What is the Fragrance of Light?

“Sentient beings who are mindful of Amida Buddha are like persons who, imbued with incense, bear its fragrance on their bodies; hence, they are called ‘those adorned with the fragrance of light.’”

Surangama Samadhi Sutra, The Fragrance of Light: a Journey into Buddhist Wisdom,

John Paraskevopoulos

Carmela and I have just finished attending the 19th European Shin Buddhist Conference in Southampton, U.K.  I would like to thank Bishop Umezu for asking me to represent him for this conference.  This is my second opportunity in attending this conference held every two years in various European cities.  It was wonderful having other representatives from our BCA and Canada: Bishop Tetsuya Aoki, Bishop of Canada; Rev. Kiyonobu Kuwahara, Hongwanji representative to BCA and Berkeley Buddhist Temple resident minister; Rev. Ryuta Furumoto, resident minister of Senshin Buddhist Temple; Rev. John Iwohara, resident minister of Gardena Buddhist Temple; Akiko Rogers, IBS student; and Rick and Robin Stambuhl, BCA President and his wife, respectively.  The previous conference was held in Antwerp, Belgium. When in Belgium, although the conference was held entirely in English, there was a definite confusion on my part, the customs of European culture were completely new to me.  However, at this conference, being my second conference and the similarity of English and American culture, made this conference much more familiar.

There were only two incidents that caused me a bit of confusion. At one of the lunches in Southampton (which were for the most part similar to our CBE sandwich lunches at the JSC in Berkeley), one of the sandwiches was labeled “goldfish and shrimp.” I simply could not get myself to try this no matter how many times I was assured it was not actual goldfish.  The other was my own stupidity, at the closing dinner that they referred to as a Gala. Not being sophisticated enough to understand what this meant, I wore my pink linen jacket, while everyone else was wearing dark blues, greys and black.  I tried to hide when Zenmon sama and Zen Ourakata sama (retired Abbot and wife of Hongwanji) entered and began visiting with the attendees at a small reception before the Gala dinner they were hosting.  However, their translator and one of their attendants from Japan was Rev. Masako Sugimoto, an old friend from the Hongwanji International Center. When she accompanied them to the reception, she led the Zenmon and Zen Ourakata right up to where Carmela was standing. I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible in the corner with my pink jacket.  I then heard Masako say, “Hello Carmela, where is Hirano Sensei?”  I had to embarrassingly walk over and greet them in my “Pretty in Pink” jacket amid the sea of dark suits. Although I don’t blush, on the inside, my red embarrassment would have easily matched the pink of my jacket.

Other than this, I felt great comfort and familiarity with listening to the various presentations and talks regarding Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.  I love to attend activities where we get to listen to people sharing their understanding of Jodo Shinshu. One of the reasons I enjoy going to the European Shin Conference is that the presenters are predominantly European, meaning, British, German, Romanian, Belgian, etc. and they are almost all ethnically non-Japanese.  There were a number of Japanese presenters also, such as Rev. Dr. Ken Tanaka and Rev. Kuwahara along with a number of other Japanese scholars.  Although Jodo Shinshu is considered a Japanese form of Buddhism that Shinran Shonin started over 800 years ago, I believe Jodo Shinshu is a religion which is essentially a teaching that helps us better understand our human lives, regardless of ethnic, cultural, gender or socioeconomic identity.  It’s interesting to note how culture definitely adds a certain flavor to the teachings, but nevertheless it is a teaching for all human beings and not particularly Japanese or just for those of Japanese ancestry.

When I listen to the European presenters, I feel as though I am listening to Jodo Shinshu without a Japanese cultural filter.  What I’ve heard is like a highlighted version of Jodo Shinshu emphasizing what is important-- our humanity-- rather than our cultural identity.  Not being familiar with too much of the European backgrounds of the presenters, I do not personally have the cultural bias as when I listen to Japanese or Japanese American speakers.  There are certain things in Jodo Shinshu that requires some understanding of Japanese culture, but this is predominantly terminology, such as shinjin, or the Japanese names of the various teachers in our tradition.

For example, as a former friar and now living and working in London, my very good friend David Quirke-Thornton who has spoken at our temple and BCA, speaks with a very non-Japanese perspective.  For example, I loved his use of a poem called “Lost” in illustration of his talk called, “Our Journey Along the Path in the 21st Century”. 

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen, it answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

David Wagoner, “Lost” (1999)

I believe that our temple is a place where we are trying to develop a temple culture, a Sangha based upon the teachings of Jodo Shinshu which helps us better understand our humanity, rather than what it means to be Japanese or Japanese American.  I love the Jodo Shinshu teachings and I love the culture we are trying to develop at our temple.  However, I believe that we must be willing to change. For example, for the past 100 years, our temple has followed a pattern that really hasn’t changed much. This means having a fulltime resident minister, whose sole responsibility is to help guide one temple and its membership.  This membership pays a set yearly fee to help support the minister, his/her family and the basic physical necessities of the temple building.  The board of the temple collaborates with and supports the minister fulfill the vision they may have for the temple.  However, this model must change for Jodo Shinshu to survive in the United States of America.

