Friday, September 23, 2016

The Dangerous Role: Kiss Humility Goodbye

Although I have very little empathy or compassion,
I like the perk of being called “teacher.”
                        -- from Shozomatsu Wasan (my translation)

I remember when I started attending the Sunday morning meditation session at our temple, not many weeks went by for me to notice the pecking order – so-and-so was Rev. Kubose’s number one assistant, such-and-such was number two and so on down the line. And the ambition arose in me to get into that pecking order and rise to the top. Looking back on it now, I wonder where did that ambition come from – newly joining a Buddhist group and right away seeing myself moving up the ranks to an exalted position? My guess is it came from the Buddhist books (mostly Zen) I was reading at the time.

It’s not just from the English translations and Western culture, but Buddhism from the very beginning has been used by people to feed their egos even though the teachings are about freedom from ego-attachment. The historical Buddha lived at a time when people were seeking direct spiritual experience instead of going through Brahmanic priests. Ironically institutional Buddhism has become the means for people to be the priests who get to command others to look up to them.

Of course, for the teachings to be transmitted we need to have guides to point out the misunderstandings and clarify the points that get muddled in cultural and linguistic contexts. But for anyone to take on that role, they must be aware of the grave danger: in conveying the teachings of not-self, one can get totally engulfed by the sense of self-importance.

My message to all of you in the roles of assistants at our temple and at other Buddhist centers is also a stern reminder to myself: kiss humility goodbye. It’s no use putting on the charade of “I’m not a teacher – I’m only a student.” The only way I can think about it is: to be in the role of Dharma teacher is to know you are really a smug asshole.

If you don’t want to think of yourself as a smug asshole, then don’t be a Dharma teacher. If you take on that role, it will be apparent to people far and wide that you are full of yourself, no matter how much you deny it.

I think Shinran felt so strongly about defending his teacher Honen and passing on the Pure Land teachings that he had to keep telling himself, “I know I’m a smug asshole and will forever be known as one, but getting down on paper the great teachings from Honen means more to me than my self-esteem.”

Most Jodo Shinshu people translate Shinran’s ji-shin-kyo-nin-shin as “First I must receive/understand the teachings, then I can help others to receive/understand them.” Now I’m thinking he’s saying, “For me to receive and deeply understand the teachings, I need the help of others who are receiving and understanding the teachings.”

The above thoughts have been on my mind as I’m preparing to ramp up the training of our temple’s lay leaders so they can serve in the minister role when I’m out of town, incapacitated and someday retired (or run out on a rail). Then this morning I saw the comment of Tucker, a Midwest Buddhist Temple member, reacting to my “No Sage, No Stage” post. He is the nin-shin, the others who are receiving/understanding that I need to learn ji-shin-kyo more from. I should remember that all of you folks politely nodding and keeping silent are just as vocal as Tucker in telling me, “You smug asshole!” That is when I truly hear Namu Amida Butsu.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Buddhist Children are Not All Male, Pale and Hairless

So far I haven’t gotten anyone to join my campaign against images of boy monks. They are all over Facebook, the various Buddhist magazines and probably posters and calendars. I got flamed for saying those images shouldn’t be on Facebook’s “You know you’re Japanese American when…” page. I said photos of boy monks don’t reflect current Japanese culture and they have nothing to do with the non-monastic Buddhism of Japanese Americans. Although historically in Japan and still in many Asian countries, orphaned boys were raised in Buddhist monasteries, people should be aware that the lifestyle of asceticism is not a great way for children to grow up – there’s very little freedom for the creativity and expression of play and having interaction with the larger community (i.e. female family and friends). When I see pictures of boy monks, I feel sad about how restrictive their lives must be, not being able to enjoy just being a kid.

And my disdain is extended to those cute and cuddly “Buddha Doodles” by Molly Hahn. Once in a while her cartoons show a female character (and occasionally, a person of color), but for the most part she draws one or two Caucasian figures with baby faces and in open-jacket monk garb (bare chested to indicate their maleness) and shaved heads. If you see enough of those drawings, you can understand why Shinran scowls for his portraits. He wants to remind us that Buddhism deals with the nitty-gritty of real life and is not about floating around in some cotton candy dream world.

