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The Importance of the Right Starting Point

I recently listened to a wonderful lecture by Michael Conway, who teaches Shin Buddhism at Otani University, the Higashi Honganji University in Kyoto, Japan. In that lecture, he talked about the importance of having the right starting point in Buddhism.

He pointed out that in Shin Buddhism, if we have the right starting point, that we will inevitably reach our true destination, which is the awakening of truth or enlightenment. Dr. Nobuo Haneda has also spoken of this same topic before as well.

I recall that the great Zen Master, Dogen, also said something very similar. Dogen said that the goal of enlightenment, and the path, are intimately connected. He pointed out that the goal is not something far, far away, but the goal is also right here and now, if we are on the path.

The path and the goal are not two separate things, or two separate points on one line. Dogen emphasized the path, rather than the goal. In Zen as well, if we have the right starting point, meaning, if we are truly on the path, then inevitably we will reach the goal.

I would have to say that a crucial starting point for me occurred when I was in college, when my closest friend, who happened to be a devout Christian, always wanted to talk about religion.

I was a typical “YBA kid” who had never studied, listened, or thought seriously about Buddhism before. I couldn’t answer any of his questions about Buddhism. It shook me up and made me realize that Buddhism was my family’s religion, but it wasn’t really mine.

My friend tried to convert me to Christianity, and in one sense, I was attracted to it. When I went with him to his church, people were very warm and friendly, and the atmosphere was very uplifting. I didn’t feel that at my home temple, but I didn’t know then that the whole approach to religion was quite different in Buddhism. There is an uplifting feeling in Buddhism, but it took me some time to find it.

Halfway through college I changed universities and majors, and began to study Buddhism at the University of Oregon. I had a wonderful professor, Professor Hee-Jin Kim, who taught classes on Buddhism and Eastern religions. From there, I went to IBS and met more wonderful teachers, like Rev. Haruyoshi Kusada. While at IBS, I met Professor Shigaraki, of Ryukoku University, who was there on sabbatical, and I resolved to go to Japan and study under him.

Before going to Japan, I spent nine months studying under Rev. Gyomay Kubose of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, who has influenced my ministry tremendously over the years. After spending five years in Japan, I was assigned to Orange County Buddhist Church, where the Sangha became my teachers.

One starting point in my life led me on a wonderful journey. As they say, “It’s all about the journey. It’s all about the path.”

Michael Conway, in his recent lecture, also pointed out that when Buddhism was transmitted to China, the Chinese Buddhists translated the term “bodhi” or “enlightenment,” as “the path,” or “the way” (道). Normally, one would think that they would translate “bodhi” as “enlightenment,” but they chose to translate it as “path.” This is a most revealing translation.

The Chinese got it right. Bodhi, or enlightenment, doesn’t mean a “thing” or an “event,” but it means “the path.” Here, too, it is all about the journey. Bodhi means the journey, the path to enlightenment. The most important thing about the path, is that one must truly be on it. In order to truly be on it, there must be a true starting point.

We must have a true starting point that propels us on the path. Once we are on the path, then the goal and the path become one, such that the path is the goal, and the goal is the path.


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