- Written by: Rev. Ryoko Osa
Wish for Children
By Ryoko Osa
What do you wish for your children? It probably varies from family to family. I have two children and scold them every single day. “Take a bath!” “Do your home work!” And so on. They may think that these are my real wishes as their mother. But I would like to tell you my true wish as their mother.
To my children:
Sometimes you feel that life is boring or has no purpose. But I hope you try very hard for at least one thing, even if it’s not successful and becomes a tough experience. Any experience you have makes you aware that you are alive.
When Shakyamuni Buddha was born, he said, “Between heaven and earth, I alone am the honored One.” To me, I want you to know that you also are honored. The reason you are honored is not that you are good at something, or that you listen to your parents. You are honored because you are living a precious life which is beyond your power. And if you really think you are honored, you will be able to think the same about others.
If you are sad because you feel powerless, please think in this way. You are born in this world without you asking, through an inconceivable power. And you were helped and raised by many people.
If you think your life and your power are limited, please think this way. Your life is limitless, although you cannot see it. Life is totally beyond your power.
Please be aware that you have a precious opportunity to live. We have been raised and nurtured by everything and everyone around us. If you understand this, then you will take care of yourself and others. I hope you feel that, “I am so grateful to live in this world” and that, “Life is wonderful.” This is a mother’s wish.
I admit, it’s hard for me, all the time, to feel and live by these words, but at least I want my children to know this wish. I am just a noisy mother. That’s why I need the Buddhist teachings as my guide. (2014)
- Written by: Rev. Ryoko Osa
Throwing Ourselves into the Nenbutsu
by Rev. Ryoko Osa
In the conference room at the Los Angeles Betsuin, there is displayed an artwork of Japanese calligraphy handwritten by the Rev. Ryōjin Soga. Rev. Soga was a priest of the Shinshū Ōtani-ha (Higashi Honganji) denomination who was active during much of the 20th Century. He was a priest who made many important contributions in making the transition from a traditional understanding of Jōdo Shinshū and Buddhism in general to a more modernized interpretation.
When Rev. Soga was invited to come to the Los Angeles Betsuin as a speaker back in the mid-1950s, he wrote this calligraphy for the late Mrs. Kazuko Ito, wife of then Rinban Horyu Ito in response to questions she presented to him before his return to Japan.
The first question was, “What kind of person is the Buddha?” The second was, “Where can that Buddha be found?” The third question was, “How are we to be mindful of the Buddha?”
This particular artwork has become quite famous in Japan. A reproduction of the calligraphy was made by a company in Japan, and it seems many have been sold. I mentioned to Rinban that it would be nice if the profits from such a project could be donated to the Betsuin to support the educational activities here. But Betsuin has not received any profit from that company. At any rate, it was through these simple questions asked by Mrs. Ito that many people have benefitted from reading those words of Rev. Soga of the scroll that now hangs at temples throughout Japan in deepening their understanding of the teachings.
What is Buddha?
- What kind of person is the Buddha?
The Buddha is he who appears as Namu Amida Butsu to us who recite it.
- Where can that Buddha be found?
He appears before us who reflect on and recite Namu Amida Butsu.
- If that is the case, then how are we to be mindful of that Buddha?
With an attitude of complete trust, discarding all self-calculations, and with a serene heart, with the one thought of Namu Amida Butsu, to raise the wish upon the Buddha that this self laden with deep evil be saved. This thinking of the Buddha can be done freely by anyone anywhere at anytime, regardless of whether we are sad or happy. When this thought is realized, even if we are burdened with evil passions and delusions, one’s inner peace will never be broken.
This is what we call true salvation (awakening).
Content of scroll written at the Los Angeles Betsuin by Soga Ryōjin to Kazuko Ito on January 21, 1956
“The Buddha is he who appears as Namu Amida Butsu.”
The world of enlightenment is the world that has no form nor color. It is an energy (working) that has no substance. It is the Buddha who works to awaken us by becoming the words, Namu Amida Butsu. What does it mean to be awakened? Is it that we are not awake right now? It is said that we are languishing in pitch darkness because of our ignorance. It is that ignorance that makes us suffer in life. Through encountering the wisdom (light) of the Buddha, we realize that we are living in darkness and understand why we are suffering. We are thus enabled to walk on the path to liberation. To suffer means to live constantly feeling frustrated that things don’t go the way we want them to go. To awaken is to realize that things will not always go our way. It is to realize that “it is not that I am living my life, but that I am given the opportunity to live this life.”
