This week I want to tell you about one of the best books I have ever read.
It is no ordinary book. It is a two volume manga – a comic book.
Originally written in Japanese, and presented in the usual back-to-front order, it was re-arranged by the American Shin Buddhist Kei Shimizu, a member of the Orange County Buddhist Church.
Shimizu’s editing work is extraordinary. It must have been a huge job because he has presented it perfectly in the English idiom: not only in the translation itself but in the formatting. It reads from front-to-back in the normal English style. This must have entailed very exacting work. The picture panels of the comic book scan from left to right, even though they are often not square.
I am very glad for this two-volume comic because it tells of one of the most wonderful Shin Buddhists who ever lived. It is set at around the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and is about the life of Genza (1852-1930).
This was also a time of radical change in Japan. It was a time that the Dharma itself was under threat. Yet, despite the ominous environment of those days, Genza’s life was transformed by an encounter with the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.
Genza was born into the rural community of Tottori prefecture in western Japan. This area was the least populated area of Japan and the main industry throughout is still agriculture.
When Genza was in his early adulthood, his father died suddenly. But he had just enough time to say in his last few breaths, ‘When I die, trust in Oyasama.’ Oyasama is sometimes translated as ‘parent’. It is a term of endearment that refers to Amida Buddha.
Genza was perplexed by his father’s dying wish but earnestly sought to understand it, consulting teachers and constantly saying the nembutsu. He wondered if his nembutsu was ’empty nembutsu’ – kara nembutsu – but became aware later in his life that
There is no empty grain in the Nembutsu but people are empty grain. However, if people of empty grain keep repeating the Nembutsu, the grain will become filled. (p. 72)
In his daily life, Genza’s constant companion was his Ox, Den. Den served him by carrying huge loads of grain and straw.
After a search that takes half of the first volume of the book to relate, we learn that one day Genza was loading Den with particularly large bundles of hay. Constantly, working together, Den was a source of company and reassurance for Genza.
It was at the moment that Genza realised the reason for the comfort and happiness that Den’s presence brought him that he saw that Amida Buddha’s purpose was to carry the burden of Genza’s evil karma and that he never need feel burdened by it again.
Genza’s story and awakening is much better related in the comic book than I can tell it in writing. The entire story of his life is wonderful and truly inspiring.