The Real McCoy

At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on Sunday, July 7, 2019, at 9:30 a.m. we will observe our annual memorial for the past Bishops of the Buddhist Churches of America.  Throughout the history of the Buddhist Churches of America and its predecessor, the Buddhist Mission of North America, our bishops have responded to the challenges of their times, showing courageous leadership and empowering the Sangha to work tirelessly to share the joy of the Nembutsu in this land.  One of the greatest challenges faced by the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist community in North America was the mass incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry during the Second World War.  Following the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, organizations like the Buddhist Mission of North America that had close ties to Japan and were led by immigrants from Japan were subject to severe suspicion and hostility.

Following the mass relocation and incarceration of the Japanese American community on the West Coast in makeshift camps in desolate inland areas of the United States, an emergency Buddhist National Conference was convened in 1943 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  At that time, the decision was made to file articles of incorporation with the State of California for a new organization called the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) that would succeed the Buddhist Mission of North America.  In American Sutra, Duncan Ryuken Williams’ recently published history of Buddhism in the Japanese-American community centering on the World War II incarceration, Dr. Williams describes how a group of 47 American-born nisei leaders were chosen to sit on the board of directors that would run the BCA (p. 146).  With the support of Bishop Ryotai Matsukage, the American-born Rev. Kenryo Kumata was chosen to head the board of directors.

Under the leadership of Bishop Matsukage, Rev. Kumata had been charged with actively ministering to the younger generation of English-speaking Japanese-Americans.  He also served as the English-language spokesman for the Buddhist Mission of North America during the critical time-period at the outbreak of the war.  Bulletins and Dharma messages written by Rev. Kumata were widely distributed across the various incarceration camps, bringing comfort and guidance to those who took refuge in the Nembutsu in the midst of tremendous adversity.

I recently came across the following message written by Rev. Kumata that was circulating in October 1943 and recorded in the Denson YBA Bulletin, a publication of the Young Buddhist Association at the incarceration camp in Jerome, Arkansas:


DENSON YBA BULLETIN, Vol. I, No. 2, Oct. 3, 1943

Hidden Qualities

Many of us can find agreement in saying that “tempura” is indeed a tasty dish. Once in a while, the enjoyment lies in guessing what is covered by the “koromo”* and in the anticipation of finding your guess come true.  But the “koromo” itself does not constitute the whole of the meal; the essence lies in what is underneath.  Just so, no matter how glittering and beautiful a trinket may look, it is still a trinket, a bauble, and may not be classed as a jewel unless the innards are of the same quality as the surface.  In other words, it must be “solid”, or “sterling”.  Superficial education, sophistication and all may pass for the “real McCoy” once in a while, but cannot compare with true wisdom and humility; qualities which are endowed upon those with Faith in the spiritual guidance of the Buddha. —Rev. Kenryo Kumata

*koromo: a batter coating; koromo may also refer to robes and clothing, often used to refer to the robes worn by Buddhist priests.


Reading Rev. Kumata’s words over 75 years later, I am in awe of his ability to provide a profound and impactful Dharma message with striking economy of language.  Writing messages for wide distribution at a time when paper and printing would have been precious resources for his community, he was able to make every word count.  He manages to evoke the comfort and fond recollection of delicious food and family gatherings for readers who were likely subsisting on cafeteria-style meals that lacked the flavors of Japanese home-cooking and the intimacy of the family dinner table.  Writing in the vernacular of the youth of his day, incorporating everyday examples and slang expressions like the “real McCoy,” Rev. Kumata’s message conveys the penetrating depth of Buddhist faith, or shinjin, which is the essence of Shinran Shonin’s Nembutsu teaching.

The tireless efforts of wise and dedicated leaders like Bishop Matsukage and Rev. Kumata created the circumstances for me to hear the Nembutsu here in the United States.  Thanks to their leadership, we enjoy a thriving BCA Sangha and the San Mateo Buddhist Temple continues to be a place where we gather to encounter the Buddha’s heart of great compassion in our daily lives.  Reflecting on their legacy, I can only join my palms in gassho, bow my head in gratitude, and say “Namo Amida Butsu.”


The Mind of Great Compassion that is Thoroughgoing

This past month we were truly honored to have Rev. Donald Castro, Rimban Emeritus of the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, join us as the guest speaker for our Nembutsu Seminar on the topic of EcoSangha—Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Ecology.  In his talks, Rev. Castro challenged us to consider how the Buddhadharma guides us to respond to the great ecological crises of our time, such as the man-made climate change that has contributed to the terrible wildfires that have ravaged communities here in Northern California with increasing frequency in recent years, or the vast swaths of floating garbage that pollute our oceans.  As an individual, I try to reduce my individual carbon footprint by taking the train to meetings in the East Bay rather than driving my car.   I also make an effort to use paper bags rather than the cheaper plastic alternatives.  That said, I cannot help wondering what difference my limited efforts make in the face of the monumental ecological challenges we face today.

