Thinking of Peace in August            

A mass shooting occurred again in August. This time it was in El Paso, Texas. On that day while driving home from our temple camping trip, I listened to the radio news.

A 25-year-old mother shielded her two-month-old son. She was shot. They were at a Walmart store, shopping for back-to-school supplies. “From the baby’s injuries, they said more than likely my sister was trying to shield him,” a woman said. “When she was shot, she was holding him and fell on top of him. That’s why he broke some bones. He pretty much lived because she gave up her life.”

Of course nobody knows what happened exactly at that moment. There’s a possibility the mother shielded her baby without thinking.  It may have been a mother’s conditioned response.

While listening to the news, I recalled tragedies of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many people burned and perished lying atop one another. I imagined parents and grandparents trying to protect their children and grandchildren without even thinking. 

For most Japanese, August is a special month to think about human life. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki on August 9. Japan surrendered on August 15. 

When I was growing up in Japan, there were many TV programs in August devoted to memorials related to the bombings and to events promoting World peace. I watched many movies and TV programs about World War II. There even were anime films about the horrors of war, such as Grave of the Fireflies (Japanese: Hotaru no haka). Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

Why do people hate each other? Why do people kill one another?

According to Buddhism, complex conditions make us hate others. There are political and historical conditions. However, the primary reason why human beings hate each other is because we are foolish beings.

Politics may be debated but there is no single answer on which everyone agrees. Too many things in this world we don’t know whether they’re true or false.

What’s certain is that human beings are fools. I am foolish. It’s imperative to come to this understanding. The Buddha taught within each of us are Three Poisons: Greed, Anger, and Ignorance. These poisons cause suffering and make us disregard the sanctity of human life.

If we understand and are conscious of our Greed, Anger, and Ignorance, we’ll be more respectful of life—both the lives of others and our own.

Consider greed. We really don’t need to consume so many natural resources. After all, originally, we possessed nothing.

Consider anger. It’s hard to forget you hate someone. In history, ethnic hatred has been passed down from generation to generation.

Consider ignorance: People often forget it’s human to make mistakes. We think we are right and others are wrong and therefore we’ll fight wars.

Individually, we cannot overcome Three Poisons by ourselves.

We need help. This help is the Buddha’s voice encouraging us to gain wisdom. It’s the voice of people who came before us, including our teachers, family members and friends, who have passed away. They even include people who we don’t know, such as those who perished in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and El Paso.

What would the victims of mass shootings and of the atomic bomb wish for us? What would our loved ones, who have passed away, wish for us? What kind of world would they hope for us?

I think they would tell us to create a world of peace and understanding. Their wish represents a great Wish for humankind. To me, this is the meaning of Hongan, Amida Buddha’s great wish for us.

I’d like to share a letter written by a young army officer near the end of World War II. On May 4, 1945, Corporal Nobuo Aihana took off from Chiran air base in Kyushu, Japan, for a special (suicide) attack (Kamikaze-tokkotai) near the island of Okinawa. He died in battle at age 18 years.

In a letter to his stepmother, Corporal Aihana wrote:

Dear mother,

How are you? Thank you for what you’ve done for so long. You raised me since I was six years old. Although you’re my stepmother, I never felt mistreated the way people often think of stepmothers.     You were a mother who looked after me with loving care, a kind mother, a precious mother. I was happy.      But I never once called you "mother." I resolved many times to say the word, but I must’ve been weak-willed. Please forgive me. How sad you must have been.         Now it’s time for me to say loudly: "Mom! Mom! Mom!"

This letter, along with Nobuo's scarf, military sword, and other items were kept together at the family’s Buddhist altar. Aki, his stepmother, considered the letter her most precious treasure.

Nobuo's brother Shunichi returned to Japan from China in June 1946 and learned of his younger brother's death. After reading the letter, Shunichi resolved to honor his brother's wish to treat his stepmother like his real mother.

If we think deeply and connect with voices from the past, then World War II doesn’t seem so long ago. Those mass shootings are not so distant. They involved people who are very much like us. They have something to teach us. We have a connection to them.

