Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Transforming the Summer of Sorrows

When religion cannot find a meaning for human suffering, human beings far too often become cynical, bitter, negative, and blaming. Healthy religion, almost without realizing it, shows us what to do with our pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.
                                    -- Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality

This summer it seems like we hear of one terrible tragedy after another in the news – here in the U.S. and around the world. I wonder what can any of us do to transform the painful sadness we feel over events such as the shooting in Orlando, the killing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the killings by police of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the massacre in Nice, France, the crackdown on dissidents in Turkey etc. Some people believe we need to be more politically involved but I personally don’t have much faith in the two-party system right now.

As someone involved in religion, I want to talk about how our religious traditions, particularly Shin Buddhism, give us the guidance for transforming our pain, but I must dig deeply and widely to get beyond the fuzzy platitudes and find the sharp wisdom I need to hear.

In the Shoshinge class at our temple, I said the translations of Shinran’s verses about Honen are all way off. So I tried my hand at putting into English what the words say to me:
My teacher Genku [Honen], who clarified the Buddha’s teachings,
Identified and empathized with the “good” and “evil” foolish ordinary beings.
He established in this remote [from the continent] land, the true essence from the great Teaching [Practice, Shinjin] to Realization [i.e. kyogyoshinsho]
For the spreading of the selected Primal Vow [aspiration to awaken to oneness] in this defiled world.
[paraphrase of Honen’s Senchaku-shu:]
“The repeated return to the [stifling little] house of turning around in birth-and-death is decidedly caused by getting stuck in feelings of doubt.
The swift entrance into the [expansive] community of tranquility and unforced joy is inevitably brought about by shinjin [entrusting heart/mind].”

[photo from the Tent City Love picnic that some of our temple members helped with earlier this month]

What I think Shinran heard from Honen is how we must be continually opening our hearts to others and catching ourselves when the ego tries to erect any kind of barrier. In the killings, injuries and incarcerations in the news (and for many folks, it’s happening to their own families and communities), our sorrow should remind us to open our hearts wider and not hunker down in our exclusive tribe, blaming the outsiders.

Buddhism for some people becomes that gated community to keep out the riff-raff with their evil influences. Honen realized the “refuge” of the monastery was actually an encampment in denial of our interdependence with other lives, especially those who are judged as inferior. Like Prince Siddhartha leaving his family’s palace, Honen had to leave the fortress of aristocratic priests and seek out the truth that the Buddha awakened to – the truth of life as it really is: a flow of myriad elements, diverse outlooks and behaviors, a kaleidoscope of bodies and hearts/minds shifting, stumbling and soaring.

In each “Namu Amida Butsu,” we hear the scolding for our divisiveness and the insistent invitation to become more aware of the unbounded life that embraces all. How this will play out in concrete detail for me and the temple is yet to be seen.

Monday, June 27, 2016

LGBTQIA Spells Sangha – Never Too Young to Feel Welcomed

Back in April I attended the East-West Ministers Seminar in Berkeley and in one of the workshops, Elaine Donlin, minister’s assistant at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, presented ways to make our temples welcoming to the LGBTQIA community. She said what makes her feel we need to do much more is the number of teens and young adults who contact her saying they are afraid to come out to their temples, especially if their families are longtime active members.

That made me realize we need to get the message of welcoming out to the children, so for my next Dharma School talk, I told the kids that gender identity is a spectrum and there is no strict category you have to fit in. I told them about the Buddhist Churches of America’s Bishop Umezu who brought up his child as a girl but that person now as a young adult identifies as male. I figured maybe not all the kids understood what I was saying, but someday when some of them are older they may feel rejected for being gender non-conforming and then remember, “Oh, Rev. Patti said in Buddhism it’s okay to be who you are.”

[Shinran atop a rainbow beach towel]
For the first time in our temple’s history, I decided to call the service on the last Sunday in June “Rainbow Pride Sunday.” Coming two weeks after the tragic shooting in Orlando, I felt we should be more affirming of our openness to all people. Even though the attendance was sparse (it was summer, people wanted to avoid the Pride Parade traffic and many of our LGBTQIA members were already at the parade), by publicizing the special service on Facebook, it gets the word out to those who may be “Buddha-curious” that they will be welcomed at our temple.

