Friday, July 3, 2015

Sharing Merit and Material

What did Rev. Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco say in his presentation at the “Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue on Suffering, Liberation, and Fraternity” (June 23-27, Rome)? Pretty much what he covered in his Dharmathon talk in April - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Bulb3IHGgI

Since I was at the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley for the Dharmathon, I heard Rev. Kobata’s talk live, so hearing him give a very similar talk in Rome was a disappointment to me. But it was well received by the Catholic delegates – I heard the priests call it a “great homily” and my roommate Anne said everyone was buzzing about it at lunch. Later I was grateful for Rev. Kobata’s talk because it gave me material I could use in translating the eko-mon “merit-transference verse.”

Ministers “steal” each other’s material all the time – it’s all part of sharing the Dharma. When people say our temple’s founding minister created a “new American Buddhism,” I tell them that Rev. Kubose didn’t create anything new but he was a pioneer for putting into English what Manshi Kiyozawa and Haya Akegarasu were saying in Japan (until the 1960s, Rev. Kubose was one of the very few native English-speaking Jodo Shinshu ministers). There’s no need for me to feel flattered when younger ministers tell me they’ve used stories from my presentations in their Dharma talks – it wasn’t really my material to begin with but what I received from Kiyozawa, Akegarasu and Maida in their modern interpretations of Shinran and Shakyamuni Buddha.

During the dialogue we enjoyed hearing songs and chants from various Buddhist and Catholic traditions. Before going to Rome, some of us decided Bishop Nori would lead our “Japanese chanting” group. We had the slot right before meditation on Friday morning, so we decided Rev. Alan Senauke would introduce the meditation portion. He said the meditation should be closed with a reading of a “merit-transference” verse but Nori said that the eko-mon was already included in our chanting. So I said we could read the English translation of the eko-mon. I didn’t have one handy with me so Nori told me to go ahead and give my own translation.


The term that hung me up in the eko-mon is “o-jo.” Every time when I conduct the meditation session at our temple and we read the eko-mon, I have to explain to newcomers that “go to be born into the land of peace” doesn’t have to mean you die and get reincarnated in some afterlife paradise. So for this group of Catholics who believe in heaven and Buddhists who mostly believe in reincarnation, I wanted to put forth the modern Jodo Shinshu presentation.

Then it occurred to me to use something from Rev. Kobata’s talk that the whole group had heard the day before – his acronym for ALIVE. He had quoted Howard Thurman, “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” And Rev. Kobata said that we come ALIVE: Aware, Loving, Inspired, Valued and Engaged. So this is how my translation of the eko-mon came out:

            I aspire to share these virtues
            Equally with all beings
            And in all of us together
              The heart of awakening arises
            And we go forth, coming alive
              That is, as Rev. Kobata told us, we become A.L.I.V.E.
              --Aware, Loving, Inspired, Valuing, and Engaged--
            Coming ALIVE in the realm of peace and joy


I was fortunate to meet the real life example of Rev. Kobata’s acronym – Papa Francesco. Even though he spoke and moved with weariness, in the meeting with our group of 50-some people, Pope Francis was very much aware and loving. He’s definitely inspired by Jesus Christ and all the great saints, particularly the enlightened St. Francis of Assisi. And besides making each of us feel valued (he took a moment to read my name tag before shaking my hand), in his Loudato Sii he reminds us to appreciate all the lives that comprise the planet earth. And finally, you can’t ask for a more engaged pope – how easy it has been for popes (and Buddhist lamas, gomonshus, roshis et al) to act aloof and above everyone else, but Francis uses his high profile position to call us into interaction, across races, countries and religions. And although he has yet to promote the ordination of women, at least he called off the attack dogs on the American nuns, so I believe in time he’ll set the stage for women to take a more leading role in Catholicism. He definitely showed no sign of discriminating against anyone in our group for their gender, skin color or status (lay or clerical). Unlike some of the Buddhist monks at our conference who were blatantly sexist, the Pope showed each one of us his utmost respect.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Women, Religious: My new buds

During the Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue, we came to know one another over the several days of last week. I could feel in a real way we had become friends with each other. But there were some people you loved from the moment of meeting them – and I have to say for me, they were the women.

