2011 WCBT Family Retreat at San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple:
"Benefitting Self and Benefitting Others"

WCBT Retreat participants pose in San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple's hondo

Over the President’s Day weekend of February 18-20, 35 members of West Covina Buddhist Temple made their annual trek up the California coast to the beautiful San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple for their 2011 Family Retreat. These retreats have been an annual occurrence since the late 1980s, and usually there is rain in the forecast. This year was no exception. However, even if there is rain on the way up, once the retreat begins, the rain always seems to yield to clear blue skies. However, this year was different, and even after our Saturday morning seiza meditation and service (with the Shoshinge chant led by young Noah Kowalski ), it was still raining heavily and in fact, the rain continued all day Saturday, necessitating alternate plans. Of course, though everyone might have been initially disappointed with not being able to visit Avila Beach or the Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo Beach, the rain not only allowed for additional time to interact with featured speaker Rev. Mas Kodani of Senshin Buddhist Temple, it also allowed the Sangha to get in some enjoyable gatha singing practice.

Rev. Masao Kodani

Rev. Kodani began his talk by providing some background info about the SLO temple (currently celebrating its 85th year), including descriptions of some of the retreats his own Senshin Buddhist Temple Sangha had experienced there, such as one with the noted Rinzai Zen master, Sasaki Roshi. Even though WCBT of course follows the Jodo Shinshu tradition, Kodani sensei’s insights into his Zen experience were interesting because a form of sitting meditation—three 15-minute sessions of seiza meditation— was an important part of our retreat. Thus it was instructive when Rev. Kodani related his own experience of heightened self-consciousness during meditation: “Group sitting sessions show you how big your ego is, how self-conscious you are about coughing and even just swallowing.” Sitting meditation is valuable even though not emphasized in Shin Buddhism because, “Seeing the ego-self is Jodo Shinshu.”

Moving on to the retreat’s theme, “benefitting self, benefitting others” (jiri-rita in Japanese), Rev. Kodani clarified that “This does not refer to American values like ‘love yourself and then love others’; in Buddhism, there is no self.” Though difficult, we have to think beyond the duality of “myself and everyone else” and that, “In Buddhism, benefitting self and benefitting others is not two things, but one thing.”

Seven Key Points of Buddhism
Next, in order to shed more light not only on this central Buddhist concept of non-duality but on other key concepts as well, Kodani sensei introduced what he called “the seven things we need to be clear about as Buddhists.” The first of these is the word, “Buddha,” which has two meanings: on the one hand it refers of course to Shakyamuni, a human being who awakened to the ultimate truth or reality, but on the other hand it also can refer to the reality itself that Shakyamuni awakened to. He noted that in Jodo Shinshu, this all-encompassing reality is known by various names such as Amida Buddha, nyorai (Japanese), or tathagata (a Sanskrit term which means “one who comes from reality or suchness”). Kodani sensei clarified that while this reality is also called bodhi or “enlightenment,” this enlightenment is more accurately thought of as a highly diverse transforming experience—including the experiences of such awakened beings as Shakyamuni, Shinran, and the Dalai Lama—and ultimately indescribable. In addition, he emphasized that while some Buddhists may hope to receive personal benefits from a buddha, “Petitional prayer (e.g., to Amida) is forbidden in Shin; it’s a mindless exercise.” As a concrete example, he advised that, “If you desire world peace, them work for it, don’t pray to God or Buddha.”

Rev. Kodani then spoke more about bodhi, the second of the seven terms he wanted to clarify. He said that in Shinshu, bodhi or enlightenment is often referred to as “birth in the Pure Land” or shinjin. He wanted to clarify some common misunderstandings: “Especially in Nishi, you have people who say ‘I have shinjin…and you don’t’; also, Nishi tends to have more people who take the ‘Pure Land’ literally, as a physical paradise.”

The third key term is karma, of which Kodani sensei said, “Most people think of it in the Hindu terms of “good vs. bad karma,” but the word simply means ‘action.’” Again, referring to the non-dual essence of Buddhist teachings, he pointed out that, rather than saying “I’m a person doing karma,” Shakyamuni actually said, “I am karma.” In addition, this explains the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism; whereas Buddha denied the existence of a permanent soul, Hindus believe in a reincarnating soul whose fate in each succeeding lifetime depends on one’s “good or bad” acts. Politically speaking, the concept of karma was then used in Indian society to control and maintain the caste system; as Rev. Kodani put it, “karma + soul = caste.” Also, in terms of us “being our actions” (i.e., being our karma), “We are all killers”—we need to kill just to survive and we are what we do. He advised us, “If you like chicken for example, you should raise and kill your own chickens. This will make you appreciate each life you take much more.”

