The Significance of the 49-Day Journey After Death

Last November marked the 40-year anniversary since I first became an overseas minister. Since then, I have spent these past several months reflecting on my various experiences throughout my journey as a Buddhist priest in the United States. It led me to realize that while I have much more that I wish to tell to you about Buddhism, there are also many concepts that need further explanation. One example that comes to mind is the importance of the 49th day memorial service for the deceased, which is specific to Buddhist traditions. Its significance is often times downplayed or even forgotten, when compared to the notion of holding funeral services. I wish to elaborate on this topic by briefly taking you through the 49-day journey of the deceased.

When an individual passes away, it is said that 49 nails are hammered into their body and soul, restraining both the physical body and soul from moving. Every seven days, starting from the day of the individual’s passing, until the 49th day, we hold memorial services for the individual. Seven nails will be removed every seventh day, until all 49 of these nails are removed, to ultimately free the deceased’s soul. On the 49th day, there will be a trial or hearing held in front of the so-called ”judge”, who will be standing in front of six gates, bearing no signs. However, we all know that each of these gates leads the individual to six possible realms of existence. These include hell, those of hungry spirits, animals, ashura, humans, or the heavenly beings. Everyone wants to either return as a human being, or enter the realm of heavenly beings. This judge in front of the six gates, will not guide this individual to the proper gate, but only instruct them to choose one. The individual will choose the gate based on what they may think is only instinct, yet this decision will also be guided by the actions that the individual took during their time on this earth.

While it may seem as if we take little part in the deceased individual’s 49-day journey, this is not the case. One way we can assist them, is by chanting ”Namu myo ho renge kyo”, which as you know, is the name of the Buddha nature that we all possess. We chant this odaimoku throughout the 49 days to call upon the deceased individual’s Buddha nature. If you recall, the Buddha nature can be imagined as the inside of a seed, while the outer shell represents bad karma resulting primarily from previous actions. Whenever we chant the odaimoku, the Buddha nature slowly grows. While this is a slow process, the more we chant, the more the Buddha nature shows, until it finally appears by sprouting through the outer shell. If the Buddha nature does not appear at the end of the 49 days, the individual will not be able to reach Enlightenment.

While death signifies the end of an individual’s time in this world, it does not mark the ultimate endpoint of their spirit. Please remember that your Buddhist practice can serve an important purpose in providing happiness for not only yourself, but also others, including the deceased.

Ven. Kenjo lgarashi
May 2016

The Meaning of Higan

Higan is the practice of leaving our deep attachments in order to reach the world of enlightenment. Specifically, Higan is a practice comprised by six components. They are: charity, observing precepts, perseverance, energy, meditation, and wisdom. There is a story I would like to share with you concerning this practice. In the 9th century, a monk named Kyoukai wrote a series of books called Nippon Reiiki. Spanning three volumes long, these books contained stories concerning his experiences that seemed to transcend the logic and understanding of this world. This particular story I would like to share with you comes from this book, in the second volume of the series in the 38th chapter.

During the era in which Emperor Shomu ruled, there was a monk who lived in a temple in the mountains of Maniwa, located in the city of Nara. That monk had told his disciples upon his deathbed, “After my death, you must not open the entrance to my room for three years.” Saying this, he passed away. Forty-nine days after his death, a venomous snake had appeared before the deceased monk’s door, coiled in place, refusing to move. The disciples quickly realized that this snake was the reincarnation of their master. By chanting towards the snake, the disciples were able to move it, and enter the monk’s room. In the room, the disciples discovered thirty kan (currency used at the time, equaling approximately $30,000 today) saved up and hidden away. Realizing that their master had reincarnated as a venomous snake to protect this money, the disciples used the money to invite many ministers and hold a memorial service for him.

Kyoukai realizes that this particular monk was so desperate to protect his money, that he reincarnated into a snake in order to protect it. Kyoukai says, “No matter how high the mountain, we are able to see its peak. The mountain residing in humans called greed however is so great, that we cannot see its peak.” In other words, the greed and desire residing in humans is so vast and ever-growing, that it has no limit. Higan is a very important practice which aims to rid this greed and desire within us.

Ven. Kenjo lgarashi
March 2016

Happy New Year everyone!

In Japan, it is customary to visit the temple on New Year’s Day and pray for your family’s health and happiness. In this newsletter, I would like to talk about the meaning of praying on New Year’s Day.

To celebrate the new year and to pray for peace, happiness, and health on New Year’s Day is called “shu shou e” in Japanese. The origins of this custom go back to Ancient China, where the ceremony was first practiced. The first written record of this ceremony in Japan is said to have been held at the temple built under the emperor of the time in AD759. After AD765, every prefecture had a big temple where these ceremonies could also be held. During that time, the people prayed for the country’s peace and also for good harvest.

