Prince Shotoku and Shinran Shonin – Report on the 27th Shokai Retreat

The 27th Shokai was held between 24th and 25th of April 2021, with the participants joining the priests and residents of Three Wheels online. Due to this, even a great distance was not a barrier to taking part in the retreat, with Max N joining from his home in Hong Kong. The theme of the Shokai was Shinran Shonin and Prince Shotoku which was chosen as this year marks the 1,400th anniversary memorial of the death of Prince Shotoku.

Preceding the Shokai, four zadankai meetings were held on consecutive weeks to prepare our minds for the retreat through discussions on its theme. We were all very grateful to our Dharma-friend Andy B, who created a special webpage we could access which compiled these writings of Shinran Shonin together with other Dharma talks, letters and sayings related to Prince Shotoku. We learnt that Prince Shotoku was deeply revered by Shinran Shonin as a manifestation of the Buddha due to everything he did to establish Buddhism in Japan and create a harmonious society that had taking refuge in Buddha as its very foundation.

One of the most important themes which emerged from our conversations and personal introspection on Prince Shotoku was ‘harmony’. We talked about when we have most felt harmony in our lives and how can we learn to harmonise with others, particularly in difficult relationships and problematic circumstances. Sharing stories about our own joy and happiness in encountering our own good teachers and friends in the Sangha, we reflected on the joy and reverence Shinran Shonin felt towards Prince Shotoku.

As a person whose understanding of Prince Shotoku was only as a very distant historical figure it was very difficult to find any overlap between my feeling and the words of Shinran Shonin. However, through our conversations about our own individual encounters with Shogyoji temple and Three Wheels, I could begin to take into my heart glimpses of why Shinran Shonin deeply revered Prince Shotoku as a great Bodhisattva, without whom it would not have been possible for him to encounter the Buddha-Dharma in the time and place he was born.

For the first meeting of the Shokai itself, we each gave our impressions of what we had received from participating in the zadankai meetings or felt from personal reflection on the life and teachings of Prince Shotoku. The meeting was warmly chaired by Mr Andy B who created a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere for everyone to speak comfortably in. It was very moving to realise how deeply Rev. Sato and Rev. Ishii listened to everyone words, through hearing the heartfelt personal advice and encouragement they gave to each individual after hearing them speak.

One young Dharma-friend and resident of Three Wheels, Ms Hitoe H, who was joining Shokai for the first time, expressed her sincere thanks to Rev. Sato for his suggestion that the time was now right for her to join the Shokai meeting and described how her first real encounter with Buddhism was after Mrs Hiroko Sato’s passing. After Mrs Sato told Hitoe on her deathbed that she would be waiting for her in the Pure Land, she “strongly felt the Buddha’s existence” for the first time in her life.

Mr Christopher D, reflecting on Prince Shotoku’s words that, “The world is empty and transitory, the Buddha alone is true”, told us that he had experienced the most peace in life when he has been able to “surrender his strong opinions and embrace the Nenbutsu”. He also expressed his awareness that, “because of my self-centeredness, I find myself often losing sight of this embrace and my blind passions take over”.

Ms Kei S, spoke of how she was moved through reading about Ven. Daigyoin’s profound awareness of peace in the outside world beings only possible through individual cultivation of inner peace and said, “By learning about Daigyoin-sama’s reverence for Prince Shotoku, I felt we are receiving Prince Shotoku’s unconditional love by being in the Three Wheels Sangha. Sadly, I only have space to report on these three impressions, however I felt illuminated by each person’s who spoke during the meeting. Each reflection was unique in its expression and they all harmonised so seamlessly together.

For the second meeting held on Saturday afternoon, Rev. Ishii delivered a Dharma-talk entitled, Prince Shotoku and His Manifestations around Me. It was chaired by Mr Christopher D, who brought his characteristic energy and enthusiasm to the meeting. Prior to his talk, Rev. Ishii played to us a wonderfully atmospheric video entitled The Life of Prince Shotoku shown in his Illustrated Biography which was produced by Shogyoji Temple for the recent 1.400 memorial services for Prince Shotoku. Through its use of images from the Illustrated Biography together with a very informative commentary, the video captured the essence of Prince Shotoku’s life and teachings.

