by Gyōkei Yokoyama
I’d like to thank Rev. Hōkō for her offer to include my article in Ancient Way. It means a lot for me to be a part of the American Zen community and to be able to share my thoughts and experience of my Buddhist tradition.
Here, I’d like to share the experiences that I enjoyed as a priest of Iwoji temple, Aichi prefecture, Japan from 2006 to 2013. Iwoji temple is located in a remote area in a rather mountainous region in the central Japan.
The landscape around the temple was shaped by volcanic activity along the median tectonic line over 16 million years ago. Numerous steep mountains, valleys, rivers, and falls were created.
This geographical condition contributed to the formation of various ancient traditions and rituals.
Among these traditions were various indigenous rituals of Shintoism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shamanism, like the practice of worshiping local guardians. There are even stories from the medieval period about sacrificing a traveler and burying him near the borders of the village so as to make him the guardian deity. Also, there were a number of traditions originating from Shingon esoteric Buddhism which once thrived in this region around AD 800. These were all mixed together and honored by the locals.
There are many who believe that the minerals and jewels as well as chi discovered along the median tectonic line attracted practitioners while creating conflict and many mystical legends.
As many of you who have experienced Japanese Buddhism must be aware, it is sometimes very difficult to differentiate Buddhist customs from those of other traditions and cultures developed and cherished in each local community.
It is typical of Japanese Buddhism. I remember doing many rituals to console the spirits disturbed by road construction or the ghosts of warriors from the medieval warring state period.
There were many moments when I had an urge to ask a question such as “What is true Buddhism?” or “Is what we do here at the community really Buddhism?” The funny thing, however, was that these questions also sounded nonsensical or meaningless to me at the same time as I was so immersed in this complex religious and spiritual culture.
My father, who was also my mentor and master, always said to me, “It is not about what you think. It is about the peace and comfort people can find through what we do.”
In Japan, we put a huge focus on our ties with our ancestors.
However, most often, we are only capable of feeling the warmth of the connection with our parents, grandparents, siblings, close relatives and friends. Probably, in the case of North America, we are often only capable of feeling the warmth of our connection with our teachers and mentors. However, it doesn’t mean we are not maintaining the Mahayana Buddhist ideology of saving all sentient beings.
We remind people that if we truly understand the value of the connection with our closest families and friends, there is no way we would fail to see the value of the connections a stranger has with his families and friends.
Loving your small circle of people suddenly becomes the same as loving the life of entire universe. This one thing is the same as many others. This realization is a wonderful experience that Japanese Buddhist traditions can offer.
Jihi 慈悲, or compassion, includes the kanji for “sadness” or “sorrow.” Just as we can understand the warmth of the relationship, we are encouraged to understand the sorrow that comes with change. When we know that everyone in the world shares the warmth and the sorrow, we become more accepting and can live our life with mature sense of reality.
This is how I can summarize my experience as a bishop of Iwoji temple.
In May 2014, I moved to the United States to work for Long Beach Buddhist Church, which had been established in 1951 by the Japanese Americans who experienced incarceration at the U.S. government relocation camps.
Their mission at the time was to pursue true Buddhism and meet the needs of the Japanese Americans. The church thrived with full support from many parishioners and their friends who lived in the area. However, the members’ children and grandchildren were born American and grew up American. Many became Christians and many left the area and community. Once the community started to change, the validity of the church started to fade away.
Today we are surrounded by many Mexican and Filipino families who have Catholism as their family tradition. With this demographic and cultural change that has happened during the last half a century, our church no longer has the same cultural influence as it once did.
For me, finding ways to redevelop this church in this multi-faith community is not at all different from finding the way to reevaluate the way Japanese Buddhism has been manifesting through complex traditions in respective communities.
“It is not about what we think.”
It is about what comes out of our mind, speech and action in response to the need of the people in today’s community and help them find their inner peace and wisdom.
Zen practice for me is like a far reaching arms of Avalokiteshvara embracing everything around us with no discriminating mind, just as a mother and a father embrace their children without differentiating them.
Thank you for your time to read my message.
Yukinori Gyōkei Yokoyama
Gyōkei completed his training at Eiheiji, one of the head temples of Sōtō Zen, in 2000 before graduating from Sophia University in Tokyo, where he majored in intercultural communication and was involved in the interfaith community. He worked as a paralegal translator for a few years in Tokyo. While serving as a priest in his hometown, he taught English to children from kindergarten to high school level. He also worked for a Japanese Brazilian and Peruvian community during the recession in 2008 and advocated for the city program for their children with linguistic challenges as a city councilor. He was a vice bishop of Iwoji temple from 2006 to 2011 and a bishop from 2011 to 2013. Currently he is assigned to work for the Long Beach Buddhist Church as a minister and the Sōtō Zen North America Office as the secretary.