For the past year, I have had to begin to transition our temple towards a new model, which I feel may be the way that many BCA temples may have to move towards.  As of October 1st  of this year, I am beginning my 25th year as the resident minister of the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple.  I have been a BCA Kaikyoshi for 31 years, but I moved back to Salt Lake in 1993. At that time, I was a relatively new minister and my only duty was to make sure the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple survived and continued into the future.  I did not have a lot of experience in ministry or the larger responsibility of a Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji Ha (Nishi Hongwanji) Kaikyoshi.  A Kaikyoshi is responsible for more than the temple they are assigned to.  They must serve the entire Kyodan (National organization) to try to maintain the Nishi Hongwanji tradition.  This is one of the differences in a Kaikyoshi and an assistant minister or minister’s assistant.

Over the years I have been a Kaikyoshi, besides serving as supervising minister of Ogden, Honeyville, and Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temples, I have been on the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS) board of trustees for over 25 years.  I have served on a variety of national committees; I had been the district representative (Kyokucho) for over ten years and I was elected to 4 terms as the chairperson (Gicho) of BCA Ministers’ Association.  The actual bylaws of the association are for maximum of four years; 2 two-year terms.  However, I was fortunate to have been asked to serve for eight years, or 4 two-year terms.  I have also been on the BCA Bishop’s Senior Advisers (Sanyo) for the past two Bishops.  Things finally came to a head last year,  and it became necessary to make a number of changes.

I assure you that this had nothing to do with any problems or animosity with our temple. I love the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple.  It has been my home, as have many of you, since childhood.  If I didn’t I would not have stayed here for 25 years.  I know that it was extremely difficult for the temple to try and pay me my full salary and the benefits normally provided to ministers, such as housing, car and health insurance.  However, I was able to make do with a lower than standard BCA salary because of Carmela’s fulltime medical practice.  Over the past few years I saw that the temple was really struggling to continue my salary and benefits, and at the same time, Carmela was also making some changes to her own practice. I realized it was time to make some decisions: I could transfer to a different temple, or try and find a solution. 

In 2003 Rev. Masami Hayashi had received his ordination and was volunteering to help me at the temple.  For the past six years, my wife, Dr. Carmela Javellana Hirano, having received her Tokudo ordination, could officially assist me at the temple with some of the services.  By official, I mean, since our marriage in 2005 she had been running the meditation service on Sunday before the 10:00 am service. This service has brought in the majority of new members to our temple.  Together we have held Summer Services to provide continuity for those new to the temple as well as current members.  She has created a Wednesday night meditation class, asking five additional teachers to assist; offered evening classes and weekend Naikan retreats, and led an adult study class on Sundays. With her ordination, she could now officially lead services under my direction.  Essentially our temple has had three ministers for the price of one. She also helps to direct my Minister’s Assistant Program which includes Dot Richeda, Troy Watanabe and David Black.  David Black has now enrolled at the Institute of Buddhist Studies to eventually receive his M.A. in Buddhist Studies. When he completes his course work, he will, like Carmela and Masami have, apply to receive Tokudo.

 All of these circumstances and conditions have led me to the decision to stay in Salt Lake.  What I needed to do was to find a way to remain in Salt Lake and still try to receive a salary closer to the standard salary set by BCA.  I do have two daughters in college.  To accomplish this, in discussions with Bishop Umezu, I have taken a part time salary in Salt Lake.  There is no such thing as a part time Kaikyoshi.  A Kaikyoshi is sworn to maintain his or her assigned temple’s religious needs.  Compensation can always be negotiated, but meeting the sangha’s spiritual needs takes priority and must be maintained.  I felt that I could do that because of Carmela and the other Minister’s Assistants.  There are some people who have asked me if I was upset with the temple or why I have not been writing a monthly article.  In the coming months, I will try to write something hopefully on a monthly basis, but this past year, I have been quite busy, adjusting to my new responsibilities. I have to thank and give Troy Watanabe a great deal of credit for taking up my duties of scheduling activities, maintaining various temple activities, such as organizational duties, maintaining mundane temple responsibilities such as checking mail, answering emails, organizing funerals, taking out the garbage, as I had done in the past.  All of this was necessary for me to take on the other duties I have over the past year to accomplish my goal.  In addition to the supervision of three other BCA temples previously mentioned, I have also assumed the responsibility as BCA’s Co-Director of the Center for Buddhist Education (CBE).  CBE creates all of the educational programs for BCA, other than the IBS or the Dharma School.  The Bishop has also asked me to be the Director of the new BCA Minister’s Assistant Program (MAP); this is for training etc. of future ministers and assistants.  I am also co-executive assistant to the office of the Bishop.  With all these current responsibilities, plus the increasing shortage of ministers as they retire in the next several years, innovation, creativity, and adaptation are what we are all asked to seriously consider right now.

I hope that for our members who are not active on the Board of the temple, this article will explain some of the developments that have been going on this past year. A true Sangha does not have any irreplaceable individual, whether that is the minister, a board member or any one member.  Our temple Sangha is an interconnected living breathing being.  It is my deepest hope that our temple can continue as it is embraced in the fragrance of Amida’s light.  To taste and feel this fragrance, one is always invited and welcomed to the temple and listen.  The fragrance of light has the sound of joy and gratitude.  It is the essence of Namo Amida Butsu.  Please join us in the coming year. 

-J.K. Hirano