On Tariki

By Rev. Peter Hata

As most of you know, in the Shotsuki Services we hold on the first Sunday of every month, we honor those loved ones of ours who passed away in that month in previous years. And, though having a memorial service every month may make it seem like we have a kind of “negative emphasis” in our tradition, the intent of Buddhism is not to make us live in fear of death or to be anxious about it. Rather the intent of Buddhism is simply to enable us to live our lives awake to the truth of impermanence. Therefore, the Shotsuki Service represents both an opportunity to express our thanks to our loved ones and also to encounter this truth, the Dharma, which can positively transform our lives.

But of course, the Shotsuki Service is only one of several memorial services we hold throughout the year. Just last weekend during the Obon Festival we held our Manto-e Service right before the Bon Odori dancing began. In my dharma talk, I simply emphasized that this difficulty we all have in facing the truth of impermanence is in reality not actually caused by impermanence itself, but as the Buddha taught, by our human tendency to resist this truth, by our desire to stay young, and for things to always go as we want them to. I thanked the two dozen or so people who participated in the candle and incense offering, many of whom were not temple members. We were fortunate that they chose to share their grief with us and actually, with the entire Obon Festival crowd. For those that were listening, the Manto-e service was of course an opportunity to encounter the teaching of the Buddha.

But on a somewhat different but related note, this Sunday, being the July Shotsuki service, has another signifcance. Do you know what that is? Yes, this is “the Sunday after Obon,” the Sunday after what is arguably the most demanding weekend we WCBT members face. Do you share my relief that the Obon is now history? We got through it, yay! It wasn’t easy since our Obon Festival this year took place on a very hot day and I hope all of you have recovered and rested. And I think for our temple, we can say that despite the heat, we had a pretty good turnout, which is amazing I think. And today, as part of my dharma talk, I just wanted to thank all of our members and friends who helped do the seemingly countless things that need to be done for our Obon Festival.

Preparation began back in March, when the initial planning meetings took place and soon after that, we began ordering supplies, getting new signs made, and publicizing the event, and by the end of May, our bon dance instructors also began teaching the dances twice a week. Then the week of the Obon, there was the equipment transfer from our storage locations, then booth setup, yagura setup, gym setup, and of course, the food prep begins in earnest Friday night. Then on the day of the Obon, hours before the Obon officially starts, there’s more food prep, more booth setup, manto-e light setup, and PA setup. And of course during the Obon itself, there are the many temple members, extended family, and friends of the temple who actually man the booths and work all-day Saturday. Finally, after the Obon, we tear down most of the stuff that was in the parking lot, gym, social hall, courtyard, and kitchen and then on Sunday, everything we didn’t get to on Saturday night must also be taken down, then the center property must be cleaned as if the Obon never happened, and everything eventually put back into storage. Did I miss anything? Are you maybe asking, “Why do we all work so hard for the temple every year?”

I think that there’s a basic reason why and it’s one we can all understand: It’s of course because we all have some sense of commitment to WCBT. We all know the Obon Festival is the most important fundraiser for the temple and we want to help it be successful so that the temple can keep going. But there’s also a certain type of commitment that many of us may share at least to some extent—it’s quite common in the Japanese-American culture—and this is our sense of duty and obligation, known as “on” or “giri” in Japanese. I think that perhaps for some people, their commitment may mainly consist only of this sense of on-giri. But I actually doubt this is true for most WCBT members. I think that a temple where most people are working out of a sense of on-giri is one that is doomed to failure. For one thing, even though community groups and clubs do often operate mainly out of on-giri, I think if we operated only on that basis we would probably not be able to put on the Obon. I don’t think that operating out of a sense of duty would provide enough of a motivation for most of us. Instead, in observing the dedicated work that our members do for the Obon Festival, I was struck by the realization that something else must be behind everyone’s effort.

Rather than on-giri, I think that when it comes to motivating us to do the work required every year at Obon, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, I think we are actually relying on something that is at the core of our Shin Buddhist tradition. This core principle is known as tariki, which is also referred to as “other-power,” or “power beyond self.”

Of course, since tariki is also associated with some rather cosmic or abstract concepts in Jodo Shinshu—for instance, Amida Buddha—you may wonder why I’m bringing it up in relation to the hard work we do at Obon. But I think this teaching of tariki relates directly to our work at the Obon Festival. And perhaps especially so at this past Obon, with its triple-digit temperatures. This is because tariki really is something like a great power or force that works through us. We may not even be aware of it, but when we find ourselves working really hard at something—and often in spite of our ego-mind, our inner dialog perhaps saying to us, “Wow, this is so hard, why am I doing this?”—our effort is not actually something we are generating solely through our own power.

