April 2019 Message

“Ask not what the Temple can do for you...”
by Rev. Dean Koyama

Self-benefit and benefit of others have been perfectly fulfilled as the Pure Land,
The compassionate means skillfully adorned to lead us to take refuge.
It cannot be grasped by the mind or by words,
So take refuge in the Honored-one beyond conceptual understanding.
(Shinran’s Jodo Wasan #37)

I recently just returned from our BCA National Council and Minister’s meeting held for the first time in Phoenix, Arizona. In keeping with the last several decades, a major issue of discussion was the steady decline of membership at our temples. Personally, I feel that as long as we focus on the number of members, we will be beating our heads against the wall. Rather I think it is important for the BCA to be discussing if temples are doing what they are meant to be doing, ie. Providing an opportunity and environment for the Teachings of the Buddha and Nembutsu to be heard.

That being said, I would like to once again share an article that I had written several years ago regarding membership.

Recently I had a conversation that centered on the issue of “Why should I join a temple and become a member. I can take advantage of the Dharma School program, the Jr. YBA and other affiliated organizations without being a temple member. And if I ever need to, I can still have a funeral, memorial or even a wedding conducted here at the temple. So there really is no incentive for me to become a member. I can reap all the benefits without paying the annual dues or pledges. Why pay for something if you can get it for free?”

It is true that by becoming a member of the temple you will not get priority seating or early entrance to our services. You will not get a discount on your Chicken Teriyaki dinners or Obon Shave Ice. In fact, if you were to become a member, you may even be asked to serve on the Temple’s Board of Directors, be a HOST Chairperson, or Chair the temple picnic or Bon Odori Festival. Why become a member when it may mean working long hours and carry a heavy burden of responsibility?

It is very hard to argue this question from just a business perspective. But the temple is not an ordinary business. And the logic to justify becoming a member is not a simple linear cost-benefit formula. In fact my response to this person was, “Because you can take advantage of all the programs, organizations, and services that this temple provides without being a member IS the very reason to become a member.”

Huh?! That doesn’t make sense. Let me try to explain.

The Three Jewels of Buddhism consist of taking refuge and relying upon the Buddha, (Our teacher of Life’s Realities), the Dharma (the Teachings of those Realities), and the Sangha (the community that helps one to awaken to those realities). So it is already inherent that the community is part and parcel of one’s foundation in Buddhism. The Sangha provides a network of help during difficult times and to share in the happiness during joyful times.

For those who are part of this community, many have found memorable experiences in YBA or working at the Obon. Many can see the wonderful cooperative spirit of multi generations working for the same goal. These opportunities to participate in these activities provided building leadership skills and life-long friendships.

In Buddhist terminology, this is called creating Go-En. Go is an honorific referring to the Buddha or the Buddha’s Teachings. En refers to the infinite karmic connections that tie us to one another. In other words, Go-En refers to the infinite possibilities that lead us to be intertwined with each other and leads us to the Dharma. In simple terms it refers to the karmic conditions that are required to make an event so.

I remember back in my college days some 40 years ago, I decided I wanted to study Buddhism. I began by attending services at the Sacramento Betsuin. (I didn’t attend Dharma School as a kid. I wish I had.) I didn’t know too many people there so often I would just go to service and then I would leave. But I was persistent, and gradually I began to make friends and acquaintances. Soon I could tell who were regulars and who were newbie’s like myself. There was one girl about my age who taught Dharma School. I noticed her because every week she would wear something red, whether it was a red dress or just a red ribbon in her hair.

Many years later, I was called to do a makura-gyo (a bedside service done upon death.) When I asked for the name of the person who died, the name sounded vaguely familiar. As I pieced together the personal information, I realized that the person who died was that person I had known in Sacramento who liked to wear red.

After I conducted the service, I had a chance to talk with her husband. He said that she had been diagnosed with cancer 13 or 14 years ago. Yet she never felt sorry for herself. The husband shared with me an incident that occurred a couple of months earlier. While visiting with some friends, one of their friends made a comment,
“I’m sorry that you have to deal with this obstacle in your life.”
On their drive back, the wife asked her husband,
“Have you ever considered my cancer to be an obstacle?”
The husband remarked, “No.”
The wife instantly replied, “Neither have I. If anything, this cancer has helped me to focus on what is important in my life. It has never hindered or prevented me from doing what I want or need to do.”

Hearing this story, made me realize that in the midst of death, we must continue to live. We may not be able to choose how or when we die, but we have a choice on how we live this life. This is the teaching of the Buddha.

Although I went to conduct this service as a Buddhist Minister, I was encountering the Buddha’s teaching through the life and death of this woman that I had casually met some 40 years ago. If it were not for the temple in Sacramento, I would never have met or encountered this woman. And if it were not for the temple that allowed me to listen to the Dharma, I wonder if I would have pursued the path of the Buddha. If it were not for the opportunity to hear the Dharma, I wonder if this woman would have had such a wonderful outlook and attitude about life. If not for this current Temple (Sangha), I would not have been able to receive that fateful phone call which allowed me to conduct the service for her here in this area. And had I not conducted the service for her, I would never have had the opportunity to witness the Dharma flowing in a person’s life. All this began with the temple. The temple provides the connections, the go-en, that links our lives to the Buddha and the Dharma. But it is because of the dedication and sacrifices of its members that a temple is able to provide this important function. Because of them, others are able to hear the Dharma, participate in the different organizations, and perhaps then, enable them to enrich their lives.

The Question to ask is not, “What do I get by becoming a member?” Instead it should be: “What have I already received because of the members of the Buddhist Temple?”

I’m not talking just of the members of today but I am also including many of the members of the past who not only supported the temple with their time and hard work, but also those who had the vision that a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple is important and necessary for the community of this area. And I think we can extrapolate it to any temple anywhere.

If you were able to attend a Dharma School, join the Jr. YBA, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and felt your experience was worthwhile such that you would like your kids to be able to have that same opportunity of fun and learning leadership, you have received a benefit. That is why you should become a member.

If you were married at the temple, you received a benefit hopefully of a lasting relationship with a partner and soul mate. That is why you should become a member.

If you have had a loved one who passed away and their funeral or memorial services were conducted under the supervision of the temple, you have received a benefit of the rights of passage during one of the most emotional periods in any life.

All of this and more are the result of the members past and present who have said, “Having a Buddhist Temple in the area is important.” And now I need to do what I can to help ensure that others in the future have the same if not more opportunities that will benefit and enhance their lives as well as others. That is why I need to become a member.

People do not become members of a temple with the thought or idea that they will then get some benefit out of it. Rather, it is because they have already received the benefits of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and are moved to repay that great debt of gratitude that they become a member. In this way, by their support, they will help to ensure that others in the present and future generations have that same opportunity to hear the Dharma of the Buddha enriching and deepening the meaning of their own lives. Then becoming a member of the temple is not Self-benefiting but Benefiting Others. This is the true heart of compassion.