Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Economic Justice: Liberation from the Delusion of Possessiveness

Yesterday I attended the breakfast meeting called by ONE-Northside to discuss the state budget cuts. The e-mail invitation was for “leaders” of member groups and those who showed up were either heads of social service agencies or like me, the minister of a local church. For the clergy, it was a time to listen as the various agencies told us as they receive less state money to provide services, we will see more people at our doors asking for food, shelter, tutoring, jobs etc. At our temple we already see several people stop by during the week or showing up on Sunday telling us they would like some money, some food or just a little assistance, such as a man wanting someone to help him fill out forms for housing. I’ve told our volunteers to give out bottled water, soda or whatever leftover snacks we have around and to give people the information sheets I received from Peoples Church and St. Thomas of Canterbury listing the nearby places and schedules for free meals and food pantries. I realize it falls short of what Haya Akegarasu called “an offering to a buddha” in an anecdote where Akegarasu goes to the kitchen and gets a hot meal for a beggar that his young relative tried to shoo away from the temple.

The people of community organizations such as ONE-Northside feel the most important action to take is to campaign for raising taxes – to increase the size of the pie instead of service agencies and their clients fighting over the crumbs. But as one minister said, “We need talking points. Our congregation members are already saying that higher taxes will make people and companies leave Illinois for other states.” (He added that he’s from the South and wouldn’t want Illinois to end up like those states with a stark divide between the rich and poor.) The agency heads said there are statistics showing the costs of jail, emergency room visits and nursing homes are much higher than the costs of providing ongoing services to those dealing with mental and physical health issues. An example of one cut of  “non-essential services” is the substance abuse prevention programs at Alternatives, Inc. Those programs were providing tutoring and job training to underprivileged young people to give them confidence in themselves so they would be less likely to turn to drugs to temporarily escape situations of helplessness.

I’m not sure I can get people to consider the benefits of raising their taxes, but one thing I can do is help people see the delusion of possessiveness – that belief that one has to get more and more and hang on to it tightly. In the U.S. right now there seems to be a prevailing message of “you deserve what you’ve got and should protect it” – that is, your possessions and wealth are purely for the welfare of you and your family and should not be shared with the people who are too lazy and/or immoral to do honest work. There’s a demonizing of the “have-nots” as people who are poor entirely due to their own faults (they’re “illegals,” “welfare queens,” “thugs” etc.) It’s similar to how the aristocracy in Shinran’s time called the people of the working classes akunin, “evil persons,” deserving to be miserable because they break the Buddhist precepts in carrying out their jobs.

[photo – detail of woodcarving of the teaching Buddha by Harry Koizumi]
In Buddhism we say that gratitude comes from realizing our lives are the results of so many causes and conditions – that our comfort, health, “smarts,” rewards etc. are primarily from the influences of generations before us, the society we happened to be born in, the environment, how resilient or damaged our genetic material is. In that same realization should be a concern for others who did not receive such an advantageous aggregate of conditions. We can’t fault them for “bad choices” when we know that the choices we made were hardly well thought out and the good results were from choices we really did not make rationally but from anxiety or a fleeting hunch.

Although we live under a legal system of property rights and money exchange for goods and services, the Buddha pointed out the reality of “By nature, one possesses nothing.” Everything is only in our temporary custody despite all the documentation we have to prove ownership. If we can take this to heart, there would be no more sense of “giving” but only “sharing.” In that sense, there is an argument for higher taxes – assuming our governments are efficient enough to distribute those funds to the services that could help people more than our individual donations would (unfortunately in Illinois the local governments are known more for corruption than efficiency).

In Buddhism, you can still be a wealthy householder like Vimalakirti but the teachings help us from falling in the delusion of “deserving” to have and hang onto wealth and vilifying the poor as “unworthy.” Temples need to emphasize the universal sense of sharing with all beings instead of defining “generosity” as big donations to the temple. Of course as an institution we need to raise funds to operate, but part of the service we give to the community is to open the hearts/minds of our attendees – to help them become more able to identify with people who are struggling and suffering due to limited access to the resources we take for granted. I don’t think this is me getting political – but for myself and my privileged peers, we need to hear in the Buddha-Dharma our liberation from the crippling delusion of possessiveness.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Learning the Mind of Ahimsa

Lately I’ve been feeling guilty because of the recent death of a temple volunteer who was ill for several months. I won’t go into the details, but about a year ago that person heard about my criticism of him and he confronted me about it. I felt as resident minister I should be concerned about the use of the altar area and supplies and about newcomers being steered away from participating in our temple. But I realize my problem is I come off sounding harsh, condemning the whole person for the few things he did that rubbed me the wrong way. Now that the person had died, I can imagine all the people saying, “How could you be so mean to someone who was so gentle and kind?”

