January 16 is the date on which Nishi Hongwanji commemorates Hō-on kō, the memorial of our founder Shinran Shōnin, but the Buddhist Church of Oakland held its annual Hō-on kō Service yesterday on January 15. I gave the talk to the Dharma School students, relating a story I heard from a BCA minister who built a time machine to visit Shinran. Rev. Michael Endo delivered the message to the adults, talking both about his paternal grandfather who he never met, and Kakunyo, Shinran’s great-grandson, and his own efforts to learn about and commemorate his great-grandfather who he never met. You can watch the entire service here (click on the times in the description on YouTube to jump to different sections):
(Click to go to YouTube – I couldn’t embed it since it was a live stream – gotta figure out how to do that)
Rev. Endo adorned the Naijin with special setups, including “gogusoku” (two flower arrangements and two candles) for both the main table and for Shinran Shōnin, and also displayed our copy of the “Go-eden” “Illustrated Biography” of Shinran. We were also fortunate to have a visitor – Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka!
Finally, check out my rendition of gatha “Shinran Sama”:
Happy New Year! This is a great time to look into the new year with new eyes. William Shatner, the iconic actor of Star Trek fame, had such an experience when he actually went into space. In his recent memoir, he says that when he saw the earth from space, he began crying. This isn’t the reaction I expected from Captain James T. Kirk! But apparently it is a reaction that happens to those lucky few who are able to view the earth from space. It has been called the “overview effect,” described as “a cognitive and emotional shift in a person’s awareness, their consciousness and their identity when they see the Earth from space.”*
Of course, very few people are able to go into space. But I still think it is possible to shift one’s awareness. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, to have one’s awareness shifted. For myself, my normal mode of awareness is centered on myself. What do I want to eat, what do I need to do, why me?!! I am pretty sure that I am less self-centered than I used to be, but fundamentally I experience things through my own sense-organs (eyes – ears – nose – tongue – body) and feelings of genuine empathy are far and few between, if I experience them at all.
And yet, I have been fortunate to encounter the Buddha Dharma. So many teachings that help us understand ourselves, the world, and our place in the world. Everything we go through – every experience – is an opportunity to delve deeper into the Dharma, to delve deeper into ourselves and our relationships.
As an example, Shinran Shonin, the founder of our Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism, shares the following insight: “…All beings, without exception, have been our parents and brothers and sisters in the course of countless lives in many states of existence.” I wonder if Shinran’s feeling when he realized this was similar to the “overview effect” experience of William Shatner? A feeling of kinship and concern for all beings. This insight is difficult to generate on one’s own, but the Buddha Dharma, whether the various teachings of Shakyamuni or the Primal Vow and Nembutsu of Amida Buddha, offers it to us. We just need to be on the lookout as we live our lives. I hope that this New Year brings you happiness and good health, as well as continued opportunities to truly encounter the Dharma!
* Quotations about the “overview effect” from this NPR article:
Although the Buddhist Church of Oakland celebrated Bodhi Day this past Sunday, December 8 is the “official” date according to the solar calendar. Bodhi Day commemorates the awakening experience of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. “Bodhi” means awakening, it is related to “Buddha” which means “awakened one.” We may also know the word from the “Bodhi Tree,” the tree that Shakyamuni is said to have been sitting under when we became enlightened.
There are actually several Bodhi Trees at BCA temples and other BCA-related sites. The Buddhist Church of Oakland is one of them. For our service this past weekend, I went out and took a picture of the leaves for my talk – I also realized I should get an actual leaf too. Members clean up the church grounds regularly so there was only one on the ground, but what a beautiful specimen!
The shape of the leaf is often used to symbolize Buddhism – for instance, it can be seen in the logos of the Institute of Buddhist Studies (whose dorm has one of the aforementioned Bodhi Trees) and the Buddhist Church of Oakland.
Another important Buddhist symbol is the Dharma Wheel, whose eight spokes can be seen as representing the Eightfold Noble Path. This teaching, together with and one of the Four Noble Truths, is said to be from the first sermon given by Shakyamuni after his awakening, so I wore my Dharma Wheel wagesa – I hadn’t worn it in a long time, not sure how many people noticed, though I know one person did!
We did this service live via Zoom, simultaneously streaming to YouTube. This has been an interesting year, having had to suddenly figure out how to do temple via the internet when the pandemic started. Here’s a handful of what I needed for service: power cables for laptop and iPhone, nenju, bodhi leaf, keys, and mask.
