It may sound paradoxical, but in the history of Buddhism, the teachers who spoke most powerfully to the people of their time and place and to generations afterward were those who looked backward in time to India to hear the words of Shakamuni Buddha as directly as they could. What made this so difficult to do was having to get past the layers of stale traditions and customs between the Buddha's time and theirs. The great master Nagarjuna (2nd century CE) got his name "Dragon's Lair" because for him to rediscover Shakamuni's teachings it was like fighting his way through a cave of fire-breathing rule-sticklers and strict imitators of Shakamuni's outward lifestyle. To bring the jewel of the teachings out for the wider world to encounter (Mahayana, "large vehicle"), he had to get past the narrow-minded monks who would keep it only for themselves (Hinayana, "small vehicle").
Haya Akegarasu (1877-1954) might have become just another priest caught in the thick layers of stagnant tradition smothering the spirit of Buddhism in Japan. He was born into a temple family where the priesthood is typically handed down from father to son (unlike the original Buddhist tradition of celibate masters passing on the mantle to their disciples). Unfortunately for the Akegarasu family, Haya's father died when he was 10 years old, and although his mother succeeded in her struggle to raise him by herself, she did not serve as an indoctrinator as much as a father would have. Young Haya grew up without so many fixed ideas of what a priest should be and, in fact, he was planning to go into the diplomatic corps rather than become a priest. What changed the course of his life was his encounter with Manshi Kiyozawa (1863-1903), the teacher of his English class in high school.
For Kiyozawa, an outsider to the temple system, Buddhism was a personal path of seeking true peace of mind, not just a career of carrying on a family business chanting for memorial services. While generations of Jodo Shinshu priest in Japan had been educated on nit-picky analyses of commentaries, Kiyozawa found it better to listen directly to the words of Shinran in the Tannisho. For Akegarasu and other Shinshu followers, it was a revelation to be able to hear what Shinran had to say when for hundreds of years the Tannisho was kept out of public circulation.
Akegarasu was a devoted student of Kiyozawa for several years and, after Kiyozawa's death, carried on his teacher's mission to make Shinshu more understandable to modern people by introducing them to the Tannisho, where Shinran speaks plainly without a lot of complicated metaphysics and philosophy. On the wave of this rediscovery of the Tannisho, Akegarasu became a popular and highly respected priest.
Then, in 1925, a scandal broke out, which destroyed Akegarasu's reputation, and he retreated to the family temple near Kanazawa. He described his despair at the time as being so great he wanted to commit suicide, but caring for his mother was the only thing keeping him alive. The Tannisho no longer had the power to comfort him, but instead of giving up on Shinran, Akegarasu was driven to find out what was Shinran's source of inspiration. Akegarasu embarked on an intense study of the Eternal Life Sutra (the larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra), which Shinran clearly stated in his writings as being the basis of his conviction and practice.
At that point in his life, Akegarasu felt like his life had already touched bottom, and there was nothing he could do to raise himself up. But then in the Eternal Life Sutra he heard the powerful shout coming from deep in the Buddha's heart - or rather, the words were coming from Shakamuni's mouth, but it was the shout of his own being. It was the shout of one life realizing the unique working of all Life in itself. In the Eternal Life Sutra, Shakamuni tells the story of the prototypical seeker, Dharmakara, who finds true enlightenment when all feelings of superiority and separation are broken down inside him, and his name becomes "the one who bows down (Namu) to all of life (Amida) as enlightened beings (Butsu)." Shakamuni says by calling the name of this seeker, "Namu Amida Butsu," we are reminded of what is the ultimate goal of our searching and yearning, our thoughts and efforts.
By going back in time to receive the Nembutsu teachings directly from Shakamuni, Akegarasu was inspired to the degree of feeling like he had died and been reborn. The personal scandal, the centuries of feudal traditions, all the labels, categories, and fixed concepts - Akegarasu broke free of them as he ventured back into the world to express the fervor of his spiritual seeking and the joy of living the path of Oneness
It seems Akegarasu wanted his essay about Shinran and the Eternal Life Sutra to be translated into English (included in the 1936 book Selections From the Nippon Seishin Library), because in his encounters with the Nisei and their friends on the US mainland and Hawaii, he found that the misleading notions about Pure Land Buddhism from feudal Japan had been brought over to America. Since Shinshu encouraged the barely literate peasants to take their lives seriously, it was seen as subversive by the ruling class, so was blamed for many of the peasant uprisings after Shinran's time. The feudal government of the Tokugawa regime (1603-1868) then let it be known that the priest must preach passivity - telling the peasants to be satisfied with their meager lot in life and look forward to the pleasures of paradise after they die. Not only the common people, but the priests themselves were kept ignorant of much of the basic Buddhist scriptures, so these twisted ideas of the Pure Land were passed down through generations who knew little of what the sutras actually said.
In his essay, Akegarasu indicated that Shakamuni appears in the Eternal Life Sutra at a great turning point in his life. Suddenly he can drop the stern schoolmaster expression of one who feels he has important instructions to give to the ignorant horde before him. Instead, Shakamuni's face is glowing with enjoyment like someone in a lively conversation with dear old friends, free of any inhibitions or worries. Seeing this, the disciple Ananda feels compelled to comment, "I have been serving you for many years, but I never observed your appearance so brightly shining in ecstasy as today." Ananda then asks if it is the look of a Buddha contemplating other Buddhas and being contemplated by them. Yet it is not invisible Buddhas floating in space that Shakamuni sees. What his eyes have been opened to are the wonderful faces of enlightenment on all the people around him - monks and lay people, young and old, rich and poor, men and women. To express this sublime state of Oneness in his mind, Shakamuni tells the story of Dharmakara. While Buddhists point to the enlightenment under the Bodhi tree as the great event in Shakamuni's life, Shinran learned from the Pure Land teachers before him that the Eternal Life Sutra depicts the significant deepening of Shakamuni's enlightenment. This shift in perspective from being a teacher facing students to being an integral part of a landscape of shining faces is what can be described as being reborn in the Pure Land.
For many people who have been coming to the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, it may not sound surprising to define the Pure Land as realizing the world of Oneness here and now, since they have heard Akegarasu's student, Rev. Gyomay Kubose, frequently speak in that vein. But by looking at Akegarasu's life and his study of the Eternal Life Sutra, we can see that attaining this state of Pure Land is not an easy thing to do. As Shinran tells us, it involves continual learning (kyo), practice (gyo), and commitment (shin) because our egoistic way of relating to the world is so entrenched. The ego is like a hard shell that keeps growing back, so Akegarasu said we must continually break out of it. There are many teachings and practices that can be followed in this constant endeavor to realize Oneness, but in the Eternal Life Sutra, we are told about how reciting the name, "Namu Amida Butsu," works as a powerful reminder of the Pure Land we actually live in and of the blinders of ego that keep us from seeing that.
As we pay our respects to Haya Akegarasu at Kosoki (his memorial day on August 27), I would hope at the least we will seek to hear the Shout of Buddha for ourselves and not just settle for anyone's second-hand description.
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