By Rev. Koen Kikuchi
What is appreciation? What is the meaning of gratitude? How do we show our thanks?
In English, we usually say “thank you” and “I appreciate you” to show our gratitude to someone. On the other hand in Japanese, we say “arigato.” But there are other ways of saying “thank you,” for example, “gomen nasai” (literally “I’m sorry”) and “sumimasen” (literally, “excuse me”).
If I want to make my way through a crowd of people, I say “excuse me.” If I drop something and somebody picks it up for me, I say “thank you.” If I water plants and flowers, and I accidentally spray water on somebody, I say “I’m sorry.” However, in Japanese the word “sumimasen” applies to all these situations. “Sumimasen” express both appreciation and apology. Also, the word implies an attitude of humbleness—putting aside one’s ego and showing respect to others.
Consider how people propose marriage to a sweetheart. The traditional way of asking is “Will you marry me?” The answer hopefully is “Yes, I will.” By contrast, Japan has what may seem to you unusual ways of proposing marriage. Here’s one: “I want to drink your miso soup everyday.” Another is “Will you wash my underwear?” These are old ways of asking. Nowadays, people sometimes say, “I will make your life happy,” answered by, “I am willing too.” This is a pretty direct way of expressing their feelings. In Japan’s olden days, when women were asked to wash underwear, they replied: “futsutsukamono desu ga” (不束者ですが), which means “I am not worthy, but I am willing.” This is the humble attitude of people in old Japan.
I think Jodo Shinshu has a way of expressing humble appreciation and humble willingness. At our services, we say, “Namu Amida Butsu.” Literally, Namu Amida Butsu means to take refuge in Amida Buddha. But more deeply, there is the process in which a person receives the teachings and then feels gratitude. So people say “Namu Amida Butsu” as a way to show appreciation for the Buddhist teachings and for Shinran’s teachings.
However, Namu Amida Butsu itself is the name of Buddha, which is calling us with the words: “take refuge in Amida Buddha!” Namu Amida Butsu is the calling from Buddha, which appears as the voices of teachers and dharma friends. Namu Amida Butsu is the calling, but also it is the answering. Namu Amida Butsu teaches us to take refuge in Amida Buddha. Once we received the teaching, we recite Namu Amida Butsu to show our gratitude.
This gratitude is not just the feeling of being joyful, but it is also the feeling of both sadness and relief. This is the humble expression of appreciation. I think I can say this is the same expression as “sumimasen,” or putting aside our ego and showing our respect.
Buddhism is the teaching of self-examination. The teaching reveals our reality, which is usually what we don’t want to accept. But when we accept reality as it is, we can understand how much we are deluded by our own thinking and attached to our ego-self. We suffer from ego-centered thinking because we don’t understand that suffering is caused by the way we think.
If we are in a dark room, we struggle and feel uncomfortable. But if light allows us to see the room, we feel relieved. We understand the darkness and light of our surroundings at the same time. We come to appreciate the light. Once we receive the teachings, our “room,” our life, becomes much clearer. Thus, we gain confidence to live despite difficulties and suffering.
The words, “Namu Amida Butsu” contain our feelings of both sadness and relief, and they express our humble appreciation to the Buddha Dharma.
(Rev. Kikuchi is a minister at Higashi Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii)