Kathmandu Temple Head Visits Kauai
By Joshua Borden
(Joshua Borden attends Kapa'a Hongwanji & has graciously allowed us to print his article in our newsletter)
Back in July, Kapa'a and Lihue Hongwanji were honored by a visit from a guest speaker from far away.
Reverend Sonam Wangdi Bhutia, Head Priest of Kathmandu Hongwanji, came all the way from Nepal to give a two-part talk on “Shin Buddhism in the Land of Shakyamuni.”
On the first day, Rev. Sonam began by talking about his early life, starting with his birth in the Indian state of Sikkim, located in the Himalaya Mountains, between Bhutan and Nepal. Sikkim was an independent Buddhist Kingdom at the time of Rev. Sonam’s birth, until 1975, when India overthrew the king and annexed Sikkim through referendum.
Rev. Sonam was the second son in a Vajrayana (a.k.a. “Tibetan”) Buddhist family. Following local tradition, his elder brother was expected to continue the family legacy, and Rev. Sonam, as the second son, was sent to a Vajrayana Buddhist monastery to become a monk. Rev. Sonam was sent to the monastery at 3 years old, and began his studies there. When Sikkim was made an Indian state, Rev. Sonam moved to Nepal, where he continued his monastic training.
Life as a Vajrayana monk proved to be extremely strict. Rev. Sonam shared stories of waking up daily at 3am, laborious studies, endless chores, and heavy responsibilities, such as full-day prayer sessions at houses of members of the sangha, chanting sutras from early in the morning until late in the evening. As an adult monk, Rev. Sonam sought enlightenment, but it remained elusive. He even tried a tortuous “mountain recluse” practice and was one of the rare individuals who passed. He reported feeling good from the practice, but not enlightened.
Reminded of Shakyamuni Buddha’s ascetic practices before he gained enlightenment, Rev. Sonam decided to go to Bodhgaya, in India, to meditate under the bodhi tree that Shakyamuni Buddha received enlightenment under. Rev. Sonam made the perilous trek down from the Himalaya Mountains to Bodhgaya, and set about meditating under the bodhi tree. During his second day meditating under the bodhi tree, Rev. Sonam saw a foreign man in an electric wheelchair, circling a stupa. Rev. Sonam guessed that the man was going to pray to the Buddha for health. Feeling bad for the man, Rev. Sonam approached him, and asked the man (in English) where he was from. The man replied in that he was from Japan, and said that he came to Bodhgaya to thank Buddha. Shocked and deeply moved that the paralyzed man wanted to thank Buddha, Rev. Sonam wanted to learn more. The man told Rev. Sonam that Shakyamuni’s wisdom allowed him to overcome depression after a devastating accident that left him paralyzed, and allowed him to live a full life, and even succeed in business. They talked for a while, and made an appointment to meet later to continue their conversation. They discussed doctrine, and the man turned out to be a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist.
This was Rev. Sonam’s introduction to Jodo Shinshu. Rev. Sonam was struck by the man’s extraordinary attitude, and that he was able to practice Shin Buddhism despite his severe handicap, which would have been exceedingly difficult in Tibetan Buddhism. This chance meeting with a Shin Buddhist sparked Rev. Sonam’s interest in Jodo Shinshu; he learned more about nembutsu teachings, studied Japanese, studied Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in Japan, and was eventually ordained as a Jodo Shinshu reverend.
On the second day of Rev. Sonam’s Kauai talks, in Lihue Hongwanji, Rev. Sonam discussed the situation of Buddhism in India and Nepal, and shared the history of Buddhism that has shaped the faith in the world today. Rev. Sonam began by stating that indigenous Buddhism is virtually dead in India and Nepal today, and that Buddhism’s rise and fall in South Asia, as well as the establishment of the three main branches of Buddhism that we are familiar with today (i.e., Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana), can be traced back to politics and war, shaped in particular by King Ashoka.
