Getting Back to Basics: Buddhism in the New Millenium

by Judge Ron Mamiya

Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

I am truly honored to be here with you tonight; and excited to be a part of your program. 

Your theme, 2001: A Buddhist Odyssey, I believe, is well chosen. Your theme brings to mind 3 images:

1. 200l: A Space Odyssey - a classic movie of the evolution of humankind across the millennia.
2. An epic poem attributed to Homer, describing Odysseus's adventures in his ten-year attempt to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War; and 
3. The dictionary definition of Odyssey: a long series of wanderings or adventures, filled with notable experiences, hardships, etc.

Each of these images has two things in common: a starting point and a journey. Our starting point has to be the rich history of the Japanese American experience and of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America. 

Speaking of which, I want to take this opportunity to extend my heartfelt congratulations to the Seattle Betsuin Temple and it's members for your Centennial celebration - the 100th anniversary of the founding of our church. 

James Baldwin once said: Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.

Therefore, a little bit of our history: 
Shin Buddhism was first brought to the West by Japanese immigrants, our parents, grandparents and great grandparents, who came to work on the sugar plantations of Hawaii and farms on the mainland. In response to a request by those young Japanese immigrants, the Honganji send missionaries to the United States. Revs. Eryu Honda and Ejun Miyamoto came to San Francisco and established the Young Men's Buddhist Association in 1898 -- the predecessor to the San Francisco Buddhist Church. They then traveled on to Sacramento and to other areas of sizeable Japanese population, including Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. 

In the 1920s and 30s, Buddhist activities, designed to meet the needs of the English speaking Nisei, were established and expanded. Sunday schools became an essential feature of the temples, imparting Dharma lessons in English to school age children. Various youth organizations, such as Young Men's Buddhist Association and Young Women's Buddhist Association, also were established to provide young Buddhists with additional devotional opportunities as well as social and athletic endeavors. As these youth groups became organized into regional and national associations, they enabled inter-community networking by respective Japanese communities. A direct result of that fellowship is this Conference.

With the expansion of the Honganji's activities in America in the 1900's, anti-Japanese attitudes and actions by Americans intensified-- to the point that further immigration from Japan was stopped by the Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924. In addition, Alien land laws in California, Oregon and Washington, designed to prevent ownership of land by Japanese, complicated the acquisition of property for farms and businesses including for use as churches or temples by Jodo Shinshu congregations.

Because of this anti-Japanese sentiment, the US involvement in WWII, and 
Nikkei reliance on its churches for social and cultural activities, Buddhism in America was curtailed. Buddhist and Japanese materials became contraband and were confiscated and destroyed; and all persons of Japanese ancestry were exiled from their homes, banished from the West Coast. 

In 1941, there were 44 affiliated temples throughout the US. As an unintended byproduct of the internment and exclusion, Nikkei, in significant numbers, migrated to areas east of the Mississippi during the war years; and by 1960, new Jodo Shinshu congregations had been formed as far east as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Seabrook, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C. By 1989, there were 61 temples and 7 Sanghas (Fellowships) affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America. 

As painful as some of it may be, it is because of this experience that this Centennial celebration is so meaningful. It also gives us great perspective and hope for our future.

That legacy - our Odyssey over the past century - is the story of Shin Buddhism. And it must be celebrated, as we are doing today. 

The Japanese American experience of the last century is history repeating itself. Like Shinran Shonin who lost both parents at an early age and lived in extreme adversity, ours is a story of success despite seemingly insurmountable odds. At age 28, Shinran Shonin and Shinran's greatest teacher, Honen Shonin, were persecuted by the Tendai establishment which succeeded in convincing the Emperor to prohibit the Nembutsu and to banish them. Shinran, exiled to the remote northern province of Ehigo, spent the next 35 years in the provincial countryside before returning to Kyoto at age 63. The life story of Shinran and of his spiritual struggle bears strong parallels to the alienation, and the deep personal struggles and sense of loss of our first 100 years. Coincidentally, Shinran lived to be nearly 100.

Some of the most profound and meaningful sayings come from the most unexpected sources. There is a very famous Yogi that I often quote, one of the true philosophers of the 20th Century. I think he must have been Japanese in a prior life - he's 5'4" tall and loves baseball, Yogi Berra: "You got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."

We are living in very interesting times. We are reminded daily by our newspapers, electronic media and by our contact with people, just how complicated the world has become. The increasing social, economic, scientific and secular complexities of modern life raise issues of human worth, dignity and welfare as well as global environmental concerns. We may even feel as though we are controlled by other powers, or by the need to make money. It is easy to find ourselves preoccupied with trying to provide for our families. Without even realizing it, life can quickly begin to seem dark and without meaning. With all of this constantly weighing heavily on our minds, we don't often take the time to see where we are going. 

I am convinced that all of us need to get back to basics. It is obvious that with the world getting more complex, that our vision is getting more obscured. We are being bombarded with more and more information. And we are getting mixed messages about what our values should be. It all seems so overwhelming. 

