Monday, January 12, 2015

In the Tall Shadow of Taitetsu Unno

[We are reminded] that within boundless compassion each of us is Number One, whether in last place or not. In fact, it is the last-place finisher, the foolish being, who is first in the eyes of Amida Buddha.
                                                From Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn Into Gold
                                                Excerpted in Tricycle as “Number One Fool”

Jodo Shinshu lost its foremost spokesperson in the West when Dr. Taitetsu Unno passed away on Dec. 13, 2014. Our Chicago temple is indebted to him for the several times he came to be our Ho-on-ko seminar speaker and of course, his books and translations have been invaluable for our study-minded members.

At one of the Ho-on-ko seminars he started off telling a story (which I’ve forgotten) by saying he hated the cocktail parties he had to attend early in his academic career. I thought to myself, “What’s so bad about cocktail parties? Casual chit-chat with colleagues while sipping tasty alcoholic drinks sounds fine to me.” But he explained the thing he hated was: everyone had to stand.

For most women and especially Asians, there is a dread of situations where you know your short stature will put you at a disadvantage. As scientific studies have shown, humans like other animals tend to consider larger bodies as indicative of authority. The shallowest thinker in the room will be looked at as the expert if he towers above everyone else. I know at Buddhist gatherings I’ve felt invisible in crowds of non-Asian women – the stout gal with the shaved head and brown robes is looked up to as the venerable and this under-five-foot tall pipsqueak is too far below everyone’s eye-level to be noticed even if I’m dressed in my fanciest Japanese garb.

What Dr. Unno developed was a way of making himself seem tall. His voice was deep and deliberate. He carried himself in the way he stood, walked and sat as man of unshakable confidence. One trait he had that bothered me in the past is now something I envy. Although the professors in Japan enjoy being the sole speaker in the classroom (students are to be seen and not heard), at American colleges, students are allowed not only to ask questions but to challenge the instructor. What I’ve seen Dr. Unno do at his lectures is sternly shut someone down if they start to veer in a direction apart from his presentation. In some cases, students are just voicing their comments, but one time at our temple, Dr. Unno in what seemed a cruel stroke, put down a person who started to assert his opinion. After the seminar I told Dr. Unno he didn’t have to be so hard on that person because he’s a long time member of the temple and participant in the study groups, not someone making an ignorant generalization about Buddhism. But now considering how much that same person has been disrupting my study groups, openly questioning at public seminars my qualifications to be the teacher, I wish had Dr. Unno’s swift samurai sword of words.

It may rub some of my fellow baby-boomers the wrong way, but Dr. Unno was like the Louie DePalma character in the TV show “Taxi.” He knew if he didn’t gain the upperhand and let people know he was boss, they would feel justified by their height to rule over him.

The fact that Dr. Unno spent most of his academic career at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, shows he was free of many of the ethnocentric pressures on Jodo Shinshu scholars and ministers on the West Coast and Hawaii, who are used to speaking to primarily Japanese American “baggage Buddhists.” Dr. Unno was the key influence on dozens of people on the East Coast and beyond to become not just “convert Buddhists” but to whole-heartedly embrace Jodo Shinshu as the ultimate expression of Mahayana. Although many Buddhist writers have been published by niche presses such as Wisdom and Shambhala, what an accomplishment for Dr. Unno that he had two books published by Doubleday, a mainstream press. I started reading Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn Into Gold again and I’m struck by the wide variety of Western cultural references he brings into his presentation. Of course, he values his Japanese heritage but he knows that to speak to an ethnically diverse audience you have to go beyond “Bachan Jichan” (“Granny, Grandpa”) stories of old Japan. At his last visit to Chicago, I was impressed that he felt comfortable going beyond the set phrases to describe Amida, and was stretching out into parallels found in Western art and philosophy.

To be the Number One Fool is to settle humbly (Namu) in the embrace of unlimited wisdom (Amitabha) and to shout that message with a lion’s roar, unintimidated by anyone who happens to be taller.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Virtue of Foolishness: Gutoku Tora-san

There’s a lot for me to process after my three-week stay in Japan – two weeks of training at the Higashi Honganji head temple and one week travelling with my brother’s family. What I want to write now is about the two movies I watched on the flight back to the U.S. Their contrast could be a metaphor for where Jodo Shinshu stands in the midst of Western Buddhism.