Of all the Catholics participating the dialogue, there were three women, two laypersons Susan and Lorraine, and one nun, Sister Anne, my roommate for the conference. All of them are outstanding in different ways in their respective positions with the Church. I could say I met the cream of the crop, but I have a feeling they are representative of many, many lay and monastic women.

On the first day of the dialogue, we began with meditation and only Anne with her seiza bench got on the floor with me (using a spare pillow from our room). I expected at least some of the Buddhist monastics would meditate on the floor but everyone seemed comfortable in chairs. When I sit in most chairs, I’m too short-legged to plant my feet on the floor and although some of the Buddhist monks and nuns were able to fold their legs sitting in the chairs, I’m afraid if I did half-lotus or seiza in any molded seat chair that I could easily fall out or over. Only sitting on the floor lets me feel grounded. In the following days that all began with meditation, only Mushim (a former monastic) got on the floor, using a folded blanket as her cushion.

From meditation each day we moved to the chapel for mass. For that first mass, without thinking I just noticed where Anne and Susan were sitting and went to sit with “my buds.” When mass started I realized they were sitting in the front row because they had roles in conducting the mass – Anne led the singing and Susan did the readings. Yet the fact that I gravitated towards them, showed I felt a kinship beyond the labels of Christian versus Buddhist.


[photo taken at the Vatican]
Just as impressive as the Catholic women were the Buddhist female monastics. Although they had the same shaved heads and robes as the monks of Chinese and Vietnamese lineages, they were more like the Catholic women – open-minded and warm-hearted, confident without acting authoritative, and exhibiting a lot of creativity and resourcefulness. I hate to be critical, but I was surprised that Buddhist monks much younger than me came off sounding like old fuddy-duddies, so behind in acknowledging sexual/gender diversity and the need to speak up for the disenfranchised. The male Buddhists seemed to be lagging a couple centuries behind the most conservative Catholic men.


After the dialogue, some of us noted that the male Buddhist and Catholic men expressed views that the female followers would find hard to agree with. We said maybe for the next Catholic-Buddhist dialogue, we women should get together and talk about the concerns we share, such as advocating for equality. Apparently a lot of men, no matter what their religion, don’t see much wrong with enjoying a privileged position. And while historically religion has been used to justify that privilege, women have been at the forefront in recapturing the message of equality in both Christianity and Buddhism.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Immensely Undeserving: While in Rome

The wrong person was sent to Rome for the Buddhist Catholic dialogue. I've been saying to people that it should be someone such as Taigen Dan Leighton here representing Chicago - someone well known with a track record of social justice work and dialoging with the Catholic Church. I feel very much out of my league although I'm enjoying talking to these heavyweight religious thinkers and activists who patiently put up with me.

I would like to think Taigen-sensei was invited but had to turn them down because he was too busy (he was at the recent White House conference of Buddhist leaders). I know I'll be referred to in the Lion's Roar blog as one of the questionable choices, a person without much authority as a spiritual leader or activist.

So as immensely undeserving as I am for the honor of meeting with this group of 50 or so esteemed masters and venerables and of being with them in the private audience with Pope Francis, I'm here and should at least write about it.


I could do a whole series of posts about all the stimulating discussions and experiences so far (I'm writing this as the conference is still in session). There's so much in Catholic thought that I don't understand such as the Trinity. I asked Rev. Ron Kobata (here along with Rev. Ron Miyamura as Dr. Ken Tanaka's referrals) if he knew much about the Trinity and he said "It's like the tri-kaya (Sanskrit for "three bodies")" and I said that didn't help me because I don't get that either - Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya.

As if three Japanese American Jodo Shinshu ministers weren't enough, Bishop Noriaki Ito is here as well as the referral of Father James Fredericks (the priest that Dr. Haneda kept attacking at a panel discussion a few years ago in Los Angeles). I told Nori-sensei if anyone at Higashi headquarters asks how I got on this trip, tell them I was chosen by the Buddhist Council of the Midwest (and that's a messy story - BCM has a lot of teachers more qualified than me who could've been picked).

