Wednesday, October 11, 2017

In Need of Help, Not Salvation


The inconceivable [power] of the declared aspiration of Unbounded Light/Life is helping me,
And when I am made aware of being born anew,
The thought arises in my heart/mind to vocalize the remembrance of awakening;
This means definitely receiving the benefit of being grasped, never to be abandoned.

These words of Shinran at the start of Tannisho have meant a lot to me – in Japanese. How to convey them in English is still a struggle for me, so the above translation is just my latest attempt.

It was two years ago when I was one of three guest speakers at the annual Women in Buddhism conference at the Seattle Buddhist Church that I started to make the case that Shinran is talking about “help” not “salvation” in this Tannisho passage. My presentation was on “Care-Receiving,” how the Jodo Shinshu teachings provide support for those who are care-givers, particularly the baby-boomer aged women who are caring for disabled family members (e.g. parents, spouse, child).

In Japanese “tasukete” could mean “save me!” if you are trapped in quicksand and need your life saved. But “tasukete” could also mean “help me” when you need to request assistance getting across a hazardous street that you must traverse frequently. “Salvation” or even “spiritual liberation” (term favored by Dr. Haneda) sounds like a “won and done” event, whether accomplished at a past moment or a time in the future (e.g. one’s death). But if daily or several times a week you’ve got family responsibilities to fulfill, heaven and hell don’t mean much when you’re more concerned about keeping up your energy and strength, somehow juggling a long list of demands on your time and staying focused when subjected to verbal abuse and distrust.

Now that my health is so poor (if cancer doesn’t kill me, the side effects from treatments probably will) and I’ve witnessed the deaths of my parents, sister and so many temple members, the idea of securing a cushy cubbyhole in the afterlife seems so abstract. The more urgent concern is getting by day-to-day, moment-by-moment, while one still has life and responsibilities to others. One of the things I’m so impressed with when visiting people near death is how seriously they perform their duties towards you as their guest. At a time when they are in much physical discomfort, they express their thanks and concern for you and others – “Have some candy,” “How’s your husband?” “I wonder how Mr. So-and-so is doing after his accident,” etc.

That’s the help I need and I’m grateful for when I’m aware of receiving it. When I as much and more so than anyone else am so self-centered, it really must be a great inconceivable power working to enable me to interact effectively with others.

Maybe when I was younger I was like the strivers in Buddhism and other religions, trying to do all the “right” things so that the final judgment on my life will get me to the “better place.” Now the ideas of eternal damnation or heaven forever just sound like fantasies like living happily ever after with the handsome prince. What I get from Shinran and the Kiyozawa lineage of teachers is that my “self” is of no consequence once my physical life ends. If I have some soul or mind-matter that has to burn in hell for eons, it’s no big deal in the larger scheme of things.

For now it’s help that I need and help that I receive from the working of Unbounded Light/Life. (This working manifests itself through the teachings, through the cooperation and opposition of other people, through the many natural and artificial influences in the environment.) Though my predominant tendency is to mess things up for myself and everyone else and I wish I could just chuck it all and go into hiding, there’s that call of the Innermost Aspiration (hongan) reminding me that I and all beings together are grasped, never to be abandoned. Whether we can get along or not most of the time is a matter of transient phrases – what is going forth unobstructed is each of our lives interdependent with all other lives, into joy, into sorrows, into wisdom and compassion.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

What’s Wrong With Saying “Namo Amida Butsu”

[Note: Since the 1990s, Nishi Honganji prefers to use the spelling “Namo Amida Butsu” while Higashi Honganji continues using “Namu.” Sounds the same: Nah-mah-dahb’]

Now I need to explain what I was trying to say for my Dharmathon talk titled “STFU” recorded this past week (Sept. 27, 2017). I don’t think I am the first or will be the last person to complain about those individuals who have to burst out with frequent shouts of “Namo Amida Butsu!” causing a disturbance for those of us trying to listen to what is going on at the time, such as a minister giving a Dharma talk.