It was a lay speaker Sunday, so at the service our member Nancey gave a whole history of the gay pride movement including her own involvement. Although Dharma School is on break, families come in the summer with their kids and I have to sometimes tone down the content of my talks for them. But I realized it was important for the two families who came with kids to hear Nancey’s talk – those kids may be the ones who later will appreciate Buddhism’s message of accepting all lives, including your own.

So “pride” is not a dirty word or a deadly sin in Buddhism. For me it translates as “self-dignity” – recognizing the preciousness of your own life and not letting other forces tell you that you are less than human. And as Buddhists, we will fight those forces and help all people feel pride in being just as they are. Shinran during his time saw how various groups of people felt marginalized for being “aku-nin” (evil people) and he pointed to the sutras and commentaries to explain the Great Wish (hongan) is for all beings to be embraced in oneness, as equally dignified.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Dealing Rather Than Denying: Learning from Honen Shonin

As I mentioned in a previous post, sometimes I’ve done funeral-memorial services for people who identify with a Japanese Buddhist sect other than Jodo Shinshu. The other day I did a funeral for a woman who was a long-time member of Jodo-shu (“Pure Land sect,” the group founded by Honen Shonin long before Shinran met him). After the local Jodo-shu minister passed away, she and her children asked me to do the annual memorial services for her husband – small family gatherings that didn’t warrant calling the overseeing minister from Los Angeles to do.

For her service in place of Rennyo’s “Letter on the White Ashes” (Hakkotsu no ofumi) which is read at Jodo Shinshu services, I chose to read two excerpts from An Anthology of the Teachings of Honen Shonin (trans. Joji Atone and Yoko Hayashi, Los Angeles: Bukkyo University, 1998). One selection “Life is Fleeting” (p. 33 from Chokuden, Chapter 32) has similar wording about the transience of life as Rennyo’s letter, but ends with the departed soul facing King En’ma, Lord of the Realm of the Dead, asking, “Having been born in a world where the teachings of the Buddha prevailed, why did you leave there without having practiced them?”

I felt I needed a passage that described some of those teachings to put into practice so I chose an excerpt from “The Genuine Heart” (p. 56 from the Shichi-kajo kisho-mon):
Satisfy greed with small gratification.
Mitigate anger by venerating your elders and nurturing your descendants.
Overcome ignorance by rejecting the delusive worlds, aspiring for birth in the Pure Land, and devoting oneself to a life of service.
The cultivation of these attitudes will rid us of a heart filled with falsity
And result in the emergence of the truly genuine heart.
To shun the myriad evil passions of this delusive world
And to recite the Nembutsu are the true practices of the genuine heart.

I made some slight modification to the wordings to the two quotes I used and I have yet to see the original Japanese passages. I won’t go into all my spiel here, but many of you know I can go on and on about how Shinran is more faithful in quoting Honen than Honen’s Jodo-shu disciples who had their high-profile butts to cover due to the persecution of the Nembutsu followers for daring to suggest all lives are equal in dignity. But I’d like to think the passages I used in the service are fairly accurate in conveying Honen’s teachings.

What strikes me is that Honen realistically knew from his own experience as a monk on Mt. Hiei for over thirty years and then as the monastery dropout mingling with the various classes of people in Kyoto that it is a delusion to think one can be rid of the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance by one’s own efforts. To say, “Yeah, I got rid of those poisons for good,” is to be in complete denial about their continual bubbling up in our heart/mind and showing up in our thoughts, words and deeds. But the monasteries perpetuated the idea that they were special places away from the defiled everyday world where people could devote themselves to the practices that achieved victory over the barriers to enlightenment.

