Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Assured by the past, comforted by the future

During the time I was helping at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, one night after Japanese folk dance practice at the Zen temple, my car was hit broadside by a speeding vehicle going the wrong way down a one-way street. When the police were sending me to the county hospital they asked who they should call so I gave them Rev. Gyoko Saito’s name and number. Sure enough, Rev. Saito came to the crowded emergency room and took me back to the temple. After I washed up in the Japanese style bath in his apartment, he gave me bedding to sleep on a couch in the temple’s lobby (which I had done a few times before when I partied too much to drive home). For a few hours, I wasn’t able to fall asleep when I thought about the stories of people in car accidents never waking up the next day due to concussions.

But then at one point I realized, “I encountered the nembutsu teachings from Dr. Haneda. That is enough – so I can die satisfied.” After that, I fell asleep until the early morning janitorial service crew woke me up.

Now in the same way I felt assured by my encounter with the nembutsu teachings through Dr. Haneda, I feel comforted that there are younger people out there who will continue in Dr. Haneda’s inspiring path of bringing the nembutsu to America - Michael Conway, for one, and our temple’s dear Native American member, Wendy.

This past Sunday Wendy gave a very articulate account of the Dharma Seeds retreat (Higashi Honganji’s North America District’s program) she attended in February where Rev. Mike was the main speaker. It made me happy to hear her describe how Rev. Mike is teaching about Shinran Shonin but also for how she appreciated what Rev. Mike described as his personal experience of receiving the nembutsu teachings.

[Rev. Michael Conway lecturing at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago]
Hopefully Wendy is not the only one influenced in the Dharma Seeds workshop and at our temple’s seminar, service and study class by Rev. Mike Conway in March. If anything, Rev. Mike is the reason I call my three years at Otani University and going through the Higashi Honganji rigamarole as worth it.  The “West” needs to hear Jodo Shinshu from non-ethnic Japanese – to hear how powerful Shinran’s teachings are, transcending geography and ethnicity.

After seeing my father (d. 2010) and sister (d. 2012) struggle with cancer, I don't want to be just another documenter of cancer’s effects. I want to be that spotlight that shines on the young and fantastic Dharma teachers coming up behind me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

City Hall: Benefitting Self or Benefitting Others

In the Higashi Honganji ministers seminar in Los Angeles in February, the presenter Rev. Michael Conway said that Soga Ryojin felt instead of using the terminology “self power” versus “other power” in Jodo Shinshu, it would be more descriptive to characterize our individual puny power as “self-benefitting power” and the unbounded wisdom and compassion (known as “Amida”) as “others-benefitting power.” Here, “benefitting” means the gifting of spiritual qualities. I fail miserably when I use my faulty abilities to grab spiritual qualities for myself and attempt to wear them as attention-getting garb (as so many Western Buddhists fall over themselves to look humble in saffron one-shoulder robes or in dark gowns with aprons). But when I receive help from those (human and otherwise) with genuine spiritual qualities, then I know there’s the great others-benefitting power working in the world through such beings.

In our world of material benefits, every person and every group uses their power for self-benefitting. Unless you’re a candidate for sainthood like Dorothy Day, it’s hard to claim you are working purely for others-benefitting. But I found there is something about working with people to protest the powerful who amass material benefits for themselves at the expense of those struggling to get by day-to-day. I’m experiencing the Howard Thurman quote about doing what makes you come alive. And I found another Howard Thurman quote that describes what’s been happening to me: “Community cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them — unknown and undiscovered brothers.”

People who were the “unknown and undiscovered” others to me only a few months ago are now a part of my life. A year ago I would never have pictured myself appearing at city hall reading the testimonies of two immigrant Korean small business owners to the zoning committee as part of team of speakers asking the committee to defer their approval of a development until there was more community discussion of the project. Those business owners, the Uptown residents housed and unhoused, the young minister of a small church near our temple, activists who are Asian, black and white – we had come together because of our concern over how a proposed luxury high rise would impact our neighborhood.

[photo of city council chambers]
The zoning committee with one no-vote and one abstention approved the project just as a couple weeks earlier our neighborhood group saw the buildings planning commission unanimously approve the proposal. But in a sense we can “declare victory and run” – the phrase I saw in the book This is an Uprising that I’ve been reading. The developer was probably assured by the alderman that his project would go through smoothly with city hall approval, but after our voices were raised at the two city hall hearings and at a town hall meeting attended by over a hundred people (hosted by our temple), that developer and future developers now know you can’t just come into a community and expect everyone to passively go along with your kicking out long time retail stores and bringing in high priced units to an area in need of decent housing for low-wealth workers, the disabled and seniors.

