Where Do We Draw the Line?

I wasn’t raised Buddhist. So part of becoming a minister was getting to know the Buddhist holidays. I had to learn when they happened, what they meant, etc. Some are related to the historical Buddha’s life, others to Shinran’s life. Several are related to the calendar – New Year’s Eve & Day, and Ohigan in both the spring and fall. Ohigan is perhaps most often associated with the Six Perfections, or paramitas in Sanskrit. Mahayana Buddhists must be familiar with these, for they are the foundation of the Bodhisattva Path to Buddhahood. But once we get to know them, what do we do next?

I would like to suggest three possibilities. One is to study them deeply and try and put them into practice in our lives, in fact, to try and perfect them – hence the name. This is the approach of many Buddhist schools, but usually it is restricted to monastics – can a lay person really devote their life to wisdom and compassion in every moment of every day?

Another option is to ignore them. Or learn them, and yet not bother trying to incorporate them into everyday life. Usually, I think that we may listen to the talk, perhaps increase our knowledge a bit, but then as soon as we leave the temple, or leave the hondo – or maybe even as soon as we leave our seat! – we get caught up in everyday life and just trying to get by.

These two possibilities are extremes – devote your entire life to the Six Perfections, or ignore them. I would hope that many if not most of us end up somewhere in between. And yet, here is the question I would like to ask: Where do we draw the line? How much is good enough? When is it ok to ignore the Six Perfections? I wonder if this is the crux of Jodo Shinshu. Shinran found that he was incapable of performing selfless compassion or awakening perfect wisdom – he left the monastery searching for an answer, and encountered the Nembutsu teaching. The teaching that he left us allows foolish beings such as ourselves who are incapable of practice to encounter the Dharma and have our lives changed by the inconceivable compassion of Amida Buddha.

I wish I could write more and explain it better, but this is the hardest part of Jodo Shinshu – it is the Easy Practice and yet very subtle and difficult to express in words. That is part of the life of the Jodo Shinshu follower – to try and walk this path between perfecting Wisdom & Compassion and just ignoring them. The Buddhist Church of Oakland’s Spring Ohigan Service on Sunday March 19, 2017 is a perfect time to reflect on this conundrum!


dharmawheel cranes1


(This Dharma Wheel is mounted in the entrance lobby to the Buddhist Church of Oakland. It is composed of gold origami cranes, and was made by the BCO Jr. YBA before I became the resident minister (so pre-2009). The Dharma Wheel can represent many things – often it is seen as a symbol for the Noble Eightfold Path, which is also a synonym for the Middle Way, and thus an appropriate symbol for Ohigan.)

September 1

September 1 is a significant date, for all of us in the Buddhist Churches of America as well as for myself personally. On September 1, 1899, two ministers dispatched by Nishi Hongwanji arrived in San Francisco. According to a pamphlet issued in 1969 by the BCA “Sunday School Department,” this date was designated “BCA Founding Day.” This 100 year plus history has seen many struggles and difficulties. And yet, the existence of our temples and communities has allowed the teachings of Shinran Shonin and the Buddha to nurture and console those in need.

September 1 was a significant date twice in my life. On September 1, 1996, having decided that I wanted to study Buddhism and become a minister, I moved from Boston to Berkeley to attend the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Ten years after that, on September 1, 2006, I was assigned to the Buddhist Church of Lodi, marking the official beginning of my ministerial career. These dates are extra special this year because it means that I moved out to California to embark on my path to ministry twenty years ago! And as of this year I have now been a BCA minister for ten years.

So where am I at? I have enjoyed the past ten years, getting to know the members at the temples I have served (first Lodi, then Oakland starting in January 2009). I have continued to address the balance between my ministry and music – for a while they were more closely aligned, but recently I have been keeping them more separate. I continue to try and address the challenge of opening the temple to more than just the traditional family-based membership – to be honest though, I don’t feel that I have been that successful. A lot of it really is about balance – the Middle Way continues to be one of my favorite Buddhist teachings – and I hope to manage to balance out the various aspects of ministry and my life as the Dharma School year is set to open soon!


multi-racial role models

I am half-Japanese, half-white (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, to be more exact and more vague at the same time). I was very fortunate to go to junior high and high school at the American School in Japan, an international school in Tokyo. Not only was I able to experience Japanese culture first-hand, but I also was around many more half-Japanese people than I would have had we stayed in our small town in Massachusetts.