Although I love my job, one of my greatest professional frustrations is trying to comprehend what makes people tick - that is, what are their values. Maybe it's a function of the intersection of or clash between different socio-economic classes, of generations, or the genders and races - the friction between the values of the haves and the have-nots, and neither knowing which one really is which. I am constantly amazed that one of the basic tenets of life and of Buddhism, that is: cause and effect, has been so obscured. 

A great part of this, it seems to me, is that we are always looking to others for answers. We are trained constantly to seek answers from the newspapers, television, politicians, attorneys, counselors, the library, and, most recently, the internet - there are a billion sources. Caught up in our busy lives, we normally "look outward" at the world. From this outward-looking stance, we find it quite easy to make judgments about people, and to blame others for our problems. And yet, we are getting further and further away from where the answers are.

Buddhism, and particularly Shin Buddhism, provides us the basic tools to make sense of all of this. One such tool is "self-assessment". In order to understand the world around us, we must first come to know ourselves. In the words of another contemporary philosopher: Life is just a mirror, and what you see out there, you must first see inside of you. Wally 'Famous' Amos.

I went to a 3-day judicial retreat last week and the first thing that we did was to take the Myers-Briggs Personality Test. I wasn't looking forward to this. I thought: we are going to psycho-analyze each other and exposing our defects to each other. I felt very vulnerable. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised with the effect that it had on us as a group and even more surprised with the effect on me. The Myers-Briggs results identified valuable differences between normal, healthy people. It identified our unique individual gifts, enhancing the understanding of oneself, our motivations, natural strengths, and potential areas of growth. It made me aware that my shortcomings were not a negative but just part of my personality and things to work on. I wasn't a lesser person because of them. Realizing that we all had them in one form or another, we were more easily accepting of each others quirks and appreciated each others' strengths.

Shin Buddhism tells us to do this. It is the process of examining and accepting our own shortcomings. It is a humbling experience, but one that also leads to the desired attitude: knowing yourself. That self-examination is the Buddhist way. Far too often, we are critical of others - we look at others in such a negative light, rather than appreciating them as they are. In appreciating our own shortcomings, we are more able to accept others. This is the first step in learning Compassion.

All of this is part of the journey - the Odyssey that each of us must travel in order to reach our destination, Enlightenment.

When we talk about Enlightenment, I feel overwhelmed by what seems to be such an unattainable goal. I'm one of those people for whom it is easier to understand something if I can emotionally "feel" it. Recently, my attention was directed to a statue of a Buddhist monk at the Seattle Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park in Seattle, and is aptly titled, The Moment of Enlightenment. The monk's facial expression exceeds any verbal description of what Enlightenment must be. You must take the opportunity to see it - it's extraordinary. It was truly a spiritual experience for me. 

Faced with a large task, I often feel overwhelmed if I don't break it down into small steps. So what I propose is that we break down our journey, the Odyssey, into bitesize, more obtainable steps toward Enlightenment - things you can do everyday. Let's call it: "practicin' our daily E". That is, let's do at least one thing everyday toward that goal. Share a kind and positive thought; speak courteously and with kindness; refrain from idol, harmful talk; do a benevolent, compassionate deed; cherish good and pure thoughts - sound familiar? 

I want to share a few thoughts I have been given by friends that may, in turn, give you some ideas for "practicin' your daily E". They have made my life happier and more fulfilled and, hopefully, can do the same for you during your Odyssey.

1. Practice smiling and acknowledging others. Whether it's the cashier at the grocery store or your child or spouse. It sets a positive tone and is contagious. 

2. Follow the three R's: Respect for yourself, Respect for others; and Responsibility for all your actions. 

3. Don't let a little dispute injure a friendship. When you make a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it. Too much is lost over misunderstandings and false pride. 

4. Take notice of nature and share its wonders with others. It's there for a reason - it's a gift for you - an opportunity for reflection. 

5. Spend sometime alone everyday - not in front of your computer or television - but without any distractions. Just as you set aside time for your kids or spouse, take some time to "just be with yourself". This is an opportunity - an investment in yourself - to helps put your day in perspective and enjoy the good things that you have done.

6. Will Rogers: Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip. Live a good, honorable life. Then when you get older and think back, you'll be able to enjoy it a second time. As part of this remember....
* A loving atmosphere in my home is the foundation for my life. 
* I will open my arms to change, but not let go of my values. 
* When I lose, I won't lose the lesson. 
* I will remember that not getting what I want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. 
* I will do the hard jobs first. The easy ones will take care of themselves.

7. Happiness is the Odyssey - it is not a destination. So, take the time to help someone else. Whether it's opening a door or giving directions, no matter how small the act, it does make a difference. There is no cure for birth or death so savor every moment in between. Those deeds will prolong those joyful moments. 

If only you remember one of these "daily E's" and try it, it may cause you to have just a moment of happiness and fulfillment in your Odyssey. I promise, it will make a difference in your life. It has in mine. 

In closing, I want to congratulate you for the breadth and depth of the topics covered in your schedule of events. It is a wonderful and thoughtful program. Thanks to all of you who have made this Conference possible. And thank you for the past hundred years.... It is a wonderful legacy.
Last printed 2/17/2001 2:13 PM Page 1 of 9