“Da Sukiyaki” Taste of O-Nembutsu

The Taste of the Nembutsu cover image

A message from Rev. Ai Hironaka which appears in the book, “The Taste of the Nembutsu,” published in 2016 by the HHMH State Ministers Association. The book is a collection of dharma messages by each of the active ministers.

To extend the reach of the dharma within these messages, we will publish one per week on our website.


“Da Sukiyaki” Taste of O-Nembutsu

Rev. Ai Hironaka

Over 13 years have gone by since I arrived in Hawaii. The first year was the most hectic and stressful time of my life. There were many new experiences, which I could attribute to cultural shock. I would like to share one of those experiences and its relationship to the O-NENBUTSU.

Of the many things I consider to be “culture shock, one troubles me the most. That is the difference in food between Hawaii and Japan. In Japan there is a saying that states, “Tabemono no urami wa kowai” or “I am afraid of harboring ill feelings toward food.” This illustrates the importance of food to human beings.

One day at Hilo Betsuin, my first assignment, the Buddhist Women’s Association’s ladies invited me to lunch in Sangha Hall. I was happy because I did not have to go to Café 100 to buy my lunch. When I got to the Sangha Hall, I saw a dish that I had not seen before. “What is this?” I asked someone.

“Why this is sukiyaki!!” she answered. I was surprised. The image I had of sukiyaki was a dish filled with tofu, green onions, konnyaku, shiitake mushroom, and choice beef seasoned with shoyu and sugar and served with a raw egg. Just thinking about it made my mouth water. Anyway, that was my image of sukiyaki. What I saw that the ladies had prepared was hekka. I thought it was strange. Furthermore, instead of beef there was chicken in the sukiyaki. Yet when I tasted it, it was very good. But in my heart, I felt, this was not the sukiyaki of Japan.

Sometime later, I studied the history of the Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. The more I learned about their hardships, I started to think about sukiyaki. “This was not merely sukiyaki,” I thought. Today, KTA super stores have shoyu, natto, ramen, and almost any ingredient needed to prepare Japanese dishes. For those of us who come from Japan, it is very convenient and gratifying. However, when the Issei first came to Hawaii, there were no Japanese foods. The shoyu, miso, and tsukemono they had grown up with were nowhere to be found. Most of all, there were no dishes prepared with a mother’s love. This must have been very sad and stressful for the Issei. All those things, which were familiar to them and reminded them of their homeland, did not exist in their new home.

Food has a strange impact on human beings. Even though I am in Hawaii, taking a sip of miso soup takes me back to Japan and warms my heart. To be more specific, it reminds me of the breakfast prepared by and shared with my mother. However, the Issei seldom had such experiences and yet they persevered.

When I think about this, the sukiyaki I tasted was not simply a strange dish. It became an incredible, unexplainable, deeply rooted Japanese dish with so much history attached to it. Whenever the Issei longed for their homeland, there were no images or foods they could relate to. In desperation, they must have used what little shoyu or miso they may have had to prepare a dish with the taste of Japan. “I want to go home to Japan but it is impossible”, they may have thought over and over. At least if they could eat some food with the taste of Japan, it could ease their sufferings and longing for their homeland. With those feelings, the Issei must have prepared the Hawaiian sukiyaki, which for me was considered strange. The ingredients they had in Japan were not available, so they tried to get as close to the taste which they remembered. They might have used beef, but it was very expensive. So they substituted chicken, which they all raised in their back yards. I feel this was the thinking of the Issei in preparing the Hawaiian sukiyaki. This sukiyaki did not look anything like the sukiyaki of Japan. However, for the homesick, struggling Issei, the substitute sukiyaki fulfilled the endless wish, desire, and longing to return to Japan. In this way, the Hawaiian sukiyaki became an indescribably delicious dish.

When I was single, my mother often phoned me from Japan. The conversation usually turned to the question of what I am eating. Although it is not right, I never let her know that I go to café 100, McDonald’s or KFC every day for my meals. I know that she is concerned but hearing the same question over and over again made me disgusted. My usual response was, “How many times must you ask? That’s enough already! I am eating my vegetables. Yes, yes, I know.” Then, my mother would scold me for responding, “You don’t answer your mother this disrespectfully!” However, I guess my mother was getting old now or she missed me a lot. She does not get upset with me and in fact, she is very understanding and says, “Oh, is that right? That’s good to here. I will call you again.” To be honest I always buy my meals from Café 100 so I don’t get to eat fresh vegetables. I am really lying to my mother and our phone conversation ends without any meaningful discussions. So at times, I would say, “Oh, you don’t have to hang up yet. Let’s talk some more,” and change the topic of conversation.

As I think about is, my mother’s cooking contains her loving kindness for me. No matter where you eat vegetables, it should taste the same. However, the vegetables cut and prepared by my mother contain her wish for my health. Delicious foods may be eaten in many places such as at a nice hotel. However, when you do not know or see the person who prepared the food, no matter how good it tastes, it lacks something. Even if I use my mother’s recipe and I may make it her way, it does not taste as good as when she prepares it. This is because her constant care from the past and concern for my future are the important ingredients in her cooking. This “taste”, only the child can taste, which is transcended from the judgmental world of good taste and bad taste.

Similarly. The O-Nenbutsu contains the deep wish and desire of Bodhisattva Dharmakara to save us all and assure our birth in the Pure Land. It took kalpas, an incredibly long time, to fulfill his vows and became Amida Buddha. The fruit of his vows is the O-Nenbutsu. It is the food that nourishes us spiritually. Many of you have lost your parents, spouses, and other loved ones. These people oneness with the O-Nenbutsu are preparing the food for us taste and partake. This is what it means to recite the O-Nenbutsu. To just look at the O-Nenbutsu is like looking at a delicious food without tasting it and digesting; it will not nourish us.

Shinran Shonin teaches us in his Gutoku’s Notes,

“The Tathagatas of the ten quarters think compassionately on sentient beings just as a mother thinks of her child.” (CWS. P.598)

And also in his Koso Wasan, Hymns of the Pure Land (CWS. P.356),

The Tathagata of Light that Surpasses the Sun and Moon
Taught me the Nembutsu-Samadhi.
The Tathagatas of the ten quarters compassionately regard
Each sentient being as their only child.

In our daily life, let us enjoy the O-Nembutsu, which is always there for us to savor and appreciate. It is always by our side whether we realize it or not. It is always within us whether we are hungry for it or not. Let us look at the delicious sukiyaki, taste it and be nourished as we eat. Let us live our lives reciting the O-Nenbutsu, tasting it and nourished by the wishes of our dearly departed ones and the Compassionate Vow of Amida Buddha. Namo Amida Butsu