Bodhi Day is actually not emphasized in Jodo Shinshu in Japan, but in our overseas temples it is one of our major services during the year. This makes sense to me – Shakyamuni’s awakening was the beginning of the Dharma flourishing in our world and our era – Shakyamuni’s teachings offer us so many ways to understand and deal with our lives.
So finally, here is the recording of this past weekend’s service – it was nice, our last Dharma Family Service for 2020. We’ll be back for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day!
“Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” is a classic gatha* included in the Dharma School Service Book published by the Buddhist Churches of America back in the 1960s and reprinted several times after that. I’m not sure when I first heard it. I didn’t grow up in a BCA temple, I converted to Buddhism in the mid-‘90s when I was in my mid-20s, but I don’t think I participated in any Obon stuff while I was a student. It may have been during my first ministerial assignment at the Buddhist Church of Lodi; if not, then probably in 2009 during my first year assigned to the Buddhist Church of Oakland.
It’s an evocative gatha, unlike any other that I am aware of. The rhythm is different in several ways. To me it suggests a procession, or even a dirge. The idea of being on some kind of journey is suggested by the lyrics, “We will gather friends all along the way, and bring fruits and vegetables for the shrine.” Sounds like we are going to the temple for a religious festival, with the streets lined with lanterns and wind-bells swaying in the breeze. That festival is Obon, a Buddhist “holiday” with many different aspects. I can’t go into it much here, but will say that it traditionally involves the idea that the spirits of one’s ancestors return to their home at this time of year (July and/or August in Japan and Japanese-American communities). Jodo Shinshu doesn’t really concern itself with this aspect of spirits. Actually, Japanese understandings of the afterlife are a combination of several different streams, the system is kind of messy. One view is that people go to the underworld once they die, coming home to visit once a year at Obon time. Another more Buddhist view is that people get reincarnated again and again, so why would they be living as spirits in the underworld? It’s not that they are the hungry ghosts of orthodox 6-realms reincarnation theory, though that does play a role in certain versions of the Obon story. I remember getting to study this kind of thing while I was a student at Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley with Hank Glassman – confusing but fascinating stuff!
My understanding as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist is that when people die they are born in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, and instantly become Buddhas themselves. So they are not doomed to live in some shadowy underworld and we don’t have to worry about what form they will take in their next reincarnation. Instead, we can think of them as with us all the time as part of the Wisdom & Compassion energy of the Buddha. But even though that is the case all the time, we can also take advantage of special occasions like Obon or the various annual memorial services to think of our deceased loved ones with love and appreciation. To me, this song evokes that paradox of the sadness of loss comingled with the joy of gratitude in the way it switches from minor to major about 3/4 of the way in.
The other aspect of the rhythm is that it is written in 2/4. Most gathas are probably written in 4/4 or sometimes 3/4. “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” sounds like it’s in 4/4, but when I count it, I find that it feels like a couple of measures of 6/4, which is part of the mysterious feeling of this song. The first time I feel this is actually at the very beginning! Another way to think of it is that “Day,” at the end of the phrase “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day,” gets two extra beats. It happens again right before it switches to the major tonality, like in “And bring fruits and vegetables for the shrine.” Actually, it happens at the end too, after which “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” is usually repeated. However, this is where I rearranged the song – I took out the “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” at the end and just jump right in to the beginning of the next verse. I also took out the last two beats so that we come back to the next verse after a measure of 4/4 – now it seems maybe a little rushed, but at the time I thought it felt more natural. It might sound weird if you are used to singing it the way it was originally written – I would love to hear from you if it does!
The drums were recorded almost ten years ago at my friend Damon Burke’s studio, Oxbow Studios in Marlborough, Massachusetts. You may know that I spent a fair portion of my life in Massachusetts (or should I say “Mass.”?), and one of my best friends and one of the best drummers I know, Greg DeGuglielmo has lived there for a long time, so whenever I go back I am fortunate to 1) get to play with him and 2) get to record it! I knew I wanted to rework this gatha, so at one point I took advantage of the opportunity, planning to just keep the drums and redo everything else. And this year’s video Obon Service seemed like the perfect opportunity. I pulled my trusty Rickenbacker 4003S/8 bass out of its case and set out to realize my vision. It didn’t necessarily go the way I intended – I used to play it more chordally, but this time around I went with just playing a single-note line. The bass I used is an 8-string – unlike the usual 4 strings of a bass, on this one each string is accompanied by an extra string tuned an octave higher, kind of like on a 12-string guitar. I used my Budda Phatman tube distortion pedal – I didn’t think about it at the time, but it’s oddly appropriate, even if the company Budda did mess up the spelling. I tried to add some Moog synth to it also, but couldn’t get it to work; I may revisit this idea in the future.