In this way, if we listen to the voices of people who have passed away, they help guide us. Their voices represent the Buddha’s voice, guiding us to the world of wisdom and compassion. In this way, we walk the Buddha’s path.




An international team of scientists shared the first image of a supermassive black hole on April 10th.

That image shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun. It is the hisotrical unveiling of the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow.

This black hole resides 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun.

If we say that our life’s starting point is a black hole. We can say that each life on earth has a history of 13.8 billion light-years behind it even though we haven’t been born yet.

Our parents and grandparents handed over the baton to us. We are also living our parent’s life.

The theme of 750th Shinran Shonin memorial service was “Now, life is living you.”

If we think of this big Life as an Ocean, then our individual life is a wave on it.

We are living in a big ocean and it is not separate from the wave, we are part of the ocean.

We won’t disappear when we die, we just return to the big wave of the Big Life.

 The theme was “Now, life is living you.” It is not “we are live our own individual life.” You don’t own the life you are living.  Regardless of whether we see it or not, regardless of whether we understand it or not, we are part of the Big Life and its history that goes back billions of years into the past.

 The black hole, far far away, 55 million light-years from here, is connected to us. It is a part of us.

 We can restate the theme “Now, life is living you,” as “Now, your parents’ life is living you” or “Your grandparents’ life is living you” or “Your great grandparents’ life is living you” or “Your ancestor’s life is living you”

  “If you ate a tomato for breakfast then the tomato’s life is living you.”

Countless things sustain your life, our life. It is working now, working now to keep you alive. Long ago people called this working of the Big Life “Amida”.


Two Chinese characters 

(April 14, 2019)

In Japan, the current big news is that  “Japan has revealed the name of its next imperial era to be "Reiwa," set to begin May 1 as Crown Prince Naruhito is expected to take the throne.”

Reiwa is written with two kanji characters. While there was some deliberation over the exact meaning, the two characters that make up the new name, or the "gengo," translate roughly to "good fortune" and "peace" or "harmony," 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said two Chinese characters was taken for the first time from an ancient Japanese book instead of from Chinese classics. He said it comes from a section about plum blossoms in “Manyoshu,” a poetry anthology from the 7th to 8th centuries, and it suggests that “culture is born and nurtured as the people’s hearts are beautifully drawn together.”

The imperial era name, or “gengo”, is used on documents, newspapers, calendars and coins. It is the way many Japanese count the years, although use of the Western calendar is becoming more widespread, and many use the two systems interchangeably.

ORIGINS OF GENGO   Japan imported the imperial calendar system from China about 1,300 years ago. (Starting with the Meiji era (1868-1912), it adopted the practice of “one emperor, one era name.” Previously, era names were sometimes changed mid-reign, such as after disasters. )

There have been four era names in the modern period: Meiji, Taisho (1912-1926), Showa (1926-1989) and the current Heisei.  Emperor Akihito is set to step down on April 30 in the first abdication of the throne in over 200 years.


I think you know that we have a Dharma name which is composed of two Chinese characters, like this imperial era name, Gengo”. This is a common way to make a name by combining two Chinese characters such as a person’s name, school name so on. Usually we put our wish on that name by using two Chinese characters.  In Japan, when we introduce our name, people ask “how do you write it in Kanji, Chinese characters”


In the funeral service of our Shin tradition, we have a presentation of the Dharma name. Basically, we are supposed to get a Dharma name as a guide for our life at the confirmation ceremony. So we are supposed to have a Dharma name already when we die. An officiant introduces the dharma name at the funeral service. If the deceased person didn’t take the confirmation ceremony, then the officiant would give a new dharma name at the service.


By the way, I have received the question that “Should we call the service as a memorial service if we don’t have a casket.” The answer is no; we call it a funeral service only if it is officiated by Buddhist tradition.

That question came from Christian tradition. They call it a “memorial service” even if we don’t have the casket.

That is about how to call the rituals, so I actually don’t mind the name, but it seems like a few people are concerning about the name. So I am explaining it now.

In Shin tradition, we call it a “funeral service” lonly if we present the Dharma name at the service. 