I know many of the temple members don’t agree with my stance against gentrification but on that issue and others, our temple has a history of accepting the diversity of opinion among its members so I don’t expect anyone to follow or impede me. Whether my involvement in this “cause” is deepening my appreciation of Amida’s others-benefitting power or just leading me into delusion upon delusion, I can’t deny the feeling of aliveness and the thrill of working with people from many different walks of life. It’s not that I feel my minister work at the temple is boring, but I think we all are enriched by having lives outside of our circle of acquaintances at the temple.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Dharma Lesson from Yuri Kochiyama

When I talked up the showing of the film, “Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice,” I thought half the temple membership would be filling up the auditorium at the Block Museum on the Northwestern University campus last month. But only a handful of the folks I knew showed up and the total audience for the film showing was pretty thin.

Maybe just as well – it wasn’t a well made film (it seemed like in the mid-1990s sound recording for film must’ve been pretty primitive). But for me, the life of Yuri Kochiyama illustrated the Dharma lesson I try to impart at every memorial service – “That feeling of respect and gratitude you feel for your deceased loved one should carry over to a widening circle of compassion for the lives around you.”

(above quote alone is a Dharma Lesson - BTW, she was Muslim)
Yuri Kochiyama lost her father to the World War II hysteria against the ethnic Japanese in America (after Pearl Harbor he was jailed despite his poor health and died the day after he was released). Her passion for justice is a directing of her outrage over her father’s loss into the energy to fight for all people in the United States who are mistreated by the majority white society and the government.

Her story is a rare exception among Japanese Americans. While she raised her family in Harlem and got involved in the parents’ group which led her to activism with the black and Latino liberation movements, most Japanese Americans followed the white flight out of the inner cities to more affluent neighborhoods. This is reflected in our temple’s history – leaving the south side in the mid-1950s to move to the north side where most of the members were relocating during the time of real estate fear-mongering and redlining. And in the 1980s and -90s, there was a strong push to find a new location in a “nicer” neighborhood (such as northwest Chicago or Morton Grove) away from the black, brown and red people of Uptown.

Right now there are a lot of young Japanese Americans saying they’re against the “Muslim registry” (such as my cousin’s daughter http://www.facebook.com/nationalcouncilofasianpacificamericans/photos/a.532706786770092.122765.532675646773206/1527469653960462/?type=3&theater), but I don’t hear many calling for reparations for African Americans as Yuri Kochiyama did. It’s good that young JAs relate to the recent immigrants, such as those from Muslim countries, but I wish more Asian Americans would relate to those whose ancestors were brought to the U.S. as slaves, to those who were here first and saw their lands taken away from them and to those vast numbers of descendants of Europeans who are in or near poverty due to shifts in the economy.

For many Americans, Yuri Kochiyama is seen as unpatriotic for her anti-government remarks (see the furor over the May 19, 2016 Google doodle), but she reminds us that the mindset of powerful interests that incarcerated the ethnic Japanese during World War II is still prevailing in policies and procedures that violate the rights of people of color and lower-income whites and deny them the opportunities easily accessed by residents of affluent areas. Yuri Kochiyama’s life reminds me of the Dharma teachings of considering myself and all beings as “we” - not to be divided into us (“we work hard and have morals”) versus them (“they’re lazy and just want to kill and rob”). My hope is that at our temple as we become Dharma friends with diverse ethnicities and those of differing socio-economic statuses, we categorize less and emphasize more with all the lives around us. That is, genuinely hearing the call of Namu Amida Butsu instead of just giving it lip-service.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Egoless Anger and Selfish Serenity

Even though it was some months ago, in my writing about this I still have to avoid naming specific people and groups. The event sponsored by a Buddhist group was a gathering meant to bring together people interested in Buddhism and in social justice. But the urge to express discontent with injustice doesn’t easily meld with organized Buddhist institutions and presents all sorts of problems stemming from Western Buddhism’s elitism among other things.

