WCBT's Family Retreat, entitled "Buddhism: The Seeker's Path," took place on April 18, 1999, featuring lectures by Rev. Gyoko Saito (English) and Bishop Akinori Imai (Japanese). In the English talk, Rev. Saito began by discussing Shin patriarch Shantao's parable of the "White Path." "White path" essentially refers to the way to the "other shore" or enlightenment in Buddhism. However, attaining enlightenment is not necessarily a simple matter of us "choosing" this path. The crux of Rev. Saito's talk was that this path opens up to us only after our "self" or ego is challenged.
Rev. Saito recalled that, as a schoolboy in Japan, he had visited a certain hospital in Kumamoto province which treated leprosy patients. Rev. Saito had visited on this occasion because a renowned lecturer, Dr. Taitetsu Unno, was to give a Dharma talk there. When Rev. Saito got there, he was shocked to see, as he put it, "400 horrible-looking patients." Many of them were missing various body parts, such as a finger or nose. Despite their appearance however, Rev. Saito was moved to hear one patient say "Because of the Nembutsu, I'm able to take things as they are." This patient had characterized the disease as the "flower of Nembutsu," in other words, as the vehicle through which it has worked in their life.
Rev. Saito then told the story of another leprosy patient he met at that hospital, who was actually a Higashi Honganji priest who had called himself Fujii Zen. But this was not his true name. He was forced to take this new name because in Japan, as a leper patient, you must "disappear to your family...if people find out, your brothers and sisters cannot marry, and will suffer," Rev. Saito said. "Fujii Zen's family had essentially dumped him. It's not surprising that many lepers try to commit suicide...you have no friends, are completely alone, and cannot communicate with your family."
At this point, Rev. Saito referred to a certain Japanese poet named Pontaro, also a leprosy patient. Leprosy destroys the human nerve system and Pontaro, who was not only blind, had also lost all use of his arms and hands. Therefore he could not even read Braille as most blind people could. Yet he still had a desire to live and especially to read, so he learned how to read Braille with his tongue. He wrote a poem about it:
at the tip of the tongue
as if sucked on
a word pops up
Returning to Fujii Zen's story, Rev. Saito explained that he, like Pontaro, still had a desire to live, despite the tremendous anger and resentment he felt about his fate. But to go forward, Fujii Zen would have to "travel the White Path," said Rev. Saito. He added that this is a difficult and "dangerous" path, in the sense that ultimately, our happiness is at stake. Also, it is a one-way path that we cannot return upon. However, Rev. Saito explained, "At the end of the path, Buddha says to us, 'Come as you are; I will protect you.' This encouragement gives the traveler the courage to finally travel the White Path."
Still, Fujii Zen had unresolved issues. Rev. Saito described how another Higashi Honganji minister, Rev. Tamamitsu (who spoke at our North American District Joint Retreat-see last month's Gateway), told Fujii Zen that his "desire to live" was not enough; "You should recover your true name-Kyosho Ina." Eventually, with the help of Rev. Tamamitsu and another of his relatives, Fujii Zen-Kyosho Ina-was able to come back to this world as a recovered leprosy patient. "60 years later, Ina came back and recovered his true human dignity," he said. Rev. Tamamitsu is on a mission to help all leprosy patients to also recover their true names and to return to this world. "However," said Rev. Saito, "most other leprosy patients are not so lucky. Mr. Ina's case is special, but this kind of experience can happen in our lives as well." Though we may not suffer from leprosy, we too can discover the "path" through the working of impermanence in our lives.
Rev. Saito then turned his attention to an essay by Shuichi Maida, entitled "Standing Death." In this essay, Maida, a fellow student of Rev. Haya Akegarasu along with Rev. Saito himself, details his unforgettable experience of being criticized and humiliated by his teacher while in the act of lecturing to a group of people. Rev. Saito emphasized the point that "standing death" means "absolute negation, being humbled by a true teacher to the point of being forced to let go of all opinions and positions. Furthermore," he added, "only when 'standing death'-the 'end of thinking'-is reached, do we see our true external identity as being external...and at that point it is completely blown away." And, as it was with Kyosho Ina and the poet Pontaro, Rev Saito clarified that "our 'innermost aspiration' then drives us to take that next step along the path."
Thus, the crucial requirement of "travelling the path" in Buddhism is our realization that the real problem is within us. To further illustrate this, Rev. Saito referred to an example of Dr. Haneda, one of Maida's students and director of the Maida Center of Buddhism in Berkeley, California. Dr. Haneda had identified three types of "skunks," representing the three types of Buddhists. "Skunk A thinks he produces a sweet smell. While his intentions, may be good, he is completely deluded and unaware of his true nature. Skunk B is the 'religious skunk' who is very aware of his true nature-his 'smell'-but feels that by being aware, he can change and improve his smell. This skunk represents Maida in the essay 'Standing Death.' Finally, Skunk C is a skunk who declares, 'I am a skunk that only produces a real smell.'" Rev. Saito clarified that Maida was a "B skunk" who became a "C skunk" through the deliberately "ego-crushing" action of his teacher Haya Akegarasu.
Interestingly, during the question-and-answer period, one participant asked Rev. Saito if he'd felt sorry for Maida when Akegarasu attacked him. Rev. Saito replied, "As much as Maida got out of that, no, I didn't feel sorry for him."
At the closing service, Bishop Imai thanked Rev. Saito for his informative lecture and religious committee members Ralph Cordova, Kazuko Imahara, Diane Hata, Merry Jitosho, Hisako Koga and Rev. Kawawata for their efforts in planning the retreat. He also thanked everyone that attended. "Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share with you and learn from you," he said. He also mentioned how easy it is to forget what we've heard at a retreat not long after leaving it. Bishop Imai explained that this is because the Dharma is like water, but we, as students of Buddhism, are like a basket that cannot hold the water without leaking. When we try to "lift" our leaky basket out of the water, all the water vanishes. "So how can our leaky basket carry water?," he asked us. When no one could answer that, he offered, "Just stay submerged in it constantly...please continue to attend retreats, seminars and services, and continue to listen to the Dharma."
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