How like the voices of the Buddha

At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, October is the month in which we celebrate Buddhist women of the Nembutsu, including Shinran Shonin’s wife Eshinni and their youngest daughter Kakushinni, who worked tirelessly to ensure that the joy of the Nembutsu would be passed on to future generations. During our Sunday Services this month we will be learning about important women poets of the Nembutsu, including Mrs. Wariko Kai and Mrs. Misuzu Kaneko, who were active in Japan during the early part of the twentieth century.

Mrs. Tomoe Tana, the wife of Rev. Daisho Tana who served as the first assigned minister to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple from 1952-1955, was an inspiring poet of the Nembutsu writing here in the United States. Mrs. Tana was born in Hokkaido in 1913 as the daughter of a Buddhist priest. She married Rev. Tana in 1937 and moved to the United States in 1938, where they lived in Berkeley and then Lompoc.

With the outbreak of WWII, Rev. Tana was taken into custody in March 1942, and transported to incarceration camps in Santa Fe and Lordsburg, New Mexico, where he remained for the duration of the war. Mrs. Tana and their two young children Yasuto and Shibun were sent to the internment camp at Gila, Arizona. At that time, Mrs. Tana was pregnant with their third son, Chinin, who was born in camp. Their fourth son Akira was born after the war. While many ministers were released from Santa Fe and reunited with their families in the other internment camps, Rev. Tana was hospitalized repeatedly with tuberculosis, which prevented his transfer to the camp at Gila where his family was living. Mrs. Tana cared for their three small children on her own throughout the internment. By the time Tana Sensei was finally released in 1946, the family had been separated longer than they had been together.

Mrs. Tana was a renowned Tanka poet and she captured the experience of those years in the following poems written during her incarceration at Gila, Arizona. She sent these poems to her husband and he recorded them in the diaries he kept during the war.

Saying, “To the Buddha,” young girls pick flowers and hand them to me;

I delightedly offer them to the Buddha.

From the peaks of the Sierras, winds blow this way and that:

In the dead of night, I pile on more clothes because of cold.

During a Dharma Talk, cries of a cricket are heard from time to time;

How like the voices of the Buddha.

Opening a sacred text I carry;

The voices of the devout chant a sutra in unison.

When rains come, clouds leave.

How like the world of impermanence

This sudden change, where no one lives forever.

Minding a sick child who seeks mother’s affection,

I cannot progress with my needlework, or even wipe away my perspiration.

Skimming his diary without stop makes my eyes moist;

When I put it down, I realize I have forgotten to even wipe off my perspiration.

Wandering without a husband for whom I yearn,

I look with nostalgia at his handwriting, reading it again and again.

My husband is about to touch my face;

When I awake from that dream, the flickering of stars enters my eyes.

The lullaby I croon seems to wake the child;

He croons with me while half asleep.

(Translated by Michihiro Ama in “Neglected Diary, Forgotten Buddhist Couple: Tana Daisho’s Internment Camp Diary as Historical and Literary Text,Journal of Global Buddhism 14 (2013), p. 51-52)

Even though she and her family had suffered great hardship in the US, she bore no ill will toward the country and its people. In fact, she dedicated herself to sharing the beauty of tanka poetry in the United States, so that this Japanese art could become a part of the fabric of American cultural life. In 1951 she composed the following tanka poem that expresses the wisdom of her life in the Nembutsu.

My growing children

Sing the national anthem

In America

And their mother goes

Following right along.

(First published in Zaibei dōbō hyakunin isshu (One hundred tanka by our countrymen in America), 1951, Reprinted in The History of Japanese Tanka Poetry in America, Mrs. Tomoe Tana Master’s Thesis, San Jose State University History Department, 1985, p. 47)

Namo Amida Butsu