When I find myself losing hope, I look to the Buddha’s teachings to illuminate my path forward in these difficult times.  Reflecting on my life in the nembutsu, I find inspiration in the  following four vows that are established by all bodhisattvas—beings who aspire to arrive on the shore of true awakening carried across the ocean of birth and death by the great vehicle of the Mahayana sutras:

1) “Living beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them all.”

2) “Base passions are inexhaustible, I vow to sever them all.”

3) “Dharma gates are immeasurable, I vow to know them all.”

4) “The way of the Buddha is unsurpassed, I vow to perfect it.”

The paradoxical nature of these four expansive vows initially struck me as overwhelming.  I have a hard-enough time realizing liberation for myself, how could I ever liberate all beings?  I struggle when I try to reign in even one of my base passions, how could I possibly sever them all?  After more than twenty years of studying the Dharma, I feel like I know less than ever, how could I know all the Dharma gates?  It seems impossible for me to perfect the way of the Buddha through my own efforts.

However, when I take the nembutsu as my guide on the bodhisattva path, I am reminded that the important matter is to carry on in the direction illuminated by the Buddha’s wisdom, even when it seems impossible to fulfill my aspirations through my own efforts.  The spirit of the bodhisattva path is to persevere in the face of insurmountable odds, trusting that if I set my life on the path of truth, the inconceivable working of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion will ultimately bring about liberation, not just for me, but for all beings.

In his talks, Rev. Castro reminded us that, as Buddhists, our ethical principles are not handed down to us by a divine authority.  Buddhist ethical living is rooted in compassion for all beings.  Our concern for the natural environment arises from compassionate awareness of the people, animals, and plants that suffer when a wildfire sweeps through their home or toxic plastics clog the ocean waters that they depend upon for survival.  When I feel overwhelmed by these environmental problems, the following words of Shinran, recorded in A Record in Lament of Divergences, Chapter Four, shine the light of the Buddha’s wisdom on my path:

Concerning compassion, there is a difference between the Path of Sages and the Pure Land Path.

Compassion in the Path of Sages is to pity, commiserate with, and care for beings. It is extremely difficult, however, to accomplish the saving of others just as one wishes.
Compassion in the Pure Land Path should be understood as first attaining Buddhahood quickly through saying the nembutsu and, with the mind of great love and compassion, freely benefiting sentient beings as one wishes.

However much love and pity we may feel in our present lives, it is hard to save others as we wish; hence, such compassion remains unfulfilled. Only the saying of the nembutsu, then, is the mind of great compassion that is thoroughgoing.

Thus were his words.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 633)

This teaching does not imply that it is no use making efforts to help others and care for the natural world because I am incapable of solving the problems all by myself.  Shinran’s words offer me encouragement to do my best to actively address the needs of this world, at peace in the knowledge that, even though I will not be able to alleviate all the suffering I encounter, the mind of great compassion constantly works in the nembutsu to guide me and all beings to liberation.


Namo Amida Butsu

2019-01-06 Rev. Masami Fujitani

2019-01-06 Rev. Masami FujitaniDownload

Bouncing into the New Year

Happy New Year! According to Japanese custom, we all become one year older together on New Year’s Day. In that sense, Japanese New Year Celebrations are like a big birthday party for everyone, complete with gifts for the children. One of the joys of parenthood is experiencing the wonder of childhood once again through the eyes of my children. Often this means setting aside my idea of myself as a “dignified adult” and accompanying my children in their rambunctious playtime activities.

At a recent birthday party, I was compelled by begging and arm tugging to join my son inside a bounce house. A bounce house is a large inflatable room that can be set up on a lawn or driveway. It has a giant inflated cushion of air for a floor and soft yet sturdy netting for walls, supported by a large inflated pillar in each corner. The floor is both soft and springy, so that you can jump even higher than normal and it does not hurt if you fall over. Inside the bounce house, my son delighted in jumping around, chasing the other children and being bounced about by the cushion of air underneath.

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The Diamondlike Heart and Mind

On Sunday, December 2 at 9:30 a.m., we welcome you to join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for our Bodhi Day Service celebrating Sakyamuni Buddha’s awakening at the age of 35. Sakyamuni dedicated the remaining 45 years of his life to sharing the Dharma—the absolute truth to which he awakened seated beneath the Bodhi Tree. In time, the Sangha, or community of the Buddha’s followers, grew and the Buddha was revered by common people, kings and queens alike.

The Buddha’s cousin Devadatta had joined the Sangha, but was resentful and envious of the Buddha’s renown. Eventually he set out to split the community by calling for a more austere lifestyle, with the intention of building a large following of his own. During this period of conflict, there was a man who snuck up on the Buddha with the intention of assassinating him one day while he was sitting quietly in a forest. As the man approached and prepared to attack, the Buddha continued to sit in unwavering concentration.
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In gratitude for the living beings that support our lives

November has arrived and another holiday season is fast approaching. Thanksgiving at the end of this month marks the beginning of a season of feasting, during which we will have frequent occasions to come together with family and friends to enjoy delicious food.

