Translating Hongan With His Life

When I joined this temple in the late 1970s, I felt a personal closeness to Rev. Gyomay Kubose. I attended his weekly study class and the Sunday morning meditation that he led. At that time the meditation group was very tight-knit and we had social gatherings where we got to be with Rev. Kubose in a relaxed setting. On my days off from my banking job, I would hang out at the temple and visit with Rev. Kubose and from time to time he and his wife Minnie would invite me to their apartment for dinner.

So while I felt close to Rev. Kubose, Rev. Gyoko Saito was a distant figure to me at BTC. I thought some of his Dharma talks were interesting, but he seemed to speak as a “pedestrian,” just another man on the street, not from the lofty heights of transcendent wisdom as Rev. Kubose did. Then one time on the day of the study class, Rev. Kubose fell ill and it was too late to contact everyone to cancel the class so he asked Rev. Saito to fill in for him.

Instead of showering us with knowledge about Buddhist history and concepts as Rev. Kubose did, Rev. Saito spoke not to our heads but aimed for our guts. “What is your highest wish?” he said to our class and he paraphrased Soren Kierkegaard, “If you have ordinary wishes, there are no problems, but if you have the highest wish, the problem of living arises.” In my case at the time, I felt I had lots of problems, but I realized those problems coming from my “ordinary wishes” couldn’t be the problem of life that Rev. Saito said Kierkegaard and Shinran struggled with. To know that wish that comes from beyond our selfish material desires, Rev. Saito said it was important to encounter the teacher who attacks our shallow egoistical view of ourselves and awakens us to the path leading to the discovery of who we really are.

There is the Buddhism that makes us feel comfortable when we hear phrases like “come as you are” and “everyday suchness.” But at that study class, Rev. Saito reminded me that there is the Buddhism that is about earnest seeking and not plopping down into a complacent state. It is the Buddhism that kicks us out of the bubble of associating only with people similar to us and makes us discover the magnificence of lives very different from ours. That is the Buddhism of hongan, what Rev. Saito and Dr. Nobuo Haneda translated as “innermost aspiration” instead of using the misleading term “Original Vow.” That deep wish to awaken to the oneness of life is in each life – it’s not some particular “vow” (promise) originating with a specific being, as thought by those who read the Larger Sutra too literally.

More than that new way of translating hongan into English, Rev. Saito translated the “innermost aspiration” with his whole life. Remembering the talks he gave in Chicago and Los Angeles and reading his articles, I see how he identified with a wide variety of lives, not judging anyone as separate and inferior to himself. He could reverberate with the courageous dedication of Martin Luther King, Jr. and see himself in the scam artist walking down Broadway or the disturbed woman shouting on Leland Avenue. Animals and children were his teachers and like his main teacher, Akegarasu Haya, Rev. Saito learned from the great thinkers of diverse cultures and religions, not just Asian Buddhists.

Rev. Saito could have lived his life satisfying his “ordinary wishes” by continuing his studies to be an electrical engineer. Instead, inspired by Akegarasu, he entered the Buddhist ministry. In Chicago, the members really wanted a minister who helped people feel good about identifying as Buddhist mixed in with pride and appreciation of Japanese culture. But Rev. Saito failed to be that kind of minister and instead strove to make each of us aware of the “highest wish” that goes beyond a Buddhist or Japanese identity. He did this in his talks, writings and most poignantly by example.

In this month of March for Founder’s Day, we will sing the praises of Rev. Kubose who is a significant figure in bringing Jodo Shinshu to English-speaking audiences as well as being important as our temple’s founding minister. But in March is also the observance of Koshu-ki, the memorial of Rev. Saito. Maybe if for no one else but me, it’s an occasion to reflect on how Rev. Saito is the true teacher by showing me how to be the true student of life, to open up and let go of my self-serving tribal views.


From “The True Birthplace of Humanity” by Rev. Gyoko Saito

[I like this excerpt because it shows Rev. Saito’s joy at learning from other people – such as this account about Nigerian people – PN]

Last night for our gathering of young Buddhist groups we had a guest speaker who had majored in educational psychology.  He talked about his experiences while he was in Nigeria for two years as a member of the Peace Corps.  “When we Americans think of Nigeria from the United States, then Nigeria is a very backward and culturally undeveloped country, and there is nothing to learn from it.  But when I went there I learned the most important thing in my life.  One day I went to buy flowers at the market.  I asked, ‘May I buy these flowers?’  The Nigerian said, ‘Hello.’  So I asked him again, ‘May I buy these flowers?’  For a second time he said to me, ‘Hello.’  When I asked him a third time, I got back a thunderous answer, ‘HELLO!’  Then I remembered the Nigerian custom that even when we buy something, first we have to exchange ‘Hello’ with each other, that is, we have to communicate with each other as human beings.  Then business can follow.  I had forgotten the custom completely.”