Rev. Gyoko Saito is my main role model for learning how to be more of a listener and less of a talker – to be the grateful receiver of wisdom from others rather than the pushy propagator. But I need to learn more about how to have the “heart/mind of embracing all” even when those you are confronted with those who seem to be working at cross purposes to you, those whose presentation of Buddhism seems worlds away from the nembutsu teachings, or even those whose words seem totally at odds with the Buddha’s basic teachings though they wear the title and robes of spiritual authority.

It’s something I need to learn for any gathering under the umbrella of Buddhist brotherhood. For the upcoming Catholic-Buddhist dialogue in Rome in June, I can see where for most of the Buddhist delegates it’s easier for us to relate to the Pope than to each other. At base, almost all Buddhists recognize that Shakyamuni taught in different ways to different people, so we accept the existence of a wide diversity of sects. “You do what works for you and I’ll do what works for me.” The tricky part is analyzing why your way doesn’t work for me without denigrating you and your presentation.

Even if someone appears to me to be a big blowhard, using the banner of Buddhism to glorify his/her self, I need that mind of forgiveness and compassion (“fellow-feeling” – as Shinran called himself a “slanderer of the Dharma” for using the role of Buddhist teacher to satisfy his ego). I’m thinking the word to keep in mind is ahimsa, usually translated as “non-violence.” Even if I find much to criticize, there should be no ill-will towards that person and what they do, no wish for harm to come to them. How does one maintain that mind while engaging in a critique of someone’s conduct and philosophy?

Of course all over the internet we are bombarded with loud condemnation and cruel insults thrown by people with differing views. During the Vietnam War era, I remember seeing all the harsh caricatures of President Lyndon Johnson and wondering how people who claim to be peace activists can be so disrespectful, treating Johnson and other leaders as less than human, deserving to be beat up and even executed. That is the mind-set I need so much to overcome.

[from Gesthsemani Archives, Merton at the East/West Conference in Thailand 1968]
For our weekly study group as part of the topic of “renunciation,” we will begin a discussion of the life and writings of Thomas Merton. There’s not enough time for me to delve very deeply into all of Merton’s major works, but so far in what I’m reading (primarily Mystics and Zen Masters and articles in A Thomas Merton Reader) I’m finding him as someone to emulate. In another book I’m reading (Thomas Merton: Monk and Artist by Victor Kramer), Merton is described as someone who started off sharply critical of the world in his early writings, but as he matured, he demonstrated a deep compassion towards those who did things he found disturbing, such as the officials who sent a young refugee back to her country to suffer certain punishment.

It’s in his appreciation of philosophies far removed from his strict Catholic milieu (as a Cistercian “Trappist” monk) where he shows an attitude of respect and a willingness to learn the details of a fellow human being’s way of spirituality. I am hoping by reading his brilliant writings that my closed mind can be cracked open a bit and I can strive for more understanding and less condemnation of others’ seemingly “alien” ways. Maybe to become more “kind and gentle” will make me a less interesting blog writer, but Merton certainly shows one can skillfully use words to foster mutual understanding and rally people to activism based in thoughtfulness, rather than bile.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Needing a Better Word for "Forgiveness"

Our temple hosted the Treasures of Uptown Interfaith Coalition event – watching and discussing the film “Unlikely Friends” ( I heard about it from Tricycle Magazine which time to time notifies its subscribers about small films dealing with big issues, and I recommended it to Treasures for an upcoming event. The film was a nice follow-up to “The Power of Forgiveness” which we showed at a previous event. But it was more intimate, focusing on a few individuals, not famous or tied to big organizations, who come together to know each other as friends – the convicted perpetrators and the people harmed by them.

