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Grateful for Life’s Path, Guided by the Nembutsu

Minasama, konnichiwa. Watashi no namae wa Akahoshi, Nobuko desu. Dozo yoroshiku. Boa tarde. Prazer con ñeserlos. Aloha! Aloha kako. And lastly, hello, everyone. That is the extent of my foreign language skills!


I am Karen Akahoshi and I am truly honored and humbled to represent more than 2,250 Buddhist women of the Buddhist Churches of America.


As I look back over nearly 80 years of my life, I am grateful and humbled by how my life has been guided by the Nembutsu. The path to this realization and gratitude was not straight nor an easy one. But rather, it took many twists and turns and up and down many trails that were unexpected.


I was born behind barbed wire during World War II in the Minidoka concentration camp in the desert of southern Idaho to Rev. Eiyu and Mitsuko Terao. They were uprooted from their home in Seattle with just 72 hours’ notice to take only what belongings they could carry. The imprint of the trauma that I suffered led me on a journey to heal the pain of humiliation and anger. Within the Japanese American community, we all suffered from that trauma, whether we realized it or not.


Although I have no memory of that traumatic time, I know that it defined who I was until when I was 40 years old. The pain of not knowing my true self was greater than the safety of staying silent, so my journey began. I decided to step out of my comfort zone to attend a personal growth retreat where I had to rappel off a mountain cliff, traverse a deep ravine on a rope and zipline off a cliff. I was by no means athletic! It was done through lots of fear, tears and shaking knees! Then the army drill sergeant-like leader, whom everyone dreaded, stood us up, 10 people at a time, on stage. One by one, he went down the line looking into each of our sets of eyes to see if he could see the “real me.” He looked into my eyes and passed me. No sooner than I gave a sigh of relief, he turned back around and looked back into my eyes and said, “Karen, when are you going to quit hiding behind that Japanese mask?” Shock and realization unleashed a flood of tears and I found myself shouting to him, “How dare you! How dare you do this to my family and my people!!”


Hiding Behind Mask


Only then did I have the realization that I was actually hiding behind a Japanese mask, afraid to live beyond who I was supposed to be — the obedient, minority child who had to prove that she was as good as white Americans. Then this tough, formidable trainer started crying and pleaded, “Will you ever forgive us?” The healing had begun. I discovered that I had self-limiting beliefs about my capabilities. It has been a lesson for me again and again as I have faced more of life’s challenges.


When I was 50 years old, I spent three days on a vision quest and fast in the desert of Utah with only water to drink. For a person who had never missed a meal, three days without anything to eat was like committing suicide! I had never pitched a tent or had ever been out camping by myself.


On a Native American reservation, I discovered an ancient, abandoned cliff dwelling and a kiva, a sacred room with an altar. I sat in this kiva and meditated during my three days of solitude. I discovered just how brave and resilient this little girl was who was born behind barbed wire. What I also found there in the vast silence and beauty of the desert was an overwhelming sense of connectedness to all that was and a profound gratitude for all that had been given to me. Tears of gratitude and “Namo Amida Butsu” flowed from my lips. How fortunate I was to have had the Nembutsu as a part of my life from the very beginning. I literally grew up where the temple was a part of our home.


After leaving the Minidoka concentration camp, my parents established the Spokane Buddhist Church in our house where our living room and dining room were converted into a Hondo. I couldn’t be late for Dharma School because the stairs to our bedrooms were right next to the Hondo.


Today, I am wearing my mother’s special monto shikisho for a minister’s wife, this embroidered cloth symbolizing membership in a Buddhist Sangha to honor my mother, who established the BWA in Spokane, Washington. As a young child, I remember having a tantrum saying, “I will never become a minister’s wife!” because my mother would often be called away, interrupting what she may have been doing with me.


Tribute to Mother


How fortunate that I have had a wonderful role model in my mother. She was courageous as a young mother in her early 20s raising two babies behind barbed wire in a concentration camp, not knowing what the future would bring. She selflessly spent her life dedicated to the welfare of the temple as well as her family. Never once did I hear her complain! She passed away last year at 102 years and continued to live a life of joy and gratitude until the end.


While growing up in Spokane, Washington, we were exposed to the Dharma daily. We would often call my father’s dinner conversations, mini sermons, or “sermonettes.” Now that my father is gone, I realize the profoundness of his greatest wish, that our family embrace the Nembutsu.


So not only did I embrace the Nembutsu, but I also married someone who would wear my father’s Buddhist robes and continue the work my father began nearly a century ago. Life is so full of interesting twists and turns. My husband, Kenji, left dentistry after 30 years to return to school at the Institute of Buddhist Studies to receive his master’s degree in Buddhism and became the Resident Minister of the Buddhist Temple of San Diego.


During our nearly 55 years of marriage, Kenji has always encouraged me to find my own voice and to not be afraid to be myself without always worrying about what other people would think. He has been my biggest cheerleader as I took the time for personal growth retreats and to build my own interior design business. I am grateful that he continues to remind me of the extraordinary legacy that has been given to us — the power of the Nembutsu and to live a life of gratitude. Now my life has gone full circle!


Greatest Challenge


The greatest challenge in my life has been dealing with the death of my beloved son, Kirk, at age 44 from pancreatic cancer. He had such a bright future as a psychotherapist. I felt that perhaps he too might one day become a Buddhist minister as I watched him participate with so much enthusiasm as a speaker in the TechnoBuddha youth seminars for many years. There are no words to describe the depth of my sorrow or the profound grief I have felt. It felt like my heart was shattered into a million painful pieces.


There is a wonderful Japanese art form called ”kintsugi” where artists mend broken pottery pieces with gold lacquer. The pieces are meticulously mended back together, highlighting the cracks rather than hiding them. Now 3½ years later, piece by broken piece, I am putting back together the pieces of my shattered life. What has been the gold lacquer that has made me whole again? It has truly been because of the love and support of my husband, family, friends, and community. Like Kisa Gotami, who was sent by the Buddha carrying her dead child to collect mustard seeds from families who had not suffered death, I realized that I cannot escape the harsh realities of life. The only thing that helps me not only survive but also thrive now is to be grateful that I had such an extraordinary son for 44 years and to know he lives in my heart and in the Nembutsu.


Each panelist speaking today has her own unique story. My life’s journey has made me aware of how fortunate I am to have been raised in a Jodo Shinshu family where the Nembutsu continues to sustain and enrich my life. In sharing my story with you, I hope to inspire you to trust your own inner wisdom and strength, guided and supported by the Buddha-Dharma. Namo Amida Butsu.


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