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?

Reflections on Ohigan and the Seventh Generation

The Buddhist Church of Oakland observed Spring Ohigan last Sunday (March 15, 2015), but today (March 20) is the actual Spring Equinox! I looked at it as an opportunity to announce our intention to explicitly become an “EcoSangha” – the Buddhist Churches of America recently adopted a resolution to encourage all of our temples to adopt EcoSangha principles, and adopt policies that promote an awareness of the profound implications of our behavior on future generations and to promote ecologically friendly behavior in the spirit of “mottai-nai” (this is from the final part of the resolution).

Continue reading Reflections on Ohigan and the Seventh Generation

books and writing

Dug up some books while trying to get things in order – here’s one:

Buddhahood Embodied: Sources of Controversy in India and Tibet, by John J. Makransky – this is a great book, I loved it during my first year at Institute of Buddhist Studies. It focuses on some of the “Buddha Body” theories of later Indian Mahayana Buddhism. The part I want to focus on now is the final chapter that looks at how the Four Noble Truths of the Nikaya Buddhist schools (such as Theravada) need to be reinterpreted in a Mahayana framework.

Part of why I am excited is that I am feeling an urge to really start writing. I have had issues with writing since high school if not earlier. It’s not that I can’t write, but I usually have a difficult time with it. I have a lot of ideas, many of which I have explored in study classes at temple, but haven’t really sat down and tried to write about them. That’s also a part of what this blog is about.