by Kazuko Kuramoto

The following is an essay that I wrote in December, 1995, for Dr. Sean O'Grady's class, E-570, at Boise State University.

Coming Home

My grandfather had a Shinto altar built in the front room of his house. It covered half the wall of one side of the room, and had three or four tiers. The top tier had what looked like a miniature main shrine with upward-curving roof that resembled a pagoda. The miniature shrine and all the accompanying ornaments were made of a kind of bleached sandalwood. The front door of the shrine was decorated with a deep purple silk curtain that parted in the center and gracefully draped to the sides. The lower tiers displayed miniature musical instruments – flutes, drums, and harps – with little fenced-in sacred-trees on both sides, the tiny leaves of which were made of deep green silk, a festivity in a courtyard, perhaps. Then there were offerings of fruits, cookies or ricecakes. On the wider bottom tier stood a shiny, slender bottle and matching tiny cups ready to serve wine.

The fellow worshippers gathered in this room every month, and I used to join them. Not that I knew what was going on – I was a pre-schooler then. But I remember his friends, with their exaggerated mock surprise, praising me for reciting the chant with them. There were some hand movements to accompany the chanting, and sometimes the worshippers would get up and perform slow dances. The dancing, as I understand now, is a vestige of early Shintoism and Buddhism, which, over the course of the year, had developed into Noh and Kabuki.

My grandfather’s was a sect of Shinto called “Ten-ri-kyo.” “Ten” means heaven or heavenly; “ri” is logic or principles; “kyo” means a teachings – thus the “teachings of heavenly principles.” Ten-ri-kyo was founded by a woman, Miki Nakayama, in the mid-19th century Nara, Japan. The doctrine consists of the belief that there are eight evil desires in a person’s mind, and if one can conquer them by the grace of Tenri-God, one will live in harmony and peace thereafter. This teaching was quite prevalent in Japan in 1930s and 40s, and it extended even to Japan’s newly acquired colony, Dairen, Manchuria, where my family lived. The headquarters of Ten-ri-kyo remains in Nara, Japan, and at one time it was a well-organized and widely accepted religious institution with its own educational system extending from elementary school to college. I believe my uncle was sent to this college in his youth.

Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan. There is no founder or scripture in Shinto. It is a religion born out of a primitive people’s worshipping all natural objects and phenomena, acknowledging deity in all, thus creating “yao yorozu no kami gami,” eight million gods. Gradually, Shinto became a form of ancestor worship. In 19th-century Japan, with the popularity of Emperor Meiji, the direct descendant of the Sun-Goddess Amaterasu, the ancestor-worshipping Shinto had become the dominant religious power, regarded as the national religion. According to Japanese mythology, the Sun-Goddess Amaterasu had sent her grandson, Jimmu, to the chosen island to found a nation of Yamato, which later became Japan. The emperors of Japan have been the direct descendants of this Goddess. This mythology was widely read and accepted at Japanese schools, and belief in this supported the deification of Japanese emperors until 1945, when Emperor Showa graciously renounced his deity and joined us in the world of mortals. When my niece in Tokyo came to spend a few weeks with me in the summer of 1975, I saw her textbooks and was rather disappointed. There was no trace of the dear old mythology. My niece, on the other hand, found it inconceivable that Japanese used to believe in the emperor’s deity and in the mythological origins of a nation.

The Japanese emperors had always been regarded as the rulers of Japan, whether they had the actual political power or not, but the success of the Meiji Restoration of 1868 established the deity of emperor firmly in the minds of Japanese people. It was the time of Japanese military aggression into Korea and China, climaxed by its victory over Russia in Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, the glory of which was attributed to the virtue of Emperor Meiji. Shintoism became closely tied with Japanese nationalism and imperialism, while the Zen spirit in Buddhism – Bushido (the way of Samurai) – supported Japan’s militarism. Shintoism and Buddhism merged into one religion and it well served the rulers in military controlled Japan.

