Eitaikyo 2006

West Covina Buddhist Temple, January 15, 2006

 by. Dr. Franz Metcalf

I want to thank Kawawata Sensei and all of you for this opportunity to speak with you, here at your 2006 Eitaikyo Service. As many of you know from our times together at the Family Retreats, I do not have an official Buddhist home. I try to be a Buddhist outside of any sangha, but it is difficult. I float around, visiting several sanghas, not all of them necessarily Buddhist. I’m tempted to say I float from temple to temple like an unsui, which is the Japanese word for monk, meaning, literally, “clouds and water.” I have to admit, unsui is too spiritual and poetic a word for the likes of me. The Buddha once described a good monk as wandering the world like a lone rhinoceros. I think my wife Nina would say that describes me with a bit more accuracy.

So I thank you for inviting this floating rhino to come back here and be with you. I’m so happy to look out today and see some of my favorite rhinos snorting and snuffing in your chairs. You are looking fabulous.

I really mean it, though, when I say it is good to be back with you. You are a real sangha, a community that lives together and works together and worships together and butts heads together (which, as good rhinos, you can’t help doing). This being together is not always easy, but it is ultimately a blessing, a treasure. We spend a good deal of time talking about Buddha and about the dharma, and we should do that. But there are three treasures in Buddhism: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. It is my privilege to be included among you. Thank you for sharing your treasure with me.

I feel particularly honored to be speaking with you, since today’s service, the Eitaikyo, is so focused on the history of your sangha, on the people who have gone before you in this temple. Eitaikyo honors them for the gifts they have given the living, and after all, they’ve given you the temple, the teaching, and your very lives. Because I am not a temple member, I am acutely aware, as an outsider, of wanting to honor my hosts. I want to honor this temple and its members, past and present, in my talk. And yet, not being a member of the temple, I do have a different perspective than temple members have on what Eitaikyo means, and I want to share that perspective with you. There are going to be four parts in my talk, today, so if you don’t like one I hope you will like another. I’m going to start out heavy, then get philosophical, then ask for some help from you all, and finally finish up with some encouragement.


We’re starting out with the heavy part, because we have just finished chanting for those who have passed away, and that is heavy. This service today is a general Eitaikyo, formally called a muen eitai, a service for those without personal ties to those who have passed away this year. Perhaps this does make me a good person to talk to you, today, since coming from outside the sangha I am without ties to those who have passed away this year. Even so, though I personally knew only one person from this sangha who is now gone, I know he is missed and I know you all miss all those who have gone before. I want to speak to you, first. The Buddha taught that three qualities characterize the world: dissatisfaction, impermanence, and lack of enduring self. As I see it, lack of self is just a special case of impermanence, and dissatisfaction is simply the experience of impermanence. It all comes down to impermanence, and impermanence is most terrible when it is our loved ones we find to be impermanent. Death is the darkness at the margin of life. Like the blindness that lies beyond our field of vision, it is always there, though we cannot or try not to see it. Death is the most terrible form of impermanence.

Yet we must remember that what makes death terrible is love. Without love there would be no pain in the loss of anything, even our family. We only grieve for what we love, then lose. We can easily free ourselves from this grief: we simply have to stop loving. We know this, yet would you give up love to free yourself from loss? I would not do that, nor, I think, would you. That would be to lose everything; to lose love even before we have it. Some do choose this way: this is the monastic path. But we householders do not choose this. We remain in this world of love and loss; we choose it. And, like all the most vital and emotional choices in our lives, we may not understand this choice, we simply live it. We love, we lose, and we grieve. A haiku by Issa, a devout Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, by the way, and perhaps the most beloved haiku poet of all time, expresses this better than I ever could. He writes this haiku just after his little daughter has died. As a good Buddhist he’s conscious of impermanence in everything, and his first line is a reference to the Diamond Sutra, but he still feels the pain of loss:

Tsuyu no yo wa
tsuyu no yo nagara
sari nagara.

