Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dramatic Weight Loss and Other Money-Sucking Delusions

My husband plunked down around a considerable amount of money to buy me a bottle of Garcinia Cambogia pills in the hopes that I will be slim and trim for my trip to Rome for the Catholic-Buddhist dialogue in June (as if I’ll have a better chance of getting the Pope’s ear if I can catch his eye). I tried the routine for a half month and not much happened with my weight. Drinking a pill with a full glass of water before meals makes the stomach feel fuller and you’re likely to eat less, so in that sense it works. The actual substance Garcinia Cambogia might have fat-blocking power, but who knows if what you buy online or even in a reputable store is what the label says it is.

There are a lot of companies making money from selling this placebo. They know many people are so desperate for dramatic weight loss that they’ll pay anything. Besides weight loss, a lot of people are desperate to quickly get rich or find everlasting love – or reach that blissful state referred to as “nirvana.” I know many temples are wondering how they can cash in on the mindfulness craze – if people are willing to pay for expensive seminars, videos, books etc. why can’t we lure them in and get them to pay us?

At our temple, I’ve held the line against charging for classes and meditation sessions. A few classes ask students to pay for materials, such as when our retired minister used to teach Japanese calligraphy which requires special paper, ink and brushes. One time the recently deceased meditation leader advertised a charge for a special “introduction to meditation” course, but I told him that was against our temple’s policy. I told him he could request reimbursement from the temple for mileage or any of his expenses incurred and he could even keep any free-will donations instead of passing them on to the temple. But I don’t want our temple to be a place where you have to pay for the Path.

Our temple is fortunate to have a stable financial base of members who have contributed generously year after year. Besides paying for membership, these people make frequent donations in memory of their loved ones – parents, siblings, children, even the in-laws’ grandparents. Most of these people are first and second generation Japanese American, but we’ve had long-time members of various ethnic groups who keep up the memorial donations for their families.

Some cynics might say the temple is living off the guilt of the filial pious (“If I don’t make a donation in Grandma’s memory every year, her spirit will curse me”), but I’d like to think the donations are made in appreciation of the Buddhist teachings that inspired their loved ones and that continue to guide the survivors in their grief. It is not buying merit for the loved one to use in purchasing higher-level rebirths, as many people in the old countries might think.

My friends at the Orange County Buddhist Church in southern California tell me that we should charge for Buddhist education classes or people won’t value them enough to show up. But I think if anything, we need to make the teachings as accessible to people as possible, especially to those in our surrounding community where many are un- or under-employed. I’m surprised that some Buddhist groups charge fees close to or over $100 for a class or seminar (although one Zen group on their flyers will have a footnote that no one will be turned away if they can’t pay the full fee).

Another reason for not charging for classes is that I don’t want to be like the Garcinia Cambogia pill sellers, taking advantage of people desperately wishing for a great change in their lives. I know what it’s like to be desperately seeking a spiritual breakthrough – you’re willing to follow anyone marketed as a “wise master.” But like the bottle labeled “Garcinia Cambogia,” the actual contents could be capsules of do-nothing powder, and the claims for the real substance could be terribly exaggerated, based on a few anecdotes. My hope is that those who come to our temple – to attend services, classes, meditation etc. – will at least learn that the nirvana pointed to by the Buddha was not some quick-fix that suddenly gives you spiritual super-powers, to be as pure and calm as Superman is strong. If anything – and this is the lesson that hit me between the eyes – we learn from authentic Buddhism that our wish for that supremely blissful state is the delusion of our ego-attachment, the story we tell ourselves that somehow we deserve to become a superior being and just need to find the effective means to that transformation. What we receive from Buddhism is the path of liberation from our grasping self, to become more aware of the no-boundaries world of true Life. This path can’t be bought but only experienced through taking the time (months, years, kalpas) to listen to the teachings and to learn from our fellow seekers (Shakyamuni, Shinran, temple members past and present).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Recap With Revisions

Some of you may have already saw or heard about the “Dharmathon” event broadcasted on YouTube last night (April 15, 2015) from the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley. This is an attempt to recap what I wanted to say in my segment:

The title of my talk is “The Liberation Theology of Shinran Shonin.” The term “Liberation Theology” was used from around the mid-1950’s through the ‘70s for a movement mainly started by Catholic priests in Latin America to apply the Christian teachings in creating programs and lobbying for the poor and disadvantaged in their countries – to liberate them from the oppression that kept them in poverty and suffering. However, what I am calling Shinran’s Liberation Theology is not about who to vote for or what programs to lobby for in order to liberate the oppressed, but rather his teachings are about liberating us from being oppressors. Some say the term “theology” doesn’t apply to Buddhism because we don’t talk about God, but I think here it’s appropriate because Shinran is pointing to a perspective beyond our human-centered view, the perspective of the Power Beyond Self which sees the absolute equality of all lives.