My grandfather was a devout Shintoist all his life, but when he died his funeral was held in Buddhist temple; a part of his ashes was sent to his hometown in Japan, to be buried in his family grave in the family Buddhist temple. Buddhist temples still had a strong hold on their parishioners, and they were handed down from generation to generation.

The Japanese people, in general, are ambiguous about religious practice. “Statistics show that few Japanese are deeply devoted to a specific religion and that, in fact, many profess to have no interest in religion at all” (Ogawa 281); thus they have been quite generous about accepting different religions into their country. In the era of Feudal Japan, Christianity was banned and Christians persecuted, but this was due to politics. In present-day Japan, there are about 600 thousand Protestants and 400 thousand Catholics. (Ogawa 281) And many universities and colleges are affiliated with Christian churches. In fact, the private school that I attended was affiliated with Methodist Churches of Japan.

My grandfather sent his oldest daughter, my mother, to a Catholic private school; sent his son to Ten-ri-kyo college; and let his “liberated” youngest daughter be a Christian as well as a ballerina. In my grandfather’s case, mixed religion and mixed culture were commonplace because of the colonial life-style. But I have noticed many of those Japanese people who have a “it doesn’t really matter” tolerance regarding religion, and I wonder if this could be traced to the influence of Buddhism – its belief that “nothing is permanent” – a trait that is deep in our culture, beneath our consciousness.

Another religion to which I was exposed early in my life was “Sei-cho-no-ie,” which was more like a seminar in a lecture hall than a church gathering. This too is an offshoot of Shinto. According to my Japanese encyclopedia, a man called Masaharu Taniguchi founded this sect in 1929. My father was attracted to this teaching, probably because it was more of a philosophy than religion. He was an avid reader as well as a thoughtful poet. He used to take me with him to the Sei-cho-no-ie meetings. I was in about fifth or sixth grade, but I looked forward to going to the meetings with him. There was no chanting or dancing, no meditation or prayer; it was all lectures and discussions. I am sure I did not understand all of what was said, but I was fascinated. Words and logic have always fascinated me. When my father bought the whole set of Taniguchi’s writings, I read most of them with the help of a dictionary. There were many unfamiliar metaphysical, abstract terms, but they attracted me rather than scared me away. Taniguchi touched on Buddhism as well as Christianity, but he negated neither; nor did he condemn anything in other religions. Instead, he selected parts of all other religions and philosophies, and compiled them into his own belief, his own religion. A few years later, when I read Herman Hesse’s “Demian,” which discussed atman and Brahman extensively, I remembered Taniguchi’s mentioning of these same terms, and was surprised that the Eastern and Western thoughts were somehow bridged by the Hindu religion.

As I mentioned before, I attended a private girls college, Futaba Gakuin, affiliated with the Methodist Churches of Japan. Since my mother gave up her Catholic practice when she married my father, Futabe was my first experience of Christianity. The school started with a service every morning, and I loved singing hymns. I used to come home and open the window of my room, which faced the backyard, and sing the hymns with all my might. The first hour was a Bible study, in which the headmaster, an ardent minister, lectured. His wife, who managed the kindergarten on the first floor, was also a minister. The majority of the faculty was Christian, I believe. The school was located at the edge of a huge park, with hills, thick woods, baseball stadiums, ponds, and playgrounds. I don’t think I ever became seriously religious, but I loved the atmosphere of the school. On Saturdays, we had nothing but piano lessons and choir practice in the mornings, and in the afternoons, flower arrangement and tea ceremony. When the school offered to baptize the students who had not been baptized, I consulted with my parents. They did not think I should. It was 1944. Japan was engaged in the war with the United States, and there was a strong anti-American and anti-European feeling. Japan was, as we had been taught, fighting against the European colonization of the Far East. Becoming a Christian did not seem appropriate. It was one thing to attend a decent Christian school, my father said, but to be baptized a Christian was something else entirely. He was concerned about my future, which, I am sure, meant my marriage. But it didn’t really matter to me. By then, I had already decided to join the Red Cross Nurse Corps to dedicate my life to my country.

