May 11th, 2019
“We will pray this afternoon at the beach, not in the temple. Today is special.”
Senji didn’t say why the day was special. He just said that it was. It could have been because Karin and I had just arrived at the temple a few hours earlier. We had driven to the Nipponzan Myohoji Dojo from Wisconsin, via Texas. It was an absurdly long journey, with numerous stops along the way. We finally made it to the temple on Bainbridge Island, which sits across from Seattle on Puget Sound.
Bainbridge Island is essentially a bedroom community for wealthy workers in Seattle. The vast majority of the residents of the island have college degrees, and nearly all of them have a great deal of money. The only possible exceptions would be the two Buddhist monks, Senji and Gilberto. They have degrees, but not much money. They maintain their tiny temple with donations, and they spend most of their time working to promote peace. Their home is an island of voluntary poverty situated in the middle of an island of affluence.
Generally, Gilberto and Senji drum and chant in their temple twice a day, at 6:00 AM and at 5:30 PM. Senji decided to take Karin and myself to Gazzam Lake Park for the evening session. As its name implies, the park contains a small lake, but it also has a footpath that leads to the seashore. A branch of Puget Sound called Port Orchard separates Bainbridge Island from the Olympic Peninsula. The footpath twists and turns steeply down a hillside to the edge of Port Orchard channel.
I had been to this park once before. That was in February of last year. Winter on Bainbridge Island is cool and rainy. The forest was damp and wet during my previous visit. This time, as Karin, Senji, and I walked the narrow path down to the sea, the ground was dry and the air was warm. The plants were still lush and green. Sunlight filtered through the leaves of the trees, sometimes shining a spotlight on a particular bush or plant.
The trail wound through a forest made up of towering Douglas firs and cedars. There were also maples and birch trees interspersed among the conifers. Some of the trees were covered with lichen, while others had beards of green moss hanging from their branches. Ivy and ferns covered the ground. Occasionally, I could see tiny white flowers scattered here and there.
We took our time walking the path to the shore. It was very steep, and in places steps had been built into the trail. We had to climb over a massive tree branch to get to the beach. The beach had pebbles, but very little sand. The water from the sea lapped softly on to the shore. The afternoon sun beat down on us, and we all sat down on large stones.
Senji reached into his satchel and took out two taikos, handheld Japanese drums. He gave one of them to me. Then the three of us began to chant “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” over and over. “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” is a chant distilled from the Lotus Sutra. Senji and I drummed as we chanted. I tried to blend my thin tenor with his rich baritone. Karin chanted with her alto voice during the space when Senji and I were silent. We chanted and drummed for at least half an hour. During that time, the sun got closer to the western horizon. Shadows lengthened. White birds flew above us, and motorboats sped through the channel. Sunlight danced on the waves of the water. I could smell the salt in the air. I could also smell incense. The taikos must have absorbed a bit of the smoke from all the incense that was burned in the temple.
We stopped chanting. Senji spoke of the sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. In particular he talked about our inherent Buddha nature, and about our path to fully expressing that innermost part of ourselves. Then we all stood up and bowed to the West. Then we turned and faced each other, in order to bow to the Buddha that we saw within the other person.
We were at peace.