Next, Rev. Kodani spoke about the fourth and fifth terms, which are related and are known as pratityasamutpada—“rising into effect” (also known as dependent co-arising)—and what he called hetupratyaya, or the primary and secondary causes and conditions for things. In practical terms, he said that the significance of these two is that “miracles are not possible in Buddhism.” Kodani sensei pointed out that since miracles require an all-powerful god or other-worldly being that can alter or reverse the causes and conditions of aging, illness, and death, which are of course, the inevitable outcomes set in motion by our birth, “It is only in theistic religions that miracles are possible.”

The sixth term was anitya, which means impermanence; “All is impermanent, nothing is unchanging and least of all, my self. According to Buddhism, if you cling to a ‘real self,’ you will suffer,” he said. As an example of someone unattached to the concept of the self—or to the long-established tradition of Buddhist monasticism as a lifestyle to “purify” the self—Kodani sensei stated, “The fact that Shinran, despite being an ordained priest, married, essentially ended monasticism.” Shinran basically said, “I tried on Mt. Hiei [the rigorous training center for Buddhist monks in Kyoto, Japan] for 20 years but could not rid myself of my self. Shinran studied Buddhism for 20 years, which is the equivalent of attaining a PhD, and finally said, ‘I don’t get it.’ Shinran changed the meaning of bodhi from “fully enlightened being” to someone who realizes the true nature of the self.”

The seventh term is anatman, or “no self” and attaining this state is known as nirvana, the extinguishing of the “flame” of selfish desires. However, Rev. Kodani explained that from a Jodo Shinshu point of view, even after enlightenment, the self or ego is still present, so “Nirvana is really the non-interference of ego; it is being aware and awake…Thus, Jodo Shinshu practice is ultimately about getting you to see your ego as it really is, because if you really see it, you will be so disgusted you’ll let it go. The idea is to let go of the ego, and you can’t let go of something you don’t see.” Why let go of one’s ego? Because, Kodani sensei pointed out, “Someone who has let go of the ego can then truly play like a child; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas know how to ‘play’ in the present moment. A Buddha is simply a human person who can live fully in the present moment.” One example of this awareness of the present moment in Buddhist literature is the famous passage from the Tanbutsuge sutra, “Ko gen gi gi”; the “radiant moment” observed by Ananda, the Buddha’s closest disciple.

More Points About Buddhism
Next, Rev. Kodani focused on comparing Buddhism to other religions. He stated that, at the core of the conflict often created by monotheistic religions is the ego. “Historically, monotheistic religions tend to conflict because whenever you have an idea of one god or one supreme teaching, you’re bound to fight with others who disagree. This is really a problem of ego.” Instead, “Buddhism values diversity and brings peace. There is no need to have everyone agree on “one truth; this is what breeds conflict,” he said. He referred again to his opening point, that “there is no duality between benefitting self and benefitting others, and this is why jiri-rita is one word. There is no sense in Buddhism of a separate self that needs to tell everyone what ‘it’ is.”

Interestingly, Kodani sensei also observes a parallel relationship between a religion’s core focus and its architecture and music. The high-walled, multistory architecture of classic Gothic cathedrals and the typically “soaring” music of the Catholic liturgy illustrate Christianity’s vertical focus. “It’s pointing to or connecting you to an other-worldly, heavenly God,” he said. In contrast, Buddhist temples such as those of the Nishi and Higashi Honzans feature a “forest of pillars” and a relatively wide and low altar. Also, musically speaking, Rev. Kodani characterized Buddhist chanting as “very earthy.” Thus, “the focus of Buddhism is horizontal; it’s never trying to leave the earth.”

Kodani sensei also spoke a bit about ancient Buddhist history, specifically, the criticisms of the day that were aimed at the religion of Brahminism, which had preceeded Shakyamuni. “The early Indian religion that preceeded Buddhism was Brahminism; it used rituals and chants to invoke gods to achieve desired benefits.” But around 500 BCE, there was a lot of criticism from those left out of the Brahmin elite and out of this came Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Kodani sensei called the latter, “Brahminism’s response to the critique from other movements, including Buddhism.” Most importantly, he clarified that among all these new religious strains, “Buddhism is unique in saying there is no creator god and that it is the attachment to a creator god and to the idea of an eternal soul that creates suffering.” He added that for about 1,000 years after the Buddha, Buddhism dominated India. But even when it began to disappear from India, its influence continued to be felt there; for example, “Hinduism tried to incorporate Buddhism by claiming that Shakyamuni was one of the 10 avatars of Vishnu.”

