Reverend's Message - August 2014

The Sound of Namu Amida Butsu

Rev. Dean Koyama

The radiance of the Tathagata is incomparable in this world.
The Great Sound of Enlightenment reverberates throughout the ten directions of the universe.
(The Larger Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life – San Butsu Ge)

Recently I have had the opportunity to practice and sing with our temple choir. This is particularly amazing for me because I know nothing of music. In order to get me to join the choir, Ron Matsuura asked me if I could read music, sing on pitch, or have good rhythm. When I vehemently said "No" to all of his questions he replied, "You're perfect because we take anyone!" I mean I know what kind of music I like. I enjoy going to concerts to hear some of my favorite artists, including the upcoming Hiroshima concert on August 16 which is part of our 100th anniversary celebration. I know nothing of the technical jargon like notes, key, tone, soprano, alto, etc. But is that necessary to enjoy listening to music?

When I was serving the Seattle Betsuin, 80 members of the boy's choir visited us from Hiroshima's Sotoku High School. Prior to their performance, the conductor, pianist and stage manager came to the temple early to check on the accommodations and acoustics for their performance. Originally we had planned for the choir to perform on the elevated stage in the gym, but when they got here, they immediately requested if they could perform from the main floor. Their reasoning was that they were afraid that the sound of their voices would escape upward and the audience would not be able to hear the true sound. They were very precise. (Picky—after all it was a gym.)

To evaluate the acoustics of the gym, one of the members of the production team would clap their hands very loudly while the other members would walk around to various spots on the gym floor and listen. They pondered whether to use any microphones and decided that since our PA system was very old and antiquated, they would use just one for the conductor to announce the songs. Otherwise the choir was to sing naturally. While it was decided that the choir was to sing from the main floor, they also tested whether or not to sing with the stage curtains open or closed behind them. I really couldn't tell the difference, but they could. It must be through their training that they have developed a very acute sense of hearing.

When I was young, my brothers or my college roommates all had stereos, so I never had to buy or pick one as I received their hand me downs. However, after getting married and having kids, the stereo receiver that we had been using finally gave out. (This was before all the i-pods and mp3 technology. I think we were still using vinyl and cassette tapes. CD's were just coming out.) So I had to go to the nearby Best Buy-like store to buy a new one.

After entering the store, I was approached by the salesperson,
"Can I help you find something?"
I said, "I'm looking for a stereo receiver."
"What did you have in mind?"
I replied, "Something that plays music."

So, I'm sure that he could tell that I knew nothing about stereos, so he proceeded to intimidate me by rattling off how one receiver had so many watts per channel; another had a duplex surround sound feature; another was known for it's .001% distortion. Then he led me into a show room where I could compare all these different receivers. The salesperson went on to explain, "Of course what kind of speakers you have will make a difference." I didn't have the heart to tell him that after my kids blew out my brother's speakers by putting the volume all the way up before turning on the receiver, I had picked up a couple of speakers from a rummage sale for $6. After listening to the many receivers, and not being able to tell the difference from the top of the line to the bottom, I had to pick a receiver. So I based my purchase on the next two most important factors: what I could afford and which one had the best looking light display.

This brings me to the point that it may be possible to develop a very acute sense of hearing. For some it may be a natural gift, a talent while for others it may be something that must be developed through training and discipline. In our Jodo Shinshu tradition, we are constantly encouraged to hear the Dharma or more specifically the calling voice of Amida Buddha.

This idea is taken from the parable that is the foundation of our 100th anniversary theme: Isshin – One Heart: Grateful and Determined. In this parable, a traveler comes upon two rivers in a single channel. One is a river of scorching fire and the other is a river of turbulent water. Separating these two rivers is a single white path no more than 4 or 5 inches wide. The traveler then notices that wild beasts and robbers who wish to do harm have been following him. He sees no way to escape except by going across the white path. But he had doubts about his ability to cross as surely he would be consumed by the flames or swept away by the waves. Just then he hears a voice behind him encouraging him to proceed forward and cross over the white path. He also hears a voice coming from the opposite side in front of him, saying, "Come quickly and determinedly with singleness of mind and right thought, I will protect you."

These voices that the traveler heard in this predicament symbolizes the call of Sakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha. The voice calling from behind the traveler represents the Historical Sakyamuni Buddha. The Buddha had already died and so people of the later times can no longer come directly into contact with him. However, his teachings remain and we can follow them. The voice from the opposite bank is the call of Amida Buddha's compassionate heart.

How do we hear the encouragement from Sakyamuni Buddha and the calling voice of Amida Buddha? Do we need special training to teachings to be able to hear them? Will we hear it as Namo Amida Butsu? Will we hear it in Japanese, English or music? Obviously, the sound of Amida Buddha's voice is not something limited to what we may hear simply as a result of the vibrations upon our eardrums. The voice of Amida Buddha, the sound of Enlightenment, is voiceless and soundless. Because it is so, it can be "heard" in a variety of ways. It is the voice of true wisdom and compassion that penetrates into the very depths of our being as we face the multitudes of crises in our lives.

Just as the conductor of the choir or a serious audiophile has a trained ear, we too need to train our ears, minds and hearts to be receptive to the voice of Amida Buddha. To do so is being honest with ourselves and reflecting deeply upon our own ego-centeredness and realizing that in spite of all this we continue to receive and be embraced by the wonderful treasures of the wisdom and compassion of others. Only then can we hear the Great Sound of Enlightenment, the Namo Amida Butsu, reverberate in the ten directions of our lives.

Rev. Dean Koyama

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