I did eventually become a Baptist when I married my first husband, who was Baptist himself, and I remained Christian until 1978, when one day in January I met a Buddhist priest from Chicago: Rev. Kubose.

I had not had much contact with Buddhism as a religion, as opposed to Buddhism as a culture. The only times I had been inside a Buddhist temple were when I attended funerals of my classmates. Twice I was designated to read a eulogy as a representative of my class when a classmate had died. Thus my memories of Buddhism were associated with death and funerals. And my concept of Buddhism as a religion was more or less limited to what I knew from my grandmother, who had remained Buddhist despite her husband’s Ten-ri-kyo. Not that my grandmother had strong faith in or deep knowledge about Buddhism that survived her husband’s influence; rather it was because she did not really care that she remained Buddhist. Or perhaps this was because my grandfather and the Japanese in general were not particular when it came to Buddhism and Shinto. Since the 19th-century, there had been in Japan a long period of thorough integration of Buddhism and Shinto. Most Japanese have forgotten that Buddhism and Shinto are, in fact, two separate religions. Many of us have forgotten that Buddhism is not the ancestor worship that Shinto has developed into, and that Shinto does not contain any teaching or religious philosophy, but rather it originated in nature worship much like the celebration of Dionysus in ancient Greece.

One of my maternal aunts was married to a Zen priest-turned businessman. He had the perfect physical appearance of a Zen priest: muscular and disciplined, shaved head, piercing eyes, and booming voice. He used to chant the Paramita Sutra whenever he felt like it, especially when he had had a few drinks in him. I was never close to him. Not that I disliked him or was afraid of him, but he had a way of keeping people at distance. But because of his influence, plus my habit of reading anything at random, I knew some fragments of Buddhist teachings and sutra phrases.

When I first heard of Rev. Kubose’s reputation, which preceded his coming to the Buddhist temple in Ontario, I did not pay much attention. I was in and out of the temple because my mother-in-law belonged to the temple. While I was waiting for her one day, I picked up a small booklet written by Rev. Kubose. The booklet was entitle “American Buddhism.” American Buddhism? Buddhism is Buddhism wherever it may be, I thought, but I turned the pages. “ . . . in China, Buddhism became integrated with Taoism and Confucianism, and in Japan, with the native religion of Shintoism. Buddhism is obviously . . . a very tolerant, peaceful, versatile, and humble religion . . . which is why it will undoubtedly become in this country a uniquely American Buddhistm (2).” It sounded reasonable and sensible. I agreed with him. And I went on. “It will easily adapt itself to this pragmatic and materialistic American life. In addition, Buddhism is very much needed in our American culture, particularly in the field of mental problems. Its non-dichotomized way of life will afford a new perspective and be unique contribution to the presently dualistic American life (3).” Really? I doubted it. It sounded too easy an assumption. I took the booklet home, since it was a handout. And next day I called the temple to sign up for Rev. Kubose’s retreat.

Someone had told me he was 72, but he carried himself very well. He had a strong Japanese accent in his English, and I assumed that in his youth he had been educated in Japan, which turned out to be correct. His delivery of the lecture was rather monotone. He hardly looked at any of us in the audience, as if he didn’t care if we listened or napped. But I listened. I listened mainly because he introduced Japanese terms first, before going into another topic. He even wrote those Japanese terms on the board, even though most of the audience were Nisei who couldn’t read them. At one point, he was stuck in writing Japanese, not sure if the character required another line, so he hesitated. “Does this have another line, I wonder,” he talked to himself. “Yes, it does,” I said. I was sitting in the front row. He thanked me and added another line. After that, every time he wrote a Japanese word on board, he checked with me. Not with a smile, but like an earnest student asking for a teacher’s approval.

His Japanese writing affected me in a most strange way. I had heard those words, and knew what they meant, but had forgotten them or had pushed them into the far corner of my consciousness, as if it all were some useless information. Now I kept writing them in my notes, over and over, framing them, shadowing them. As I played with them, the characters seemed to take on a life of their own and they stared back at me, insisting on taking me back to somewhere in my past, like going home. “Sho gyo mujo,” where did I hear that? Oh, yes, it was in a text in high school. Some famous author started an essay with it. Sho gyo mujo no kane ga naru; “There tolls the bell of Sho gyo mujo,” all things are continuous change.

While I was playing with the Japanese writings, lunch time had started. I was the last one to help myself at the sandwich table, and when I turned to sit at the table, the only seat available was the one next to Rev. Kubose. We talked in Japanese. When the lunch break was over, we had just started to talk about the soul. Or rather, he had just said that there was no such entity as a soul, and I was staring at him with open mouth. Why, everybody has to have a soul!

He walked back to the lectern to resume the lecture, not minding my shock at all. “There was a discussion about the soul during the lunch time,” he started calmly, and I held my breath. “In Japanese it is called tamashii, in Hindu it is called atman, and the Christians call it ‘the soul’,” he went on. To separate the soul from your physical self is a dichotomy. It is a beautiful dichotomy, he went on, but Buddhism denies dichotomy. Then what is a man made of? As I stared at him with a question, he continued, as if he had heard my question. “A man is made of his thoughts, words and actions. Like the ocean, the universal Life goes on from eternity to eternity, continuously changing, a tidal wave now, a rippling wave the next minute. We are a part of this eternal life. We were not created by anyone or for anyone. There is no promise or guarantee of going somewhere when we die. Buddhism is not the teaching of the other world. Buddhism is the teaching of this world now.” He went on as if he were almost bored of repeating the things that we all knew. And I felt as if I had known everything that he was saying all along. Yet at the same time it sounded frightfully sacrilegious, like blasphemy, denying the soul, denying the creation. I was frightened. I was frightened for him for uttering things he was not supposed to utter. But he was calm. Respectful. And humble.

We watched a short film that Rev. Kubose had made some years ago, something about nature and Buddhism. He was a tea ceremony master as well, and parts of the film showed the tranquil tea ceremony scenes in a mountain. After the film, everyone was relaxed, and started a social conversation. I was getting impatient. I was filled with uncertainties and did not want to be left like this. I raised my hand, “I . . . May I ask just one more question?” “Of course.” “Is Buddhist an Atheist?” My voice quivered. I was feeling desperate. I knew I was standing at the threshold of Buddhism, but what if it was Atheism? Rev. Kubose seemed to be mulling my question over in his mind. “That depends on the definition of God,” he said deliberately. “Buddhism does not recognize God as the creator or the ruler of the universe. But if the concept of God means ‘the truth of the universe,’ then it is in agreement with Buddhism.” “But,” I was persistent, “in America, when you say God, it means God as the creator. That puts Buddhism in the category of Atheism, at least in America, doesn’t it?” I saw a faint smile on him as he nodded, and he went on calmly. “Among the Christians,” he said, “the concept of God varies from one sect to another, one generation to another generation. The sect called Unitarian openly denies the Trinity, and their concept of God is more like ‘the truth of the Universe,’ and the teachings are very much like those of Buddhism.”

After that retreat, I started attending the Sunday services. But when I leafed through the service book, I was flabbergasted. The gatha-sutras (the chanting sutras) were transcribed into Roma-ji, the totally meaningless phonetic symbols. It was to help people who could not read Japanese: Nisei, Sansei, and non-Japanese, but still, it seemed to have ruined the value of the sutra. Gatha-sutras are rhymed poetry, and every word carefully selected is replete with the philosophy and culture of ancient Buddhism. I remembered my Zen Buddhist uncle’s resonant sutra chanting that used to vibrate the household. It was a power. A faith. But now, watching everyone chant the meaningless lines of symbols with obvious uncertainty, I felt that the Roma-ji transcript was making a mockery of the sutra. What is it? Is it an empty ritual? Does the sound of Japanese add a mysterious, exotic flavor to the ritual?