As you know Shinran was born into the aristocratic class and spent twenty years at the monastery on Mt. Hiei. During his time the view of the aristocrats and Buddhist practice went hand-in-hand in looking down on the common people. Just as monks believed they could work their way up towards enlightenment through practicing purity in thought, speech and action, the aristocrats believed they earned their privileged position through their morality. The common folk were called akunin, evil persons, because in the course of their work they broke the Buddhist precepts and so they deserved to live lives of misery and deprivation.

Shinran in meeting his teacher Honen and receiving the Pure Land teachings came to see how wrong that attitude of the monks and aristocrats was. Just as we are taken into the heart/mind of nirvana, receiving this great gift that we don’t deserve, we also realize how little we have done to deserve the lesser gifts of material wealth, comfort and health. There is no real basis for our privilege – we didn’t earn it, but came into it largely through causes and conditions beyond our control.

Today in our American society there is a demonizing of the poor and disadvantaged much like during Shinran’s time. We are their oppressors if we look at them as akunin, as deserving to be miserable because they aren’t working hard enough or upholding morality. In Shinran’s confession of being a foolish ordinary person full of defilement, his declaration of being an “evil person,” we see how wrong we are when think we can look down on others.

The third verse (pictured above) of Shinran’s Jodo Wasan [Pure Land verses] sums up his Liberation Theology:

Gedatsu no korin kiwa mo nashi
The Light of liberation is a wheel with no edges, boundaries
Ko-soku kamuru mono wa mina
The touch of this Light reaches everyone
U-mu o hanaru to nobetamo
And it smashes the division between Have and Have-not
Byodo kaku ni kimyo se yo
And our lives are returned to the awakening of absolute equality

Byodo kaku ni kimyo se yo is “Namu Amida Butsu” – to have our sense of privilege challenged and crushed so that we awaken to the absolute equality of all beings. That is our liberation from being the oppressors.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Someone Else's Cows: The Problem With Chanting

Although reciting many religious texts,
If one does not practice accordingly,
He is a heedless man.
Like a cowherd counting the cows of others,
He has no share in the religious life.

Verse 19, Chapter One of Dhammapada (translation by Glenn Wallis, New York: Random House Modern Library, 2007)

We started our new term of the weekly study class with the topic “Dhammapada Backstories.” We are looking at the responsive reading section of our temple’s service book and comparing the Dhammapada selections with the unabridged text in various translations (Max Mueller, Thanissaro Bhikkhu at, Carter/Palihawadana and the newer book by Glenn Wallis)

In our discussion of the 19th verse of Chapter One, it occurred to me that our practice of chanting is much like being “a cowherd counting someone else’s cows.” Chanting as is done in many Jodo Shinshu temples is the sounding of syllables approximating the Japanese pronunciation of the sutras in their classical Chinese translations. It’s like being a schoolteacher who reads off the names of her students every day and hears each one respond “Here!” but she never looks up to see the face of the student or get to know any of them. There is no association of the names with actual children, only the sound of their voices.

As Glenn Wallis says in his introduction, the Dhammapada was not composed to be fine poetry but constructed in particular rhythms and “rhymes” to be conducive to instructing people on the Buddha’s basic teachings. It’s like how most of us learned the alphabet by singing it to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Not only the Dhammapada, but all the Buddhist texts in the languages of Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese etc. were composed to be orally transmitted, to be “chanted” – easily memorized by the chanters and easily understood by the listeners.

[page from the Buddhist Temple of Chicago service book – with English translation of each chanted verse]
A big disconnect happened when Buddhism came to Japan. The aristocrats had the luxury of learning classical Chinese and kept the texts in that language, totally inaccessible to everyone else. In the Kamakura period, teachers such as Shinran wrote Buddhist texts in vernacular Japanese so the common folk could learn the teachings through listening and reading (in phonetic kana letters along with kanji, Chinese characters). But somehow not much was done afterwards to convey the sutras in people’s everyday language.

