Emptiness and Gratitude Report on the 141st London Eza

Following the close of the 22nd Shokai retreat the participants gathered, along with around ten additional guests, to pay respects to Shinran Shonin through the annual Hoonko Otorikoshi ceremony. Although the gathering was relatively small for a London Eza the atmosphere was bright and warm, and the chanting strong and supple, supported by the youthful voices of the teenagers and young children.

Following the service, Rev. Kemmyo Taira Sato gave a talk on the subject of Emptiness and Gratitude. Re. Sato said that, due to editorial work, he only had two days in which to prepare the talk but that, nonetheless, he had been reflecting on the contents for over fifty years. In that sense, he noted, the talk represented only ‘the visible tip of an iceberg’.

In the talk Rev. Sato first explained the relationship between early Buddhism’s teaching on the Twelve-linked chain of dependent origination and the Mahayana philosophy of Emptiness. With regard to the former he noted that the critical relationship is between consciousness (subject) and name-and-form (object) which arise co-dependently and exist like two rush bundles, where if one falls then so does the other. The relationship between consciousness and name-and-form is therefore like an ‘empty of essence’ keystone which upholds the production of the whole chain of our apparent but illusory ‘reality’. Later Mahayana Buddhism, Rev. Sato added, applied this awareness to the apparent contents of the universe in order to clarify their “mutual interfusion with no impediment”.

Rev. Sato pointed out that personally realising the truth of Emptiness, or the co-dependent nature of reality, entails becoming aware of all that upholds our existence or all that has been done for us. On coming to this realisation we cannot but help feel filled with immense and overflowing gratitude. It is from this overflow of gratitude that we wish to make offerings to others and to the Buddha.

Bearing this in mind, Rev. Sato noted that the name of our temple, Three Wheels (jp. Sanrin Shoja), chosen by Prof. White and Ven. Chimyo Takehara, and taken from a phrase in an Emptiness-themed sutra, refers to the relationship between Emptiness, gratitude and offering. As Prof. White’s poem, framed on the wall of Three Wheels, expresses it: “If the Gift itself is pure / given solely / for the giving, / without thought / of reward or return” then the giver, receiver and gift freely become one another and “out of diversity / unity and harmony / are born.” Later, Mr Duncan Kennedy commented that this part of Kemmyo-sensei’s talk “pointed directly” to his experience during the Shokai retreat when he asked a question and Mrs Hiroko Sato immediately gave him back another question which struck him “like a thunder bolt” and made him look much deeper within himself.

Rev. Sato’s talk also prompted Rev. Ishii to share his personal experience of being a spiritual mentor to a young student.. One day, he told us, he became aware of a gap between the good spiritual attitude the student showed to him in words, versus the careless and selfish behaviour the student showed toward others in practice. Frustrated Rev. Ishii went to see his master Goinge sama to ask his advice. Goinge-sama said, “Kenshin-san when you give an offering you can’t expect anything back or at that moment it will not be a pure offering.” Rev. Ishii added, “The dharma world is not a world of give and take. Just giving and giving, over and over.” This comment also reminded me of one Dharma friend’s words, at the earlier Shokai retreat, about his wife, “She empties herself in helping us. This is how Amida’s vow has been working for me.”

Rev. Sato’s talk was very profound and hard to fully understand but many of us felt that he was pointing us back to the original founding prayer of the Three Wheels sangha as expressed by Ven. Chimyo Takehara and manifested in the encounters between Mr Kenji Toda, Professor John White, Rev. Kemmyo Taira and many other people of various nationalities and backgrounds down to the present day. It could be said in fact that the 141st London Eza marked a thorough-going refreshment of the Shogyoji Dharma movement in the United Kingdom.

On this theme, Mr Andy Barritt remarked that usually new Three Wheels Dharma friends begin to participate in the practice of the sangha either through the Monday meditation class, or through joining the Sunday morning service to Amida Buddha. If their practice and faith develops, usually these people eventually come together as one stream at the biannual Shokai retreat. Andy said that these two ‘gateways’ to the sangha could be said to correspond to Zen (Meditation School) and Pure Land (Nembutsu School), or Emptiness and Gratitude. First Patriarch Nagarjuna’s emphasis on the co-dependent interrelationship and unity of Emptiness and Gratitude, further brought out and clarified by Shinran Shonin, can therefore be seen to be a living reality in this small island of ours.

In conclusion, it does not seem an exaggeration to say that the 141st London Eza and the 22nd Shokai were like a sort of silent thunderclap which shook the dust from our eyes and showed us, briefly, Amida’s Buddhafield. This was vividly reflected in the words of Mrs Hiroko Sato who said, “Everything is so very fresh and new as if I attending for the first time. Thank you for allowing me to join you. I live in my own world taking everything for granted, not noticing so much, and only when unexpected things happen do I notice. I have no choice to live in such an unstable world but through being in sangha I can see each person shining in their own colours, coming here for me.”

‘Each person shining in their own colours, coming here for me,’ must surely be a vision of the Bodhisattva return or All-Buddha’s praising Amida’s Name. Meeting this shining reality another participant said, “It is so magical. You are like magical people.” Rev. Sato described this wonderful and inconceivable reality in the conclusion of his talk:

“On awakening to Amida’s great compassion that vows to save all sentient beings without any discrimination despite our irredeemable karma, we are simply impelled with whole-hearted repentance to follow his call, the command of unconditional love. Then, at that very moment we take refuge in Amida Buddha, we will find ourselves surrounded and protected by good friends, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, in the Dharma-world of interdependent mutual fusion with no obstruction.”


Andy B

9th October 2018