Reflections on Being a Shami

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This talk was given at the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist Temple in October of 1998, one year after my tokudo ceremony. My sensei asked me to speak about my first year as a shami.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,

Reflections on Being a Shami

One year ago I became a Nichiren Shu shami (novice), under the guidance of the Venerable Ryusho Matsuda. My hair was shorn, I was given the kesa and the name Ryuei. Now that one year has passed, I can reflect on what it means to be a shami. I think that there are three essential elements to being a shami. The first is putting on the kesa or wakesa every Sunday just before the service. I always hold it before me, bow my head and recite three silent Odaimoku before putting it on. I do this because the kesa is the physical symbol or expression of my dedication to the Sangha. This simple piece of cloth is the link to all of those monks and nuns for the past 2,500 years back to the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, who have dedicated their whole lives to the Three Jewels. In wearing this kesa I become a living link in that tradition and I too take on the responsibility for making the Three Jewels a living breathing reality for others. I may not embody the tradition as perfectly or as purely as I would like to, but even the fact that I can put on the kesa shows that I have been given the precious opportunity to make the attempt, and each time I put it on I am making the cause for the future buddhahood of all sentient beings.

When I first heard of the Buddha Dharma in high school, I never imagined that I would ever actually encounter the Sangha or even just a single authentic Dharma teacher. Now that I have had the great good fortune to be able to don the kesa myself, I can’t help but express my gratitude to the Buddha. This is why I always bow and recite Odaimoku before putting on the kesa. This is why, for me, the wearing of the kesa is that part of being a shami which I can never take for granted.

The next essential element of being a shami, which is no less important is to be able to train myself under the guidance of the Venerable Ryusho Matsuda. I not only received my kesa from him, but he is the one who shows me how to wear it. I don’t mean by this that he merely showed me how to put it on. What I really mean is that he is the one who shows me what it means to be a priest through his personal example and guidance so that I can properly grow into the kesa which he has bestowed upon me. Of course, even before becoming a shami, he had become my teacher of Nichiren Buddhism. He was able to lift the teachings of Nichiren and the Lotus Sutra off the written page and show the warmth and human qualities which are behind the words and concepts. This can only be communicated person to person. In becoming his disciple, however, I have allowed myself to be more open to direct instruction and even criticism than I would otherwise be. In becoming my sensei, he has in turn show me that he has confidence in my ability to learn what needs to be learned, not just intellectually but emotionally and spiritually, so that someday I will be able to more fully represent the Sangha myself as a fully ordained Nichiren Shu priest. The sensei - shami relationship, then, is one of mutual confidence and trust. It is the person-to-person bond which makes a living reality of the the Three Jewels and it is a reflection of the ongoing reality of the transmission of the Wonderful Dharma which is the Gohonzon itself.

Finally, my Dharma name, Ryuei, is of great significance to me because it brings both of these two essential elements together. The “Ryu” means “dragon” and it was derived from my sensei’s name. “Ryu” is a reference to the dragons or nagas who are said to have guarded the Mahayana sutras beneath the ocean until the time was right for them to propagated by Bodhisattva Nagarjuna (whose name is Ryuju in Japanese). “Ei” is the pronunciation of the ideogram which means “English”. It refers to my sensei’s hope that I can facilitate the transfer of the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra into the medium of the English language and American culture. It is a name which expresses my link with him and which signifies that I have been entrusted with the kesa as a representative of the Sangha. It is the name of the one who wears the kesa. With this name, I must make the Three Jewels available to all of those who seek it, and even to those who have not yet heard of it.

In many ways, this past year as a shami has been the fulfillment of my high school dream to find a teacher of the Buddha Dharma and to become a part of the Sangha which at that time seemed so remote and far away in another time and place. Now this dream has become a reality. I hope that in the future, I will be able to inspire others to take up a similar aspiration to seek out the Three Jewels and to take up the One Vehicle of the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra. Furthermore, I hope that I will be able, in every way possible, to embody the Three Jewels so that others may find it and embody it as well. If I can do these things, then my training as a shami will not have been in vain, and I will be able to repay my debt to the Three Jewels and to my sensei, the Venerable Ryusho Matsuda, for giving me the chance to fulfill my own aspirations.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1998. 2002.

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