On October 30, 1999, some 30 members of West Covina Buddhist Temple participated in a retreat entitled, "Nembutsu For Dummies." The site was Monrovia Canyon Park, situated in the serene and verdant foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains just a few miles above the city of Monrovia, California.
After an opening service and welcome message by Bishop Imai, English lecturer Rev. Gyoko Saiko addressed the topic of "Nembutsu For Dummies" by saying, "If you really admit you are a dummy, you already understand Nembutsu, but the trouble is, we are always caught in our self-centeredness." He mentioned a Japanese term, atarimai, which means something like, "we don't know how lucky we are until some difficulty strikes us." In other words, we tend to be surprised by difficulties in life because of our tendency to take things for granted. "However, as we get older," Saito-sensei said, "we may need a hearing aid and lose our eyesight. I personally use false teeth, which means I can no longer eat daikon...I really miss those sounds. I miss my youth," he said.
What would allow us to better appreciate our life? Rev. Saito said that "We have to 'die' first--not physically, but mentally. This is because the concept of atarimai is not difficult to understand, but very difficult to appreciate." As an example of gaining this appreciation, Rev. Saito told his famous "false teeth" story. Once, he had misplaced his dentures somewhere in his apartment. He was sure it was his wife's fault. "How come you hid my false teeth?," he angrily said to her. But Mrs. Saito just laughed. Eventually, the teeth were discovered...right where Rev. Saito himself had hidden them out of his fear that his wife might accidentally throw them out. "That experience really showed me my true nature. It showed me how stupid I am."
Rev. Saito clarified that "Looking inside and seeing our foolishness is 'awareness' in Buddhism." But he wasn't actually advising us to avoid getting angry either. Rather, he said, "Getting mad is the only time we can look at ourselves." Saito-sensei pointed out that Shin author Shuichi Maida had said, "We are born with a greedy nature; we are human beings...because of greed, we want to control everything. But we bump into difficulties, which causes anger." Rev. Saito also reminded us that it was Shinran who had said that these blind passions and ignorance, this anger and jealousy, exists to the very last moment of our lives and is always arising. "Shinran lived to be 90 and had tremendous anger and tremendous greed," said Rev. Saito. He also stated that it was Prince Shotoku, the monarch credited with introducing Buddhism to Japan about 1300 years ago, who had emphasized that of all the ideas in all the Buddhist sutras, the most important is to know the true nature of our anger. "If we understand this, we can have peace," Rev. Saito said.
At around noon, participants took a break and enjoyed a delicious lunch, courtesy of WCBT's Religious Committee. After lunch, everyone enjoyed hiking and exploring the surrounding park. One of the interesting things seen was the gravesite of three children who had been members of the original family who owned the property some 100 years ago. It was a treat to discover a surprisingly swift-running stream (for this time of the year), as well as a shy deer grazing nearby. At the end of one of the trails was an educational ranger station, complete with an informative nature museum.
In the afternoon, when the lecture resumed, Rev. Saito said that when we are able to see our true nature, we receive what is called awareness or insight in Buddhism. This insight is the "namu" part of the nembutsu, of the phrase "namu amida butsu." It is the attitude of humility. "Receiving this attitude of Namu is the most important part of the nembutsu. It is the bowing aspect. But it is not 'I bow my head.' It is my head being persuaded to bow by 'other power,'" said Rev. Saito. "Such a rich, wide-open world opens up for you once you wipe out self-centeredness. And the key to achieving that is to understand 'how dumb I am.'"
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