I told the class a story I heard in Los Angeles from Rev. Tetsuo Unno about how one can’t be thinking about the meaning of texts while you’re chanting them. He said one time he and his brother, the late Dr. Taitetsu Unno (see my January 2015 post), were chanting Shoshinge (Shinran’s poem from Kyogyoshinsho, written in classical Chinese) together at a service. As they went along, he heard his brother getting more and more behind and when he stopped chanting altogether, Rev. Tets looked up and saw Dr. Ty pouring over some passage with his chin in his hand, nodding and muttering “Hmm…”

I’m sure others besides me have felt like that about Shoshinge – for those of us who can read the kanji, we can’t help being struck by Shinran’s expressions and want to spend some time contemplating some of the phrases. But in chanting we have to keep speeding along through the verses. Somehow I don’t think that was Shinran’s intention when he wrote them – they are lessons to be absorbed not strings of mantras to complete at a swift clip.

Sometime in the far, far future, there will be decent translations into recitable English of the texts we now chant during our services. As I told the class, chanting has its physical and mental benefits, but for me it’s mainly background music for the ritual of incense offering.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Spiritual "Feminine Principle" and Real Women

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.

… All that is sweet in her tenderness will speak to him on all sides in everything, without ceasing, and he will never be the same again. He will have awakened not to conquest and dark pleasure but to the impeccable pure simplicity of One consciousness in all and through all: one Wisdom, one Child, one Meaning, one Sister.

From Hagia Sophia by Thomas Merton

We wrapped up our weekly study class winter term comparing and contrasting Shuichi Maida and Thomas Merton on a note common to both men – the spiritual principle of the “eternal feminine.” Merton expresses his veneration of the feminine principle in his prose-poem Hagia Sophia (quoted above), referring to the Eastern Orthodox focus on Hagia Sophia (Greek for “holy wisdom”) as the source of Virgin Mary’s inspired purity. Maida sings praises of the feminine principle in his commentary on Goethe’s Faust titled Eien ni josei naru mono (that which becomes the eternal femaleness).

Several decades ago I started reading Maida’s book with the intention of translating it. I thought it would give people insight into my teacher’s background – it was the book that Dr. Haneda happened to come across which became his gateway encounter with Buddhism and Shinran’s teachings in particular. As rich as the book is in relating Goethe’s Faust to Jodo Shinshu (see the excerpt translated by Dr. Haneda in The Evil Person), I couldn’t help feeling disturbed by Maida’s sexist and racist comments. Probably other Western women have felt this way – you want to translate and promote your teacher and/or his teacher, but it’s hard dealing with that imperialistic Japanese mindset which denigrates darker-skinned people and women who aren’t focused on being the perfect wife and mother.

As much as Maida, Merton and other revered teachers poetically praise the “feminine principle” in spirituality, it doesn’t carry over into a demand for more women to participate in religious leadership. Avena, a minister at a protestant church who occasionally joins our study group, said many congregations feel short-changed if they have to settle for a woman minister. She’s heard people say, “If we had more money, we could afford a male minister.” (And I thought only Japanese American temples and churches spoke that way.)

I think we need to disconnect the spiritual “feminine principle” from language associated with the stereotyping of real women. So many times my husband tells me I’m not acting in the temple’s best interest when I’m too girly, trying to be “meek and accommodating” while dealing with a demanding member or negotiating with vendors of goods and services. Instead of “masculine” and “feminine” to group certain traits, we should use non-gender terms. The problem with the words “passive” and “aggressive” is they sound too passive and aggressive. So I propose using the geometry terms, concave and convex.

[graphic from]
There are times when we human beings in our jobs and relationships have to be more convex (“leaning in,” assertive) and times to be concave (witnessing, receptive). But in spirituality we discover more and more how deeply concave the great Life within and around us is. Accounts of the militant, jealous Zeus/God are reflections of the convexity of our childish temper – we want to be the punisher of all who don’t go our way.

Maybe this isn’t the best suggestion, but I hope all of you future Maidas and Mertons out there can experiment with religious vocabulary so that real men, women and intersex people (a shout out to our member Lynnell) aren’t boxed in by expectations regarding gender and spirituality.

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.