WCBT’s 2012 Family Retreat
Why Me? Why Not?: A Closer Look At The Meditation Sutra


WCBT Retreat participants enjoy a stimulating discussion in the Muth Interpretive Center's natural amphitheater

On the President’s Day Weekend of February 18-19, 2012, West Covina Buddhist Temple once again held its annual Family Retreat. This year however, the location was changed from the popular San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple to our sister temple in Newport Beach, a fact that had some concerned that this retreat might not live up to our family retreat expectations. In any case, only a relatively small group of two-dozen WCBT members made the “trek” down to Newport Beach. During the retreat, they were joined by a few members from the Newport Beach Sangha. But despite the concerns, the retreat was actually quite enjoyable and in many ways, the change was invigorating.

Interestingly, another fortunate “cause and condition” from this location change was that, since Newport Beach was much closer to home, it provided a rare opportunity to listen to and participate in informal small group discussions with Bishop Nori Ito. There is an undeniable bond that many longtime WCBT members feel with Ito-sensei because he was our minister in the early 1990s. However, due to his busy schedule as Rinban and now Bishop, the last opportunity we had to share a retreat weekend with him might have been as far back as the 1994 San Luis Obispo Family Retreat, some 18 years ago.

Bishop Nori Ito speaks to the participants in the temple's gym

Bishop Ito’s Saturday talk
After his opening remarks, Bishop Ito introduced the theme of this retreat, “Why Me? Why Not?,” with the subject being the Meditation Sutra, one of the three key sutras of Shin Buddhism. Regarding this sutra (a sermon or teaching of the Buddha), he stated that there are about 200 or so medium and long (major) sutras in the Pali Canon, and maybe 600 or so in the Mahayana Canon. Also, besides the sutras, the other parts of the complete Canon, the so-called Tripitaka (or Triple Basket) are the Vinaya (rules for monks and nuns) and the Abhidharma (commentaries on the sutras). “Jodo Shinshu focuses on three main sutras of which the Meditation Sutra is one, but in contrast to the other two—the Larger and Smaller Sutras, which are mythical stories—the Meditation Sutra describes an actual historical event.” It involves four main characters, King Bimbisara, his son Prince Ajatasatru, the conniving Devadatta (also a cousin of the Buddha), and the main character of the story, Queen Vaidehi.

However, though this sutra tells an ancient story dating back to the time of the Buddha, the retreat’s question of “Why me?” hints at the relevance of its lessons for us today. As Ito-sensei noted, when “bad things” happen, as they do to Vaidehi, it is not surprising for the recipient of such unfortunate events to ask, “Why me?” In contemporary terms, Ito-sensei stated that when a loved one dies, it is very common for the surviving family members to ask, “Why me?, why did this loss have to happen?” He also cited the recent tragic example of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, when tens of thousands of Japanese also asked, “Why me?” “However,” he said, “the Buddha might ask, ‘Why not?’” Ito-sensei clarified though that this would not be an indication of insensitivity; it would instead reflect the truth that Buddhism teaches, which is the constant flow of impermanence. All things—including of course the Earth’s tectonic plates—are constantly changing, constantly moving. “Impermanence doesn’t choose,” he said; “tragic loss can happen to anyone.”

Furthermore, contrary to some popular beliefs, he added that natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis “don’t happen due to ‘bad karma’; karma is really much more involved than that.” Events occur due to a complex web of myriad causes and conditions. Bishop Ito explained that, no matter how “good” we are, bad things could still happen to us. Thus, the traditional view of karma—that bad things don’t happen to good people—doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. He clarified that whether or not something happens is, in Buddhist teachings, due first to the “one true cause”—our being born human in an unpredictable and impermanent world—and second, to the existence of myriad karmic conditions. We have only limited control over these conditions, which has the effect of making us more responsible for our own lives and more awakened to the true reality. This in fact is the lesson of the Meditation Sutra.

The focus of this sutra is the story of Queen Vaidehi, and it is a compelling one. Ito-sensei recounted how she and King Bimbisara were active members of the Buddha’s Sangha. But then Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, driven by his ego-centricity and jealousy of the Buddha—always being in the Buddha’s shadow greatly bothered him—planted the thought in the mind of Prince Ajatasatru to overthrow the King and seize power. The Prince did seize power and locked his father in the dungeon, with the intent of starving the King to death. The Queen saved her husband by sneaking in food, but when the Prince found out, he was so angry he almost killed her. Fortunately for her, some of the Prince’s advisors convinced him that killing his mother would be an unspeakably bad act, and so he instead imprisoned her in the castle’s dungeon.

