Reverend's Message - October 2015
"The Ultimate Shelter"
Rev. Dean Koyama
But in this foolish being filled with blind passion, living in this impermanent world of burning house, all things are empty and vain; therefore untrue. Only the Nembutsu is true, real and sincere."
As with many of you, I have been watching the news of the Valley Fire that started on September 12 about 100 miles north of San Francisco and has burned over 70,000 acres. In this path of destruction over 600 homes have been destroyed. Over 17,000 people had to be evacuated from the fire. Some had only a 30-minute warning with which to prepare to escape leaving their homes unprotected and their possessions abandoned. Some had to leave and free their pets and animals and hope that they may find an escape from the flames.
I can only imagine what these people had to endure and the struggles they will have to endure to rebuild.
Imagine if you were told you only had 30 minutes until mandatory evacuation of your home. What would you do?
I remember in October of 1991 there was another such fire in the hillside of East Bay. Over 2500 homes were destroyed. I was able to tour the area several months after the fire and I was devastated. What was amazing is that you could see where the fire had gone and destroyed many homes in one block, yet right next to a home that was burned all the way to the ground, a home was untouched. Several years back while in Washington there was another such fire in the Wenatchee and Lake Chelan area. 100 homes had been lost, but luckily no one was seriously injured. I heard one reporter ask someone whose home was on the path of the fire what they were doing to prepare if the fire should move closer towards their home. They said that they have been taking down all their family pictures, collecting all their family heirlooms, and getting whatever valuables they can. This question struck me for some reason or another. If I were faced with some disaster and I had to evacuate, what would I take with me?
Of course, the main thing would be to make sure that all of my family would be safe. But after that, I found it very difficult to decide what is valuable and what is not. I'd probably make sure I'd have my car, wallet, and credit cards. That would be very practical. But what would be most valuable to me?
In Fukui prefecture, there is a temple called Yoshizaki Betsuin built by Rennyo Shonin who had to constantly travel about building new temples because Oda Nobunaga was burning all the Jodo Shinshu temples down. This temple sits high atop a cliff facing the Japan Sea. Rennyo chose this location because it was protected because it sat high atop a cliff facing the Japan Sea. On the temple grounds, there is a special monument for a very devout follower of the Nembutsu by the name, Ryoken. On this monument it relates of an episode that occurred in 1474 when a fire broke out in the lodging quarters of the temple. Rennyo describes how the fire fanned by a south wind quickly spread to the temple building itself. Rennyo, was quickly assisted out of the compound to safety. However, he became very distressed because left inside was his copy of the Kyogyoshinsho, Shinran's major work documenting the foundation of his understanding of the Nembutsu. It was valuable because not only was it Shinran's major work, but also it was the only copy left that was handwritten by Shinran, himself. Hearing Rennyo's distress at having left it behind when he fled from the flames, Ryoken is said to have re-entered the burning temple. Fighting his way through the flames and smoke, Ryoken found the treasured scroll, only to discover that his path to escape had been cut off. Realizing that he could not get outside again, he cut open his abdomen and thrust the scroll inside. After the fire had eventually been extinguished, a charred body was discovered in the ruins. And miraculously, they also discovered that Shinran's handwritten scroll was not damaged at all except that the cover had been stained with Ryoken's blood. Because of this story, it has been said that at one time Hongwanji, outr mother temple, preferred to have red covers for all the important texts and sutras.
For Ryoken, the one thing that he valued more than his own life, was the teaching of the Nembutsu as understood by Shinran. And it may seem foolish to value some THING, even if it was written in Shinran's own hand over your own life. But that is just the point. Ryoken and Rennyo did not value the scroll as some Thing. They valued it as if Shinran himself was living and speaking directly to them as they would read from the scroll. In other words, for Ryoken, he did not save Shinran's writing, but he saved Shinran, himself, so that others could have the opportunity to hear the teachings of Nembutsu.
As I watch the scenes from the fire, I am so grateful that I have not had to face such a life changing experience. But like the victims of this fire, I am reminded of those victims of Hurricane Katrina or the 2011 Tsunami that hit the Fukushima area of Japan. I vividly recall watching many of the victims weep openly over the loss of their homes and all they possess. For those victims who have lost everything, we feel sympathy and compassion. Ultimately, they need shelter to take refuge in as they rebuild their lives. How grateful we are that we have not had to experience such a tragedy. But perhaps, we should try to place ourselves in their shoes and thereby awaken a heart of compassion. Perhaps we should truly ask ourselves what is the one thing of value in our own lives.
Shinran lived during a very catastrophic time. It was a period of wars, fires, and famine. There was not much that Shinran could ultimately rely upon for shelter. Shinran uses a beautiful term, Hikkyō e with which to describe his understanding of the compassionate power of Amida Buddha.
The light of purity is without compare;
When a person encounters this light,
all bonds of karma fall away;
So take refuge in Amida, the ultimate shelter.
What is our ultimate shelter that we can rely upon in any moment? Shinran responds by saying, "We are ordinary human beings possessed of passions and our world is the burning house of transience; hence all things are entirely empty, nonsense and untrue. The Nembutsu alone is true and real."
The Nembutsu may not be able to build us new homes or recover material thing lost in the face of tragic and devastating circumstances. But I firmly believe that the Nembutsu will provide the foundation of life that will help us face any obstacle so that we can live with dignity, honor, patience, wisdom and compassion, to rebuild our lives.
The gaku (framed plaque) hanging above our temple o-naijin (altar) with the Chinese characters of Hik-kyō-E (read right to left) meaning the Ultimate Shelter. This was written by Kōshō Otani, the 23rd Monshu of the Hongwanji.