The Life and Thought of Rev. Haya Akegarasu

by Rev. Marvin Harada.

This month as I write this article (March), we are in the midst of wonderful lectures by Dr. Nobuo Haneda. Every year for the past 15 or 16 years we have had Haneda Sensei speak at our Ohigan seminar, service, and remain for BEC lectures. This year he is lecturing on the Life and Thought of Rev. Haya Akegarasu. They have been tremendous lectures. I am most fond of Rev. Akegarasu’s writings and I have used his books in many of my study classes. I would like to share my connection to Rev. Akegarasu and relate his spiritual experience in Shin Buddhism for my article for this month.

I grew up attending a Shin Buddhist temple in rural Eastern Oregon. I was a typical young person, attending and being in YBA and all that. In college I majored in Religious Studies and began to take courses in Buddhism. I found that there was so much more to Buddhism than what I had learned growing up attending my local temple. I came to appreciate the fundamental Buddhist teachings that I learned, but whenever I went back home to Eastern Oregon, I could not relate to the sermons on Jodo Shinshu by the various ministers that served there. Quite often I would hear this kind of sermon, “You are saved as you are, and there is nothing that you have to do. Isn’t that wonderful?” In my mind, I felt, “But I don’t feel saved. What does that mean?” I also felt that the sermons I was hearing was more like the message of Christianity than the teachings of Buddhism that I was learning in my classes. How could this be, I pondered?

After going to IBS to study for the ministry, I continued to learn about Jodo Shinshu, but still could not relate to the messages in which Amida was presented as a savior like God, and the Pure Land was a place that we went to after we died.

I happened to read the book, “Everyday Suchness” by Rev. Gyomay Kubose, and I found the Buddhism expressed in that book to be much different than what I had heard growing up. Could Shin Buddhism be this different I wondered? I had the opportunity to hear Rev. Kubose speak at the San Jose Betsuin one evening, and I found his Dharma talk to be even more wonderful than his book. He expressed Shin Buddhism in a manner I had never heard before. He said that Amida Buddha represents “that which we should become.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. If this is Shin Buddhism, then I felt that I could put my whole heart into this teaching.

Since then, I came to find out that Rev. Kubose’s teacher was the late Rev. Haya Akegarasu, and I always wanted to learn more from Rev. Akegarasu, but I could not read Japanese.

After studying in Japan and coming to be able to read Japanese (to some extent), I began to read some of Rev. Akegarasu’s books. His books were tremendous. After returning to the States and serving as a minister, I have used his commentaries on texts like the Shoshinge and the Larger Sutra for my own classes. I would not be able to conduct study classes with any kind of content or depth if not for his writings.

Rev. Akegarasu’s life experience was instrumental in the deep spiritual insight that emerged. He was raised as the only son of a Jodo Shinshu temple family in Ishikawa prefecture. He lost his father at a young age and was raised by his mother. In those days, Shin Buddhism was taught very much in a traditional manner, like the sermons I heard growing up. Amida was presented as a savior, and we are all passion ridden foolish beings incapable of enlightenment. Rev. Akegarasu believed in Shin Buddhism in that manner. At a young age, he met the Shin Buddhist reformer, Rev. Manshi Kiyozawa, who was presenting a radically different way of looking at Shin Buddhism. Rev. Akegarasu studied under him, but it took years and his own life crisis for Rev. Kiyozawa’s teachings to take fruition in his life.

In his mid 30’s, Rev. Akegarasu went through a personal crisis, first losing his beloved wife, then being the subject of a scathing article and subsequent scandal that shattered his reputation and standing as a minister and leader of Rev. Kiyozawa’s followers. At that time, the Amida Buddha that Rev. Akegarasu looked up to piously and faithfully, disappeared. He fell into a deep, dark place, and no traditional Shin texts or writings could bring him out of it. However, in this time of despair, he reread the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, the main sutra of Shin Buddhism. Although he had read it many, many times before, now in the midst of his darkness and despair, a new light came into his life. The deep meaning of this text began to shine into his heart and mind. He began to realize what his teacher Rev. Kiyozawa was trying to teach him, through the message of the Larger Sutra.

Now he came to realize that the essence of the Larger Sutra was the spirit of Bodhisattva Dharmakara, who became Amida Buddha, the hero of the Larger Sutra. He came to see this story as a “story” expressing a timeless spirit that was now emerging within his own heart and mind. He came to see Amida’s primal vow, hongan, not as a vow from a Buddha long ago but as his own deep, innermost aspiration to become a Buddha and to save all sentient beings.

This is the Rev. Haya Akegarasu that I have come to know and continue to receive the most profound and dynamic teaching from. It has been through teachers like Rev. Akegarasu that I have come to appreciate Shinran Shonin’s teachings and the teachings of Shin Buddhism.

Namuamidabutsu,

Rev. Marvin Harada