I went to high school with someone named Ko Umezaki. He was a couple of years ahead of me, played guitar in bands, had a beautiful girlfriend – I definitely looked up to him. I was good at picking stuff off of records but stuff that I couldn’t get he showed me (like the bass solo in Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato”). Somehow I played bass in his band his senior year (my sophomore) – it was a great gig except for the fact that we ended up wearing shorts for the Battle of the Bands.

This video features Ko on shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute. Not only does it feature his music, but it also connects music, Buddhism, and the caves of Dunhuang. My mom loved the NHK series “The Silk Road” and the music by Kitaro – I remember watching it but it was only after discovering Buddhism in college and going to graduate school to study Buddhism and become a minister that I realized that the Silk Road was deeply Buddhist. There were also many mixed-race Buddhists in Central Asia at the time – monks such as Kumarajiva (344-413) are like role models to me now, much as Ko was when I was in high school. Kind of weird maybe to find a role model in someone who lived almost 2000 years ago, but I’ll take them where I can get them!

“A Good Thing Off a Bad Thing”

One of my all-time favorite bands is Black Sabbath. There is a great video from That Metal Show called “History of Metal, Vol. 1: Fingers Bloody Fingers” – it’s a play on a classic Sabbath album/song called “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” that relates a formative influence in guitarist Tony Iommi’s life:

History of Metal: Fingers Bloody Fingers


The video consists of Tony Iommi speaking about the life-changing incident in what sounds like a telephone interview, with some nice animation. I think it’s worth watching, but in a nutshell, Tony Iommi, a guitarist, lost the tips of two of his fretting hand fingers in an industrial accident. However, he persevered, learned how to play with prosthetic fingers that he initially made himself, with some adjustments in equipment – lighter, looser strings and lowered tuning made it easier to play, but also resulted in a new sound and ultimately a new genre of music – Black Sabbath are one of the innovators of what came to be known as Heavy Metal.

His last words in the clip are what jumped out at me early this year: “Really, it turned out to be a good thing off a bad thing.” I made it through the end of 2015 without getting sick, but on January 3, 2016, I could tell that I had caught something. By Tuesday I was lying on the couch with a headache and congestion. This was not how I planned to spend the first week of the New Year! I had hoped to hit the ground running, undertaking new projects, trying to get some areas of my life together better, but instead here I lay, out of action, exhausted and miserable.

I had actually already used this story of Tony Iommi “making a good thing off a bad thing” at our Shotsuki Memorial Service the previous Sunday. But once I started recovering, I found a connection between his words and my cold. As yucky as getting sick is, I also got better. There are some serious illnesses that people don’t recover from, but a cold lasts for only a little while and usually – hopefully – we get better. And this time, once again, I did. In addition to relief, I began to get a feeling of optimism and energy – I have my health, maybe I can take this opportunity once again to try and live up to my potential, to go beyond the usual sloth that often overtakes me.

So although I haven’t made any New Year’s Resolutions, I feel like maybe I will be able to run with this feeling of optimism and energy, facing the challenges of life head-on and creatively. Namo Amida Butsu!

Book Hunting

A huge part of my becoming Buddhist in my 20s was discovering used book stores. I read books up until that point, but used book stores a) made books more affordable, and b) opened up a treasure hunt for unusual, rare and out of print books. It became a quest, almost a thirst, for knowledge and understanding. I think the first stores I found were in Harvard Square, but I quickly found other ones, as far away as Amherst, Massachusetts – Raven Books was one of my favorites.

