Speech to given at Three Wheels, London, to Mark the Inaugural Ceremony of the Stupa of Namu-Amida-butsu Erected at Brookwood Cemetery& the Otorikoshi Ceremony to Commemorate the Death of Shinran Shonin.
Venerable. Chimyo Takehara
Here I am back at Three Wheels again, a full decade since attending the Inaugural Ceremony of the new Buddha Shrine and Zen garden on 29th of June 1997.
Though I deeply regret not having been able to see you for such a long time, I have to tell you now how moved I am to witness the tremendous transformation in Three Wheels as a result of the richness and depth of the encounters that have taken place here over the years.
Had it not been for the problems I have been having with my health, I would have visited London at least once a year. Despite my fervent wish to do so, the unavoidable course of treatment I had to undergo in order to combat my disease made it an impossibility for this very long period of time. It also caused Professor John White and my old friends in London to express a great deal of concern about my health for which I am sincerely grateful.
For all those years when I myself was unable to come over to London, Professor White was kindly undertaking annual visits to Shogyoji Temple, without ever missing a single year, giving us the benefit of his profound insight into future developments at Three Wheels as well as an appreciation of the spiritual encounters continuously taking place amongst those gathered here. In perfect harmony with the endeavours of Reverend Kemmyo Taira Sato and his wife, Hiroko, who have been developing our Buddhist movement ever onwards towards new dimensions of spirituality, Professor White has graciously, through his inspiring talks, been conveying to us back home the unique creative activities being undertaken at Three Wheels.
Unfortunately my physical recovery from my disease cannot be one hundred percent but, thanks to developments in modern medical science, I have recovered to the extent that I can now enjoy a peaceful daily life.
Recently, my health having been the best I have enjoyed for the last ten years, I was permitted by Doctor Sakimura to undertake this one week trip to this country.
It is my firm belief that the activities we have witnessed over the past fourteen years, from the unveiling ceremony in 1993 of the monument erected in memory of the Japanese students studying at UCL, nearly a century and a half ago, right up until today’s inaugural ceremony at Three Wheels of the Buddhist Stupa erected at Brookwood Cemetery, have been brought about by the sort of profound encounter never before seen in the long history of spiritual exchange between Great Britain and Japan, or indeed between East and West.
I was deeply impressed by the honour paid those four students, who had died in this country about one hundred and forty years ago, and by your very earnest endeavours in the preservation of their graves. In close proximity now to those students’ last resting place stands the new Stupa erected by Three Wheels.
It was a delightful surprise for all of us, too, I have to say, to learn of the recent discovery in Brookwood Cemetery of the grave of Professor Alexander Williamson, a man who not only extended such a warm and generous welcome to those pioneering Japanese students but also supported them with such generosity and devotion.
On the subject of Japanese students who have studied overseas, records exist of a number of students who journeyed to China in the Sui and the Tang Dynasties. Amongst those records there is an inscription carved on the gravestone of a student called I-no-Manari (井真成), discovered just three years ago in the autumn of 2004 in the suburbs of Xiang.
This young man of humble birth studied in China for seventeen years, dying there at the age of thirty-six. Twelve hundred and seventy years after his death the fact of his one time existence was confirmed by this new discovery.
According to the inscription on the grave, Emperor Tang Xuanzong mourned the death of I-no-Manari so deeply that he accorded him the honour of an official rank, gave orders that the deceased should be given a fitting funeral and had his gravestone set by the river bank in the suburbs of Xiang.
The fact that Emperor Tang Xuanzong erected a tombstone for an impoverished student from a country so different from his own has proved a matter of considerable surprise to Japanese people, who have hardly been able to believe their eyes and ears. However, the historical process leading from the erection of a monument for the Japanese students of 140 years ago right up to the building of the Stupa of Namu-Amida-butsu at Brookwood Cemetery surely involves an awakening to the Dharma, or the truth of life, in an even deeper dimension.
