Reflections of My Visit to Kyoto and Hoonko 2007

Speech given by Nina Costales on March 23, 2008

As some of you may already know, both my husband, Robert, and son, Tim, participated in visits to Honzan in 2003. My son went as a representative for the Junior YBA Hoshidan tour in the summer and my husband went for the Hoonko service in November of that year.

Both of them came back with stories of their visits – what activities they had, places they visited, what they experienced, and I have to admit I was envious. It sounded like an incredible event that happens in one’s life that you never forget. I wondered if I would ever have the opportunity to go and what would it be like for me to visit Kyoto to participate in a retreat. Since we had discussed our going as a family in 2011 to participate in the 750th memorial of Shinran Shonin, I thought that would be my time.

I was delighted to be asked to represent our temple and felt honored and privileged to be selected since I felt there were other members of our Sangha who were more deserving. I was allowed to take time off from work for my trip. I began my preparations. Almost daily, I listened to Shoshinge on my MP3 player when I took BART to work; I even listened to it when I worked out at the gym. I wanted to keep my luggage to a manageable amount, after all, I was only going to be there about a week, but I didn’t want to be under-dressed. Some of the best advice I got for the trip came from Tom Morioka and my husband Robert. “Pack really warm socks.” They were right…it was one of the essentials that I needed on those cold damp days in Kyoto. 

I was looking forward to seeing some familiar faces on my trip. Some of the ministers from Kyoto have visited California and I had a chance to meet a few of them. I had met some of the other NAD participants at retreats in Southern California. I knew that the Yamada and Yamashita families were taking a trip to Japan in late November and had plans to be at Honzan during Hoonko service. Reverend Peter Lait, who I had met several times, was the minister at the Retreat Center who was going to be conducting our discussions during the retreat. I always found his talks stimulating and was looking forward to seeing him as well. I often reminded myself that my primary purpose was not to go sightseeing or shopping. It would be a great opportunity to deepen my study of Jodo Shinshu and have a better understanding of Buddhism. I was really looking forward to the trip.

My trip began on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Most of the participants from the North American District were meeting at the San Francisco airport. Reverend Hasegawa and three participants from Southern California were already at the airport when I arrived. Other participants from Southern California went a few days earlier so they could have some time to sightsee. Two people coming from Chicago had some excitement since their domestic flight was delayed and they sprinted all the way to make our international flight. The people from Hawaii were going to meet us at the retreat center.

With the time difference, we arrived at the Osaka airport on Sunday afternoon and took a shuttle to our hotel in Kyoto. After checking in, we regrouped in the lobby and went in search of a restaurant for dinner. We found a great place that made their own noodles. We actually were able to watch them while we waited for our table. After dinner, we returned to the hotel to get some much needed rest. 

Our first full day was spent visiting different sites at Mt. Hiei. For me, it became a pilgrimage to a special place. After paying our respects at Honzan in the morning, we made our way to Mount Hiei, first using taxis to the train station. We used two more modes of transportation – a train and then the ropeway (cable car). Oh yes, and we did a lot of walking, too. We sometimes paused to give our weary legs a rest. As we made our way to the top of the mountain, we stopped to visit various temples along the way. I remember being struck by the number of people visiting these places on a weekday. I wondered how far some of them had traveled, what brought them here. Were they just tourists like us? Were they there to pay their respects to Buddha? They appeared to be from all walks of life. The natural surrounding beauty with the vibrant autumn colors added to the moving experience I had.

When reaching one of the temples, we noticed that there was a large bell off to the side. We took turns ringing it, seeing if we could really swing the log to get a loud, resonant tone from it. I remember thinking about how it must have been centuries ago to hear the bell echoing from the mountain. Was it a way to remind people that there was some special Buddhist holiday or service? Did the people pause during their daily lives to think about their Buddhist practice? My heart was filled with such emotion hearing the sound resonating as we each took our turn. I thought of the many people who came before me that visited this place. 

Watching the sunset as we waited for the cable car to take us down the mountain, I felt humbled thinking about how modern transportation made it easy to visit these historical sites. Many years ago, centuries ago, people did not have these conveniences. They walked up the steep and probably treacherous paths to pursue their desire to learn more. How long did it take them to make this trek? Did they encounter any misfortunes? Did any of them complain about all that walking as some of us did? It helped me appreciate how fortunate I was to be able to make this trip, that I was privileged to walk the same paths as many did before me. There is so much we take for granted.