Actually it’s not just the rudeness of old men loudly demonstrating their piety that I’m questioning, but whether there are any reasons for saying that string of syllables aloud. I can think of two – cultural and ritual. For centuries “Namo Amida Butsu” has been a part of Japanese Buddhist culture (and in the cultures of other East Asian countries with the phrase spelled out differently). Way before Honen and Shinran, it was heard in the cities and countryside of Japan, in and outside of Buddhist sites – spread by hijiri, wandering monks, such as Kuya. So despite the wide range of how to interpret the phrase (magic mantra, plea for the afterlife, expression of inner peace, etc.), it is a familiar sound that Japanese people can voice comfortably.

As in any religious tradition, it helps to have some stock phrases that everyone can chime in on at the start and finish of certain sections of the service (readings, meditation, chanting). So saying “Namo Amida Butsu” together and in response to the leader during a weekly Sunday service, memorial/funeral, wedding etc. serves as punctuation in the flow of ritual routines.

But outside of those two contexts, is there a need to say “Namo Amida Butsu” out loud? I used to think Shinran specified oral recitation when he used the verb sho-suru but then Dr. Haneda pointed out that the original meaning of sho (tonaeru) was to “carefully consider.” As is described in Japanese dictionary sources, the Chinese character is a stylized picture of the scales of balance. Maybe when the person doing the weighing announced when the object was in balance, the verb came to have the meaning of “vocalizing.”

The great Higashi lineage teachers such as Kiyozawa and Maida don’t write about “Namu Amida Butsu” very much and for all the times I’ve heard Rev. Gyoko Saito speak in services and lectures, he seldom inserted “Namu Amida Butsu.” But what all the great teachers do talk about is the nembutsu. For certain persons at particular times, the nembutsu could take the form of saying “Namo Amida Butsu.” But the nembutsu that the great teachers describe is too profound and universal to be restricted to a specific kind of action.

The title of this post is a statement, not a question. Here are three general categories of why I refer to the saying “Namo Amida Butsu” as the seven-syllable barrier.

It perpetuates the impression that Jodo Shinshu is an exclusive group that identifies as Japanese.
The saying of “Namo Amida Butsu” seems like a special phrase that the insiders say to each other like members of some old men’s lodge. And in Jodo Shinshu no matter what country you are in and what language you speak, you are required to say the phrase in Japanese pronunciation – an indication of the primacy of Japan and its culture.

It makes Buddhism into hocus-pocus incantation rather than teachings of self-examination and awakening to reality.
Just as Zen in the West played into the American cultural streak of anti-intellectualism (“You don’t have to know what Buddha or anyone else said, just sit on this here cushion until I hit the gong”), too many Jodo Shinshu ministers get to play the part of the Wise Master, “Just keep saying Namo Amida Butsu and don’t worry about what it means,” instead of making the effort to explain anything that smacks of scholarship (sutras, history etc.). What’s lost is the opportunity to hear the essence of the Buddha-Dharma which is what Shinran dedicated his life to bringing to us through his many written works.

It becomes a “required practice” which contradicts the ultimate Mahayana principle of unconditional access to awakening for all beings.
To hear the strained speech of the current Otani-ha abbot, a deaf-mute, should be a reminder to us all that saying “Namo Amida Butsu” is not an “easy practice” for anyone with physical or mental disabilities. Recitation becomes a forced custom divorced from what “Namo Amida Butsu” was meant to express. Suppose Shinran had a laugh that was a high-pitched “Tee hee hee” and everyone thought they had to copy it exactly in order to attain his level of bliss. That recitation ignores what made Shinran laugh in the first place and the fact that laughter is a spontaneous expression of enjoyment with each person having their own unique way of laughing. Instead of enjoying a good laugh, the imitators are stuck joylessly repeating “Tee hee hee, tee hee hee.”

What “Namo Amida Butsu” expresses is the voice of hongan, the deepest aspiration, the universal wish to awaken to the interconnected oneness of all life, liberated from the delusion of self. At the recent Dharmathon, I would say the story that Rev. Fred Brenion told was an example of the nembutsu. In his job working at a prison for the criminally insane, he encountered a woman who had murdered her children. He couldn’t help feeling a sense of revulsion about her crime, yet he felt enabled to say to her, “There is no pit too deep for God’s hand to reach into.” Knowing she was a Christian, Rev. Fred felt it was better to tell her that instead of trying to convert her with talk of Amida’s Light. To me, hearing that story was to hear the nembutsu, the voice of hongan, the universal wish – the voice that makes us contemplate and remember (nem-) what awakening (-butsu) is.

