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‘Yasashii’ and ‘Kibishii’: In Memory of Rev. Tetsunen Hirota

We recently lost one of our veteran retired ministers, Rev. Tetsunen Hirota. Allow me to share my message that I gave at his funeral.

I have a special connection to Rev. Hirota, as he served as a minister at my home temple, the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple in Ontario, Oregon. Rev. Hirota served there when I was a teenager in my high school years. My parents were good friends with the Hirotas, and had dinner at their home on many occasions.

After spending five years in Japan studying Buddhism for the ministry, I came to have a real appreciation for the ministers who came from Japan to serve in America. They had to give sermons in English, leave their motherland, and work with both Japanese-speaking and English-speaking members. When I was younger, I was more critical of the broken English of the ministers from Japan.

But after I went to Japan to study for the ministry, I had a new appreciation for our Issei ministers and ministers who came from Japan. I could not read Japanese, write Japanese, or speak Japanese. I felt like a complete idiot. In my first two years in Japan, I was basically totally lost. I thought, “How did the Issei ministers do it?” Giving sermons in English every Sunday, going to meetings, talking with members — “How did they do it?” I realized that Issei ministers, like Rev. Hirota, even with their broken English, had a much higher command of English than I had of the Japanese language.

I have no memories of Sensei’s sermons in Japanese when I was growing up because I didn’t understand Japanese at all when I was young, but after studying in Japan, and becoming a minister at Orange County Buddhist Church, Rev. Hirota once gave a sermon in Japanese as a guest speaker that I have never forgotten.

Sensei talked about these two terms in Japanese — “yasashii” and “kibishii.” They are contrasting terms. “Yasashii” means to be gentle or to be lenient. “Kibishii” is the opposite. It means to be stern, to be tough, to be harsh. For example, growing up, maybe your mother was more lenient on you, but your father was more strict or tough. Or, maybe it was the other way around. Maybe mom was more “kibishii” and dad was more “yasashii.”

Rev. Hirota explained Shinran Shonin’s character and spirituality in a manner that I had never heard before, using these two terms.

Sensei said that Shinran Shonin was a person who was “yasashii,” or gentle and easy on others, but was very “kibishii,” harsh or strict on himself. Sensei also explained that we are the opposite. We are harsh on others, but we are easy on ourselves. We are quick to criticize others, to blame others, especially when things go wrong, but when it comes to ourselves, we think, “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything wrong. It was that person’s fault.” Shinran Shonin, however, was most critical of himself. His writings are a reflection of his deep self-introspection and self-reflection.

I had never heard Shinran Shonin characterized in this manner and so Sensei’s message really struck me. It made me think about how many times in my life I have been “kibishii” with others and “yasashii” on myself. I should be harder on myself and easier on others. That is the spirit and character of Shinran Shonin.

It was an honor and privilege to officiate the funeral of a minister who had given over 40 years of his life to share the Dharma, to share the teachings in this country. I will never forget that wonderful message from Rev. Hirota on Shinran Shonin and how he was hardest on himself and was easy on others as opposed to being harder on others and easy on himself.


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