I don’t buy nearly as many books anymore – I have too many, they take up too much space, etc. But scanning and the ability to read PDFs on my computer or iPad means that I can still read without having more physical books to clutter up my house. Also, you can mark them in Adobe Reader and not feel like you are defacing the precious pages.

Some books are essential but very hard to find – one such book is Allen A. Andrews’s The Teachings Essential for Rebirth: A Study of Genshin’s Ojoyoshu (sorry, I’m leaving out the diacriticals on that one). Every temple library I go into, I look for it, but I haven’t found one yet. The Institute of Buddhist Studies copy was stolen a long time ago. I had almost given up hope, but finally came across one!


Genshin is one of the Seven Masters of Jodo Shinshu, selected by Shinran Shonin. He quotes passages from this work in his Kyogyoshinsho, and composed wasans (“hymns”) about him as well. Though he doesn’t appear to have as much doctrinal impact on Shinran as some of the other masters (such as Vasubandhu, T’an-luan, and Shan-tao), Shinran does offer this nice paraphrase of a section of the Ojoyoshu in both his “Shoshinge” and Koso Wasan, so I will finish with this:

The evil person just has to say the Buddha’s Name.
Although I too am within Amida’s grasp,
The kleshas obstruct my eyes and I cannot see this;
Nevertheless, great compassion is untiring and illumines me always.

On this day in BCA history…

September 1 is an important date for me for a few reasons. Maybe most significant for me is that it is the date that I arrived in Berkeley back in 1996, having quit my band and left on a quest to study Buddhism at the Institute of Buddhist Studies. I later found out that this date is also significant for the Buddhist Churches of America, which at some point declared September 1, 1899 as “BCA Founding Day” as seen in this explanation in a pamphlet dedicated to Buddhist holidays:


Later on, I began my ministerial career at the Buddhist Church of Lodi on September 1, 2006, which means that I have been a BCA minister for 9 years as of today! Seems like a good time to look at my life, see where I’ve been and think about what I want to do in this coming year leading up to year ten. There’s some interesting stuff coming up on the horizon – stay tuned!

Namo Amida Butsu

The Contradictions of Obon

Writing doesn’t come easily to me. But I have to write at least one article a month for my temple newsletter. It takes me a long time to get started – once I get started I can usually bash something out and then edit it into something readable. But one of the problems with using the computer as a word processor is that you have to remember to save your most recent draft before sending it! I neglected to do so for my August article about Obon, so when the draft came out I was surprised how short it was. I thought someone had taken editorial liberties and cut what I had so painstakingly crafted. But I finally found out that it was my fault. Fortunately I didn’t express how upset I was out loud, and instead crafted a modified version that fit the available space, but still wasn’t what my final was supposed to be. So for posterity’s sake, here is the original article, just in time for our Obon Festival and Service this weekend, August 1 & 2, 2015:

The Contradictions of Obon

Obon captures so many of the contradictions of life. A festival is connected with a memorial service. Even the memorial service is called a “Gathering of Joy” (Kangi-e). The service comes from an event where a high level monk, Mogallana, has left his family and yet still cares deeply for his mother. However, despite being one of the most powerful disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha, he is unable to help by himself.

I believe that this is part of why Obon is one of the most important times in our Buddhist calendar of holidays. These contradictions speak deeply to us. Whether we have lost a loved one this past year or many years ago, in the midst of our sadness and loss we hear of the deep joy and gratitude that the Obon Service and Dance express. We can participate, dancing in memory of our loved ones, lighting a lantern at the Hatsubon Service if our loss is recent, offering incense and listening to the Dharma at the Obon Service.

So please join us for our Obon Festival and Dance on Saturday, August 1 and Obon Service on Sunday, August 2. At 9:30 AM will be our Hatsubon Service, for those families who have lost a loved one during this past year. At 10:30 AM we will have our Obon Service, which is open to everyone. Our guest speaker will be Rev. Carol Himaka from the Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church.


Tokudo Ordination Part Three

It’s #throwbackthursday again! In this installment I wrote about my Dharma Name which I received at Tokudo, with some follow up thoughts from the years since – hard to believe it’s been over ten years!

