Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Self-doubt as the Gate to Awakening

Although I have taken refuge in Shin Buddhism,
There is no truthful mind in me at all.
Since my being is false, vain, and insincere,
I have not even a fragment of pure mind.

As for my appearance to everyone,
I show the façade of a wise, good, and serious man.
Because I have abundant greed, anger, perversion, and lies,
My being is filled with evil schemes.

My evil nature is difficult to stop.
My mind is just like snakes and lizards.
My religious practice, being mixed with the poison of self-love,
Is called the practice of falseness and vanity.

            --Shinran Shonin, Gutoku Hitan Jikkai (in the Shozomatsu Wasan)
            translated by
            Nobuo Haneda in The Evil Person: Essays on Shin Buddhism
            By Shuichi Maida)

A few years ago I was reading an article about Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, where he said during the time he taught school in New York he felt like such a fake speaking at the front of the classroom. But he found that students he encountered years later would tell him he was one of their best teachers, sincerely helping them in their learning. It made me think of Shinran – continually calling himself a fake (as in the passages above), yet he was and still is able to compassionately convey to people the truth they need to hear.

I was reminded of the Frank McCourt article because of the recent suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and the PBS Newshour story on Robin Williams. Both men confided to friends and family that they felt full of self-doubt, feeling that their public image as a good guy was fake. I know (especially these days with the crisis at the temple) how crushing that feeling can be, yet the saving grace is always hearing the voice of Shinran, “Yeah, I’m a fake but it makes me awaken to the nembutsu as true. The delusion of thinking I’m purely good and wise is a barrier to realizing how much goodness and wisdom I receive from others.”

The paradox of the true teacher being the one who says “I’m a fake” is conversely true – the false teacher is the one who keeps insisting on his authenticity. One sign of a group based on a false idea of their teacher is that they don’t recognize the teacher had teachers and those teachers had teachers. In the Pure Land tradition of Honen and Shinran, even the historical Buddha had to have teachers. To them it was obvious from reading the Mahayana sutras that the Buddha was frequently expressing his appreciation of the Buddhas of the past – and in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, these past guides are represented in the archetype of Dharmakara/Amida.

[Five-kalpas contemplation]
It’s sad to think of great people such as Bourdain and Williams who felt so weighed down by self-doubt that they were driven to end their lives. It makes me grateful to teachers such as Rev. Gyoko Saito who showed me that no matter how awful one’s personal life can get, “the nembutsu is here,” as Rev. Saito quoted Akegarasu during the 1994 ceremony in Los Angeles where he was forced into retiring. The nembutsu reminds us that self-doubt doesn’t have to be a life-destroying thing. By seeing how fake our surface personality is, the grip of self-attachment is loosened and we can awaken to the dynamic truth that is all around and deep within us.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Unruly Spirits

The bodies harboring our unruly appetites are unruly in and of themselves — they are as weak and fallible as they are strong. In many ways, our bodies are completely unknowable, but oh, how we try to master our unruly bodies, nonetheless.
-- Roxane Gay from the online essay collection “Unruly Bodies”

In my last post I discussed how nobody has control over another being and that brings me to the topic often pointed out in Jodo Shinshu – how little control we have over our own life.

It only takes an injury or illness to experience the “insubordination” of the body to the commands of the mind. Besides cancer and the side effects from treatment, I’ve got aging and weight issues to remind me how my body keeps disobeying orders from my mind.

But as Shinran and other teachers in the Pure Land tradition realized, the reality of life is that we have very little control and understanding of our own heart/mind. People see only the very tip of the iceberg of who we are, but we ourselves don’t see much further down. So much of why we think, say and do the things we do is unexplainable, what Shinran calls “shuku-go,” karma accumulated during and way before our lifetime. The Pure Land teachers were able to read deeply into the Buddha’s teachings to hear his complex presentation of reality while so many in the other Buddhist traditions only grabbed onto the preliminary instructions. They are like the child who hears the teacher say, “Now let’s settle down, children, and get started on the lesson,” and responds with, “Ok I’ve been sitting still for two minutes which means I’ve completed the lesson and earned an A.”

Now I’m beginning to appreciate Kiyozawa Manshi’s sense of humor with all his talk of “self-cultivation.” So much of it is when we talk to ourselves, “Let’s not screw this up – careful, careful…. Oh shoot, messed up again!” Somewhere in that deluded sense of our self is the “superego” that thinks it clearly understands the great picture and knows the proper thing to do. But in reality, our heart/mind is like a mischievous little imp, out to trick and trip us up in frequently unexpected ways.

[comic by London artist Natalya Lobanova]

My unruly spirit is going gangbusters during this current crisis. As much as I tell myself, “Take the high road,” and “Don’t let it bother you,” my unruly spirit is saying, “Let’s see how depressed we can be,” and “Make them hate you more by stirring up more sh*t.” I’m far from being the poster child for “how to find inner peace with Buddhism.” But if anything, I’m the reason there is hongan (innermost aspiration) and nembutsu (calling of life itself). When you’re a wretch, how amazing Grace is – to keep one going forward with a faint spark of joy and gratitude.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018


Some people have the idea that “oneness” in Buddhism means the world is in harmony with them. But actually awakening to true oneness is when we realize that no being – animal, plant or mineral, no matter how seemingly small or weak – is obligated to go along with what I or anyone else wants. For anyone who has been in any kind of relationship – marriage, employment, volunteer activity etc. – it doesn’t take long to discover this. Even if you believe you’ve got another person to go along with you by force or the power of your persuasion, that person is only complying in a bodily way but their heart/mind is full of plots of rebellion and subversion.

