Any Good Thing Surely Is Protected by
the Gods and the Buddha - Meetings with Ven. Etai Yamada
"There are three elements to any achievement. First, you have to put forth the utmost effort. Second, you need the assistance and cooperation of others. Further, you must have the protection of the gods and the Buddha. Unless all three come together nothing can be achieved."
In the spring of 1984, the Most Venerable Etai Yamada, the 253d Tendai Zasu, head priest of the Tendai Buddhist denomination, made the above affirmation at a meeting of the Japanese Committee of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP), and then added by way of explication, "If people live with this belief in mind, that can be called 'the religious life.' And that is the 'truly human life.' The teaching of the unity of these three things is common to all religions."
That year Ven. Yamada reached ninety years of age - sotsuju or the age of auspiciousness according to the old Japanese way of naming the decades of our lives. Responding to the congratulations of everyone gathered there, he thus expressed at once the belief which had guided his own life, plus his sincere prayer for religious people to cooperate for world peace as well as for their efforts to obtain divine protection for that quest.
It was the beginning of 1975 when Founder Niwano met Ven. Yamada for the first time. He visited Ven. Yamada at the heavily snow-covered Mount Hiei near Kyoto for a face-to-face talk. At that time Ven. Yamada was said to have felt deeply the "implementation of the Lotus Sutra" in the presence of Rev. Niwano as he talked with him. He also thought highly of how Rev. Niwano rendered the difficult Buddhist teachings in a quite readily comprehensible way and excellently applied them to people's daily lives.
He once said, "Religion should not be mere 'doctrine'; it is to be practiced. Shakyamuni Buddha highly valued gyochi, 'wisdom acquired through practice.' 'Nothing other than this,' he even said, 'can be wisdom.' Wisdom obtained through practice is quite precious." Later, he added, "That is the essence of the hoza (counseling session).''
In the following year, 1976, the first assembly of the Asian Conference on Religion and Peace (ACRP) was held in Singapore. The two men attended together and their close ties rapidly strengthened.
Ven. Yamada was a man who believed that "the gods and the Buddha surely exist." During the final phase of the Pacific War he was ordered to board a ship that was to send 1,500 junior-high school students from Okinawa to Kyushu for volunteer work in factories. He recollected his experience of that time in the following way.
American submarines were patrolling the sea lanes. So he earnestly prayed for the safety of those children from a possible submarine attack by reciting chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, "The Universal Gate of the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World."
"Unless I recited the sutra 75 times each day I was unable to fulfill the pledge that I had made at the beginning of the year to recite the sutra 3,300 times before the ship's departure. I did so wholeheartedly, using all my waking hours and even some of my time for sleeping. One day while chanting, I noticed the passage in the sutra that says, 'If there are hundreds of thousands of billions of beings [who] go out to sea and a fierce wind blows their ships off course to the land of the ogre-demons, and if among them there is even a single person who calls on the name of the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World, all those people will be saved from difficulties. . . .' I was thrilled. Until then, though reciting the sutra, I hadn't noticed that the 'single person' of those words - 'even a single person' - must mean me, myself! My whole body was shaken. From that day on, my recitation of the sutra became more fervent. All 1,500 students finally reached their destination safely, testimony of the truth of the sutra. Since then, I have believed the sutra with all my heart and without any reservation."
He said, as well, "To recite with deep belief is to invoke the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World. Any good thing surely is protected by the gods and the Buddha. Thus does it persist. Bearing in mind what surely lasts, therefore, it is important to tackle things while thinking how they can become reality and what efforts one might make toward that end." Ven. Yamada's creed was this: "To make manifest what the sutra teaches us: that is our faith."
"The Lotus Sutra which permeates through daily life"
The conversations I witnessed among three prominent religious figures - Ven. Yamada, Rev. Niwano, and Mr. Zhao Puchu, president of the Buddhist Association of China - remain for me a most fruitful memory. [See the 20th installment in this series, entitled "Encounters V: Meetings with Mr. Zhao Puchu.] Gems of thought stand out, as when Founder Niwano remarked once about his teaching style, "When I preach the teaching of Three Thousand Realms in One Mind, I paraphrase it in easily understandable ways, saying, 'If one's own mind changes, others' will change accordingly,' and I guide our members to use the teaching in daily life."
And I remember a pleasant conversation on the unusual topic of drinking sake (Japanese rice wine). Ven. Yamada in particular had given the subject more than a little serious thought.
He said, "A little sake, I think, is the best way to overcome bonno, or delusions." Someone asked, "Does drinking sake violate the five precepts for lay Buddhists like me?"
"No, it does not," Ven. Yamada affirmed, "because sake is a medicinal alcohol. Besides, to disseminate the teachings of the Buddha one has to maintain good health. For that reason, then, we drink sake. However, if we drink too much, then sake becomes a poison. Whether sake is medicinal or poisonous - now, that is a fine distinction."
Then he added a personal note, "My own barometer of health is sake. When it is tasty, I know my health is good. When my health is declining, sake does not taste good to me."
Ven. Yamada thought profoundly about peace and the future of humankind. Rev. Niwano and Ven. Yamada both attended the Conference on the World's Religions for the World's Children convened by the WCRP in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1990. Ven. Yamada was already well into his nineties, yet he earnestly joined in the discussion with other religionists and experts from the United Nations.
He said at that time, "The twenty-first century will be an age of religious transformation - the age in which religion will play an essential role in daily life."
"Buddhism itself is the Lotus Sutra - the Lotus Sutra as it permeates everyday life," he also said. "It thus is vital. It is, I believe, the mission of Rissho Kosei-kai." He annually held anniversary gatherings for Shakyamuni's Attainment of Buddhahood at his own residence, and each year invited young people from Rissho Kosei-kai to attend. Although he himself was born in the nineteenth century, he was able to see into the twenty-first century and he expressed his vision to them on those occasions.
This series of articles was originally published in Japanese in 2000 under the title Kaiso Zuimonki: Egao no Ushirosugata.
Copyright © 2008 by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.