My Tokudo Ceremony

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

The following is the text of the speech I gave after my Tokudo ceremony which was held in October 1997. I have left off the preliminary remarks wherein I thanked everyone for attending and thanked my sensei, the Ven. Ryusho Matsuda for agreeing to take me on as his disciple.

I have given a lot of thought in the last few weeks to the meaning of the Shukke Tokudo Ceremony. The name literally means "To leave home and to attain the Way." But what exactly does it mean to leave home and to attain the Way? I particularly wondered about this because there is no expectation that I will actually be leaving my wife and baby daughter, and in fact I will be driving back home with them and my parents after this is over. During the ceremony itself I stood before my family and said "We can not cut off the bonds of love and affection insofar as we transmigrate in the triple world. To enter the Changeless World by disregarding the favors that we have been given by relatives is the true way of repaying them." However, as Bishop Matsuda said to me before the ceremony, one does not actually intend to cut off love and affection.

So what then does it mean to say these things? What does it mean to say that one is renouncing family and home life? Does it really mean to renounce love, obligation and responsibility? What kind of people would we be if we even tried to do such a thing? When I think about my wife, Yumi, my baby daughter, Julie, and my parents and brother I can not even imagine cutting off the feelings I have for them or trying to shirk my responsibilities in regard to them. Not that I have been or am a perfect husband, father, son or brother but there is within me the deep wish live up to those roles and to try to bring happiness to those I care about. To deny these feeling would, it seems to me, be a denial of my humanity. Nichiren himself felt this way and in "The Conversation Between a Sage and an Unenlightened Man" Nichiren wrote:

"Ever since I began to study the Dharma handed down from Shakyamuni Buddha and undertook the practice of the Buddhist teachings, I have believed it is most important to understand one's obligations to others, and made it my first duty to repay such debts of kindness. In this world, we owe four debts of gratitude. One who understands this is worthy to be called human, while one who does not is no more than a beast." (MW-5, p.94)

When I reflect, however, on the way that I and so many others actually live, I realize that even though we say that we value love and responsibility, in actuality we pursue the things of this world like family, companionship, careers and hobbies for the sake of our own personal satisfaction. Whether to stave off loneliness, bolster our self-worth or to satisfy some other need we cling to others for our own sake and not for their own. Even if we are able to spare a moment to think of others before ourselves, it is usually only when it is convenient for ourselves and almost always to help others pursue goals which are just as self-oriented and short-sighted as our own usually are. The Buddha Dharma teaches us, however, that there is no such thing as lasting self-satisfaction, so our efforts to find such a thing either on or own or with the help of others is doomed to futility and frustration. Despite this teaching however, we rarely ever stop and think about some other approach to life and living for either ourselves or those we say we care for.

In Buddhism, the recognition that there is no such thing as lasting self satisfaction is based upon the three characteristics of all phenomena - impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflesness. Which is to say that all phenomena are only temporary, therefore they can not fully satisfy our needs nor can they form a basis for any kind of substantial selfhood. All things, including ourselves, are subject to change. When I look at my own daughter, for instance, I realize that as much as I cherish the way she is now and no matter how much I treasure the moment when she says her first word or the moment when she will take her first steps this will all pass away much too quickly, and before I know it Yumi and I will be worrying about who she's dating or why she's staying out so late or whether her grades are good enough to get into a good school. Even in the case of my daughter, I have to admit that her life is characterized by impermanence, accompanied by all kinds of worry and distress and lacking in any kind of fixed selfhood. This is true of all those I love. This is true of myself. Realizing this is to confront what Buddhism calls the Great Matter of Birth and Death. Once again let me share with you Nichiren's words on this:

"The sufferings that meet our eyes in this present world are lamentable enough. How much more lamentable are those that one will encounter on the long road of death! How can we fail to be pained at the thought of it? A thing to be boundlessly feared is the life hereafter; a matter of greatest concern is the existence to come!" (MW-5, p.95)