When we think from the United States, we think of Nigeria as a backward country, but according to this man, the most important human teaching, that is, the dialogue of human beings, is there, strong, in Nigeria.  When I realized this, then I thought to myself, the real native country of our life is the country where we have true dialogue between human beings.  That is the true native country of humanity.


From News letter of Chicago Buddhist Temple, 2018 March Isssue

One day I will become an ancestor

 Rev. Ryoko Osa

Two weeks ago, at the Shotsuki service, our temple cherry tree had blossomed beautifully.  Over the next week, though, there were some rainy days and then some windy days. And so now, all the cherry blossoms have fallen and their petals are scattered.  In Japan we call this flurry of petals a cherry storm.  And many poems have been written using cherry blossoms to convey the idea of impermanence. 

Impermanence is perhaps the most basic Buddhist idea. Impermanence means everything is changing and nothing stays the same. But to realize that ‘I myself will have to die one day’ is perhaps the most important point. I am impermanent and someday, I too will fall away like the cherry blossoms.

When you are little, you might not have much of a sense of “impermanence.” And when I was starting out as a minister in the States, some members told me that “ it is not good to give a dharma talk about death to kids.” 

And when I attended funeral service, once again I distinctly felt that Americans don’t like to think about death, dying, or our being dead one day. In Japanese culture, people think of death as something sinister. 

For instance, in Japan, people don’t like Buddhist ministers wearing their robes in the hospitals because the black robes remind them of funeral services.

But our teacher, Manshi Kiyozawa had a more balanced view of the matter when he said that  ”We are not only a life. Death is also us. We are life and death combined.”

I would like to introduce an article from a temple newsletter of a Betsuin in Osaka written by Professor Takeshi Nakajima. In the article, he introduced an elderly man. He worked as a carpenter when he was young, and started a successful lumber business. He raised six children and took care his mother until she passed away. He did the best as he could possibly do. In the article the elderly man repeatedly says “One day I will become an ancestor”.   In the tradition of Buddhist life, we have ancestor worship. In the modern world, we try to understand Buddhism as a theory rather than just as ancestor worship.

Here is the article, he said  

But, if we keep the tradition of ancestor worship it means that someday you will be an ancestor and will be worshiped by your descendants. You want them to say, “Your grandpa was great man. You should try to be like him.” If so, you have to live to be a good role model for your descendants. You have to make an effort to be a respectable ancestor. Living your life now fully, when you die, dying finely. Living and dying we have to work hard now for the goal of the afterlife. We are living in a modern world where we are prone to forget the deceased once they are gone. Home altars and gravestones are gradually being done away with. People no longer respect Buddhist rituals and just do it as a cultural form. This means that not only have we lost our connection to the past but also we lost a sense of communication with the future.  And so let me remind you that we are not living just only “now”. By continuing the way of life of remembering our loved ones who have gone we continue to live with them into the future.

We who are the survivors of the deceased owe it to them try to remember them. 

We are all supposed to die someday, and so let us make that a reason to try to live hard each day to become a role model to guide our survivors. We are not living for only myself, we are living for others.

And so let’s realize that you are not living by yourself. There was always someone who was always there for you, someone who has constantly supported you.

Buddhism is the teaching of Buddha. When we realize that our loved ones who have passed on continue to guide us, they appear to us as Buddhas. 

“The Gatha of the three vows.”   Rev. Ryoko Osa

In the Higashi tradition we call it the Sansei-ge, The Nishi members call it Jusei-ge.  The word ju means to repeat, and so Jusei-ge means the gatha of the repeated vow.

The three vows the Buddha makes are:

  1. I vow to establish the most incomparable vow in the world.
  2. I vow to become a great provider and give support to the poor and suffering.
  3. I vow not to become a buddha unless my name is heard throughout ten quarters.

Usually we think, Oh, this is a story about a great person who became a Buddha. But I don’t think of it that way. Instead, I want you to think of it as my story or Our Story. That is, it is the secret story of our life that is being described by the Gatha of the three vows.

What do we really want to do with our lives? Ask yourself: What is the deepest innermost wish in my heart? In our hearts? And now let’s try to think of these three vows as the expression of our innermost aspiration, our deepest wish.