During my dinner, I watched the 2003 Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai.” I often refer to that movie when I lecture on Manshi Kiyozawa and the Meiji Era, admitting that I’ve only seen bits of it on TV. So I was glad to finally have a chance to watch it.

It’s an absorbing film to watch but the story reminded me of the old TV miniseries “Shogun” with Richard Chamberlain. In the movie there was protest against the rising military-industrial complex with the samurai representing the more compassionate way of life. As embodied by Ken Watanabe’s character Katsumoto, the ideal samurai is an alluring hero, devoted to Zen serenity and disciplined code of honor.

After I slept some, I wanted to see the Tora-san movie before the flight ended. Some might dismiss the long-running series of Tora-san movies as lightweight slapstick comedies, but I always felt the ones I’ve seen were each well-crafted and somehow there’s a serious spirituality informing the formulaic plots.

The film I watched was the 1982 “Tora-san the Expert” (see poster above). Early on in the film, Tora-san attends a Buddhist funeral. When Tora-san is invited to offer incense, he ceremoniously whips out his scrunched up koden (condolence money) envelope and kneels down in a strict gassho (palms together) pose. Then instead of reaching into the granulated incense holder section of the oblong container before the altar, he mistakenly puts his fingers in the section with the burning incense. With a yelp of pain, he tosses up the burning incense grains he had pinched and they fall down into the neckline of the priest. The priest then yells in pain and a bustle of people are trying to help him by pulling off the layers of his formal robes, stripping him down to his underwear.

That scene is exactly what Jodo Shinshu teaches us – that we are bonbu, foolish ordinary beings, who pompously try to look wise and moral but end up screwing things up for ourselves and others. Yet as much trouble Tora-san gets himself into and causes for others, in the end he is embraced by everyone’s love, by the many lives (Amitayus) around him, particularly embodied by his sister Sakura, who is the bodhisattva Kannon in an apron and slacks.

Those of us brought up in the West are like the Tom Cruise character in “The Last Samurai” when we are drawn to the exotic surface of Buddhism. “Yes, this is calmness, this is the honorable way to follow,” we think and dream of being the gallant warrior conquering all our defilements and attaining a “good death.” But as the Tom Cruise movie and all other depictions of samurais show, the way of the warrior is really about glorifying one’s self and one’s tribe and putting down everyone else.

In the Tora-san movies, despite the slapstick roughhousing and flying insults, the plots are really about getting people together. No one is violently assaulted out of spite or for revenge. Instead there’s the comedy of come-uppance – I can’t help identifying with the priest in that hilarious scene. He covers himself up with shiny robes of authority but suddenly stung by the burning grains of suffering, he’s hopping around with his shabby real self exposed.

You don’t have to be Japanese to enjoy the Tora-san movies but I can see those movies won’t appeal to Westerners who’d rather see Japan as a samurai culture. (Ironically the director of the Tora-san series, Yoji Yamada, won international acclaim with his samurai films.) But Tora-san movies show the down-to-earth and caring aspects of modern-day Japan, just as Jodo Shinshu brings us a get-real Buddhism, not a package of attractive but unattainable fantasies.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Occasional Deprivation

Starting in January our weekly study group will discuss the topic “Give up what?! The relevance of renunciation.” In the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” course I teach at the temple a few times a year, we spend the last session reading’s article “Boomer Buddhism,” where religious studies professor Stephen Prothero quotes Thannisaro Bhikkhu saying the key idea of renunciation has been largely ignored by Western Buddhists. In Jodo Shinshu we’re so used to “come as you are” that we have no inclination of giving up any pleasures, comforts or conveniences. But I wonder if there may be some lessons we can learn from those who significantly pared down their lifestyles.

Of course Manshi Kiyozawa comes to mind with his “minimum possible” way of life, but that was all an “experiment” that he gave up when his health failed and he claimed to find true reliance on Other-Power. A better example is Haya Akegarasu’s main student, Shuichi Maida who took the sudden step away from his middle-class family life as a college professor to live in poverty and devote himself entirely to the study of Buddhism. In the study class, I plan to share much of the autobiographical material Maida wrote which Dr. Haneda translated for us in his study class at the temple in the early 1980s.

But the one person who came more clearly to my mind as the embodiment of renunciation (until late in his life according to some stories) is the Catholic monk Thomas Merton. Somehow I came upon a book about him before I left Chicago to study in Japan in 1984 and it encouraged me to go ahead of with my renunciation – leaving my wild unfocussed life behind to start a new austere life of purpose (or so I thought at the time). I would like to revisit Merton’s life and how his account of his renunciation, The Seven Storey Mountain resonated with the American post-war generation.