One observation Bishop Nori made is that the Buddhist presentations, Mahayana as well as Theravada, sound so far away from Shin Buddhism. I said it seemed Catholicism sounded closer to us. Hearing Father Jim Fredericks talking of the working of God beginning at the point of our despair sounds like what Kiyozawa, Akegarasu or Maida say - except they just say "working" (Father Jim used the Japanese term "hataraki") without the "of God" part.

When my roommate Sister Anne McCarthy (who gave a fiery presentation on women in the early Church) asked me about Pure Land Buddhism, I said "Other Power" (tariki) refers to that ground of being deeper than our ego-attached self. After that I kept hearing the term "ground of being" coming up in the Catholic presentations. Maybe it means I'm too much in the habit of talking about Shinran's teachings using Thomas Merton vocabulary.

So that's my initial stab at reporting on this historic gathering.



Saturday, June 20, 2015

An Unforgiven Man

… People often say, “That is unforgivable between friends,” or “That is incompatible with our friendship.” But such words are not spoken by real friends. Real friends who share the same trust in the Infinite Power Beyond the Self would never have inconsistent feelings about forgiveness. … They would never say a friend’s action is unforgivable or incompatible with their friendship. They fully understand that friends must act in different ways according to their own unique personalities and situations.
            --- Manshi Kiyozawa, “The Real Friend” (from December Fan translated by Nobuo Haneda. Second edition, Los Angeles: Shinshu Center of America, 2014)

Especially when there’s a death, you hear about some messy family situations. Recently I reported to the temple’s board that I would be conducting a memorial service against the wishes of the deceased’s wife and children.

Some time ago I heard that the family of the deceased “Mr. X” found out he had fathered a child with a woman he worked with. Besides the feeling of betrayal that the wife felt, the kids were shocked to find there was less money for their college education because their father was supporting the other woman and her child. For all outward appearances the family was hanging together even after Mr. X became disabled and required constant care at home in between hospital and nursing home stays.

I visited Mr. X at the nursing home a couple times and intended to see him again, but then his sister who often attends our Sunday services told me he had passed away. She told me his family was having his remains cremated and sending the urn to our temple to be held in our nokotsudo (ashes-storing room). A week or so later, Mr. X’s daughter brought over the urn and showed me the e-mail she sent out to her friends and associates. It said there would be no memorial service but people were welcome to visit our temple and pay their respects where the urn was being stored.

The sister decided to go ahead and plan for a public memorial service. I was her willing accomplice because Mr. X had helped me in the past and I thought about my own situation where my brother is my only family member left. Mr. X’s sister had lost her parents and all her siblings several years ago, so this one brother was important to her and she wanted to give him a funeral even if his family refused to do so.

There was a fairly decent turnout for the service – mostly friends of the sister and people who knew Mr. X during his student days. The “other woman” and her son came but the legal wife and children did not make an appearance. Not only were they not seen, but also not heard – no mention of them in the reading of Mr. X’s history or eulogy. When I was reading the customary “Letter on the White Ashes” (Hakkotsu no ofumi) by Rennyo Shonin, I almost wanted to say, “Hey, Rennyo’s birth mother was not his father’s wife, but he turned out okay.”


In Jodo Shinshu marriage is accepted as “ordinary” for both the ordained and lay people (unlike some stricter forms of Buddhism which even ask lay people to become celibate once they receive the precepts). So the incidence of extramarital affairs is brought up from time to time. In a pamphlet from the Southern Alberta temple I received at the recent world convention in Calgary, among the “frequently asked questions” about incense, beads etc. is a question about Jodo Shinshu’s stance on extramarital affairs. Rev. Yasuo Izumi points out one should be mindful of how our actions may hurt others’ feelings, but also cautions us against passing judgment on other people since we will never understand the whole complex situation.

In my own lineage, I know our temple wouldn’t exist without the scandal exposing Haya Akegarasu’s infidelity which led him to delve seriously into the Larger Sutra and finally understand why his teacher, Manshi Kiyozawa, broke away from the Buddhism of feudal-age Japan. Then Akegarasu’s disciple Shuichi Maida found himself in an extramarital relationship that tested his commitment to the Buddhist teachings. Those of us in Chicago who studied under my teacher saw the development and fallout of his dalliance with one of our fellow-students. So Mr. X has a lot of company in the “straying husbands” club.