It’s at this point that she calls out for the Buddha’s help. Even though he’s far away at Vulture Peak, he hears her call. When he arrives, Vaidehi essentially asks “Why me?”; she’s a rich and powerful queen, and had been a faithful follower of the Buddha, so how could this be? In her anger, she even begins to accuse the Buddha:

She tore off her ornaments, crying uncontrollably, as she threw herself on the floor. She exclaimed, “Oh World-honored One! What former karmic conditions of mine have produced such a wicked son? And, moreover, by what causes and conditions are you related to Devadatta who abetted my son in such a crime?”
[translated by Akinori Imai and Noriaki Ito]

“However,” said Ito-sensei, “the Buddha remained silent. And the silence of the Buddha served to turn her focus inward.” In essence, as she did, she lost her identity as a queen, her self-centeredness and self-importance, and became a true student of the Buddha. Though she initially only looked outward and placed the blame for her suffering on others, she was able, with the Buddha’s guidance, to look inward. As she did so, she was completely transformed. Vaidehi had come face-to-face with the truth of impermanence, which had the effect of exposing her attachment to power and wealth. “She realized the unreliability of human life,” he said.

“Eventually, she realized that she was actually the one at fault and was able to accept responsibility for her own suffering. And she expresses to the Buddha her wish to be born in a world without suffering. “Of course,” said Ito-sensei, “this is kind of the ‘miraculous’ part of the sutra because the Buddha shows her a vision of the Pure Land.” When the Buddha finally speaks to Vaidehi for the first time, he comforts her by saying:

Do you realize that Amida Buddha is not far from here? Focusing your mind, you should meditate on the One who perfected the Pure Land. Now, I will explain to you in detail the means for attainment. The path is not only for you, but also for all people now and in the future to be freed. To seek the pure way is to cultivate the desire to be born in the land of Amida Buddha…If you can clearly see the indescribable excellence of that land, you will experience a state of joy and happiness, and will immediately acquire insight into the true nature of all existence.
[trans. by Akinori Imai and Noriaki Ito]

Vaidehi’s desire to be “born in the Pure Land,” her becoming a true student of the Buddha, is the positive outcome of the Meditation Sutra’s story, of her looking inward. Thus, what the ideal of the Pure Land really represents is “insight into the true nature of all existence.” It is reality itself, or, as Ito-sensei put it, it is “how to live our life awakened, with shinjin. It’s seeing who we really are.”

The hondo of Newport Beach Higashi Honganji

Bishop Ito went on to clarify the uniqueness of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism: “Unlike traditional Buddhism, which engages in monastic practices to try to suppress the ego and ‘climb the ladder’ towards enlightenment, Jodo Shinshu asks, ‘How can we suppress the ego with our own ego?’ This is the same ego that arrogantly says, ‘I am the creator of my universe.’” In contrast, he said, “Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, defines enlightenment differently; it’s seeing the true self.” What is this true self?

Ito-sensei then read an important passage from Shuichi Maida’s essay, “The Ignorant Person” [from The Evil Person: Essays on Shin Buddhism]; Maida was an important 20th century Shin Buddhist teacher:

What is a buddha (an awakened one)? He is an ignorant person. He knows he is totally ignorant. He has awakened to his own ignorance.
What is a deluded person? He thinks that he knows something. He has not yet awakened to the fact that he knows nothing at all. But if a deluded person awakens to his ignorance, he is a buddha. He can easily become a buddha…
A buddha is a seeker. He is a learner. Since he realizes that he does not yet understand the truth, he keeps on seeking it. On the other hand, a deluded person cannot devote himself to seeking and learning. His spirit is stagnant; he stays in the same place. He believes he has already acquired some important knowledge.
A buddha is extremely powerful because he is determined to keep on seeking and learning…Since a buddha regards himself as ignorant, he has no knowledge that he relies on. He has no fixed ideas, no attachments. If we believe that we know something, we are bound by our own idea that we know something. If we have awakened to the fact that we know nothing, we become free to deal with everything in this world.
[trans. by Nobuo Haneda]

Ito-sensei added: “While we may intellectually understand teachings like impermanence, we don’t think about this in relation to ourselves.” Like Vaidehi, only when we come face-to-face with the power of impermanence itself and look inward, do we realize the impermanence of the self itself, and see who we really are. As the Meditation Sutra illustrates and as Maida emphasizes in his essay, though we think there is something permanently good or valuable in us, and which we think of as “my identity” or ego, this is actually an illusion; this is “attachment” or suffering in Buddhism. The ego itself naturally resists this truth. “This,” said Ito-sensei, “is the reason why we need to ‘take refuge’ in the Three Treasures; it is declaring that the Buddha is my eternal teacher, the Dharma is my eternal medicine, and the Sangha are my eternal friends.”