With the wintry weather, we didn’t have the turnout we hoped for, but the twenty or so people who came were a good cross-section of community members. In our discussion we noted that people in the film kept saying that “forgiveness” of criminals doesn’t mean condoning their destructive acts. But as Seth from Peoples Church commented, the word “forgiveness” is commonly used to mean “wipe away,” such as a debt or fees are “forgiven.” He said we probably need a better word for what “Unlikely Friends” illustrated for us – to see the other as human and not categorized on the basis of one act.

As seen in my rant in the last entry and some other entries, I don’t like to be put in a category and looked upon as an object – whether as a “Buddhist,” “Asian,” “female” etc. In the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” classes I tell the students they probably all know what it’s like to be categorized, when they hear “your kind” or “you people.” I tell them what the Buddha taught is to get us out of that thinking – about ourselves and other beings. Whether it’s reading from Pure and Simple by Upasika Kee Nanayon or The Record of Lin-chi, we hear the great teachers telling us to approach life with an open heart/mind and not make the mistake of imposing “name and form” on our experiences.

As I heard on a recent broadcast of the NPR show “Invisibilia” (, it’s useful for us as infants and children to put things in categories, but real people don’t fit neatly into any kinds of categories. In our discussion of the film “Unlikely Friends,” we acknowledged how easy it is to talk of “criminals” and “victims” as one-dimensional objects. The individuals in the film bravely proved to themselves and each other that they won’t let one terrible act in the past define who they are and will be and how they interact with mutual respect.

In Buddhism the principle of kshanti comes close to the idea of forgiveness. The Sino-Japanese translation nin-niku could be interpreted as “forbear abuse,” but the character nin is also used in Buddhist translations to indicate “insight.” It’s one thing to forbear “put up with” things, but it’s another to strive for insight – understanding of the situation, one’s self and the others involved. In the film, it was not only the people who were harmed who tried to understand the perpetrator, but the convicts were grateful for the chance to get to know those victims. As “Mark” said, he had seen “Steve,” the policeman he shot several times as “just something in the way,” but in their correspondence and meeting together, he has to recognize Steve as a person living with the physical pain and disability from that assault. The film notes that convicts tend to blame their victims for what happened but for those who get to meet the victims (or the grieving family members of the person murdered) they learn to take responsibility for their own actions and be freed from the paralyzing bonds of self-pity.

Remarkably the film didn’t delve into the shameful problem of racism in the American justice system – the three pairs of individuals presented in the film were all looked Caucasian (one convict had a Spanish-sounding name). Only in the commentary of Azim Khamisa (who was featured in “The Power of Forgiveness”) is there a story where the perpetrator is African American. Mr. Khamisa with powerful insight recognizes the deprived circumstances of the boy who murdered his son, circumstances common to urban segregated neighborhoods. In the footage from various prisons shown during the commentaries, one can’t help notice the great majority of prisoners are dark-skinned.

In our discussion group we were fortunate to have Fate, a worker in the Violence Prevention project of Cease Fire, who spent twelve years in prison after committing crimes with a youth gang. He brought to our attention the problem of ex-convicts still judged as “criminals.” That is one area for we religious leaders to raise our voices – to ask our members as employers and landlords to put the teachings of non-prejudice into practice. Though most of us may not be convicted criminals, according to the Teachings, we have already committed and keep committing crimes (of thought, word and deed) against other living beings, and we wouldn’t want anyone to keep bringing up our defilements as a reason to deny us jobs and housing.

Several years ago at our temple we were blessed to have the participation of the late Johnny King, an activist for violence prevention who got me involved in the expungement campaign (Illinois Senate Bill 788 signed in 2003). One time when he didn’t show up for study class I found out he was arrested for parole violation and I had to navigate the online prisoner registry to find out where he was so I could send him the reading materials. Now we have a presently attending member who confided his past conviction to me but I’m not identifying him to other members so that he won’t be stigmatized. There may be others in our midst who were and maybe are criminals, but the important thing is for them to be accepted totally as our fellow Dharma-learners at the temple.
[Post script Feb. 21 - I should add that as we well know in the Chicago area, that the person convicted for a crime is not necessarily guilty. Too many people, especially those of color, get caught up in the justice system serving prison terms for crimes they didn't commit while the actual perpetrators can't be found or have managed to escape prosecution. So we should keep in mind that the ex-cons returning to our communities may not have been criminals at all.]