In AD827 “shu shou e”, which had once been restricted to certain temples, was now publicly given permission to be practiced in several other temples. Through the centuries, it is said that people made a custom to practice “shu shou e” to mainly pray for one’s personal benefits. Aside from “shu shou e”, it was customary in every prefecture to pray every New Year’s Day at a local shrine. During the Edo Period (1600s), people started believing that by praying, they would be blessed with good luck and happiness.

In present day Japan, the “shu shou e” has been renamed “hatsu mou de” due to the incorporation of different styles of praying that have been practiced throughout Japanese history. In any case, the way that the people pray for peace and happiness has not changed. We will gain protection and benefits from the Buddha if we consciously hope for this peace and happiness and work towards achieving this goal.

At our temple, we have a purification service every month. By striving to attend the services and pray, you will be able to obtain benefits from the Buddha. Therefore, this year, let’s make an effort to attend these services as I will be purifying your family alters and praying for your family’s happiness from the temple at midnight on New Year’s Day.

Ven. Kenjo lgarashi
January 2016

The Propagation of Buddhism after the Death of Sakyamuni Buddha

One day a little boy was playing in the mud and saw the Sakyamuni Buddha walking by so he quickly prepared and offered him a mud pie. It is said that the little boy was reincarnated and became who is now known as Emperor Asoka.

While Buddhism is practiced by a many in the West, many Westerners fail to know or recognize the importance of Emperor Asoka (269-232 BCE), emperor of the Indian Mauryan Empire, known to have devoted his life and rule to the spread of Buddhism throughout his empire and eventually the world. Before Asoka’s reign, the Mauryan Empire had expanded as a result of killings and brutal conquest. Asoka himself would kill his 99 siblings and continue this brutal conquest, until the siege at Kalinga, an empire in central-east India, which became his last place of conquest. From that moment, he is said to have converted to Buddhism and became a Buddhist king, promoting morality and the Dharma throughout his empire.

Asoka’s dedication to the Dharma was significant in starting what would become the world’s first large-scale missionary effort in the history of the world’s religions. Asoka built stupas, locations with sacred relics of the Buddha himself, as well as pillars inscribed with edicts that became the official rule of the empire and would later become the symbol of early Buddhist teachings. Both the edicts and the stupas would become important pilgrimage sites for early Buddhist missionaries hoping for a better understanding of Buddhism. The edicts show Asoka’s deep devotion, including his banning of hunting and proclaiming the acceptance of the Dharma within his empire. While this may suggest forced conversion, Asoka states that Dharma could be practiced simultaneously with other faiths or religions since the Dharma promoted ethics and individual moral development.

Asoka wished that others outside his empire would also accept the importance of the Dharma and sent ambassadors to various locations. This would in fact prompt the beginnings of the spread of the Sangha and most importantly Buddhist missionaries, who would influence others to spread the teachings of the Sakyamuni Buddha. This missionary work continues throughout the world even today.

Asoka’s simple offering in his past life brought him back to live a luxurious life while also promoting a life that the Buddha would have wished others to live and maintain. Without Emperor Asoka’s emphasis on the Dharma, Buddhism might not have spread to the extent that it has; however his significance is one that many, including Buddhists, fail to recognize.

Ven. Kenjo lgarashi
November 2015

Understanding Buddhism

What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is the teaching of the Buddha, just as Christianity is the teaching of Jesus Christ and Islam is the teaching of Mohammad.

Yet, there is one major characteristic that distinguishes Buddhism from the other major religions. Those who embrace Buddhism can also become a Buddha. In Christianity, Judaism and Islam, believers are encouraged to learn the teachings of the founder and to devote themselves to a unique, absolute deity. Nonetheless, these followers cannot become a deity. However, in Buddhism, anyone is said to have the potential to become the Buddha if they awaken to the truth behind the universe and humans beings, which can be understood through studying the teachings of the Buddha.

Ultimately, Buddhism is everyone’s attempt to become a Buddha.

What is ‘Buddha’?
“Buddha” is the Sanskrit word for “aspirant.” After practicing and overcoming austerities for six years, the Buddha decided to abandon the severe practices. He would eventually discover the truth while meditating under a bodhi tree. For this reason, people called him the “Buddha” or the “one who has awakened to the truth.”

The original Buddha from India was an “ojin Buddha” – a body of a Buddha manifested to correspond to the different needs and capacities of living beings. The Buddha that is represented in the Lotus Sutra is called a “hojin Buddha,” which is a Buddha that has gained Enlightenment a long time before the dawn of existence, even long before this universe was created. Essentially, this Buddha is the “truth.”

