“The very existence of Tathagata and Shinran Shonin amongst followers”– A report on the 166th London Eza –

              This weekend, at the 166th London Eza, we were delighted to receive Prof. Masahiro Shimoda as our honourable guest and speaker, and we are very grateful to Goinge-sama and Dharma friends of Shogyoji for supporting him in undertaking the long journey to be together with us. The Hoonko Otorikoshi Eza was definitely the best-attended Eza in several years, which goes to show how much Dharma friends appreciated his presence.

Shimoda-sensei’s talk entitled On the Concept of ‘Non-obstruction among Individual Phenomena’, represented a continuation of his fruitful and respectful dialogue with the late Professor John White. Indeed, he told us that the passing of John, as well as Mrs Hiroko Sato and Ms. Mika Aoki, has “amplified [his] personal connection to the Pure Land”. Drawing on the “contemplative tool” set forth in his ‘Diagram of Tathatā, Shimoda-sensei focused his presentation on a practical question: How we can move from a conceptual or intellectual apprehension (‘incompleteness in faith’) of Amida’s Vow, to ‘faith-fulfilment’ (jp. shinjin)? How do we go from experiencing a duality between the truth and the one who realizes, to an “indistinguishable union between the treasure and the self”?  This matters greatly because, as Shimoda-sensei reminded us, Shin Buddhism “isn’t merely about understanding Sphere A [Dharma-nature] but truly embodying it.” The process by which we can come to this ‘embodied faith’ made up the main element of Sensei’s talk.

              To crudely summarise Prof. Shimoda’s eloquent and compassionate discourse (with deep apologies): He first noted that we have to become aware of the existence of Sphere A (‘the uncreated’). This comes about through “our own unique and fortuitous circumstances” (karma). Once this has happened we eventually find ourselves confronting the limitations of intellectual or conceptual comprehension. If this anguished experience remains objective or externally directed, it pushes us deeper into confusion. However if the anguish becomes introspective and is courageously confronted, it transforms into a spiritual sincerity amidst adversity, giving crucial momentum to the spiritual quest. Nonetheless, this sincerity is still inadequate, because it retains a trace of doubt that cannot be overcome along the vertical axis constituted by the resonance between the mind of sincerity of the seeker (consciousness of karma / non-self) and the Uncreated. “If the principle [Sphere A] only serves as an aspirational beacon, separate from the sphere of the common man” [Sphere B] “how does it resonate with those who are still evolving and have yet to realize their full potential?” Expressed more simply, this doubt manifests as “recognizing the existence of a universal truth but doubting its realization in individuals.”

              The overcoming of this doubt comes about through two aspects that nurture the seed of awareness discovered in the earlier phase. Firstly, one meets someone in whom one confirms the realization or embodiment of Sphere A, i.e. the teacher or ‘good friend’ (jp. zenchishiki). This in turn gives rise to “a deep, enveloping reverence that subsequently fills one’s being with both repentance and gratitude […]”. This reverence awakens us to the concealed Sphere A working within us (Other-power), and – because Sphere A exclusively resonates with Sphere A (like with like) – we come into harmony with others who are also resonant with that sphere. This is the manifestation of Sangha (the ‘intertwining’ of the two spheres) or ‘harmony in diversity’, as expressed in the foundational ethos of Three Wheels.

Prof. Shimoda’s wonderful talk inspired a lively discussion that extended the length of the meeting to several hours. During this time, not a single person – young or old, new or familiar – left their seat, entirely engrossed in the flowing dialogue. Dharma friends commented that Sensei’s talk was like a distillation of the Kyogyoshinsho into modern English, and said that it would certainly become a foundational document in the study and practice of the Three Wheels sangha. They also remarked on the practicality, humility and kindness evident in the talk, with its focus on the adversity and anguish we often face, and the need to integrate practice into daily life.

Mr Desmond Biddulph CBE, President of the Buddhist Society, thanked Prof. Shimoda for his talk and said that it resonated with the importance of ‘Bodhicitta’ in his own practice-tradition; the pure seed of altruistic compassion “that transforms our wish for desire and control, and drives and carries us toward Sphere A”. Similarly, Dr. Christopher D, – a mathematician and programmer by training – said that Prof. Shimoda perfectly described his own experience of encountering – in Sensei’s words – “an undeniable force [obstructing our path… a power] that raises [the] alarm, emphasizing that not everything of importance can be solely entrusted to the intellect”… a power that “originates from a source distinct from intellectual faculties.” Christopher said, “Encountering this power is why I came to Three Wheels”.

Mr. Stephan G. said that the talk had made him reflect on the Three Wheels logo of three wheels within one wheel. He said that he first came to Three Wheels because of the Zen garden, which then led him to the meditation class, which finally led him to participate in the faith meetings. In this movement, he felt the oneness and working of the ‘three wheels’. Ms. Eloise – asked Shimoda-sensei about the apparent duality between Spheres ‘A & B’, to which he replied that these designations form a contemplative tool and that ultimately there is no separation. He noted that, according to Shin Buddhist teaching, Amida Buddha has already attained and preaches to us of this non-separation, from Sphere A. Amida-sama’s voice reaches us from beyond the phenomenal world. Mrs Kaori P. expressed her appreciation of Prof. Shimoda’s discussion of how ‘Realm A resonates exclusively with Realm A’, said that it reminded her of Rev. Ishii’s advice that the temple is where we hear the Dharma but our daily lives and encounters are where we must practice it.

To conclude this report I would like to highlight some essential words from Shimoda-sensei’s closing remarks:

“[the] very existence of Tathagata and Shinran Shonin amongst followers” [and] “[the] indelible imprints left by Hiroko-san, John and Mika-san, who have all journeyed to the Pure Land, are all still palpably alive within us […] This realization of non-obstruction among individual phenomena surpasses the boundaries between our world and the next, ceaselessly shaping each of us.”

Prior to the Eza, Prof. Shimoda participated in the autumn Shokai retreat, during which he said, “Being at Three Wheels makes me reflect on the origin of Shogyoji temple.” He did not expand upon this comment. However, at the Eza, Rev. Ishii noticed that Shimoda-sensei was sitting in front of the Shogyoji roof tile that Prof. White received when he visited the temple and which he brought back to Three Wheels. Rev. Ishii then remembered that Mr Shimoda’s mother had once commented, “Daigyoin-sama told us, ‘One day, people from the West will come here to receive one of the tiles from the temple roof.’” Kenshin-san felt that the temple roof slate is a symbol of the lay-followers’ wish to protect the teaching, which one day others would come to receive.

Prof. Shimoda with the Shogyoji roof tile

Considering all of these remarks, and Shimoda-sensei’s talk, I personally felt that the origin of Shogyoji and Three Wheels is the mutual encounter between individuals who sincerely wish to realise “the fundamental intent of the Tathagata’s appearance in the world”. Although I have attended many Hoonko Otorikoshi ceremonies, this was the first time that I truly felt ‘at one’ with the proceedings, and I realised that the ceremony is not so much a memorial in the usual sense, so much as a time of grateful, reverent communion with those who are guiding us from the Pure Land.

“Dharma-body’s wheel of light pervades the dharma-realm,

Shining on the blind and ignorant of the world; hence, I bow in homage.”

(Jodo wasan)

Namuamidabutsu. Namuamidabutsu.

Andy Barritt

31st October 2023