This dewdrop world,
may be a dewdrop world.
So it is, and yet…

But I want now to suggest that, just as gain is never complete, loss is never complete, either. This is a dewdrop world, but we are more than dewdrops. I’ve said those who have passed away have gone before us; they are ahead of us; they are our senseis. We think of sensei as meaning teacher, and so it does, but it literally means “born before,” and so all those born before us are our teachers. They stay with us, always teaching us how to love, modeling how to be true and good persons. And their presence lasts, in some sense, perpetually, because what they teach us, we teach the next generation, and the generations carry forward that teaching as long as humanity endures.

Most of you may remember that Eitaikyo means “perpetual chanting (eitai) of sutras (kyo).” I invite you to think about what that word “perpetual” means. Our chant today lasted only the shortest time, but next year you will chant again, just as you did last year and the many years before it, just as you will in the many years to come. These moments of chanting pass, but the chant itself remains perpetually. Those who do the chant eventually become those for whom you chant. We who are here, today, once lived only in the minds of chanters who looked into the future, and will one day live only in the minds of those who recall the past. We feel so separate, and yet we all flow together, eventually, in time. And in the ritual of chanting, we flow together today. We enter into the ritual, we honor our senseis, and we become one with them. In this way, we endure, we ourselves are perpetuated, freed from our individual lives.


Now you are getting a sense of the wide perspective I want to bring to you for this Eitaikyo service. In this wide perspective, I find there is room for you and for me, in fact for all people, everywhere. We are the living heirs of all our senseis going back through history, even to our common ancestor, the woman called Mitochondrial Eve who lived in Africa, 170,000 years ago. We chanted for her, today, even if we did not know it or her. Our ritual is like an hourglass through which all the sands of humanity flow. Through this Eitaikyo flow all the sentient beings who have brought the dharma to us and all the sentient beings who will come here in the future. A perpetual chant includes all persons in all times and places, because it looks back infinitely and is performed forward, infinitely.

So, the Eitaikyo includes all persons. When we chanted, we focused on those written in this temple’s Eitaikyo book. Now I want you to deepen that focus. As I speak now, I ask you to open your mind and heart to the entire lineage we honor for bringing the dharma to this place and to our lives. I ask you to send your thoughts and your gratitude to all of them.

Let us bring in and honor those we remember with our whole bodies and whom we still love: the yonsei, the sansei, the nissei, the issei. They are the ones who built this temple in their hearts and in this space. They are the ones written in the Eitaikyo book. We chant for them first, who have given to you in this congregation the incomparable dharma.

And let us bring in and honor their fathers and mothers who lived before this temple, those who struggled in Japan and bravely left their native land to come to this brawling, rugged country. They carried with them their personal hopes, but also their faith.

And let us bring and honor in the many generations of their families going back to the time of Shinran Shonin, in Japan’s terrible 13th century. Think of the hardships they endured, living before antibiotics and electricity and PlayStation. They kept the dharma alive for themselves and for you.

And let us bring in and honor the many great Buddhist patriarchs we revere and list in our lineage charts, going back to Shinran and even before him. They have refined and deepened the dharma.

And let us bring in and honor the many great Buddhist matriarchs whose names are found on no charts and have been forgotten. Their compassion and wisdom have been the foundation of our families and theirs have been the arms that held and healed the patriarchs. Their dharma is unsurpassed.

And let us bring in and honor the first monks and nuns who began the transmission of Buddhism that has finally led to us. When Shakyamuni Buddha had attracted sixty disciples, sixty students serious enough about the dharma, the teaching, that they gave away their possessions, their jobs, even their loves, and became monks, he knew the time was right for them to spread the dharma. He knew that, in the end, though he was the fountainhead, the source of the teaching, they would become the river that would carry that teaching as it flowed across the world—even here, to this far shore. He spoke to them thus:

Go forth, O monks, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit, and happiness of gods and humans... Let not two go by the same way. Preach, O monks, the dharma, excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, excellent in the end, both in spirit and in letter. Proclaim the Holy Life, altogether perfect and pure.