Rev. Ishii’s talk was divided into three main parts: ‘Harmony and listening’, ‘Shinran Shonin’s encounter with Prince Shotoku’, and ‘Who are manifestations of Prince Shotoku, or Kannon Bodhisattva, in my life?’. Through the many examples Rev. Ishii gave from his own experiences of spiritual encounter and listening to the Dharma, its themes came alive in such a vivid and practical way that it was strongly encouraging. Rev. Ishii helped me think about all the Bodhisattva’s who have appeared throughout my life in order to support and protect me on the way to the Pure Land.

This came across particularly powerfully when Rev. Ishii talked about how his relationship to Prof. John White had grown and developed over the fifteen years he had been living in London. Initially Rev. Ishii had felt Prof. White due to his age and strong character to be a “man of stubbornness”. However, through being given lots of opportunities during the pandemic to know Prof. White more deeply, and learning more about the history of Prof. White’s encounter with Ven. Chimyo Takehara and the Shogyoji Temple Sangha, Rev. Ishii had become awakened to Prof White’s “pure compassion”.  Rev. Ishii movingly told us, “I realised that John is a manifestation of Prince Shotoku and they became one in my mind beyond space and time.”.

Responding to Rev. Ishii’s talk, Mr Andy B looked back at his own relationship to Prof. White and the past difficulties he had in relating to Prof. White’s indomitable character. Over the years, however, Andy had come to realise that Prof. White is a person of integrity who refuses to settle for the kind of fake harmony that is mere superficial conformity and always seeks the truth through sincere encounter. Rev. Sato expressed his joy and gratitude at hearing how Rev. Ishii and Andy had cleared all the barriers in their respective relationships to Prof. White. Rev. Sato felt their re-encounters with Prof White was a matter of great importance for the future of the Sangha.

At the third and final meeting of the Shokai held on Sunday morning, each of the participants shared their thoughts and feelings about the entire retreat. The time we could spend together at Shokai was short, but the introspection shared by each member of the retreat seemed to have boundless depths. To one Dharma-friend who expressed her anxiety that her grandfather may not have felt the joy and peacefulness of settled faith in his last days, Rev. Sato gently corrected her by reminding her that Amida’s Vow embraces everyone without any form of discrimination. Saving people is Amida’s business not ours, he said. Your grandfather, he impressed upon her, was a Bodhisattva protecting you on your way to the Pure Land.

Mr Andy B expressed his joy at feeling “entirely dazzled by the pure, healing light of the Buddha, shining through my teacher’s words and form”. Dave Z shared that the way Dharma-friends encounter each is connected to the loving compassion of Prince Shotoku which has inspired him to look at people in his life in a different light. Mr Max N said that, “every interpersonal encounter, seen properly, is the Buddha reaching out trying so settle my faith”. Mr Chris D described how he is starting to discover the oneness of the Sangha through the differences of each individual. This has led him to appreciate Three Wheels’ founding principle of ‘Harmony within Diversity’. Mrs Kaori P spoke of her gratitude at being surrounded by so many good teachers within the Sangha and Mrs Sanae Ishii said that, “Prince Shotoku illumined me clearly saying ‘you are supported by many Bodhisattvas around you’.

To close the meeting, Rev. Sato reminded us of a passage in Rev. Ishii’s talk which recounted Prof. White’s first encounter with Ven. Chimyo Takehara at Shogyoji. Prof. White had told Ven. Takehara that he had come to Shogyoji, not as a representative of University College London, but as an individual who is seeking the truth with the sincerest wish of making the world a better place for people of the present and the future. The words, “for the future” brought to Rev. Sato’s mind the section of the Larger Sutra of Eternal Life in which Ananda, after seeing the Light shining from Shakyamuni Buddha’s face, asks why he looked so radiant. The Buddha then praised Ananda for his question which will give all beings what is true and real. In the same way, Prof White’s first encounter with Ven. Takehara had brought what is true and real, the Nenbutsu, to the present and future members of the Three Wheels Sangha. With Rev. Sato reading the passage from the Larger Sutra in full, our final meeting of this, the 27th Shokai, closed.

At this Shokai, the fundamental teachings of Prince Shotoku that harmony is fundamental and only the Buddha is true and real, shone through everything. I am deeply grateful to all of my Dharma-friends who through their sincere way of listening to the Buddha-Dharma supported and encouraged me to look into myself; to Rev. Sato and Rev. Ishii who have always been selflessly and patiently teaching me, especially waiting for the right moments in my life to show me the light of the Buddha-Dharma; and to Ven. Chimyo Takehara, Bomori-sama and everyone at Shogyoji who are constantly and without any hesitation making the wonderful gift of the Buddha-Dharma possible to receive through their boundless kindness.

Andrew Webb