The next day we left our hotel and moved to the Dobo Kaikan (Retreat Center) at the Higashi Honganji headquarters. Although my husband, Robert, told me what an experience it was for him to participate four years ago, it could not have prepared me for the amazing experience I had there. The group from the United States made up such a small portion of the participants who had come to this retreat. The retreat center was very accommodating to make our stay a pleasant one. We enjoyed a special lunch with Honzan dignitaries. We were shown around the facilities briefly before we went to our classroom. We met the ministers that were assigned to work with us. They were so friendly and made us feel comfortable.

One of my favorite activities was sitting in the third floor Kodo (hall) chanting with everyone/ It gave me a feeling of belonging to an incredible sangha. Many of the participants did not speak English yet we all shared special words when we chanted Shoshin-ge together. I am glad that I listened to my MP3 player because I didn’t feel so awkward having my voice join theirs. We had a common language. The sound of the voices in unison moved me to tears. It seemed so special to be a part of this. It was as if I was in a dream and I didn’t want anyone to wake me from it. I looked forward to our morning and evening services so that my voice could join others. 

Mealtime also was an opportunity be a part of this community well. Not only sharing the food but the duties of preparation and clean-up was a chance to make the retreat a good experience for al who came. Sharing sleeping quarters with women who spoke no English did not hamper our interactions with them. They cheerfully helped us set up the futons and put them away each day. Through gestures, they would try to let us know if the bath areas were crowded, some encouraging us to join them. Others even made sure that we would understand what the “procedure” was to taking a Japanese bath. Language did not seem to be a barrier at all. On the last night together, one of them gave each of us a nenju as a gift. Such a simple gesture meant so much to me. 

The discussions with Reverend Peter Lait were interesting and thought provoking. His approach was not one of providing us the answers, but one of having us to think, to reflect, to look within ourselves. After one evening session with Peter Lait, DeeAnn, a member of the Newport Beach temple, and I lay next to each other discussing the topics we had just gone over earlier. Here we were tired after a full day of activities, yet we couldn’t stop thinking about the material we covered. We happened to wake up early one morning (around 5) and sat around and talked more about our previous night’s discussion with Peter as well as other things.

The Hoonko service was another highlight of my visit to Kyoto. The Amida Hall was filled to capacity, the overflow was accommodated by areas outside of the hall. People traveled from all parts of Japan; busses lined the streets outside of Honzan. Once again, I reflected on how easy it was for me to be there, that arrangements had been made for me to participate in this very special occasion. Television stations had sent their crews to cover this occasion. The retreat center staff had accommodated the “Westerners” by providing chairs for us since this service was a long one. I was pleased to see the Yamada and Yamashita families there.

I looked around the hall and noticed all the different people there – young and old, from all walks of life, some with faces that displayed the hours toiling out in the sun, others who appeared to have had the “good life”. All of them here to participate, to pay their respects. How privileged I felt to be a part of all of this. It was an event of a lifetime for me.

The next day was the confirmation service where I received my Buddhist name. I remember being nervous and excited. Reverend Hasegawa and others had prepared me for the event the day before. We had discussed what the procedure was, what the order of activities were. I was the only NAD participant that was receiving my confirmation and two members from the Hawaii district received theirs as well. Words cannot express what I was feeling sitting with the other retreat participants. As I sat there, I thought about how many confirmations probably took place there and wondered what it was like for people who had come before me. I felt all of those people were there with me and the experience was powerful. After it was over, I received hugs and congratulatory greetings from the others. I was honored to have them witness something so special in my life.

During our stay at Honzan, we had a tour of the facilities and were able to see the construction and repairs being done on the Founders Hall. During the tour, I marveled at the work being done. It was amazing. The thought of the hard labor that went into building this facility left me speechless. The story of the hair rope that was used to haul the logs for lumber is one that many of us have heard. However to see the rope made us realize the sacrifices people made to build this structure. One could observe people touching their own hair as they viewed this rope. We saw the old tiles that are being replaced and one of the harnesses used to carry the tiles was on display. On a whim, I asked to put the harness on my back to see what it must have been like to carry the tiles. Someone loaded one of the tiles on to it and I got to feel the weight that was carried centuries ago. Dedication and hard work built this magnificent structure many years ago and followers of Shinran have had the privilege of worshipping there. Today’s technology and equipment now make it possible to do things so quickly. However, knowing what people were willing to do before gave me a greater appreciation of the buildings we toured.

The visit to Kyoto was much more than I expected. I was able to visit historical Buddhist sites, to chant with a multitude of followers, to be a part of an amazing retreat. I made new friends and had an opportunity to become better acquainted with others that I met previous to the retreat. I received confirmation and received a Buddhist name. More importantly, I came away with a better appreciation of Jodo Shinshu. I am grateful that I had a chance to go to Kyoto and will continue my journey to learn more about Buddhism. It was an experience that I will never forget.