April 2021 Message

I am a link...
by Reverend Dean Koyama

I am a link in the Buddha’s Golden Chain of Love that stretches around the world...

We have all heard The Golden Chain recited at our Sunday services. Some of us may have memorized the whole thing. Recently, I was given the privilege to review a manuscript for a lecture to be given at an event. In this lecture, the author made a point that for Jodo Shinshu Buddhism to have a religious standing in the world, it must re-vision it’s teachings to be relevant especially outside of Japan. In particular, the author gave the example of The Golden Chain which does not exist in Japan at all. This was a creation by a Dorothy Hunt in Hawaii during the 1930’s. This piece highlights that we are all part of a oneness, interconnected such that our thoughts, actions and words has an effect upon others. Therefore we should try to conduct ourselves in a wholesome manner so that all beings may attain perfect peace. This piece has been an integral part of our Jodo Shinshu tradition especially because it was in English and has become a favorite of many.

As an aside to the lecture, I pointed out to the author, that given the present climate in the United States, with the recent events of so much hate and violence being lashed out toward people of color, perhaps now would be a good time for us as Jodo Shinshu Buddhist to re-examine the use of the Golden Chain at our services. When the author asked, “Why?” I explained: The reason why I made this comment was because the climate here in the United States is one of extreme tension and stress due to the increase instances of unhidden and unhindered racism. With so much emphasis on building relationships that will help foster diverse communities of all colors, shouldn’t we be sensitive to imagery that may offend others? For example, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, doesn’t an image of a chain emoting an image that carries a nuance that is very different from what is intended?

When I think about a chain, I think about Abraham Lincoln. I think about bondage, I think about the people forced into slavery with their hands and feet shackled by chains. It is a reminder of being oppressed based upon the color of one’s skin.

But I also think about the gold and silver chains that are worn as adornments and jewelry signifying status.

A chain can be used as a tool too. I remember my dad who was a gardener. Back in the days when I used to go and help him on Saturdays, we had a lawn mower, the California Trimmer, which used one chain to transfer the energy from the motor to the blade to cut the grass, and another to drive the back roller to help move the entire mower across the lawn. I also think of my mom yelling at me when she had to do the laundry. This was during the days when bell bottom pants were popular. But my right pant leg would always get dirty because it would rub against the chain on my bicycle.

On the whole, all of these chains have a specific purpose. It is because of these individual links that a chain is able to accomplish this purpose. If there are too many links in the chain, the chain will slip off the gears of a bicycle. If just one link is missing, then the chain will not reach all the way around the gears. It wouldnot be complete and nothing can be accomplished. So each link is vital.

Our lives, too, are related in the same way. We are not just individuals living a solitary life. We are constantly coming into contact with others. It may be a family member at the breakfast table, a teacher at school, a neighbor at the market, or a total stranger who says “Hello” in passing on the street. Though we do have our own individual feelings and emotions, we do share them with the people around us. We talk; we make friends; we do business; we fight and argue; we learn and we love. We are all interrelated with each other to some degree. For one person to be alive today, the causes and conditions had to be just right. In twentygenerations, 1,048,576 people had to come together at the right time and in the right combination. If just one person were left out, we might have turned out quite differently.

So, if we can think and remind ourselves of what went into our being, and of all the work and energy of others, we can truly appreciate the lives that we are now living. It is because of the Hongan, the fundamental Vow of Amida Buddha to extend unobstructed Wisdom and unlimited compassion to all beings that assures us that we are alright just as we are with both our faults and our good qualities. If we can appreciate this life-as-it-is, we are on the way to the awakening of shinjin, a life of awareness and gratitude. Our lives are touched by so many. How can we think that we are alone? Shinjin leads us to a life of Nembutsu. We are not the cause for reciting Nembutsu; the Nembutsu arises because of the Hongan. Then, on our part, we recite “Namo Amida Butsu” out of gratitude for becoming aware of the “forsaking none and embracing all” Vow.

Daiei Kaneko, the great Jodo Shinshu Buddhist scholar writes:
That which gives meaning to human existence is the Pure Land (Jodo)
That which binds the Pure Land to human existence is the Fundamental Vow. (Hongan)
That which manifests the Fundamental Vow in human existence is the Nembutsu.
That which is inwardly sensed in human existence by virtue of the Nembutsu is Light (of Amida Buddha).

The Hongan links us all with each other. As a shadow depends on light, we depend upon each other as well. We are all inter-related. We are all interconnected. And out of pure gratitude, we say the Nembutsu. That is how we are linked to Amida Buddha.

I can understand that the imagery of a chain can show that we are connected and bond to Amida Buddha, but not in the sense that one is oppressed against their will. Perhaps a link in a chain is not a good analogy because one link is only joined by two other links. Perhaps it is more like a net where at one junction; many strands of string can come together and join. All the strands are then inter-connected, and all touch Amida Buddha. Each strand is unique and important. Nevertheless, may every link or every strand of Amida Buddha become bright and strong, and may we all attain perfect peace.

Namo Amida Butsu,
Rev. Dean Koyama