These days I feel like I am following my father to the grave – he started chemotherapy in the month of June in 2010 and through the subsequent months his physical conditioned weakened. My intake of food has diminished due to constant nausea and malfunctioning taste buds and now what little food I ingest doesn’t take long to be going out the other end. So I’m thinking I may barely last to Ho-on-ko which would be the time of year my father died. That means I feel more of an urgency to say what I have to say and try to improve on clarity. I may have very little support for my assertions but I’ll put them out there hoping it stimulates others to come up with more substantial insights. Like anyone else, I hate to be criticized but with a shortened mortality, I don’t have to worry about being passed over for promotions or going through a process of ex-communication, and it would be a relief if my temple fires me (then someone else can worry about all the janitorial and clerical chores).

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Great Matter of Life Until Death

I find myself thinking of my father a lot these days as I experience the various side effects of chemotherapy. In the last few months of his life, my father suffered through a lot of pain and discomfort and I often say it’s the chemicals that killed him in 2010 not the colon cancer. A couple months into his chemotherapy he was falling at home so my brother got him a rolling walker (“rollator” like the one pictured below). I’ve been wondering if I’ll need one soon – my feet are numb and there’s a painful weakness in my legs when I move them. A few too many times at the Eastern Buddhist League conference when I was going up and down the stairs at the Midwest Buddhist Temple I felt myself falling backwards and had to grip the hand rails tightly to pull myself upright (somehow though, I danced through the Bon Odori workshop without keeling over).

Although in my last post it sounds like I was silent at EBL, they actually gave me a forum to speak – I was one of a dozen people in the “TED talks.” There was a strict five-minute limit and it seemed I mumbled a bunch of asides and then my time was up. I remember saying my father felt his knees buckle the first time he saw his father in his coffin – it was my grandfather’s death that led my father to reconnect with Buddhism after being away from it from the time he married my Baptist mother. And I remember saying after my five minutes was called, “The great matter of life and death.”

Connecting the dots, it seems I was trying to say that my father is an example of someone who became serious about the Buddhist path when confronted with the fact of death. In my clumsy way it was my protest against all the talk of marketing and mission statements at EBL, all the business of “attracting new people” with various attention-grabbing gimmicks. If there are people like my father who come to Buddhism with “the great matter of life and death” weighing heavily on their mind, we should offer them something more substantial than icebreaker “eightfold path” games.

I would say all my Higashi teachers said that Rennyo’s phrase “go-sho no ichi-dai-ji” does not mean “the great matter of the after-life” as you find in the Nishi Honganji translations. “Go-sho” means your life from this moment on (the moment that causes and conditions brought you to encounter the Buddha-Dharma) as opposed to “zen-sho” the life you were living rather mindlessly up to now. So one attempt at translating the phrase might be, “the great matter of life until death.”

What my father listened to after he reconnected with Buddhism somehow spoke to that great matter of his own life until death, but I don’t know what specific aspects of the teachings he heard as a new member of the Twin Cities Buddhist Association. In his retirement my father was busy enough with various Japanese American community groups but he heartily volunteered to help the local Buddhist group and then he got active with the Eastern District, becoming the treasurer and was training as a minister assistant. He became a delegate to the national meetings of the Buddhist Churches of America. Despite hearing all the inside dirt on BCA’s politics, wastefulness and costly misjudgments, he dedicated much time and effort to the organization as a worthy vehicle for conveying Jodo Shinshu in the United States.

To me his life until his death was one of giving out of gratitude, doing the things that would benefit many people in significant ways. Even after he was diagnosed with colon cancer and started the debilitating chemotherapy, he did what he could for the Buddhist group and the other community service organizations. For my last post I tagged the keyword “giving up” but that is not how my father felt in his final weeks. He continued up to his last conscious moment to express his concern for others.