There are beings with but a little dust in their eyes, who, not hearing the dharma, will fall away. There will be those who understand the dharma.

And, with this, the Buddha sent off his first missionaries to live the dharma and teach it to whoever they might meet. Let us bring them in, those missionaries who carried the dharma from India out into the larger world.

And let us bring in and honor Shakyamuni, himself, the teacher of the greatest wisdom we have on Earth: the wisdom to live largely and in love. Think of what he gave up to teach the world. How much do we owe him, the man who found again and taught the truth so well it has come down through 2500 years of history to us?

And let us bring in and honor, as we say in the Zen chant, “all Buddhas throughout space and time; all bodhisattvas, mahasattvas, the Mahaprajnaparamita.” In this chant we invoke all the incomprehensible celestial sources of awakening, the great teachers of all time who walk ever among us, if only we have eyes to see them. And, not least of these, let us bring in Amida Buddha, symbol of infinite life, a life that pours itself out for us, making plain the simplest of paths, the pure path of gratitude, the Nembutsu.

Let us bring them all in and honor each and every one. Let us honor them and the dharma, the jewel they have given to us. They created it excellent in the beginning; they maintained it excellent in the middle; may we keep it excellent in the end!


Thank you for letting me take you down that path. You might say that was my attempt at creating a new sutra, and your sending out your gratitude was your way of chanting it with me. Now I want to take us down a different path, or, rather, I want you to take me down this path. I want you to add your own contributions to this Eitaikyo. So please feel very free and relaxed and help me understand what this thing is that we’re doing today. I’m going to ask some questions for you to think about. When I finish, I want anyone who wants to to respond or to contribute anything you’d like to share.

When you were driving here, when you were assembling, when you were chanting, were you thinking of someone you’ve lost?

Are you giving thanks in Eitaikyo? Or are you remembering someone? Or are you doing something else?

Is Eitaikyo an American thing, or just a Japanese thing?

Does Buddhism or Reverend Ken or the dharma or your friends here help you in dealing with loss?

Just now we brought in and honored a long list of people. I invite anyone who wants to, to name someone special to you, someone you’d like to honor.

Does Eitaikyo have a meaning for you that you can share with us?


In closing my little sutra-like speech, I said, let us honor the “dharma, the jewel they have given to us. They created it excellent in the beginning; they maintained it excellent in the middle; may we keep it excellent in the end!” I said this because I think in Eitaikyo we should be thanking our senseis for the gift of the dharma. Most people think of “excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, excellent in the end” as meaning the dharma is great all the way through. Another way to understand this “excellent” is as referring to following the eightfold path, meaning that the dharma is excellent when you start off practicing morality (right speech, right action, right livelihood). Then it’s excellent when you move on to meditation (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration). And finally it’s excellent when you arrive at wisdom (right views, right intention).

These are, themselves, excellent ways to understand what the Buddha meant when he called the dharma excellent. But I want to suggest a new way, a way that relates to today, when we give praise to those who have given us the dharma. I want to invite you to think of the dharma as excellent way back when the Buddha taught it, excellent over the centuries as new teachers add to it and reshape it as they must, and excellent in the future, even to the end of days.

But this puts a burden on us, doesn’t it? I want to ask one more thing—and don’t worry, this time I’ll try to answer it myself: How do we keep the dharma excellent for ourselves and for the future? How do we assure future generations that what we hand over to them will still be worth keeping? In the ritual of Eitaikyo we participate in formal chanting. We are lucky to have rituals like this because the words of the sutras are written down, even the notes we chant are laid out for us. We know we can perpetually continue to chant them correctly, because we are told exactly how to do it. This is one way to keep the dharma in excellent condition. But of course this is just one way among many, as Eitaikyo is just one day out of 365.

