WCBT Retreat at San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple:
"The History of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism"

Retreat participants pose on San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple's front steps; at lower right are SLOBT's Rev. Fujii and WCBT's Rev. Ken Kawawata (in yellow)

On the weekend of February 13~15, 2009, about 30 members of West Covina Buddhist Temple threw caution to the wind and trekked up the California coast to the picturesque San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple for their 2009 Family Retreat. These retreat-goers needed to be risk takers because, as usual, heavy rain was in the forecast that weekend. Once again however, though there was rain on the way up, by the time we arrived on Friday evening, the sky was clearing, and we enjoyed perfect weather all day Saturday. We were also fortunate to leave on Sunday before more rain arrived. Interestingly, for the first time, the lectures for this retreat were given by two of WCBT's minister's assistants, Peter Hata, a jazz musician and lecturer in music at Cal State University Los Angeles, and Fred Brenion, head librarian at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino. Both are studying under WCBT's resident minister, Rev. Ken Kawawata.

On Saturday, after a seiza session, morning service, and a delicious breakfast, Peter began his talk on the history of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism by going all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha’s awakening to the truth of impermanence 2,500 years ago. He explained that this truth is analytically expressed in the ancient Pali sutras as the teaching of “dependent origination,” that all things are not only impermanent, but also arise together, or dependently. Nothing appears on its own; everything we experience arises from a web of other things that are dependent upon and conditioned by each other. One example he cited was that, though we’d like to claim our identity or ego-self as being self-created, what actually “belongs” to us is simply the myriad of causes and conditions that created us—and that continue to influence us every moment of our lives. All reality is interdependent and constantly changing. Peter stated that acceptance of this reality of impermanence (Sanskrit anitya)—that all things including even one’s own ego-self are impermanent—then leads directly to the realization that there is no permanent self (“non-self” or Sanskrit anatman). Essentially, deeply understanding this truth is a spiritual death. The impact of this crucial, negative insight on Shakyamuni was however, tremendously positive: after his awakening at the age of 35, the Buddha spent the remaining 45 years of his life compassionately sharing his insight with people, that it is not aging, illness, and death that is at the root of our suffering (Sanskrit duhkha); it is our ignorance of the truth of impermanence. Peter referred to these seeming opposites—negative self-knowledge and positive sharing—as the well-known “two pillars” of Buddhism, wisdom and compassion.

Peter Hata presenting Jodo Shinshu history

Peter continued his history presentation by focusing on one of the most important developments in Jodo Shinshu history: the rise of Mahayana Buddhism that began about 300 years after Shakyamuni’s death. He stated that Mahayana was a reaction to the conservatism and stagnation that resulted as Buddha’s followers—the Theravada—strictly classified and systematized Shakyamuni’s teachings in the centuries following his death. Though this was no doubt done out of great respect for the teachings, from the Mahayana view, it had the effect of obscuring Shakyamuni's message. In contrast, the Mahayana were concerned with the crucial essence of Shakyamuni’s message, which was not his doctrine but his “spirit,” a spirit they felt had been lost. This essence is symbolized in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra (ca. 100 CE), also known simply as the Larger Sutra, the key sutra of Jodo Shinshu, by the actions of the dynamic seeker Dharmakara who perfects certain humble seeking practices—Dharmakara essentially bows deeply to all beings—and eventually becomes Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light (wisdom) and Life (compassion). Peter pointed out that what is striking in this sutra is the power of Dharmakara’s desire to become a buddha. This desire, the innermost aspiration of all sentient beings to become buddhas themselves, is known as hongan. “Hon” means “basic” or “primal”; “gan” means “vow” or “desire.” Thus, another term for hongan is “primal vow.” The significance of the Sukhavativyuha Sutra is therefore that this primal vow was not only the essential force that led to Shakyamuni Buddha’s awakening, it is the universal vow that can also awaken us today.

Later, many great Mahayana thinkers arose, and one of the greatest of these was Nagarjuna (ca. 150-250), the first of the Seven Shin Patriarchs. Peter discussed these Patriarchs in chronological order: Nagarjuna’s teaching of “emptiness” (that all phenomena are empty of “self-nature”; everything arises not out of self-power but due to dependent origination), Vasubandhu’s (ca. 4th century) influential concept that within the consciousness of all sentient beings are the seeds of Buddha-nature or hongan, T’an Luan’s (476-542) founding of the Chinese Pure Land School (Sukhavativyuha means “land of blissful happiness,” or “pure land”; the word “pure” signifies that, in the absence of “self,” all beings in the “land” become buddhas), Tao Ch’o’s (562-645) clarification of the “two paths” (monastic self-power vs. Pure Land/other-power), Shantao’s  (613-681) understanding of the twofold nature of shinjin or awakening (deep understanding of self and deep understanding of Dharma; i.e., the “two pillars”), Genshin’s (942-1017) emphasis on tariki or other power (especially in a “mappo” or degenerate age), and Honen’s (1133-1212) establishment of the Japanese Pure Land School. During the discussion of each historically significant figure, Peter added their name and dates to a large timeline on the whiteboard.

