The Gift of Life

Our Pledge

Breaking out of my shell
I will share a warm smile and speak gentle words
just like the kind Buddha.

Not becoming lost in my greed, anger, and ignorance
I shall think and act with an open-mind
Just like the calm and peaceful Buddha

Not putting myself first
I will share in the joy and sadness of others
Just like the compassionate Buddha

Realizing the gift of life I have received
I shall strive to live each day to its fullest
Like the Buddha who tirelessly works to liberate all.






Two years ago at our Mother temple in Kyoto, Japan, Shaku Sennyo, Kojun Ohtani was installed as the 25th Gomonshu (Abbot) of Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji Ha (Nishi Hongwanji). I was fortunate to have attended the ceremony (Dento Hokoku Hoyo) where Shaku Sokunyo (Koshin Otani) and Shaku Sennyo ritually transferred the position and title from father to son.  It was a very moving ceremony. At that time, I wondered how Hongwanji would change under this new Gomonshu.

This past May, I attended a meeting in Kyoto for the overseas districts of Hongwanji and there were posters in many of the public areas with “Our Pledge,” at the beginning of this article, posted on the wall.  This pledge was written by our Gomonshu, who has requested that it be added to some of our services. I could read some of the Japanese, but when I returned to the U.S., Bishop Umezu sent out an English translation.  I believe this pledge is a very good way to introduce some of the basic ideals of our Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism.

This month, I would like to focus on the last line of the Our Pledge.

Realizing the gift of life I have received
I shall strive to live each day to its fullest
Like the Buddha who tirelessly works to liberate all.

This month we are observing our Hatsubon/Obon services.  In Salt Lake, it will be on July 14, in Honeyville, it will be on July 20, in Ogden on July 21 and at the Idaho Oregon Buddhist Temple it will be on July 28. This year, for the four temples I supervise, there are 28 people on the Hatsubon list.  The Hatsubon/Obon service is described as a memorial service to recognize our continued connection to our loved ones who have died over the past year. I believe that death does not end the relationships we have with our deceased loved ones. The form may change, but it is a very real living relationship. This service recognizes the “gift of life” we receive as a result of the lives of all those that have lived before us.

This relationship with all those individuals that have come before me is impossible to really understand.  I believe that it is the fact that the entire Universe and time itself have conspired to give me the life I have.  If any one point were to have occurred in a different way or form, I would not exist. In the threefold refuge that we recite at most of the Sunday services it says, “Hard is it to be born into human life, now we are living it.”  It is truly a wondrous gift to have received.

However, just as it says “Hard is it to be born…” nowhere does it say that life is easy.  In fact, this is at the base for Buddhism with the first noble truth stating, “Life is “Dukkha”.  Some people translate “Dukkha” as suffering, but I think of it more as not going as we want. Life does not always conform to our expectations and this can cause immense suffering. As a result, Buddhism prescribes a variety of ways and means to move beyond this suffering which all of us feel.  Life can be extremely difficult, but it is a gift that we have received at great cost.

In this passage, it says, “I shall strive to live each day to it fullest.” How do we do this?  When I was younger, there had been times when I really wondered if life was worth living. I remember in college when there were occasions when I seriously wondered about whether I wanted to live or die.  As I grew older, I found that on the occasions that I was able to live a life of service to others, life somehow seemed to get better. As this pledge also states: 

Not putting myself first
I will share in the joy and sadness of others
Just like the compassionate Buddha

Although this idea of putting others first sounds cliché, it is actually one of the truths I have experienced to be absolutely true.  This idea of putting others first, to live a life of service, creates a sense that there may have been a reason why the Universe moved in amazing ways so that I can be born.  It does not create a sense of arrogance, but one of extreme humility. 

Life is difficult and there will be times when you may not want to live. But if you strive to live a life as guided in this pledge, I believe it may help with so many of life’s difficulties.  This said, there is one more thing I wanted to address this month: Suicide. In 2017, Utah had the fifth highest suicide rate in the country for ages 10 years and older. It is a public health crisis.  I have spoken with my own children about suicide and the effect I have seen on entire families. I have explained that if they ever have thoughts of suicide, please talk with me. I have told them how many of us, myself included have had such thoughts.  Buddhism can help, but religion alone is probably insufficient to address its many causes and conditions. I have read in a variety of articles about people questioning whether meditation or religion should be able to overcome a variety of mental health issues.  I want to state here and now that neither Buddhism nor any religion can cure mental illness. However, in many cases medical treatment can.  

This gift of life is precious, but this gift of life can be extremely difficult.  Obon is a time to reflect on the relationships that have given us this gift. However, if you feel that this life is a burden rather than gift, please talk to someone. If you cannot talk to a friend or family member, please feel free to talk with me.  If you do not feel comfortable talking to me, please feel free to call Carmela, besides being my wife, she is an ordained Jodo Shinshu priest and also a psychiatrist, therefore much more qualified in this area than I am. My number is 801-819-2648 and Carmela’s number is 801-414-1336.  There are also National hotlines: Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is asked to call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide, and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.

Obon is a time to celebrate and reflect on this gift of life and the relationships and interconnectedness of all of us.  I would not be here, without you. In Japanese, there is a phrase “Okage sama desu.” When you ask someone, “How are you?” They will answer “Okage sama, genki desu.” This literally means, I am fine because of the shadow.  This shadow is you in my life. In my gift of life, you are an important part of this gift. I allowed to fully live this life, because of you. You matter! When I say Namo Amida Butsu, it is also another way of saying you matter to me, and my gift of life is because of you and visa versa.  Please join us for our Obon service on July 14 at 1 p.m. to celebrate our gift of life. Namo Amida Butsu.

~ J.K. Hirano