[graphic from]
Honen found what worked for us in the defiled everyday world of having families, working for a living and getting along with other beings is to deal with rather than try to deny our three poisons. You feel driven by desire for this and that? How about telling yourself, “Yes, you can have a taste of it at least.” Whether it was eating meat, having sex or getting drunk, Honen felt it was okay for people to get it out of their system by indulging just a bit, so they could go back to putting their heart/mind on the Buddha (nen “to think, remember,” butsu “the Buddha, awakening”). Are you filled with anger? Take a little time to remember those of the past who made your life possible and to think about your hopes for those who’ll bring the world into the future. Maybe you’re still angry for their sake (such as the outrage expressed by the late Muhammad Ali in the above quote) or maybe you’ll see how futile it is to get mad over something that looks petty and selfish in the grand timeline of the generations. What about that bothersome ignorance that keeps sprouting up out of the depths of darkness? Can’t do much about it but in the meantime there’s lots you can be doing to help others and make the Pure Land more evident in the perception of your surroundings.

I can’t say I knew the departed very well, having only gotten to know her in her 90s. But it was nice to hear from the family that my explanation of Honen’s words helped them see how she was a person who truly followed the Buddhist teachings. As Honen and later Shinran saw, it is those ordinary folks who show us how to live lives of “small gratification,” “veneration” and “nurturing,” “service” to others in their family, business and social lives. They show us that dealing with the three poisons is a far more effective strategy than trying to get rid of them. They have let go of the job of trying to be their own saviors – and so they were freed up to be “just as they are,” selflessly doing what has to be done.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Interfaith: Benefitting Others and Self

[Preface: This has been a difficult month for getting a blog post out there. I started several different pieces but things keep happening to pull my interest away from finishing each piece. Already it’s the last day of the month, so here’s a very short one for now.]

One benefit of interfaith discussion is finding out how others see your religion. At the recent Universal Muslim Association of America gathering after our interfaith panel, I was sitting at dinner with one of the UMAA Chicago leaders. I told him I liked his speech about being close to God and the Quran, and he said, “I visited your temple a couple years ago in the Sacred Spaces tour.” I told him it was the Midwest Buddhist Temple that was a part of that tour, not our temple. He said the visit left him with an uneasy feeling about Buddhism. “It seems to be a religion that each person comes up with his own ideas along the way. The person explaining Buddhism to the tour group kept saying, ‘In Buddhism, we listen to our inner self and follow that.’”

I told him that’s not how I see Buddhism – it’s not a “Do-it-yourself, make it up as you go along” religion. In our sect, Jodo Shinshu, we recognize there is a power beyond our ego-self and there are teachings to help us become aware of that power. I hate to speculate on who gave the explanation to the Sacred Spaces tour, but I know there are many people (including ministers) at Jodo Shinshu temples who would say the same thing, “We don’t need texts or external experts – it’s our inner voice that guides us.”

[from UMAA conference goodie-bag, a souvenir magnet]
In fact, I think a lot of people who identify as Buddhist feel that same way – that somehow Shakyamuni Buddha turned on the green light for each person to do their own thing and call it “Buddhism,” free of the restrictions of any organized form of religion. But anyone who bothers to read any bit of the sutras knows that Shakyamuni wasn’t just flapping his jaws and saying, “Don't accept what I say – go find out for yourself what the truth is.” On the contrary he was pointing out for us the pitfalls of relying on our deluded judgments and challenging us to test our fixed ideas against the flux of real life.

In addition to the oft-heard Western Buddhist rejection of “book learning,” there is the tendency to characterize Buddhism as pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps to enlightenment. In the 1990s my father was chauffeur in Minneapolis to Dr. Alfred Bloom on a lecture tour in the Midwest. At one public lecture, a man stood up and asked Dr. Bloom, “Do Buddhists believe in God?” My father said Dr. Bloom simply gave an emphatic, “No!” and the questioner promptly left the room. My father told me this story in a chuckling “What the heck!” way – but my impression is that he and most of the people present would’ve preferred to see Dr. Bloom engage the questioner in discussion.

I feel it’s the Buddhists who close off interfaith discussions by refusing to listen to anything that references “God” with a capital G – “We don’t go that sh*t.” If we get past the label, we find much of what is said in monotheistic religions is a deeply experienced sense of tariki, the power beyond self. For example, one of the imans at the interfaith discussion said he rejects the narrow sectarian views of the militant Wahhabis. He said God’s mind is beyond our human comprehension and that the Quran says that in the diversity of life we see the beauty of creation and that includes the diversity of religious expression. So any group that claims only they follow the true way of God are deludedly believing they know God’s mind.