[“Daruma” faces colored by our temple’s Dharma School students]
But my main beef is that images of boy monks do a disservice to our Dharma School students who even from a young age will readily identify themselves as “Buddhist.” I don’t want people thinking, “Oh you can’t be Buddhist – you don’t look like the Buddha Doodles. You have hair, you wear regular clothes and you’re (female, dark-skinned, disabled, not-so-cute etc.).”

I think our Dharma School students got it together much more so than any boy monks – they live with the challenges of the larger society of school, neighborhood, family and organizations such as the temple they attend. Yet they have time, even during Dharma School class, to feel free to express themselves, play around, and participate in fun group activities such as games and music performances. They learn lessons about Buddhism through stories and hands-on productions (for example, my husband has taught the kids about impermanence through having them do science experiments and cooking), not from spending hours in grueling meditation and chanting marathons. They don’t just recite “The Golden Chain,” they know what it means to live it in a diverse society of living beings. It’s easy to think you’re being kind and gentle if you stay within the walls of the monastery, but our Dharma School students have seen “those who are weaker than myself” means the people right outside our temple doors who are homeless, suffering from physical and mental illness and struggling to survive. One time the Dharma School kids were just leaving the temple and the police pulled up and threw a group of young men against the squad car. I heard one of the mothers explain, “They’re being arrested for DWB, ‘driving while black.’” Of course, we don’t know if the police were justified in roughing up those men, but at least our kids see in the real world you could be picked on just for how you look.

I hope those of us involved with Jodo Shinshu and the other traditions such as Nichiren and Soto Zen, that came out of Kamakura-era Japan when Buddhism spread among the non-elites, will show more and more of ourselves and our children to the world. Then the common image of “Buddhist” will be an adult or child with hair on their head and dressed in regular clothes, but with that expression of joy and liberation that you don’t see in the photos of the boy monks smiling for the camera while trapped inside the cage of enforced conformity.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Singing to the Skies: Imagery of the Afterlife

At this year’s Eastern Buddhist League conference hosted by the Seabrook Buddhist Temple (in Bridgeton, New Jersey), one of the most enjoyable workshops I’ve ever attended was the gatha singing presentation. Music professor Kimie Carrie Tanaka was fantastic in teaching us the songs, able to explain the melody lines even to those who don’t read music or who haven’t heard the songs before. Her husband, Buddhism researcher Rev. Kenneth Tanaka, commented on the lyrics. Of the five songs we covered, two were established gathas (“hymns” we sing at Sunday services), two were gathas by the late Linda Castro and one song was a surprise to me. It was “Yuyake Koyake” (“sunset skies”) which we usually consider a Japanese children’s song, but Ken’s description of the lyrics as imagery of “going to the Pure Land” gave the song a poignancy for me.

[Kenneth Tanaka lecturing at 2016 EBL conference]
Now I hear the song as helping us accept the death of loved ones. Currently I’m reading Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of The Eternal Return and it’s making me see our Buddhist memorial rituals as expressing the transcendence of historical time (the fact of each life’s finite existence) by connecting to a sacred sense of time (eternity in the now).

The first verse describes seeing our loved one in the process of dying. Realizing their death is near, we see them first as a blazing sunset (yuyake), then an afterglow (koyake). The sound of the temple bell is the calling to leave the finite life and so the children in the song “take each other by the hand and go home.” It reminds me that in the case of my mother-in-law, my husband said in the hospital the moment before she died, she looked up as if there was someone coming for her. It was like someone in her past, such as her dearest sister, was coming to take her hand and lead her “home.” The last line of the verse says “Let’s go home together with the crows” – so to the sound of nature’s cries and the sight of wings in the sky, our loved one leaves their worldly life to return to the origin of all life.

The second verse is how we see our loved one after they have “returned home” (as I said in an earlier post, how we see them is their “afterlife.”) There is a great round moon glowing in the night sky – we see the brilliance of their whole life. Then as we go back to our ordinary lives carrying out the whims of our deluded ego-selves (“when the little birds are dreaming”), we are reminded of the continual inspiration of our loved ones, seeing the stars twinkling in the sky.