In light of the Great Matter we must rethink our priorities and look for the deeper significance of life beyond that of simply meeting our mundane obligations and pursuing our secular ambitions. We should not waste our lives in the futile search for temporary happiness when there is even the slightest possibility of freeing ourselves from the dilemma of birth and death and tasting the true joy of liberation. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves what we wish to do with our lives. If we devote ourselves to the things of this world, eventually we must leave them all behind at the moment of our own inevitable deaths no matter how much we cherish them. In that moment, what could possibly console that loss? As everyone knows, we can't take anything with us and no one can accompany us on that final journey. In regard to this, Nichiren decided it would be much more fruitful to dedicate his life to the Dharma, even if it meant giving up his life. In the letter entitled "The Persecution at Tatsunokuchi" he wrote:

"How many are the places where I died in past existences for the sake of my family, lands and kin! I have given up my life on mountains, seas and rivers, on the seashore and by the roadside, but never once did I die for the Lotus Sutra or suffer persecution for the daimoku. Hence none of the ends I met enabled me to reach enlightenment. Because I did not attain Buddhahood, the seas and rivers where I died are not the Buddha land." (MW-1, p.13)

What Nichiren discovered was that by devoting his life to the Dharma he was able to resolve the Great Matter of Birth and Death. He was able to recover the true and deep meaning of living from the jaws of meaninglessness and death. In turning from the world to the Dharma he gained the capacity to return to the world not as a place to be enured, but as the Pure Land itself. In the same letter, he writes the following in regard to his brush with death at the execution ground of Tatsunokuchi:

"Of all the places in this world, it is at Tatsunokuchi in Katase of Sagami Province where Nichiren's life dwells. Because he gave his life there for the sake of the Lotus Sutra, Tatsunokuchi may well be called the Buddha land. This principle is found in the Jinriki chapter, where it states, `Whether in a grove, in a garden, on a mountain, in a valley or in a broad field,...the Buddhas enter nirvana.'" (MW-1, p.14)

Like Nichiren, we should strive for the true wisdom and compassion of the Buddha so that we can clearly see the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of things and stop futilely pursuing lasting self satisfaction. In turning from a life lived merely for our own sakes, we free ourselves to see and live life just as it is, as the unfolding of the Wonderful Dharma itself. In this unfolding we find the selfless self which is eternally pure and blissful. In this awakening we find that our relationships are tranformed as well. Families and communities that were once bound by so-called enlightened self-interest become families and communities of true enlightenment guided by unconditional love and mutual compassion.

What is Shukke Tokudo - leaving home and attaining the Way? It is not, after all, turning our backs on our loved ones or reneging on our obligations and responsibilities. Rather, it is a reorientation of our lives whereby we cease livng life for our own sake and strive to live for the sake of all. This change of priorities is not the common way of the world, so it may sometimes upset the expectations of others whose priorities are not centered on the Dharma and whose priorities are limited by mundane concerns. In the end, however, the goal is to awaken ourselves, our families, our communities and our world to the unshakeable source of true happiness which is the True Dharma. Again, to quote from Nichiren one last time:

"There is a passage in the sutras that says, `By renouncing one's obligations and entering nirvana one can truly repay those obligations in full.' Thus we see that he who casts aside all bonds of indebtedness and love in this present life and enters into the true path of Buddhism is the one who really understands the meaning of obligations" (MW-5, p.97-98)

In "leaving home and attaining the Way" I am making a commitment to live not merely for my own sake, or merely for my family's sake, or merely for the sake of pursuing cultural expectations and concerns but for the sake of unfolding the Wonderful Dharma for all. I do not at all believe that this Tokudo Ceremony has been able to instantly transform me into some kind of saint. I still have the same shortcomings, bad habits and attachments that I did before. What is different is that I have expressed my willingness to overcome these things and to seek for enlightenment itself for myself and for others. I hope that in this way, moment-by-moment we can all do our part in transforming this world with all it's seeming shortcomings and tragedies into a Pure Land. In the words of a song that I learned from a former teacher of mine:

Let it begin with every step we take,
Let it begin with every change we make,
Let it begin with every chain we break,
Let it begin every time we awake.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1997. 2002.


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