October 2020 Message

Winners and Losers
by Reverend Dean Koyama

When we say “Namo Amida Butsu,”
Avalokiteśvara (Bodhisattva of Compassion) and
Mahāsthāmaprāpta (Bodhisattva of Wisdom),
Together with bodhisattvas countless as the Ganges’ sand or
as particles
Accompany us just as shadows do things.
Jodo Wasan #108.

Be that as it may, the passage of time continues even though many of us must work or “go-toschool” from home. The month of September bring us the Fall Equinox and our observance of O-higan.

I can tell Fall has finally arrived because our shadows are getting longer! Just before it did, we experienced a strange convergence of events. For the past six months we have had to endure the stay-at-home mandates by our county health officials to stem the spread of the Corona Virus. Unfortunately, we are still experiencing over 6 million positive cases of the virus and approaching 200,000 deaths. There has been the civil unrest of protesting the systemic racist treatment of people who long to be treated equally as any human being should be treated. Then we had freak lightning storms that sparked hundreds of wild fires throughout the western United States. These fires were/are so widespread that the smoke filled the skies completely blocking out the sun for a couple of days bathing us in an eerie orange haze. Along with the smoke and the unhealthy or hazardous air quality, came the days of record-breaking heat forcing us to swelter in doors with the windows closed.

All of this has forced us to change our perspective of what is normal. Usually, when Fall arrives, we would be in the midst of going back to school. While school has re-started, it is very different from what we would normally expect. Most schools and colleges are limiting or not having in-person classes. Usually we would be in the midst of Baseball’s World Series hunt, but instead the baseball season which was interrupted during Spring training and Opening Day was observed with no fans in the stands, will just begin it’s modified play-off series. The NFL football season has just started on-time albeit without any playoff games to get the kinks worked out and no fans in most stadiums. Finally, we are coming up to an election that is so pivotal to whether or not we will be given any hope of a return to some sense of normalcy. This is a Fall, no, this is year, that we will never forgot as long as we live. And we are nowhere near where we need to be to get back to a semblance of what our lives used to be like without a cure for the Covid-19 virus.

Perhaps because of all these things, some of us may feel a little off balanced. But perhaps, in a way this is a good opportunity to re-examine all the things we consider normal. For example, take the concept of “winners” and “losers.” Normally we consider winners to be who we would like to be. They are the champions; they are the victors; they are the heroes. Losers are the failures, the disappointments, the flops. Recently in the news we have heard about Winners and Losers. And perhaps, in our normal way of life, being a winner is a positive thing whereas being a loser is negative.

But how can we look at this situation of opposites in a Buddhist context?

Recently, we had a family get-together. We were playing the card game Uno, where the object of the game is to be the first person to get rid of all their cards. Now, to make this game interesting, there are a number of cards that can be tools to help keep a person from winning, such as the skip card, forcing the next player to skip their turn. There are also the draw two cards where the next player must draw two cards instead of putting his card down in the stack and play resumes with the next player. And there is the Cadillac of cards, the Draw Four card where the next player must draw four cards. We play by the rule that if you play a Draw Four card, and the next player can also play a Draw Four card so that the following person has to draw eight cards. But if that third person also has a Draw Four card, then the fourth person has to draw a total of 12 cards. It can get so exciting and fun when a person gets dumped on like that.

The first round we played, the winner was a 6-year old boy and of course he was very happy he won and he wanted to play again. However, in the next game, he had one card left, but it turned out that his mom beat him by playing her last card first. He ran away from the table, pouting and mad that he lost. We were able to convince him to come back and try again. In the next round, the boy, again had only one card left. I was seated so that I would have to play a card before him so I was the protector of keeping the game going. The person before me, though, played a Draw Four card and naturally the boy laughed with delight at my misfortune sensing that he was close to victory. So, of course, I had to play my Draw Four card which meant that he would have to pick up 8 cards. Again, the boy got up from the table crying.

Everyone tried to console him by telling him it is only a game – it is supposed to be fun. In the eyes of a child, it is easy to see how one would like to be the winner. There is a sense of joy and accomplishment when one wins; when one is able to struggle through the greatest of challenges and emerge as the final victor; when one knows that he/she is the best.

Yet, in order to be the winner, others must also take on the same challenge, task, or competition. This means that although there may be only one winner, there are many more who do not reach that level of accomplishment. If there were no one else to take on that challenge, task or competition, could we have such a clear and decisive winner? Imagine a game of Uno where you are playing by yourself. Imagine running the 100- meter dash and you are the only one running. Imagine being in the Superbowl and there is no other team to play. These contests, games and challenges would not be very interesting or fun.

In other words, to play a game where one becomes a winner, means that another must lose. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that loser should be considered in a negative light, that they are failures, disappointments or fiascos. Rather, they are essential, necessary and important. In a way, they are connected to the winner just like a shadow.

When one greets another in Japanese, it is very common for one to ask, “O-genki desu ka?” How are you? The usual response nowadays is “II desu,” or “Genki desu,” “I am fine,” or I’m healthy.”

Back in the day, a common response to the question, O-genki desu ka was “O-kage sama de.” For me this is an elegantly beautiful Japanese expression that is heavily influenced by Buddhism. Literally it means, because of your shadow/shade (...I am fine.). Imagine having to be walking all day in the hot sun with no air-conditioned buildings or homes in sight. In order to take a rest, where do you go? You find the shade beneath a large tree. The tree continues to stand in the hot sun, but it casts its shade so that we can take a rest. This is the feeling of O-kage sama de. It is a wonderful expression of true gratitude.

A winner is not alone in his winning. He is connected to the shadow of those he is playing or competing against as well. Without the others, he/she can never become a “real” winner. Truly then, a winner should not just be celebrating in his own victory but recognize that it is because of the others, he /she is able to play or compete in the first place. In the same way, we are able to live because of the sacrifices, efforts and dedication of all the people and things in our lives. Because of their shadow/shade, we are able to live.

O-kage sama de...Namo Amida Butsu,

Rev. Dean Koyama