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Learning to Live with Others

Editor’s note: Rev. Igor Makasyuk was among a group of BCA members who received Tokudo training and ordination in December 2023 at the Hongwanji-ha in Kyoto, Japan. Rev. Makasyuk has written his thoughts and reflections of that time. The Wheel of Dharma is honored to publish this article by Rev. Makasyuk.


“Hence, I am now neither a monk nor one in worldly life. For this reason, I have taken the term Toku (‘stubble-haired’) as my name.”      

                                    — Shinran Shonin, postscript to “Kyogyoshinsho”

Tokudo training is not the time for quiet contemplation. The schedule at Nishiyama training facility is tight, and days are 18 hours long. 

Your living space is one-fourth of an average size bedroom — barely enough to spread and fold your robe. One shelf assigned to you is taken by the tray where your robes and hakama are kept neatly folded. The remaining 10 inches to the right can be used only for books and notes. 

Your belongings must be kept in the suitcase, which must be always closed. All of your electronics are taken away. A 20-minute break is barely enough to get back to the room, change, fold your other robe, prepare the materials for the next class, and wait for the gong.

Speaking to us from Canada, Bishop Rev. Tatsuya Aoki brought up the Japanese term “totonoeru” — “put in order, tidy up, prepare, adjust, work out.” He added: “This is the time when you learn to live with others.” This is the time when only your ego distracts you from getting to know yourself, too.  

Our training begins with the trip to Hieizan, the stronghold of Tendai school, where Shinran Shonin, as most of the prominent teachers of Kamakura Buddhism, started as a monk. 

We walk through the chambers of Shoren-in where Shinran Shonin was ordained. We step inside the Jogyo Zanmai-do that we heard so much about and walk around the statue of Amida Buddha where Shinran Shonin walked thousands of times. We touch the bamboo rail that his hand touched during the 90-day walking meditation, the rail polished by thousands of hands of monks who have circumambulated the statue over the centuries.   

At Nishiyama, we have been given an honor of conducting services in the altar of the betsuin, which used to be the Amida Hall of Nishi Hongwanji since 1618 until the permanent hall was completed; it is the oldest building in the Hongwanji complex. The magnificence of this temple is in the gold-plated pillars, mirror-like naijin floor, and the Edo-period decorations on the ceiling and on the altar screen doors, the only surviving paintings by Tokuriki Zenmune, the cultural heritage. 

The grounds of Nishiyama Betsuin are the resting place of Kakunyo Shonin, Shinran’s great-grandson, the third abbot of Hongwanji. It was his commitment and energy that made the institution of Hongwanji a reality. His brush created the “Godensho” — the illustrated biography of Shinran Shonin. The drawings from that biography, the “Goeden,” are displayed on hanging scrolls in Nishi Hongwanji during the Ho’on-ko week.  

This training is the time when they test your ability to share your space and time, put other people first, and be under some pressure. This is the time when you test how you can adjust, listen, and do what you are told.  

Our living conditions at Nishiyama were very different from what we were used to. But human life changes in an instant because of wars, natural disasters, illness, death of a loved one, or other reasons. Many millions of people on Earth right now would give anything for being able to sleep in a warm safe place, have an unlimited supply of clean water, and food put in front of them three times a day. 

Shinran Shonin’s life changed dramatically when he entered priesthood at nine, left Mount Hiei at the age of 29, went into exile and learned to be a villager at 35, left the countryside and returned to Kyoto in his 60s. As his path was taking sharp turns, he had to adjust and learn to live with others. The founder gave us more than the teaching. His image with a staff and villager’s hat is a symbol of his path of a lifelong seeker — neither a lay man nor a monk — the path that granted us this unique opportunity to be following Buddhism without having to leave the worldly life.

Shinran Shonin was profoundly influenced by Master Shan-tao whose words he quoted extensively including the two aspects of deeply entrusting mind in the chapter on Shinjin of “Kyogyoshinsho”: 

“One is to believe deeply and decidedly that you are a foolish being of karmic evil caught in birth-and-death, ever sinking and ever wandering in transmigration from innumerable kalpas in the past, with never a condition that would lead to emancipation. The second is to believe deeply and decidedly that Amida Buddha’s Forty-eight Vows grasp sentient beings, and that allowing yourself to be carried by the power of the Vow without any doubt or apprehension, you will attain birth.”   

This is the statement of faith and salvation, as well as of the reality of a human life. We make mistakes, judge, discriminate, and do things that we are not proud of. Sometimes conditions of our world simply do not allow for a good decision, or action. What happens due to our foolishness, ego, and attachments often cannot be redone. 

In this training, we were so far from perfect — chanting out of tune, forgetting the proper rituals, and making hundreds of other mistakes. I felt inept and foolish more than ever before, but at the same time, closer to the Buddha than ever before. Miraculously, when you are exactly where you are supposed to be trying to do your best and be in harmony with others, things fall into places. The Hongwanji patiently corrected our mistakes and accepted us the way we were.  

We have been honored on multiple occasions in this 11-day training. We have not done anything yet to deserve that. Tokudo ordination is not an award for something you have done. It is an opportunity to begin living up to everything that is symbolized by the wisteria crest embroidered on your o’kesa.  

The training is over, and we say “Goodbye” to Nishiyama. We are back to the office of Hongwanji International Center where we change out of our robes back into everyday clothes. I have been allowed to wear this robe during many sessions at the Jodo Shinshu Center and in Nishiyama for training. Today, Dec. 16, 2023, is the first day that I officially have a right to wear it, and I am in no rush to take it off. I have the rest of my life to prove that I deserve to be wearing it.     


Namo Amida Butsu


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