Reverend's Message - January 2017

Eye Popping Events

Rev. Dean Koyama

One more year of life
One more year of being embrace by the Buddha
This is New Year’s Day.


Some 600 years ago, lived a devout follower by the name of Dotoku who traveled all the way to Kyoto on New Year’s Day to pay his respects to Rennyo Shonin, the 8th Generational descendant of Shinran. When Dotoku arrived after his long journey he exchanged his New Year’s greeting by saying, “Shinnen akemashite, omedetō gozaimasu (literally: the New Year has opened (started), Congratulations! or simply, Happy New Year.

Rennyo, without hesitation replied in a very matter of fact tone, “Dotoku, You look old. How old are you? You should recite the Nembutsu.” And then he left.

A friend of Rennyo was a Zen monk by the name of Ikkyu who also at times did peculiar things. Ikkyu was famous for being a free spirited monk who would not hold back and say what was on his mind not concerned with how people would react.

Just before New Year’s Ikkyu was walking around town and saw all the people getting ready for the celebration. It is customary, in Japan, towards the year-end to pay respects to all those who have helped make the year successful and as a symbol of their appreciation and gratitude, present them with Year End gifts (O-Seibo). It is also customary to have a flower arrangement of the Sho Chiku Bai (Pine, Bamboo and Plum Blossoms) outside of the front door to welcome in the New Year. The plum blossoms are the first flowers to bloom following the long hard winter signifying strength. Bamboo shows resilience by bending in the strongest of storms. And the Pine stays green throughout the year signifying long life. Ikkyu wanted to make sure that all the villagers understood the true aspect of New Years so he went to the cemetery and found a human skull. On New Year’s Day, the famous Zen master Ikkyu walked around the town going from house to house showing everyone the skull he attached to his walking stick and greeted them with by saying, “O-medetō“ meaning “Best Wishes” or “Congratulations.”

Of course everyone was mortified.

The word we use for congratulations is o-medetō. This was once written in Japanese with the Chinese characters: お目出度う. We could translate these characters to mean, “eyes popped out.” So Ikkyu’s choice to use a human skull to greet the New Years does make sense in a morbid sort of way – the eyes are no longer in the skull because they popped out. But you could also say that when there is a congratulatory occasion such as a birthday, wedding, or New Years; our eyes also pop out with excitement, wonder and joy.

How would you react if you were greeted in such a manner with a human skull? How would you like to be told: “You look old?”

The truth is we get older with each passing day. At one time, it was considered that on New Year’s Day we automatically become another year older regardless of when our actual birthday occurred.

I have finished 3.5 years as the minister of the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple. It has gone by quickly.

This past year was extremely busy helping to make the time fly by even quicker. Last year at the temple, we began our Sangha Sharing program designed to have an adult discussion following our regular Sunday Services when the kids went to their Dharma School classes. In March we hosted the Bay District Jr. YBA conference with about 200 people attending. Later in March, we also had the craftspeople from Japan who worked un-tirelessly from early morning to late at night re-applying gold leaf and lacquer to the altar that houses the image of Amida Buddha. They finished just in time so that we could observe our Hanamatsuri Service.

In August I had to assist the Bay District Ministers in hosting the 60 or so Buddhist Churches of America Ministers at our annual summer study seminar in Berkeley. We then had our gym floor re-surfaced. My office got a new rug, new coat of paint and some new furniture. We helped the PABT BWA celebrate their 90th anniversary. And undoubtedly, the highlight of the year was the PABT Japan trip to participate and observe the once-in-a-lifetime Accession Ceremony of the 25th Go-Monshu, Kojun Ohtani at our Hongwanji mother temple in Kyoto.

I can truly say that 2016 was full of eye-popping occasions and events. Looking forward to 2017, I will be fortunate to accompany our Dharma School families in the middle of the summer for another trip to Japan. On a personal note, I am looking forward to attending my 3rd son’s college graduation in Boston. And reluctantly I will be celebrating or at least observing my Kanreki (60th year birthday…yes, I am that old, although I may not look it…right?!!! Or perhaps I should say I don’t act like I’m about to turn 60.)

When asked why he would carry around a human skull on a day of celebration, Ikkyu said. “If there is death there must have been life. That is a matter of congratulation. But also be aware that since life will end as death, don’t waste your time on trivial matters.”

In other words, both Rennyo and Ikkyu are making the point: we should be grateful for another year.

With that, I would like to thank all of you for making this past year filled with wonderful and successful celebratory events. I ask for your continued support and guidance throughout the New Year of 2017. And most of all, let’s not waste a moment of it and see how many times we are able to get our eyes to pop out.

Happy New Year,
Rev. Dean, Linda, Justin, Curtis, Tommy and Niko (woof)