Hoonko: A Very Special Service

By Rev. Ken Yamada

If there’s only one service a year you can attend, then go to Hoonko, Shinran Shonin’s memorial held in November.

Hoonko (pronounced Hō-onkō) is the most important service for us because it honors Shinran Shonin, founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism. At our Higashi Honganji mother temple in Kyoto, thousands of people attend Hoonko services, culminating with a grand observance on the 28th, when the famous Bando Bushi chanting is performed by a chorus of ministers, swaying back and forth as if in a storm-tossed boat. (See video above, 40 minute mark). Hordes of people, including many grandmas and grandpas, crowd in front of the temple’s front gate, which open at 7 a.m. They rush in, hoping to get a front row seat, as if attending a Rolling Stones concert.

Higashi Honganji, formally called Shinshu Otani-ha, observes Hoonko in November according to the lunar calendar, so that’s when our temples in the United States also hold special services. Nishi Honganji, formally called Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, follows the solar or Western calendar, and holds Hoonko services in January, although some of their American temples may hold Hoonko services in November.

“Hoonko” means “repaying our debt of gratitude,” which truly reflects our appreciation for Shinran’s teachings and life.

Rennyo Shonin (considered the second founder of Jodo Shinshu) wrote:

As the thanksgiving services (Hoonko) this month are an annual ceremony of long standing, there has been no lapse up to now in our seven day observance of them. On this occasion, therefore, followers from various provinces come with an earnest resolve to repay their indebtedness and express their gratitude…

… however, it seems that few dwell in the same faith. The reason for this is that their aspiration is not truly for the Buddha-dharma and if they are simply imitating others or following social convention, it is indeed a lamentable situation…

Even if you feel that you understand the significance of the Buddha-dharma—having listened through sliding doors or over a hedge—faith will be decisively settled by your repeatedly and carefully asking others about its meaning. If you leave things to your own way of thinking, there will invariably be mistakes…

You should ask others, time after time, about what you have understood of faith, until Other-Power faith is decisively settled.*

It’s ironic how Shinran is honored with such a big ceremony with elaborate rituals. His image even sits at the center of the largest hall both at Higashi Honganji’s and Nishi Honganj’s main temples. However, he never called himself a teacher, mostly referring to himself as a disciple, and adopting the nickname “foolish, baldheaded one.” Why would he be so revered with such important observances? I think because he was an extremely humble person who admitted his faults and weaknesses, making him a person like you and me.

He described himself as filled with passions, calling himself “bombu,” a foolish being. He felt that the key to understanding the Buddha’s teachings was looking at one’s self, truly and honestly. Spiritual awakening meant “turning one’s mind” to see Truth.

For example, most times we view life outwardly, from our own perspective and desires, judging the world accordingly. Therefore, we have “likes” and “dislikes,” based on how we feel about something. From this self-centered view of the world, we naturally feel “I’m right” and “You’re wrong.”

Shinran understood this limited selfish view causes conflict and suffering. This kind of conflict happens with people, families, communities, political parties, governments and nations.

Shinran knew selfishness was part of human nature, which he felt intensely. Thus, he wrote:

Wise people are such that they are inwardly wise, but appear outwardly foolish. But the heart of this foolish, baldheaded one, Shinran, is such that I am inwardly foolish, but appear outwardly wise.

Once our mind “turns” with true wisdom, we see life from a different perspective. We better understand other people, become less attached to our opinions and beliefs, and our understanding about life deepens.

In Jodo Shinshu, “turning the mind” is also called “turning the heart.” I think the English expression, “change of heart,” nicely captures this feeling.  We can have a change of heart about people, things and even situations in which we find ourselves. This change of heart can be a source of wisdom, a source of strength, and a source of confidence to live life to the fullest in the face of suffering.

In Buddhist terms, this is how a mind clouded by darkness (ignorance) is illuminated by light (wisdom).  In Shinran’s writings, he cites Tz’u-min, a Chinese Pure Land Buddhist master in the eighth century, in describing this dynamic to be like “bits of rubble turning into gold.”

At our upcoming Hoonko service, we’ll express our appreciation and gratitude for the life of Shinran, who really shows us regular folks that the Buddha dharma is found, not in monastic rules, severe discipline, endless meditation or scholastic study, but in our lives, right here, right now. All it takes is a change of heart.

This month, our temples, such as Los Angeles, Berkeley, West Covina and in Hawaii, will hold Hoonko observances. Please check with your local temple to see a schedule of services.

-Rev. Yamada is editor at Shinshu Center of America


*from Rennyo Shonin’s letters, IV-7, in “Rennyo: The second founder of Shin Buddhism,” by Minor and Ann Rogers, Asian Humanities Press, 1991