Because I Want To

by Rev. Jon Turner.

In Buddhism, it is common to have two levels of ordination. During the Buddha’s time, one would first be ordained as a novice monk and then later as a bhikshu. In our tradition we also have a two level ordination. The first level is called Tokudo and the second Kyoshi. I received Tokudo in October 2010 and Kyoshi in December 2012. This was made possible by the BCA through the Ministers’ Assistants Program (MAP).

This month I returned to the Jodo Shinshu Center for the first time since receiving Kyoshi ordination last December. It was to attend a seminar as part of our continuing education program. It was kind of strange. I was anxious. I think I had associated the JSC building with the stress that comes with training for ordination. This time I could keep my iPhone, talk during meals and free time on the schedule really meant free time. But it didn’t seem appropriate. I even felt a little guilty about chanting the Juseige instead of the Shoshinge.

In 2012, we met four times at the JSC prior to our 14 day trip to Japan that included a 10 day Kyoshi training. This training took place in a dormitory setting. There were nine of us in the foreign Kyoshi group from America, evenly divided between men and women, young and old, hakujin and Japanese. There was also one Canadian. We were in Group (Han) Six (Roku) of six groups. The other five groups consisted of Japanese Nationals; the vast majority of them were young men.

During Kyoshi every minute was accounted for. I think this was part of the training. It encourages one to become focused. Our group was also always late to meals. Our instructions seemed to be delaying us on purpose. I think this was also by design, to train us to become flexible. At each meal, each group would call out their name to signal that they were ready. For example, we would say Roku-Han, and the first group would say I-Han, the second Ni-Han and so on. I had thought one group was unusually hungry because someone was always yelling out Go-Han – but I realized later that that was the fifth group announcing their presents not requesting more “rice”.

One evening we were so late that one of the senior instructors was actually setting our table for us. I had trained very hard for Kyoshi and had even taken a year and a half of Japanese. This was my big moment to do the “right” thing. I went up to the sensei, bowed, looked him right in the eye and said “Gracias”. He was stunned but did not laugh. We made a silent, gentlemen’s agreement to never speak of this faux pas again. I was so embarrassed. What was I doing in Japan? I can’t even say “arigato.”

Later that night, in the Japanese baths, a Japanese National began to speak to me in broken English. He was in his early thirties. He introduced himself and said that he had been to America before. He had driven from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas. Then he leaned in and asked “What are you doing here?” Like an episode of Seinfeld, I was hoping he said “What are you doing here?” but it sounded more like “What are you doing here?” I was a little startled and couldn’t think of a really profound answer so I just said that I want to help my Temple. I didn’t think that was a very good answer. It was like saying “gracias” instead of “arigato.”

At that moment I felt naked - both literally and metaphorically. He then asked me if I came from a temple family. At first I thought he was being sarcastic. Fifty year old hakujin Americans do not come from 18th generation temple families. But I looked into his eyes and he was being sincere. He really didn’t know much about America, Americans or American Buddhism. So I politely answered no. Then he asked me how old I was. In a sea of young men I answered that I was 52 years old. He then looked directly at me and started laughing.

I felt foolish. What was a 52 year old hakujin doing in Japan, speaking Spanish instead of Japanese? How can that kind of a person become a minister? This is called the Imposter Syndrome/Phenomenon. It is a fear that someone will find you out, that you are a poser. This is not a good place to be in at the beginning of Kyoshi training. You have ten days of difficult training ahead and need to be all in.

However, his questioning stuck with me. He was really trying to understand why I was there. Then I realized what he was really asking. He wanted to know why an adult, mature American male would go all the way to Japan for Kyoshi training if he is not from a Temple family and no longer has to do whatever his father asks of him. I realized that his laughter was not due to humor but due to surprise and respect. He was astonished that someone would want to come rather than have to come. So my original answer was actually half right. Instead of saying “because I want to help my Temple”, I should have just said “because I want to.” This was a profound answer after all.

I think this experience illustrates the importance of MAP. It both nurtures and creates new ministers at the grass roots level. We are the sons and daughters whose fathers are the temples and whose mothers are the Sangha. We are trained in very much the same way temple children are trained in Japan. However, rather than having been volunteered – we, ourselves, have volunteered. I think “wanting to” instead of “having to” is a very wonderful thing. It is the BCA and MAP that is encouraging this kind of spirit in America. I think we have been trained well.

Namuamidabutsu,

Rev. Jon Turner