Rev. Kodo Tanaka 田中孝道
Title: Thankfully (Okagesama) 5
Through the past four columns, I have introduced how Buddhism considers our present lives. The legend of Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, tells us that he took seven steps right after his birth and stated “Above the heavens and below the heavens I alone am most noble.” Although this statement may sound arrogant, it expresses the nature of our present lives.
First, let us remember the column before last, which was about our ancestry. If you ascend ten generations of your ancestry to count the number of people, it is 1,024! It is not only a matter of bloodline and family lineage but also the succession of love and affection, worries and patience, passed on from parent to child, generation to generation. They are the conditions found when you look for the reasons for your present lives by ascending the time axis. Especially, 1,024 is not the end. This connection of specific thousands of people is nobody’s but yours. All who are the conditions that support your present lives vertically from the past. It is true not only for you but all others. In this sense, no reason is necessary to know that we all are “only one” just as we are. In other words, “You alone are most noble,” and the same is true for all others.
Second, the last column dealt with the condition supporting our present lives to survive each day: food. Behind the scene of all food we take, there is the link of countless conditions that made possible, such as harvest, transportation of ingredients, and cooking. But ultimately, no food is possible without taking the lives of animals and plants. These are the conditions found when you horizontally look for the reasons for your present lives. Buddhism teaches all meals in front of us are lives taken. So, in Japanese, the word before meals is “itadaki-masu (I humbly take this),” a phrase to express repentance for taking lives, gratefulness for receiving them, and commitment to live fully.
There is a Buddhist saying, “If a man does not live fully, it is like a tree without a root.” A tree should fall if it does not spread its roots. As mentioned, the nature of our lives is “I alone am most noble”, supported by the countless conditions vertically and horizontally. That is why it is important not to be indulged by the idea of “I am the only one” but to face our commitment to live fully.
Thus, our present lives exist supported by both the vertical relationship of our ancestry and the horizontal relationship of the countless lives of animals and plants. As mentioned in the previous column, unlike “I” in English, “人 (a person)” in Japanese consists of two lines leaning against each other. The appearance of this letter shows that a person does not exist independently but exists interdependently with the countless conditions beyond time and space. To rephrase, the concept of “I” does not exist without countless “You.” A Japanese word that expresses this idea is “okage-sama.” Literally, “okage” means all invisible supports often symbolized as divine protection, and “sama” is a title that suggests respect. Collectively, it means: “Thanks to whomever and whatever.”
Since Buddhism was born in India, this idea of “okage-sama” was expressed with Indian languages. They called the vertical conditions beyond the sense of time that support our present lives from the past: “amitayus” (infinite life), and called the horizontal conditions beyond the sense of space supporting our present lives: “Amitabha” (immeasurable light). When Buddhism was introduced to China, these Indian words were expressed “amida” by putting the sound of these words into letters for the preciousness of the idea to be carried in it. Does the word “amida” sound familiar? Yes, it is “amida” in the Buddhist practice of reciting “Namu Amida Butsu.”