Humans need to be taken down a notch or ten – we think we have the answers but our attachment to our “rightness” makes us intolerant towards others. Religion, including Buddhism, has the wisdom of the ages, of the transcendent, that makes us humble listeners and more open-hearted towards others.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Power of Karma: Defining "Afterlife"

I usually avoid jumping into Facebook discussions (especially those noisy Shin Buddhist ones), but about a year ago, the Uptown Uprising page posted a story on Jay Michael describing how he overcame ill health and was enjoying his success as a real estate developer. Several comments talked about “karma” – saying that if the law of karma was working, Mr. Michael would be suffering and dying for all the misery he’s caused by displacing longtime tenants from low-rent apartments in Uptown and nearby neighborhoods. I had to enter my comment that karma does not mean that illness and death are punishments for evil deeds and that success and power are rewards for good deeds. I said Mr. Michael is subject to the consequences of his actions that harm other people, but I didn’t go into how and when the karmic results would bite him in the butt.

If you Google Mr. Michael’s name, you’ll find mostly good things written about him – he passed away from lymphoma at age 34 in January of this year. But my bias is that what I’ve heard about him in Uptown is his disregard and disdain for the people who can’t afford the upscale, super-healthy lifestyle he promoted in his residential and commercial developments. Yes, I was one of the people (along with many faith leaders, such as Rev. Jean from Peoples Church) picketing his home in 2013.

Now I have some ideas using him as an example of how the power of karma defines what is called “afterlife.” This past Friday I spoke to the students at the Chicago Academy for the Arts in two social studies classes and the question came up, “How do Buddhists consider the afterlife?” I answered that as a minister talking to families who just lost a loved one, I don’t talk about the loved one’s spirit travelling to some other realm. What I do talk about is karma – that everything the loved one thought, said and did is still continuing to work in our lives and will continue to have effects even beyond our lifetimes. I gave the example of Prince, who had just passed away – his physical life no longer exists, but he left us with great songs to sing and dance to. That for me is his afterlife – that he continues to be alive in the world for me now.

The Buddha saw how egocentric the popular notion of reincarnation was – people wanted themselves to be rewarded for doing good and wanted to see others punished for doing bad. That idea of karmic reward and punishment crept back into the Buddhist literature not too long after the Buddha died, but one can easily see how incongruous it is with the teachings of transcending the ego, of waking up from the delusion of having a self that has a permanent substance separate from the rest of reality.

The teaching of karma is to make us aware of how our thoughts, words and deeds have rippling effects in the world – maybe not in the immediate future but somewhere down the line. Rather than being concerned about getting our prize or avoiding our punishment, we should be doing what we can to make life more fulfilling for our contemporaries and future lives and trying to turn around the bad consequences we (and our predecessors) already set in motion.

On Saturday our temple held a memorial service for the late Mrs. M, who passed away at age 90 from a decline in her physical and mental health. The various family members – in-laws and grandchildren – spoke about how selflessly giving she was. I knew her as a sweet lady but talking to some of the people in the large turnout that day, I learned she had reached out to many people and touched them with her kind support and encouragement. She had long been active at the temple with various groups and involved in the Japanese American community, but like many women of her generation she was known mainly as “the wife” of a high-profile community and cultural arts leader.

Although I knew many of the relatives and friends attending were devout Christians, in my Dharma message I had to say that Mrs. M wasn’t concerned about whether she was going to heaven or not after she died. In her thoughts, words and deeds, she was bringing heaven to all the lives she touched. Her afterlife is the continuing effects of her karma on everyone who remembers her and she serves as an example of how we should care for others, not for thanks or reward, but because it’s the thing to do.

Now getting back to Jay Michael – his afterlife is to be long known by increasing numbers of people as someone who brought hell to Chicago neighborhoods. He serves as the example of extreme narcissism – focusing on healthiness as a benefit for the affluent and denying the dignity of those who have untidy lives of struggling with disadvantages imposed by poverty, racism and other burdens of society’s past karma. In a way, it’s a shame he died so young – he might have eventually woken up like Prince Siddhartha to how maintaining a high-class lifestyle is destructive to your own life as well as to so many other lives.