Sunday, May 20, 2018

“Saving All Sentient Beings” - What the {bleep} does that mean?

I just received the Maida Center’s newsletter “The Dharma Breeze” and the whole issue is Dr. Haneda’s essay, “The Mind of a Child – The Mind of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara.” (If you are not on the Maida Center’s mailing list, you can get a copy of the newsletter at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago.) It’s a great piece with several examples of stories to parallel the passage in the Larger Sutra where Dharmakara is told that fulfilling his aspiration is like emptying the ocean with a ladle – it will take time and undaunted hope.

[Japanese painting of Kannon – originally this post was going to be about my gender nonconforming form after surgery. Still got two arms though it’s painful to raise and extend them.]
When I first started studying under Dr. Haneda at the temple in the early 1980s, he went out of his way to avoid using the words “salvation” and “saved.” He would describe spiritual awakening as the liberation from the ego-self. In our study class, most of us came from Christian upbringings so we felt the term “salvation” meant the soul being saved from eternal damnation after death and agreed with Dr. Haneda not to use it. In Buddhism the one thing we need to be freed from is our self-attachment – not from “suffering” (disruptive events, physical and mental pain, loss of those we depended on etc.), but from that which makes us feel we are suffering (“Waah, I didn’t get my way!”).

After my three years studying in Japan, I lived in Los Angeles and went to hear Dr. Haneda whenever he was in Southern California or when I had the chance to attend his study sessions in Berkeley. It was a big revelation to me that he presented Dharmakara’s vows in the Larger Sutra as not “I’m bringing spiritual liberation to others,” but as “Now I see how spiritually liberated others already are.” For example, the thirty-fifth vow could be worded as, “My liberation is not complete unless I consider all women as liberated.”

I continue to present the Larger Sutra in that way. As I stated somewhere in an earlier post, when Honen left the Mt. Hiei monastery, he was knocked over to find that the humble working people of the city had faces glowing with awakening, the awakening that seemed only theoretical in the Buddhist texts he intensely studied. When he encountered one after another being (human and otherwise) shining wisdom and compassion upon him, all he could say is “Namu Amida Butsu” – “I am so fortunate to receive the Light shining through you.”

How could Shinran not be deeply moved by Honen, a man with the joyful expression of “Wow!” shown to each and every one? It would take Shinran years of ladling out his deep dark ocean of prejudice and disdain towards others but we see in the accounts of people who encountered him that his aspiration to be like Honen was definitely fulfilled. (From his writings Shinran says he’s under the heavy weight of his ego concerns, but in his hyper-awareness of the continual budding of self-attachment, he is free from its grip.)

In Dr. Haneda’s recent essay and in the works of many Buddhist teachers, there is the phrase “saving all sentient beings” which to me falls in that “problem” category I wrote about in my previous posts.  I cringed when Dr. Haneda wrote of Dharmakara, “He vows that until the last suffering person becomes happy, he will not become happy.” I know what he means, but it can be easily misunderstood if we don’t define “suffering” and “happy” in relation to self-attachment. Otherwise, I could say I’m “happy” if someone gives me a bottle of champagne so I can forget my “suffering.” We should remember the Buddha’s teachings are not about fleeting, material pleasures but finding release from the nagging dis-ease of seeing things in life as miserable to our self.

Another line in Dr. Haneda’s piece that stuck out at me was: “We are moved by the naïve and foolish mind of a child, of the Buddha, who is single-mindedly concerned with the welfare of all sentient beings.” What makes that passage tricky is Dr. Haneda pooh-poohs any of us when we talk about doing social justice and/or charity work – that’s not his idea of addressing the “welfare” of others. I’d like to think that in his mind, he is doing his part to improve the welfare of people by conveying the Shin Buddhist teachings of transcending the self through his spoken and written word. But for someone like me who isn’t out there lecturing and publishing, I feel my concern for others can best be expressed by meeting a variety of people and learning from them – whether marching together at a protest rally or in the hospital being cared for. It’s not that I’m “saving” them but my encounter with each of them widens my awareness of all those who are spiritually liberated.

