Reverend's Message - June 2014

...To Forget One's Self

Rev. Dean Koyama

We who aspire for Amida's Pure land,
Though we differ in outward condition and conduct,
Should truly receive the Name of the Primal Vow
And never forget it, whether waking or sleeping.
(Collected Works of Shinran, Koso Wasan, vol. 1 page 386)

I can't believe it. I have made it to my One Year Anniversary since I began my assignment here in Palo Alto. There have been times when it seemed to fly by and I have to admit that there have been times when it seemed to drag on. But overall, I can't believe it has been one year already. And that means we are about a half year away from celebrating our 100th anniversary.

Last year when I began my assignment on June 1st, I had just had arthroscopic knee surgery on May 31st. I hobbled around on my first day at work enjoying the car show and my pain medications. But what I recall having the most difficult was to try to remember all the new names with all the new faces. Although I feel that I have gotten to know some names and faces, I still know that there are many more that I have to remember. And being that another year has passed, I find that it is becoming harder for me to remember things.

Some of the things that I had forgotten usually were not too serious. I had forgotten to bring the o-buppan (the rice offering) for Sunday morning service, even though I had prepared and it was all ready to go. Luckily, my kids are all grown up so I don't have to keep track of them as much as I used to. I have to admit that there were times I had forgotten to pick them up for piano lessons, basketball games or birthday parties. I really think that is why I have a wife so she can remind me of these details.

But there are times when my forgetfulness could have had disastrous results. After a service, I was sitting down enjoying the refreshments (otoki) that was served. It must have been a good twenty minutes or so latter when I realized that I had forgotten to extinguish the candles in the o-naijin (the altar area). Luckily, by the time that I got back to the o-naijin, the candles were still pretty long.

When I served the Tacoma Buddhist Temple I had to commute a good 20 to 30 minutes from our house. Usually when I am in the temple office, I like to have a cup of coffee to drink as I work. Especially during the winter, I like to keep my coffee warm by using a hot plate that I set my coffee mug on. This way I get to enjoy my hot coffee all day long.

One night, just as I was dozing off to sleep, my eyes suddenly popped open and I quickly sat up in bed. I looked at the clock on my nightstand and the time read 11:30 PM. My actions woke Linda and she asked what was wrong. At first, I didn't want to say anything. Then I told her, "I can't remember if I turned off the hot plate in my office."
She just rolled her eyes with disgust. "You woke me up to tell me that?" she asked. Then I lay back down in my warm bed.
After a minute or so, Linda said, "Well?"
"Well what?" I replied.
"Aren't you going to check?"
"But it's raining and it's 11:30 at night. By the time I get there and back it will be after 12:30 or 1 in the morning."
"It's better to go now and find out, then wait till the next morning and find that the whole temple burned down," she countered.

She was right. She is always right. Somehow her logic made sense to me and convinced me to drive down to the temple in the middle of the night and check to see if I had left the hot plate on. When I pulled up to the front of the temple, I was relieved that the temple was still there. I had been worried that when I pulled up, the fire fighters would have been cleaning up the mess where the temple once had been. Now that I knew the temple was still standing, I had been tempted to just turn around and head back without going inside. But the thought came into my mind that the hot plate had not yet reached the flammable point when it would burst into flames. I parked the car and went inside.

Of course, all the lights were off inside the temple. As I made my way down to my office, I had to turn on the lights one by one. Suddenly I found myself standing outside of my office door. This was the moment of truth. I placed my hand on the door just to check and make sure that I wasn't walking into a blazing inferno. It was cool. I opened the door and peered in. It was completely dark. The copying machine was off. The computer was off. The printer was off. The scanner was off. And the hot plate was … off.

Instead of a deep sense of relief that I had remembered to turn off all the electrical appliances in my office, my initial reaction was, "I drove all this way in the middle of the night through the cold pouring rain. At least the hot plate could have been on so I could have the satisfaction and pleasure of turning it off! Now this was just a wasted trip!"

Dogen, the great founder of Soto Zen Buddhism once said, "to study the Buddha Dharma is to study one's self. To Study one's self is to forget one's self." Dogen is referring to a concept called muga or selflessness. Enlightenment is attained when we can be freed from our ego-centered attachments.

Shinran came to the realization that to become free from our ego-centered attachment is impossible through our own efforts. It is also impossible to forget about our own ego-centered self. I should have felt relieved and grateful that I had remembered to turn off the hot plate, instead I was filled with thoughts about how inconvenienced I was by coming out in the middle of the night.

Shinran realized that Amida Buddha directed the Primal Vow of Infinite Wisdom and Compassion precisely toward this foolish ego-centered being. The directing of this vow toward these sentient beings occurs at all times whether we are awake or asleep. I had wished that I could have been asleep in my warm bed that night, but the thought of forgetting kept me up. It taught me a great lesson of the Buddha's compassion. It also taught me that I should stop drinking coffee. But now, luckily, I live right across the parking lot to the temple just in case I have to check on something that I might have forgotten to do again.

Gassho, Namo Amida Butsu
Rev. Dean Koyama

Message Archive