King Ashoka, Rev. Sonam told the enraptured audience, was an ambitions and power-hungry prince, who became king of a small kingdom in what is now India, by killing the previous king, his own elder brother. Once king, Ashoka then launched several successful military campaigns against neighboring kingdoms in the north, south & west of India. Eventually, King Ashoka united all of what is now India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh under his rule, even parts of Afghanistan; everything except the powerful “Kalinga kingdom” of Eastern India. With the rest of South Asia securely under his control, Ashoka waged a devastating war to capture Kalinga (abt. 260 B.C.), which turned out to be the bloodiest war, causing an estimated 100,000 deaths. Ashoka became full of grief and regret. A Hindu at the time, Ashoka had a “crisis of faith.” After meeting a Buddhist monk blessing the dead on one of the final battlefields, King Ashoka embraced Buddhism. The monk encouraged King Ashoka to turn his regret into positive action, so Ashoka began his Buddhist legacy of spreading good deeds in his empire and the greater region. Among them, he established a number of free “universities” that taught Buddhism, mathematics, and herbal medicine; the largest such school was “Nalanda.” King Ashoka also supported a number of Buddhist missions to spread the dharma north (to what is now Afghanistan & Central Asia), and south (to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia). By the time King Ashoka died, in 232 A.D., Buddhism was popular in his kingdom and was gaining support in other countries. Scholars traveled as far as China and Tibet to learn dharma at institutions like Nalanda and take back to their homelands, and Buddhism was spreading across Central Asia and South East Asia as a result of the successful missions.
King Ashoka’s children continued his efforts after his death, but Ashoka’s kingdom eventually fell, beginning the slow decline of Buddhism in India. Later Hindu kingdoms reestablished the supremacy of Hinduism, and in the following centuries, India was invaded by the Huns (5th~8th centuries) and by Muslim Mongols (12th century), who devastated Buddhism in India and surrounding Central Asian states. The attackers systematically sacked the monasteries & schools, killed monks and teachers, and burned whatever sacred texts they could find. The Muslim Mongols destroyed the final surviving schools, like “Nalanda University,” slaughtering whoever did not convert to Islam. Some monks from Nalanda were able to survive, by running away, over the Himalayas, into Tibet.
Buddhism today, Sonam Sensei explained, is the direct result of these ancient historical events. After the foreign invasions of India, for example, Buddhism was eradicated throughout South and Central Asia. Islam was installed as a dominant religion in the region by the Muslim Mongol invaders, with Hinduism managing to survive alongside Islam in India. Wiped out from its place of origin, Buddhism fractured into the three branches we know today. Buddhist missions sent south, to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, survive as Theravada Buddhism. East Asian scholars who studied at Indian Buddhist schools like Nalanda, took the dharma back to their countries became hosts of the Mahayana tradition (which includes Shin Buddhism). Finally, the Indian monks who survived the destruction of Nalanda and other institutions and fled into Tibet started a new center of Buddhism there, which eventually became Vajrayana or “Tibetan” Buddhism.
This led to Rev. Sonam’s final topic, his work in Nepal, spreading Jodo Shinshu there. Sonam Sensei explained that when he returned to Nepal from Japan as a Jodo Shinshu reverend, he began his mission by discussing dharma with a few friends in Nepal, a Hindu majority country, with a few ethnic minorities who practice Vajrayana Buddhism. Rev. Sonam opened his talk freely to Nepalese Buddhists and Hindus, who were receptive to Jodo Shinshu teachings. His dharma talks quickly grew by word of mouth, and steadily grew to a sangha community of over 100 members, and the approval from Japan to build a Jodo Shinshu temple.
In addition to services, activities of the temple include dharma talks, scripture readings, social outings (such as picnics), Japanese language classes, and volunteer activities to assist the poor of all faiths in neighboring mountain villages. Sonam sensei sent two Nepalese lay sangha members to study Jodo Shinshu in Japan, who have since become ordained and returned to Nepal, making a total of three ministers at Kathmandu Hongwanji. A large temple building was also recently completed with support from Japan, which can hold four hundred people in chairs or five hundred people on the floor. At the time of this talk, the membership of Kathmandu Hongwanji is approaching two hundred, and continues to grow. May Rev. Sonam and his sangha have continued success. They are always welcome with aloha on Kauai!
April 23, 2017
Thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity to speak at this year’s Eshinni-Kakushinni Service. I am honored and very humbled by this opportunity.
