"A Once-In-A-Lifetime Experience"
It was in 2001, that a small group of members from the Sacramento Betsuin joined together to begin studying Buddhism and the Dharma under the guidance of Rinban Kosho Yukawa and Reverend Bob Oshita. The group consisted of Michiko Yukawa, Patti Oshita, Grace Hatano, Koichi Mizushima, and Tim and Carol Castle.
The group began meeting every couple of weeks or so, and over time began to model its focus on the requirements for Tokudo Ordination. The group took its studies deeper and deeper into the history and teachings of Buddhism, the life of Shinran Shonin, sutra chanting, naijin ettiquette, caring for the altar, etc. At the time, I don’t think any of us realized the impact that these sessions would have on us down the road, or that we would actually travel to Japan one day to receive Tokudo!
The bi-weekly sessions were wonderful – Rinban Yukawa and Rev. Bob are so knowledgeable and so generous in sharing their knowledge that the time would just fly by!! We had such great discussions that the teachings, history and the stories just came to life!
Due to his successful restaurant business and not enough hours in a day, Koichi was unable to continue studying with the group. The remaining members pressed on, and toward the end of 2002 decided to actively pursue Tokudo Ordination. In June of 2003, an orientation session was held at BCA Headquarters in San Francisco. It was the first time that the 16 candidates from the U.S. would meet and learn more about the preparation and expectations of the Tokudo session in Japan. Through lectures, services, practice sessions, etc. we got a taste of what was to come. We really began to realize what we were facing and where to focus our energies. We also began to feel the weight of all the learning and memorization that still had to be done before October!
The intensity of our studies increased. I’m not sure about the others, but I kept thinking, “The more I learn...the less I know! YIKES!” Thank goodness we had such great support! Reverend Torimi from Placer Buddhist Church came out one evening to help us with Naijin etiquette and how to tie and fold robes, and Rev. Kaz spent time with us answering all of our questions about the Tokudo experience and helping us fine-tune our chanting. The group really worked hard, and even though our stress levels increased as the weeks went by, the energy was always positive and supportive! Michiko made flashcards to help us learn all the pieces of the altar and presented each of us with our own monogrammed furoshiki that she made, Grace used her sewing talents to make some of our undergarments for the robes, Patti coordinated the arrangements and kept us all informed, and Carol and Tim made portable study guides to help everyone study anytime…anywhere (in the car…on a boat…on the plane…even hiking up to Half Dome in Yosemite!) You get a lot of interesting stares when you’re sitting in commute traffic chanting the Shoshinge – that’s when you realize it’s probably a good idea to roll up the window!
The big day finally came and we set off for Japan via San Francisco. It’s amazing how small a 777 jumbo jet can get after 11 hours!! We arrived in Osaka without a hitch and spent the first couple of days settling in – including taking the final fittings of our robes at a local robe shop that made Nordstrom’s seem like self-serve.
The first couple of days were very exciting -- there were so many things that were new and different, and we couldn’t wait to get started! After a few days, the 16-hour time difference kicked in, and on top of the 17-hour days and the 3 hours a night of sleep we were getting thanks to jet lag, we started to have a feeling of constantly being a little off-balance. Personally, I had to really concentrate on everything -- from the obvious things that you would expect like cultural and language differences, to silly little things like getting dressed in the morning, and trying to remember which slippers to wear inside vs. outside vs. walking to the showers vs. going to the toilet! The little voice inside my head began to say, ”Wow, if I have to think this hard on the everyday stuff …how in the world am I going to be able to remember everything we’re learning in the classes, services and lectures? How am I going to make it through the next 10 days? YIKES!”
The schedule was rigorous, fast-paced and non-stop. Our days typically began at 5 a.m. and included conducting three services (early morning, afternoon, and evening), 2-3 lecture and/or discussion sessions with various university scholars and experts from the Hongwanji, one-on-one tests called Kadai, toban duties (such as cleaning, serving meals, etc.), liturgy practice, and (of course) studying. Meals were eaten in silence, and no matter how much you hurried…you were always late! Most nights, we would collapse in bed around 12:30 with the sound of the Shoshinge or Ryogemon echoing through our heads from the late-night practice sessions.
The participants were a very diverse group of people in terms of age, race, and background. In addition to the participants from the BCA, there were individuals from Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, Germany, Australia, Romania and Iceland. There were folks ranging in age from their 20’s up to 80 with a wide variety of backgrounds. Some have devoted their academic careers to the study of Buddhism and others were raised in the tradition. Several hope to become Kaikyoshi (overseas ministers), and others plan to assist their temples in addition to their professional careers. The one thing that we all shared regardless of our backgrounds and experience was our level of dedication.
The staff at the Hongwanji International Center worked extremely hard and went out of their way to make the Foreigner Tokudo session very special. One memorable experience was a unique and rare glimpse behind the scenes in the Hall of Amida Buddha (Amidado). We were given the opportunity to go into the yoma, or side area of the naijin. To be that close to such beauty and history on such a large scale left many of us speechless!
And speaking of speechless, that’s what we were the first time we dressed in the formal, black robe called the kokue, and the black and white wagesa. When you see yourself for the first time like that, you realize that for the next 11 days, the ‘you’ that drives the kids to school, goes to work, cooks dinner, pays the bills etc. is getting put on hold. That for the next 11 days, the ‘you’ that you’ll be spending every single moment with, is the one that has been given a wonderful, rare opportunity to completely focus…and learn…and listen…and reflect…and experience the dharma in a way that is almost indescribable.
I think we all reached the end of the session feeling exhausted (mentally and physically) and more than a little relieved that we made it. But in addition to that, I think we all left with a deep feeling of gratitude and fulfillment. So much goes through your mind during the 10-day session -- especially during the final Tokudo ordination ceremony, which was extremely moving. It’s a little hard to put it into words, but while many things have changed for us individually as a result of this experience, I can’t help but think that this is only the beginning.
It is with a deep sense of gratitude that we would like to thank Rinban Yukawa, Reverend Bob and our family and friends! Without your dedication, generosity and support, we would never have had this wonderful once-in-a-lifetime experience! For that we are eternally grateful!
The 2003 Tokudo Group
Carol & Tim Castle, Grace Hatano, Patti Oshita, Michiko Yukawa