Friday, February 13, 2015

Searchers and Researchers

Yesterday I had to deal with two PO’ed people. One was a Dharma School parent (thankfully it was the superintendent Diana talking and e-mailing with her and not me directly) and the other was a community college student e-mailing about her class assignment.

Our outgoing temple president wrote an article in the February bulletin about how the number of first-time visitors had doubled from 2011 (253 people) to 2014 (496 people). He noted that our temple has become the “go-to place in Chicago for those exploring Buddhism.” But from the two people I had to deal with yesterday, I see it’s not such a good thing that our temple comes up on top in anyone’s Google search.

[photo shows form given to first-time visitors against background of the fabric patch cushion we use for our metal folding-chairs]
The great majority of first-time (and only-time) visitors are college and high-school students who had an assignment “to visit a house of worship of a religion outside of your own.” For the most part these kids (and the parents who have to chauffeur them) stay in the background and don’t bother anyone much except to ask a couple questions and take a photo proving they were there. But it becomes a problem for our members when the students start to get too intrusive – such as one group showed up with elaborate film equipment, sticking their camera in each person’s face as they went up to offer incense. We’ve since then asked people not to photograph during service and to ask for our members’ permission before filming them.

We’ve had dozens of graduate students doing studies of our temple which involved observing various activities over several weeks and doing extensive interviews of a sample group of members. So I didn’t think anything different about the Northwestern University student who came saying her study is about children and religion. I directed her to Diana, the superintendent, and thought it would be no big deal for the student to observe the Dharma School classes.

After the student’s second visit and a request to have families go through an interview process, we heard from the upset parent. She said it was very disconcerting for grade-school children to be asked, “How does it feel to be part of a minority religion?” She said it was careless of us to allow an outside party to be in the Dharma School classrooms without any checking of their credentials. These days it’s imaginable that someone with criminal intent could claim they are just a student doing research. So now at least when it involves contact with children, our temple will have to insist on references and a background check of anyone visiting us for the supposed purpose of academic research.

The e-mail exchange I had with the student from Harold Washington College shows that even academic research isn’t such a great thing for our temple to be participating in. The student felt that as someone taking a “Philosophy of Religion” course, we should be pleased that she chose our group to visit and myself as the minister and the whole temple leadership should be willing to drop everything to answer the boatload of questions she has about Buddhism. She felt by praising Buddhism as the religion she’s most excited to explore, that we should be welcoming her as our potential next leader (i.e. savior). We get a lot e-mails like that and it makes me feel like we’re the apes and the students all think they are Dian Fossey saving us from extinction because of their willingness to study us. Most of the time someone more diplomatic than me will respond to the student inviting them to attend our Sunday service, but yesterday and a few times in the past, I responded as someone in a real bad mood (essentially telling her to get in line and take a number with all the other students coming on Sundays wanting interviews for their class papers) and so the student wrote back accusing me of making her feel “inferior.”

I think I better prepare a stock response – telling the students to go visit the Midwest Buddhist Temple (I already did that with the second Northwestern student also researching “children and religion”). At Midwest, the office manager Jesse is there most of the week and on Sundays, willing and able to answer all kinds of questions people have about Buddhism. Midwest also has a whole cadre of “minister assistants” (including Jesse) certified by the Buddhist Churches of America – so I’ve also started referring churches and schools to Midwest who want a speaker to travel hours to their location.

I’ve heard Dr. Mark Unno say he did his research on the Shingon sect because he didn’t want to subject his own beliefs in Jodo Shinshu to the rigors of American academic analysis. I’m grateful that in Japan at places such as Otani University it’s okay to be a searcher and researcher at the same time and almost all the professors are deeply committed to Buddhism as the basis for their own lives. But in the West, academics feel it’s a liability to be emotionally attached to their object of study (one University of Wisconsin professor told me Dr. Haneda would’ve made a good scholar if he wasn’t such a gudosha, “seeker of the Way”). So for all you scholars and would-be scholars, if you want to study Buddhists in the same way you observe lab rats, please stay away from me and our temple’s members. But if you are sincere about exploring Buddhism as a possible basis for your own life, our doors are wide open for you.