Saturday, March 27, 2010

Leading Service

The biggest news over the past couple weeks is that I led service by myself. Rev Kevin had business on another island, and since our temple doesn't have another minister "stationed" with us, the responsibility fell on me to lead service on Sunday. I sat in the altar area and led the chanting and gave a "sermon", although I wouldn't really call it a sermon since I'm not a minister yet.

The service went really well! I was nervous about all the technical details, like maybe I would forget to say "Namo Amida Butsu" when I was supposed to say it, or whatever. But I can't recall that I made any mistakes. My sermon (aka dharma message) was pretty simplistic. I talked about my recent trip to Singapore and how ethnically diverse that country is. Then I tied that in to how Shin Buddhism also needs to be ethnically diverse if it's going to survive in the West.

So this was two weeks ago, and tomorrow I lead service again on my own. After service, I have to rush downtown for an interview with the Bishop. The interview, as far as I know, is just a formal get-to-know-ya for all the Ministerial Candidates this year. Rev Kevin says that there's really no way to prepare for this interview, which to me means that I won't be quizzed on academic knowledge... but who knows.

In summary, there are some exciting leaps forward in my path to achieving my Tokudo. Wish me luck!

In Gassho,

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Essay - Why I Want to Attain My Tokudo

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?

Hakujin Perspective - Finding Dharma In Singapore

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.

In Gassho,


I'm Back!!!

Hello Everyone!

I'm safely back from Singapore. I arrived last week, and it has literally taken me a week to finally adjust myself to the Hawaii Time Zone again (Singapore is 18 hours ahead!).

After this entry, I will post two more. The first will be the Hakujin Perspective that I wrote while in Singapore. The second will be an essay that I had to write on why I want to attain my Tokudo.

In the meantime, I have some exciting news. Next week Sunday, a week from today, I'll be leading Sunday service ALL BY MYSELF! Rev Kevin has business elsewhere, so it's all me. This is really a huge deal, at least for me. I will be up on the altar and leading the chanting of the Juseige, Vandana and Ti-Sarana, and delivering a sermon. I'm really nervous, and I feel vastly under-qualified. But, Sensei says I have to do it, so that's that.

I also have an important interview at the end of the month with the Ministerial Training Committee. After the interview, the committee will officially decide whether or not I will be trained to become a Tokudo minister (hence the essay to follow). The big issue that I'm up against is that I want to be a military chaplain, which means I won't necessarily be working for the Hawaii Kyodan. So of course, there are bureaucratic issues with the Hawaii Kyodan training me. I'll let you know how it goes.

Well, it's great to be back! Stay tuned for more!

In Gassho,

Monday, January 25, 2010

Off to Singapore

Aloha all,

I'm off to Singapore on Thursday. While my trip is primarily business related, I plan on using this month away to also explore aspects of the Buddhist faith that I would normally not be exposed to. For instance, Rev Shin recommended that I visit the Buddha's Tooth Relic Temple. I have no idea what that is... but I'll find out. I'm imagining a giant temple, and instead of Amida at the center of the altar, there's a glass case with a molar in it, or something like that. I'm sure I'll be surprised.

Aside from visiting temples and taking pictures of Buddhas, there are other ways to explore my faith while I'm there. I'm going on this trip with 5 other people that I don't know, and I'll be rooming with one of them. I've never been outside of the U.S. (except for Mexico a couple times, but Ensenada doesn't count) and now I'm going to be plunged into a very foreign country, with 5 strangers, and with expectations of me to perform well at my job.

I think that two Buddhist concepts can be applied here: Impermanence and Interdependence. I'll quickly realize how temporary my comfort zone is, and that I have to flow with the tide. I'll be away from my wife for the first time in 9 years (even in Basic Training we were in Brother/Sister flights) and I'll be away from my children for the first time since they were born. If I grind my heels into the ground on this trip, then I won't have any fun. I need to embrace the change I'm about to experience. Also, in order for me to have a fun trip, I'll have to depend on my 5 co-workers; and naturally, they will depend on me. I'm going into this thinking that I academically understand these concepts, but we'll see what they're like in practice!

On the logistical side of things, I'm going to have to miss a very important meeting here in Hawaii. On January 30th, all the Tokudo candidates were supposed to meet and be introduced to the Hawaii Kyo-dan Ministers. It's really like the first formal function that I would need to attend as a prospective Minister. So that's the bad news. But, Rev Kevin said that he would attend on my behalf, and I might just have to meet with the Bishop one-on-one when I get back... no pressure, right?

Anyway, thanks everyone for your support and your comments! I'll post again when I get back in March!

In Gassho,


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Happy New Year!

Aloha all,

I hope everyone's new year went well. I'm excited about 2010 and all that we can accomplish! It's amazing how much my family and I have changed in the 5 years we've been in Hawaii, I can only imagine what 2010 will bring.

Anyway, here is my current status. I've been in language class for the past 3 weeks and have 3 more weeks to go. The interesting thing about this class is that it is being held at the University of Hawaii, which means I get college credit. It's a 6 week long course, but since it's everyday/all day, it actually knocks out 4 Chinese courses that the University offers. The academic advisor came and said that with our current background, we may be close to a BA in Chinese Mandarin. So now I need to find out which would be better/quicker for me: 1) BA from AMU in International Relations with emphasis on Asia, or 2) BA from UH in Chinese Mandarin. Any thoughts?

Also, I'll be TDY all of February to Singapore as part of a supplemental language training. This in combination with the language training I'm in now means that my meetings with Rev Kevin are at a stand still until I get back. In the meantime, he and I are still working on HOZO and a few other things. My list of things to memorize continues to grow.

One thing that hasn't changed lately, though, is my Sunday schedule. Every Sunday I show up at temple at about 7am. I let myself into the main altar (I have keys now, no big deal!) and practice chanting the Juseige. Then I set up the altar for morning services. The first service is Japanese service, of which I don't understand a word, but we chant the entire Shoshinge, which is good for me. After that is English service (my job is to ring the bell). After English service I close up the altar and double check with the minister and can usually be out of there by 11. I feel like a Catholic spending 4 hours at church every Sunday! Oh well, I enjoy it.

That's it for now!

In gassho,

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)