Of course, it’s natural to believe that everything we do is a result of only our own efforts. I’m sure we all believe and take pride in the results of the hard work we’ve done which has enabled us to achieve accomplishments in the past. For example, say we’ve studied very hard in school and when we graduate, we’re able to get a higher paying job than if we didn’t work hard in school. We would believe very strongly in our self-efforts to better ourselves. But in Shin Buddhist thinking, this is actually an example of jiriki or self-power thinking. Jiriki thinking isn’t wrong or bad though; it’s just an incomplete and inaccurate understanding. Our successes in life are actually due to a mulitude of fortunate causes and conditions.

Shinran Shonin is one person who really understood the problem of jiriki thinking. I think Shinran felt that after 20 years of his jiriki or self-power practices as a Tendai monk on Mt. Hiei, he came to the stark realization that he could not awaken himself. His ego-self kept getting in the way. It was at that point, at his darkest sense of failure, after giving up, descending down Mt. Hiei, and it is said, spending 95 days in deep meditation at the Rokkakudo temple, that he was able to receive the insight to seek out a completely different path. It was at that point that he met his teacher Honen Shonin, who showed him the path of the Nembutsu, of Namu Amida Butsu. I think it would be accurate to say that the Nembutsu path is the path of tariki thinking. This is the path for which the only prerequisite is that, like Shinran, one realizes the limitations and flawed nature of the ego-self within; only then is one ready to give up their jiriki thinking. It is precisely at the moment that one deeply sees one’s own limitations that one awakens to tariki thinking.

Let me share a personal example of jiriki thinking with you, and one which I experienced at our Obon. As I mentioned, at the Sunday Obon cleanup, we have to clean the center property and put everything back in storage. I think it’s understandable that generally speaking, less help shows up for the Obon cleanup than for the Obon itself or for the Friday setup. Many people probably already reached their physical limit on Saturday and on top of that, this year I think it was even hotter on Sunday than on Saturday.

Towards the end of the cleanup, we had just finished transporting the booth tents, the grills, and the yagura back to our storage in Covina, and I was driving back to the center with one of our members. Somewhere during that drive, I began to realize my mouth was extremely dry…and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had any water. Naturally, I didn’t remember to bring any water to the storage facility! And by the way, the upper floor of the garage there must have been 120 or 130 degrees. In the car, I remember though seeing that this temple member had wisely brought their own water in a thermos, which they would periodically drink from. For a moment, I thought, hmm…should I ask for a swig? Or maybe, take a quick drink while they are looking the other way? But anyway, we were almost back at the center, so I just waited. Back at the center the first thing I did was drink an entire water bottle in one gulp. The next thing I noticed, after coming out of the air-conditioned car, was how hot it was. And then, it started to hit me. I started to feel kind of queasy and like I needed to sit down. I felt faint and it was a little hard to walk. I sat down and some people brought me more water, and actually someone brought me a couple of wet towels to cool myself down, which helped. But as I was sitting there, unable to get up, I began to feel kind of guilty, like “Gee, I’m the minister and I should be helping them finish the cleanup.” But then, yet another member saw my condition said, “Don’t worry, just relax for awhile; the rest of the people are finishing everything up.”

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I think that my frustration at not being able to help was in a sense my overestimating my self-importance, because in reality everything got put away and the cleanup was completed without me. In that moment—kind of helplessly sitting on the floor almost like someone with a disability and watching everyone else busily cleanup around me—I saw my own jiriki thinking. And, at the same time, I felt a real sense of gratitude for the Sangha that supported me.

I think the rising of a sense of gratitude is in fact the rising of tariki thinking within us. Even though we are normally unaware of the support we receive from others, from time-to-time, as I experienced at the Obon cleanup, a sense of gratitude can arise within us, and this signals our becoming aware of the lives around us that are in fact supporting us.

Why did this sense of gratitude arise only when I had experienced heat exhaustion? I think it is because to realize the working of tariki, of a power beyond the self, requires by its very nature the negation of one’s ego-self, of one’s sense of trust or pride in one’s jiriki or self-power. This is what happened to me when I was forced to accept my limitations.

I began my talk today by discussing our monthly Shotsuki memorial service as being an opportunity for us to encounter the teaching of impermanence, of the Dharma. And that the presence of the Manto-e memorial service in the middle of the Obon Festival gives the Obon Festival a depth and significance that makes it more than just another fundraiser and cultural festival. But also, though you may or may not agree with me, I think there is a deep spiritual significance even in our simply working hard together for our temple. To me, it is the expression of tariki, of the visible effect of the power of the Dharma, of the Buddhist teachings, rising within us and enabling us to appreciate each other and work together as one.

Thank you for listening.

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