We present the Dharma name at the service of the first official service of the deceased person. Here in the US, a few people wish to have the pillow side service. Usually it is for close family, while the first official service is for everyone who have a connection with that person. That is the funeral service. But sometimes, we have a funeral service only for the immediate family.

The reason we present the dharma name at the first official service of the deceased person is that we, the survivors, will listen to and receive his or her life energy and wish into ourselves at the service. It is the instructive education and transference of love and energy working (回向) from deceased to us. The life wish of the deceased is being turned over to us and we are being immersed in it. We need to listen and receive it.

That is why we have a presentation of the Dharma name and it is different from other memorial services.

There is a wish that is being turned over to us for our lives. We have to listen to the wish. We cannot see the wish ourselves, and so we are given a name for it.

The meaning of the wish is put into words when we apply the two Chinese characters to a name.

We need quiet and peaceful time

Rev. Ryoko Osa

These days, the air is full of music, images, even 3-D movies that create our world. Such media are stimulating to people. But I heard some psychiatrists say that modern people living this busy and noisy life are losing it. They are losing patience and are becoming more vulnerable now than ever before. The reason is that we are receiving too much stimulation, too much information,too much noise. We need the peace and quiet that our temple offers.

Maybe you prefer to have a casual and friendly atmosphere. But in our life, there are times when we stand before something greater than ourselves, something infinite. At those times we stand in quiet awe before the sacred and the holy. The very quiet feeling it brings is not something we can create. We can only sit by and observe it. It is very simple and quiet. So when we are here in the temple, we want to try to calm down and reset our mind to the simple quiet mode. These quiet rituals are meant to refresh ourselves. You might call them a form of quiet meditation. 

There was a Japanese comedy show called “Frankly speaking about temple life” in Japan. About 12 ministers were featured along with a group of comedians. In the show, there were some videos on temple life or Japanese history. And the ministers gave some comments. The ministers were from all denominations of Buddhism. My friend was among them. 

Shin Buddhism is very different from the image, which ordinary people have of it.  I often tell people that “Shin Buddhism is different from other forms of Buddhism. Other forms of Japanese Buddhism is blah blah blah ..but, Shin Buddhism is  blah blah blah ..”  So I thought the different ministers might affirm my assumption and have different explanations about Buddhism, because they come from different teachings. But to my surprise I found that the basic teaching is the same. To live simply rather than have desires, to know that everything is changing, to appreciate our life because we are supported by countless people and things.  To respect something greater than ourselves, to stand in quiet awe before the infinite.

And so Japanese Buddhist teachings used to look quite different to me. After all there are very big differences among them. But now I see it is only our points of emphasis and choice of words that are different. Our original teaching is the basically the same.

I think all of Japanese Buddhism, as well as other religions, is useful for our daily life. We enter the temple grounds to attend the services leaving our busy and noisy world behind. As we sit through the services we can quietly reflect on our lives. As we stand in awe before the infinite we receive the power to live and are refreshed again for whatever tomorrow brings. 

So everyone please come to our Sunday service to put aside your busy minds and feel the quiet atmosphere here.

Translating Hongan With His Life

When I joined this temple in the late 1970s, I felt a personal closeness to Rev. Gyomay Kubose. I attended his weekly study class and the Sunday morning meditation that he led. At that time the meditation group was very tight-knit and we had social gatherings where we got to be with Rev. Kubose in a relaxed setting. On my days off from my banking job, I would hang out at the temple and visit with Rev. Kubose and from time to time he and his wife Minnie would invite me to their apartment for dinner.

So while I felt close to Rev. Kubose, Rev. Gyoko Saito was a distant figure to me at BTC. I thought some of his Dharma talks were interesting, but he seemed to speak as a “pedestrian,” just another man on the street, not from the lofty heights of transcendent wisdom as Rev. Kubose did. Then one time on the day of the study class, Rev. Kubose fell ill and it was too late to contact everyone to cancel the class so he asked Rev. Saito to fill in for him.

