year, I joined the church. Soon after, I was affirmed, along with my wife and my two sons. I was given the Dharma name Shaku Josho.

After some serious thought, I decided that the chaplaincy would be the best thing for me and my family. I talked about it with my reverend and he agreed. So this process really breaks down into two catagories: 1) Achieving my Ordination, and 2) Meeting the military requirements. The two don't match up completely. For instance, I can be a fully ordained Buddhist Dharma Teacher but not meet the requirements to become a DoD Chaplain. The reverse is also true.

Without getting into too much detail, what this means is that I will first work towards achieving my ordination... and worry about the military side of the house later. I've heard that you can enter into a military chaplaincy as late as age 44 (with a waiver) which means I could do a full 20 years enlisted before I switch over. In other words, I think I have a little bit of time on that side. Reverend Kuniyuki and I have officially begun my unofficial training towards achieving my Tokudo (lower-level ordination).

My first assignment was to write an article about all the different aspects of the Altar. Every Buddhist temple has an Altar and in Jodo Shinshu, they follow a standardized set-up. My task was to write an article for our quarterly publication that explained this set-up. For a copy of the article, please email and ask for a copy of this month's Hozo.

Well, that's it! More later!

In Gassho,