Now I’m thinking it’s a song we can sing at memorial services. Here’s the whole song in Japanese:

Yuyake koyake de, hi ga kurete / Yama no o-tera no kane ga naru
Otete tsunaide, mina kaero / Karasu to issho ni kaerimasho

Kodomo ga kaetta, ato kara wa / Marui ookina o-tsuki sama

Kotori ga yume o miru koro wa / Sora ni wa kira-kira kin no hoshi

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tsunagari: Reality is Community

At the international convention of Higashi Honganji (Otani-ha) temple members called “World Dobo Gathering” held this past weekend (August 27-28) in the Los Angeles area, there was only one talk that struck me even though there were many talks given by a wide variety of speakers, some I highly respect (and some, not so much). That talk, early on the first day, was part of a “young scholars” presentation, to show the general membership that there are some up and coming scholars of Buddhism interested in the Higashi sub-sect of Jodo Shinshu. Melissa Anne-Marie Curley, assistant professor at Ohio State University, was the first of the three to speak. Even though she and the other two were at last year’s International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference in Berkeley, I missed their talks because they were scheduled the same time as panels I was obligated to attend.

[photo taken at WDG 2016]
What Melissa said really captured the essence of Buddhism, that essential message that gets lost in the presentation of Buddhism in the West by the more high profile groups, Zen, Tibetan and Theravadin (the original three wheels that Tricycle magazine referred to in its early years). It is not enough for Buddhists to learn that the individual sense of ego-self is a delusion – there has to be the experience of living as “no-self.” That direct experience of reality is found in community with all beings, which Melissa said is what the philosopher Tanabe Hajime referred to as “Amida Buddha, not a One or Many,” but beyond such categories. She said while Mahayana groups hold up the “virtuoso bodhisattva” as the model to strive for, in Jodo Shinshu, we are inspired by Shinran who honored all beings as his siblings, feeling closely related to all of them. He didn’t just call them his fellow travellers on the spiritual journey, but his esteemed (using the prefix “on-“) fellow travellers (ondobo, ondogyo).

If there is no sense of connection (tsunagari, in Japanese) to all lives, then there is no experience of reality. It’s easy for monks and certified meditation adepts to claim they are unattached to the ego-self, but if they guiltlessly look down on others as “ignorant,” “needing to be awakened,” “shallow and unskilled” etc. etc., they are the ones trapped within walls of delusion. Shinran’s teachings remind me that there is no justification for considering myself superior to anyone else, but too many other presentations of Buddhism tell people it’s okay to put others down and feel you’ve earned your perch above the unwashed masses.

The very busy two-day event had poignant moments of reality as community for me. Although as I said, I didn’t think much of some speakers’ talks, I was touched that one speaker I was very critical of gave me a lovely souvenir (omiyage, product of your home area that you give to people you visit) and it reminded me how indebted I am to him because of all the help he gave me. I always complain that these big gatherings don’t give us much time to listen to and discuss the Dharma, but this time I felt it was a Dharma lesson about the sense of community to be chanting, singing and dancing (yes, we did Tanko Bushi) with all the three hundred or so attendees that I may never know well, agree with or see again. We can’t help but feel connected by coming together. Just to eat together is literally sharing life, as the words in our before and after meal recitations remind us that we take in the nourishing substances of other living beings.

There were times when I needed a break from the crush of bodies, but I think even the most introverted people can feel a sense of community by relating to others from afar rather than cutting off contact with feelings of hatefulness (labeling the other people as “toxic” or “stupid” etc.). In the calls and emails our temple receives from young men looking to join a Buddhist monastery, I hear their desire to run away from people they can’t deal with (e.g. bosses, parents, women) and to be in the company of like-minded men striving for some “perfect” state of mind. Monastic life can be useful for some seekers, giving them a break from society’s expectations (as in the case of women who couldn’t or wouldn’t be wives and mothers), but a monk in a mountaintop retreat can be more trapped in individual ego than someone out in the world, dealing with a whole variety of people on a daily basis.