I also doubletracked my voice. That seemed to work on the last gatha I reworked, “In Lumbini’s Garden” for Hanamatsuri this past April. I don’t have a great voice and it sounds kind of thin by itself, but singing the melody two times (well, multiple times but ultimately using two takes) thickens it up a little bit, plus you get the little idiosyncrasies when I sang it slightly differently. Those times could be looked at as mistakes, but I kind of like it! I remember as a kid in 7th grade listening voraciously to the Beatles, you can hear that they often doubletracked their voices (they later build an “automatic doubletracking machine” so they didn’t have to do it manually!), and sometimes they would leave in things that sounded like “mistakes” to me. But I grew to love those instances. I would wonder if they just didn’t have time to fix them (recording was much more “primitive” at the time), or left them in on purpose? I left mine in because I didn’t have time to perfect it!
I also made a video for the song with pictures from past Buddhist Church of Oakland Obon Festivals, and it also includes the lyrics in the hilarious “Star Wars” style.
* “Gathas” are a kind of neologism for Buddhist “hymns.” The word comes from Sanskrit, pronounced more like “gata” but English-speaking people always pronounce the “th” sound like in “this.”
Quick post – in my Dharma Message for this Sunday, I talked about “causes & conditions,” and in doing so, I referenced a slide from a presentation by Duncan Ryuken Williams. I used it partly so that people could see the kanji for “go-en” and liked Professor Williams’s translation, “Mysterious Karmic Conditions.” But I wasn’t looking at the slide when I was doing the talk, and when I was inserting the slide from the presentation into the video, I realized it actually says “Mysterious Karmic Connections”! Oops! I wonder if anyone noticed?
They aren’t really that different, and yet the two terms, “conditions” and “connections,” could be seen as having different nuances. The term “conditions” is deeply connected to the discourse of cause and effect – as I discussed during the Dharma Talk, conditions are a more peripheral type of cause. Normally we may think of cause and effect as a one-to-one equation, but there are actually many supporting conditions that bring about the resultant effect.
One place that the discourse of causality can be seen is in the Four Noble Truths, which first explains that “life is suffering.” Next, the cause of that suffering is revealed: desire, or sometimes ignorance & desire. Then the cure is shown – by removing the cause, one removes the result, so if one can get rid of ignorance & desire, then suffering can be removed. This equation is a classic example of cause & effect in Buddhism.
But this isn’t the only way to understand conditions, and maybe Duncan Williams’s use of the term “connections” points to another powerful way they are understood in Buddhism. This is an acknowledgment of the vast inconceivability of the conditions that make up my being here in this present moment. It’s not only the conditions that exist in the present (or previous?) moment, but the conditions that led to them, and on and on. And I am connected to all of them. In fact, I only exist in this present moment in relationship to all of those conditions. Some forms of Mahayana Buddhism, such as the Madhyamika School, find the essential purport of this truth to be the Emptiness of all things. This is Wisdom, the last of the Six Perfections. There is a whole class of Sutra literature devoted to this approach to Buddhism.
But Jodo Shinshu seems instead to focus on the significance those various connections have for my life. Realizing that I only exist because of others, whether because of their efforts or even just their existence. I am only a child because of my parents – even though my parents passed away almost 20 years ago I am still a son. And I am also a nephew, a cousin, a grandson and I am only those things because of my aunts and uncle, my cousins, my grandparents. I am only a Buddhist minister because of so many others – not only my teachers but also the people who I want to keep talking to about the things I discussed in a Dharma Talk. Current temple members, but also people I never even met in person, who may have passed away before I was born. Maybe all of that energy is part of the Compassion energy of the Buddha, the dynamic activity of the Vow whose ultimate goal is for me to attain awakening.
Hey, this was supposed to be a quick post! I should keep going, but also need to get this posted so that I can go to bed! Here is the original Dharma Message: