WCBT Retreat participants pose in the Morro Bay Natural History Museum's Media Room
On the weekend of February 15~17, 2013, 26 members of West Covina Buddhist Temple and 18 members from Berkeley Higashi Honganji44 participants in allmet at the idyllic San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple for their 2013 Family Retreat. Fortunately, unlike the virtual rain-out of the 2011 SLOBT Retreat, which was our previous time here, not only did we enjoy perfect weather all weekend long, “interdependence,” the theme of this year’s retreat, seemed to be evident in regards to the confluence of engaging Dharma talks, lively fellowship, a wonderful temple and surroundings, delicious food, and enjoyable group activities, all of which contributed to a great retreat weekend. Specifically, these causes and conditions seemed ideal for listening to the Dharma.
On Saturday, after a seiza meditation session and morning service led by Rev. Peter Hata, and a delicious breakfast provided by WCBT’s Temple Communications Staff under the direction of Mr. Dick Koga, featured speaker Rev. Ken Yamada of the Berkeley Higashi Honganji Temple began his Saturday lecture. Rev. Yamada emphasized that “Buddhism is not doctrinal”; there is no necessity of believing dogmatically in the Buddha’s teachings. “In fact,” he said, “you don’t even have to believe in the Buddha; we’re only concerned with the Dharma, with truth; and interdependence is one of these truths that is true for everyone.”
Of course, while Buddhism is non-doctrinal, there are certainly concepts in Buddhism that are helpful in pointing to the ultimate truths, and Rev. Yamada identified these as the Three Dharma Seals [Ed. note: these are also known as the Three Dharma Marks]; these are the core concepts a tradition or school must have in order to be considered Buddhism. Actually, because of differences between Southern (Theravada) and Northern (Mahayana) traditions, Yamada-sensei clarified that there are actually four “seals” or “marks”:
-Impermanence: this is the truth that everything is constantly changing.
-Suffering (Sanskrit Duhkha): these are the difficulties in our lives, but as Rev. Yamada pointed out, they’re not something to get rid of; they are an important starting point for us. “Difficulties, such as our fear of death and our anxiety, spurn our search for truth,” he said.
-Non-self (Pali anatta or Sanskrit anatman): There is no separate, permanent self.
-Nirvana: perfect bliss, enlightenment, or “pure land”; “This is the opposite of duhkha,” said Rev. Yamada as he drew a large circle on the whiteboard. He explained that the circle perfectly symbolizes nirvana because “It has no rough spots and no beginning, no end.”
Next. Rev. Yamada spoke about Nagarjuna, the Indian teacher Shinshu founder Shinran Shonin considered the first master of Shin Buddhism, who had written the “Treatise of the Middle Way.” This is the rather “heady” work that attempts to point to the truth beyond dualities such as “existence” and “non-existence,” towards what is known as The Middle Way. Yamada-sensei explained this as a way of seeing beyond what we think of as separate entities. For example, he pointed out that contrary to our normal way of thinking, Nagarjuna said that “Fire and wood are not separate but inseparable”; there can be no fire without wood and vice versa. Rev. Yamada then recalled how this truth was driven home to him in his personal experience of witnessing the birth of Cole, his first child. Apparently his wife Naomi had a very difficult time delivering Cole. However, judging by his highly animated reliving of the dramatic events of childbirth, Rev. Ken may have struggled even more than Naomi. In any case, he pointed out how Nagarjuna’s way of seeing the unity or interdependence behind childbirth was very perceptive. As Nagarjuna had put it, not only do the parents of course create the child; it is just as true that the parents are created by the child.
“Teachers like the Buddha and Nagarjuna,” Rev. Yamada continued, “left us these great truths to broaden our understanding; they allow us to participate more fully, to see the interdependence of life.” The Sanskrit term for interdependence is pratityasamutpada (or engi in Japanese), and the English term is “dependent arising,” he said. Basically, the interdependent nature of everything implies that all things arise or come into existence together, or dependently; as in the examples of fire and wood or parents and child, nothing appears on its own; all reality is interdependent.
On Saturday afternoon, after a simple, but tasty lunch of gourmet sandwiches, retreat participants took a break from the lectures and went on a memorable outing to the Morro Bay Natural History Museum.
Besides the informative, interdependence-themed exhibits on such subjects as the impact of housing developments on the Morro Bay region, the effect of the earth’s constantly changing geology, the constant erosion of the land by wind and rain, and the fragility of the lifecycles of various endangered species in the area, there were memorable views of Morro Bay and the iconic Morro Rock from the museum’s balcony.
Following the museum, retreat participants carpooled to the fascinating Elfin Forest which is near the Los Osos area on the other side of the large Morro Bay Estuary. A mile or so boardwalk circles the large preserve, and along the way there are many opportunities to view Morro Bay, Morro Rock and admire nearby peaks in the area. Also, in the bay and estuary are water foul like ducks, cormorants, and egrets.
The boardwalk passes through sage, chamise, and a variety of shrubs, but the most interesting plant on the hike are the short but sprawling pygmy oaks which spread their branches overhead, providing a shady shelter. A strange whitish moss hangs from the oaks like tinsel (we learned this is actually a kind of fungus that exists in symbiotic relationship with the oak). Though they are said to be a couple hundred years old, these California Live Oaks are only 20 feet tall or less; as yet another living example of interdependence, the rather harsh dune environment limits the oaks’ growth.
Later, on Saturday Evening, after a delicious primo macaroni casserole dinner, put together again by Dick Koga and the WCBT kitchen crew, the Sangha gathered in the temple’s social hall to play some great games under the direction of Stephanie Jitosho. One of the games was an incredibly energizing game called “Have you ever?” With the entire group of 45 people standing around the room in a circle (SLOBT’s Rev. Naomi joined our evening activities), Stephanie would call out a question like, “Have you ever received your Buddhist name?,” at which point, all those that did would literally swarm into the center and “high five” each other. It was fascinating enough to watch this when only half of the participants were involved, but the last question, “Are you having a good time?,” caused everyone to swarm into the center. It’s highly unlikely that all 45 people high-fived 45 people, but no matter; everyone had a blast.
Following this, Rev. Peter Hata and Diane Hata led the participants in a series of fun music activities which involved everyone first making their own shakers, then learning "shaker technique" over songs like "Oye Como Va," then learning to sing the interdependence-themed song, "Circle of Life" (from Disney's Lion King), replete with the Swahili chant Ngoyama nengwe namabala. Finally, everyone put their shaking and singing together and performed the entire song together.
Later in the evening, participants, especially the teens and 20-somethings, really enjoyed a wild, Buddhist vocabulary-inspired game of Pictionary.
Sunday morning began again with seiza, and a morning service with chanting of the Shoshin-ge, but interestingly, this time the chanting was led not by Rev. Hata but quite expertly by WCBT member Michelle Harrison.
After the chanting, Rev. Hata gave a short Dharma talk. He discussed what it is that we do at a retreat, and that though the verb “to retreat” implies a kind of passive activity such as seiza meditation, there could also be the sense of being at a retreat and, as he put it, “retreat-ing,” or actively being engaged in whatever it is that is helpful in advancing us towards enlightenment or awakening. “In this sense,” he said, “retreat-ing means participating in all our group activities from chanting the ancient Buddhist sutras, to singing, playing games, listening to Dharma talks, and certainly enjoying and appreciating the wonders of nature as we did in our outing to the Natural History Museum and the Elfin Forest.” In addition, though we of course can do most of these things at our home temples, he asked “Don’t you find something special about all these activities in the context of our retreat? Here, we’re not just chanting, we’re ‘retreat-ing,’ we’re not just listening to dharma talks, we’re ‘retreat-ing,’ we’re not just eating together, we’re ‘retreat-ing.’” In addition, he offered his opinion that the food at our retreats always seems to taste just a little better. “In other words, I think we’re chanting, singing, eating, listening, and observing just a little more intently, with a little more awareness. And I think, to the extent that we are “retreat-ing,” we are moving forward along the path of Buddhism.”
Rev. Peter expressed his hope that we take these experiences back with us even as we rejoin the hustle-bustle of our daily grind. “If we can,” he said, “it’s to return reinvigorated, refreshed and rejuvenated. It’s to return and to continue enjoying listening to the Dharma, continue enjoying the fellowship of the Sangha, continue enjoying the gifts that we receive from nature, and from all the life that supports us. If we do this, it is like looking at life in a fresh, new, and more appreciative way.”
Following the morning service, the participants enjoyed a very different but very tasty Japanese-themed breakfast organized by Mr. Joey Ouye and his Berkeley crew. Following that, Rev. Yamada gave the second part of his lecture.
Rev. Yamada began by continuing to discuss interdependence by demonstrating another way of understanding it. He held a grapefruit and pointed out that, while it’s of course here, it’s also “not really here,” at least not in the permanent sense. “It’s changing and impermanent,” he said. Clearly, it also exists because of many interdependent causes and conditions. These include not only obvious ones such as soil, water, and sun that caused the grapefruit to grow, but the fossil fuels used to transport the grapefruit to the market. “The burning of fossil fuels represents the release of life energy from many, many years ago,” he said. And, he added, clearly, “We should try to live in harmony with life, we should try to recycle our trash and not create unnecessary garbage.”
Returning to the ideas of Nagarjuna, Rev. Yamada emphasized the point that “We’re not really ‘ones’ (unique, independent beings); we’re really ‘zeros.’ This is known as the teaching of emptiness or Sanskrit shunyata.” What does this emptiness mean? To help explain it, Yamada-sensei compared two ways of seeing the universe. The Chinese way, he explained, is that everything in the universe is negative (yin) or positive (yang), and he drew the familiar Taoist yin-yang symbol on the whiteboard (i.e., a circle with white and black halves separated by a curved “s” shaped dividing line). He pointed out that in Taosim, the goal is to keep these opposites in balance. The Buddhist way of seeing the universe however, is as just “zero,” as oneness or emptiness. In other words, there is no dualism in Buddhism. As he put it, “Buddhism sees the entire universe contained in a single grain of sand. In the same way this grapefruit contains all life.”
Interestingly, Rev. Yamada stated that time can also be understood from the standpoint of interdependence; “Time is not made up of ‘past, present, and future.’ There’s only now. We can’t have the present without the past, and we can’t have the future without the present,” he said. And in a related way, understanding this truth of interdependence helps us to realize the deep meaning in memorial services and funerals. “Yes,” said Rev. Yamada, “they are sad occasions. But just as Nagarjuna had said there’s no parent without the child, there’s also no real independence of parent and child. He explained that, from the standpoint of interdependence, the parent, even after death, lives on in their children. “Therefore, pratityasamutpada is true; the previous life of my parentand all the interdependent lives that contributed to my parentall live on in me…right now. My life contains all life. I’m connected to the whole universe.” And the implication here, Yamada-sensei pointed out, is that “There’s no birth and no death; there’s no death because there’s no birth; you are part of all life, you are the causes and conditions that made you.” Ultimately, he pointed out, this leads to the teaching of non-attachment; this is the goal in Buddhismbecome one with the flow of life, with the truth of impermanence.
In his closing, Rev. Yamada recited the Japanese poet Issa’s famous poem (written upon the tragic death of his child):
The world of dew,
Is the world of dew,
And yet, and yet...
