Nembutsu Smiles

Let us begin by reflecting upon the wisdom, the Dharma, of Shinran Shōnin, founder of Jodo Shin Buddhism and the Hongwanji tradition.

Persons who truly realize shinjin
as they say Amida’s Name
Being mindful of Buddha always,
Wish to respond in gratitude to the great benevolence.

Shinran Shōnin
Hymns of the Dharma Ages, verse 30
The Collected Works of Shinran, Volume 1, page 406

My grandmother Chieko (Ishida) Kiyohara, Buddhist name Shaku Shō-ei 釋尚永 Disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha “Truly Eternal” was born in Kaita-cho, a small town in Hiroshima, Japan on December 28, 1903.

We all called her Bachan, which my Mexican friends instantly recognized as ‘abulita’ or ‘little grandma’ an expression in Spanish used as a term of endearment.

Bachan immigrated to the United States in 1919 at age 16 to marry my grandfather, Sasaichi Kiyohara, also from Kaita-cho, Hiroshima.

Certainly, it was not an easy life; America was not the land of milk and honey, and the state of California had promulgated Anti-Asian laws that specifically targeted Asian immigrants, especially Chinese and Japanese.

Bachan used to tell the story of being so afraid of “white demons” that she used to hide under the bed when people came up to the door.

Bachan never learned to speak English fluently, and yet the causes and conditions of her life required her to cook, clean, and care for dozens of Japanese and Mexican migrant workers, who traveled by truck, from farm to farm, to pick vegetables in season from sunrise to sunset.

Bachan’s first child, daughter Mihoko, died before her first birthday. Bachan went on to give birth to give five children, four boys and one girl.

My father, Akira Kiyohara, the third son of four boys, was born in Guadalupe, California.

In 1941, the Kiyohara family was rounded up, without due process guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States of America, and illegally incarcerated in the middle of the deserts of Poston, Arizona, in a so-called Internment Camp.

Bachan’s two eldest sons served in the US Army as interpreters in the Military Intelligence Service during the war and at General MacArthur’s GHQ during the Occupation of post-war Japan.

My father graduated from high school in Poston Internment Camp, where he was a Life Scout in the Boy Scouts of America, and he would later serve in the Korean War.

After World War II ended, the Kiyohara family settled in Los Angeles, in the West Adams district, one of the few neighborhoods where “Japs” were allowed to live, along with Blacks and Chicanos.

In 1956, Bachan became a US citizen in the first year that Japanese nationals were allowed to naturalize. Which is remarkable since she wasn’t fluent in English!

On February 28, 1964, my grandfather Sasaichi Kiyohara passed away. I remember the funeral and especially hearing Bachan crying inconsolably in her bedroom at the family house.

This was my first real experience of the reality of death and the pain of grieving. I was only four years old.

But my strongest memories are of Bachan smiling and laughing all the time, giving the grandchildren Bazooka Bubble Gum, “arare” rice crackers, and rice-paper-wrapped Botan candies, all carefully stashed in the top drawer in the breakfast nook in the rear of the house.

Bachan’s favorite phrases were:

You alright no?
EAT shinasai
Yōjin shinasai

Mimy remembers Bachan telling her, “Warui hito wa inai yo!”

“There are no bad people!”

Bachan was always smiling!

When I was in university, I studied Japanese so I could make Bachan proud, so that I could talk to her in Japanese.

This simple decision led to a 23-year career in Asia-Pacific while based in Japan, and three years in China, and now being allowed to be resident minister of Makawao Hongwanji on Maui!

The second time I saw Bachan cry was when Mimy and I presented our son to her.

Her eyes teared up as she exclaimed joyfully, “Oh, the fourth generation of Kiyohara family in America! I’ve seen the face of a great-grandchild! Now I can die happily.”

The last time I saw Bachan, she was at end of life.

After a long illness, her body had wasted away and was just a shell of the Bachan I remembered. Her appearance scared me.

I was unable to say much of anything and I have always felt guilty that I was not able to give her comfort.

Bachan was born in the Pure Land on October 4, 1998.

Her youngest son was our Uncle Ronnie, and he was the rough, tough, grumpy uncle who terrorized me as a child.

In November 2015, I returned to Los Angeles to be the family caregiver at end of life for Uncle Ronnie.

I had found many excuses not to go earlier, because actually because I feared death and dying people. But eventually I forced myself to go.

When I arrived, he was in hospice care at home, with a long beard and mustache, struggling to breath, and sleeping most of the time.

The first time he woke up, Uncle Ronnie looked at me in confusion, then he smiled and said, “Hey, Kerry, thanks for coming. Where’s Mimy?”

“Mimy had to work, she’s back in Honolulu.”

“Oh. Tell her I love her.”

And then he went back to sleep.

I spent the next couple of hours cleaning his apartment, and being briefed by the caregiver about to give narcotic painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs.

I cleaned up his Butsudan and moved it to the living room, re-set the adornments, moved the photographs of Jichan, Bachan, and my father so he could see them.

I lit a candle and some incense and sat next to Uncle Ronnie.

Suddenly he woke up, put his hands together, and said, “Alright, I’m ready to go. Let’s get this over with! Namandab, Namandab, Namandab!”

I was shocked. My rough, tough, mean-talking Uncle was saying the Nembutsu.

I give him my nenju and we said the Nembutsu together.

We chatted a bit, and eventually he went back to sleep.

Late that evening, the caregiver told me I should go back to the hotel and get some sleep.

At six a.m., the caregiver called and said that Uncle was not responsive although still breathing.

I called the family, including his sister, who came as soon as they could.

Auntie Mary was holding his hand, fighting back tears, when suddenly I had to make a pot of tea.