A wonderful side-effect of preparing for this talk was the investigation and information gathering I did about both Eshinni and Kakushinni. I learned many things I didn’t know about them. Much of my information came from the book Letters of the Nun Eshinni, by James C. Dobbins. Other information came from a speech given in 2004 by Mrs. Chihoko Yosemori, wife of Bishop Chikai Yosemori and from Jodo Shinshu websites or Jodo Shinshu ministers like Rev. Patricia Usuki, of the San Fernando Valley Buddhist Temple. Of course, you will also notice my own thoughts as I talk about both of these amazing Jodo Shinshu women, as it is natural for information to be distilled through our own perceptions and experiences. I have been truly amazed with the information I have found and my profound respect for both Eshinni and Kakushinni has grown immensely.
It’s too bad we don’t hear more about Eshinni and Kakushinni, as important as they are to the founding and perpetuation of Jodo Shinshu. Before I did my research, I thought “Oh they were important because after all, Eshinni was Shinran’s wife and Kakushinni was their youngest daughter.” While that is certainly true, there is so much more to these two strong women.
According to history, Eshinni was born in 1182. Eshinni’s family was from the Echigo area, where they were land owners. They were not necessarily farming the land, as I understand, in the sense of “going out into the field” to work, but they had land and owned servants to help work the land. Eshinni has been described as “a strong, sophisticated and capable matriarch” and as an independent & assertive woman who had a life and a mind of her own, especially in her later years. To my surprise, I discovered that Eshinni did not depend on her husband for a living; instead, because of her family, the land and servants, she supported Shinran financially and materially so she was able to support Shinran in his work and allow him to spread the dharma. As one source put it, “Imagine how much Shinran’s wounds and grudges were healed by Eshinni’s grace and support. While Shinran and Eshinni challenged the traditional society and authority with their marriage, Shinran was able to acquire security, safety, comfort and warmth from Eshinni. Eshinni also learned and received the wonderful Nembutsu teaching from Shinran.” This is one of those times I wish I had a time machine and could go back in time to meet her. She sounds like an extraordinary woman.
Shinran and Eshinni were married around 1210 and lived in Echigo, where he had been exiled in the year 1207. According to most of the sources I read, these dates indicate that Eshinni & Shinran met and married after he was exiled to Echigo. There is some discussion and disagreement about this fact. Some sources say they were married before going to Echigo and some say they met and married after he was exiled to Echigo. This is another one of those facts that differs based on the source and the author and on translation and interpretation. It is actually good to know there are different & conflicting ideas so there can be discussion. After all, this happened almost 800 years.
If you are like me, I had heard about the letters Eshinni wrote to her daughter Kakushinni but I never gave it much thought. However, as I read more about the letters I have come to realize how truly important the letters and the women are to Jodo Shinshu. There were a total of ten letters which were not discovered until 1921 in the Hongwanji archives. The letters actually helped to confirm Eshinni’s existence & her marriage to Shinran. Prior to the discovery of Eshinni’s letters, there were some people in Japan who did not believe in Shinran’s marriage, the existence of his wife, or for a few, even the existence of Shinran himself. The letters were necessary as Eshinni moved from Kyoto to Echigo in 1234 to take care of her family property during a time of drought & famine while Kakushinni stayed in Kyoto with Shinran to care for him until he passed away in 1263. Eshinni’s letters have allowed us to see her reverence and support for Shinran, whom she considered to be a manifestation of Bodhisattva Kannon, revealing very important facts of Shinran’s personal life as well as his spiritual journey, adding to his stature. Her letters have the added importance for their reflections of a female writer, since most writings at the time were produced by men.
As you can imagine, sending letters back & forth at the time of Eshinni was cumbersome. No Facebook, Twitter, or email, no postal service, only the use of couriers traveling across the land. It would have taken 1-2 months to travel the distance between Echigo & Kyoto, almost 700 miles. To put it in perspective, that is twice the distance between Kauai and the Big Island and three times the distance between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Written communication was precious and complicated.
