Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Sequel to Moby Dick

Indeed, the text’s evasive strategies and perplexing characters suggest Steinbeck’s profound unease with Cold War America, where his real fear for his country centered not on Sputnik and Russian armament but on “a creeping, all pervading nerve-gas of immorality which starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices both corporate and governmental.”
            - from Susan Shillinglaw’s introduction to The Winter of Our Discontent (2008 Penguin Classics edition). Quote is from 1959 letter to Adlai Stevenson – see full letter at

I was planning on writing about my impending surgery - a double mastectomy instead of the single one I wrote about in my deleted February post (recent tests found that I have cancer on both sides of me). But I would rather talk about it after the fact and for now I want to present this book report.

The book is John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. I picked the book out at the library because of its title – for me it’s been a winter of discontent and spring has yet to arrive. I can identify with the restlessness of Ishmael in Moby Dick and see the similarity to Steinbeck’s character, Ethan Allen Hawley. But where Ishmael can escape the landlubber’s stifling workaday world by joining a whaling crew, Ethan feels the only way to escape his humdrum life is to strike it rich by means of cheating and betrayal. He probably would’ve been better off – able to hold on to his integrity – by going off to hunt whales as his ancestors did, but the story continually makes the point that the whaling business was long dead, made irrelevant by the switch to petroleum for industrial and consumer use.

[cover of the 2008 edition]
Not just me, but maybe we all could use an escape to the high seas, doing something that doesn’t involve the slaughter of intelligent beings as whaling did. Without that escape valve, we all end up cheaters and betrayers – the current corporate and government world is full of people devoting their energies into getting more money and power by stomping on and casting aside other people. As worse as it seems these days, people all though history have been “liars and the dirty, dirty cheats in the world” to varying degrees.

Early Jodo Shinshu followers who were part of the growing merchant class in Tokugawa-era Japan were said to be guided by the principle of san-po yoshi (“good in three directions”). All business transactions were to be win-win-win situations: I (merchant) benefit, you (supplier, customer etc.) benefit and the whole community benefits. There may be people even today who conduct their business according to san-po yoshi but like Ethan and the characters in Steinbeck’s book, most of us are primarily concerned with looking out for just the one direction (“number one”) and not the other two. What makes san-po yoshi possible is the perspective of nembutsu.

Those with that perspective don’t have to be Shin Buddhists. In Moby Dick, there are examples of those who do look out for others. Queequeg often shows his warm-hearted willingness to help his shipmates and Starbuck courageously defies Captain Ahab in arguing for the safety of the whole crew. They are literally in the same boat with everyone else but most of us forget that our planet is the boat we all share and our survival depends on how we interact with each other. The nembutsu perspective reminds us of the reality of oneness – that our individual karmas are all intertwined.

The awareness of “namu” – the deep realization of our limitedness – is what is lacking in the characters in The Winter of Our Discontent. Just like the people I’ve been protesting against with ONE-Northside, those lacking in “namu” seem to believe in “development” – that for them there are endless riches to be reaped by building up businesses and housing to attract people with money to burn. As Steinbeck’s book shows, this development comes at a human cost – the weak and needy have to be pushed aside and if possible, eliminated. But we can never have endless streams of money coming at us – for one thing, our life itself is limited and the quality of that life deteriorates without the support of a diverse population of other lives.

Sorry to write this rather incoherent post. Since it may be the last I write in a while, I wanted it to be a stunning piece, but right now my mind is too full of apprehension about undergoing a major medical procedure. Although I may not have the mental concentration to write for a while, I look forward to spending my convalescence reading some great prose artists.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Lots in Translation: Problem Words

Immigrants and visitors from all over the world have come to our temple. Among our members are people from several countries in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Recently one of our members from Europe came to me about how some of the terms used in Buddhist texts disturbed her and I told her the problem is with the English translations.

In her case she looked up the English words in a dictionary of her language and found meanings far from what the Asian language Buddhist texts were describing. It made me wonder if that’s why some Shin groups in Europe and the east coast seem so harshly judgmental  - they rely on the English translations with very little help from those who know the Asian languages.

One of the problematic words found in translations of Buddhist texts is “attachment.” In one of my early blog posts (October 2011 “The word ‘love’ – the negative connotation in Buddhism”) is the point I make often in the intro and study classes. It’s fine to feel affection towards your family members and friends, like in “she’s very attached to her grandchildren.” What Buddhism warns us against is getting possessive and controlling – towards people, animals, water, spaces etc. I prefer to talk about “grabbiness” rather than use a word like “attachment” that in English has meanings and connotations that don’t relate to the Buddhist term. Too many people have been misled by “cut off attachments,” believing that Buddhism commands them to cut off ties with everyone except their guru and fellow disciples.