Ito-sensei lectures on Sunday morning

Sunday’s Lecture
In his Sunday lecture, Bishop Ito looked at the Meditation Sutra from the standpoint of the Tannisho, the classic work which contains the sayings of Shinran, and which were compiled several decades after his death by a disciple named Yui-en. If the theme of the Vaidehi story is seeing the true self and taking refuge in the Dharma, the essence of this ideal is strikingly illustrated in Chapter Three of the Tannisho:

Even a good person attains birth in the Pure Land, how much more so the evil person.
But the people of the world constantly say, even the evil person attains birth, how much more so the good person. Although this appears to be sound at first glance, it goes against the intention of the Primal Vow of Other Power. The reason is that since the person of self-power, being conscious of doing good, lacks the thought of entrusting the self completely to Other Power, he is not the focus of the Primal Vow of Amida. But when he turns over self-power and entrusts himself to Other Power, he attains birth in the land of True Fulfillment.

[trans. by Taitetsu Unno]

For many people, this statement of Shinran is very difficult to comprehend. Ito-sensei clarified however that “Shinran is speaking from a humble, non-dualistic view.” In contrast, he pointed out examples in the news media of highly dualistic thinking, such as the recent tragic story of the father who locked himself in his home and set fire to himself and his two boys, or the mother who tried to drown her two girls in the bathtub. We’ve also seen recent examples of workplace violence, of an employee resorting to murder those co-workers they judge to be their “enemy.” “This,” he said, “represents an ‘I’m right/you’re wrong’ judgmental duality.” Of course, we also frequently see this kind of dualism in today’s political arena.
However, in stark contrast, we read another famous passage from the postscript of the Tannisho:

I know nothing of what is good or evil. For if I could know thoroughly, as is known in the mind of Amida, that an act is good, then I would know the meaning of “good.” If I could know thoroughly, as Amida knows, that an act was evil, then I would know “evil.” But for a foolish being full of blind passions, in this fleeting world—this burning house—all matters without exception are lies and gibberish totally without truth and sincerity. The nembutsu alone is true and real.

This shows Shinran’s deep inward self-examination and humble self-awareness. Certainly, by Maida’s definition, Shinran was a buddha. Bishop Ito then read a short passage written by Ryojin Soga, another important 20th century Shin teacher, where Soga comments on the above Tannisho passage and compares Shinran to Honen Shonin, who was Shinran’s teacher. Soga underscores Shinran’s uniqueness even within the Pure Land tradition by pointing out that, while Honen also used terms like “evil” and “good”, they were used in the conventional sense from the standpoint of an “observer”:

Honen speaks from his standpoint as a guide of other people; Shinran, on the other hand, simply bares his own self-realization, and then waits for people of the same conviction to come forward.
[trans. by Jan Van Bragt]

Ito-sensei concluded his lecture by stating, “Whereas Honen served as guide for others, Shinran bared his soul and then waited for others of like conviction to join him. This statement comes from the realization that we cannot enlighten ourselves…it is this realization that puts us on the path.”

Outing
After lunch, the retreat participants carpooled to the Balboa Fun Zone. The weather in the afternoon was near perfect: it was a cool, breezy day, but this was offset by the warmth of the sun. Of course, while many of the participants rode the colorful ferris wheel—even two-year old Jaylene Gutierrez rode with mom Monique—only teen Taylor Saucedo had the courage to experience the bungee jump ride with its thrilling 20+ foot leaps and spins. Even hours later, Taylor commented that she still felt an adrenline rush. To be honest though, there was quite a bit of “peer pressure” involved in getting her to step up onto the trampoline, and even Bishop Ito contributed to this by personally pulling out his wallet and paying for Taylor’s ride!

Above: participants enjoyed the ferris wheel Above: Taylor soars on the bungee jump ride!