Normally, I’m not the “make a pot of tea” kind of guy but for some reason I knew I had to make tea.

As the water started to boil, Auntie Mary said, “Kerry, I think Ronnie stopped breathing.”

I confirmed that Uncle wasn’t breathing and had no pulse, and called the doctor. And the family, and then the temple to arrange the magura-gyo bedside service.

I realized I was actually angry because I imagined myself as the valiant caregiver but he died within 24 hours of my arrival.

How inconsiderate of Uncle to die so quickly!

In that thought-moment, I realized how stupid and selfish my ego makes ME!

Seeing my Uncle face his death calmly, find refuge in the Nembutsu, and show consideration for others on his deathbed, was a turning point for me at age 55.

This was the moment when I decided to pursue Tokudo ordination in 2016, Kyoshi certification in 2018, and Shin Buddhist ministry as the purpose of my life.

My Uncle showed me how to face death, how my fears of dying people were unfounded, how my ego-self was indeed just a silly fool wrapped up in my own self-centered world.

After the funeral, I was cleaning up the Kiyohara family home in Los Angeles and discovered Bachan’s secret to being happy all the time —a poem in Japanese.

In Japanese, the first characters of each line spell out Namu Amida Butsu! The Japanese expression “niko-niko”means kind and gentle SMILE.

Do whatever you do with gratitude and effort
SMILE while you work hard

Never say “impossible,” never get angry
In the home, always SMILE

Don’t put it off for another day, listen to the Dharma,
and let’s all SMILE together

We are all Children of Amida, we say the Nembutsu
and SMILE with the heart of Buddha

Taking care with our words and actions,
Be helpful to others and SMILE

Believe in the Dharma, be true and real,
SMILE purely and joyfully

The poem and calligraphy is attributed to Rev. Ryuei Masuoka, who served the Hongwanji at BCA temples and was Rimban (Head Priest) of Los Angeles Betsuin.

My memories of Bachan, and the lessons Uncle Ronnie taught me on his deathbed, now serve me as I live the life of a Hongwanji minister.

Much of my work is visiting with people at end of life, people who are dying: conducting rinju gongyo bedside services before the person is born in the Pure Land; helping people to cope with death of a loved one: makura-gyo bedside service immediately after the person is born in the Pure Land;

by officiating Funerals, Seven-Day Services, and 49-day services;

Encouraging people to gather for memorial services held months and years after the passing of a loved one.

Buddhism teaches us the Truth of Impermanence: death is the natural outcome of birth, that aging is the end result of youth, that dying can be faced with dignity, courage, and a smile.

The Truth of Impermanence teaches us to cherish this moment,

to not take for granted the unrepeatable moments we are allowed to spend with loved ones, with friends, with community.

The Truth of Impermanence teaches us to not be so self-centered,

to realize that a life of Nembutsu, saying Namo Amida Butsu in gratitude for this life we have been given, truly is freedom from the “bondage of selfishness.”

When we begin to see Life as a gift, a treasure, an opportunity to be kind and gentle to all living things, then we begin to see that we live in the Pure Land right now, that bodhisattva —enlightened beings— are all around us, that Amida’s Great Love and Compassion are real.

The promise of Amida’s 18th Vow, the Primal Vow, the HONGAN in Hongwanji, is that we are already embraced by Compassion, that death is not to be feared because our birth in the Pure Land is assured, we will return to One-ness with Amida, and we will return to this world to help others!

If we open our eyes to reality-as-it-is, the power of Amida’s Vow manifests itself in our lives every day!

The Pure Land is here and now; my Ego, my Anger, my Greed, my Delusions, my Self-Centeredness just blind me to that fact that Great Compassion and Wisdom are in my life, here and now.

This truly is bonno, or Blindingly Self-Centered Desires.

Single-heartedly listening to, then truly hearing the Calling Voice of Amida—Namo Amida Butsu—is to wake up and see just how silly and self-centered my Ego-Self makes me.

Bachan, Uncle Ronnie, and so many others guided my return to the Path of Nembutsu, which literally translates as Mindfulness of Buddha Amida.

Or, more simply, just saying Namo Amida Butsu in gratitude for the absolute assurance of Birth in the Pure Land and becoming Buddha.

Take a moment to reflect on the great ‘ohana of your life, let aloha in your heart come bursting out as mahalo for this unrepeatable life by putting your palms together, bowing your head, and saying Namo Amida Butsu in gratitude for kindness and understanding, compassion and wisdom in your life.

Just say Namo Amida Butsu in joy for the chance to just get out there TODAY and live in each moment of this Unrepeatable Life!

When we truly awaken to the gift of life, we become humble.

When we truly awaken to the gifts we are being given in our lives, we become grateful.

When we truly awaken to the gifts we can give to other people, we become compassionate.

When we truly awaken to our heart and mind that is humble, grateful, and compassionate, we are freed from the bondage of selfishness, we live with strength and serenity, accepting whatever comes our way as this unrepeatable life unfolds naturally.

This is the Faith of Shinjin, a state of mind, a state of being, a change of heart, a change of attitude that completely transforms our lives.

The Faith of Shinjin comes to us through the working of Amida, Namo Amida Butsu, Great Compassion and Wisdom in our lives.

When we say Namo Amida Butsu, we are responding in gratitude to the Great Kindness of Amida for embracing us, just as we are, in this unrepeatable life, just as it is.

Just Say Namo Amida Butsu! And smile!

The essence of Shin Buddhism as taught by Shinran Shōnin is the Faith of SHINJIN, Amida’s Great Love and Great Compassion transforming our all-too-human hearts and minds so that we are empowered to RESPOND IN GRATITUDE to life as it unfolds naturally.

Just say mahalo! Mahalo for listening this morning!

May your day be filled with Aloha!

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