In the hours after he lost consciousness there was only the sound of his rough breathing which I’ve told people to me it sounded like the nembutsu as uttered by Shinran in his dying moments. It was not “Oh save me Amida,” but “Even while entangled in my self-benefitting desires, I am settled into the awareness of interconnection with all beings.” When his breathing stopped, I was the one now confronted with the great matter of life until death.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Moving To the Exit

“Now it’s time for the ghost to disappear,” Kiyozawa Manshi said in his last letter to Akegarasu Haya. For this 2017 Eastern Buddhist League conference hosted by the Midwest Buddhist Temple, I felt like a ghost who needed to get used to the idea of disappearing soon.

In my past blog posts on the annual EBL conferences, I would mainly describe the keynote speaker presentations but I don’t have much to say here about Rev. Kurt Rye from the Placer County Buddhist Church. Like Jeff Wilson, he should be the current and future face of Shin Buddhism – a non-Asian, articulate native English speaker. In his public lecture on Saturday he presented Shin Buddhism through a discussion of Western and Japanese psychology. Rev. Rye with his background working in mental health services before becoming a minister is probably more effective in presenting Jodo Shinshu to North Americans than someone who brings up Kiyozawa. Soga, Shinran, Shandao et al.

[Rev. Kurt Rye lecturing at the Midwest Buddhist Temple]
At every EBL gathering as much as I enjoy seeing old friends again from New York, Washington D.C., Twin Cities, Cleveland, Seabrook and Toronto and meeting new people from those temple groups, I find a lot to complain about in the schedule of activities. This time, I realized I no longer have a say that will affect things in the future – I won’t be here for the future so I should let those who will continue to be around call the shots. There were things I wanted to tell my temple’s delegates about what to say and not say at the conference and what suggestions and ideas they should put forth, but I reminded myself that they are free to form the future they want since I’m not the one to lead them to that future. In some ways it was freeing to think of myself as moving toward the exit – being in the room to observe but having no part in the ongoing goings-on.

Being a ghost means you’re there hearing and seeing people but they can’t hear or see you unless like the Patrick Swayze character in the movie “Ghost” you put some effort in an attention getting action. I was sitting with two women at break time who were agreeing that although Buddhism seems hard to understand at first, it doesn’t take long for it eventually to get clearer and clearer. And they both felt they were going to temple long enough (a few years) for things to be pretty clear and expected to continue to progress at that pace. “But you have to be patient with the times when things are unclear,” I said in my ghost voice that to them was like a faint whirr from the ventilation, not audible as words.

A lot of the talking to and among attendees was like that. As a ghost still lingering on a once familiar scene, I see that things are rapidly changing as whatever influence I used to have has dissipated. For everyone from “those who wear the robes” (Buddhist Churches of America’s certified minister assistants) to those who just joined their temple group, Buddhism is something they conscientiously use daily in their lives and all are anxious to sell it to others – like a deodorant or mouthwash to clear away other people’s unpleasant smells. Even the members of my temple seem to carry themselves as if the designation “lay leader” means not just a helper to me but a step towards becoming ordained as the next minister (which some of them already thought they should be even before my time). As everyone already knows the four noble truths and eightfold path and feels they live up to those principles far better than any non-Buddhist, there is no need to listen to ministers flapping their lips for more than a few minutes but there’s no time to lose in each of them getting their sales pitch for Buddhism out to the unwashed hordes.

For a brief interval at the EBL convention, I was out of the ghostly existence and back in the reality where I interacted with others – that was when I attended the Japanese discussion with ministers Rev. Nariaki Hayashi of Ekoji (Washington D.C.) and Rev. Earl Ikeda of the New York Buddhist Church. For the first and only time during the conference, I heard the actual words of Shinran and a discussion of his central teaching – that we are royally f*cked up by our ego-attachments and don’t really know sh*t about how life is changing and shifting moment by moment, yet in painful recognition of our helplessness we are taken in and made alive in the power of universal life which constantly aspires to liberate all beings from the delusion of the separate self.