At this gathering, among the many speakers were two women, both noted Buddhist teachers – one who is black, who I’ll call X and the other who is white, I’ll call Y. I attended the gathering mainly to hear X – she had spoken at our temple several years ago on a book promotion tour and her talk and her book brought me to tears with her passion to bring Buddhism to the disenfranchised.

But I was supremely disappointed at the first session of the gathering where X was the main speaker. In her flowing robes and long list of rankings and titles, she presented herself as a GrandmaWiseWoman. I thought, “She can’t be much more than 40. Why is she acting like such an old lady?” I told my congregation later that I felt X was “phoning it in”- going through clich├ęd meditation exercises as if our poor consciousnesses were starving for the drops of wisdom she dripped down upon us.

I am happy to say X showed a different side on the last day of the gathering when Y was the main speaker. At first I thought Y was being naturally low-keyed by rambling through some loosely tied together quotes, but then I came to think, “She has no stuff.” Like I saw at the Catholic-Buddhist dialogue in Rome in 2015, some people have substantial teachings to share, such as Mushim Ikeda and Alan Senauke, and some (to be unnamed) have only a worn-out script or worse yet, touchy-feely straws that one can barely grasp at.

During the long Q & A (since Y’s actual presentation was so brief), Y made statements about blacks and Hispanics not sufficiently cultivating their inner peace so that’s why they were experiencing suffering over the slights of current-day society. X came up to the Q & A mic, now dressed as a regular person in pants and an untucked shirt under a simple vest. She lit into Y, saying the black people in America can’t help but be angry after centuries of slavery and the subsequent discriminatory treatment to the present. I told the temple members who were with me that this was the dialogue the gathering should’ve begun with and continued. Unfortunately the time slot was almost finished and Y did not offer much acknowledgment of X’s point.

Photo by Danielle Scruggs from Apr. 7, 2016 Chicago Reader article

On the middle day of the gathering there was a panel of young black activists. The moderator was a well known Latina activist but it was obvious from the start that she was being paid to stick to a script, a series of questions designed to lead the panelists and audience to the need for meditation, the product that the sponsoring group wanted to build demand for. To her credit, she managed to get in one dig at the overwhelmingly white audience. “In our community for decades we’ve been actively fighting the developments that displace families but now the white people have joined us and they’re trying to take credit for starting all the protests.”

Her meditation-steering questions were ineffective with the first two panelists, both Christian ministers who emphasized prayer and following God. The third panelist professed to be non-religious, so the moderator attempted the meditation-shill on him. He flat-out rejected the suggestion. He said like anyone else he took time to relax, usually by hanging out with friends or playing games, but he saw no need to schedule a special time to be sitting around cultivating his inner peace. Listening to him talk about his life revolving around the fight for people’s rights, I felt he was describing true selflessness.

From what I read about the Black Lives Matter movement and from my recent experiences of Chicago protests, I see that the young activists are avoiding the personality cult that Martin Luther King, Jr. got caught up in. Instead of having someone as the official spokesperson, the activists see themselves as facilitators, bringing many voices of the community to the public’s attention, letting them directly convey their painful experiences.

In Buddhism anger is said to be a poisonous effluent from our ego-attachment. But I think we need to see that there is such a thing as non-self anger. In the Black Lives Matter and No Dakota Access Pipeline movements, we can see so many people showing us this non-self anger, an anger to motivate us to fight the mistreatment of our fellow human beings and the damage to our environment.

Although after the conference, Y released a statement supporting the fight against injustice, at that gathering she represented the view of a lot of white Buddhists, “Hey, what’s their problem? Those black and brown people should be doing more meditation so they’ll be less angry.” I think this is a time that all Buddhists should be learning about true non-self action from these activist Bodhisattvas instead of feeling they need to buy the ego-enhancing meditation product we want to sell them.

(I know in this rant I sound like a sectarian Shin follower bad-mouthing meditation but I believe meditation can be a worthwhile practice of self-examination in the context of Dharma learning. I just hate to see it promoted as a pricey program of rewards for individual consumption, like a luxury car or cosmetic surgery.)

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Nature of “God” in Shin Buddhism

The first step toward finding God, Who is Truth, is to discover the truth about myself: and if I have been in error, this first step to truth is the discovery of my error."
            - Thomas Merton
(see other relevant quotes at http://www.christianquotes.info/quotes-by-author/thomas-merton-quotes/)

When I spoke to the Las Vegas Buddhist Sangha earlier this month, I was asked if I knew any books and articles for someone coming from a Christian background to help them understand Jodo Shinshu. Another member asked me for ideas on how to compare or contrast Shin Buddhist terms such as “pure land,” “shinjin,” etc. with Christian concepts. I wanted to write a response to both of them but I’m finding I still need to explore the relation between Christianity and Shin Buddhism.

