By Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi, Resident Minister
UNDERSTANDING AND EXPERIENCE
How many of us have felt that we understood something, until we finally experienced what we
thought we understood? This may be a key reason that the Buddha advised that we not accept
any teachings without testing it out with our own experience.
This is the month of graduation for many levels of education. A student’s graduation indicates
that they have understood most of the material that was presented to them at that level. It is
presumed that the education to that point, has prepared them for the next level, be it more
schooling or the application of that education toward some avenue of work.
Those of us, who have gone through that process, have a sense that the understanding we
received at the intellectual level, is different from the understanding we will have after a period of
experience and application of that education on a physical level. This is where the element of
“practice” comes into play in our Buddhist religious/spiritual life. The advantage we have as Shin
Buddhists, is that our practice is inherent in the daily activity of ordinary life. It seems as though Shin
Buddhism has influenced Japanese culture so much, that it has been incorporated in the daily
customs, etiquette, and speech of ordinary Japanese.
An example of this is the common response to “how are you?” (“ikaga-desuka?”), is
(“okagesama-de, genki desu”), “due to all the causes and conditions, I am fine.” This response
indicates my awareness that my well-being is due to the efforts of others. This and other gestures,
such as bowing (a sign of humility and respect), emphasizes the gratitude of being a part of the
fabric of life, and the recipient of unseen causes and conditions. Thus, the reality of
interdependence and the naturalness of impermanence are incorporated seamlessly into our
As Americans, our culture tends to emphasize the primacy of the individual. Simple
observation indicates that much of our energy is about being accepted within a group. The pursuit
of “likes” on Facebook, or obsession with “selfies,” indicate a paucity of self-esteem. In addition,
our capitalistic economy is dependent on the public’s desire for things that we don’t have.
Advertisers indicate that our self-worth will be enhanced, by possessing their products. In this social
environment, the individual with the most toys and status is deemed to be the most valued and
accepted. It is difficult to present an opposing value system of equality and service, to counter
this prevailing attitude. In this environment, Buddhist principles may have to be presented in a way
that fits the unconscious, common norms of society.
Within this landscape of individual promotion, there is also movement among mature adults to
seek alternative goals. The Buddhist values of mindfulness, harmony, and equanimity, seem to be
of great interest. Shin Buddhism offers a path of individual acceptance, within the activity of
ordinary life. Just as Buddhism has embedded itself within the cultural patterns of Japan, it can
utilize common American values in experiencing the essence of Buddhist thought. It may begin
with conscious effort, but will eventually become a natural pattern, just as waving and shaking
hands might be for a child. Buddhist principles can become a natural reality for those who choose
this path. Rather than focus on attitudes and actions that we should avoid, we might emphasize
practices that engender joy. The most common is to express appreciation for gifts received.
“Thank you” is the first step toward an awakened reality. It is also the basis of our experience of
Namo Amida Butsu.
A lot of things can upset us during our day. To balance that, we may have to adopt a
practice. It may seem artificial, at first, but so has any skill we have learned. Driving a car, playing a
musical instrument, or playing a sport, all have required an awkward learning period. But with some
practice, we reach a level of enjoyment. The point is to shift our attention from what we don’t
have, to what we do have. My suggestion has been to find the many opportunities in our ordinary
life, to say “thank you.” “Thank you” for the efforts of others for my receiving breakfast, lunch, and
dinner, is a good start. Other areas of gratitude can be found in the arenas of public health,
safety, transportation and living conditions. Citizens of many third world countries could only dream
of these conditions. Although this strategy may seem vey simplistic, it is a beginning step to alter
Evidence of the effectiveness of this mind-set can be seen as we compare our physical and
social life style, with that of our grandparents. The pioneers of this and other BCA temples
experienced hardships far greater than we have. The great depression, war, forced evacuation,
discrimination, and financial hardship, were the typical realities of the times. Yet, there existed a
firm foundation of equanimity and gratitude. Life was balanced by the simple pleasures of family
and community involvement. For Jodo Shinshu families, the Nembutsu provided the source for the
experience of bliss in times of great suffering.
To consciously say “thank you” is a prelude to the experience of Namo Amida Butsu. As we
experience the depth of “thank you,” our understanding of Nembutsu becomes a deeper
experience. Practicing saying “thank you” and Namo Amida Butsu is the experience of deeper
understanding. (This topic will be explored further next month).
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