GISEIKAI MEMORIAL SERMON, Rev. Toshiyuki Umitani, February 8, 2019

Published February 16, 2019 by

The following is a transcript of Rev. Umitani’s sermon to commemorate the 130th anniversary of Honpa Hongwanji at the Giseikai service on February 8, 2019.

Giseikai Memorial Sermon

Rev. Toshiyuki Umitani

February 8, 2019

“Ah, hard to encounter, even in many lifetimes, is the decisive cause of birth, Amida’s universal Vow!  Hard to realize, even in myriads of kalpas, is pure shinjin that is true and real! If you should come to realize this practice and shinjin, rejoice at the conditions from the distant past that have brought it about.”

(Shinran “The True Teaching, Practice, and Realization of the Pure Land Way” CWS Page 4)

Bishop Eric Matsumoto, President Pieper Toyama, ministers, delegates, observers, and guests of the 107th Giseikai Legislative Assembly of Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, good morning.

It is indeed an honor for me to deliver this memorial dharma message in honor of the individuals who had dedicated their lives for the spread of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, and in the commemoration of the 130th anniversary of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.  

In the book, “A grateful past, a promising future”, it says, “Anyone passing by Kojima Hotel at #1 Beretania Street in Honolulu the evening of March 3, 1889 would have heard sounds never before heard in the kingdom of Hawaii.  The clear sweet striking of a small gong. The sonorous rhythm of a sutra chanted in Sino-Japanese. The first Shin Buddhist service in these islands was being held by the Reverend Soryu Kagahi, a young priest from the Kyushu province of Oita-ken.”   

As it says, the seeds of the Buddha-Dharma in Hawaii were planted 130 years ago.  I wonder how people who attended this first service in the Kojima Hotel would have received the sound of the Nembutsu.  For the Issei immigrants who left their home country and were living in a challenging environment of discrimination and economic hardships, the sound of the Nembutsu must have provided them with feelings of comfort, assurance, and joy.  And in a grateful response to Amida Buddha’s compassion, ministers and members throughout the history of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii have laid a strong foundation, a foundation on which we are standing today. The history of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii is the history of ministers and members encountering, appreciating, and living within the Nembutsu.  I am truly grateful for all the causes and conditions that enabled me to be a part of this history here and now.

In 2014, I had a wonderful opportunity to attend the European Shin Buddhist Conference which was held in Southampton, United Kingdom.  Many Jodo Shinshu Buddhists from various countries in Europe, Nepal, Australia, Canada, the United States, and Japan including the former Gomonshu Koshin Ohtani and the Lady Noriko Ohtani attended this Conference.  This conference is being held every other year. The Opening Service was officiated by Rev. Gary Robinson who is the minister-in-charge of the Southampton Sangha, together with his four assistants. In front of the scroll of Namo Amida Butsu on the stage, they sat on the hard floor in the seiza posture, and chanted the sutra.  After the service, those assistants put their white gloves on, and in a proper manner, they respectfully took down the sacred objects in preparation of the lecture.  During the four-day conference, participants shared their understanding and appreciation of the Jodo Shinshu teachings. The conference was filled with an atmosphere of joy.  A joy of encountering with the teachings, a joy of being able to listen to the teachings, and a joy of being able to share the teachings. For European Shin Buddhists whose Sangha groups have not yet largely organized such as the ones in Japan and the United States, this type of conference is one of the rare opportunities for them to immerse themselves in the water of the Dharma.  I was deeply inspired by their sincere and enthusiastic attitude to hear and receive the Dharma.

As I saw their brilliant faces filled with joy, I couldn’t help but reflecting myself about how I am facing the Buddha-Dharma.  I, who was born and raised in a temple family in Japan, might had taken for granted that there is a temple, services, its members and their support, without any questions.  But looking at those Shin Buddhists in the European countries made me contemplate how grateful I am that I can freely recite the Nembutsu aloud with other Dharma friends. We have temples, ministers, and members around us.  We have many materials that we can deepen our religious understandings, we have temples where we can listen to the teachings, and we have Sangha groups in which we can share our joy of the Nembutsu.

We who call ourselves members of a Hongwanji Sangha are fortunate to be enabled to receive the Dharma.  Yet it often seems that we have many other preoccupations to think about such as a continuing and seemingly irreversible decline in membership, aging temple members, children not returning to our temples, increasing of the Kyodan assessments etc.  Of course those are important businesses for the development of our organization, but I wonder if I might have forgotten the primary purpose of the Hongwanji Organization. Needless to say, the Primary purpose is awakening to the Universal Vow of Amida Buddha.  

