December 2019 Message

The Keys to Life
by Reverend Dean Koyama

Recently I was invited to be the guest speaker at a temple in Southern California. Because of the distance, I had to travel the day before and stay overnight at a hotel. I arrived early enough in the afternoon that I thought I would go to the fitness room and get in a quick workout on the indoor bicycle since I had driven down and was in the car all day. A good work out would help loosen my stiffened body. Just as I had finished my workout, I got a call from my host saying that he was on his way to pick me up and go to dinner. I had to hurry to take a shower and change my clothes. Hurriedly I dashed out of my hotel room to head out to the lobby and meet my host. But just as I heard the door close behind me, I realized that I had forgotten the keys to the Hotel room inside. Luckily, I had my wallet and ID so I could just go to the front desk and they re-issued a new key for me.

The next morning, I woke up early and decided that I could get in a morning walk. Again, shortly after I returned to my room, my host called and said there was a change in plan and that he was now heading over to the hotel to take me to the temple. Again, I had to hurry to take a shower, change clothes, pack up and check out of the hotel. Thinking I would save time, I decided to pack up my bags and put them in the car. Just before I left the room, I checked to make sure that I had my room key, which I did, then I dashed out of the room with my bags in tow. When I got down to the front door, heading for my car, I reached into my pant pocket for the car key. It wasn’t there. So I had to look in my other pockets. Still not there. Then I had to put my backpack down and looked in all the pockets but still no keys. Then I realized I must have left the keys upstairs in the room. When I got back upstairs, I remembered that I had set my keys on the ledge so that I would grab them on my way out and they would be in my hands. I forgot to pick them up. When I saw the keys, I also saw that I had forgotten my sunglasses there as well.

These two incidents of my lost keys reminded me of a time many years ago when my kids were small.

During a break between two Little League Baseball games, we decided to get a quick lunch at the local McDonalds. After we had ordered and sat down, two teenage boys (about 13-14) carrying their huge skateboards walked in to the dining area. Normally, when you enter McDonalds, you go to the front counter and place your order of Big Macs and Happy Meals. But these two boys went directly into the dining room. The first thought that I had was “Why are they carrying those huge skateboards into McDonalds?”

Not only did they not sit down, but they also appeared to be going from one table to another asking all the patrons something. Before long they came to our table. One of the boys held out a key ring and asked us if we had dropped a set of keys. I looked at the keys and saw that they weren’t mine. After we indicated that they were not ours, they continued asking all of the patrons in the dining area.

I admired these two boys for trying to find the owner of the set of keys. My day was lifted. The sun was shining and warm. My faith in humanity was restored and soared higher than it had ever been. “What a nice pair of kids!!!” I thought.

I wish the story could have ended there.

As we were finishing our meals, the two boys with the skateboards had also ordered their lunch, sat down and began to eat theirs. I then noticed a man in his mid 30’s dressed in slacks and a polo shirt walk frantically into the McDonalds. There was a commotion at the front counter and I saw one of the managers come out to talk to the man. A few seconds later, the manager pointed in the direction of the two skateboarding-good Samaritans. They both walked over to the boys. I heard the man ask, “Did you find a set of keys?” One of the boys reached into his pocket and withdrew the set that he had been showing everyone in the dining area. There was a sense of relief that blanketed the man’s face as he, indeed, recognized the set of keys as his own.

The owner had been reunited with his lost set of keys. The boys must have felt a sense of great satisfaction in knowing that they had done a great deed. The man thanked the two boys sincerely and turned to leave. “What a great ending to the story,” I thought.

I wish the story could have ended here.

After the man had taken his keys and was approaching the door to exit the dining area, one of the boys yelled out so that all could hear: “I could have kept those keys hidden!!!” Then the other boy added, “We could have taken the car, but instead we were hoping just to get a little reward. Sure wish we had gotten some money or lunch!!!”

The man with his keys just looked at them and laughed as he walked out the door. He didn’t give them a second glance as he got in his car and drove off.

This is where the story ended.

In the span of only a few minutes, I went on an emotional roller coaster. At first, I was proud and admired that these two boys were trying to do the right thing by finding the owner of the lost keys. Then I realized that they were doing it only for the ulterior motive of some kind of reward. I suppose that we can look upon this experience from a number of different perspectives as well. In Jodo Shinshu, we often talk about repaying a great debt of gratitude. Surely, the man who lost his keys owed a great debt of gratitude to the boys who found and returned them. Were the boys wrong to expect a reward? Was the man wrong not to give them one? Was the deed of returning the keys a right one?.

We can go around in circles debating what was right and what was wrong. I am reminded of a passage in The Tannisho where Shinran is quoted as saying:

I know nothing at all of good (right) or evil (wrong). For if I could know thoroughly, as Amida Tathagata knows, that an act was good, then I would know good. If I could know thoroughly, as the Tathagata knows that an act was evil, then I would know evil. But I am just a foolish being full of blind passions, in this fleeting world-this burning house-all matters without exceptions are empty and false, totally without truth and sincerity. The Nembutsu alone is true and real.

The focus of the teachings of Buddhism is not to label the boys and the man as being wrong or right. The purpose of the teachings is to ask ourselves if we can identify ourselves as both the boys and the man. The Buddha Dharma is the light to illumine the darkest shadows in our hearts and minds. It is the vehicle with which we can see our true selves just as we are. Then, in this light for the first time, can we see the boundless acts of compassion and wisdom that are even extended to such a being. This is when the key of the Nembutsu turns and unlocks the heart and life of gratitude and indebtedness.

As we come to close another year, it is important that we awaken to the things we should be grateful for. There is a proverb that states, “There is an absence of gratitude when we take life for granted.” I think that this saying echoes what is said in our Threefold Refuges, “Difficult is it to receive life in human form, yet now we are living it.” For us to be able to live our lives, we owe a great debt of gratitude to all those who have helped to make our lives possible. This includes all the life forms that have been sacrificed so that we can have nourishment to eat. This includes all of our loved ones both past and present, who have helped fill our lives with love and compassion. And it includes all those unseen beings who have made contributions to our society by building our homes, taking away our garbage and providing a sense of well-being, peace and harmony.

With that sentiment, I would like to thank and recognize all of you who at times, I am sure, I have taken for granted, but none-the-less rely upon. Thank you all for you kindness, support and encouragement. May each one of you enjoy the spirit of the Seasons and may you all have a wonderful New Year living with the Nembutsu.


Rev. Dean, Linda, Justin, Curtis, Tommy and Niko Koyama