[My title says "lots" not "lost"] 
The word that particularly disturbed our European member is “defilements.” I explained to her as I often do in the study classes that in Buddhism, a “defilement” (a “sin”) is anything that gets in the way of your awareness of the interconnection and flow of life. Buddhists are not super-prudes who tsk-tsk people for drinking and dancing and swearing. It’s those looks and words of disapproval that are the defilements – creating barriers that separate us from others and blind us with deluded absolutes. A vegetarian can be full of defilement because he loudly attacks others for eating meat, while a meat-eating person who takes into account the dietary preferences of her friends when hosting a dinner is being respectful of the diverse circumstances of others. In Buddhism the person with the “dirty mind” is not the person thinking of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, but that person who thinks their gender, race and/or religion gives them the right to look down on other people as inadequate beings.

One word used frequently in Jodo Shinshu writings is bonno, usually translated as “blind passions.” In the sutra study group one person who’s studied Catholic theology knew that “passion” in its original use means “suffering.” Somehow in English the word came to mean “fervent desire” – maybe because the frustration of one’s romantic desire feels like suffering. It is misleading to think bonno means desires because there are all kinds of desires humans have that are ego-transcending rather then ego-enhancing. I have no idea how the “blind” part got included in the standard translation of bonno.

Looking at the Chinese characters for bonno (bon=to be irritated, no=to be miserable), I think it’s a word that sums up dukkha, the getting-stuck-ness that the Buddha pointed out as his first realization about himself. In English, an accurate translation would be “piss and moan.” Shinran sounds so much more human when he’s saying, “My being is full to the brim with pissing and moaning,” rather than “Beings are replete with blind passions.”

Lately my defilements and pissing-and-moaning have caused hurt feelings among the temple members. I’ve been too attached to the temple premises and procedures, acting as if I own the place and how it’s run. There’s a lot in life to piss and moan about but with the temple members who do so much to support our activities, I need to express more gratitude and refrain from pouring down complaints on them. It’s better that I do my bitching about the politicians in Chicago, in the state capital and in the federal government (as a private individual, of course, and not as a representative of the temple).

Monday, February 5, 2018

Gateway to the Maze of Buddhisms

Our temple has long been a referral service for people seeking information and personnel related to Buddhism. Hospitals and funeral homes call us wanting a “Buddhist monk.” The first question I ask is “What is the ethnicity of the family?” and from there I can refer them to temples in the area that cater to one Asian group or another – Thai, Vietnamese, Korean etc. Only once recently when a hospital nurse told me the patient was white and had no connections to a Buddhist group did I go to meet with the family. Per what the family said was the patient’s request before she lost consciousness, I did the “pillow service” (makura-gyo) which I prefer to do while the person is alive. Even if they can’t move or speak, they can still hear the chanting and bell. A couple weeks later I ended up doing the funeral for the family and it was good to see them later that year participating in our temple’s Obon service.

We get calls from high school and college students who want to visit a Buddhist temple and interview people there. If they are from the west or south suburbs, I refer them to the Midwest Buddhist Temple which is easy to get to by the freeways. For those living west of Chicago, I tell them to look up the various small Buddhist groups in Oak Park and for those in the northern suburbs, I tell them there’s dozens of Zen meditation groups in Evanston. For the northwest suburbs, I suggest Rissho Kosei Kai in Mount Prospect and for those near downtown, I give them the contact information for Shambhala and Soka Gakkai International (SGI).

A lot of people call wanting information about Tibetan beliefs and customs so I send them to Tibet Gift in Evanston. I mention Shambhala and some of the small Vajrayana groups in the area but let them know those places have members who are not ethnic Tibetan.

[chart I came up with that we include in our information to visitors]
Even for those who come to visit our temple, we are just a stop along their journey. I really don't expect many visitors to become regular attendees so I try to make them aware of the various kinds of Buddhism they can find in the Chicago area (the main purpose of the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” classes I was conducting until I got sick). The Buddha knew that different people require different approaches at different stages of their life, so I know what our temple does is not going to be suitable for the great majority of people just starting out to explore Buddhism. For one thing, we don’t offer much upaya (expedient means) – tricks and gimmicks to grab people’s attention, such as pandering to their preconceived ideas of Buddhism as some mystical secretive society where you can become a revered master with special powers over others. Some people do need that stuff (I know from the phone calls we get) and the successful Buddhist groups skillfully play on the newcomers’ expectations to eventually bring them to the more solid teachings of Buddhism. Maybe the closest thing we have to “bait and switch” is our meditation sessions, what I call our “gateway drug.” Curious people come to get some kind of high for themselves and end up hearing about and hopefully experiencing the open-hearted oneness that the nembutsu expresses.

