Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Vertigo" and the Thirty-Fifth Vow

[This article assumes the reader is familiar with the Alfred Hitchcock film “Vertigo.”] The 35th vow from the Larger Sutra has been problematic for Jodo Shinshu but the inaccuracy of the existing English translations has led to a lot of misunderstanding about the Pure Land teachings. One example of this is found in Rita M. Gross’ book Buddhism After Patriarchy where she relied on information from the scholar Diana Y. Paul. Dr. Paul strikes me as one of those Japanese Americans such as Rich Dad author Robert Kiyosaki who seem disconnected from their cultural heritage, especially from the energetic Buddhism of the common people (as opposed to the austere Zen of the samurai). Back in the 1990s, if Dr. Gross had done an internet search instead of researching academic papers, she might have come across my article (which I recommend to those who aren’t familiar with the 35th vow).

I saw the movie “Vertigo” a long time ago and I remember it left me with a sour feeling about the story. I thought it showed the Kim Novak character as an evil woman who deserved to be punished. When our temple’s movie club group announced they would be showing “Vertigo,” I looked up some feminist analysis of the movie to prepare myself for watching it again.

What I found is that the story can be seen as the depiction of the James Stewart character’s devolving view of women. Then it hit me – the three women in the story could be correlated to the three terms in the 35th vow: nyo-nin, nyo-shin and nyo-zo, which are all rendered as “women” in the English translations.

In an early scene of “Vertigo,” the James Stewart character Scottie is with his good friend and former fiancĂ©e Midge. She is nyo-nin, the female person – a whole personality who relates as an equal to Scottie and maybe a bit maternally. Then Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeleine – not as a person but for the perfection of her surface beauty. She is nyo-shin, the female body, for him to look at and possess. After he believes he’s lost Madeleine, he finds Judy and despite her protests, he proceeds to mold her into a copy of Madeleine. Judy to him is only a nyo-zo, a female image, a reproduction of what he once possessed.

In the 35th vow, it is nyo-nin, the female person, who hears Namu Amida Butsu and awakens bodhi-citta, the heart/mind aspiring for awakening. Those female-persons then “renounce the state of being” nyo-shin, female bodies for males to gaze at and possess. They also refuse to be reborn – reconfigured by men – as nyo-zo, female images.

In the film “Vertigo,” Judy has a chance to assert her personhood and confess to Scottie her involvement in the scheme with Madeleine’s husband, but she throws it away in order to win his love by becoming his reproduction of Madeleine. To me, this is her real sin – to throw away her own life to satisfy her selfish craving for “acceptance” by someone who claims to be her superior. It speaks to the dilemma of women from Buddha’s time, from Shinran’s time and even our mothers’ time – we put ourselves one lifetime away from awakening by handing over our lives to those we believe are necessary for our validation.

Jodo Shinshu is not a teaching that says women are inferior because they must be reborn as men to gain Buddhahood. Instead, the 35th vow in the Larger Sutra is a warning to women that they lose their chance for Buddhahood in their lifetime if they succumb to the dominant male view of women to be only nyo-shin (bodies) or nyo-zo (images). All persons can be reborn in the Pure Land – but historically women didn’t get to see themselves as persons during their lifetimes and had to wait for that after-life liberation from gender.

Now I can appreciate the film “Vertigo” as a feminist teaching lesson. As much as society pressures us to be the perfect embodiment of physical beauty, we will only end up with the misery Judy suffers if we dedicate our lives to pleasing the male gaze. Just as the Jodo Shinshu teachings freed the working classes from feeling subservient to the ruling class, the teachings also are for waking up women to their own personhood, to not let ourselves be ruled by the devolving view that some men will have of us as their objects to possess and control.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Liberation from Complacency: Post-Election Musings

I was going to write a post “Buddhists are Trump Supporters” about the many Buddhists, including a good portion of Japanese and other Asian Americans, who voted for Donald Trump for president. (I know because quite a few of my family members, friends and temple members have declared it.) But instead I want to share my personal feelings about the election.