(Wikipedia photo by Bryan Sherwood of Merton’s hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky)

From time to time I’ve stayed within the Higashi Honganji complex in Kyoto and experienced a few days of deprivation from my usual luxuries. This month I’ll be there for a minister continuing education session and the one luxury I’m worrying about losing is my access to the internet. Funny how we’ve come to be so dependent on the “information highway” when it wasn’t that long ago when it was just a rare source that we snuck a glimpse of at our workplaces, libraries or pay-computers. And it’s ironic that I’m worrying about losing that several times a day interaction on Facebook when actually among the fellow ministers I’ll be with in the session are my Facebook friends from Brazil.

Despite the grumbling and cursing I’ll be doing, I have to keep in mind that living like a monk is still a privileged activity. Too many people in the world and especially throughout the Chicago area are involuntarily dealing with deprivation – with little access to the material benefits of food and shelter, much less to the digital realm.

Friday, November 21, 2014

For the Desperately Seeking Shinrans - Almost Famous

In the story of Shinran’s life, we talk about his twenty years at Enryaku-ji, the Tendai monastery on Mt. Hiei, one of the great temple complexes in Japan at that time. When Shinran realized he wasn’t receiving the Buddhist teachings that were essential for him at that institution how was he able to find a group that focused on the teachings without all the elitist trappings and tacked-on paraphernalia?

At the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference in Vancouver last year, Mark Blum spoke about the groups flourishing in the margins of society led by “hijiri,” free-lance priests whose religious leanings weren’t exclusively Buddhist. Would Shinran go exploring around Kyoto to sit in on the various hijiri groups? I don’t think so – he was still too much of an aristocrat and not one to go “slumming” among the paupers and laborers. What attracted him to Honen was Honen’s reputation. Honen wasn’t one of these fly-by-night preachers from who-knows-where.  During his thirty years as a Mt. Hiei monk, Honen was respected for his outstanding scholarship. When he left the monastery to start the new Jodo sect, the monks were probably scratching their heads wondering why this eminent priest left behind his high status on the mountain to dive into the unwashed hordes of the city. Even though Honen left Mt. Hiei before Shinran joined the monastery, Shinran probably heard about this respected priest who dropped out and must be propagating some very watered-down version of Buddhism that the uneducated people could believe in.

Honen (pictured above) had a name for himself and Shinran could relate to him as a fellow aristocrat and longtime monastic. I could imagine Shinran making his way through the crowd to see Honen, holding his breath and moving carefully among Honen’s diverse followers to avoid smelling or being touched by them. I don’t think he would’ve stepped out of his comfort zone for just any old no-name hijiri.

The point I’m trying to make is I think there may be many seekers currently in North America who are like Shinran, disenchanted with an established religious group and looking for one that speaks more directly to them instead of just repeating “the party line.” The teachings of Shinran may be exactly what they need to hear but how would they find a Jodo Shinshu temple? Our temple like many others in North America has a name that says “Buddhist temple” and the city name, but other Jodo Shinshu temples have more obscure names such as “Ekoji” or “Senshin” and referencing “Honganji” (“Hongwanji” in the old Romanization). Even if one finds oneself stepping into one of those temples, it may seem too much like a club just for ethnic Japanese. And even the handful of non-Japanese members are liberally using Japanese terms and sounding like Christian evangelists, substituting “Amida Buddha” for “Jesus Christ” as the only one who can save us sinners.

It may be that every temple member (and not just the ministers) needs to get their name out in public and be the ones to let people know that Jodo Shinshu is not another form of fundamentalism (“do as we say and no one will get hurt” as it said on a church sign I saw in a cartoon) and it has an emphasis that makes it distinct from the Buddhist groups that are more well known. All Buddhists speak of the ideal of equality of all lives but in practice various sects have set up hierarchies and step-ladder processes to separate the adepts from the undeserving. The more we get the message of Jodo Shinshu out in the media, on-line and in our personal relationships, the more likely the desparate seekers will find Shinran, despite the intimidating ethno-centric settings of many Shin groups.

