How do YOU do Xmas?

Whenever December rolls around, I can’t help but think about Christmas. I have ambiguous feelings about it – my family celebrated it when I was a kid in Massachusetts, but when I was 11 we moved to Tokyo and it was never the same – I think my dad even had to go to work! Even after we moved back to the US, we never really celebrated Christmas anymore, especially not like we used to.

It seems that there are several possible Buddhist reactions to Christmas. The most common one that I see is to just do it unproblematically. In this case it’s not the Christian version of Christmas that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, it is what we might call either the Pagan or secular version with Santa Claus, Christmas Trees, and of course PRESENTS!

Another response I have seen is to try and integrate it somehow with Buddhism, for instance, having a “Bodhi Tree” instead of a Christmas Tree, using a Dharma Wheel or other Buddhist symbols as ornaments, or conflating Santa Claus with Hotei, the smiling monk with a cloth sack who entertains children.

The third possible response is to reject Christmas. I have heard stories that this was much more common in BCA temples before I got involved in the 1990s. It does still exist here and there – sometimes we put Christmas lights on the Bodhi Tree in the office, and I have heard one or two people say “We don’t celebrate Christmas” with the implication that we shouldn’t have the lights.

bodhi tree office xmas 2017.JPG

Which option do you choose? I have taken all three at different points in my life. When I was a student I used to contemplate integrating it (that’s when I came up with the Hotei idea) – in the years since, I just kind of accept the secular version. But I also appreciate the attitude of rejecting it. I remember having Jewish friends when I was a kid that didn’t celebrate it at all – I found out that they would often go to Chinese restaurants because those were the only ones that were open. If I am truly Buddhist, why would I need Christmas? The United States of America is supposed to be a land of freedom and diversity – I embrace the difference that I embody as a multiracial person and as a follower of a minority religion, and I shouldn’t have to celebrate Christmas.

But I also get that one of the most important aspects of Christmas for many of our members is FAMILY. Maybe we can appropriate Christmas as part of the Gratitude Season that I have written about before – spend it with the people you love, and express that love and appreciation, allowing it to energize us through the winter so that we can face the New Year with the renewed hope and inspiration given to us by the Wisdom and Compassion of the Buddha.

(Reprinted from Buddhist Church of Oakland Busshin Newsletter, Dec. 2017)

Is there a Baby Buddha Inside You?

What do you think of when you think about Hanamatsuri? Shakyamuni Buddha’s birthday? Lumbini’s Garden? Kambutsu (bathing the Baby Buddha)? How about a six-tusked elephant?

Right now, I’m wondering if maybe there’s a Baby Buddha ready to be born within each of us. Maybe each time I feel a twinge of caring when I see someone else suffering, each time I get an insight into myself or the world around me, maybe my “inner Buddha” is born. Can I then cultivate it, nourish it, so that someday I become a Buddha myself? There are theories in Buddhism where we each have this potential for awakening within us – this is one understanding of the term “Buddha Nature.”

But maybe it’s harder than it looks. Those insights I mentioned don’t happen for me that often. And even if I do have one, it’s so easy to start thinking more about myself than others again. Maybe my Baby Buddha waits patiently for the next time I have a selfless thought to help someone else, or realize something else about the true nature of things.

If I don’t have this Baby Buddha inside of me, it’s ok. Shinran Shonin did not emphasize this potential for awakening. In fact, in looking at himself he felt that he had NO Buddha Nature inside him – that he was among “those who lack the seed of Buddhahood” (icchantika). And yet even someone like that – someone like me? – can still become Buddha. In fact, this type of person is precisely the object of Amida Buddha’s compassion. Becoming aware of this, one entrusts in the Buddha with great joy and gratitude.

I know that Hanamatsuri is a service that also brings us great joy, to get to bathe the Baby Buddha and listen to the Dharma. For Buddhist Church of Oakland’s 2017 Hanamatsuri Service on Sunday, April 9, our guest speaker is Sensei Blayne Higa, a student from the Institute of Buddhist Studies. If you have a Baby Buddha then bring it along, if not then come bathe ours at the Buddhist Church of Oakland – remember, Kambutsu begins at 9:30!


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!