Born of total sincerity and compassion, it is the innermost prayer firmly based on wisdom and love that has brought about this spiritual movement that transmits its Dharma message to succeeding generations beyond the confines of time.
Before continuing any further now, I would like to speak about Professor John White. Since the 1993 unveiling of the monument to honour the nineteenth century Japanese students, Professor John White, with his profound insight into the meaning of “Emptiness”, has welcomed a constant stream of contemporary Japanese students to the United Kingdom, helping them understand the true spirit of those four original students whose bodies returned to dust whilst still in this county. This revival of those young men’s pioneering spirit in the hearts of these new young visitors to the U.K. has helped deepen and promote desires that the original four were never given time to realise.
As a leader of the group working on the project, Professor White designed and built the Zen garden with British materials, ably assisted by a number of students – English, Japanese and other nationalities. Indeed Professor White put in a great deal of hard physical labour himself, sweating away alongside everyone else. All this brought about a great many true encounters amongst those involved and served to build up the foundations for the future of the Samgha.
Even in the creation of the Buddha Shrine Professor White’s thought has been manifest in every detail. One has only to look at the Buddha image, its kohai (backing aura) or the beautiful lines of the shrine itself.
The philosophy of “Emptiness” has taken form as Three Wheels, a Shin Buddhist taya house, a “place” where even ignorant lay people can appreciate the meaning of “Emptiness,” the fundamental principle of Buddhism.
In preparation for my current trip I re-read at length the talks given by Professor White at Shogyoji Temple and was very impressed by the strength of his determination and the insight he demonstrated into the future.
In his lecture On Emptiness, where he confirms the theory of “Emptiness” as the bedrock of the Buddhist faith, Professor White encapsulates the essential core of the philosophy: “What is emptiness? … a glass, containing nothing and always full,” his skilful use of metaphor expressing poetically something that we usually refer to as “the wonderful reality of Emptiness.”
In the same lecture he states “As I have said, many times and in many contexts, the past is irretrievable, the future unknowable, and therefore ‘ now’ is the only thing we can really know.” Instead of leaving things there, however, Professor White then goes on to declare, “But I was wrong, for even that is empty, is an illusion.”
What I would like to talk about all comes down to this one point.
The essence of Shin Buddhist faith lies in awakening, “to know the self as an ignorant being, burdened with karmic evil, subject to birth-and-death, ever sinking, ever transmigrating from time immemorial, and with no possibilities that could lead to emancipation.” This in Shin Buddhism is the “place of awareness” in which we come to realise the true essentials of “Emptiness”.
However far back into our past selves we may seek to delve, we will never find anything within us to make us feel perfectly satisfied with what we are. Or if we try and grasp the present, it will slip eel-like away into the past. Thus we tend to lay all our expectations on the future. The landscape of the future is thickly etched with the shadows of the attachments of our past.
It is extremely difficult for us to expunge them completely.
Ignorant beings that we are, we become aware of the reality of these shadows when we meet the negative aspects of life such as disease, the cessation of friendship, loss of confidence or loss of our love for life.
When we face serious problems such as these, Shin Buddhist teaching tells us how important it is for us to leave everything to Amida Buddha. The precise moment when we leave everything to Amida Buddha is called the “one thought-moment of entrusting.”
“Entrusting” means entrusting ourselves whole-heartedly to Amida Buddha with no lingering doubts whatsoever.
The moment we thus entrust ourselves, we are awakened to our innermost prayer, our original love of life, and it is through this awakening that we are freed from the anxiety of losing our ego or self, freed also from the bondage of our selfish attachments.
This is the quintessence of Shin Buddhism as paraphrased by the words “to die [depart this selfish life] through faith (entrusting oneself to the Buddha) and revive by [meeting] the Vow (Original Vow of the Buddha).”
Namu, taking refuge in Amida Buddha, and Amida-butsu, receiving the working of the Buddha, are simultaneous. The original Sanskrit of Amida Buddha means “one who has been awakened to the immeasurable original life” and refers to the discovery of the innermost prayer or vow of the original life.”