Our “lives” are the compounds of myriads of karmic causes and conditions. It is those causes and conditions that give each of us the opportunity to live. It is not that I am here and that I am living this life. Rather, I exist in the relationship I have with others, a temporal kind of harmony of elements that give me the chance to live here and now. One’s life ends, therefore, when those causes and conditions expire. It is the process in which we return to the so-called “emptiness of nirvana.” It isn’t that we are reborn to live in a different world. We return to the source of life, and so there is nothing to fear about death. However, we think that our bodies and our consciousness belong to us, and so we cannot help but be attached to our lives. And even though we understand this truth, we keep making the same mistake, thinking this I is mine.
It’s the same with the karmic causes and conditions that steer our lives. We have the tendency to want only good and favorable conditions to come to us. When things don’t go our way, can we quickly accept the situation and say, this is OK, this is how it should be? Generally speaking, we suffer in life. We experience sadness…we experience pain. So even though we receive the Buddha’s wisdom and think we’ve awakened, the blind passions that arise from our ego keeps returning us to disillusionment.
However, even then, we are being told by the Buddha that everything is all right. If we truly entrust ourselves to Namu Amida Butsu, which encourages us that everything is all right, we can be liberated from a life of suffering. And we can realize and remenber we have been making the same mistake over and over, and understand that things by nature do not always go our way.
For us to become mindful of the Buddha, Rev. Soga encouraged the following: “With an attitude of complete trust, discarding all self-calculations, and with a serene heart, with the one thought of Namu Amida Butsu, to raise the wish upon the Buddha that this self laden with deep evil be saved.”
It is to come to the realization that this “life” is not mine, to request guidance for this self that even though I continue to listen to the Buddhadharma, that I am a being who continues to create suffering for myself. We can come to receive that guidance by entrusting ourselves to the workings of the Dharma. The primal vow is the means by which we, who are unable to awaken through our own powers and live in the midst of delusion, are led to nirvana. To entrust oneself in the primal vow, and to wish for birth in the world of enlightenment is to be on path of the Nenbutsu. The Buddha “appears before us who reflect on and recite Namu Amida Butsu.”
We are able to receive the workings of the Buddha when we entrust ourselves to the primal vow and recite the Nenbutsu. Rev. Soga said, “When this thought is realized, even if we are burdened with evil passions and delusions, one’s inner peace will never be broken. This is what we call true salvation (awakening).” He says that “one’s inner peace will never be broken,” but upon reflection, I feel as though my inner peace is being broken all the time. However, it is those times when we “reflect on and recite Namu Amida Butsu” with a quiet and serene heart, thinking of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion that we can entrust ourselves to, and ask that this being burdened with evil passions be rescued, we do find that our heart is at peace.
Conversely, at times that we forget the Nenbutsu, our hearts are darkened, our self-centered desires never fulfilled. The path of Buddhism is, perhaps, the repetition over-and-over of that cycle. So it is not that we are awakened for good once we recite the Nenbutsu, but rather that we continue to recite time and time again that we finally begin to feel that inner peace coming about. When we come face to face with our ignorance, we become conscious of the darkness that pervades us. Because of that, we come to the realization that I am but a shallow being. In spite of that, however, I will continue to listen to the calling, and continue the in the process of reciting the Nenbutsu. I continue to err over and over due to my ignorance, but because of that, I do the Nenbutsu over and over as well.
We might think that if our Nenbutsu is not said without sincerity, we might be scolded. Upon reflection, I realize that my recitations are not sincere. My heart is not moved by my recitation. My Nenbutsu is said with the same feeling I have when I say thank you or how are you? When I do Nenbutsu with such feelings as, “I truly want to be rescued,” or “I want to become a person who can live accepting all of the karmic conditions of my life,” when I say Nenbutsu as if my life depended on it, I find myself moved to the point of having tears falling from my eyes. This inspiration is the guidance of the Buddha working inside of us. My body and mind are not mine, and when I come to that realization, it becomes natural that we throw ourselves into the Nenbutsu.