In some Buddhist temples led by monks and nuns who observe monastic precepts, or detailed rules for living in a monastery, keeping a vegetarian diet is encouraged to avoid causing suffering for animals that would be raised for food. I have visited Buddhist monasteries in China that have special ponds where live fish and crabs that have been purchased from the market can be released to live out their lives under the protection of the Sangha.

Outside of monasteries, it is common for lay Buddhists throughout the world to eat meat and fish.
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Shared Ancestors

As summer vacation draws to a close we prepare to welcome the Autumn Equinox with our Ohigan Service on Sunday, September 23. Looking back on the lively season of temple activities that we enjoy between our bazaar in late June and our Obon in mid-August, I fondly recall the week of our Summer Terakoya Buddhist summer camp, when the sound of joyful children’s voices could be heard all day long at the temple.

This year our theme for Terakoya was Buddhist Holidays from around the world that commemorate important events in the life of Sakyamuni Buddha.
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The Dance Comes to Us

The first time my parents came from Minnesota to California for a visit during Obon season, I was headed out the door one evening and said to them, “See you later! I’ll be back after the dance practice finishes.” My father adjusted his hearing aids and said, “Wait, did you say you are going to dance?” To which I replied, “Of course, dancing is one of my duties as a minister.” He got up from his chair, grabbed his camera and said, “This I’ve got to see.”   I always cringe when I see someone pointing a camera in my direction during Obon dancing. I have seen many beautiful photographs of Obon dancing posted on Facebook and Instagram over the years. One that stands out in my memory features a harmonious line of dancers making elegant halfmoon shapes with their arms up around their head. There I am at the center of the frame with my hands spread wide and low down near my waist like a baseball umpire calling “safe!”

When I stepped into the circle and joined the dance for the first time, I discovered that no-one was judging my dancing. As I struggled to keep up, one of the more experienced dancers kindly came over to dance alongside me and walk me through the steps. Momentarily forgetting my embarrassment and my pride, I encountered the joyful liberation of simply dancing. If the purpose of Buddhist practice is to let the ego fall away and realize liberation from attachment to “me” and “mine,” then I am hard-pressed to think of a better ground for this practice than Obon dancing. Obon dancing is not a show; it is a Buddhist tradition through which the Dharma transforms our lives quite outside our own efforts.

The people of Santa Barbara love a good dance party, so attendance at my first time dancing at the Santa Barbara Obon far exceeded my expectations. As the dancing was about to begin, our dance instructors dressed in beautiful summer yukata gathered in a small circle at the center of the church parking lot. A crowd quickly gathered around them. About half of the crowd was made up of regulars on the Southern California Obon dance circuit who had come to join the dancing. However, it was many of the attendees’ first encounter with Obon dancing, and not knowing what to expect, they jostled their way toward the center in anticipation of a performance by those beautifully dressed dancers.

Those who had come to dance were interspersed throughout the crowd, some close to the center near the instructors, some on the outer edges, and many in between. There was a beautiful moment when the music started. The assembled dancers took their cue from the instructors at the center and began the dance, forming concentric rings of motion rotating around a common axis at the center of the instructors. Those who thought they had come as spectators suddenly found themselves right in the middle of the dancing. Some stood startled for a moment before making a panicked dash for the outer edge of the parking lot where they could stand on the sidelines and watch the dance. However, a few of those who unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of the dance were delighted by the dancers all around them. Noticing that the movements of the dance were simple and repetitive, they opted to joined the dance rather than flee to sidelines. In joining the dance, they were able to taste the liberating joy of Obon dancing for themselves.

In the life of Other Power nembutsu, we let go of our calculating mind that attempts to impose our ideas of how things should be on the situations we encounter in life. The following passage from the Tannisho elegantly expresses this character of Other Power nembutsu:

The nembutsu, for its practicers, is not a practice or a good act. Since it is not performed out of one’s own designs, it is not a practice. Since it is not good done through one’s own calculation, it is not a good act. Because it arises wholly from Other Power and is free of self-power, for the practicer, it is not a practice or a good act.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 665)

We think we can control when it is time to dance and when we get to sit back and watch, but the truth is that that’s not how life works. In life, the dance comes to us, sometimes quite unexpectedly. It may be the birth of a child or the start of a new relationship. It may be a serious illness, the loss of a job or the passing of a loved one. When we struggle against the flow of life, thinking “I will decide for myself when I am ready to dance,” we have an uncomfortable time. When we bravely step into the circle, we find that a world of joy and companionship opens up to us as we dance.


Namo Amida Butsu