Kakushinni, born in 1224 and Shinran & Eshinni’s youngest daughter, was the one who took care of Shinran in his later years, staying with him when he was ill and on his death bed. We are indebted to Kakushinni, not simply because she was Shinran’s daughter, but because his teaching might not be available to us today were it not for her devotion to her father and his doctrine. Kakushinni wanted to keep Shinran’s teaching alive and perpetuate it for his followers and in 1277, she built a temple on the Otani grounds in Kyoto which she owned, enshrining an image of Shinran then donating the gravesite to all Shinshu followers as a common memorial to Shinran, keeping his memory and his work alive. Although she was Shinran’s youngest daughter, it is interesting to note that the blood lineage that continues to the Monshu today is traced through Kakushinni’s son and not through one of Shinran’s sons as we might have expected.
The contributions of both Eshinni and Kakushinni have had a lasting impact on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Eshinni gave Shinran her complete dedication and support, while Kakushinni established the foundation and center from which to transmit his teachings for many generations. They both represented women of their time who were confident and self-aware, and who actively participated in the history of Jodo Shinshu and never lost sight of the Nembutsu. For those who have ever heard my dharma messages you know how important music is to me, how powerful music and words can be to reach people. As I started learning more about these two wonderful and powerful women, a song came to my mind . . . “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy. It was written in 1971, 45 years ago. It reflects thoughts from the 70’s and our current time, based on some of the news we hear and I think the words reflect the impact of the silent strength of Eshinni and Kakushinni, even though they would be too humble to say these words. If you need a refresher on the song, check out these two YouTube videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gpu_PV3BTfI or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAo8k0Fq1OM
Thanks to Eshinni & Kakushinni, and many Buddhist women throughout the years, we know that the teaching applies to everyone without exception. As we know, Shinran himself was always careful to emphasize that the Nembutsu teaching was for everyone, whether priest or lay, man or woman, without discrimination; with no one excluded on the basis of class, gender, education or other bias. At the time of Eshinni & Shinran, with divisions between the classes and gender differences, this was a rather radical philosophy. Women have always been just as important as men in the Shin Buddhist Sangha, though they have often remained in the background. It does not mean that women are more special but simply that they are equally bright links in the Golden Chain that brings us all together.
Our lives today now are more comfortable, easier in most ways than at the time of Eshinni but the concepts of Buddhism and the thoughts of Nembutsu are still relevant. Eshinni lived in a time when people experienced the sufferings of life surrounded by the natural cycles of the land, including crop failures and famine. Today we do not have the same experiences as Eshinni yet the cycles of life are still with us; change is always with us whether we welcome it or not. We can acknowledge the changes as Eshinni did and continue on with life or become entrenched in anger, fighting change at every opportunity. Which way seems most practical and life-affirming? Personally, I prefer Eshinni’s example of acceptance. A quote I found expresses the example of her life: “You either get bitter or you get better. It’s that simple. “You either take what has been dealt to you and allow it to make you a better person, or you allow it to tear you down. The choice does not belong to fate, it belongs to you.” (Josh Shipp)
In closing, let me share Eshinni’s words to Kakushinni in her tenth and final letter, written shortly before Eshinni passed away. “I myself will be going to the [Pure Land] paradise very soon. There everything can be seen without any darkness, so be sure to say the Nembutsu and come to the paradise to be with me. Indeed, when we go to the paradise and meet again, nothing whatsoever will be in darkness.”
Thank you for coming this morning to share in our appreciation for Eshinni and Kakushinni and their contributions to Jodo Shinshu.
Namo Amida Butsu
The Dharma of Mochi
As I was looking through a small cookbook for mochi recipes I came upon mochi recipes that could be made in the microwave rather than baking them in the usual way. I had never heard of that before and it intrigued me. As I thought about it more, I realized that, as usual, there was a Dharma Talk in that thought. As I began to put my ideas together, I realized it’s not really about the mochi, it’s about the food, about being in the kitchen, remembering the past and the memories of the past, so my thoughts went off in a different direction.
I thought of the kitchen and what it means, not only at the temple but for me personally. For my family, both as I was growing up and when our daughter was growing up, the kitchen was about so much more than cooking. It was about sharing, family, friends having fun and enjoying life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was what it was really all about. As I spent time with my daughter in the kitchen I realized it made me connect not only with her but with the memories of time spent with my mother.