For my Dharma talk at Mr. X’s memorial, I spoke about the third and final gate of the Three-Vow Transition (Sangan tennyu) that Shinran wrote about. Even though it’s hard for us to get out of our judgmental stances, the innermost aspiration of the unbounded Light/Life (Amida) is to take in all and abandon none. It is the wide-vow gate, gugan-mon, the gate that is so wide that it’s no longer a gate that lets some in and keeps some out. Despite the unforgiven state of Mr. X in relation to his legal family, in Namu Amida Butsu, we recognize that ultimately we are all forgiven and accepted into spiritual liberation despite our egregious misbehavior. It is our life itself, not the weighing of our good and bad deeds, that is embraced in the One Infinite Life.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Making Each Other Important

On Saturday at the World Buddhist Women’s Convention in Calgary, there was a presentation by keynote speaker Rev. Nana Yanase. She was only a few minutes into describing her childhood when a music track kicked in. That’s when we knew it wasn’t a Dharma talk but a performance. Rev. Yanase is known in Japan as the “singing nun” – she is a Jodo Shinshu minister who gives concerts of the songs she writes. The crowd of nearly 2,000 were seated in the convention hall according to region. The Japan delegates (around 1,200) and Brazilians (a small mostly Japanese-speaking group) sat in the left and center sections and the U.S. and Canadian groups on the right. The seating division was for the large screen projections – PowerPoint slides in Japanese were shown on the left screen and English titled ones on the right (and interpreters’ words were transmitted to headsets). Rev. Yanase punctuated the narrative of her life with songs and in one song, “Oyasumi (Good Night)” I saw the English translated lyrics projected on the screen had the line, “we love one another,” but the Japanese she sang was, “Otagai ni daiji ni shite.”

Rev. Yanase put up some Buddhist passages on her PowerPoint slides, but that one lyric line stuck with me. It can be literally translated as “We make each other important,” or more idiomatically as “we take care of each other.” In her dramatically delivered story, she said she fell into a deep depression after she was struck with ovarian cancer and had a hysterectomy – in Japan, a woman who can’t bear children is considered damaged goods. But a big boost to her “singing nun” career came with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan.

Although both Nishi and Higashi Honganjis have been doing relief work there without a lot of fanfare, the area is heavily influenced by its Zen temples. And as those Zen temples attended to the immediate needs of the survivors, they also served as gathering places for morale building events such as “singing nun” concerts. Seeing slide after slide of Rev. Yanase posing with various groups of smiling survivors, at first I thought, “Boy, she’s really self-promoting.” But then in the context of that one line of lyrics, I saw the men, women and children surrounding her in those photos as finding a way to forget their troubles for a few moments and reach out to this young woman who feels sorry that she’ll never bear babies. It is their expression of making her important to them that I found very moving.


It is so easy for us to dismiss others for their overblown estimation of themselves, but it is in our embracing of them as important that we transcend our own self-attachment (that nagging urge to be judge and jury). The kid who declares he or she will be an astronaut, superhero or the doctor who will cure cancer is projecting his/her wish for adoration on a worldwide stage. I still do the same thing, wanting to make myself important. Watching the star-turn facial expressions and hand gestures of Rev. Yanase on the large screen reminded me of my fantasies of becoming a famous enka singer. But as glamorous as she appeared, Rev. Yanase had on her nose what looked like a pimple (in the photo that I found, it may be something more permanent like a wart). Seeing that zit blown up a hundred-fold on the screen made me grateful to not be so much in the public eye.


“Namu Amida Butsu” is the calling that points out the pimples, warts, blackheads etc. on our noses, the sense of moral judgment that we mistakenly believe is so infallible. Yet as ashamed as we should be of ourselves, instead of confining ourselves in a hole, there’s something liberating in being able to make others important. In this web of interactively making each other important (Otagai ni daiji ni shite), we can’t help but feel the embrace of unbounded Wisdom. Thank you Rev. Yanase for showing us the shining faces of Namu Amida Butsu in your PowerPoint presentation.