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Listening Is Essential: In Memory of Rev. LaVerne Sasaki

I first met Rev. LaVerne Senyo Sasaki when I was a junior or senior in high school. When I was in high school, our Jr. YBA from Ontario, Oregon, took a trip to visit YBA groups and temples in California.


We stayed overnight at the Mountain View Buddhist Temple, where Rev. Sasaki was serving. Rev. Sasaki had a discussion session with us. He taught us how to do walking meditation while reciting the Nembutsu. I have never forgotten it.


Years after that, I enrolled at IBS in Berkeley, and had Rev. Sasaki as one of my teachers. At that time, many of the BCA ministers in the area were the instructors at IBS. Rev. Sasaki taught a class on Genshin, the sixth of the seven masters, and the author of the “Ojoyoshu.”


For Rev. Sasaki’s Ingo, which I presented at his funeral service on April 30, I took one character from the title of that work, the “Ojoyoshu,” which can be translated as the “Essentials for Birth in the Pure Land.”


The character for “yo” of “Ojoyoshu” means “essential, or necessary.” I added to that, the character of “mon,” to listen. I would translate Sensei’s Ingo as “To listen to the Dharma is essential.”


Listening is essential in Shin Buddhism. It is everything. We listen, and listen, and listen. We listen from our earliest years in Dharma School till the very end of our lives.


Rev. Sasaki was a real listener of the Dharma. I found this to be true, especially after he retired. From time to time, there would be special lectures at the Jodo Shinshu Center by visiting professors from Ryukoku University or when the ministers held their summer fuken or continuing education lectures. We made it a point to invite retired ministers to those lectures. Rev. Sasaki never missed a one.


He would sit in the front row with his notebook, and when it came to the question-and-answer period, he always had a question. To be honest, sometimes he sort of dominated the Q-and-A sessions with his own questions, but I often thought to myself, “I wonder if I will attend and listen to lectures like Rev. Sasaki when I retire?” Maybe not. I will probably choose to go golfing or make up some kind of excuse. Real listeners of the Dharma don’t make excuses like that. They take advantage of every opportunity to listen and to learn.


That is the lesson that Rev. Sasaki leaves us, leaves me, to become a true listener of the Dharma. Even if we do not become a listener like him, we must find the time to listen at some time in our life. This spirit of listening then extends to our everyday life. We can meet people and listen to their stories of their lives and their life experiences. We can listen to a bartender or an Uber driver and learn something from them. The more we listen, the more we want to listen, the more we want to learn. We come to find that it is not really work to listen. It is not a burden. It is not a chore. It can even become the greatest joy of our lives to listen.

I knew an elderly lady who attended service every Sunday without fail. In her senior years, she had become very hard of hearing, and really couldn’t even hear the sermons at all on Sundays. A person could think, “Why does she continue to attend if she cannot hear the message?” but this elderly lady told me that she kept coming to services because she loved to see the Sangha and to see the Dharma School children.


Although she could not hear the words in the service, she learned how to listen in other ways, not through her ears, but through her eyes and through her entire being. It was still a great joy for her to attend services and to listen beyond words, beyond sound. What a wonderful listener she was.


In paying my deepest respects to Rev. LaVerne Sasaki, may we also be taught to listen to the Dharma, not only with our ears, but with our entire being.


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