Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The History of Our Temple’s Confirmation Ceremony

At some point I have to fess up to my Jodo Shinshu minister friends – yes, I conducted a confirmation ceremony at our temple. Yes, I know that technically only a bishop (district head) or abbot (denomination head) is supposed to confirm that a living person has taken refuge in the Three Treasures (any minister can do it for a deceased). But our temple has a history of conducting the ceremony for people, so that’s the story to cover my oshiri.

Our founding minister, Rev. Gyomay Kubose, did the Ti-Sarana ceremony for just about anyone who asked. Back around 1980 I was one of those people he did it for even though he hardly knew me. I had been attending the temple for only a few months but felt I should be “confirmed” if I was already teaching the kids in Dharma School and had signed up to be a member.

It’s unclear how many people Rev. Kubose might have confirmed but everyone heard about the two men who got arrested for some crime and told the police they were Buddhist priests “ordained” by Rev. Kubose. The temple leadership was concerned that newcomers could easily confuse the Ti-Sarana ceremony as an ordination, but I don’t know what was said specifically to Rev. Kubose about vetting the applicants more thoroughly.

I have yet to hear of Rev. Gyoko Saito doing Ti-Sarana during his time at our Chicago temple. The people who studied under him told me they didn’t feel a need to get a Dharma Name and certificate as Rev. Kubose’s students did. Later, as bishop of the North America district when Rev. Saito served in Los Angeles, he conducted a Ti-Sarana ceremony for the members of the Brooklyn sangha that was led by Rev. Joseph Jarman.

Rev. Kubose’s son, Rev. Sunnan Koyo Kubose did several Ti-Sarana confirmations at our temple when he was assistant minister and later through the breakaway group, the Heartland Sangha. He wanted to designate people as his students by giving them Dharma Names with the Chinese character “yo(sunshine), the same as in his “Ko-yo.”

Rev. Yukei Ashikaga was asked to do the ceremony but he felt hesitant, knowing the Higashi Honganji rules and the unfortunate incident of the criminal “Buddhist priests.” When I was associate minister, I worked with the religious affairs chairperson, Fred Babbin, to come up with criteria that Rev. Ashikaga would find acceptable. We framed the “two years” triple qualification – the applicant must be a paid member for two years and during that two years demonstrate ongoing study of Buddhism and giving service to the temple (helping out at events, doing routine chores etc.). Still, on top of that Rev. Ashikaga made the applicants write a two-page essay on how they became interested in Buddhism and why they wanted to be confirmed as a Buddhist. In the fifteen or so years of having the policy in place, Rev. Ashikaga confirmed only a handful of people.
When I became the full-time resident minister, I agreed to do the confirmation ceremony for the qualified applicants. Instead of the essay, on the form I asked them to write a sentence of what they will do to help the temple in the future. I kept accepting applications, but didn’t get around to scheduling the ceremony for a couple years

I saw that the temple’s supply of kataginu (neck sashes) was sparse – a variety of old fading fabrics, so when I went to Japan in December of 2014, I planned to buy something similar to what we used in the past. As it turned out, I got around to shopping for kataginu when I was almost out of time and money, so I got ten of the cheapest ones available at one of the Higashi Honganji robe stores in Kyoto.

Finally I scheduled the ceremony for this year’s Founder’s Day service (the memorial for Rev. Gyomay Kubose) and by then I had nine applicants. Since that Sunday was Easter, I figured only a few of those nine would be available but instead they all wanted to come and I had to come up with nine Dharma Names all at once (two people got names from the Amida Sutra and the rest from the Larger Sutra’s Tan Butsu Ge verse section).

One thing that surprised me is after the ceremony I asked everyone to applaud and the applause went on for several minutes, with some members even standing up as if it was an ovation at a concert.

[photo showing the symbolic "head shaving"]

Later our temple president Bill said it was fitting to have the ceremony on Rev. Kubose’s memorial because the group of nine showed the fruition of his vision to make Buddhism accessible to all Americans, not just the ethnic Japanese. Bill pointed out that only one of the nine was Japanese American and the rest were of other ethnicities, such as Irish, Polish, Korean, African and Native American. He also pointed out that it was a diverse group for sexual preference and identity (yes, you see our intersex activist in the picture, see her blog http://lynnellstephani.blogspot.com). Maybe that’s the reason for the long applause – cheering for our temple’s success in bringing Buddhism to a wide range of people.


  1. "As it turned out, I got around to shopping for kataginu when I was almost out of time and money, so I got ten of the cheapest ones available at one of the Higashi Honganji robe stores in Kyoto."

    How do I get a nice fancy one?

    1. The nice fancy one will cost you a lot of yen (and a trip to Japan). Please note there was no charge at our temple for the Ti-Sarana confirmants. Other places require a couple hundred bucks and fully paid membership over a number of years, so of course they get a nice, fancy wagesa