For all those other days, the simplest answer to my question is this: We keep the dharma excellent by practicing it, not just in formal rituals, but on the testing ground of work and play and love. Here is where carrying the burden of keeping the dharma excellent becomes heavy. In all these areas of life we tend to compromise when things are tough; we tend to lower our standards. Okay, we compromise as persons, Jodo Shinshu recognizes this, but we must not think this means we can compromise the dharma. The dharma should not relax just because we do. We need to keep its standard pure and high, even if we ourselves can never attain it. In this way, we keep the dharma excellent in the end.

Some of you have heard me admit, many times, that I struggle to make choices, every day, that help me and help the dharma, and that, every day, I fail. I choose things that hinder me, that hamper me, that might even degrade the dharma. We are all like this, and some of you have also heard me say how much I respect Jodo Shinshu Buddhism because it recognizes this reality. Some religions say “We’re pure and beautiful and all is well; we just need to follow our bliss.” Well, sorry, I look around the world and I just don’t think so—and not only me, the Buddha didn’t think so, either. We can’t make believe on ourselves that way—not if we want to be honest and make life better. But then there are those people who say “We’re evil and defiled and we can’t do anything about it. It’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost!” Again, I don’t think so; that’s just an excuse to do whatever we want and not feel guilty about it. A real religion, in fact any path with heart, must admit we’re constant failures and then move on by saying, “Fine, we’re constant failures, what are we going to do about it?” That’s exactly what Jodo Shinshu asks.

Okay, what are we going to do about it? There’s an old saying, “Buddhas only show the way; we must walk the path.” So the answer to how to act, even though we’re failures, must come from us. And that means there must be many answers, many choices we make every day that help us, in turn, make even better choices in future days. This is why religious practice is called “practice.” Because we need to keep at it if we want the world and ourselves to ever get better.

Luckily, we have help in coming up with our everyday answers. The Buddhas really do show the way. And this happens in even the simplest ways. For example, the dharma says recycle: sounds trivial, but what is recycling, symbolically and fundamentally? It is showing respect and gratitude for the gifts of creation. It is our debt to the world. And yet sometimes it’s so much easier to just throw things away. Tempted? Just imagine the Buddha looking up from the trash can, and imagine yourself throwing that beer bottle right into that perfect, smiling face. Or maybe some telemarketer calls you right when you’re sitting down to dinner. You want to say… well, something not so nice. But the dharma says this is just some poor fellow who had to take a miserable job to make ends meet. The dharma says this is a profound lesson in interconnectedness and compassion. The dharma says, be nice. So instead of saying that not nice thing, say “Namu Amida Butsu! Goodbye.”

To inspire us in upholding the dharma, we have the example of the Buddha, and, if we can’t follow that, thank goodness we have the examples of the myokonin and all the teachers of the past and present. And, if we can’t follow their example all the time, well, we can still practice following it. In my practice, I am inspired by music and poetry. I can’t sing well enough to inspire you, but I want to leave you with one more haiku that might. In the middle of winter, freezing in a storehouse after his home burned down, Issa wrote his death poem:

Arigata ya
Fusuma-no-yuki mo
Jodo kara

Thanks are due:
the snow on the quilt—it, too,
comes from the Pure Land

May we all strive to embody the dharma so beautifully! To be grateful even for the snow on your quilt; if a dying Issa can do this, then maybe I can at least be grateful when my daughter Pearl interrupts my work at the worst possible time. After all, Pearl, too, comes from the Pure Land, and I know I am grateful for her.

When we act this way, when we embody this gratitude, we become teachers embodying the teaching. In Jodo Shinshu, this is shinjin, this is the spirit of namu, of grateful praise. And this is my hope for us: that we make every day Eitaikyo. Let us make Eitaikyo truly eitai, truly perpetual. Let us make our lives become the dharma and our actions become the sutras we chant. And let our chanting never cease!

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