Buddhist Goes With the Odds

Times Staff Writer

Its timbre calls attention to the sound, distinct among the rings of other Sunday morning calls to worship. Gong, Gong, Gong, Gong, Gong, Gong, Gong . The resonant reverberations of the iron gong outside the Buddhist temple suggest darkness--an irony, for this is a religion always in search of the light of wisdom. But it is not the darkness of evil that the gong suggests; rather, it is the dark of the depths: the soul searched and stirred.

Five more gongs, then three. "It is our folk tradition that odd numbers are lucky. Four signifies death," says the Rev. Noriaki Ito.

Here, in Little Tokyo, it is raining, cold and windy as Ito strokes the iron gong this Sunday morning.

Across the street from the Higashi Honganji Temple at 505 E. 3rd St. stands JAX Car Sales, its name announced in red and green. Next to it, Three Star Signs offers neon plastic. And the ubiquitous homeless from nearby Skid Row straggle alone, sometimes in pairs, past the low wrought-iron gate and lush green garden of the temple.

Ito, a solitary figure in his black robe called the Kaw-e , stands on the gray stone steps of the temple, striking the gong for the last time before the Sunday service begins. In the turbulent morning air, with both commercial enterprise and the despairing nearby, he and the temple seem a sea of tranquility.

The Buddhist priest is wearing slacks, shirt and tie. He moves quickly, talks easily--he's loose.

"I have trouble with people who are real religious," says Ito, 39, married and the father of two.

He is seated in his office several days before the Sunday service. "I think you can be a normal person and have religion in your life," he clarifies.

He's a normal guy, with normal concerns, who also happens to be a Buddhist priest--and the son of one.

One normal concern: "I'm turning 40 this year," Ito says. He laughs.

"I know that 40 is an arbitrary number. But it means I am leaving my 30s. I am really going to have to define what I'm going to do with my life from now on. I can not sit on my laurels."

His laurels? He laughs again. "I spent seven years studying in Japan and learning how to chant. And I have grown into the role of being an effective priest. Every day, as I perform services or funerals, I look and say, 'I am doing a decent job.' But Buddhism teaches that you can not be satisfied at any point in your life."

A Change of Plans

Once, Ito, who was born in Japan and brought to the United States when he was 6, thought of becoming a lawyer. He says it was the Vietnam War that led him to the priesthood.

"I graduated from college in 1971 at the height of the Vietnam War. A lot of my friends were being drafted and we were all looking for a way out. I had friends who moved to Canada. I had friends who drank a quart of soy sauce before going to their physicals."

He and another friend interested in Buddhism decided to enroll in a Buddhist college in Japan.

"We sent our draft board a copy of our ticket and a letter from the college and just left. We never heard from them again."

Ito, like his father, is a member of the 800-year-old Jodo-shinshu sect, a streamlined, less ritualistic form of Buddhism. The sect has 10 million members in Japan, Ito says. He is unsure of the number in the United States, but says there 100 temples in this country, three of them in Southern California. His temple is headquarters for the sect in Los Angeles.

Taking his visitor to the altar, the priest points to the Golden Buddha. "Some sects of

No Special Powers

The reason, he says, is that the Buddha always considered himself to be nothing more than a human being. "He could only teach, but he couldn't do anything for anyone. So we can learn from him--we can look to him as a teacher--but he doesn't have any special powers to help us."

Schoolchildren often visit the temple, Ito says. "They always want to know: 'Why is the Buddha standing on an artichoke?'

"Actually, he is standing on a lotus. The lotus is one of the symbols of Buddhism. It grows in mud, but it eventually comes out of the mud to blossom into a beautiful flower--like human beings also. We live in this society, but we should also try to transcend it."

Throughout the temple, the scent of burning incense is strong. It symbolizes the purification of mind and body.

Ito points to the flowers on the altar. "They symbolize impermanence, one of the key concepts in Buddhism. Everything is changing. The flowers remind us, when they are arranged in the vase, that they are beautiful. But even now you can see that they are starting to wilt. And we purposely leave them in there for about a week so that the change, the fact that we are all changing like the flowers, is apparent."

The Sunday service is a special one, Shotsuki. It commemorates all those who have died during the month of January--recently and in years past.

Incense is burned as an offering to the ancestors. And Ito, assisted by another priest, chants.

About 30 people listen in the temple, their hands clutching meditation beads.

In his sermon, Ito reminds the congregation that by the Oriental zodiac, this is the Year of the Dragon. In another year of the Dragon, 1976, the congregation moved from Boyle Heights and built their temple on its present Third Street site.

The Year of the Dragon always symbolizes great deeds, new achievements, Ito tells them.

And the mythical creature, despite its fierce appearance, is a symbol of good in Oriental culture and is particularly meaningful to Buddhists.

In exchange for wisdom that the dragon possessed--the meaning of life and death--the Buddha said he would jump from his mountaintop and give himself as nourishment to satisfy the hunger of the dragon. The dragon gave him the knowledge he sought and the Buddha flung himself from the mountain as promised. But the dragon transformed himself into the lotus blossom, which received the Buddha and carried him back to the mountaintop. And it is on that lotus blossom that the Buddha always rests.

The dragon is the only creature in the Oriental zodiac that is not a real animal. "He is mythological," Ito says, "and takes the best characteristics from others, as we should: wisdom, energy, bravery, sensitivity and compassion."

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