People these days say they like Buddhism because they think it’s more “lifestyle” or “philosophy,” than “religion.” After all, Buddhism offers insights that are logical, uses psychology and grounded in universal truths.

However Buddhism is a religion like other world religions in a way that may surprise you—it acknowledges a higher power greater than ourselves.

There’s a big distinction: this power is not personified as a god standing in judgment of mankind. It’s a power pervading the universe and part of you and me.

This power is what I believe elevates Buddhist teachings from concepts to dynamic spirituality. In Jodo Shinshu, it’s called “other power,” as opposed to our own “self-power.” Shinran Shonin wrote extensively about self-power and other power. Shinshu teacher Manshi Kiyozawa later called it “power beyond self.”

Self-power refers to our own efforts to live and control life. Most of the time, our lives are based on self-power. We believe our intelligence, how hard we work, the things we do, determine our success, failures and happiness. We build our lives on self-power. Thus we become obsessed with good schools, jobs, wealth, possessions, status and recognition.

Especially in America, we are a nation of achievers, stress hard work and believe in controlling life’s destiny. To the victor go the spoils. Why not? Certainly from this standpoint, life’s winners are the rich and privileged, who feel they deserve to be tops. In this equation, success equals happiness.

However, a closer look reveals major flaws—money doesn’t guarantee happiness, wealth doesn’t protect us from sickness, old age and death, many fail in pursuit of worldly success, inequality prevails and our desires seem endless. By contrast, some people possessing very little seem happiest.

Yet, we expend much of our lives chasing this elusive dream. Shinran called this conundrum living a life of self-power. For him, the fundamental problem is our belief in self-power.

This point I think confuses people because we are taught to believe in ourselves, to work hard and achieve success. Of course making a living requires tremendous effort and we must work at it. But we fret and worry constantly, trying to take control of life, facing setbacks and difficulties, struggling to arrive at a place that always seems beyond reach. According to Shinran, this situation is life’s great predicament.

Our belief in this sense of “self” is so hardened, it’s virtually impossible to break. This path we tread seems the best and only way until the point where it stops. That end-of-road place is a teetering spiritual cliff from where we might fall.

People stand at the cliff’s edge when facing a crisis—job loss, relationship breakup, sickness, a loved one’s death, aging, losing one’s physical abilities or confronting one’s mortality. This is a place where self-power no longer applies. The world where people thought they lived, where nice cars, money, status, and big houses mattered, suddenly shatters and disappears, a great shock causing confusion, paralysis, sadness and depression.

Jodo Shinshu teaches the problem’s root is our erroneous view of life, which is based on this sense of “self” as central and all-important. Consequently we wrongly judge our happiness based on how it affects this “self,” always taking a “selfish” view of life. Buddhism calls this view “ignorance.”

The true nature of life is a universe interconnected through innumerable causes, conditions and effects that ultimately represent great Oneness. It’s a universe in which we see our connection to trees, plants, animals, birds, rivers, forests, oceans, wind, rain, earth, sun, moon and stars. It’s a bond tying us together transcending time and space so we are never alone. Understanding this truth Buddhism calls “wisdom.”

Often we can’t truly see this great universe until our sense of self-power is broken by life’s travails. That’s why I think many people only after wrestling with sickness, after the devastating loss of a loved one, after growing old and frail, become more “religious.” With the Buddha’s guidance, their loss of control over life forces them to see just how the universe works.

Our lives ultimately are not the result of our own efforts. Life comes from a power, greater than ourselves. The Pure Land sutras call this power “Tathagatha,” described as “wondrous,” “mysterious” and “inconceivable.” With this understanding comes a great spiritual awakening in which people deeply appreciate the life they have been given. A great burdened lifts from their shoulders and they no longer struggle. Some describe this feeling as “letting go.”

Fear and worry dissipate. People feel grateful for their lives, whatever their circumstances, and they can live fully. Their joy is not based on material wealth, but arises from inner peace and a deep understanding of life.

After the deaths of his wife and son, suffering from illness himself, Rev. Kiyozawa described his awakening: “The power of Tathagata is limitless. The power of Tathagatha is unsurpassed…. It pervades everything and works freely, without hindrance. By committing myself to the wondrous power of Tathagatha, I have great peace and comfort… I have no fear.”

I once saw an elderly temple member walking slowly through the garden. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I asked how he was doing. “Can’t complain,” he said, then he joked, “I guess the man upstairs is looking out for me.”

I don’t know about “the man upstairs,” but some people like to think that somebody, such as a deity or divine being is watching over them. In Asian cultures, people think ancestors and recently departed loved ones can help the living, especially if they pay proper respects to them.

In our Buddhist tradition, Shinran Shonin warned people against relying on spirits, the supernatural or believing that one’s actions can determine good luck and fortune. Instead he encouraged people to understand the dharma, or great truth as taught by the Buddha. By looking inwardly at ourselves, we can truly understand the mysterious power of Life.

Although we like to think we are independent, can take care of ourselves and are responsible for our own successes and failures, actually we are quite dependent on others. There are many people in life who help us, such as doctors, teachers, spouses, friends and family. For the sake of argument, I’d like to focus on parents or that person who takes care of us when we are born.

