Each year now, the Institute of Buddhist Studies conducts a memorial service in the fall. During this service, known as eitaikyo, the names of all of those who have an immediate karmic connection with the founding and history of IBS are read out, including those who have died during the year since the last service. This year’s service was held on Friday, 30 October. My friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Matsumoto was in charge of organizing the service and asked me to give the dharma talk that evening. Here is a lightly revised version—
I was surprised and pleased when Rev. Matsumoto asked me to give the dharma talk today. And that he indicated that I should plan to wear my robes—my Buddhist robes, rather than my academic ones—was also a source of pleasure.
I wore these for the entirety of my training on Mt. Koya, daily for almost 5 months, and during that time I felt a sense of increasing pride and accomplishment, a feeling that is embodied in the authority to wear these. My final ordination as a Shingon ajari (ācarya, corresponding to kyoshi) meant that I was one of the very first of literally a handful of people who were not native-born Japanese to complete the training to become a Shingon priest. And now, today I have been invited to make a statement regarding the significance of this memorial service—what its dharma message is.
So on one hand we can be thinking about the pride of individual accomplishment—nobody else sat on that cushion in that cold temple hall in Koyasan and learned to perform those ceremonies. I had to do that myself—though of course many, many other people have also done it. There is a saying in the Zen tradition that no one else can sit on your meditation cushion for you.
So that is one side of the story, one version, one perspective. But there is another side to such a story, a different version, an alternate perspective. This ceremony is intentionally designed to give us an awareness of the meaning of an ancestry, a history of people who have built what we have inherited, and which we will pass on to others. And it is especially poignant that this year our memorial service is held at the time of transition and remembrance, that is, Halloween.
We only accomplish anything at all by depending on the contributions of others. Yet at the same time, we need to make our own commitment and exert our own efforts in order for us to accomplish anything at all.
So there is a profound ambiguity here. We can only accomplish what we ourselves do, and we can only accomplish what we do because of what others have done.
The teaching of the emptiness of the self seems to be a problem for many people today, making it difficult to understand or accept Buddhism. On the one hand the self is empty—it is not permanent, eternal, absolute, unchanging. Our very existence is dependent upon the efforts of others—our parents, our grandparents, the teachers who offered us instruction, the farmers who grow our food, the cashier and bag boy at the grocery store—we are part of a great web of social, physical, psychic connections such that we are each connected with the entire universe and with everyone else.
And yet, and yet, at the same time and in the very same way we do exist. We are not ghosts or self-created delusions having no existence of any kind. We are each one knot that gives the web its present shape. When my father in law died, it was the first time that I realized that a death left a hole in the world, a gap. This hole was not just my relation with him, but my relation with my wife and the other members of her family, all of these relations were suddenly at risk because he wasn’t there to maintain the connection between us all. Gradually we made new connections, and in fact I see my nephews on her side of the family more now than ever before.
So the teaching of the emptiness of the self really is two truths—we don’t exist autonomously, we do not generate ourselves, but at the same time we do exist by our relations with others, we are the knot that holds together our connections with others, and the connections others have with others beyond them.
I have long felt confused by the statement Shinran made, supposedly often, that is recorded in the Tannisho:
When I consider deeply the Vow of Amida, which arose from five kalpas of profound contemplation, I realize that it was entirely for the sake of myself alone! Then how I am filled with gratitude for the Primal Vow, in which Amida resolved to enable me to be awakened, though I am burdened with such heavy karma.
Yuien, in his notes on this passage, focuses on the heavy karmic burden that we carry and self-created delusions that we impose on ourselves. But thinking about this statement in relation to our being here tonight, what I hear Shinran suggesting to me is that the Vow is for the sake of each of us alone. The Vow was made for Shinran alone, it was made for me alone, it was made for each of you alone, it was made for each of those whose names have been read aloud tonight, each alone. We do not create our own liberation, but it is each of us who must undertake the steps toward it—to open to receiving the benefit of Amida’s Vow, or to sit on our own meditation cushion.
Awakening is an interaction between the individual practitioner and the Buddha—birth in the Pure Land is an interaction between the individual adherent who repeats the name as few as ten times, and the Buddha Amida. The two truths of the emptiness of the self, the profound ambiguity of both being an agent in the world, and dependent on others. This is what I think is the dharma teaching of tonight’s ceremony, one in which we remember those who went before, who gave their time, energy, sincerity, and support to create this institution. Without them we would not be here today, and yet it is indeed up to us to decide what to do with this precious gift handed to us by those who have gone ahead.