Still Listening to Rev. Saito

By Rev. Patti Nakai
Based on a Dharma talk given March , 2, 2008 at West Covina Buddhist Temple

It was during the time I was helping at the Los Angeles Betsuin that I heard Rev. Gyoko Saito speaking about one of his first encounters with Shuichi Maida (1906-1967). Rev. Saito, like many Japanese, felt spiritually lost after Japan’s surrender in 1945, but then a minister in his area introduced him to the teachings of Haya Akegarasu (1877-1954). After Rev. Saito became a student of Akegarasu, he fell in love with a young woman in the group. The two wanted to marry but due to some complications between their families, they were forced to break up.

At a study session with Akegarasu, Rev. Saito was sitting next to Shuichi Maida and during the break time, a bowl of candies was being passed around. When Maida handed the bowl to Rev. Saito, he said, “Jinsei wa nama-namashii.” The word “jinsei” means “human life” and “nama-namashii” refers to rawness, roughness, something nakedly confronted without smoothing or glossing it over. The way Rev. Saito translated this phrase was, “Life is a bloody business.”

Maida knew about Rev. Saito’s situation and could have said something comforting like, “Oh you’re young yet -- there’s lots more fish in the sea.” But instead of comfort, Maida spoke to Rev. Saito from a deep sense of compassion, “Life is a bloody business.”

That story Rev. Saito told comes back to me as I am still dealing with the raw feeling of grief from losing two people who were close to me. For the past ten years, my husband Gary and I lived with his mother and his younger brother, Bob, who was blind since infancy and mentally challenged due to a birth defect. In March of last year, my mother-in-law passed away after complications from her failing heart and severe osteoporosis. It was the first time I had lost someone who was a part of my daily life, so the grief was much sharper than when I lost relatives who lived far away. My mother-in-law saw me off to work in the morning and always made it a point to say good night and thank you to us before going to bed. When we first moved in with her and Bob, she used to make dinner everyday but as she became physically weaker, Gary took over the cooking, and our daily routine revolved around Mom’s schedule of medications. Even as we took care of her, she was looking after us, showing her concern and doing what she could to help us out at home and in activities outside the house. It left a great hole in my emotional life to no longer have her warm supportive presence.

 In the days after Mom’s passing, Gary and I found consolation in spending time with Bob. We had fun going out with him to restaurants and musical performances. At home he brought a sense of order to life as he went about his activities: doing his laundry, washing dishes after dinner, reading his Braille books, playing the piano and guitar, listening to his radio or sitting with us in front of the television. The sadness of losing Mom seemed bearable when we could share in Bob’s openly expressed enjoyment of the simple things in life. As always, Bob was with Gary constantly, helping him with the interior work that still had to be done in our temple’s new building. Then in October, the unthinkable happened -- while working at the temple, Bob was fatally injured when three 250-lb wooden partition walls accidentally toppled over, crushing him.

Losing Bob so soon after losing Gary’s mother really hit me with “jinsei wa nama-namashii” -- that life is a rough, raw, bloody business. When Maida-sensei said those words to Rev. Saito, he was not offering comfort or what people would call “a sense of closure.” Yet somehow I was hoping to find in the Dharma teachings the words that could comfort me and take away my grief. I started thinking that I wasn’t much use as a minister if I had nothing to say to console grieving families at their memorial services.

Then this past February, I realized how wrong I was to think that grief was something that could be easily solved by some Buddhist passages. I found myself being reminded by Rev. Saito of how he received Maida’s words “Life is a bloody business” when I was preparing a Dharma talk for the memorial service to honor our temple’s long-time member, Larayne Black. I wondered how I could explain to her family and friends why Buddhism was so important to Larayne, who came to the temple in the 1950s and became a devoted student of Rev. Saito. I decided to talk about a passage Rev. Saito wrote in his article “Zen and Nembutsu.” Rev. Saito said that we tend to treat life problems like the problems on a math test -- we try to get rid of them by finding some tidy solution or just ignoring and denying them. But he said, in the Nembutsu, there is this insight:

Discover how useless it is to escape from our problem. It is at this point that a problem becomes the problem of real life. When we face the insoluble problem without solving it, then new life unfolds, and that life is the Life of No Solution. Until now we have had problems in our life and have been spending all our energies looking for the solutions to these problems of life. Now this ceases, and for the first time we face life itself.
-from Meditations on Death and Birth, privately published by Joan Sweany, Chicago 1983

For Larayne, it was this teaching she received from Rev. Saito that helped her to embrace life in its entirety. She had lost her teenage son in tragic circumstances and even decades later she spoke of the loss as very devastating. Yet as I heard from the eulogies and remembrances given by relatives and friends, Larayne gave of herself very generously, in her neighborhood involvement and as a significant supporter of the progressive jazz artists who organized the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. [It was Larayne who introduced the renowned musician Joseph Jarman to Buddhism at our temple, and he later went on to become a Higashi minister.] In hearing about Larayne’s life I could see concretely the workings of the Nembutsu teachings -- to face life as it is and go forth in your life receiving the joys along with the sorrows.

In saying “Life is a bloody business,” Rev. Saito is challenging my “hakarai” (Shinran’s term for the “calculating mind”) that wishes life wasn’t so messy and painful. He is telling me that in “Namu Amida Butsu” is the acceptance of all of life, which means an openness to the wonder and delight of all the beings and events I encounter. To come to that acceptance and openness is not an easy thing for me so I need to continue listening to the teachings, especially coming through the words and experiences of Rev. Saito.

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