Think of it, a parent feeds us, gives us shelter, clothes, love, affection and tries to keep us safe and healthy. As babies we are totally dependent on that person and we don’t even know it. The lives of parent and child are inextricably linked, a primordial bond that exists from the beginning of time. That mother’s parent did the same for her, and as her mother did and so forth, going back countless generations.

A loving mother wants her child to be healthy, safe and happy. Even as the child grows up and becomes “independent,” mother’s wish remains unchanged. She continues to wish the best for her child. If a child is troubled, in need of help, or is suffering, it is hard for a parent to leave this world in peace.

The “wish” that we live full lives comes not only from our parents, but our grandparents, great grandparents and all the others who came before us. That wish has been handed down since the beginning of time. When we deeply reflect on the nature of life, we can feel that wish living inside of us. It’s a gift given to us mysteriously unbounded by time or place.

Yet in our day-to-day lives, we may feel alone in our struggle to survive against the world. That’s because we think we are “independent,” that life is only about myself and no one else. This blindness to the truth the Buddha called “ignorance.”

We may look outside of ourselves for affirmation that our lives are worth living. That’s why it’s tempting to reach out to gods or spirits for help. But if we look inward, we discover an encouragement and strength in the form of a wish that has already been given to us.

When Shinran Shonin was nearing the end of his life at age 90, his disciples despaired over his impending passing. Shinran encouraged them to look beyond the temporary and transient, to see that their lives were already tied together as One.

He said:

“Though my life is at its end, to be born in the Land of Eternal Peace,

I shall return to this world, again and again,

Just as the waves of Wakanoura Bay return to the beach.

When you are alone and reciting Nembutsu, know there are two,

When there are two, know there are three,

That the other is Shinran.

Namu Amida Butsu”

On February 15, 2015 we observe our annual “Eitaikyo” (perpetural) memorial service in memory of all loved ones who have passed away. As Shinran reminds us, they are still very much a part of our lives. Let us honor and appreciate them with this special service. Please join us.

Late one night, a man walked along a mountain path when he slipped, tumbling down the side. Frantically reaching out, he suddenly grabbed hold of a tree branch, his legs dangling in the air. So dark was the night he couldn’t see anything around him.

“If I let go of this branch, I will fall into a deep ravine and die,” he thought to himself. He held on for dear life. As time passed, his arms ached and grew tired. Slowly, his grip began to weaken. “I will surely die,” he thought.

Just as he began to lose his grip, the morning sun suddenly peeked over the horizon, shining its light on the man. Looking down below, he saw the ground was a mere six inches beneath his feet. He let go and found himself safely standing.

This parable tells us how suffering, worry, fear and anxiety are often caused by ignorance and attachment to our beliefs. Not seeing clearly leads us astray. We may feel certain and confident in our view of the world, which makes it hard to let go. Sometimes, only when forced will we let go.

I had a cat once that taught me such a lesson. A bump appeared on her back so off to the veterinarian we went. It was a tumor. I hid medicine in kitty treats and food. She grew thin and ate little. I served her favorite foods; tuna, dry food, canned food, pieces of meat. All the little dishes around her water bowl looked like a fancy Japanese kaiseki meal. She refused to eat.

She looked dehydrated. Holding her, I used a toy squirt gun to shoot water in her mouth. She absolutely hated it and pulled away. I suddenly realized her body was shutting down, that she was dying, that there was nothing I could do. It was nature’s way of transition. I had no choice but to let go. A short time later, she died.

A month later, I found myself at my brother’s bedside. He was dying of cancer. He had grown thin and ate little. I encouraged him to eat, a few pieces of meat, fruit, even just jello. I read aloud the hospital’s daily menu, noting his favorites, hoping it would appeal to him. He refused to eat. I insisted, “At least a little juice!”

Then I remembered my cat. I let go. A short time later, he passed away.

We all face challenges in life when we face the challenge of letting go: for instance in relationships, jobs, health, aging and death.

The Buddha constantly reminded people that we live in a world of impermanence, that our lives are interdependent with many things, that we can’t control the universe; rather our lives are the result of the universe’s power. Yet we seek permanence and hold onto beliefs in our power and views. Until we let go.

Shinran Shonin once asked his disciples: “Does dawn break, then the sun appears? Or does the sun appear, then dawn breaks?” He explained it’s important to know the sun appears first.

The sun represents the light of wisdom; darkness represents ignorance, he said. Wisdom’s light begins shining in understanding, dispelling the darkness of ignorance.

Letting go is not a bad thing. When we do, we find ourselves standing on solid ground. Anxieties fade, a quiet calm returns. Life still is both happy and sad. That we know makes us human.

“Happy New Year” means I hope you find happiness this year. As we enter the New Year and reflect on the past, let’s consider the meaning of happiness.

Pondering the search for happiness, I recently saw a long line of people buying lottery tickets. The jackpot was a near-record $648 million! Nothing stokes the imagination like the thought “winning the lottery,” conjuring images of wealth, comfort and life free from worry. Surely it’s a ticket to happiness.