A great example of someone doing that kind of practice is Prof. Yasushi Kigoshi (see my article at He and the groups of Otani University students who travel monthly to the tsunami-stricken area of Japan know they cannot fix all the damage and put everything back to “normal” by themselves. Yet they feel the spiritual liberation of those people who appreciate that the visitors are listening to them and willing to share experiences with them. I’m willing to risk the criticism for messing with Sino-Japanese grammar and proclaim that the phrase “saving all sentient beings” should be worded as, “I see more and more that I am being helped by others and some day I’ll realize all beings, sentient or not, are bringing about my spiritual liberation.” It is similar to Dogen’s phrase about forgetting your self (Namu) when all things (Amida) move to attain you (Butsu).

Monday, April 23, 2018

Fainting Away

There is no form, no feelings, perceptions, impulses or consciousness.
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind.
Therefore, no color, sound, smell, taste, touch or thought.
The world of form does not exist, nor the world of the mind.

                                    from the Heart Sutra (Hannya Shingyo)

During my chemotherapy I wrote about my fear of keeling over, but even though I felt I came close at Aaron Lee’s memorial service (see November 1, 2017 post “Ten Thousand Nien-fo”), I managed to stay upright. With my two hospitalizations for fever in December and January I was a mess but didn’t lose my footing. Then this past Monday after my surgery, I experienced how it feels to lose consciousness.

I’m grateful to the anesthesiologist that I was completely knocked out for the surgery. I woke up when they were taking me out of the recovery room and my niece was there to greet me. I got settled in my hospital room and received other visitors for a while. When everyone was gone I was glad I could look at my smartphone and catch up on Facebook.

I called the nursing assistant to help me get to the bathroom. When I was standing in there waiting for her to tear off the sanitary strip and put a measuring hat in the toilet, I felt myself going down, grabbing onto whatever I could. Next thing I knew, I was sitting on the toilet with the assistant and two nurses hovering over me. They talked excitedly as if they had just rescued me from the brink by dousing me with cold water. The main nurse told me I was white as her coat and my eyeballs had rolled back.

[from Vertigo, scene in Midge’s apartment]
The explanation for my fainting is that I had lost a lot of blood in surgery and so my blood pressure was very low. Although the normal hospital stay after mastectomies is overnight, I felt too weak the next day and had to get a transfusion. Only after that did my blood pressure return to normal and I could be released the next day.

At home I found I couldn’t sit up for very long without feeling light headed, so I’ve been lying down a lot. Until I can over this feeling that not enough blood is going to my brain, I’m stuck at home.

There are many kinds of disabilities and people have found ways to go about their lives without being fully able-bodied. In the Heart Sutra quoted above it sounds like there are six senses. While there can be life without sight, hearing, smell, touch or taste, can there be life without consciousness? I’ve seen people, including my own parents, near the end of their lives in a state of unconsciousness – I can say they were still alive but with only the sense of hearing connecting them to the world. Or so I’d like to believe – a tear came from my father’s eye when I chanted the pillow service for him and my mother seemed to grunt when my niece said goodbye before leaving her room.

I feel it’s not really being alive if I have to go on years and years in an unconscious state. But to know I could suddenly go unconscious – even if for a fraction of a minute – is scary. There are people who have occasional seizures who somehow get around for work and play. Maybe they’ve just resigned themselves to “it will happen when it happens” and prudently avoid activities such as driving by themselves.

This doesn’t alleviate my sense of restlessness to know it will be a while before I can take a long walk or drive a car (hoping I can eventually). For the time being, books and movies will be my escape and the internet (mostly Facebook and email) is my means of keeping in touch with people. But it doesn’t feel like a time of much needed rest (or even meditative “reflection”), but rather a time of passively receiving the expressions of others and frustrated with not being able to have much impact in this world. “December Fan” my eye – and ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. Thinking of Kiyozawa Manshi is maybe my reminder that one doesn’t have to feel emotionally settled down to know that one and all are already spiritually settled.

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.