True Nenbutsu, therefore, is not to something to recite as some kind of ritual. Rather, it is to sincerely vow from the bottom of our hearts, “With an attitude of complete trust, discarding all self-calculations, and with a serene heart, with the one thought of Namu Amida Butsu, to raise the wish upon the Buddha that this self burdened with deep evil be saved.”
- Written by: Rev. Ryoko Osa
Temple and Shinbochi Ministers
By Ryoko Osa
Most of the temples in Japan are taken care of by families with their sons’ or daughters’ being ordained so as to succeed their fathers. It is necessary for all potential ministers to be registered at a temple where the chief minister is prepared to take full responsibility for their conduct and words. Our Jodo Shinshu denomination does not have a master/disciple relationship, but instead, the chief minister is regarded as a parent for the younger minister even though there is no blood connection. For those outside the temple, it is not very easy to find such a temple because of the responsibility and work, which the chief minister has to undertake for them.
The compassion of human beings is limited but that of the Buddha is limitless, hence it is called “great compassion.” Amida does not choose, hate, nor refuse anyone, but rather accepts and grasps us all, never to abandon us. Buddha’s working is constantly reaching toward us. However, it is hard for human beings to practice that kind of compassion, as we tend to like or dislike someone, based on birth or upbringing.
A temple is a place from where the teaching spreads though still managed by ministers who are human. Therefore, they are not on the same level as Amida Buddha and so, they also need to listen to the Buddha’s teaching. It is impossible for us to truly have Amida’s compassion. However, I think Mahayana Buddhism always tries to practice Amida’s Primal Vow even though it seems impossible.
When I was working in the Youth Section at our mother temple in Kyoto and with the Shinshu Otani-ha Choir Group Federation, there were four committee members of that group, who came from Shomyoji, a temple in Gifu prefecture. When I was looking for a temple to which to belong, I was concerned whether or not the temple family would accept me even though the chief minister might. Later, however, I remembered this temple family, whose members were open-minded, kind, easy to talk to and placed the Dharma teaching at the center of their lives. However, I became worried because if they did not accept me, I would be disappointed with all other temples in general. It took a while before I could ask them about my ordination and my belonging to the temple. Thankfully, I became one of the ministers there and it, too, became my “Buddhist parent.”
And the wonderful thing was that the chief minister, Rev. Wada, was not only a member of the choir but also became a cabinet member after my coming to the United States, so I could meet him at retreats and conventions. At any time, I was able to talk to him like a part of his family and ask him about his temple.
In the United States, it is customary to call all ministers “Sensei,” which means “teacher.” When I am called this, I always feel uncomfortable as I do not consider myself as such. In Japan, a minister is called “Shinbochi,” which means a person who is determined to live according to Buddha’s way and is newly-ordained, whom you might call a “novice.” For me, the word “newly” is not about time but constantly having a fresh feeling. The relationship between the temple and ministers should not be a give-and-take one as in business, where the latter just sell their knowledge like schoolteachers. Rather they constantly need to listen to the Dharma teaching, and officiate at services for their practitioners. Therefore, I feel that I am not a “Sensei” but a “Shinbochi.”
My heart wishes to listen to the Buddha’s teaching because of the many causes and conditions, which have created me. When I see people, living in the Shinshu teaching, and see their way of life, I feel that I am receiving the teaching itself as it is at that very moment. As a Shinbochi, I would like to reflect on myself through the teaching and encounter as many followers as possible, who are walking on the same path as I am.
- Written by: Rev. Ryoko Osa
May 17, 2020 Service
Service to Commemorate the Birth of Shinran Shonin, Born April 1st, 1173
Today we celebrate the birth of Shinran Shonin.
Every year in April our temple holds the Hanamatsuri Service, to celebrate the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. If you watched online my Hanamatsuri Service of April 5th, you saw that there was a Baby Shakyamuni Buddha’s statue and that I poured the sweet tea over it.
But today we are celebrating the birthday of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, the True Pure Land tradition.
