On Sunday, May 20, 2018, at 9:30 a.m., we will hold our annual Gotan-e Service at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, celebrating the birth of Shinran Shonin, the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition. As I reflect on the profound impact that Shinran’s life and teachings have had on my own journey in the Nembutsu, I find myself recalling memories from ten years ago, when I was just beginning my formal study of Jodo Shinshu as a newly enrolled student at the Chuo Bukkyo Gakuin Buddhist Seminary in Kyoto.
I remember sitting around a cluster of desks while we ate our bento lunchboxes during my first week in the seminary, listening to my classmates speak about their varied backgrounds and life experiences. The eldest in our group was a retired firefighter who was looking forward to pursuing his personal interest in Buddhism.
Another was a newlywed who had quit her job as a computer programmer in Tokyo to assist her husband in managing the temple that had been cared for by his family for over twenty generations. Several of my classmates were recent university graduates looking forward to enjoying at least one more year of freedom and student life before going home to help run the family temple. One of my classmate’s fathers had promised to buy him a car if he graduated from the seminary.
The students who had spent time in the Japanese workforce approached their studies with characteristic discipline and responsibility. The retirees who were spending their hard-earned savings to study Buddhism were joyfully realizing a long-held aspiration. At the same time, some of the young men who had grown up as the designated successors to their family temples expressed disappointment about not being able to pursue their desired careers in music, fashion, or athletics. In every class, there were a handful of students who were struggling with the transition into adulthood, a little unsure of their direction and purpose in life.
While the majority of my classmates sat with attention during lectures and took careful notes, there were usually one or two who would doze hunched in their chairs or even put their heads down on their desks to sleep. Those who came to their studies with a deep sense of gratitude for the precious opportunity to learn the teachings of the Buddha would occasionally lose patience with the seemingly indifferent—and at times disrespectful—behavior of some of their less motivated peers.
I recall a conversation one evening when Rev. Masao Oyagi, the head instructor for ritual and chanting at that time, joined a small group of students for dinner. He smiled and chuckled as one of the particularly earnest and dedicated students vented his frustrations with classmates who would be on their phones texting or asleep with their heads down on their desks during lectures. This diligent student suggested that the school create an elite track, so that those with a sincere aspiration to learn could cover more material in greater depth. Having been educated in American public schools where special programs for exceptional students were common, this suggestion seemed perfectly reasonable to me.
Oyagi Sensei surprised us all by suddenly turning serious. He said, “Our seminary is a Buddhist school that strives to follow the truth of the Dharma, not the norms of secular society. The motto of our school is ‘Learn from the Buddha’s heart of great compassion,’ so it is not possible for us to separate our students along the lines of ‘excellent’ or ‘deficient.’ We accept each student as he or she is, because the boundless compassion of Amida Buddha embraces all and excludes none. We must remember that the marvelous working of karmic circumstances has brought that student into our classroom. If you feel annoyed by his sleeping during lectures, please consider all the other places he might be and all the other things he might otherwise be doing at that moment.” Looking back on it now, I realize that when I studied at Chubutsu, I was not just learning academic subjects, I was learning how to accept others and myself, so that we can live together in harmony guided by the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha.
The seminary’s motto was inspired by the following verses written by the Chinese Pure Land Master Shandao.
We all take refuge
In the sages of the three vehicles
Who learn from the Buddha’s heart of great compassion,
Never faltering throughout the ages.
(From Verses of Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures, H. Adams trans.)
As I study and reflect upon Shinran Shonin’s example and reflect upon my own life, I am reminded of the importance of maintaining the open and humble heart of a beginning student of the Dharma.
Namo Amida Butsu