The first sentence of the Three Treasures – “Hard is it to be born into human life” – also held me back. As if we had a choice! I said to myself. Isn’t it a vestige of Hindu belief that the ever-lasting atman returns to earth again and again in different living forms? And should we be grateful that we are here in the form of human beings instead of having to live the life of a dog? Then it dawned on me that I had never in my life appreciated my living. But wait, I interrupted myself, this may not be just me. It could be the characteristic of my generation, who had grown up during the war, under the military-controlled Japanese government. Didn’t we grow up thinking about the glory and significance of death and sacrifice rather than the value of life and living? We had never learned to respect life, our own or anyone else’s. We had been taught that there was nothing more noble than dying for the cause, without regret, without attachment to life. Had I ever really wanted or desired to live? for any reason at all? Yes, for Yoko, my daughter. She was born when I was 41 and had a 16-year old daughter June Marie, who had been the center of my life. But June was a little girl of six when I adopted her, not a newborn baby. Holding the tiny but demanding life in my arms, for the first time in my life I became aware of my desperate attachment to life. I wanted to live: and I swore to live. For the joy of holding her, this tiny life that demands my whole attention. But still, this was far from Buddhist teaching of “Hard is it to be born into human life.” I had no concept of life as a gift, nor any understanding of the sense of gratitude for life. I filled my diary with my thoughts and questions, and decided to mail it to Rev. Kubose.

I did not, however, wait for his response. As I kept reading about Buddhism, more thoughts and questions were spilling out of me. I could not contain myself from writing them down. My diary now had a mailing address and a reader. The day I mailed my third diary-letter, I received Rev. Kubose’s first letter. It was written in Japanese, in a beautiful, masculine handwriting, reminding me of my Zen Buddhist uncle’s handwriting. Rev. Kubose apologized for not writing sooner, but he had been on an extended visit to the West Coast. “Please don’t be hasty about anything in life,” he warned me. And he explained the teaching of “Ku” of Zen, probably because I mentioned that I was reading “The Lecture on Paramita Sutra” by Kakusho Takagami. Paramita Sutra, or Maka Hannya Haramita Shin Gyo, is the core teaching of Zen, he wrote. It is the teaching of Ku, or Emptiness; the doctrine of Nothingness. But Emptiness, or Nothingness, does not just mean nothing. Ku is “sho gyo mujo,” the continuous flux: all things arise and subside, appear and disappear, according to the direct and indirect causes and results. This is the teaching of non-attachment; and this very dynamic state of continuously changing, continuously becoming, is called life. On the second page, he was more personal, telling me not to apologize for being selfish or self-centered. “I like selfish people,” he said. He encouraged me to continue writing to him, saying that he envies people who can open up to others as I was doing to him.

My life became centered around Buddhism, or more precisely, around Rev. Kubose and his teachings. I read his books and his invaluable letters along with the books and articles that he either sent me or recommended to me, and I continued writing him my daily thoughts and questions. Gradually I came to realize that my meeting Rev. Kubose was not an accident. Every incident that had happened in my life, from personal and trifling matters to international occurrences, actions and thoughts of people around me and of myself, had led me to seek him out, to open myself to him.

When he came to Ontario the following year for the retreat, he came to my home to meet my family, and he spent an afternoon with me. We did not discuss anything serious. He enjoyed the Japanese dinner I had prepared for him, and I was happy, content, just to be sitting with him, just to exchange smiles now and then. I was happy. I had come home.


Kubose, Gyomay M. American Buddhism: A New Direction. The Dharma House, Chicago, Illinois. 1976.

Ogawa, Kazumi. Nippon: The Land and Its People. Gakusei Sha, Tokyo, Japan. 1982.