So many memories of the past are connected with food . . . cooking in the kitchen with my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts and uncles, my cousins . . . . the fun times. . . the celebrations. Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries were always cause for celebration and were always filled with a variety of delicious food. We all had to work together to make it happen, even the youngest helped by setting the table or carrying napkins . . . it was a study in true interdependence. I hope everyone has some of those same memories of family, food and celebration. Even when we could not afford a huge feast or the celebration was for only two people, it was still a celebration of gratitude.
At Legislative Assembly one year a speaker talked about the necessity of using the rear view mirror when driving. While it is true that we need to use the rear view mirror, we will not reach our destination if we only look at where we have been and not where we are going. In the kitchen, this means that we make changes to how we cook, how we bake and sometimes with the ingredients we use. I remember eating bacon frequently and my mother saving the bacon grease to use in her cooking instead of oil. No more; we have learned that it isn’t healthy. After I became an adult, my grandmother talked with me about some of the changes she made in the way she prepared foods. She made wonderful pies and had always made her pie crust and prepared the pie fillings from scratch but as time went on and things changed, couldn’t imagine continuing to do all that work when there were other time-saving methods she could employ. She remarked that she found that Sarah Lee made wonderful pies without all the mess and bother. Changing how she made her pies did not detract from the love she put into the pies, it simply made it easier for others to help her with the task. This is the same for mochi that is made from mochiko powder rather than beginning with mochi rice. No pounding to make the mochi, no need to use fancy equipment, no baking needed to create the final product. Instead, we can use the microwave to help us make the mochi. What a change . . . . one that couldn’t have even been thought of 50 years ago, but it sure is a nice way to make mochi.
As usual, thinking about mochi and being in the kitchen becomes a metaphor for Buddhist concepts and life. Being in the kitchen, whether making pies or mochi, is about cooperation and interdependence. We can do nothing in the kitchen without the help of others . . . . think of the growers, the producers, the packaging, the stores . . . . all of that. Life really is all about change, a constant change. Just as we can’t get stuck driving forward and only looking in the rear view mirror, we need to remember and honor the past but adjust to the changes that are inevitable in life. If not, we are stuck with meaningless tradition. With my grandmother’s pie, she learned to enjoy the new pie making . . . actually she embraced it because it was so much easier and gave her more time to be outside playing volleyball with her grandkids. The taste of the pie wasn’t exactly the same as her homemade pie, but it was good and we all enjoyed it enthusiastically because it came from her with love. No one asked her to go back to her old methods. We were all leaning to deal with change. With mochi, too, we can enjoy the new way of making mochi; even embrace the new methods, with the new equipment and the quicker process. It may not be exactly the same as it used to be, but we can still enjoy it with enthusiasm. I know that I enjoy it even more because I can make it myself any time I want without waiting for a special occasion or waiting for a crowd of people to help. For life too, every day brings inevitable change but we can still enjoy life and its variations if we remember to honor the past but also enjoy and embrace change. We should not be stuck in the past, just because we remember it fondly or because it was the way we were taught. Life may not be exactly the same as before and may not be exactly what we want, but it is ok. Life is still sweet, even if the ingredients are a little different and the methods are not the same. Sweet is still sweet.
Carol Valentine (August 28, 2016)
Think of this as a continuation of last week’s dharma talk ("Words Have Power"). I spoke about how we need to be careful with our words and our actions with others. I mentioned Interdependence, a main concept in Buddhism; we are never in this all by ourselves, we always are affected by others and have an effect on those around us. This is as true for all of life as it is true for our temple. Dr. Mark Unno, in an article from the Buddhist Study Center newsletter, wrote, “Life is about the journey. It’s about how we all live at the intersection of each other’s lives and actions and how we must do the best that [we] can.”
Life is not a solo adventure, no matter what we think. We are never in this life on our own, unless maybe we are living “off the grid” somewhere, with no electricity, no water service, no grocery store and (oh my goodness!) no internet. But yet, even “off the grid” people still need others . . . the animals they must hunt for food, the maker of the tools they use in their life, even the manufacturers of the clothing they wear. No one survives alone without the help of others, even if we think we do. No matter how much we may say “I’m fine on my own . . . I don’t need anyone,” It isn’t true. We all need each other, whether we are on the giving side of the equation or the receiving side of the equation.