As the teachings came to be received in the western regions of Asia, the Chinese used two Chinese characters (“butsu” and “da”) to represent the word, “Buddha.” When Buddhism came to Japan, the Japanese only used the first character, and it came to be read as both “butsu” and “hotoke.”

Ven. Kenjo lgarashi
September 2015

Putting Others Before Yourself

The view of Buddhism in the Nikkei community has gradually changed in the last several decades or so, sometimes even mirroring the views of the current generation in Japan. One main example includes how many associate Buddhism with solely memorial services and funerals. In essence, Buddhism has mainly become a necessity only for those who have passed away.

Many Buddhist traditions, including our own, have emphasized the importance of continuing to honor and remember the lives of those that have passed. Our founder, Nichiren Shonin, repeatedly claimed the importance of offering our prayers to the deceased. However, more important for him, was the use of prayer to benefit those currently living in this world of humanly desires, to ultimately create a peaceful society. His education would lead him to recognize the significance of the Lotus Sutra in accomplishing this goal.

Nichiren Shonin entered the monastery at age 12 and from ages 16 to 20, he studied Buddhism in Kamakura, the center of both Japanese politics and economics at the time. The knowledge he acquired there remained insufficient for him, and from ages 21 to 30, he educated himself further at Mount. Hiei. Among his new discoveries included both Tendai and Shingon esoteric Buddhism. He became convinced that he too should practice esoteric Buddhism to accomplish his goals of bringing peace to the world. Thus, both traditions created the base of Nichiren Shu esoteric Buddhism (currently recognized in the form of kaji kito (“ritual prayer”)). It is important to note that Tendai and Shingon esoteric Buddhist practices differ from the current Nichiren Shu kaji kito practices in several ways. However, we see several aspects of Tendai and Shingon esoteric practices incorporated into the Nichiren Shu tradition that have evolved throughout the centuries since their initial incorporation.

About three years ago, I had an opportunity to visit Mount. Koya, the center of Shingon Buddhism, as well as Mount. Hiei to further delve into Nichiren Shonin’s emphasis of prayer and esoteric Buddhism. I remember that at Mount. Hiei I repeatedly saw the words “忘己利他” (mou ko ri ta) written all over the place, including banners and displays of children’s calligraphy. These words are those of Saicho, the founder of Tendai Buddhism, and the first person in Japan to accept the importance of the Lotus Sutra before Nichiren Shonin. Without knowing the meaning, one may incorrectly read this as “mou korita”, combining the last three characters as one word. Upon just hearing the term (and without seeing the characters) “mou korita”, many Japanese would incorrectly interpret this as a common Japanese expression, which literally translates to, “I have learned from my bad experience and I can’t take this anymore”. The correct reading of the characters leads to the correct translation, which is to put others before yourself in your attempts to provide them with happiness and benefits through your help. This remains above all, one of the core teachings in Buddhism and an important characteristic of Bodhisattvas, who return to the world of humanly desires to help others achieve a higher realm. It is not enough that you are happy—others must be happy as well.

Nichiren Shonin, the reincarnation of Jogyo Bodhisattva, propagated the Lotus Sutra despite the criticism he faced from both the public and Japanese government. His several visits to the government to promote the Lotus Sutra as well as his public denouncement of nonbelievers of the Lotus Sutra led him to face many persecutions and obstacles throughout his life. The government tried offering him a position as the head minister of a huge temple (considered a huge honor for a priest at the time) in exchange for his promise that he would stop his “public disturbance”. Yet, Nichiren Shonin refused all offers and remained adamant in his goal of helping others obtain happiness by preaching about the benefits acquired from Buddha’s teachings, more importantly, the Lotus Sutra. This notion of putting others before oneself is something that we all admire and even see examples of in the news. However, more often than not, we also hear of the opposite situation as well. Two years ago, there were shipwrecks in both Korea and Italy around the same time. In both situations, the captain removed his captain uniform and abandoned both the crew and the ship to escape and save his own life. In Korea, 304 high school students died at sea. Unfortunately, it is unavoidable that in this age of mappo, there will be those who think only about themselves.

My hope is that during your Buddhist practice, you will recall the words “mou ko ri ta”. Nichiren Shonin tried to help others by offering the Lotus Sutra as a type of life saving rope that a person could hold onto from which the Buddha would pull them up from this world of mappo. So as believers of Nichiren Shu Buddhism, I want you to see the odaimoku also as a rope that you yourself could offer to others to save them from this world of humanly desires.

Ven. Kenjo lgarashi
May 2015