I tried to write that mouthful without resorting to Japanese terms but I know my attempts to express those terms in English misses out on a lot of rich nuance. In Japanese both Rev. Hayashi and Rev. Ikeda could get into deep detail and bring clarity to concepts that get muddled in English translation. Having read articles by both ministers in their temple bulletins, I get the feeling that they think their English-speaking members just don’t know enough about Jodo Shinshu (or want to know about how it differs from “general” Buddhism) to even begin to grasp the basic ideas of Shinran so those ministers (like so many Japanese and bilingual ministers before them) don’t go down that path. It keeps their members happy to read short “simple” pieces that confirm they already understand Buddhism.

So in the English-speaking sanghas of people who think “come as you are” means they get to do their own thing and call it Buddhism, I will continue to exist as a ghost. Leaving through the exit can’t come soon enough.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Oh, Lonesome Me (and Every One Else)

There must be some way I can lose these lonesome blues
Forget about the past and find someone new
I’ve thought of everything from A to Z
Oh, lonesome me!
            -- from “Oh, Lonesome Me” by Don Gibson

When I was attending college (freshman and sophomore years) in the Philadelphia area, one of my favorite albums was After the Gold Rush by Neil Young. And one song from the album that I learned to play on guitar was “Oh, Lonesome Me” written by country singer Don Gibson. Whenever I sang it, I would think of Phil, a handsome, athletic Japanese American high school boy I fell hard in love with.

Whenever Phil came over for a date, the relatives I lived with – my maternal grandparents, aunts and uncle – would give him a warm welcome. In the Philadelphia Japanese American community, everyone knew his parents were well-to-do, living in the Main Line area. But when he brought me once to his home, his family wasn’t very welcoming to me – his impeccably groomed, college-educated mother was especially cold, seeing me as a dumb slob – they all knew my mother’s family was a bunch of manual laborers in the greenhouse business.

My dates with Phil only lasted a couple months as he moved on to date others. At Japanese American gatherings I saw how swiftly he swooped down on any female newcomers. I heard about his reputation as someone dating several girls and women serially and simultaneously, so I felt like the “Oh, Lonesome Me” song had to be written for me to sing about my heartache over Phil.

In my teen years and twenties, like probably most of you, I believed that lonesome feeling came from missing out on a union with a romantic partner, a “soul mate.” But after a couple dozen relationships and over twenty years of marriage, I’ve come to feel “lonesome” is something more fundamental and more deeply felt with age. We’ve all heard of marriages and friendships that were a “perfect team” but our first-hand experience only proves there is no being totally in sync with another person.

Sometimes I think those who marry outside of their ethnic group are better off – they don’t waste time on arguments like me and my husband have on topics like the correct pronunciation and meaning of Japanese phrases. Because of our separate experiences of living in Japan, we’ve heard the language in very different contexts. The more you seemingly have in common on the surface, the more nit-picky variances you find to disagree about.

And that’s what being “lonesome” is about – the frustration of finding no one else thinks, talks and acts exactly like you. Because of our unique individuality, we can’t help being attached to the particular traits and habits instilled in us by the unfathomable causes and conditions of our singular life. Those of us who have partners or any kind of roommates are blessed with the valuable Dharma lesson every day of being forced to see our ego and its attachments in offensive and defense modes of action. If you’re the hermit on the mountaintop or the political leader (e.g. Dalai Lama) surrounded by yes-men, your “peace of mind” is just a bubble of delusion if there is no experience of daily conflict with others.

But isn’t Buddhism about awakening to the Oneness of life and living in harmony? As teachers in the Pure Land tradition, such as Shinran, Akegarasu Haya and Maida Shuichi remind me, one has to be aware of their own “lonesomeness” and recognize the continual friction of our ego-attachment bumping up against the lives of other beings. Only people who know they are truly “lonesome” and there is nothing their limited human actions can to do create a seamless union with any other being – only those persons who have awakened to ki no jinshin (deep awareness of the limited self) can experience ho no jinshin (deep awareness of the Dharma), the working of the Others-Power, that dynamically undulating web of lives that supports and influences us, embracing and transforming even our craziest ego-driven destructive thoughts, words and actions. Beyond and encompassing “everything from A to Z” is the call of Namu Amida Butsu.