Of course, studies show lottery winners aren’t necessarily happier, and in many cases, face more problems than before. Don’t get me wrong. I hope you win. If you do, please remember your neighborhood Buddhist temple!

But it’s true. You know the saying, “Rich people are different than you and me: They have more money.” In other words, we’re all the same regardless of wealth. We all face difficulties in life, especially the great sufferings noted by the Buddha of sickness, aging and death. The “three poisons” of greed, anger and delusion afflict everyone.

Too often, people assume something will make us automatically happy, like saying, “I won the lottery,” meaning, “I’m set for life.” Just the thought of winning gives people pleasure. It’s fun to think, “If I won, I would buy…”

The Buddha called this thinking delusion. In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha described a man lost in the desert, thirsting for water. He thinks he sees an oasis, but it’s a mirage. Just the thought of getting there and drinking gives him pleasure, so he stumbles forth toward a place that doesn’t exist. The Buddha says we are like that man, forever searching for happiness in the wrong place.

If happiness doesn’t exist in satisfying our worldly desires, where is it?

Imagine one morning being told you won the lottery. You’d be happy, right? But that afternoon a medical test showed you had terminal cancer. Happiness would suddenly disappear.

Now imagine the opposite. In the morning you were told you lost the lottery, but in the afternoon you discovered a cancer test was negative, and really, you were healthy.

Which would you want? Which would you want if it were your loved ones? Which would make you happier? The answer I think would be health. Money can’t buy happiness if you’re not healthy.

We often lose sight of what’s important. Moreover, we’re distracted or misled by what we think we want. Consumed by desires, we forget what we have.

Realizing what we have here and now fills us with appreciation and gratitude, two great dimensions of joy, a much deeper and richer feeling than fleeting happiness. What we have now are family, friends, community, earth and life itself. We are blessed in ways money can’t buy.

In this coming year of 2014, let’s together listen to the Buddha Dharma, contemplate the true meaning of our lives, and go forth with appreciation, gratitude and joy.

My uncle loved golf. He liked to watch it, talk about it—and most of all—play it. While at work, he dreamed of retiring to a life of golf.

Once retired, he played with friends every weekday at a course near his house. Whenever he missed a day, his friends would say, “Hey, where were you?” He began to feel obligated to play. He played in rain, in cold, in wind, and in heat. Even when he didn’t feel like playing, he went. After awhile, my uncle said to me, “Golf has become work!”

I’m pretty sure the Buddha didn’t play golf, but if he did, he’d probably say the difference between work and play is attitude. Our outlook, or understanding, determines how we feel about something. It’s less about the “thing” itself and more about meaning.

In July every year at the temple, we collectively heave a sigh at the prospect of organizing another summer bazaar. It’s so much work! The thought of constructing booths, buying supplies, planning schedules, preparing ingredients, cooking foods, working shifts and so forth can be overwhelming. Somehow, some way, everything comes together.

The summer bazaar is a major fundraiser for us. Proceeds account for a third of our operating budget. It also has become a defining characteristic for Japanese American Buddhist temples. In Japan, Buddhist temples don’t have bazaars like ours. In America some churches, temples and synagogues have bazaars, but in no way are they ubiquitous.

A Jewish friend told me his synagogue doesn’t hold a bazaar. Instead, each family donates a thousand dollars a year, which multiplied the synagogue’s 100 member families amounts to its annual operating budget of $100,000. They don’t need to do any fundraising. At some places I hear rich donors contribute tens of thousands or even a million dollars or more to their favorite temples and churches (Buddhists included!). If anybody wants to donate as much to our temple, please do!

However such large donations can be a blessing and a curse. They’re a blessing in that a single $100,000 donation covers a year of our temple’s expenses. A million dollar donation covers 10 years worth. We wouldn’t need to worry about fundraising, asking for pledges or relying on the goodwill of members and friends. We wouldn’t even need a summer bazaar!

However it’s a curse because I think many of you would probably begin to ignore those pesky letters and announcements asking for your donations and help. Some people may say, “The temple is rich, why should I give money?” or “The temple doesn’t need my help, I don’t need to go.” I think many people would stop coming.

I think the fact our temple is supported by many, many small donations is a source of strength. It’s like a big tree supported by many small roots, which together allow it to stand. Where some roots disappear, other roots grow. A tree with just a few big roots is in trouble if just one dies.

Likewise, many, many hands coming together make our bazaar a success. The bazaar exists because of the help of many people. And many people come to our bazaar and enjoy eating, seeing friends and having a place where they feel part of a community.

Our bazaar exists, not only as a fundraiser, but more importantly, to bring us together as a sangha. In Buddhist terms, we can see and feel in our lives a sense of interdependence with other people and with a greater community through the bazaar.

Even if our temple were cash rich, I’d still want to have a bazaar. It’s a place where you and I can meet and have a good time. Come out, eat good food, talk to friends and enjoy this life we share together at the bazaar. As the Buddha might say, such play requires work. To do something we believe in and want to do requires effort. In making the effort, we find enjoyment and meaning. Work and play, they’re both the same.

By the way, if anybody has a spare million to donate, we still need it. On the to-do list is a new roof, temple windows, fence repairs and updated plumbing. The list is endless.