Although what I am about to speak of now may sound somewhat too personal, let me nevertheless recount an experience I myself had of “Emptiness” at a certain point during my protracted period of treatment. To receive my course of medication I had gone to a health resort in the mountains where I was surrounded by the most beautiful scenery. Rather than greet you all in the traditional way one would expect, given that I have not seen you for so long, let me talk to you instead about my experience of “Emptiness.”
I suffer from hepatitis and although in my case there is no prospect of a complete cure, the disease can be treated. To this end I left the temple and all the work to be done there and underwent six months of concentrated medical therapy at a resort institute, a hundred kilometres from the temple. The main treatment was a course of injections of the drug interferon. As I reached the final month of my care plan, my heath was so poor that I had almost reached the limits of my endurance.
One bleak day, having lost all powers of concentration, I was staring listlessly out of the window, struggling with the pain. Suddenly I spied an old man, very frail and lame, trying his best to rehabilitate himself by walking slowly round a small rice field, the perimeter of which was about 500 metres. I was incredibly moved to watch him taking his task so seriously, demonstrating as it were his tenacious attachment to life.
He walked round that rice field step by step, spending as long as two hours to complete the circuit. Despite the extreme difficulties he had in walking, he was trying to inch forward little by little. So impressed was I to see him with such a positive attitude and so full of spirit, I felt as if I heard a great voice proclaiming “life!”
In my case I myself was forced to remain incarcerated in my treatment room for the full six months. Whilst the need to get back into life kept up a constant clamour inside me: “I want to walk, I want to walk,” my actual thought processes began to stagnate, eventually grinding to a complete halt and I found myself falling into a wretched state of self-attachment.
I spent some considerable time watching the efforts of that old man who had such difficulty putting one foot in front of the other, and thought to myself that with each step forward he was enlarging his environment that much more and opening up his mind that much wider.
It occurred to me that the importance and meaning of this one step, largely ignored in our daily lives, should remind us of the principle of the nembutsu of gratitude.
Honen Shonin, the teacher of Shinran Shonin, founded the Japanese Pure Land School on the basis of his firm conviction that the nembutsu was the only practice that assured us of birth in the Pure Land.
Amida means “Immeasurable Life” and this Immeasurable Life is right beneath our feet, embodied in this taking of one step after another.
Even if we are still doomed to walk in the direction of suffering, we are filled with a real sense of being accompanied by this “Immeasurable Life.” It inspires our whole being, both body and mind.
Concerning this point Shinran Shonin teaches us that “at the very moment when the thought that moves you to pronounce the nembutsu is awakened within you, you instantly receive Amida’s loving benefit that embraces all, forsaking none.”
As I thought about all these things an idea came to me from within: an earnest desire to follow, if fate would allow it, in the footsteps of Shinran Shonin and see with my own eyes the exact places where he must have experienced that “Life.”
The first place I took it into my head to see, after I was finally permitted to leave my sickbed, was Sanuki where Shinran Shonin underwent the most important spiritual transformation after attaining faith through his encounter with his master, Honen Shonin.
Accompanied by my wife, I alighted at Sanuki, about one thousand kilometres distant from Shogyoji.
Sanuki is a small village located in the biggest stretch of open land to be found in Japan, an area known as the Kanto plains, made up of soil washed down by the River Tone as it flows through lofty mountain ranges towering to a height of 2000 or even 3000 metres.
After receiving a pardon, Shinran Shonin left the countryside where he had lived in exile for five years. He did not return to see his teacher again, but instead, accompanied by his wife and children, headed for the Kanto district, an unknown land sparsely dotted with the homes of farmers and those who had newly acquired the status of warriors. Shinran Shonin was the first priest in the history of Japan to be accompanied by wife and children.
