Report on the 25th Shokai Retreat “What have I been feeling recently?”

The 25th Shokai was entirely different in its form to all the previous retreats as it was held entirely online due to the pandemic. However, I am very grateful to report that the depth of spiritual introspection and communication between all the participants was as profound as if we were all meeting together in the Buddha-room at Three Wheels. The Shokai was condensed into three meetings held over the weekend of 25-26 April 2020 and a total of 19 people participated using video and audio calls.

From the Buddha-room at Three Wheels, Rev. Kemmyo Taira Sato and Rev. Kenshin Ishii led the opening service of chanting the Shoshinge. Everybody was able to join in facing towards the Buddha from their own homes. Despite us all being located over a very wide geographical distance, though the shared service to the Buddha, it felt like we were all together in oneness before the Buddha-shrine at Three Wheels.

Before the Shokai we were all invited to reflect on the question, “What have I been feeling recently?” taking in mind Ven. Chimyo Takehara’s advice that Dharma-friends could use this period of  social distancing and isolation  to “turn within”. We shared this homework together at the first faith-meeting (zadankai) held immediately after the opening service. Everybody gave their own unique impression about what they had been feeling since the country became locked down as a result of the pandemic.

The range of emotions and feelings the participants described ranged from fear, anger, and deep sadness to gratitude and happiness. Worries were expressed about close family and friends and the effect social isolation was having on their lives.  One participant described how each day his “believing mind easily evaporated” as he became involved with the stresses and problems of everyday life, “But I know that it is only my blind passions clouding my mind, and that I have the Three Treasures to take refuge in and bring me back to the truth”.

Another Dharma-friend described how the teachings she had received from Shogyoji and Three Wheels had become the most important source of direction in her life. “It is purely because of receiving the Dharma”, she related, “that I can look into myself however difficult it may be to do so”. At the conclusion of the meeting Rev. Ishii asked us to relax, digest all the words that we had received from our Dharma-friends and look into ourselves before coming back to listen to Rev. Sato’s Dharma-talk that afternoon.

Rev. Sato’s Dharma talk consisted of three parts; his translation and commentary on a letter by Rennyo Shonin entitled, ‘On an Epidemic’,  reading a special letter from Ven. Chimyo Takehara, the Head Priest of Shogyoji, and Rev. Sato’s own free talk on the contents of Ven. Takehara’s letter.

Rev. Sato’s commentary on the letter by Rennyo Shonin was entitled, ‘The Shin Buddhist attitude towards death’, and he made clear to us the essential points of this letter written in 1492, when Japan was suffering an very serious epidemic which killed a great number of people. Many people blamed evil spirits or the flow of bad air for the spreading the disease and were very superstitious about the reasons for the epidemic. In this letter Rennyo Shonin encouraged everyone to recognise the truth of impermanence, in which disease is only one of the unavoidable karmic conditions that inevitably lead to our death. 

Rev. Sato then emphasised how Rennyo Shonin, in the second part of the letter, taught us that faced with impermanence, “we should entrust ourselves to Amida Buddha and continue living our lives with gratitude to him for all that he has done for us”. We could strongly feel through listening to Rev. Sato  that, faced with such turmoil in the world around us,and the ever present risk of death, it is only through entrusting ourselves to Amida Buddha that we can find true and lasting spiritual peace.

Though separated by 500 years in time, Ven. Takehara’s letter to Dharma-friends entitled, ‘Facing the turmoil of the Corona virus’ was equally concerned with our spiritual condition during a time when our lives have been completely changed through an epidemic. Ven. Takehara began by reflecting on the nature of viruses and how they interact with their environments, noting that viruses which colonise different hosts for its own survival are, “very like us human beings whose hearts are likewise filled with never-ending desires”. He then went on to encourage us to receive the Buddha’s teaching, “in a truly personal way, as if receiving the light of the full moon from beyond the realm of phenomena”.

Reflecting on Ven. Takehara’s description of the corona virus as having no membrane to protect it, Rev. Sato remarked that, although our consciousness is surrounded by the hard skin of our self-centredness ,because everything is interrelated, we are easily influenced by others and  can react very badly when our self-centred world is disturbed. “Whilst sitting in mediation and thinking about Ven. Takehara’s words”, Rev Sato continued, “I saw how I was in a bad condition, similar to that of a virus.  The problem of our consciousness is that we believe everything we feel is permanent and true. The only way is to go beyond this self-attachment is take refuge and entrust ourselves to the Buddha. Receiving this letter from Ven. Takehara my sadness turned into happiness. Everything becomes one in Namu Amida Butsu. I hope such a wonderful world will be born after this epidemic.”

Responding to Rev. Sato’s talk, Rev. Ishii commented that, “Our bad karma, just like the Corona virus, will always be with us. However, although we are still waiting for a vaccine for the Corona virus, we already have the Dharma, which is the only cure for the activity of my blind passions. This light of the Buddha, shining in our hearts, is the spiritual activity we are all waiting to receive.”  After a period of free discussion, we all went away to look into ourselves in the light of the talks we had received today and prepare our impressions for the final faith-meeting on Sunday morning.

After a short period of meditation we began the final meeting of this Shokai in which we shared our thoughts and feelings about the retreat and how our minds had changed as a result of listening to our Dharma-friends. Here are some of the impressions that were given:

How much free will do we have over our karma? I have had this question since the first Shokai I attended last year. Now I have fewer questions and more faith in the Buddha’s teaching.

The value of Sangha, our spiritual community, is that we are on the Pure Land path together sharing great encounters, learning from and supporting each other.

I felt like Rennyo Shonin was pointing me away from worrying and anger towards the Buddha-Dharma. It reminded to focus on what is important – my family, friends and Sangha. I know when we finally get back together I will appreciate Three Wheels much more than before and not take it for granted.

Through Sangha I came to feel very strongly that my self, my true self, is not something  I own but beyond me, in my friends, in the world and in the hands of the Buddha.

My karma is so strong and heavy that it was only when I was forced to face the risk to my husband’s life that I could truly feel grateful to him. I am full of karma, an imperfect self, but Namu Amida Butsu guides me.

Sitting in meditation before the meeting I realised that I have never sat still in silence in my own house. I felt more content that I have before. After hearing everyone’s homework and seeing the Buddha Shrine I felt a great sense of relief. Being brought up at Three Wheels I feel I could not have had a better start in life.

Despite our physical distance and the many worries we have all been feeling in our lives due to social isolation, I felt how much this Shokai brought us closer together as a Sangha. I am very grateful that through Shokai being held as an online meeting, this very special faith-movement we have received from Shogyoji Temple could continue and show us the light of the Buddha-Dharma in such dark times.  Thank you very much to Shogyoji Temple and to Three Wheels for sharing with us the inconceivable gift of the Buddha-Dharma.

Andrew Webb