September 2017 Message

The Voice Message from the Pure Land
"It is easy to get to the Pure Land, but no one is there."

Rev. Dean Koyama

We just finished our 2017 Obon Festival and Odori.

What a relief! We have a lot to be grateful for: We had perfect weather; we had great crowds; we had a lot of dancers; and of course we had great food!

I want to thank all of you who worked so hard and sacrificed so much time and energy to make our Obon Festival and Odori a huge success. I haven’t heard what our financial results are, but I think it was a tremendous success regardless of our financial results because I saw so many smiling faces on those attending and on those who were working. I know that getting enough man power is difficult every year, but as long as we can work together with the spirit of friendship, family and harmony, we will be able to realize that the temple is able to continue its mission of providing the Dharma (teachings) of the Buddha and the Nembutsu as well as a tight-knit community (Sangha) for this area.

Just before our Obon Festival and Odori though, a few of our Dharma School families and I returned from a 12 day tour of Japan. The first part of the tour we were based in Kyoto from where we visited Hiroshima, Miyajima and Nara. Then we stayed one night at an onsen hot springs in Hakone, followed by our time in Tokyo stopping in Yokohama along the way. The days were packed with activities but we also had some free time built into the schedule as well.

During our time in Kyoto, some of us were able to attend the early 6 AM morning service at our mother temple, the Nishi or Hompa Hongwanji. I always enjoy attending the services at Hongwanji to watch the precision of the ministers and hear their dynamic chanting of sutras. But I also enjoy hearing many wonderful sermons that are given there. At one service, a minister talked about the conditions of how he became the resident minister of his family temple some 20 years ago. In Japan, the family owns the temple and it is passed down from generation to generation usually from father to son.

Originally he was not planning on taking over the temple so soon in his life. He still wanted to do other things before he had to take on all the responsibility that comes with being the resident minister of a temple. He was in his early 30’s when his father died suddenly of a heart attack. So he had to take over the temple.

Shortly there after, he joined a study /support group for those who also recently became the resident minister of their temple. They had group discussions and were paired with mentors.

One day, he told his mentor, “Originally, I had no intentions of becoming the resident priest. But because my father died suddenly, I was forced into it. I do not regret it, but I wished I had paid more attention to my father and had learned what he did and how he did things. I am completely at a loss of how to be the head resident priest.”

And jokingly he said, “I wish I could call him in the Pure Land and talk to him again.”

The mentor responded by saying, “Do you know the phone number?” The minister said, “Unfortunately I don’t. I wonder if anyone does.” The mentor replied, “ I can dial the number, but I don’t think anyone will answer.” “Why?” “Because No one is there.” they are all here already helping to guide us

This made the minister think about it even more and he said he could even imagine the voice message greeting that he would get if he called the Pure Land:

“Ring. Ring. Ring. Thank you very much for calling. Your call is important to us, but we are very sorry that there is no one here to take your call at the moment. We are all presently busy working to help guide others to the Pure Land. We are extremely sorry to cause you any inconvenience. If this is an emergency, please simply recite Nembutsu. Thank you very much for calling.”

In our Jodo Shinshu tradition, there is the thought that when we die we will be re-born into the Pure Land. At a very superficial level, the Pure Land than is thought of as a type of heaven. But the reality is that it is much deeper than that. In doctrinal terms, the Pure Land is simply the most ideal environment where one can begin to practice wisdom and compassion. And according to the Jodo Shinshu sutras, it is said that going to the Pure Land is easy, because it is not dependent upon the karmic results of our actions but rather due to the vow of Amida Buddha’s great wisdom and compassion to work to guide all beings toward enlightenment.

Although “it is easy to get to the Pure Land, no one is there.” Why? Because the Pure Land is not a final resting place. It is the basis from which one begins to practice Wisdom and Compassion. As a result, those who attain birth in the Pure Land are then compelled to work for the benefit of all beings so that they too are born in the Pure Land and practice wisdom and compassion for others.

So then what does this mean to the question of “where do our loved ones go when they pass away?”

I think what the minister realized about his father was that in reality; his father did not go anywhere. He is constantly with him, every time he thinks of him, every time he remembers him. He is able to receive his father’s guidance whenever he truly reflects upon his many memories and experiences. This is describing exactly the workings of Nembutsu. Nembutsu literally means to think or reflect upon the Buddha. To help us think and reflect upon the Buddha, we recite the words, “Namo Amida Butsu.” Literally the words mean: “I rely upon the Buddha of unobstructed light (Wisdom) and Immeasurable life (compassion)”. But the feeling and understanding of these words reflect the complete oneness that we are embraced within the infinite wisdom and compassion of a multitude of others…including our loved ones. Our loved ones have become Buddha. Not in the sense of a god or deity, but simply as one who has awakened to the deep realities of this human life, and are now working to help us awaken to those same realities; First: understanding that our lives are constantly influenced by change, and Second: Our lives are interdependent and intertwined with each other. With this understanding, then, how can we afford to waste a single moment with thoughts of only ourselves or of our petty wants and desires? Instead there is a joy of deep appreciation that comes with this realization that all life is interrelated with one another not only in the present but in the past and the future as well. And this is the same realization that Mogallana of the Obon story experienced and that is the reason it is said that he danced for joy.

As we reflect upon the Obon that just passed, yes, we can now take a breath and catch up on our much-needed rest after working so hard. Yes the purpose of all that hard work is to benefit the temple. But we must also be reminded that Obon also teaches us of the truth of impermanence. We gather to remember all the loved ones who have passed and who have contributed to the betterment of our lives. And we can all take great comfort in knowing that we continue to be connected to our love ones as long as we remember that their thoughts, actions and words have become an important part of our own lives. Being connected with others is an important aspect of not only our individual lives, but also our community lives as well. And I think that our Obon Festival is our reminder that we are an integral part of a larger community. Our task is to make sure that the community has a place to practice the wisdom and compassion, which hopefully will fill our society and ultimately the world so that all beings may enjoy peace, harmony, joy and happiness.

In Gassho,
Rev. Dean Koyama