June 2020 Message

Graduation, really???
by Reverend Dean Koyama

We have entered the month of June. It has been since Mid-March, about 2.5 months, when we began our “official” state government mandate to Shelter-in-Place. Although we are seeing signs of localities beginning to re-open, we are certainly not at a point that we would call “normal.” We still need to practice social distancing. We still cannot go and dine at our favorite restaurants. Supposedly, we may be able to watch sports sometime during this summer, but we cannot actually go to a game. We are still not yet able to gather in big gatherings at the risk of spreading and infecting others with the Corona Virus.

Before the pandemic, I was looking forward to our vacation in Hawaii, a Carlos Santana concert with Earth, Wind and Fire at the Shoreline amphitheater, and of course our Obon Festival. All of those plans had to be altered or cancelled and, of course we are disappointed. I am sure many of you had to alter or cancel your plans as well. But I really feel badly for our High School and seniors. They were in the midst of their final days of their K-12 stages of education. They were just about to pass through a threshold acknowledging that they were transforming from young students into accepting the responsibilities that come with adulthood. As part of this rite of passage, they were about to “celebrate” with their proms, senior nights and, yes, their graduation ceremony.

However, what they had to look forward towards, was thrown out of the window by this global pandemic coupled with a terrible economic recession, not at all of their own choice or making. Even now, their next stages of life: actually taking classes at a real college campus or finding a summer part-time job, is no longer a given. If anything, this global pandemic has shown us, that Life does not always go the way we plan, nor the way we always think it should.

I have to admit; my high school graduation was the last graduation ceremony I ever attended as a student. I didn’t go to my college graduation because that was the year my mom passed away and I just didn’t feel like going. I thought it would have just felt too empty celebrating without her. I missed my graduation from the Institute of Buddhist Studies in May because I had to start my graduate school program in Japan where the school calendar year began in April. Then when I finished my studies in Japan, my visa was expiring before the date of the graduation ceremony. So I missed 3 of my college graduation.

Getting to graduation is a marvelous achievement. It is the culmination of a lot of hard work, discipline and endeavor. It is easy to think that we have gained a certain amount of education, knowledge, experience and perhaps wisdom. I am sure that our graduating seniors will have a virtual graduation ceremony. I am confident that they will hear from their speakers and teachers that they have the gained the tools to take on the world. But I hope that they also realize, that learning never ends.

The great Zen master, Shinryu Suzuki would often tell his students, “Sho Shin o wasurezu. Never forgot your Beginner’s Mind.” Suzuki Sensei is referring to the mind that is able to see all things as being new, even old things. Because each moment is an unrepeatable instant, we should regard everything that we do as the first and last time. With this understanding, Suzuki Sensei cautions us from having a closed mind which thinks, “I have done this many times already,” and instead have an empty mind that is open and ready for anything. Suzuki Sensei said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert mind there are few.” Suzuki Sensei ultimately says that this Beginner’s Mind is in reality the mind of Compassion.

Many years ago, I was the ministerial advisor for a group of 15 youth on an exchange tour to our Hongwanji headquarters in Kyoto, Japan. For many of these kids, this was their first time to Japan and most of them did not speak or understand Japanese. I was a seasoned veteran having lived and studied in Japan for 4 years while I was a student. And since I was in charge, I felt responsible to try to teach them about some of the cultural oddities to prevent any embarrassing situation for them. I told them that when they go on their home stay, if there are slippers in the bathroom to take off the ones they were wearing inside the house and use the special bathroom slippers to go to the toilet. But they also had to remember to leave the toilet slippers in the bathroom when they finished. Another thing that I had to teach them was that when they take a furo bath, to wash themselves with soap and rinse off outside of the tub before they go in the bath.

Right after we landed in Japan we had a 2-hour bus ride to get to our hotel. As I have gotten older, I find that I have to go to the bathroom more often, especially if I have had coffee. The bus we were in didn’t have a bathroom on board so I had to wait until we got to the hotel. When we finally got to the hotel around 10 PM, I had the urge to go, but I couldn’t because I still had to account for all the kids and pass out their room keys. I was surprised that our hotel still used metal keys and that these keys were attached to a 6-inch long plastic stick-like key tag. I quickly passed out the keys and finally made it up to my room. I quickly opened the door and went to turn on the lights. I flicked the switch but no light went on. I then went over to the desk to turn on the desk lamp, but that light didn’t go on either. None of the lights worked in my room, including the bathroom. But I had to go. I couldn’t see anything. I opened the room door to the lit hallway and kept my bathroom door opened so I could have enough light to see the toilet. I just hoped and prayed (even though we are Jodo Shinshu Buddhist) that no one would be walking in the hallway.

After I had been relieved, I went back down to the front desk and told them about my problem that there was no electricity in my room. I have to say; the Japanese are so polite. The man at the front desk did not crack a smile nor did he give me any funny looks. He just calmly explained that after I open the door to my room, on the wall next to the door is a key holder box. Simply insert the plastic key tag into the holder and the electricity will go on. I felt so dumb. I had never heard or saw anything like that before.

So, if it had to be explained to me, I wondered how all my kids were doing. I needed to go up to their rooms and explain how this key tag works. But when I got to their rooms, they had all figured it out already. Boy, did I feel dumb again.

We spent about 4 days in Kyoto at the same hotel. It was the middle of August so it was very hot but luckily our hotel rooms had air conditioning. Of course, the air condition was powered by electricity and worked only when the plastic key tag was in the holder. But when we left the room taking the key and dropping it off at the front desk because the plastic tag was too large to put in our pockets, the electricity and air conditioning would stop. So when we would return to our rooms later, it was like walking into an oven.

On the last morning of our stay at the hotel, I was having breakfast with some of the kids. I said to them,
“You know the Japanese are very clever. They have all the latest electrical technology, video games, cell phones etc. you would think they could design a better way to use air conditioners.” The kids looked at me with a puzzled look.
“What do you mean?” one of them asked.
I said, “Well it seems pretty silly that every time we leave our rooms, the air conditioner stops. So when we come back, we have to come back to a hot room. Then it takes 10 or 15 minutes before the air conditioner can get the room cool again. It doesn’t seem very efficient or smart.” One of the kids looked directly at me and said, “Sensei, we just took the key off the tag and left the tag in the holder.”


Boy, did I feel dumb again.

I was supposed to be the teacher. I was a minister, I lived in Japan for many years. I could speak the language. I was a lot older than any of the kids. They were supposed to learn from me. But they were my teachers.

Buddhism is not a religion based on faith. Rather it is a teaching to awaken to our own deep reality of who we are just as we are. We may think that because of our age, our level of education, our many years of experience, we should be the experts, the knowledgeable ones, the teachers. I hope that for those of you who are about to set forth upon your path of new discovery and opportunities, and to those of us who have passed that stage many years ago, let us all never forget our Beginner’s mind.

And for those of you who will go away when the conditions allow, I hope that you will always feel comfortable where ever you are and that you look towards the temple and the Nembutsu teaching as your home away from home. Of course, you will always be welcomed home here at the temple and I do hope you visit often.

Congratulations to all of our graduates this year.
Rev. Dean Koyama