I’ve heard and seen lots of people, such as my interfaith clergy colleagues, depressed about the election results. Our temple hosted ONE-Northside’s community discussion of post-election next steps and in our discussion the woman sitting next to me was trembling and in tears as she voiced her fears as a Mexican immigrant with many friends and relatives in the U.S. I think the forum was good for her and others feeling personally threatened by the election results – to know that many of their neighbors want to support them emotionally and morally in their struggle.

[from the meeting: whiteboard suggestions, mine is in pink]
Yet among all the distraught people, I feel buoyant about the election results. I’m glad that Clinton lost (I voted for Jill Stein, the only candidate who bothered to visit Standing Rock and support the protest against the Dakota Access Pipe Line). If Clinton had captured the winning Electoral College votes, the progressives would think “Yay, we won!” and be lulled into complacency while Clinton could get away with doing nothing for the progressive agenda or even taking actions (as she has done in the past) against it.

As I keep saying to people, the election results were a wakeup call to us, showing us that we have a lot of work to do with our fellow Americans in order to actualize the principle of equality throughout the country. We each have to feel empowered at the grassroots level instead of believing the wealth-accumulating elites* (whether their name is Trump or Clinton) know what’s best for our communities.

Am I getting too far off the track from Buddhism? No, I think the Buddha and the Pure Land tradition teachers such as Shinran recognized our own spiritual awakening develops and deepens with our interaction and appreciation of others, especially those who don’t fit our ideas of “acceptable” (groups disparaged for being “redneck,” “racist,” “uneducated” etc.).  Too many people in other Buddhist groups, and even some notable Shin teachers, have fallen under the influence of the elitist mindset. For many frustrated Americans, marching through the streets helps to blow off steam but a lot of the post-election ranting is about blaming and demonizing Trump and his supporters, creating more barriers and rifts between people. Teachers like Kiyozawa Manshi realized we need to do the hard work of self-examination - challenging our own elitism - and reach out to the people beyond our bubbles of like-mindedness.

*Postscript 11-18-2016 - I know not everyone can see or will read the comments below, but I hope some of you will. I appreciate that Ann called me out for my over-generalizing about Clinton supporters and being too dismissive of them, since just like the Trump supporters, they are a varied mixture of people with different concerns. At the same time I'm calling for more understanding of others, I see that I have a long way to go in understanding people, particularly those I interact with often (I'm assuming Ann is one of our temple members, but I haven't checked with all the Anns and Annas yet). Based on the comments, I could write the whole post over but for now I put the asterisk after "wealth-accumulating elites." The phrase doesn't quite capture what I meant and could be misleading. There are families of modest income who are building up their nest-egg for retirement and emergencies, so you could say they are accumulating wealth. But I meant the less than 1% who take in money and assets way beyond conceivable need/use for it all.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

End of An Era, Ahead to Uncertainty

After last night’s celebration of the Cubs’ incredulous world series victory, today I’m feeling a somber sense of loss and lostness. Our temple’s long-serving minister, Rev. Ashikaga and his wife just left for the airport where they will board a plane taking them back to Japan. Around sixty years ago, Rev. Ashikaga arrived in Hawaii to start as a kaikyoshi (“missionary”) for Higashi Honganji in Hilo and a few years after that, settled in Chicago to serve as one of several ministers at our temple. Although he and his wife spent almost all their adult lives in the United States, they are now returning back to the country of their citizenship, Japan.

[photo by Y. Fujiwara]
After Rev. Ashikaga officially retired in 2013 and I became the full-time resident minister, he was a constant presence at the temple, showing up to almost every Sunday service. I was grateful that he would conduct the services during my frequent absences to speak at other temples and attend conferences out of town, but he wasn’t one to play a subordinate role and I felt like the one who had to meet his expectations. Some of this tension was the usual “former boss not wanting to answer to the new younger boss” situation that many ministers have found themselves in (unlike Christian churches, the Buddhist temples don’t banish their retired ministers from the premises). But some people have told me that some of it looked like the “man doesn’t want to take orders from woman” attitude that is especially entrenched in Japanese culture. So after Rev. Ashikaga announced that he and his wife decided to finally return to Japan, my main reaction was one of relief. “Now I can run the service as I want instead of always worrying about Rev. Ashikaga having a cow if I try this or that new thing.”