After the Fun Zone, the group took the unique Balboa Island Ferry to Balboa Island (oops; only the six participants in Rev. Peter Hata’s van were actually able to take the ferry due to the delays in the garage for the other vehicles—the Hatas had found street parking). This was the same ferry that made the news not long ago when a van driven by some Asian tourists was inadvertently pushed off the ferry into the water, and the family narrowly escaped in time. Hmmm…perhaps the other retreat drivers subconsciously avoided the ferry? Fortunately, the “Asian tourists” in this particular van did not get wet. In fact, this sort of thing happens very rarely; the ferry operator said the last time it happened was 30 years ago.

Next, the group drove a couple of miles up the Upper Newport Bay to visit the Muth Interpretive Center, where they watched an engaging short film on the four seasons of the Upper Newport Bay’s birds, fish, worms, and crabs, browsed the museum’s informative exhibits (the kids had a great time in the center’s interactive classroom), and of course, marveled at the inspiring scenic vistas of the enormous preserve that surrounds the museum. As large as it is however, we learned in the museum that 90% of California’s coastal wetlands have been lost to development. Upper Newport Bay is the largest of only a few remaining natural estuaries in Southern California.

The kids enjoyed the Muth's interactive classroom
WCBT's retreat participants pose in front of the Muth Interpretive Center

Discussions
One of the features of a retreat such as this is the opportunity for small group discussions on the ideas expressed in the lectures. And besides a rewarding group discussion the participants were able to enjoy in the unique setting of the Muth’s natural amphitheatre, there was a lively discussion Saturday in the temple’s gym and on Sunday, there was another very productive roundtable discussion in the temple’s kitchen. It would be impossible to capture the interactive nature of these discussions in this report, but one memorable moment ocurred in the Sunday discussion when moderator Rev. Peter asked Bishop Ito to specifically comment on the relevance of this subject of dealing with life’s impermanence for the young people who attended this retreat. Ito-sensei commented that, while young people naturally tend to think dualistically and try to focus only on the “good things” in their lives, all the while trying to block out the “bad things,” “Eventually, they realize that the positive growth in their lives is actually because of the ‘bad things.’”

Taylor competes against Bishop Ito in the Buddhist/Not a Buddhist Game

Thanks
West Covina Buddhist Temple retreats are known for providing an abundance of delicous food, and this one was no exception. To that end, the temple would like to thank Diane Hata for getting the retreat off to a great start with Saturday’s continental breakfast, Pat Sato for the tasty lunch, Jeanne Kawawata for the Saturday evening classic curry dinner, and Joanie Martinez for Sunday’s great breakfast casserole.

Another staple of our family retreats are the interactive games. Here, thanks go to the Jitosho family for Saturday’s games and puzzles, one of which was like a hilarious combination of “Pictionary” and “Telephone” where everyone would write down a word on their pad and then pass it to the next person who had to then draw the word. The next person then wrote down the word that described the picture, and so forth. Not surprisingly, in a group of maybe 7 or 8 or so people on each team, when each person finally received their original pad and looked at the last picture or word entry, very few reported that the word or concept had returned intact. Of course, the word “swordfish” eventually becoming a picture of goldfish in an aquarium is perhaps understandable, as are the words “walking stick” ending up as a picture of a matchbook. But how do you explain “maple syrup” ending up as a drawing of a snowman, or “gong” ending up as a picture of a vacuum cleaner? And how can “cheerleader” possibly become a picture of a toilet bowl?

More fun arrived with Diane Hata’s “Buddhist/Not a Buddhist” game complete with ringer bells for the paired contestants to hit if they knew the answer. There are of course some well-known celeb Buddhists, such as Keanu Reeves, Sharon Stone, Richard Gere, and Phil Jackson, but those that proved especially tricky for the contestants were some not so well-known, such as Tina Turner, Uma Thurman, and Gov. Jerry Brown.

An especially meaningful aspect of this retreat was that this was the first time for almost half the participants, all of whom have been active at WCBT for less than a year. In that regard, many thanks go to Rev. Ken Kawawata and WCBT’s Temple Communications Staff for working hard to ensure the retreat was memorable and rewarding for our first-timers. Thanks also go to Newport Beach Higashi Honganji for allowing WCBT to use their facility. Lastly, we thank Bishop Nori Ito for deepening our appreciation of the timeless story of Queen Vaidehi by revealing the link between this ancient teaching of the Buddha, our Jodo Shinshu tradition, and most importantly, our everyday lives today.

WCBT's 2012 Family Retreat at the Newport Beach Higashi Honganji was a great success!

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