August 2019 Message

My O-butsudan
Rev. Dean Koyama

The light of wisdom exceeds all measure,
And every finite living being
Receives this illumination that is like the dawn
So take refuge in Amida, the true and real light.
Jodo Wasan, #4, page 325

When I was growing up, we didn’t have an O-butsudan (a family Buddhist altar) in our house. In fact, I didn’t have any real connection to the temple at all. I didn’t go to Dharma School. I didn’t go to the Japanese language school. I wasn’t even in YBA. I didn’t join the Sr. YBA until I was in college. It wasn’t until my mother died that an O-butsudan, for the very first time came into our house.

Now, I never believed that my mother’s soul was inside the O-butsudan. But I didn’t know the real meaning or purpose for the O-butsudan either. All that I knew was that it reminded me of my Mother’s death. Then one day, the minister came to our house and explained the fundamental purpose of the O-butsudan. He explained that Buddhism is not just a teaching to worship our loved ones who have passed away. Buddhism, on the other hand, is a teaching that transcends our ignorance of birth-and-death and the O-butsudan helps us to express our deepest appreciation by remembering our loved ones who have helped us encounter the teachings of the Buddha.

When I heard this explanation, I was filled with more questions. This led me to study Buddhism at our Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley and later to Japan to study at the Ryukoku University.

Just before going to Japan, Linda and I got married. When we arrived, we had nothing except what we carried in our suitcases. We soon found an apartment that we could afford. It was a small 2-room apartment. It didn’t have anything. We had to get everything: a stove, refrigerator, water heater, washing machine, and a futon bed mattress. I was getting a scholarship of about $600 per month. Our rent was about $400 per month. So we didn’t have much money to buy things. However, all the ministerial students studying in Kyoto would look out for each other. Rev. Marvin Harada who had been studying in Kyoto the longest, taught us how to scout around the streets to see what people have thrown out in the community garbage. In Japan, when a couple gets married, it‘s traditional to start a new life with everything new. So, a person may have been living in an apartment for some time, and just before their wedding, they would throw all their furnishings in the garbage. Sometimes we would call each other when we would see something that one of us might want or need. We would then ride our bikes in the middle of the night, pick up whatever was in the garbage and carry it into our apartment under the cover of darkness. We found a dresser, bookshelves, kotatsu table, stereo and even a television this way.

After, we had settled down, we thought we should buy a brand new O-butsudan. In Kyoto, there are specialty shops that sell only O-butsudan. There are so many kinds and sizes but they are extremely expensive. Some are the 6 to 7 feet high and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Even a small little O-butsudan was beyond our meager budget. So we decided that if we had any money left over when we were to return to America, we would buy one then.

Several months went by. One day, I went out to throw out the trash. As I approached the garbage area, I spotted a small wooden black box sitting on top of the pile. As I got closer, I knew it was an O-butsudan. It was an old worn out O-butsudan with scratches and scuffs. The door hinges were broken, but I carried this thrown out O-butsudan into our apartment. I spent the next few days repairing and repainting the O-butsudan. I went to the O-butsudan stores to buy an incense burner, candle stand, flower vase, and bell. I also bought a scroll that had the Chinese characters for Namo Amida Butsu. I was so happy that finally our apartment had an O-butsudan.

Naturally, it was my responsibility to take care of the O-butsudan and keep it clean since the reason why we were in Japan was for me to study Buddhism. I thought that this should be an easy and simple job. And I thought that by sitting in front of the O-butsudan, chanting the sutras, and keeping it clean, this would remind me of the teachings of the Nembutsu.

The first several months I was very diligent, but then school started and it got very busy especially because everything was in Japanese. I would go to class for the lectures, take notes, and when I got home from school, I would re-listen to the tape of the same lectures that I recorded earlier hoping to find some words in a dictionary so that I could make sense of the class. I would often spend about 3 to 4 hours on each lecture. It took so much time that I completely forgot about my responsibility for keeping the O-butsudan clean.

One day in October, Linda said to me that it was the anniversary of the day her father passed away and asked if I would conduct a service for him. I had never met Linda’s father because he died many years before we had ever got together. I thought that this would be a good opportunity to express my appreciation and gratitude to him. We sat in front of the O-butsudan that I had repaired, chanted the Amida-kyo, burned incense, and recited the Nembutsu. And for a little while we simply and quietly reflected upon Linda’s father. Then Linda broke the silence by saying, “It was a wonderful service.”

I felt so good about myself. Here I came to Japan to study Buddhism and learn about how to be a minister. I just conducted a service just as I had been taught in school and my wife is giving me wonderful feedback about how I did.

Then she continued, “But you could have at least cleaned the O-butsudan first. It is a little dusty.”

I looked at the O-butsudan and realized that she was right. About a months worth of dust had settled upon my little thrown away O-butsudan. No longer was it shiny black and gold, but a dull gray and yellow.

I couldn’t even do a simple thing like keeping the O-butsudan clean. Even though I thought I could do a good thing, I realized as in Shinran’s poem, that I am simply a being burdened with many imperfections. Even though I may try to wipe away the dust from my O-butsudan, the dust continues to settle upon it. No matter how many times I may wipe it and especially if I don’t wipe it at all, the dust continues to settle upon the O-butsudan. In the same way, even though I try to get rid of my imperfections, my imperfections continue to manifest themselves in my life. What made me completely forgot about cleaning my O-butsudan were my imperfections. What make me forgot about the unobstructed and unhindered wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha are also my imperfections. What makes me forget that I am a being burdened with heavy karma is the working of my imperfections. This is why Shinran calls us human beings as finite living beings. It is because we are this kind of limited human being, that we are embraced with the infinite wisdom and compassion of the Buddha. The dust on the O-butsudan reminded me that I am a being filled with imperfections.

Using the words of the Tannisho, Shinran says,
Know that the Primal Vow of Amida makes no distinction between people young and old, good and evil; only true entrusting is essential. For it is the Vow to save the person whose karmic evil is deep and grave and whose blind passions and imperfections abound.
Thus, for those who entrust themselves to the Primal Vow, no good acts are required, because no good surpasses the Nembutsu. Nor need they despair of the evil they commit, for no evil can obstruct the working of Amida's Primal Vow of wisdom and compassion.

It is for this reason that Shinran encourages us to take refuge in Amida, the true and real light. When we are stumbling around in darkness, we cannot see what we keep running into. But the smallest of light, like the first glimmer of the dawn, helps us see what we have been bumping into all this time. Shinran realized that it is extremely difficult to do even a simple thing like keeping the dust off an O-butsudan. That is why he encourages us to Take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and Sangha. But even simpler than that, he also encourages us, just as we are, even though we may be imperfect, to just say, Namo Amida Butsu. We, who may be imperfect, are embraced with the perfection of the Buddha when we say Namo Amida Butsu. So simply just say Namo Amida Butsu.

Rev. Dean Koyama