February 29th, 2004

So I have a new name: Shaku Gyokyo 釋楽橋. When you get ordained, you are given a Dharma Name 法名 (homyo) – one that someone has selected for you or one you make up yourself. I made mine up.

My original idea was Dokyo 道橋, meaning “Bridge of the Tao/Path”, but there was a famous Korean monk with that already. Then I thought of using Hokyo 法橋, or “Bridge of the Dharma.” But finally I came up with Gyokyo. Kyo is the Chinese reading for “hashi” or bridge, which is my real last name. Gyo is a special Chinese reading for the character for “tanoshii”, or “enjoy”. It’s also “raku” from “anraku” 安楽 and “gokuraku” 極楽 (Land of Bliss/the Pure Land), and the “gaku” in “ongaku” 音楽, music. “Raku” by itself means comfortable or relaxed. The gyo reading comes from the term “shingyo” 信楽, “joyful entrusting” – this is another term for “shinjin” 信心 or “entrusting mind”, which is at the core of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. The Shaku 釋 is found in every Dharma name, and comes from the name of Shakyamuni, indicating that one is a disciple of the Buddha.

When I think about it now, I guess I’m not sure how my Dharma name would translate. Bridge of Happiness? Bridge of Bliss? Bridge of Shinjin? Bridge of Comfort? I guess it’s all these things, I like it because it can have multiple meanings. I like music, I like the Pure Land, I like Shinjin, and I like comfort…

Some further thoughts:

I love my Dharma Name, but one thing I have realized is that it is really difficult for non-Japanese speakers to pronounce. The consonant followed immediately by the y and o just doesn’t happen in English. That’s why people pronounce Kyoto “ki-yo-to” or Tokyo “to-ki-o.” For instance, Deep Purple’s “My Woman From Tokyo” is sung “My Wo-man from To Kee Oh.”

Another thing is that if people know Buddhist terms and kanji, they often assume that the “gyo” is for “practice” (行) and “kyo” is “teaching” (教).

But if I could go back in time, I don’t think I would change it. It resonates with me, it has an obscure, especially Shinshu aspect (the “gyo” reading), and people that know Japanese tend to like it once they see the kanji. I’ll close with my favorite picture from my Tokudo – I am actually very fortunate to have this picture, one of my classmates had received Tokudo a few months previous so he knew the perfect spot to stand!


Tokudo Ordination Part Two

Continuing this #throwbackthursday series with journal entries I wrote after receiving Tokudo Ordination in 2004. I talk a bit about the other people attending the training session with me – I guess I was kind of bitter! Reading now, I think I painted with a bit too broad a brush – unfortunately, the jerks often make the strongest impression. As in part one, I’ve added a couple of notes.

February 29th, 2004

One of the interesting things about Jodo Shinshu is that the priests can marry. Actually, they’re more often called “ministers” in English because of this (paralleling them with Protestant ministers vs. Catholic priests or monks), but in Japanese the same term, “soryo” 僧侶 is used. Shinran, the founder of the sect who lived from 1173-1262, was one of the first monks in Japan to openly marry, and his interpretation of Buddhism reflects this. (Actually, almost all Japanese Buddhist sects allow marriage, though most of them only since the Meiji Period, i.e., since about 1868.)

A corollary to this is that temples are passed on from father to son. So most Jodo Shinshu ministers are from “temple families”. If they’re the oldest son, they’re expected to take over the temple when their father retires or dies. If they’re the oldest daughter, they’re expected to marry someone who will then be adopted and take over. (1)

As a result, most of the 120 people that were in tokudo with me were from temple families. Most were from the ages of 18-25. Many, if not most of them, were there out of obligation, not because they wanted to become priests. (2) Therefore, 40-50% of them slept through 80-90% of the lectures. Many of them were really spoiled. A few of them were really ridiculous, clueless. Some of them really didn’t want to be there. The leader of my group had the most disinterested look on his face 99% of the time. A couple of the guys in my group were real clowns – they would never shut up, always making stupid jokes or mocking the chanting, teachers, etc.