The thing we must not forget whether we gather with three hundred people from around the world at a classy hotel or attend a Sunday service at our local temple is that we are just as connected to those outside the building as we are to those inside with us. At all these Jodo Shinshu gatherings in North America, we keep hearing the refrain of “the teachings aren’t just for the ethnic Japanese – somehow we have to reach those outside the Japanese community.” If ever the karmic effects of our thoughts have power, we should be envisioning all kinds of people as our spiritual siblings. Not that we can use telepathy to draw people to our temples and make them join, but if we ourselves can feel the connection to everyone, regardless of their religion or lack of it, we are experiencing the reality of community.

So I’m very grateful to Melissa Curley for bringing out that essential message of Buddhism and pointing out the way for us to live it.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

No Sage, No Stage - Sit Down Buddha

No one from the Midwest Buddhist Temple seems to be reading my blog despite the number of times I’ve mentioned them, so I’ll go ahead and bring up my recent experiences at their temple.

A couple of our temple members went with me to sit in on the new Tannisho class at MBT. Some important Shin Buddhist concepts were presented but somehow I felt like I didn’t hear much about the Tannisho itself.

After the class, I observed that the attendees were rather quiet (compared to the noisy discussions at our temple) and one BTC member who teaches at the nearby community college said her guess is that they didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. As a teacher she’s learned to encourage student participation by giving students a chance to put their voices out there – to introduce themselves and read passages from the material. She said teachers in training are warned to avoid the “sage on a stage” mode, when the instructor stands up in front of a class as if they are the fount of all knowledge looking down on the ignorant masses far below.

So the next week when I was asked to present Chapter Two of the Tannisho, I kept in a sitting position except when I wrote on the blackboard and I had the attendees introduce themselves and read the passages so they could each other’s voices and not just mine. A few people ventured to make comments or ask questions, so it felt a little more like a discussion and not totally a one-way presentation.

I told them that in reading the Tannisho they should think of Shinran sitting around with the people who called themselves his followers (he called them ondobo ondogyo “esteemed fellow travellers, esteemed fellow practicers”). They’re all sitting on the same level, perhaps drinking tea and munching on sweets together much like we were doing. I told them in the portrayal of the historical Buddha in his teaching pose, he is sitting down, moving his hands while talking. I demonstrated with fingers facing up, gesturing, “Hey, what’s a matter you?” (Actually Buddha said, “What’s a matter me?” – the first noble truth.)

[detail from woodcarving by Harry Koizumi]
The Buddhist texts tell us that the historical Buddha and probably all the great teachers engaged in dialogue, not monologue – they sat together with the people, not behind a lectern on a platform. Although in some texts we hear the answer but not the question, I feel the original setting for all the teachings was in informal conversation, not in an auditorium lecture.

People who’ve been to Japan have seen that at most temples and particularly at Jodo Shinshu temples, there is no elevated portion of the hall – no stage. The temples in North America followed the Christian model of raising the front of the room as a platform. I’ve heard it said that because we sit in chairs (or pews) and not on the floor, we need to see what’s going on around the altar. But there’s no ritual justification for having to see the ministers. The altar – the Buddha image and adornments – is what we should be looking up to.

When our temple was erecting its new building in 2006, some of us lobbied to eliminate the raised platform, but the head minister insisted on it and a ramp had to be built to comply with ADA regulations. To me it’s very cumbersome to climb up on the platform for chanting and climb down at funerals for the Dharma Name presentation and at Sunday services for the Dharma talk. Being at an elevated level means I better make sure the socks (tabi) I’m wearing are in decent condition – no holes or stains.

Maybe in Western culture there’s the image of the great orator standing far above the crowd or some Western Buddhist teachers like to perpetuate the idea of the wise man perched on the mountaintop of wisdom. But if we look at Shinran and Shakyamuni Buddha as “regular guys,” we can see them sitting down for coffee or drinks as one of us. Just as they tell parents and grade school teachers to squat down and talk face-to-face with children, it’s best for anyone who conveys the Buddhist teachings to take a load off their feet and go eye-level with their listeners. Because of the way American temples are set up, it’s hard to avoid the “sage on a stage” mode in conducting services, but in our study groups we should be sitting on one level to demonstrate Shinran’s feeling of ondobo ondogyo. To study a text such as Tannisho is about learning together, listening to and respecting each other.