I feel that for the spirituality of the Chicago-area, our temple serves an important role as a referral source, sending people to places that may be most compatible with their mindset. I know it won’t please our membership promoters, but it’s been good to hear feedback from the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” class students that I presented the various types of Buddhism in a fair way and didn’t try to sell them on our temple’s brand. If anything, in Buddhism there is a mutual respect between the different sects that you don’t find in other major religions. “What they do works for them,” is what I tell the intro class students. It’s nice when people from other Buddhist traditions visit our temple to get a taste of the Pure Land teachings and I’ve always found it stimulating to visit other Buddhist groups to see their rituals and hear how they speak to their members. I wish someone would carry on with Aaron Lee’s blog where he asked young adults from the various Asian Buddhist groups to describe what they do at their temples.

Sometimes I feel let down when I hear of former temple members who joined other Buddhist groups – I can’t help feeling it’s my fault that I didn’t speak more to their concerns. But then I’m happy for them if they found places that made them feel more welcome and the Buddhism presentations make more sense to them than what they heard at our temple. All I can do is talk about what works for me and why other presentations don’t – but each of you have to figure out your own path and not think that my promotion of Jodo Shinshu is the only guidepost.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Overcoming the Distaste For Dependency

Akegarasu Haya wrote his Dokuritsu-sha no sengen (“Declaration of an Independent Person”) to express spiritual liberation, free of the ego-created delusion of a divine genii who grants our wishes and takes us to the “good place” after death. Much of the translation of Shout of Buddha is from Dokuritsu-sha, focusing on the theme of appreciating our own unique life and freeing ourselves from the expectations of other people and institutions. But spiritual independence doesn’t mean existing as an independent being. In the essay, “I Am the Last to be Liberated” translated by Dr. Haneda, Akegarasu describes being so ill that he needed constant care from everyone around him (which at the time included Rev. Gyomay Kubose and his wife Minnie). In his state of total dependence on others, he appreciates the spirituality manifested in each one of them, declaring that they will all attain awakening before he does.

Becoming independent is for most people a passage into adulthood. One should be able to do things on their own, such as getting a job and paying for housing. But the problem in taking pride in our independence is we look down on those who because of thousands of causes and conditions cannot do the basic tasks of living by themselves. We may take pity on the disabled but somehow see their lives as less than complete. We may see those with obstacles such as racism and poverty as somehow just lazy and looking for handouts.

I always took pride in my independence but since being on this cancer “journey” I find I can’t do as much as I want and I require the help of others. I can see why people get sucked into these wellness regimens – “If you pay for these (supplements, exercise machines, spa retreats etc.), you’ll be so healthy that into your old age you’ll continue to enjoy an independent lifestyle with no need to rely on hospitals, nursing homes or your family members.” We have a deep-rooted distaste for dependency but the reality is our ableness is transient and anyone at anytime could lose it for a while or for the rest of their lives.

Less than a month after I was released from the hospital I went back in. As before I went to the emergency room with a high fever but I didn’t feel as sick as last time, just some mild cold symptoms of coughing and runny nose. But two nights later in the hospital, I felt sicker than when I went in. My body fluctuated between chills and fever and I felt too weak to do much physically or mentally. Even though not much improved, I lobbied the doctors to get released – I might as well be sick at home and not in a place that makes you sicker.

[Saiho-ji in Hekinan near Nagoya, temple of the Kiyozawa family]
This year will bring more incapacitation once I’m well enough for surgery, then radiation treatment. I won’t be getting much done for the temple or any of the community groups I belong to. Kiyozawa Manshi called himself “December Fan,” the useless person and Shinran thought of himself as the evil person. The useless person is evil because he can’t do the pure good which is consistent and continuous. In Kiyozawa’s case, his poor health made him useless during the time he had to live with and be supported by his wife’s family. Yet later when he recovered enough to administer Shinshu College in Tokyo, he didn’t “make himself useful” but instead as the useless person he was grateful to do whatever work that causes and conditions allowed him to do.

