blue mountain & white cloud

Luci Yamamoto finds balance between her Buddhist inheritance & Western Zen practice

During my childhood in Hawaii, the only obvious allusion to Buddhism was a black-lacquered shrine in my grandparents' house. Roughly forty-five centimetres tall, it displayed irresistible miniatures: brass bell and mallet, porcelain goblet filled with steamed rice, sticks of incense crumbling in a pot of ashes. My father would instruct me to repeat the nembutsu, "Namu Amida Butsu," three times, wearing a string of prayer beads around my hands. I'd run the words together by rote, "Namuamidabutsu," whispering so nobody would hear me.

I am a fourth-generation Japanese American and a Buddhist by birth, but growing up, I knew little about the philosophy. In my family, Buddhism was an assumed presence, taken for granted as was our dark hair and the island pidgin talk. Back then we hardly ever visited the Hongwanji temple in Hilo, my hometown, except for weddings. Nothing about the temple seemed particularly Buddhist or Japanese. With a lofty ceiling and rows of wooden pews, it resembled a Christian church - and every marriage I witnessed there included the traditional "till death do us part" vow (and a pristine Cinderella dress).

Four years ago, I took a Zen meditation course and sat zazen for the first time. At the opening class, Reb Anderson, senior dharma teacher of the San Francisco Zen Center, arrived in drab robes. He folded his legs into lotus pose and his hands into a mudra, facing the class. Without a word, he sat for thirty minutes. Afterward he gave a dharma talk. But his initial silence struck me as a minimalist way to demonstrate the lesson of his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki: simply to sit is enough.

After the course ended, I occasionally sat at the Berkeley Zen Center, where the regulars sat for forty minutes, either at 5:40 a.m or 5:40 p.m. They walked barefoot in the zendo, hands clasped at waist, bowing at the abbot, at each other, and at their zafu pillow. After zazen, they performed nine full-body prostrations, followed by a monotone chanting of the Heart Sutra. Upon meeting a few of them, I noticed a common, often lifelong affinity for Eastern philosophy and direct spiritual experience.

These people were nothing like the Japanese-American Buddhists in Hilo. My parents practise Shin Buddhism, a devotional form that arose from the teachings of Shinran Shonin (1173-1262). Shonin believed that efforts toward enlightenment are tainted by delusions of one's own goodness. Therefore laypeople in the Shin sect forgo meditation and express their worldview simply by reciting the nembutsu, which means "I entrust myself to Amida, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life."

Upon discovering Zen meditation, the Buddhism of my parents suddenly seemed folksy and purely social, a senior citizens' club of sorts. If I inquired about the Hongwanji, they'd mention sushi and pumpkin pie fundraisers, New Year mochi rice pounding, and odds and ends collected for the annual white elephant sale. Or they'd report on the funeral of a casual acquaintance from church, which registered to me as small-town, obligatory bereavement support.

Is this Buddhism? I wondered.

Luci Yamamoto practises asana daily and zazen occasionally in Berkeley, California. Her last article for ascent was "Questionable Conduct," published in summer 2003. Write to her at

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