Retreat participants in the SLO temple's downstairs social hall

Next, Peter discussed Jodo Shinshu founder Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), emphasizing in particular that the significance of the Patriarchs is that, in tracing the thread of the Buddha-Dharma that links them, they all served to guide Shinran back to Shakyamuni. Thus, contrary to some common misconceptions regarding Japanese Pure Land teachings, Jodo Shinshu is not a new kind of Buddhism, but actually the “true essence” of Shakyamuni’s message. He reiterated that this essence centers around the Buddha-nature or hongan, the desire that Shakyamuni had—and that we all have—to become awakened beings. In Shinran’s understanding, deeply entrusting in this great power—a power beyond our self-power—is, in fact, awakening or shinjin.

Following Shinran, Peter described Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499) as the dynamic restorer of the Honganji (“ji” means “temple”; thus “hongan-ji” means “temple of hongan”), without whom there would be no Honganji today, and Manshi Kiyozawa (1863-1903) as the founder of modern Shinshu. Following approximately 300 years of Honganji history which culminated in the stagnation of the Edo or Tokugawa era, Kiyozawa revitalized Shinshu by emphasizing and demonstrating it as a living, personal religious experience. In essence, Kiyozawa broke away from dualistic Tokugawa-era concepts of Amida as a kind of external god and returned to the original, non-dualistic, experiential Buddhism of Shakyamuni. Ultimately, he duplicated Shakyamuni’s awakening to the truth of dependent origination, of emptiness and non-self.

Peter concluded by demonstrating the unbroken thread from Shakyamuni that continues to our current minister, Rev. Ken Kawawata. Rev. Kawawata (b. 1952) was a student of Rev. Gyoko Saito (1927-2001), who in turn was a student of Rev. Haya Akegarasu (1877-1954). Rev. Akegarasu, along with other extremely dynamic and influential 20th century Shin teachers such as Ryojin Soga and Daiei Kaneko, was a direct student of Manshi Kiyozawa.

After Peter’s talk, Fred Brenion delivered a short, but very insightful lecture. Fred’s talk focused on Shinran Shonin’s view of history. Fred clarified Shinran’s understanding of the Three Dharma ages: The Right Dharma age (the age of the 19th Vow), the Semblance Dharma age (the age of the 20th Vow), and the Mappo or “degenerate” age (the age of the 18th Vow, when we must depend on the power of the Primal Vow, hongan). And that our current age is a Mappo age. Thus, rather than wishing we had been born in a “Right Dharma age,” we can be so grateful to have been born in a Mappo age. Since we are all “bombu” (self-centered and limited human beings), the Primal Vow is the only way we can encounter the Dharma. In this sense, shinjin, or awakening, enables the samsara we suffer from to paradoxically also lead us to the ultimate peace of nirvana.

Fred Brenion discusses the 3 Dharma Ages

Later, Rev. Kawawata added to the two lectures by further clarifying the relationship of Shinran Shonin’s teaching to the Seven Patriarchs. Specifically, Rev. Ken discussed the specific, unique qualities of each Patriarch, and how those qualities were very influential on Shinran Shonin. For example, Rev. Ken said that, despite the variety of Buddhist practices in the dominant Tendai sect of 13th century Japan, Shinran’s own teacher Honen chose the Nembutsu path, entrusting exclusively in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

After a lively question and answer session, the main focus of the retreat began: participants gathered together and discussed how to craft the key Dharma presentation planned for the 50th Anniversary in October. This presentation will show in a compelling way that our 50th Anniversary not only honors the WCBT sangha who have worked so hard to maintain the temple for the past 50 years; the teachings of our tradition have been handed down to us through our current and previous ministers, through Shinran Shonin, and ultimately go back 2,500 years to Shakyamuni Buddha. It was a wonderfully stimulating discussion.

SLO retreat participants brainstorm the 50th anniversary history presentation

Peter Hata and Fred Brenion pose with the completed Jodo Shinshu timeline

After that, retreat participants took a trip to the scenic Avila Beach, for some sight-seeing and skateboarding (on the part of the kids, of course).

WCBT's teen boys take "advantage" of the stairs at Avila Beach

On Saturday Evening, after a delicious curry dinner, the Sangha gathered to play some great games under the direction of Stephanie Jitosho. There were several rounds of Stephanie (and uncle Frank Tanji’s) excellent “Concentration game” and also a very fun and innovative “partner-matching” game. The games were a big “hit.” Even the kids joined in and had a blast.

Stephanie and Uncle Frank tested participants memory in a fun game of Concentration

Sunday morning began again with seiza, a morning service, and another tasty breakfast. Following that, there was a very productive followup discussion regarding the 50th Anniversary presentation.

West Covina Buddhist Temple would like to thank Peter Hata, Fred Brenion, and Rev. Ken Kawawata for their informative talks. We also would like to thank WCBT Temple Communications Staff members and Mrs. Jeanne Kawawata, who worked together to create the delicious food, retreat program, and fun activities for the children. Finally, we thank San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple and Rev. and Mrs. Fujii for once again being such warm and welcoming hosts.

On the one hand, WCBT’s annual retreat certainly offered a highly refreshing experience of literally “retreating” from our urban Southern California environment to the beautifully scenic Central Coast. However, because of the strong fellowship that naturally arises when studying and sharing the Dharma with others, this retreat ultimately provided a memorable glimpse of the Pure Land.

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