This poem expresses Issa’s deep insight into the truth of impermanence (“the world of dew”) but at the same time, Issa acknowledges his still being a limited human being, unable to fully accept this truth (“and yet, and yet”). To Yamada-sensei, this poemor more precisely, Issa’s humble self-awarenessexpresses the ultimate truth of Buddhism. The world of dew is the world of samsara or duhkha; this is the everyday experience of suffering and difficulties that we try to escape from. Naturally, knowing that nirvana is the cessation of suffering, we begin to long for such a state of peace. However, as Rev. Yamada reminded us, Issa’s poem reveals a deep insight into the same non-duality that Nagarjuna emphasized, to the inherent interdependence of the world of dew and of our essential limited human nature. In essence, Issa’s poem expresses his emptiness, or state of “zero,” and thus, even while suffering the reality of impermanence, Issa has also transcended it. In this sense, samsara and nirvana are only separate in our unawake mind. Rev. Yamada then ended his second lecture on Sunday by stating the ultimate truth, which is that, in realityand as Nagarjuna himself had stated“Samsara is nirvana.”
Following the conclusion of Yamada-sensei’s lecture, there was a short closing service, temple cleanup and another delicious lunch, which gave us the energy to make the trek back to our respective homes.
In closing, West Covina Buddhist Temple would like to deeply thank Rev. Ken Yamada for his thought-provoking lectures. We greatly appreciate Yamada’s sensei’s inspired efforts to open the Dharma storehouse for us. His lectures gave us all much to think about and hopefully share in our future Sangha discussions. We also would like to thank WCBT Temple Communications Staff members and Rev. Peter Hata who worked together to create the retreat program, plan the excellent outing adventure, and the fun activities. Actually, it’s possible that one reliable measure of the success of this retreat was that the four kanwaspersonal sharing of one’s experiences at the retreat, and which were given voluntarily by Taylor Saucedo, Scott Yamashita, Kenny Ouye and Susan Shibuyaall seemed to express the same genuine appreciation for having participated in this retreat.
We also thank Dick Koga and Joey Ouye for their tasty meals which sustained us with great energy. Finally, we thank San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple and Rev. Naomi Nakano for being such warm and welcoming hosts.
On the one hand, WCBT’s 2013 Family Retreat certainly offered a wonderfully refreshing experience of literally “retreating” from our urban Southern California environment to the beautifully scenic Central Coast. On the other hand, the weekend’s dynamic activities, especially within the context of the strong fellowship that naturally arises when studying and sharing the Dharma with others, provided a truly memorable glimpse into the essential truth of “interdependence.”
San Luis Obispo Family Retreat Comments from Participants:
Our annual WCBT retreats @ SLO have always been fun, enriching, and rewarding. This year, because members from our sister Higashi temple in Berkeley were able to join in, it was double the fun and liveliness (with much “joyful noise” as Susan Shibuya mentioned in her kanwa), with double the very tasty food that nourished us, and double the servings of food for thought from both Rev. Ken Yamada and Rev. Peter Hata that awakened our spiritual tastebuds and appetites. The theme of “interdependence” was aptly woven into our weekend, from the lectures and messages from both reverends, to the real world connections seen and displayed @ the beautiful Morro Bay Natural History Museum. Nearby, our walk on the boardwalk through the Elfin Forest dramatically illustrated the cause and effect that harsh conditions such as salt water, sand, and wind have on plants and trees. Behind the temple there is a huge and gorgeous oak tree that seems to beg for kids to climb on its limbs; yet these same trees are but dwarves, and look more like shrubs in the Elfin Forest. In his lecture, Rev. Yamada very enthusiastically pointed out that if we truly understood and could appreciate how dynamic interdependence was, it would naturally encourage actions in us such as creating a more compassionate world, doing our part in helping to improve our environment, society, fellow man, and in unifying our world. To those of us that went, we learned that in our interconnectedness, we’re everything and we’re “nothing.” We will always struggle( in samsara) as human beings, but yet within our world of limitations, flaws, and weaknesses, and because of it, we can also experience moments of nirvana. And like nirvana, the WCBT and Berkeley sanghas were in perfect harmony, sharing the holiday weekend together.
