Reverend's Message - June 2015
"Soup or Salad?"
Rev. Dean Koyama
The Larger Sukhavativuhya Sutra:
When all living beings hear the meaning of Namo Amida Butsu, and realize Shinjin and Joy,
In one timeless moment, the sincere mind of the Amida Buddha awakens their aspiration for birth in the Land,
And immediately they attain birth and dwell in the stage of non-retrogression.
What is referred to as "Hearing" happens when we sentient beings learn why the Primal Vow was developed, when we understand its activity in causing our birth in the Pure Land, and when the doubtful mind disappears.
For many of us as human beings we are usually very reliant upon our sense of sight. We panic when we are in the dark and cannot see. We have the phrase, "Seeing is believing." However, especially in our Jodo Shinshu doctrine, "Seeing" is not as much emphasized as the sense of hearing. We have the phrases of Monpo- hearing the Buddha Dharma. Mon soku Shin – Hearing is Shinjin (True Entrusting) or in the case of the Larger Sutra, mongo myogo – hearing the name (Namo Amida Butsu). This Hearing the Name is one of the cornerstones of our Jodo Shinshu tradition and I think for many of us, this is what makes Jodo Shinshu so difficult to understand and experience as well. For many of us, we are not as adept with our sense of hearing as we may be with our sense of sight. And in some cases hearing is often dependent upon language.
As many of you may know, I have just returned from our whirlwind excursion to Europe: 2 nights in London, 1 night in Amsterdam, one night in Heidelberg Germany, 2 nights in Lucerne, Switzerland and 2 nights but really only one and a half days in Paris. This was my first time to Europe and I have to admit I was very skeptical and intimidated because of the different languages that we would have to deal with during our quick trip.
Luckily we did a gradual immersion. We started our trip landing in London at 7 AM on May 2nd. Our trip started well. To me, it didn't feel like we were in a foreign country at first. It was like going to Canada (which is a foreign country too); we could watch TV because it was in English and we could read all the signs. But one thing that stood out for me in London was that there were so many foreigners on the streets. I could hear so many foreign languages being spoken, and I couldn't distinguish what languages were being spoken.
But later, the difficulty of the language barrier became more apparent, especially in France. We arrived in Paris around 4 PM and decided to explore Paris on our own. We decided to stop at a street side restaurant. We looked at the menu but it was all in French and we had no idea what was on the menu. But we picked this restaurant because they had a sign posted outside that said "English menus available." So we proceeded inside and the waitress was kind and tried her best to accommodate us with her English.
As we perused the menu, I noticed a chalkboard sign on the wall and I could at least make out that it was about the daily special. So I asked what was on the daily special. The waitress replied, "some kind of fish." And I said, "OK, I'll have that" not even trying to pronounce whatever it was. We also wanted to order a bottle of wine, but that page was all in French too. So I just randomly picked one and pointed it to her. I had no idea what kind it was or how much it cost. It was very good though. Our order came and I looked at everyone's dishes and they all looked great. Then mine came. It was a rather huge slab of grilled white meat. I took my fork to sample a small piece, and I was surprised because I couldn't cut it with my fork. There was something inside the meat. So I tried to cut it with my knife and it wouldn't cut either. I dug around the meat and pulled out this rather large piece of what I thought at first was plastic. It turned out to be cartilage, I think. But I had never seen a piece that big in a piece of fish. I have to admit, getting passed that, the fish was very tasty. But I still have no idea what kind of fish it was, if it was a fish. Maybe a shark?
This incident reminded me of a visiting Professor, Meiji Yamada sensei who had come to the District to give a seminar to the ministers. Yamada Sensei was considered to be the Indiana Jones of Ryukoku University because he had been to many different historical archeological sites in Central Asia. He could speak 6 languages and an expert in at least another 6 obscured or extinct languages.
I was in awe of his language ability and I remember asking him over lunch after his presentation, "Because of your proficiency in foreign languages, do you ever have any problems when you travel?"
And his remark surprised me. He said that the only time he has difficulty is when he goes into a restaurant to order a meal. I said, "Really. Why?"
He said that yes he can read the menu, no problem, but after he would order, the waitress would often ask questions. For example, if he ordered a salad, she would ask, "Do you want French, Italian, Ranch, Honey Mustard?" And he didn't know what she was saying or talking about. Or if he ordered a steak, "Do you want it rare, medium, or well done?"
Once at a restaurant the waitress asked if he wanted "Soup or Salad." He replied, "Yes." He thought he was going to get a huge special salad. He couldn't hear "Soup or Salad." He heard "Super salad."
So for even a noted language specialist "Hearing" is difficult.
In a lot of ways, I think Hearing Namo Amida Butsu is like listening to a foreign language. And I guess in reality, Namo Amida Butsu are words of a foreign language. Namo is the Japanese transliteration of the Indian word, Namaste. Namaste is used as a respectful form of greeting and departing with the idea of bowing in reverence. Amida Butsu is also a Japanese transliteration of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Unobstructable Light. And even with the translation, these words may still not make sense without the proper context and thus there is no meaning. For many of us, Hearing Namo Amida Butsu is just like Professor Yamada hearing "Super Salad." It doesn't make sense until we come to find the meaning for our selves. In order to learn a foreign language, we must take small steps, build up our vocabulary, learn the meaning of the words, learn the grammar, learn the syntax and context and also be able to hear it spoken by others. Only that way can a language become alive and immersed within one's self.
We too, as a Sangha need to be able to hear and speak this language called Namo Amida Butsu for it to become part and parcel of our lives. For more than the past 800 years, we have had the opportunity to hear it from Shinran. We have had the opportunity to hear of this teaching of Namo Amida Butsu for over 100 years here in the United States. But we must go beyond this by reflecting upon our lives and to come to truly know ourselves and awaken to the workings of the infinite Compassion and Wisdom that embraces us just as we are. This is what is referred to as the heart of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. This is what the Sutras and Shinran refer to as Hearing Namo Amida Butsu.
Gassho and merci beaucoup
Koyama Family Excursion in Europe