I usually tell people I’m an agnostic about reincarnation, but if there’s a case to be made for the possibility of one life continuing in another body, I’d say it was Manshi Kiyozawa (1863-1903) returning to this world as Shuichi Maida (1907-1967).
Maida had a body that Kiyozawa would wish for – tall and strong. Maida could have pursued athletics but gave up all sports in high school. According to an interview with his sister that I read in the Kaiundo newsletter, Maida was a discus thrower but after a teammate lost his grip and the discus flew into the stands injuring some spectators, Maida saw that all sports involved possible injury to other beings. His insistence on avoiding harm to other beings was poignantly expressed in his refusal to engage in the military exercises imposed on young males in Imperial Japan. In two articles we read in our weekly study class, “Rusty Rifle” and “Leg Injury,” he echoes the “cowardly” stance I posit about the historical Buddha in my previous post (October 2014 “Gifts from Cowardice: AWOL Siddhartha”).
Yet as enthusiastic I am about revisiting Dr. Haneda’s translations (from the early 1980s study class he conducted at our temple) of Maida’s autobiographical writings, the current class wonders why we’re reading this material. To them he sounds like a jerk as a young man and they anticipate he will have some dramatic conversion into a saintly sage. In his description of himself, he seems to have an attitude completely contrary to the Buddhist teachings of transcending selfishness and being mindful of helping others:
I think of myself as an impudent [waga-mama] person. In other words, I think of myself as an irresponsible person. My outlook on life can be summarized by one word: impudence. Impudence is equal to insolence, and further to egotism. In impudence, arrogance can be found. This arrogance has much to do with cowardice or timidity. I am an extremely timid, cowardly and devious person. Therefore, I become impudent when I behave in a cunning and irresponsible manner. I do not like to accept responsibility and prefer to avoid it. In order to keep aloof from my responsibilities, I live as if I were a stranger to the results of my actions. I live my life always pretending ignorance.
(from “The Rusty Rifle,” Complete Works XI, pp. 20-22)
To me, Maida writes about himself in the same vein as Shinran’s harsh self-examination. To see one’s total self-centeredness is to bemoan the depth of one’s defilement but at the same time it’s a joyful recognition of the unlimited Light of wisdom that makes one’s defilement stand out so obviously.
Reincarnation or not, the real link between Kiyozawa and Maida is Haya Akegarasu (1877-1954). Akegarasu was Kiyozawa’s student and Maida’s teacher. And all I know is the “flash” that hit me when I first came to this temple was something that was said about Akegarasu by one of the ministers. As Maida describes the lecture where he first encountered Akegarasu:
Rev. Akegarasu pointed to his forehead, a place between his eyebrows and said, “If you intently watch here and listen to my talk, you must have some kind of flash at least once during these three nights. It is alright if you don’t know what made you have the flash. It is all right if you don’t remember the content of my talk. Truth is a flash. If you can experience only one flash, you have not wasted your time in coming here to listen to my talk.”
(From “The Midsummer Night Dream,” Complete Works VII, pp. 385-6. Cf. Heard By Me, p 27)
I don’t even remember which minister I had heard, but more and more, I believe it was Rev. Gyoko Saito because for all of his life in America he only wanted to convey Akegarasu’s teachings and never be looked up as himself being any kind of teacher (much less a “venerable”).
When I went to hear Mike Conway’s public lecture in Kyoto (while I was there for ritual training at Higashi Honganji in December), he was introduced as someone who encountered Buddhism through Akegarasu. As he mentioned in that lecture and his other talks, at least Mike can identify me as the minister who spoke and he remembered the content of the poem I quoted – it was Toa Nomoto’s verse given at one of Akegarasu’s memorial services. Akegarasu’s memorial day is August 27, usually a sweltering time in Japan (zansho, “remaining heat” as well as high humidity). Ms. Nomoto said, “In the midst of summer heat, a cool breeze is felt.”
In the life of Shuichi Maida we see that the summer heat of our burning defilements is never tamped down or escaped, but we can hear how he enjoyed the cool breeze of Dharma coming through his teacher. In the weeks ahead I may continue to fail in convincing the class attendees of Maida’s significance, but I’ll be enjoying how his insights deepen my appreciation of the nembutsu in my life.