Restating the most important aspect of the seven key points, he stated that the essence of the radical change brought by Buddhism was that “Buddhism replaced all gods with the Dharma.” He added that “Dharma has two meanings: first, it is the teaching of the historical Buddha; second, it is the ultimate reality that the Buddha awakened to…Of the two, the latter is the more important meaning.”

Kodani sensei concluded his morning session by stating that the ultimate goal is to realize the Pure Land in this present life, to attain awakening or bodhi. However, he clarified that, “Shinran actually redefined what awakening is. It is not attaining a sort of perfectly peaceful attitude. Rather, it‘s appreciating the world as it is, which comes naturally through the kind of self-negation that Shinran expresses. When the self is negated and let go of, we can fully appreciate the life around us.“

Retreat participants practice gatha singing under direction by Peter Hata

Retreat Activities
On Saturday afternoon after lunch, retreat participants went into the main hondo and had fun practicing singing gathas accompanied by WCBT’s Bodhi Tree Band. Interestingly, these gathas played by the band represent both new gatha compositions and new arrangements of traditional Buddhist music, such as a funk/rock version of Shinran Sama. Interestingly, group singing arguably requires the same kind of non-dual awareness as sitting meditation, and perhaps that explains why singing at this retreat was particularly enjoyable.

After the singing, participants held an extended interactive discussion with Rev. Kodani, and were able to give comments and/or ask questions of Kodani sensei.

During the Saturday evening service, participants enjoyed listening to the thoughtful kanwas [short, spontaneous reflections] by Karen Ezaki, who expressed how much she enjoyed her first SLO retreat, and Leo Kowalski, who, because of the rain, gained an appreciation of the teaching of impermanence.

After a delicious dinner of chicken fajitas and carnitas tacos, chili dogs, tasty salads, and mega-desserts, Saturday evening was spent playing a series of fun and interesting games, courtesy of Merry and Stephanie Jitosho, and Jeanne Kawawata. One game, a “face match puzzle,” was really interesting.  Pics of all 35 participants’ faces were cut up into hair (or “scalp” in the case of some), eyes, and mouth segments and pasted onto a poster board. Each team of 5 members then had to see how many face segments they could match with the correct names. This was very hard; in fact it wasn’t uncommon for members to incorrectly identify their own spouses. In fact, WCBT's Rev. Kawawata could not even identify his own scalp after three guesses—perhaps too many of us have similar “hairlines!”

One of the many creative games participants enjoyed (note "face match puzzle" in background)

During Saturday evening dinner, SLOBT's minister, Rev. Henry Adams receives gifts from WCBT's Merry Jitosho while Rev. Kawawata looks on

Sunday morning began again with seiza meditation, followed by a morning service with Shoshinge chanting led this time by Peter Hata. This was followed by two more thoughtful kanwas, one by Joanie Martinez, who expressed her appreciation of the opportunity to share experiences with the Sangha at this retreat, and one by Masanao Hayashi, who told a humorous anecdote of how being chosen to give a kanwa helped him see his own ego clearly. Then, following another tasty breakfast, there was a helpful followup Q & A session regarding Rev. Kodani’s Saturday lectures. Kodani-sensei had to leave early to get back to his temple, so Rev. Kawawata led the session. However, it seemed that many more questions were raised than answers given, so in the days ahead, it’s likely that retreat participants have much to reflect on, and that discussions will likely continue back at WCBT.

Later that morning, it was wonderful to be able join the SLO temple Sangha for their Sunday Service, where Rev. Kawawata led the (Nishi-style) chanting and gave the Dharma talk since they currently share their minister, Rev. Henry Adams, with no less than three other temples. After the service, the SLO Sangha enjoyed a lunch provided by the WCBT Sangha downstairs in the social hall, which was followed by a friendly discussion, where the combined Sanghas introduced ourselves and gave a little background info on how we each came to Buddhism.

West Covina Buddhist Temple would like to thank the San Luis Obispo Temple Sangha for allowing us to use their beautiful facility, and of course, Rev. Mas Kodani for his informative and stimulating talk. Sensei gave us all much to reflect on as we try to deepen our understanding of Buddhism. Also of course, thanks must go to all our WCBT participants, who under the direction of Rev. Kawawata, worked very hard to ensure that everything from the religious program to the entertainment activities and food all contributed to a successful retreat, one where we could all take some time out of our busy schedules and reflect on the relevance of the Buddha Dharma in our daily lives.

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