December 2017 Message

Reflections on Living a Foolish Life
Rev. Dean Koyama

“Person of the Pure Land tradition attain birth in the Pure Land by becoming their foolish selves.”
Honen Shonin

I can’t believe that we are coming up to the end of the year. This is the time of year where we all get busy due to the holidays, various family obligations, traditions and customs. One tradition is to close the end of the year and greet the New one. Here in the United States we have New Year’s Eve parties where we make resolutions of what we will do to improve our lives and ourselves for the up-coming year.

But there is also an important Buddhist custom that accompanies this tradition. That is the tolling of the Year End Temple bell. Exactly at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the temples throughout the country side begin to strike the big outdoor bell (called Bonsho) 108 times. The sound of these bells provides a very deep drone that resonates and lingers for quite awhile. It creates a wonderful atmosphere for one not to forget about the past year but to sincerely and honestly reflect upon the many experiences both good and bad that occurred.

As I reflect upon this past year, it was a momentous one for me. This past year marked my 60th birthday. In the Japanese tradition, this is the coming of age of my second childhood called kanreki. I became deeply aware that this does not mean in the physical sense, as I seem to have developed more aches and pains that I have never experienced before. It takes longer for my body to heal after I injure myself. However, I have now become more aware that the days of my past outnumber the days of my future.

Recognizing that my time left is becoming more limited, this past year I have begun a couple of things that I have always wanted to do. I have always wished that I could play a musical instrument. I knew that playing the piano is out of the question because I am one of those people who can only do one thing at a time. One hand can’t be doing one thing while the other hand is doing something totally different like that trick where you tap the top of head with one hand and rub your belly in a circle with the other. I knew I could never play the drums because I can’t keep the beat or rhythm.

But some time ago, Rev. Gerald Sakamoto of the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, stopped by and gave me a present. He had made a bunch of Shakuhachi out of PVC pipe. A Shakuhachi is a Japanese flute usually made from bamboo resembling a clarinet. It is less than 2 feet long (the term Shakuhachi refers to the actual length of the instrument: 1 shaku- 8(hachi) sun or about 21.5 inches). As I was exploring the instrument I saw that it only had 5 holes – 4 in the front and 1 in the back. So I thought, “Hmm, maybe I can handle this. This instrument requires only 4 fingers and a thumb.” So I began to play around with the Shakuhachi.

I began by trying to teach myself how to play the Shakuhachi using YouTube. But I soon discovered it was not as easy as it looked. I had thought that all I had to do was blow and uncover the proper holes to make the right note. This is not the case. After finding someone to teach me how to play correctly, I discovered that for some notes you have to partially uncover some holes AND the sound is different when you partially uncover the hole from the bottom or side. Then you must also tip your chin down or up to make another different sound. And finally I discovered that I was holding the Shakuhachi wrong! The left hand should be playing the upper holes and the right hand should be playing the lower holes. But by now it was too late for me to change. I feel sorry for my teacher. I must be such a poor foolish student because when he arrives for my lesson, the first thing he does is to take out his hearing aid!

The other thing that I have taken up recently is golf. I took a course of lessons about a couple of years ago. I re-took the same course last spring, but up until a few months ago, I have never been out on the golf course because I was so afraid that I would be hitting the ball everywhere but down the fairway. I have finally made it to the golf course 3 times in the past two months. I’ve been going with a group of ministers because we all usually have Monday or Tuesday as our days off. I find that golf is very complicated and there are so many rules of protocol like: who hits the ball first or make sure your shadow doesn’t fall on the path or someone who is just about to putt. All this is new to me. But I think I am almost to the point that I can finally keep my score. Up to now I have had too many strokes that I lose count easily.

Last week, on this one hole, I did pretty well. My tee shot went pretty straight. My second shot went a little off to the right but stayed on the fairway. And then my third shot landed in the sand right next to the green. So knowing that I just needed my sand wedge and putter, I carried them to the sand trap. I was able to get my ball out and onto the green, but the ball kept rolling to the other side about 20 feet away from the hole. Usually we play that if the ball gets about a foot away from the hole, we count it as going in. I think it was a special rule for me, because if we had to wait until I got it in the actual hole, we would be there all day. As it is, it takes us about 5 hours to play the whole course. However on this one hole, I putted the ball and it rolled into the actual cup.

I have to admit, I was pretty happy. And the other ministers were also pretty happy as well. In fact after I picked up my ball, one of the ministers said “Nice Putt!” with a big smile on his face while he held out a golf club.

I thought that this was a golfer’s way of doing the fist bump, so I took my putter and tapped the club he was holding. After doing that he still held the club in the air. I thought he meant I was supposed to do the actual fist bump with my hand. So, I did. Then he said, “Just take your club!” He had picked up my sand wedge and was just giving it back as a courtesy!

Boy did I feel foolish!

Dogen, the great Zen Buddhist thinker summarized Buddhism in the following way:

"To seek the way of the Buddha is to seek the self. To seek the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is “to have things as they are prevail in you”. “To have things as they are prevail in you” is to let go of self-centered attachments to your own body and mind, as well as the body and mind of others."

This has been a maxim that has been a life-long guiding principal of my path on the Buddha-dharma.

For Shinran, to let go of the self-centered attachments one must realize the workings of the Universal Vow of Great Compassion and Wisdom of the Buddha. He summarizes this in the following way:

The Universal Vow of the Buddha difficult to fathom is indeed a great vessel bearing us across the ocean difficult to cross. The unhindered light is the sun of wisdom dispersing the darkness of ignorance….

This, then, is the true teaching easy to practice for small, foolish beings; it is the straight way easy to traverse for the dull and ignorant.

Dogen says that Buddhism is about understanding one’s self. To understand one’s self is to forget the self. Shinran, I think, expresses it another way: To forget the self is to become the foolish self. We become our foolish self when we allow ourselves to make mistakes or be wrong. We become our foolish selves realizing that we are not perfect, not Buddha’s. But by becoming our foolish selves we then realize the ultimate potential of becoming Buddha.

Having entered my 2nd childhood, I have once again become a student of not only the Shakuhachi and golf, but also of life itself. As a student, I am allowing myself to make mistakes and to look at life in different perspectives. I am allowed to be a foolish being with all of my faults and limitation. As such a being, I also realize that I have been accepted, welcomed and embraced by the lives of countless others. This is something that I do not at all deserve, and yet I am the recipient of such compassionate generosity. It is because of all of you, that I am able to continue my path on the Buddha-dharma, allowing me to learn and grow. For that, on behalf of Linda and the rest of my family, I thank you for all that you have done for us, and I can only humbly ask for your continued support, guidance and patience in the year to come.

Rev. Dean