[from the movie “Stripes”]
It is a freeing feeling to recognize the freedom of all beings and cast off the delusion that one must control others. I’m learning in mostly painful ways at the temple that no one wants to hear me saying things have to be a certain way – whether it’s clean counter tops or having the folding chairs facing the same way on the storage rack. So I’ve been trying to keep my mouth shut and put things in order by myself without bothering anyone.

In Japan, the rugged American in me hated to hear phrases like “don’t rebel against the Buddha” or “be a slave to the Dharma.” But now I realize those phrases were meant for us to examine our own ego which insists on going against reality – for example, being in angry rebellion against a rainstorm because we had plans for an outdoor activity. But there are situations where resistance is called for – when some people impose their egoistic delusions on others to treat them as objects to use and abuse. Last Saturday there was a massive show of resistance to our government’s policies on immigration - a big hooray to those of you who marched in the 100-degree heat in downtown Chicago in support of migrant families.

When I was at the ritual training session at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto in 2014, I was surprised that the ritual department staff encouraged us (ministers from the U.S. and Brazil) to have ongoing discussions at our temples on how the rituals can be changed to be more appropriate for our times and places. Yet the staff expected that when we practiced rituals together during our training that we followed the traditional Japanese format to a T. Would you call them “oppressors” for wanting us all to chant in a particular way? Would you call a symphony conductor an “harasser” for cajoling the musicians to play their parts according to the conductor’s interpretation of the music?

I shouldn’t be surprised that people at the temple don’t want to be subordinate to me – why should they go along with the way I do chanting or study sutras? I’m the one as the paid employee of the organization who should be carrying out my duties as the organization dictates. Yet I can’t help being insubordinate. I won’t be the perfect mouthpiece for how some members and the potential members want Buddhism portrayed – as a simplistic smiley-face belief that will appeal to affluent young adults and bring back Japanese American families. Yes, I’m open to listening and learning from the members and people who visit our temple – but I also want to share the wisdom I’ve received from my teachers, people that the members don’t think much of (those gadflies Kiyozawa and Akegarasu and that gloomy-sounding Shinran). Perhaps the current crisis is a sign that the few years left for me should be spent being in touch with what moves me and not have my time and energy used up in the continual struggle of responding to the demands of others, however well-meaning they may be.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Receiving Mode

As I wrote before my surgery in April, I would be in receiving mode during my recuperation, but now I think it may be my mode indefinitely. At the temple for Sunday services, I mumble at the podium for a few minutes’ “Dharma talk” with no essential points to make. I realized how uneager I am to be a speaker when I saw in contrast to me how enthusiastic our lay leaders were to take part in “Dharmathon” at the summer festival. Somehow I didn’t get around to sitting in on any of their talks but I talked to people who attended and heard favorable comments.

One problem is my low physical and mental energy level. It seemed I spent most of my time during the festival just sitting in my office. But being too tired to talk to people can be a good thing – they’re spared having to listen to me and I can be educated and entertained listening to them.

I enjoyed Bishop Noriaki Ito’s visit to Chicago over Memorial Day weekend, witnessing his “no degrees of separation” way of relating to people he was meeting for the first time. I wanted to do a blog post about it but couldn’t put more than a few sentences together. Two books I read during my recuperation gave me much to think about – Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Ta-nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power. I feel I have little to say about either book that would be helpful to anyone besides “You should read it.” I’ve been watching a lot of TV since my surgery and during my recuperation my brother gave me an iTunes gift certificate which I used to buy all episodes of “The Young Pope.” The protagonist’s interactions with other characters gave me a lot to think about but what can I say except it was immensely enjoyable drama?

One show that I saw on the PBS website that particularly struck me was “Who is Arthur Chu?’ about the Jeopardy game show winner. In the documentary he and his wife express their concerns on what to do to help people. To me, his letting the documentary makers show his speeches and writings about “nerd” culture is a great service. For me and probably other Asian Americans, it’s important to see an Asian speaking up to the majority white American society pointing out the racism and sexism going on in the tech world. So like Arthur Chu, I wonder what I can do help people – or am I already doing something that helps others?

I have two pending email requests to do online consultations. I know I’m in no position to solve anyone’s problems when I’m so mired in my own. But the great thing about Shinran and the many fantastic Pure Land teachers is that they thumb their noses at all the “self-improvement” claims of popular spiritual leaders. “So you’re feeling miserable? Join the club and you’ll see that instead of doing things to make ourselves ‘better,’ there’s lots to do to bring out the ‘better’ in others.” The concept of positivity versus negativity is completely irrelevant. Life is life – you pays your money and takes your choice (from the limited options available). Leave “forgiveness,” “closure,” “actualization” etc. to Amida, that immense ocean that envelops everyone. What are you hoping to accomplish by clinging to your little pail of water?

There are things to do – such as fighting for the dignity of all people. Whatever small bit you can do to keep the “haves” from running over the “have-nots” can matter. For me, it may be all I can do now is receive the wisdom from the works of Atwood, Coates and even Arthur Chu and at least tell others that their words are about eliminating the divide in our own minds of “haves” and “have-nots” – that destructive delusion that some deserve to have power over others.

When I was younger I heard “You have to straighten yourself out before you try to save the world.” Now I feel I’ll never straighten myself out, yet amazingly Namu Amida Butsu is what includes me in the ongoing liberation of all beings.

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).