So as much a blow to my ego it is to be thrown in a state of dependency, not being able to do “good” is a big frustration as I see all the work that could be done to improve things for people suffering right now – the homeless, the harassed, those struggling to pay for basic needs. I just have to settle into the awareness of myself as the useless, evil person.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Continuing Aspect of Nembutsu

For many years I failed to return a book I borrowed from Dr. Haneda and finally remembered to bring it with me on my recent trip to Berkeley. It was a Jodo-shu commentary and Japanese translation (wa-yaku) of Shandao’s Kangyo-sho (“Contemplation Sutra commentary” – the text that includes the famous White Path story). I had used it as a reference for a study class at the temple and found the book very refreshing. While most Shinshu commentaries on the works of the Magnificent Seven go into a lot of gyrations to tie everything to Shinran’s interpretation, in this Jodo-shu book the passages were explained in a straightforward manner.

A few hours before meeting up with Dr. Haneda I thought I’d do the fortune telling maneuver of opening the book to a random page and see if any passage popped out at me. The words that caught my attention were in the title of a subsection: nembutsu no sozoku (念仏の相続), nembutsu’s/aspect/continuance.

The book went on to explain it in a Jodo-shu way, saying it meant that we should have “namu Amida butsu” coming out of our mouths as often and continuously as possible as the essential practice to bring us rebirth in the afterlife Pure Land. But what struck me in my Shin understanding of “practice” is that it is the nembutsu’s mouthless calling of “namu Amida butsu” which is continuously being heard in my life despite my forgetting about it altogether for days, weeks, months at a time. So even in my down mood, the nembutsu is still continuously in the background (rooted in the ground, streaming down from the skies, floating all around etc.). It is the essence reminding me that despite my bad moods, resentments, anger and self-destructive acting out, I am already assuredly “playing in the forests of the Pure Land” in the present moment.

You may ask “what good is the nembutsu if you keep falling into ugly rages and blue funks?” But it’s not my job to sell the nembutsu as some cure all for our psychological problems which can be too deeply rooted to ever figure out. But for me it’s good enough to know that in my life where everything I attempt fizzles out and relationships quickly become miserable that there is something ongoing, moving forward dynamically in the world.

One thing Shinran learned from Honen is that one can hear the nembutsu from all kinds of people, from animals and plants, from the waters and soil. So during my stay at a Catholic hospital, how do I hear the nembutsu? I’ve been noticing how all the staff members are pleasant to each other and to all the patients despite the pressures they are under with people acutely ill and many hovering near death in their care. Maybe you could say they are just putting on an act as part of their professional demeanor, but I feel a lot of sincerity, especially from the guys in transportation who move patients on gurneys or in wheelchairs to get tests done. As they drive down the hallways and in and out of elevators, those guys greet every staff member by name, from the doctors to the janitors, and receive warm responses. For patients, being in a hospital is uncomfortable enough, but it would be hell if the staff acted like most of us in our work environments, all grouchy at each other – at bosses and underlings and especially at the whiny customers.

So hearing a simple greeting exchanged by hospital workers is hearing the nembutsu. Aaron Lee in his “Be the Refuge” essay, said he worked to be a refuge of peace and compassion to all the health workers he came in contact with during his last few months. I’m crabby to begin with but being sick makes it harder to make myself into someone else’s refuge – with my hoarse voice and constant coughing, I can’t easily rattle off words of concern to the hospital workers. But they consistently show their concern for me. It seemed the lowest point of helplessness when I lost control of my bowels for the first couple days, but one can’t help but appreciate the nurse who comes to clean you up and put on a new diaper. Now that’s the help (not “salvation”) that I feel Shinran means by the word “tasukete.”

Not that I’ll ever recover enough to hit the road again as a speaker, but I want to make the nembutsu the topic of my future workshops. I’ve long had a reputation in BCA as the most boring speaker (I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a repeat invitation to anywhere except Midwest) but I’d like to impose myself on temples where I have a few long-time friends, such as Toronto, New York and Orange County. (At Higashi temples people show up out of duty to support the few ministers Higashi has, no matter how little interest they have in listening to my babble). I’ll never enjoy the big crowds of fans that Dr. Haneda has, but unlike him, I really would like to venture out to places unfamiliar with Jodo Shinshu, such as in the South and Great Plains states. Well it doesn’t have to be me doing the lecture tour. If there’s someone else out there ready to present Shinran seriously (quoting his works in deep passages, not just warm-and-fuzzy slide presentations) to a wide audience, I’m willing to help them with research and expenses, since I won’t be able to go anywhere for a while.