Meeting Amida Buddha’s Light in the Sangha ; Report of the 23rd Shokai Retreat

A gentle and peaceful light embraced the proceedings of the 23rd Shokai and was remarked upon by many of the participants. I cannot help but believe that it was the samādhi of Shakyamuni’s disciple Good Nun Wonderful Seed (the late Mrs Hiroko Sato), lingering softly upon the Sangha and showing us how to go forward in her physical absence. Namuamidabutsu.

At the opening ceremony of the retreat Dr Christopher Duxbury gave the traditional Talk of Vow. He spoke movingly of how, coming to Buddha-dharma only in his middle age, he had thought that it would be impossible for him to engage with it seriously as anything more than a sort of hobby. After visiting Shogyoji with Dharma friends, however, he came to realise that Buddha-dharma is not a matter of gathering knowledge but a process of awakening to one’s ignorance and to the truth of life. As such he now feels able to go forward with confidence and joy on the nembutsu way.

Rev. Kemmyo Taira Sato, said that Christopher’s Talk of Vow was wonderful and contained “everything relating to the subject of the retreat, namely ‘Meeting Amida Buddha’s Light in the Sangha’”. Kemmyo-sensei told us that the Sangha is not simply a ‘Buddhist community’. He said that the Buddha is the one who is awakened to the truth of life, the Dharma is the truth of life he was awakened to, and the Sangha is the manifestation of the Dharma that is itself formless. To be welcomed into the Sangha means that we are already embraced in the truth of life. If we do not realise this point we cannot truly appreciate the profundity of the Sangha. Sharing a story from his own youth, Kemmyo-sensei told us that if we feel something wonderful, that gives us a sense of direction, we should take it seriously and also not forget that is a gift from the Buddha.

During the course of the weekend there were several Zadan meetings where we shared our impressions and feelings about the retreat theme. Unfortunately there were too many wonderful points to report here, but a few of them were as follows… Mr Sam Kelly spoke of how he notices that when he is with other members of the Sangha, “my mind empties out naturally and that helps me to listen better. It gives me some space inside and I can have a beginner’s mind.”  Tina said that Hiroko-san had taught her not to worry if she couldn’t understand the teachings. She said that Hiroko-san told her that the word ‘Understanding’ shows us that the teaching reaches us from underneath or beyond our own thoughts and feelings. Rev. Kenshin Ishii welcomed Tina’s comment and pointed out that although the students who attended the recent Spring School didn’t ask Prof. White to explain his words, “everything we see is an illusion” they came to realise it very naturally when – reading the Sutra on the Importance of What Has Been Done for us by Our Parents – they found that they had been completely unaware of how much their existence was upheld by their parents’ love and support.

On the Saturday, Mr Andrew Webb – a trustee and long-term member of Three Wheels sangha – gave a talk based on his own impressions of the retreat theme. He said that it was not an easy talk to give but that he managed to do it by imagining himself writing a letter to his Dharma friends. In his talk he shared many wonderful reflections but in particular he spoke of how the self-reflection of the Spring School students “started to form cracks” in the “hard casing around my heart surface” that “gradually became deeper and wider”. Through this experience he came to realise that he had “been judging and discriminating” between his parents’ love when in fact, “although they manifest themselves differently, they are both in oneness.” “Thanks to this Spring School,” he said, “I was able to say thank to my [late] father with a very new feeling of appreciation for his parental love towards me…. Now I can be certain through my encounter with Sangha, that my father’s love has always accepted me despite my lack of respect and gratitude to him.”

Andrew also spoke about how when he noticed some ‘gap’ between his life away from the temple and his life in Sangha, he tried to understand this problem by thinking about what was different. However, he said that “the more I struggled to remember, the more I found myself falling into the same [difficulty]”. Happily, while preparing his talk, he discovered that it was not necessary for him to understand the difference and that all he needs to be aware of is “that my mind could change simply through being in Sangha.” “To come to Three Wheels and sit on the same floor where we are now, despite all those nagging doubts and hesitations that constantly overcome my mind, is to be welcomed and accepted by Amida Buddha. [When I came to realise this] the feeling of separation naturally turned into the warmth of spiritual encounter.”

Aside from Andrew, all of the Dharma friends present contributed in their own ways to the retreat, both spiritually and practically, but it was particularly wonderful to see the flourishing of the newer members of the Sangha. For example, Mr Martin Lau, who chaired the chanting lesson for the first time, brought both sincerity and humour in equal measure to all his contributions. He said, “the sangha is more important than I realised. Sensei mentioned positive experiences which should be taken seriously. However I don’t take things seriously but tend to throw them away, and I consider the negative bad karma I’m bathing in as real. Now I am realising that, what you are saying, is that it’s the other way around. The small anomalies [in my experience] are the real thing.”

Finally, writing from my own personal point of view, the culmination and first Dharma fruition of the retreat, was Ms Kei Suzuki’s decision to go to Shogyoji for an introspection session. She said, “Thank you Sensei for teaching me about the happiness that comes from appreciation and gratitude at being born into this world. I thank you all for your kindness. I now realise I came to London with darkness in my heart and was closer to death than to life. I can’t find enough words to say how wonderful it is to be in this sangha. Since Hiroko san passed away it has been firm in my mind to do Chomon (introspection session).”

For me, this prayer or wish of Kei-san, indicates a manifestation of Good Nun Wonderful Seed’s virtue-transference into the midst of our grieving Sangha. Just as it is now Spring in the saha world, so too are there signs of a spiritual Spring after the Winter of our sorrow.

With respect and gassho,

Andy Barritt