Reverend Koshin Ogui is a rebel. He’s dedicated to the Buddhist school in which he is ordained. But in the 1970s, he broke with tradition to begin teaching meditation. Meditation, while commonly associated with Buddhism is not part of Jodo Shinshu, Japan’s most popular school of Buddhism. While teaching meditation may not sound like a big deal, Ogui says it forced him to think a lot about what is gained or lost in sticking with a particular form of religion.
Today, Ogui is the retired full-time resident minister of White River Buddhist Temple in Washington. In San Francisco, the spark of his rebelliousness lives on. Several years ago, the Buddhist Church of San Francisco also introduced meditation as a way to recruit beyond its shrinking Japanese base. The Spiritual Edge’s Judy Silber spoke to Ogui twice, once by phone and a second time when he visited San Francisco in Nov. 2016. Those two interviews have been combined and edited for clarity.
SILBER: When were you first introduced to meditation?
OGUI: When I was about six or seven years old, my father, who was a Jodo Shinshu priest sent me to Zen Buddhist temple in Sara, Japan. Maybe it was because I was not [a well] behaved boy, so I needed more disciplinary practice.
SILBER: What did you think of the meditation practice?
OGUI: Meditation practice to me is something that goes beyond logic and philosophies. So Zazen type of meditation, sitting meditation—or maybe any meditation practice—assists us to go beyond, to create harmony of body and mind. It’s very beneficial for anyone, I think. It takes us beyond belief.
SILBER: And how is that different from Jodo Shinshu teachings and practices?
OGUI: Jodu Shinshu teaching traditionally emphasizes that faith be awakened to the infinite sense of wisdom and compassion. It’s taught us that belief can take us beyond form to peace of the mind and pure land after death.
Zen schools are different. They encourage us to go through the actual practice, called self-generated practice. In comparison, the Jodhu Shinshu emphasizes belief beyond our self-generated practice.
SILBER: Okay. So you came from Japan. You went to San Francisco first.
OGUI: I came from Japan in 1962. Then I was here in Berkeley for special training, about one year. Then I was sent to Oxnard and Santa Barbara, California for three years. Then I went to Yale Divinity School for further study. Then back to San Francisco at the San Francisco Buddhist Temple. I was assigned to San Francisco Buddhist Temple as resident minister and stayed there about six years. That was the time of the so-called hippies.
That was a very exciting time. Young people were very disappointed from the World War II, Korean War, the John F. Kennedy and Robert F Kennedy assassinations, and so on. Frustrated young people left home looking for more freedom and many came to the San Francisco area.
I started practicing Zazen type of meditation at the Soto Japanese Zen temple and under the guidance of Suzuki Roshi.
SILBER: And what was the initial reaction from Buddhist Churches of America, and from the Japanese Jodo Shinshu mother temple when they heard that you were starting to teach meditation?
OGUI: That were quite questions. Questions and questions. Yet I didn’t have much choice to wonder. I had to do something to respond to people’s needs and requests, especially in Cleveland, Ohio. After San Francisco, I went to Cleveland, Ohio.
SILBER: And in Cleveland, people were coming and asking for meditation, right?
OGUI: When I was in Cleveland, Ohio, there was a temple, the Cleveland Buddhist Temple. I presented what I learned about our traditions, to be awakened, or to believe in the sense of wisdom and compassion, so on. But people, in general, did not show interest, Instead, they asked me to teach some meditation practice. Six out of 10 phone calls are asking about the actual practice of meditation.
SILBER: And can you tell me how you struggled, like initially you thought no, I can’t do this because it went against the teachings.
OGUI: That’s right. I still question myself whenever I talk like this. There, at the Cleveland, Ohio temple I kind of questioned myself about how much I could do self-generated practice of meditations instead of emphasizing the belief and awareness of the infinite sense of wisdom of compassion.
I was brainwashed by our tradition not to practice meditation, to simply believe the Amidha Buddha is infinite wisdom and compassion and will really take care of us; to believe that the power of wisdom and compassion will enlighten you. Shin Buddhism is very deep, but it’s confusing with a sense of God as creator. The Buddha was explained as a savior. That confused people a lot here. People might walk in, and say what is this? Do I have to believe this?
I felt uncomfortable to teach the actual practice of meditation. But responding to the request of people, I encouraged myself to do it.
SILBER: You said it’s like having a store and you refuse to offer what your customers want.
OGUI: It is true that I thought to myself if I had been refusing to teach meditation because I affiliate with Jodo Shinshu beliefs then it’s like I would lose my customers, in a sense. If I lose six out of 10 customers, my store would have to close. It would go bankrupt. So I told myself, why not? Just see it, do it and see what will happen.
SILBER: The people who were coming and requesting meditation were they Japanese people or white people?
OGUI: They’re mostly non-Japanese, but some Asian without the Japanese American heritage. It was the Bible belt.
SILBER: What did the people in the Japanese congregation think when you started to teach meditation?
OGUI: I don’t know. But they didn’t make any negative comments. They ignored it.
SILBER: But were people in Japan angry with you?
OGUI: Not angry, but they questioned about whether I was being guided in the right direction by our leader, the bishop at that time. And yet, when they come and observed, they were very impressed by people of different races gathering and appreciating the practice. But they still had questions about it.
SILBER: What’s the story that you tell about the moon and the finger? It’s so beautiful.
OGUI: The finger, which is pointing to the beauty of the moon, is my favorite story. It’s one of a Buddhist master.
Any form, ritual, doctrines, and teachings are like the finger that is pointing to the beauty of the moon. To see the beauty of the moon, you have to go through the finger. But you cannot get stuck in the ritual. If you’re stuck, then you cannot see the beauty of the moon.
In the Jodo Shinshu tradition we have a long history of all kinds of rituals, forms, doctrines and teachings. But if people are so seriously attached to the forms, they cannot see the beauty of the moon. They are just the forms, which human beings made.
The forms are very important. They assist us to go through and beyond. Then we’re able to see the beauty of the moon and able to share joy and face difficulties. Then we human beings are sharing life, whether I like you or not. That’s what it means to be enlightened.
But most religions have to be careful because it’s easier to get stuck on the finger and encourage people—or force people—to think what they believe is right and others are wrong.
The finger is important. It shows the directions, which means teaching practice, belief and ritual. Directions are important, but someone has to be wise enough to go beyond, to see the beauty of the moon.