I found a very inspiring message on YouTube.  This was a commencement speech by Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, who was the ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, at the Commencement at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014.  He said, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another.  By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never be able to do the big things right. If, by any chance, you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made.  That you made. And a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

In our Jodo Shinshu tradition, I think making a bed can be compared to our daily religious practices such as offering rice Obuppan to the Buddha, offering of incense, hitting the bell, and chanting of the sutra in front of the family altar or in the temple.  In Gassho, we begin the new day in joy and excitement. In Gassho, we end the day in reflection and appreciation. This has been the tradition of the Hongwanji, and this tradition cultivated many individuals into the person of the Nembutsu.  

Our theme and slogan for this year is “Embrace Change: Transformation (Walk in Peace)”.  In Japanese, I would interpret “transformation” as “Osodate wo itadaku” (お育てをいただく) which connotes that our spiritual transformation does not occur through Jiriki or self-efforts as we don’t possess any skills or abilities within us to attain enlightenment, but the true spiritual transformation happens through the awareness of Amida Buddha’s Wisdom and Compassion that never abandons us.  As we continue sitting in front of Amida Buddha and place our hands together in Gassho, the Wisdom and Compassion of Amida Buddha naturally and gradually sink into our hearts and minds, and we are nurtured into a person of the Nembutsu.  

When I was small, I used to live with my great grandmother who lived until 102 years old.  She was relatively healthy physically, but she had a hard of hearing. Whenever I talked to her, I needed to speak to her right next to her ear, or wrote down a message on a piece of paper.  Her daily routine was to visit the Obutsudan, the family altar.  She picked up the Obuppan (rice ball) from the kitchen, sat in front of the Obutsudan, chanted the sutra, and sang a Gatha.  After that, she took down the Obuppan, and brought it back to the kitchen.  Besides her hearing problem, she was also very forgetful.  She often forgot whether she had a service at the Obutsudan or not.  When she saw the Obuppan in the kitchen, she once again picked it up and went to the Obutsudan for another service, which was for her the first service of the day.  One day, she was about to have another service as usual. So I told her, “Obaachan, don’t you remember?  You went to the Obutsudan and had a service already today.  So you don’t need to go.” Then she had a big smile on her face and said, 「ああ、そうじゃったかねー。私はよー忘れるけど、ありがたいねー、親様のほうは私のことを決して忘れてくださらんからね。」 “Oh, did I?  But isn’t that wonderful? Even though I am very forgetful, my dear Oyasama (Amida Buddha) never forgets me.”  And she continued her daily services until she passed away.  As a young boy who had no knowledge and interest in Buddhism, I had no idea what she meant at that time.  But I still remember vividly how peaceful she was. Her peaceful attitude was nurtured through the deep joy and gratitude to Amida Buddha’s compassion.  

Come to think of it, I often use my hands for my selfish purpose and hurt people around me, and I often use my voice to justify myself and criticize others.  But even a person like myself can place my hands together in the awareness of the Buddha’s Wisdom and Compassion, and now, recite the Buddha’s name of Namo Amida Butsu in gratitude.  Those who lived before me, and those who rejoiced in the Nembutsu made it possible for such transformation to happen to me.

Through the countless causes and conditions, the flame of Dharma has been passed down from generation to generation.  Great efforts of so many people have made it possible for a flame of the Nembutsu to be brought and kept burning in the islands of Hawaii for 130 years.  As Shinran Shonin wrote, let us rejoice at the conditions from the distant past that have brought it about.

And, as a beneficiary of the countless causes and conditions that enable us to encounter the Nembutsu-Dharma, I feel that we have a responsibility, with a sense of gratitude and appreciation, to repay those conditions through our actions and behaviors.  Let us make our homes and temples the places filled with an atmosphere of joy. A joy of encountering with the teachings, a joy of being able to listen to the teachings, and a joy of being able to share the teachings.

May the sound of Namo Amida Butsu be heard to everyone.  May we find peace and comfort in Namo Amida Butsu. May the sound of Namo Amida Butsu flow from our lips in joy and gratitude.  

Let us place our hands together in Gassho.  Namo Amida Butsu

Ver. 2/8/2019 6:50 PM

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