In 2023, members of Hongwanji Hawaii joined in Kyoto to celebrate the 850th anniversary of Shinran Shonin’s birth and the 800th anniversary of the establishment of the Jodo Shinshu teaching. What follows is a reflection on the celebrations by Reverend Yuika Hasebe, the chief minister at Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin, along with some photos.
Reflections on the 800th and 850th Joint Celebration Service
The huge Founder’s Hall of Nishi Hongwanji in Kyoto was filled with people who didn’t hide their great excitement and joy. As we finally started to see the dissipation of the worldwide pandemic COVID-19, people were finally able to meet their longtime friends and enjoy the reunion by shaking each other’s hands, hugging one another, and taking selfies. Fellow travelers of Nembutsu from all over the world, including the continental US, Hawaii, Canada, Brazil, and from small villages to big cities of Japan gathered at the hall waiting for the once-in-a-lifetime precious joint celebration.
The clear ringing sound of kansho (calling bell) resounded throughout the hall and in the hearts of the excited attendees. The atmosphere immediately changed to a quiet and solemn deep appreciation. People of all different ages, gender identities, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds, all together bowed their heads in gassho (placing palms together) with a gesture of humble gratitude toward Amida Buddha. The special ceremony opened with a serene beauty.
Shin Buddhism was developed in Japan, and the tradition traveled to many different countries and regions. In many cases, the teaching traveled with the immigrants who had Japanese ancestral backgrounds. Like a flower that entrusts its precious seeds to the winds to find a new land to spread its beauty, the immigrants transmitted this precious teaching, treasuring and planting it in various lands. The seed of the teaching has now sprouted, grown, and has become a beautiful blooming flower. The beautiful flower of Nembutsu touches the people of the new land. Those people who are touched by its beauty have now gathered where this beautiful flower originated, which is Kyoto, Japan.
In the year of 2023, the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha Buddhist organization, Ryukokuzan Hongwanji (also known as Nishi Hongwanji) commemorates the 850th birthday of its founder, Shinran Shonin, and the 800th anniversary of the establishment of the Jodo Shinshu tradition. Members from various countries and from different regions of Japan made a great effort to join the ceremony, and the Nishi Hongwanji took even greater measures to ensure the welcoming of the devoted fellow travelers. The celebration was held for 30 days, from March until May of 2023.
Shinran Shonin was born in Japan in 1173 and is considered one of the most innovative religious leaders of the Kamakura period. His religious and personal endeavors created a great social reformation by re-examining the hierarchical system of Japan at the time and bucking the status quo, revealing a path of salvation for all people regardless of their social standing. Shinran Shonin himself had never proclaimed the establishment of a new religious order. However, after he completed the first draft of his main work, “Ken jodo shinjitsu kyogyosho monrui” or The True Teaching, Practice, and Realization of the Pure Land Way — one of the most important scriptures for Jodo Shin Buddhists — his followers felt that a new tradition had been established.
These two separate celebrations of 850 years since the birth of Shinran Shonin and 800 years since the establishment of this religious institution, are momentous opportunities for Shin Buddhists to reconfirm our faith and reflect on the meaning of a life that is embraced by the Great Compassion of Amida Buddha. From the time of Shinran Shonin, numerous people risked their lives to protect the teaching and passed it down from generation to generation with the hope that their successors would also be able to live in deep gratitude, with a profound level of happiness in Amida Buddha’s embrace. Through those countless predecessors, the string of the Dharma penetrates 850 years of time and reaches us who live in the world today.
On the completion of the celebration on May 21 (Shinran Shonin’s birthday), the 24th Monshu Kojun Ohtani shared his message:
Being embraced and illuminated by Amida Buddha’s light of Wisdom, we are now made to realize our true nature of possessing heavy karmic evil and blind passions, which we were not aware of before. However, at the same time, we come to awaken to Amida Buddha’s Great virtue.
We come to see that we are embraced by Amida Buddha, where our sorrow is accepted as Amida Buddha’s sorrow. This makes us realize that we should recompense our evil actions and blind passions, by trying to leave the mind of attachment, even just a little.
It is a transformation from a self-centered life, which only focuses on one’s personal peace and tranquility, to a life of living together with others by sharing each other’s pain. From that transformation, we reflect upon Amida Buddha’s Great Wisdom and Great Compassion as the true guidance, and it opens us to the path in accord with the true guidance for the life of the Nembutsu follower.
(translation by Rev. Yuika Hasebe)
The world is spinning faster more than ever, and we are riding the fastest roller coaster running through the darkness, not knowing where our goal is or where we are headed. Is this not the reality of our world now? When such reality is considered, this Joint Celebration gives us another perspective. This ceremony was not intended only for us to reflect on the past and appreciate our predecessors, but also to serve as a milestone in our own journeys. We acknowledge that as we move forward, we will keep planting seeds of Nembutsu for generations to come.
We are still living in a world where we hold many weapons and hurt others often under the banner of protecting “our people.” We are still living in a world where people die due to hunger and sickness, where only certain people can have access to certain treatments while others cannot. We are living in human societies based upon materialism and unfairness. As Monshu Kojun Ohtani wrote, there needs to be a shift from a self-centered way of life which only focuses on personal peace and tranquility. While we focus on inner-peace, at the same time, we need to open our eyes to the community and world as well. The world needs to hear the message of Amida Buddha’s Great Compassion more than ever. The efforts toward internal cultivation and the approach to the external world should not be considered an “either-or” or “now or later” situation, where we prioritize one over the other. Rather, both internal and external efforts are to be pursued simultaneously. This ceremony can be considered as the opening or start of this new endeavor.
Shin Buddhists today must face a world that Shinran Shonin probably never imagined. Nevertheless, the teaching he reveals to us will never fade and is still shining ever more brightly, and it will be a strong foundation and support for our contemporary life. Guided by Amida Buddha’s Great Compassion, let’s make this new endeavor a fruitful one.
A version of this article was previously submitted to the Jodo Shinshu International Office for its quarterly journal.
Triple Celebration, September 7-8, 2024 in Honolulu