Of course, there were exceptions. Most of the people who were interested in what was going on were older – maybe late 20s and up. A few of the people in my group were really great – even if they weren’t totally interested in Buddhism, they worked and studied really hard. I’m really glad to have met them, and look forward to continuing the friendships that developed there. It was definitely a shared experience – I’ll always remember these guys as members of my tokudo group.

All said, it’s a very strange system – fortunately not being perpetuated in America. Hopefully some of these people will really hear the Buddha Dharma at some point in their lives and awaken the aspiration to help people, rather than just treat it as a job that they would rather not be doing…

To be continued…

Here’s a picture of some of the group – this was taken on the morning of the Tokudo ceremony after the training session is over – I believe I am the person in the lower left corner looking at the camera.



(1) One woman in my class at Ryukoku University was the only daughter – her intention was to become the “jushoku” (resident minister) herself, rather than marry a man who would be adopted into the family and become jushoku. My impression is that Nishi Hongwanji has a lot of potential to be socially progressive, but is also characterized by a lot of the social mores and attitudes of the dominant society.

(2) Please remember, these numbers are not based on any kind of research, they are purely my own observations. Looking back, I think I was a bit harsh in this section. I think some of the attitudes I saw can be connected to the difficulty of the training session – everyone is exhausted from lack of decent sleep and the strenuous schedule – as well as the general attitude of the training – it is definitely “strict” as opposed to “nurturing” – and we actually had it easy compared to how it used to be! But that’s for another entry…

Throwback Thursday: Tokudo Ordination Part One

To accompany the picture I found from when I received Tokudo ordination, here is a blog entry that I posted soon afterwards on my livejournal (now defunct). I will add the picture and some notes below.

February 29th, 2004

The Jodo Shinshu Honganji-ha 浄土真宗本願寺派 (1) ordination takes eleven days. During that time you attend lectures, practice performing the rituals, learn how to tie, wear, and fold the various clothing, clean the facility, and take tests. On the tenth day, the actual Tokudo 得度(ordination) Ceremony occurs at the head temple – the Nishi Honganji 西本願寺, also called Honzan 本山. On the morning of the eleventh day, you go back to Honzan for the morning service, then eat a traditional Buddhist vegetarian meal, called shojin ryori 精進料理.

The most difficult part of the training process is sitting seiza 正座. Unlike the lotus position, in seiza you fold your legs underneath you, without crossing them. It is EXTREMELY PAINFUL after about 20 or 30 minutes. During sutra chanting, we had to sit for 1 HOUR. I had trouble the first couple of days, but on the third or fourth day I actually did it! I could sit without squirming, and it didn’t even really hurt. Until lunch that is, when my right foot started swelling up (2). I actually had this problem while I was studying in Berkeley, when this would happen I couldn’t even put my shoes on. So after that, I sat in a chair the whole rest of the time! It was certainly easier on the legs, but the chairs were low so my lower back hurt instead.

I was actually really upset when my foot started to swell up. I couldn’t sit with my han (3) members any more, I had to sit in back. I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to take part in the final ordination ceremony. But fortunately, the teachers knew that seiza is not normal for Americans, and they were all really supportive. I definitely felt separated from the group. I felt like a true “gaijin” – i.e., outsider 外人. But I was also able to watch from a more detached perspective, and watch the senseis as well as the students, and see their reactions and what they were doing while everyone was chanting.

To be continued…



1. Technically, this should be spelled Hongwanji, but the w is silent (like in the film Kwaidan which is pronounced “Kaidan” or Kwannon which is pronounced “Kannon”)

2. On re-reading this, I feel like my foot started swelling up at breakfast, not lunch.

3. “Han” means group – the expression “head honcho” comes from the term “hancho” which means group leader. This online reference claims that it was “picked up by U.S. servicemen in Japan and Korea, 1947-1953,” but I wonder if there wasn’t a Japanese-American connection too?