What Shinran saw in his first encounter with Honen was the heart awakened to the wholeness of life, embracing all lives as worthy. The “come as you are” slogan of Jodo Shinshu expresses that requirements are totally unnecessary – no one is too ugly, too evil, too weird, too poor, too insane, too unwell – for being received into the path of awakening. While it is comforting for each of us to feel embraced by unbounded compassion, it is not always the case that members of Jodo Shinshu temples put this into practice by regarding their fellow beings as equally embraced in the same Jodo (realm of the flowingness of life). Shinran also struggled with that dual view – I’m relieved that I’m not judged, but I think I’m still (smart, moral, refined etc.) enough to have the privilege of judging others. It took not only the six years he spent with Honen and the Kyoto group to break down his aristocratic snobbishness but he needed that exile to the countryside of Niigata to learn how to stop seeing the common people as “others” and appreciate their identification with him in true fellow-feeling.

The Shinran that I honor during this season of his memorial, Ho-on-ko, is the man who kept confessing his snobbishness yet the accounts by others show he had become the one who warmly accepted each person he encountered without any airs of superiority or defensiveness. I myself don’t want to be “too” famous, but I’m willing to get out in print and travel here and there – to the local high school or to an international conference abroad – to get the word out about Shinran and what I like to call his “ultimate Buddhism,” taking Shakyamuni’s teaching of equality to its extreme expression in our day-to-day life. Not setting ourselves up in the garb of “wise sage” looking down on the crowd, but like Shinran, seeing ourselves as just “one of the guys” sharing the wondrousness of life with them in every moment.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Gifts from Cowardice: AWOL Siddhartha

When I was living in Los Angeles and helping at the Higashi Honganji temple there, the Los Angeles Times interviewed Rev. Noriaki Ito and in the printed article it had him saying he and his friend Wayne Yokoyama went to study Buddhism in Japan to escape the draft. At the time I teased Wayne about it, “Nori spilled the beans and now everyone knows you were draft dodgers.” But now looking back on how important both those guys have been in making Shinran’s teachings more accessible in the English-speaking world, it’s a wonderful thing that the draft motivated them to go to Otani University and study under the great teachers in Kyoto. Wayne is the tireless translator of a whole range of Jodo Shinshu works and has done a huge amount of research on D.T. Suzuki, Honen and other major Buddhist figures. (In his findings, it’s apparent Shinran is more faithful to Honen’s teachings than the “official” disciples of Honen who suppressed some of Honen’s ideas to avoid the ire of the political powers.) Rev. Nori is now the bishop of the North America District and continues to work hard to bring the Higashi Honganji temples into the 21st century. But besides their significance as contributors to Jodo Shinshu in the West, both of them have been invaluable to me as friends, guides and moral supporters. I would hate to think where I would be without them. So I am deeply grateful they did not end up as soldiers in Vietnam – possibly not coming home or returning too physically and mentally wounded to function.

At the first session of the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” class I offer at our temple a few times a year, I go over the life story of the historical Buddha. I point out that Siddhartha was born not in the top caste, the brahmins, but in the next one down, the ksatriya, warrior class. His father was not king of the whole Indian continent but the ruler of one of many small kingdoms, all in continual warfare to defend their turf and attack the others for their resources. To be king meant to be a successful general and so all men in the warrior class were trained in the military arts and sciences. If anything, during his early manhood, Siddhartha must have been very buff, continually working out as well as keeping himself intellectually sharp.

(woodcarving by Harry Koizumi depicting Siddhartha leaving the palace)
I have yet to come across any accounts of Siddhartha testing his skills in battle. He supposedly won his bride in a contest of martial arts, but that would have been just a ceremonial display, not an urgent fight between armies. Although we have the story of the Four Gates to explain his leaving the palace (he was depressed by the sights of sickness, old age and death and then inspired by the truth-seeking beggar with the shining face), I wonder if the real reason he ran out on his kingdom was to avoid becoming a player on the battlefield, living out the anguish of Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita. Despite the pleasures he was surrounded by in the palace, he had to be aware that his expected vocation in life would be to follow his father as the general leading the charge of conquest.

Since Buddhism is one of the great religions that arose during what Karen Armstrong calls the Axial Age, the key question it was faced with was how to stop warfare which at that time became efficiently destructive of lives and property. For the young Siddhartha, going out to seek the truth was his aspiration, but maybe like Rev. Nori and Wayne, it was the impending threat of going to war that made starting his quest all the more urgent. Sometimes when we are running away to save our own skin we end up entering the path of spiritual liberation that we wouldn’t have gotten around to if we weren’t so scared.