I cannot say thank you enough to all the participants for making the 2013 SLO Family Retreat a truly wonderful event. It was as if we were one as we planned the retreat, planned all the various activities, picked up/ purchased/hauled back supplies, set up/cleaned up the social hall, arranged/cleaned the temple sleeping areas, prepped/cooked the meals, cleaned after the meals, snapped/developed pictures and decorated/assembled picture frames. The Berkeley participants knew the SLO Temple setup well and became one with WCBT immediately as they prepared a wonderful meal, helped pack up supplies and cleanup. Oh yes, and thank you to the four volunteers that gave the Kanwa. (Phew, took a lot of pressure off the rest of us.) It was as if the retreat just happened on its own. It was wonderful to see how we came together so that everyone could enjoy the retreat. It was this spirit that made listening to Rev. Kenís lectures on interdependence/interconnectedness that much more meaningful.
I always look forward to our annual getaway to San Luis Obispo on President’s weekend. This year we were joined by Berkeley Higashi Honganji temple members. I enjoyed watching the Jr. YBA teens that went to the Honzan Hoshidan tour together have a mini reunion into the wee hours of both nights. Thank you guys/gals for playing my charade/Pictionary game. I am amazed with how much information you all have retained by coming to service every Sunday. Teacher Alice, you continue to do a great job of teaching the dharma to the Berkeley teens. Berkeley, I hope you continue to listen to the dharma and re-challenge West Covina next year. I’ll be ready with new games and challenges and will start preparing my gang now.
This year it was a relief we didn’t have to worry about bad weather, it was a beautiful gorgeous weekend for spending time outside and for making the trip both to and from San Luis Obispo unlike other years when the weather was not so cooperative. Our excursion to the National History Museum and Elfin forest gave us a change in our regular trip to Avila beach so I hope you also enjoyed a change of location for our outing.
I thoroughly enjoy these joint retreats, because I grew up at Berkeley Higashi Honganji as a child and am now a member of WCBT after my marriage so this retreat is a definite special treat for me.
Did everyone like the pink champagne cake from Madonna Inn? It was sooooo good. Those of you who didn’t make it out this year really missed out. And we did an amazing job of cooking for everyone’s dietary needs. Thank you to all the chefs. And a special thanks to Master chef Joey Ouye for the delicious Japanese and American breakfast. Thank you to Rev Ken Yamada for your dharma talks on interdependence , the three dharma seals and so much more, Rev Peter for coordinating the temple facilities and services, Pat Sato for chairing this event, Diane, Peter and Stephanie providing all of us with the evening entertainment and to everyone who joined participated this weekend. And from all of us that didn’t volunteer to give the dreaded “kanwa”, we thank all four of you that did volunteer and spared us from that “agony.” And a special thanks to Anthony Gutierrez for knowing the third dharma seal, so the rest of us wouldn’t appear as poor listeners of the Dharma.
This weekend retreat was all of us being there, listening to the dharma and working together, interdependence, this retreat happened because we were there for each other. And sadly, the weekend ending so soon, the impermanence of time.
Being able to borrow the San Luis Obispo temple was truly nirvana. Thank you SLO for the use of your temple.
-In Gassho, Merry Jitosho
“Memories can be beautiful..” Indeed it is our sincere wish that our Dharma school students (the Gutierrez kids!) now have beautiful memories after taking part in our family retreat up in San Luis Obispo. For us adults, part of the fun was observing the little ones and the bigger ones from the Berkeley Jr. YBA, as well as our very own Taylor & Sean. Their interaction and general exuberance at being together was priceless. The pictures included in this issue of the Gateway are worth more than any description. But here's an attempt with haiku:
Nourishment from the Dharma
Little sleep required.
-With Gassho, Diane Hata