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Impressions From the Pilgrimage Tour in Japan

In May, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan with Rev. Dr. Takashi Miyaji of the Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church and a wonderful group of Sangha members on the Bay District Pilgrimage Tour.


The tour consisted of attending the 17th World Buddhist Women’s Convention in conjunction with the joint service celebrating the 850th anniversary of Shinran Shonin’s birth and the 800th anniversary of the establishment of the Jodo Shinshu teaching, followed by an excursion to sacred sites related to hidden Nembutsu practice in the Kagoshima region.


A pilgrimage tour differs from ordinary tourism, in that the sites we visited are connected to the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings and the Nembutsu. They provide us with a precious opportunity to reflect on the causes and conditions that have supported our lives up to this moment and guide us to clarify the direction of our lives moving forward.


We arrived in Japan at Haneda Airport (officially known as Tokyo International Airport) and spent the first two nights of our trip at a hotel near the Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple, where we had the opportunity to attend the morning service at 7 a.m.


Tsukiji Hongwanji is located in a bustling section of central Tokyo, and some of the attendees were off to work in the surrounding office buildings following the service.

During our time in Tokyo, the Tsukiji Hongwanji staff gave our Bay District group a guided tour of the temple grounds. We were impressed by the unique temple architecture, which incorporates elements of classical Indian Buddhist temple design and early 20th century Western architecture.


Enjoyed ‘Ondokusan’


The Bay District members enjoyed hearing “Ondokusan” played on the beautiful pipe organ that resides in the main temple hall. Tsukiji Hongwanji also offers a community columbarium that provides an affordable and meaningful option for people living in the urban area to be remembered by loved ones and supported by the Buddhist community. I was inspired by the efforts at Tsukiji Hongwanji to apply the teachings established by Shinran Shonin 800 years ago to our lives in this modern world.


From Tokyo we traveled to Kyoto, where Shinran Shonin spent many years of his life, to visit the sites of important events of his life. Attending the 6 a.m. morning services at Hongwanji, the Joint Celebration Service on May 10, and the World Buddhist Women’s Convention were highlights of our trip.


Gathering with Nembutsu followers from all over the world to reflect upon Shinran Shonin’s steadfast dedication to sharing the Nembutsu teaching renewed the profound gratitude we feel to Amida Buddha for the compassionate vow that ensures our path to liberation. For some of the participants, the Joint Celebration Service was their first visit to the Hongwanji.


“The most impactful session for me was the first service in which I was chanting together with hundreds of people in the main temple,” said Roy Ikeda, a San Mateo Buddhist Temple Sangha member. “Because this was the first time I chanted with a large group of people, the collective sound that surrounded me was almost overwhelming. I experienced — for the first time — a sense of bonding with others through chanting.”


At the conclusion of the Joint Celebration Service, 22 members of the Bay District tour group received their Buddhist Dharma names (Homyo) at a special Sarana affirmation service (Kikyoshiki) conducted in English and Japanese.


A Highlight of Trip


For many of the participants, receiving their Dharma names at the Hongwanji was a highlight of the trip.


Brie Hornig from the Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church was chosen for a special role in the ceremony, receiving the written Dharma names on behalf of the group.


"I felt very grateful to have had a role in the Kikyoshiki Sarana affirmation ceremony and to have been a part of such a meaningful space of people taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha,” Hornig said. “I felt a strong feeling of interconnectedness with others receiving their Homyo, thinking about how we would focus our daily lives and actions in alignment with the Dharma."


While in Kyoto, we visited the Shorenin Temple where Shinran Shonin was ordained as a Buddhist priest at the age of 9, the Enryakuji Temple complex on Mount Hiei where he pursed rigorous monastic practices for 20 years, and the Otani Mausoleum, where Shinran Shonin's youngest daughter Kakushinni established the memorial site to remember him and his teachings following his birth in the Pure Land.


We also had the opportunity to see a special exhibit at Kyoto National Museum of treasures related to Shinran Shonin’s life, including sacred teachings written in Shinran Shonin’s own hand. Encountering the life of Shinran Shonin through these concrete experiences of the world he lived in deepened our personal appreciation for the Nembutsu teaching.


Visiting Sacred Sites


For the final leg of our journey, we traveled to Kyushu to visit sites related to the hidden Nembutsu practice (Kakure Nembutsu) that continued for a period of about 300 years from the 16th to 19th centuries, when the Shimazu clan that ruled the Kagoshima region brutally suppressed the Jodo Shinshu teaching.


During that period of severe persecution, followers of the Nembutsu teaching continued their practice underground, often gathering in caves by the cover of night to hold services taking refuge in Amida Buddha and reciting the Nembutsu.


During our stay in Kagoshima, we visited the Tateyama Kakuregama, a historic site of hidden Nembutsu practice, along with the Kagoshima Betsuin, where one of the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist priests shared the history of hidden Nembutsu in Kagoshima and invited us to view the namidaishi (“stone of tears”), an artifact of the period of Nembutsu persecution that is now displayed at the Kagoshima Betsuin in order to educate visitors about the fearless commitment to the Nembutsu teaching shown by the Jodo Shinshu Buddhists of Kagoshima.


“I was moved by the fortitude of followers of Jodo Shinshu in continuing their practice during a time when such practice was forbidden by the local daimyo,” said Evelyn Nakano Glenn of the Berkeley Buddhist Temple. “It was particularly inspiring to learn that the hidden practice of Jodo Shinshu was led and maintained by lay people, rather than by priests.”


Shed New Light


Hearing the history of the hidden Nembutsu in Kagoshima shed new light on the extraordinary dedication and sacrifice made by those who have come before so that the Nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin could be passed down for us to receive today.


Reflecting on all the efforts that have made it possible for us to receive the precious legacy of the Nembutsu, we feel a renewed commitment to pass the Nembutsu teaching to the next generation.


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