“Just as you are” Report on the 149th London Eza

The 149th London Eza was held at Three Wheels on 23rd February. This was the first Eza in 2020 which represents, as Andrew Webb said in his opening comments “a new chapter in Three Wheels history”. This Eza was also an opportunity to welcome Rev Goshin Takehara from Japan, whom many of the Three Wheels Sangha were meeting for the first time. The focus of this Eza was a talk by Rev Sato on “What is meant by Sonomama in Asahara Saichi’s Poems”. Recently, at the Buddhist society, many of us have been enjoying attending Rev Sato’s study groups looking at the writings of D.T. Suzuki. A number of these works contain references to Saichi and his poetry so this talk is very relevant to recent Three Wheels activities and, as such, was eagerly awaited by several of us who are keen to learn more about Saichi and his wonderful poetry. Rev Sato has had a keen interest in Saichi’s poems since he was in his 20s, studying them under D.T. Suzuki and has personally translated a great number of the poems and published books about them in Japan.

Rev. Sato opened his talk with some background on Saichi. He explained that Saichi was a type of Shin Buddhist called Myokonin – a term used to refer to people of pure faith who are “characterized by their piousness, unworldliness, liveliness, good-heartedness and profound spirituality.” Many of the Myokonin were largely illiterate so most of what we know about them comes not from their own writings, but from books written about them, often by Shin Buddhist priests who were using their stories to inspire other followers.

However, in the case of Saichi, he kept a diary which contained many thousands of poems in which he described his own experience of attaining pure faith and the rich joyous life he was living as a result. Rev Sato explained that in this way, we are able to obtain direct insight from these records, rather than relying on a third party witness who may not have known what Saichi was experiencing first hand.

Saichi was heavily influenced by Rennyo Shonin – in particular by the Ofumi (letters) that are read out in Shin Buddhist services. Rev Sato said that the use of simple and easy to understand Japanese in the Ofumi made the teaching accessible, even to people who are not educated. He explained that Saichi would read out Rennyo’s letters morning and evening, “tracing the spaces between the lines with his index finger”. He said that he had personally seen Saichi’s copy of these letters and the places where the index finger had been tracing had worn through to be almost completely transparent.

Next, Rev Sato started going through examples of Saichi’s poems, showing how he described his deep spiritial encounter with Rennyo Shonin, despite a difference of almost 400 years between their lifetimes. Following this, he moved on to the main topic of the talk – Saichi’s use of the Japanese words sonomama and konomama. Sonomama can be translated in this case as “just as you are” whereas konomama can be translated as “just as I am”, referring to the truth that Amida Buddha embraces us with his compassion “just as we are”.

Rev. Sato explained that in Saichi’s earlier poems, he used the word konomama in a positive way, however, over time his attitude towards this word changed considerably, eventually becoming quite negative. He explained that Saichi’s attitude changed “as a result of the profound introspection within him by the deepening processes of his faith-experience”. To demonstrate this, he recited several of Saichi’s poems that express the belief that if you expect birth to be attained konomama (“just as I am”), “you are mistaken”. As his attitude shifted to a negative feeling towards konomama, he often used the other word sonomama, meaning “just as you are”. Rev Sato explained that the reason for this is that “just as I am” will “turn into an empty word and sound vain and pretentious” if it is used “other than at the feeling of unity with Amida Buddha at the very moment of salvation”. On the hand, he showed that sonomama is like a message “addressed to the devotee from Amida Buddha himself” saying “Entrust yourself just as you are”. Whilst this is not necessarily an easy distinction to make, I liked this explanation as it reminded me once again that we don’t achieve true faith through our own self power (jiriki) but from Amida Buddha himself (tariki). As Rev Sato clarified, with sonomama, we are being called from the other side, whereas with konomama this is not the case. Konomama ends up acting as our own self affirmation. As he said, it is like sonomama is the voice of Amida Buddha that Saichi heard addressing him directly.

Rev Sato next went on to say how incredible it was that even with his lack of schooling, Saichi was able to see clearly such a subtle difference between these two words. He also explained that Saichi occasionally used a third word – arinomama meaning “just as it is”. Finally, he concluded by saying that these three words express the three kinds of naturalness in Shin Buddhism. Konomama represents Karma and arinomama represents the uncreated whereas sonomama represents Other Power which is “the very essence of Shin Buddhism”.

Andrew Webb summarised the talk by saying that he could feel the warmth of Saichi coming through the words of his poetry, showing just how much work Rev Sato must have put into the translations to preserve these feelings. He said that “behind these simple words, there must have been a deep religious struggle” and that Saichi, as an uneducated person, must have achieved his pure faith “not through intellectual study but through true Buddhist practice”. He added that we can all try to follow his path through our own listening to the Dharma.

I then asked Rev Sato to clarify for me what is meant by Myokonin, to which he replied that it is a “person of true faith”. He expanded on that to re-iterate that many books were written by priests about Myokonin to help others achieve true faith, however Saichi’s work is direct in that Saichi wrote it all himself and in this way, we can get a greater insight into the true faith-experience. He then reminded us that although the Myokonin might have been functionally illiterate, they had undergone hard spiritual training. In Saichi’s own case, he listened to the Dharma for 40 years from the age of 19 until he achieved true pure faith.

Chris Dodd then asked Rev Sato to expand on the differences between konomama and sonomama. Rev Sato replied that although D.T. Suzuki used konomama in a positive way at times, if it is used at any time other than at the moment of the attainment of true faith, is becomes self centred as if we are “interpreting it just how we would like”.

The final comments were from Rev. Ishii, who said that the subject of the difference between these words reminded him of his spiritual encounter on the day he had the offer to become a priest. He said that on that occasion, he felt true unconditional love and all he could answer that with was “Thank you!”. If you say “As I am”, there is probably still some doubt there, because you might just hear the words but not feel the unconditional love. He also said that we don’t need to immediately understand this point, but that we should keep considering it throughout our lives and that our answer might change after another 20 or 30 years, so we should just keep working with it.

For my own part, I found Rev Sato’s talk was a much needed reminder to not just rely on our own self power. The poems offered such beautiful descriptions of the true faith-experience which I found both inspirational and moving. Through recent reading of Rev Sato and Prof John Whites haiku books, I have been finding poetry to be a unique way to gain insight into the Buddhist experience, and Prof Sato’s translations of Saichi’s poetry also seem to contain so much that points to the deeper meaning behind the words. I look forward to reading them again many times over in the future.
Christopher Duxbury