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.