It is said that Shinran Shonin was born on April 1st 1173, using the old lunar calendar, and if you convert the date to our current Gregorian calendar, it is May 21st, right around now. So that’s about 850 years ago. Of course, we live in tough times, as we continue to face the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Shinran Shonin also went through some very tough times. I think he faced even harder situations than we are facing now.
When he was 4 and 7 years old, there were big earthquakes. When he was 5, a big fire burned down one third of Kyoto city. And when he was 8, there was an epidemic and many people died.
There were many natural disasters during his lifetime. He was ordained when he was a young boy, just 9 years old—around the same age as many of you children. Ordained means that he became a monk, entering the life of monkhood.
People have wondered why Shinran Shonin was ordained at such a young age. And many reasons have been given. Some people think it was because, by the age of 9, he had already gone through many tragic experiences in his family life. Others say the main reason is because it was the custom that the sons of noble families would often enter the monkhood.
At any rate, one day, his uncle Hino Noritsuna took him to Shoren-in temple in Kyoto. But as they were waiting for the process to be completed, it started to become late, the night growing dark. So Reverend Jien said to them, “Let’s have your ordination ceremony tomorrow because it is getting dark.” But right then little Shinran wrote out one poem and gave it to Reverend Jien.
“Cherry blossoms that look like they will stay on the tree till tomorrow, may well blow away during the night”.
In fact, composing poems was the one of the cultural activities of educated people in old Japan.
Our temple has a sakura tree. Usually its cherry blossoms last for just about one week. If the wind blows, the light small petals are easily blown away. This year I enjoyed the beautiful cherry blossoms, but it was rainy and windy at night, so the petals were blown away quickly. And soon I mostly saw the petals scattered on the ground. We Japanese have a special connection to Sakura trees, and see the world’s impermanence reflected in the cherry blossoms.
This episode in Shinran’s life shows us his strong determination to enter to the monkhood and seek truth in life. He then studied for 20 years on Mt. Hiei, until he became 29.
At that point he left the mountain and then began teaching many people what he had learned from his master, Honen. He worked to save and guide ordinary people both spiritually and mentally. Over 800 years later his teaching is still here, and people are still inspired and awakened by it.
In the Buddhist tradition it has been common to commemorate death. Last week, I told you about memorial services and the Shotsuki monthly memorial service. The purpose of this service is not to try to do something for the soul or spirit of the deceased, but to create the opportunity to remember the deceased and the kindness we received from them. At these memorial services, we think of the legacy the deceased has left behind, which strengthens our tradition. In contrast to these ceremonies, cerebrating “Birth” represents an auspicious moment filled with new possibilities.
This pandemic has arrived in the internet age. We have YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, lots of videos we can watch anytime. But if we lost our internet connection in this situation, while sheltering in place, how would we, of the modern generation, survive?
We live in a world where we can easily search for whatever we want to know. And many of us wish to get more and more information. We even feel that we don’t have enough time to follow each day’s news. It is a flood of information.
But the main way we become fuller human beings is not through acquiring information. Let’s think more simply. The central issue is how we are motivated by boundless compassion or love—and how, in turn, our motivation may help others.
Take the example of a birth. When we think of this occasion, we think of celebration, of looking forward to the future potential of a new human being. But at the same time, at the moment of birth, we see the boundless compassion or love that benefits others. The same meaning holds at the memorial service.
Shinran Shonin went to Mount Hiei where he obtained deep and profound knowledge. However, his teaching is summarized in a simple phrase: Namu Amida Butsu
And learning the meaning of Namu Amida Butsu is not something done just by acquiring knowledge. It is not anything like digital information. The meaning of Namu Amida Butsu is captured by the image of someone working in the Summer bazaar, or cleaning in the temple garden. It is someone’s gashō; it is someone’s bowing to show their respect. It is the trusting hearts of others. We are the ones receiving their boundless compassion.
Even when we strive to learn new things, we are not by ourselves; we are connected to, and learning from, someone else’s efforts.
Is this not true with love? Love is not created from scratch, from nothing. It is transferred from person to person, from people to people, through all of us. In a sense, each of us is a relay station in the transmission of love.