Think about the Olympics, which were just held in Rio. The Olympics are a great example of the interdependence of so many people. Think about these sports, how interdependent they are: soccer, synchronized swimming, relay events, water polo, team rowing. These events are team events so the interdependence is obvious. If the teams don’t cooperate and play together they will lose for sure. But what about those events that are individual sports? I checked online and found out that about 80% of the Olympic events are individual sports. Think about individual sports like gymnastics, fencing, archery, judo. Are the participants all on their own, with no assistance from anyone else? Not by a long shot. Think about how many people helped the gold medal gymnast Simon Biles achieve her goal. I can only guess at the number . . . there are obvious ones, like her parents, her coaches and the gyms that she trained in. Think about the costumes, the equipment, the chalk, and so many things I have no clue about. Beyond the obvious, there are many, many people behind each and every Olympic participant, whether they are a gold medal winner or in 30th place.
Even people in sports know how much their success depends on others. Recently there were inductions into the Football Hall of Fame and the Baseball Hall of Fame. In football, Brett Farve was one of the inductees. As he talked, he mentioned all of the people in his life that had helped him, from coaches to teammates to friends and family. Many of the people mentioned were people I had never heard of, just simple people but important ones in Brett Farve’s life. In baseball, one of the inductees, Ken Griffey, Jr., displayed the same thoughts. He thanked all of the people who had helped in his career, some of them far in the past but nevertheless important to him. All of the inductees did the same thing, expressing their thanks for the people in their lives who helped them and who believed in them. These people are the best in their sports yet they are very aware that they did not achieve their fame by themselves. They gratefully acknowledge their need for others in their lives and the important part that interdependence plays in their lives. They know we all need each other to accomplish anything in life. We are all the same. We need each other, we need cooperation, we need to help each other as often as we can.
As we are aware, it seems easier to help those we know or those we can relate to, but oneness in Buddhism is about all of us, regardless of who we are. Diversity may bring struggles and difficulties, but in diversity, we find strength. Diversity is a gift, not a problem. I discovered a video on YouTube called “Love Has No Labels.” It talks about diversity in a better way than I can, expressing the idea that we should love and embrace diversity. By the way, the man doing the speaking is John Cena, from the WWE (that stands for the World Wrestling Entertainment). Although he has made part of his living as a pro wrestler, he has also granted over 500 wishes for children through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. How’s that for not judging a person by only their appearance? Surprised me!
Check out the YouTube site: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MdK8hBkR3s
As I have thought about interdependence I realize that it also contains other significant Buddhist concepts, those of compassion and gratitude. When I think of compassion, I think of Dana (selfless giving), one of the 6 Paramitas. If we are compassionate then we think of others and try to help others, without superficial restrictions. But, look at this another way. If we are compassionate and we reach out to others, there must be someone to receive the compassion. Makes sense, right? But think about the reverse. If someone shows us compassion (offering to help us with packages, offering to give us a ride), what is our usual first reaction? “Oh, no thank you. I can manage.” How many of us have done this? I’ll admit that I have, thinking about how independent I am. Superwoman! I can do it all! NOT. Seriously, if people are offering help, support and compassion and we reject their efforts, then we are denying their offer of dana, we are denying their compassion. I don’t think we actually mean to say that when we turn down an offer, but it can be seen in that way. If someone is giving (dana) then there must be someone receiving or it is useless. Interdependence truly is about being there for each other, creating situations for “win-win” not “win-lose.” Let’s be sure we are gracious whether we are giving or receiving. The Dalai Lama called this “wise selfish; seeing that our own well-being lies in everybody’s welfare, in being compassionate.”
One example of interdependence is what has been happening these past two weeks in Louisiana with the floods. People who were not affected helped those who were devastated by the floods. They helped strangers escape their homes in boats, they helped shovel out their homes after the flood waters receded, stepping up to help just because it was the right thing to do. They didn’t stop to ask them where they were from or what church they attended, they just helped in any way they could. The same could be said for the earthquake in Italy or the tornadoes in the Midwest. People help each other because it is the right thing to do.
I want to leave you with two thoughts:
“Be the reason someone smiles today.”
And words from the Buddha:
“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”