Although there are some articles out there by Christians trying to understand Shinran’s teachings, it is more helpful to me, and possibly others, to find a clearer understanding of Jodo Shinshu through Christian concepts. This approach probably won’t sit well with those who’ve been raised in Shin Buddhism, especially the temple sons from Japan, so they can write me off as the Presbyterian who never fully bought into Shinshu.

[RIP George Michael – if you listen to his “Father Figure” while reading this post it may not sound so boring]
I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks in understanding Jodo Shinshu is the tendency to anthropomorphize “Amida Buddha.” Throughout Asian Buddhist history, we are told that the images of buddhas and bodhisattvas in human form are only expedient means to get people’s attention and not to get hung up on the forms as something fixed. But even at North American temples where longtime members tell newcomers, “The Buddha image is a symbol, not an idol,” those same members can only envision Amida as a man with arms, legs, face etc.

In reading how the Christian mystics and modern theologians get past the “Sunday School version” of God as the commanding grandfather figure flying on a cloud, we can get closer to how Shinran experienced Amida. As much as Shinran emphasized Amida as all-pervasive and without fixed form, it took someone such as Manshi Kiyozawa several centuries later to see that Shinran was going back to the Sanskrit meaning of Amida as “immeasurable, boundless,” which Kiyozawa correlated to the term used in Western philosophy “infinite” (I like the Japanese term mu-gen, “no limits” better).

Kiyozawa had no qualms about using the term “God” since he already sensed that modern Western philosophy was describing the Power Beyond Self (even if the Christian missionaries in Japan still portrayed God as the bossy old guy on a cloud). Like Shinran, Kiyozawa was experiencing the working of the Unlimited in his own life of frustrating limitations. As in the Merton quote above, Kiyozawa had to learn about his errors through the recognition of the “Who” that is “Truth,” which is called tathagata in Sanskrit (nyorai in Japanese).

Right at the beginning of the Wikipedia definition of God, it says:
The concept of God as described by most theologians includes the attributes of omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), divine simplicity, and as having an eternal and necessary existence. Many theologians also describe God as being omnibenevolent (perfectly good) and all loving.

It called to my mind the ending passage from Waga Shinnen:
The power of Tathagata is limitless. The power of Tathagata is unsurpassed. The power of Tathagata is omnipresent. It pervades everything and works freely, without hindrance. By committing myself to the wondrous power of Tathagata, I have great peace and comfort. By entrusting the great question of life and death to the Tathagata, I have no fear, no discontentment.
            (Nobuo Haneda translation “My Religious Conviction” from December Fan: The Buddhist Essays of Manshi Kiyozawa)

The teachings of the Pure Land sutras and the great teachers of central Asia, China and Korea and the transmission of those teachings by Honen and Shinran work to awaken us to the Power Beyond Self. “Amida” and “God” are labels for something that is not a personified deity we can beseech for favors but rather for the dynamic interaction of myriad causes and conditions I can describe inadequately as “the flow” (which I’d rather use than “the force”).

Unlike the way other Buddhists talk of attaining personal peace of mind through their strenuous efforts and detaching themselves from the defiled world, in Shin Buddhism, we let “the flow” take us into greater participation in the lives around us, not obsessively concerned for our own little “peace and comfort.” Contrary to the impression people get from Kiyozawa’s writings that he was smug and snug in his own little cubbyhole, in reality he was out there dynamically transmitting the Buddhist teachings through public lectures, writing and education. Since Tathagata took away his self-centered fear and discontentment, Kiyozawa could work for the awakening of “great peace and comfort” for all suffering beings.

There may be some of the literal-minded Shin Buddhists who will say I shouldn’t be comparing Amida with the Christian God “because Amida is this-and-this, not that-and-that…” But Shinran stresses to us that the workings of Amida’s aspiration is beyond our comprehension. The power of “the flow” is not confined to any one culture or religion. Who is to definitely decide that the Tathagata that Kiyozawa experiences is different from the “Who is Truth” that Merton and other Christians discover in their lives?