Tendai Buddhist Sangha of Australia
Affiliate of The Hawaii Tendai Institute's
Pan Pacific Sangha
Bringing the Lotus to Australia
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Training at the Hawaii Betsuin
In December last year, Jiryo Sensei and I left Australia for the Hawaii Tendai Betsuin. We were to spend a month over the New Year’s period in intense training, and helping out with the various temple obligations that accompany ‘Oshogatsu’. Anyone who has visited a Japanese temple during this period, will know that there is much to bear witness to. From the ‘Mochi making’ to the Goma Fire Rite, temples seem to be abuzz with activity and community. I have decided that rather than provide an in-depth ‘blow-by-blow’ account of our stay, to write more about the ‘personal experience’ of it all. Therefore, If you are looking for a daily timetable or a description of every practice, I am afraid I may disappoint.
As I boarded the plane for the first leg of my journey, from Sydney to Fiji, my mind was filled with anticipation. I wondered what this or that would be like...I wondered how ‘gruelling’ the training might be…I even wondered whether or not I would be able to ‘stick it out’ for the whole month!. I remember the feeling I had during the flight quite clearly…I felt almost like a little boy in a lolly shop.  No matter what lay ahead of me, I ‘couldn’t wait to get stuck in’ so to speak. To be honest, although we had planned the trip quite in advance, It did not quite sink in until the plane finally left the tarmac at Sydney International Airport. As we boarded our second plane, for the final leg of the journey, my excitement and curiosity seemed only to grow with every passing hour. If I am being honest, my mind had gotten away from me somewhat I think.
At Honolulu Airport, we hopped in a taxi and off we went; heading up the Pali Highway. The taxi driver was a friendly chap; a Korean fellow who assured us he would take us where we wanted to go, although it seems we worked off Jiryo Sensei’s memory more than the expertise of our guide.

The taxi pulled into the Betsuin car park. As we drove through the gate, my ‘flutter’ of thoughts vanished, and I stepped out ready for anything. After the usual greetings and exchange of gifts, as is customary in Japanese circles, we were told to ‘settle in’ for the rest of the afternoon and to join everyone for Gongyo later. As we walked through the big wooden doors that lead into the Hondo that evening, I was quite taken aback by the beauty of the space. I have seen many temples in Japan; some truly grand, and some truly simply. But when I looked around the Hondo, I saw more than just the statues and the Altars. I saw all the hard work that Ara Sensei had put into the Betsuin over the years. I saw the faded areas of carpet; evidence of many collective hours of practice in which Zabuton, and legs had rubbed away the carpets deep red. I saw the ‘wear’ on the top of the Mokugyo, where countless Okyo had been recited…As I sat to participate in my first Gongyo at the Betsuin, I wondered, “how many more Gongyo will I spend here over the years?”…

The following day, training began early in the morning; as it would for the remainder of our trip. We began the morning, as we would all other mornings, with meditation in the Hondo. During our morning sessions, this was usually done before the image of Fudo Myo O. Before taking our seat on the cushion, we bowed deeply to Fudo Myo O sama. As the days progressed, I was surprised to find this simple act of bowing reverently to Fudo sama, to be quite a moving and transformative act. The simple practice seemed to have both a passive and an active aspect to it. While bowing to Fudo Myo O sama, I was on the one hand, asking that Fudo sama give me the strength to persevere through the day, and to remain ‘unmoved’ by the aches and pains that would surely come in my legs and back, at some point during the day. On the other hand, I was paying homage to the Fudo Myo O ‘in me’ and acknowledging that I would need to bring those qualities to bear each and every day. Our morning meditation sessions were very ‘still’. It was early in the morning and the only sounds were the occasional ruffle of material, and the creeks of the building itself…I was to find these morning sessions critical in the days ahead, as they seemed to prepare one for the day. 

This was followed by morning gongyo, Souji(temple cleaning/chores), and breakfast, after which the ‘proper sessions’ of the day began. When I think back, I see many hours collected over the month sitting in the Hondo, ‘butchering’ what were once beautiful pieces of Shomyo (melodic chanting) or practicing this or that verse from the Priests Sutra Book (Taishu Kaju).What stands out to me about those sessions now, is not the actual details of them but more the ‘spirit’ with which we carried them out. The part of oneself that ‘strives on’ throughout the morning sessions, even though you have done morning Gongyo, you knew you would probably be doing more chanting that afternoon and that once the ‘proper sessions’ were over you would still have to chant evening Gongyo…The Fudo Myo O ‘within’…I see myself asking Jiryo sensei for ‘pointers’ or asking Eikan sensei to help me with this or that part of a service….

Each evening we closed the day with evening Gongyo and then a final meditation session. These meditation sessions took place in front of Jizo Bosatsu (Earth Store Bodhisattva) and seemed more like a practice of ‘giving back’ in a way. In the morning, we had ‘petitioned’ Fudo sama to ‘give’ us the strength to do our best throughout the day. In the evening, at least to me, the meditation with Jizo sama focussed on the compassionate aspect of the Buddha’s and in doing so, reminded us that we must also embody that compassionate aspect and ‘give’, just as Fudo Myo O sama had done. These evening meditation sessions to me were quite different to the morning sessions. I found my mind less quite, but enjoyed watching my thoughts pass like water over a waterfall.

The final part of our day, while not necessarily an activity on our roster, was the walk Jiryo Sensei and I took each evening into the backstreets surrounding the Betsuin. Even though it was not something I would have thought to be particularly important before the trip, I think I can say with confidence, that those walks are a particularly fond memory from the trip. Sometimes, we would just chat casually after the rigours of the day. Sometimes Jiryo sensei would impart experiential wisdom and I would listen. Other times, I would talk and Jiryo sensei would just listen, letting me baffle somewhat. As I sit here writing this, in Western Sydney, I almost feel as if I were back there now…

Apart from training, there were the various activities that went on at the Betsuin during our stay. At one point, we participated in a memorial service for and elderly Hawaiian Japanese Lady who’s husband had passed some years before. Her English was meagre and I think she enjoyed coming to the familiar environs of the temple. When she realised I spoke Japanese she ‘lit up’ and told me many little stories from her many years. Although Japanese Buddhism is often derogatorily referred to as ‘Funeral Buddhism’, for me, experience like this showed me what being a Buddhist Priest were all about. Having the ‘honour’ to be a part of the bond that woman shares with her husband, being privy to that very intimate and most ‘vulnerable’ of spheres…was a truly humbly experience. I was deeply touched by the opportunity to share that experience with her and her family. In my mind, there is no doubt, that this must be what it is, to ‘Light up a corner’ of the world in a very subtle way.
Jiryo sensei and I, were also able to experience the Mochi-making activities for the congregation during the New Years festivities. This very simple act, highlighted to me, a very basic and yet ‘lost’ part, for most of us, of our humanity. The opportunity for the whole community to come together, work together, celebrate together, eat together...is truly beautiful. I think for the most part, we have lost that simple connection to our community, to our culture, to our fellow human beings.

The trip to the Betsuin was priceless in everyway. There were surprises and upsets along the way, much like life itself, but this is all part of the journey. Our stay at the Betsuin was very much like a 'snapshot' of the path itself. It is what it is. Our job is to bear what must be borne, feel what there is to feel, and remain 'immovable', as Fudo Myo O.  
Reverend Jikai Dehn