Normally no one thinks, “Oh, I know. I want to vow to become a great provider and give support to the poor and suffering”. That is because we know our limitations. We know it is impossible for us to do. Even if we had the greatest compassion for others, we automatically think “Well, even though I really wish to free everyone from suffering, it is impossible for me to help them all. And so I will start with what I am able to do and go about the task in a responsible way.” That is a more normal response.

If you watch any TV documentaries, there are refugees trying to enter Greece, there are people living in refugee camps in Somalia, there are street children in the Philippines. And you might think that “people are not supposed to live in such terrible environments, I wish they could live without suffering. I want to help them but I can’t. My hands are tied. ” If you did not have to think about your limitations, you would think “I wish all sentient beings were free from suffering. I want to help all of them”. This is the same wish as the Buddha’s wish for our world.

If you just listen to your heart, instead of thinking about how to do things responsibly or how you are limited by your conditions, just simply listen to your heart, then you might think “I want to become a great provider and give support to the poor and suffering”.

As a human, we know we have limitation. We have to live responsibly and within the limits of our human condition. And we also know we tend to follow our selfish minds. 

So we give up trying to help everyone. And we try not to think or see the tragedies that others are suffering all around us.

I believe each person would wish that “I wish no one would be harmed and everyone would live fully and freely in this world”.

This is the Buddha’s wish for this world and it is also our innermost aspiration.

But how often we tend to forget this wish or run away from listening to our heart’s innermost aspiration. we are living within the narrow space between our limitations and our selfishness mind. And that is as far away from compassion as the other side of the moon.

I think that Sansei-ge, this poem of the Buddha’s wish, makes us reflect on ourselves and lets us recall our innermost aspiration, the deepest wish in our heart.

So now, I want you to forget about your limitations. Forget about your limiting conditions that tie your hands, forget about your selfishness only for a moment. And just simply think, “Oh this is what I wish, this is what we wish for others in this world.”

When we chant 三誓偈 We chant and says 普済諸貧苦

This means “ I vow to become a great provider and give support to the poor and suffering.”

Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect?  It also happens to be the name of a movie.  The Butterfly Effect refers to how a very small and seemingly insignificant occurrence could influence the world in a substantial way.  The term was originally coined by a scientist named Edward Lorenz who discovered that a small change in the input of data could result in a completely different result from what was expected.  The term came about when a fellow researcher posed the following question:  “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

An old Japanese proverb goes, “When the wind blows, the tub makers profit.”  The reasoning is, when a strong wind comes, dust flies into people’s eyes, and the numbers of those without sight increases.  In olden days, blind people often became shamisen (traditional three-string instrument) performers.  So the sales of the instrument increased.  The front of a shamisen is made of the skin of cats.  So when shamisen sales go up, cats become scarce.  When cats become scarce, the number of mice increase.  Mice love to gnaw on wooden tubs, and so people need to replace their tubs.  Thus the proverb, “When the wind blows, the tub makers profit.”

In this way, a small and insignificant cause can bring about a big and unexpected effect that could not have been predicted.  Simply put, it is to say that there is no way that we can predict what will happen in the future.

I began to think that the Butterfly Effect is similar to the important concept of dependent origination in Buddhism.  It is to say that causes and the countless conditions that affect those causes lead to some kind of effect.  Things, in other words, do not happen solely on their own.  This is what Buddhism refers to as karma.  It may be easier to understand by thinking about the following story.

A young man was asked by his mother to buy her pick up something at a store.  So after work, he took a different way home in order to stop at the store.  On the way, he saw a motorcycle shop with a sharp looking bike on display.  It’s exactly what he’d been looking for, and so he buys the bike.  On the way home, tragically, he’s killed in a collision with a truck.

This tragedy occurs because the young man decided to take a different way home.  What would we think if we were the mother?  In her despair, she might think, “If only I didn’t ask him to go shopping for me,” and feel tremendous guilt for what had happened to her son. 

We have the tendency to search for the one cause of an effect.   But Buddhism teaches us that there is no one cause for something to happen.  There are many causes and those causes are influenced by many conditions to bring about the natural course that is the effect we are looking at.

In reflecting on the young man in the previous story, there is no one cause for his death.  At each turn, if there was even a slight change, he might not have been killed.  If he were not asked to go shopping, if he hadn’t stopped at the motorcycle shop, if he wasn’t interested in motorcycles, if that truck hadn’t come in his direction…any of these things would have prevented his death.

