In the July 2019 edition of Bombu Bombu, Reverend Osa said her dharma talks are like a confession. She encouraged her readers to share their stories and confessions about discovering Buddhist teachings in their lives. This inspired me to write about my experience with Buddhism.
As a youngster born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i in the 1950s, I accompanied my parents and grandparents to religious events like weddings and funerals at the various local Honpa Honganji temples. I distinctly remember my elders and the priest saying the Nembutsu. While aware that I was in a Buddhist place of worship, my understanding of it was nil. I don’t know how much the elders knew about Buddhism and what the Nembutsu meant. No one in the family talked about the religion or its particular practices.
My life took the conventional route of education, marriage, and career. In 2016, illnesses changed my life in ways I had thought unimaginable. A two-year stretch began with a cancer diagnosis and over a year of treatment, followed by a near fatal bout with a cancer-related illness in 2018. The latter illness landed me in the hospital for 60 days – one week in an induced coma with intubation, two more weeks in an intensive care unit, and five more in intermediate care. I returned home with permanently damaged lungs. I was in less than poor physical condition. I relied on supplemental oxygen 24/7 and looked forward to three months of visiting caregivers and physical therapists. I was forced into retirement, shutting down a career as a self-employed private investigator. Talk about impermanence!
The realization of impermanence was humbling. I was humbled by basic activities that I could no longer do alone like sitting, standing, walking, and basic cleanliness without an oxygen tank nearby and the compassionate help from nurses, physicians and their assistants, physical and occupational therapists, and hospital spiritual advisers. An attempt to describe the love, daily support and attention from my wife, my sister and brother, and other family and friends would be futile. They watched me sink into a state of demise. My doctors, and they were many, were vague about the extent and duration of recovery, which could last, they said, months, even years. I learned later that they did not expect me to leave the hospital.
I disliked being humbled because it meant a new life. I confused humility with humiliation because a life of accomplishments, self-definition, and independence had gone and been replaced by a life of their opposites. I felt naked and vulnerable because of my dependency on others and inability to control my future.
But in this confusion, I kept flashing on a translation from Sanskrit I had come across in a cancer support publication in 2017 that read: “Suffering is holding on to something that has already changed.” I didn’t know what to make of this, but during those months before I nearly crossed the “Rainbow Bridge,” I occasionally recited the advice to myself again and again.
I now thought of this Sanskrit advice while in the depths of humility. My response was to do the opposite. Mired in negativity and a sense of physical decline, utterly humbled, I thought it best to respond to the Sanskrit adage by doing something I considered to be “positive” and use this new life to “grow” both mentally and intellectually. I launched into reading history, philosophy and politics, my favorite topics, and classical Russian and American literature, which I had read at a minimum in high school.
Though jazzed at first about “growing”, I couldn’t shake the constancy of humility. It was not going away. As I grew tired of reading, I asked myself questions like, “For what, who was I doing this for, am I trying to impress someone, what’s the point in being cultivated and learned?” Trying to get me to go easy on myself, my wife reminded me that “growing” was a “natural human” response.
Humility and the Sanskrit adage dogged me. It was clear that humility and “something that has already changed” were inextricably tied, so I decided to look into Buddhism, considering it a mere inquiry at the time. Early in 2019, I enrolled in an introductory class on Buddhism taught by Rev. Ken Yamada of Higashi Honganji Temple at a local adult education campus. I managed to attend only three sessions because illness struck again, hospitalizing me for two stays.
I learned that Buddhism is about suffering and how to address it. One source stated that Buddhism is about humility and nothing more. I also learned that the cessation of suffering is found in suffering itself. How profound it was to consider that humility was the source of its own resolution!
When I regained some strength, I began attending a weekly Shin Buddhist study session led by Dr. Nobuo Haneda of the Maida Center of Buddhism. I learned that humility was critical to self-understanding and that ultimately, we aspire to shed our ego. I also learned that humans, without really knowing it, long to discover their True Self, a self that is not based on ego and selfishness.
I connected with these basic tenets and realized that humility remained constant because it lay at the foundation of human existence and life. The notion of a True Self, then, reflected the wisdom that comes from humility. I sometimes feel that it’s a privilege to have been humbled by impermanence in this life.
Studying Shin Buddhism has become an intellectual and spiritual pursuit. Now, there is no reason for reading and studying. It is just happening.
There is one crucial lesson in my experience, and that is, I could not have done it alone. I could not have questioned and negated my dislike of humbleness without the teachings of Shin Buddhism. I am grateful for this.