Instead of showering us with knowledge about Buddhist history and concepts as Rev. Kubose did, Rev. Saito spoke not to our heads but aimed for our guts. “What is your highest wish?” he said to our class and he paraphrased Soren Kierkegaard, “If you have ordinary wishes, there are no problems, but if you have the highest wish, the problem of living arises.” In my case at the time, I felt I had lots of problems, but I realized those problems coming from my “ordinary wishes” couldn’t be the problem of life that Rev. Saito said Kierkegaard and Shinran struggled with. To know that wish that comes from beyond our selfish material desires, Rev. Saito said it was important to encounter the teacher who attacks our shallow egoistical view of ourselves and awakens us to the path leading to the discovery of who we really are.

There is the Buddhism that makes us feel comfortable when we hear phrases like “come as you are” and “everyday suchness.” But at that study class, Rev. Saito reminded me that there is the Buddhism that is about earnest seeking and not plopping down into a complacent state. It is the Buddhism that kicks us out of the bubble of associating only with people similar to us and makes us discover the magnificence of lives very different from ours. That is the Buddhism of hongan, what Rev. Saito and Dr. Nobuo Haneda translated as “innermost aspiration” instead of using the misleading term “Original Vow.” That deep wish to awaken to the oneness of life is in each life – it’s not some particular “vow” (promise) originating with a specific being, as thought by those who read the Larger Sutra too literally.

More than that new way of translating hongan into English, Rev. Saito translated the “innermost aspiration” with his whole life. Remembering the talks he gave in Chicago and Los Angeles and reading his articles, I see how he identified with a wide variety of lives, not judging anyone as separate and inferior to himself. He could reverberate with the courageous dedication of Martin Luther King, Jr. and see himself in the scam artist walking down Broadway or the disturbed woman shouting on Leland Avenue. Animals and children were his teachers and like his main teacher, Akegarasu Haya, Rev. Saito learned from the great thinkers of diverse cultures and religions, not just Asian Buddhists.

Rev. Saito could have lived his life satisfying his “ordinary wishes” by continuing his studies to be an electrical engineer. Instead, inspired by Akegarasu, he entered the Buddhist ministry. In Chicago, the members really wanted a minister who helped people feel good about identifying as Buddhist mixed in with pride and appreciation of Japanese culture. But Rev. Saito failed to be that kind of minister and instead strove to make each of us aware of the “highest wish” that goes beyond a Buddhist or Japanese identity. He did this in his talks, writings and most poignantly by example.

In this month of March for Founder’s Day, we will sing the praises of Rev. Kubose who is a significant figure in bringing Jodo Shinshu to English-speaking audiences as well as being important as our temple’s founding minister. But in March is also the observance of Koshu-ki, the memorial of Rev. Saito. Maybe if for no one else but me, it’s an occasion to reflect on how Rev. Saito is the true teacher by showing me how to be the true student of life, to open up and let go of my self-serving tribal views.


From “The True Birthplace of Humanity” by Rev. Gyoko Saito

[I like this excerpt because it shows Rev. Saito’s joy at learning from other people – such as this account about Nigerian people – PN]

Last night for our gathering of young Buddhist groups we had a guest speaker who had majored in educational psychology.  He talked about his experiences while he was in Nigeria for two years as a member of the Peace Corps.  “When we Americans think of Nigeria from the United States, then Nigeria is a very backward and culturally undeveloped country, and there is nothing to learn from it.  But when I went there I learned the most important thing in my life.  One day I went to buy flowers at the market.  I asked, ‘May I buy these flowers?’  The Nigerian said, ‘Hello.’  So I asked him again, ‘May I buy these flowers?’  For a second time he said to me, ‘Hello.’  When I asked him a third time, I got back a thunderous answer, ‘HELLO!’  Then I remembered the Nigerian custom that even when we buy something, first we have to exchange ‘Hello’ with each other, that is, we have to communicate with each other as human beings.  Then business can follow.  I had forgotten the custom completely.”

When we think from the United States, we think of Nigeria as a backward country, but according to this man, the most important human teaching, that is, the dialogue of human beings, is there, strong, in Nigeria.  When I realized this, then I thought to myself, the real native country of our life is the country where we have true dialogue between human beings.  That is the true native country of humanity.


From News letter of Chicago Buddhist Temple, 2018 March Isssue