- Written by: Rev. Ryoko Osa
A mass shooting occurred again in August. This time it was in El Paso, Texas. On that day while driving home from our temple camping trip, I listened to the radio news.
A 25-year-old mother shielded her two-month-old son. She was shot. They were at a Walmart store, shopping for back-to-school supplies. “From the baby’s injuries, they said more than likely my sister was trying to shield him,” a woman said. “When she was shot, she was holding him and fell on top of him. That’s why he broke some bones. He pretty much lived because she gave up her life.”
Of course nobody knows what happened exactly at that moment. There’s a possibility the mother shielded her baby without thinking. It may have been a mother’s conditioned response.
While listening to the news, I recalled tragedies of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many people burned and perished lying atop one another. I imagined parents and grandparents trying to protect their children and grandchildren without even thinking.
For most Japanese, August is a special month to think about human life. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki on August 9. Japan surrendered on August 15.
When I was growing up in Japan, there were many TV programs in August devoted to memorials related to the bombings and to events promoting World peace. I watched many movies and TV programs about World War II. There even were anime films about the horrors of war, such as Grave of the Fireflies (Japanese: Hotaru no haka). Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
Why do people hate each other? Why do people kill one another?
According to Buddhism, complex conditions make us hate others. There are political and historical conditions. However, the primary reason why human beings hate each other is because we are foolish beings.
Politics may be debated but there is no single answer on which everyone agrees. Too many things in this world we don’t know whether they’re true or false.
What’s certain is that human beings are fools. I am foolish. It’s imperative to come to this understanding. The Buddha taught within each of us are Three Poisons: Greed, Anger, and Ignorance. These poisons cause suffering and make us disregard the sanctity of human life.
If we understand and are conscious of our Greed, Anger, and Ignorance, we’ll be more respectful of life—both the lives of others and our own.
Consider greed. We really don’t need to consume so many natural resources. After all, originally, we possessed nothing.
Consider anger. It’s hard to forget you hate someone. In history, ethnic hatred has been passed down from generation to generation.
Consider ignorance: People often forget it’s human to make mistakes. We think we are right and others are wrong and therefore we’ll fight wars.
Individually, we cannot overcome Three Poisons by ourselves.
We need help. This help is the Buddha’s voice encouraging us to gain wisdom. It’s the voice of people who came before us, including our teachers, family members and friends, who have passed away. They even include people who we don’t know, such as those who perished in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and El Paso.
What would the victims of mass shootings and of the atomic bomb wish for us? What would our loved ones, who have passed away, wish for us? What kind of world would they hope for us?
I think they would tell us to create a world of peace and understanding. Their wish represents a great Wish for humankind. To me, this is the meaning of Hongan, Amida Buddha’s great wish for us.
I’d like to share a letter written by a young army officer near the end of World War II. On May 4, 1945, Corporal Nobuo Aihana took off from Chiran air base in Kyushu, Japan, for a special (suicide) attack (Kamikaze-tokkotai) near the island of Okinawa. He died in battle at age 18 years.
In a letter to his stepmother, Corporal Aihana wrote:
How are you? Thank you for what you’ve done for so long. You raised me since I was six years old. Although you’re my stepmother, I never felt mistreated the way people often think of stepmothers. You were a mother who looked after me with loving care, a kind mother, a precious mother. I was happy. But I never once called you "mother." I resolved many times to say the word, but I must’ve been weak-willed. Please forgive me. How sad you must have been. Now it’s time for me to say loudly: "Mom! Mom! Mom!"
This letter, along with Nobuo's scarf, military sword, and other items were kept together at the family’s Buddhist altar. Aki, his stepmother, considered the letter her most precious treasure.
Nobuo's brother Shunichi returned to Japan from China in June 1946 and learned of his younger brother's death. After reading the letter, Shunichi resolved to honor his brother's wish to treat his stepmother like his real mother.
If we think deeply and connect with voices from the past, then World War II doesn’t seem so long ago. Those mass shootings are not so distant. They involved people who are very much like us. They have something to teach us. We have a connection to them.
In this way, if we listen to the voices of people who have passed away, they help guide us. Their voices represent the Buddha’s voice, guiding us to the world of wisdom and compassion. In this way, we walk the Buddha’s path.