When we look at the causes of an effect, we see that there are so many different conditions that could have resulted in a different effect.  This is the Butterfly Effect – a multitude of small causes and conditions changing the effect – something that can happen infinitely.

If is for this reason that the mother cannot be blamed for “asking her son to go shopping for her.”  “If this had happened, that would not have happened.”  It is useless to think in such ways.

However, as human beings, we cannot help but feel guilt when a bad result occurs.  The reason why is life does not proceed simply due to those causes and conditions.  We consciously (or unconsciously) make decisions at every moment of our lives.  But those choices are influenced by our environment in the same way that our personalities are shaped.  Conditions are accumulated to push us to make the decisions we make.  That means that we cannot totally control the things that happen in our lives.  In a real sense, we do not have the power to control our lives.

When we reflect on the past in the context of the present, we see that the effects occurring now are the products of causes and conditions of the past.  This is what Buddhism calls karma.

A cup is filled with water.  When another drop of water is inserted into the cup, the cup overflows.  The reason the cup overflows is that the seemingly insignificant addition of one small drop is inserted into the cup.  It may be a small change, but it can have the effect of changing one’s life.  How that result affects a person may differ from one person to another.

A mistake often made is to equate fate with karma.  Fate is when one looks at the future in the context of the present and determines that a certain result will occur.  Buddhism looks at the causes from the result to see that the causes and conditions of the past have brought forth the result at hand.  This is what we call karma.

To be distressed by or be proud of what happened in the past, to feel anxiety or anticipation for what is to come in the future…for any human being, these are feelings that one cannot help having.   But when we get too caught up in such thinking, it can only lead to suffering.  The past did not occur through our own power; the future will not pan out in the way we hope due to our own capabilities.

We cannot predict the future.  There is no way we can predict what will happen, but it is there that the endless possibilities of the future exist for us.  That’s why life is so interesting and full of promise.  Experiencing both sadness and joy, we try to live with strength the lives we have been given.

The teenage years are an especially bright time. At that time I had lots of imagination, passion, energy, strength, beauty. Unfortunately, I have lost most of those things now. But all of you have all of them now.

On the other hand, the way the world is today, I think you might also be experiencing some stress, some anxiety. You are finding out the world is not perfect. And so as you start out in life I want to give you these three words of advice. First: Don’t compare. Second: Don’t rush. Third: Don’t give up. Got it? Never compare, never rush, never give in. In Japanese 比べず、焦らず、あきらめず. So what do I mean by this.

First: Don’t compare. Kurabezu (比べず)

Don’t compare your life to others. There is no comparison between the sun and the moon. They shine when it’s their time. You do not have to compare yourself to your friends. One day you will realize how much beauty you have inside of you.

But since we are human beings, we cannot stop comparing ourselves to others. What others do with their life, what others decide in their lives are very useful for thinking about what you want to do, what you want to decide. But you don’t have to switch your criteria. If you think about it, you realize you have your own criteria, your own way of thinking, and that is enough.

And I hope that Budddhism helps you to form your own criteria. If you listen to Buddhism for a long time, you may come to the conclusion we don’t need any criteria, we just have to accept life as it comes, naturally.

Second: Don’t rush. Aserazu (あせらず) 

Aseru (あせる) means to feel rushed, to feel irritated, to feel nervous. Imagine, if you feel like you are drowning, first you have to calm down. If you panic then the more you wave your arms and legs around, the more you drown. You have to calm down, take a deep breath and take things step by step.

Third: Don’t give up. Akiramezu (あきらめず)

Sometimes you feel like you just want to give up. You cannot keep on going like this. But you know you should keep going. You cannot give up. Pick yourself up with a bright thought. Celebrate in your heart. You might be having a hard time in one class. But do your homework. And after it is done give yourself a reward. Play a game, have some ice cream, do whatever you want. Indulge yourself after your hard challenge. It is behind you. 

   Never give up. Right now the world might seem to be an unforgiving place. But thanks to that experience, one day you realize the Universe is filled with Love. One moment you are drifting on the sea of suffering. And the next your life is floating on an ocean of loving kindness. And because of that your life is not your own to give and take. Your life belongs not just to you. It belongs equally to your parents, to your family, to your friends. Your life is infinitely interconnected equally with everything there is. But if ever you feel like you are at the end of the road and you want to give up, please come to talk to me or one of your ministers. We are here to help.

And so as you start out in life I want to give you these three words of advice. First: Don’t compare. Second: Don’t rush. Third: Don’t give up.

Ryoko Osa