Before his exile to the countryside, Shinran Shonin had been living his nembutsu life alongside Honen Shonin. One of Honen Shonin’s sayings reads: “If you cannot say the nembutsu as a celibate monk, then marry and say the nembutsu. If you cannot say the nembutsu as a married person, then say the nembutsu as a celibate monk.” After pondering his master’s instructions, Shinran Shonin finally decided to take a wife. Deeply observant of his master’s way of thinking, Shinran Shonin determined to practise the path of the nembutsu for lay people.
Setting out for an unknown land, Shinran Shonin and his family crossed many high and dangerous mountains before finally arriving in a vast plain, where they rested for several days in the village of Sanuki.
Shinran Shonin pondered at great length how best to transmit the Buddha-dharma to the native inhabitants he was now destined to meet.
First of all he decided on a vow to read the three Pure Land sutras one thousand times. Gradually, however, he came to ask himself, “What are you doing setting aside the nembutsu like this? What objections do you have to teaching salvation by the nembutsu alone?” Finally he stopped reading the Pure Land sutras.
This all came about at the time of the third annual memorial service for Honen Shonin, for in his head Shinran Shonin was again hearing the voice of his teacher, just as he had when Honen Shonin was still alive.
Sanuki was an area that used to be flooded so frequently that provincial borderlines were often obliterated.
Standing there in Sanuki I had a view of the boundless sweep of the Kanto plains. As I, a man in ailing health, gazed out across the land, something somewhere in that vast landscape struck a chord deep within me.
The River Tone, whose waters flow into the Pacific Ocean, after traversing the wide Kanto plains, made me think of the whole backdrop against which Shinran Shonin lived his faith to the full. For me this was a country where the goal we know as the Pure Land had already been reached by the pure faith of Shinran Shonin.
Before his great awakening, Shakyamuni Buddha crossed to the other side of the River NairaGjAna where he was helped to achieve that awakening.
Weakened by six years of ascetic practice, Shakyamuni Buddha received an offering of dairy produce from a young herds-girl living in a village along the river. Recovering thus from his exhaustion, he went forward to his great awakening.
Looking back over this experience, Shakyamuni Buddha observed to Shariputta, “But it never occurred to me, Shariputta, to think: ‘Indeed now, I could rub this dirt and dust off with my hand’.” Thus he was liberated forever from the need to eliminate kleCa (ilusion or blind passions) by conscious effort.
Let us now return to the subject of “Emptiness.”
Legend has it that Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, the patriarch of Mahayana Buddhism and the person who clarified the principle of “Emptiness,” received insight into the deepest meaning of the Buddha’s teaching from the great ocean itself.
All rivers enter the sea and the sea accepts them all. Its depths are unfathomable; it is the origin of all forms of life.
The sea or ocean is a symbol of the working of “Emptiness.” According to the words of Professor White, it is “a vessel, containing nothing and always full.”
In order to express Other-power faith Shinran Shonin used the metaphor “water of rivers and streams.” His unique phrase “water of Other-power faith” symbolises the faith by which we, streams and rivers of blind passions, return to and re-enter the ocean of Amida’s Original Vow.
Unlike stones, rocks or soil, all waters flow by their very nature into the great ocean.
Starting from the source, a stream, just as it is, is destined to flow into the ocean. Despite all kinds of obstacle on its course, the stream never loses the intrinsic energy to reach the ocean.
Although eminent Bodhisattvas are able to comprehend “Emptiness” through intuition, we, ignorant beings in this world of defilement, come to know the working of “Emptiness” simply through meeting one stream of Other-power faith.
The whole panorama of the water course only comes into view when we realise our present standpoint, having been allowed to set foot on the vast land.
Our present standpoint is based on our encounter with a teacher in the here and now, from which the world of deep gratitude spreads forever outwards.
One of my greatest desires on coming here was to observe the garden Professor White and Reverend Sato worked together to create alongside so many other Dharma friends.
To conclude this talk, I would like to read you the beginning of a poem composed by Professor White after he made the garden. It perfectly encapsulates that thinking of his that has led to the fulfilment of so many encounters.
Here in the garden
do not ask who made it,
or why or when.
The garden is
and you are.