After waving goodbye to them as they were being taken to the airport, I can’t help having a mournful feeling. Two people who were part of my life helping and working at the temple now are gone. I may see them both again – either in Japan or if they return here on a visit – but for the days and months ahead there will be a lot of adjusting to their absence. Despite the relief I felt knowing I’ll be free of their meddling, I know there will be many moments when I wish I had them around.

It’s the end of a long era and the beginning of my having to take some very uncertain steps ahead for the temple’s future. There are too many questions and worries for me to spell out here, but there are those passages in the old Buddhist texts that predict the downfall of the teachings once women join the ordained ranks. I may be just the kind of female those scripture writers feared that will bring the whole structure down – lacking both the strong identification to past culture (language, rituals etc.) and the swaggering resoluteness that people expect of a spiritual leader.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Hurdle to be Enjoyed: The Chanting Requirement

My brief two-day trip to Los Angeles was worthwhile on several levels and for various aspects, but one highlight was attending the Wednesday study class at the Higashi Honganji temple taught by Rev. Peter Hata. The group is starting a unit covering Shinran’s poem Shoshinge, but Rev. Peter wants them to appreciate Shoshinge not just for its content but for the experience of chanting it. From the class and the two handouts Rev. Peter shared with me, I almost want to rescind my
April 2015 blog post “Someone Else’s Cows.” Rev. Peter makes a very convincing argument for chanting as a community spiritual experience that doesn’t require knowing the meaning of the words.

I’ve been in discussion with Higashi’s North America District about having some of our Chicago temple members considered for ordination. For tokudo, the initial ordination, candidates must pass a chanting test. I think a number of our members could do a passable job of the Amida Sutra, Shoshinge and the two Larger Sutra excerpts “Tan Butsu Ge” and “San Sei Ge,” but I voiced concern over requiring the American candidates to chant the mitsu-yuri (“three vibrations”) style of the nembutsu-wasan follow-on to Shoshinge.

When I helped at the Los Angeles temple (late 80s – early 90s), it was standard to chant mitsu-yuri at regular services, but since then, the norm has become dobo-hosan, the post-war style developed to make it easier for laypeople to chant the nembutsu-wasan follow-on.

I worried about the long uphill trek it would be to get my tokudo candidates to learn mitsu-yuri, but after Rev. Peter’s class, I realize this is an opportunity for me to share my enjoyment of the music of 15th century Japan based on the folk singing “yodels” one hears in shi-gin (poetry recitation), min-yo (folk songs), Noh and Kabuki plays. Mitsu-yuri has a dramatic build-up – the first section starts slow and solemn, the second section bubbles with lively anticipation and the final section is the all-stops-out shouting of joyful tones. The musical structure expresses our Jodo Shinshu path – first, it’s “I’ll give it a try but I don’t expect it to do much for me because my misery is so entrenched,” then it becomes “there’s some interesting stuff here, making me change my view of a lot of things,” and finally, “Whoa! I’ve been searching so long and IT found me, opening me up to the power of life around and within me. Hooray! Hallelujah!” Particularly with the usual six Jodo Wasan verses chanted at most services, we are drawn into Shinran’s joy of feeling liberated after being so long under the burden of narrow self-centeredness.

In my case, I know what the words mean in Japanese, so I wonder if my members can find the emotion in the syllables of an unfamiliar language. In my Wednesday study class, I asked everyone to join me in chanting dobo-hosan style, the six Jodo Wasan verses we just studied. I said, “It’s like singing opera,” that is, you know as you pronounce the sounds that they represent words that have meaning. But musician Ruth said most classic operas are in languages which have similar sentence structures to English with many recognizable words (der ring, l’amour, un bel di), while Shinran’s 12th century Japanese is far from what Western singers are used to.

Although I feel that knowing mitsu-yuri won’t do a whole lot for the American candidates in helping them spread the Jodo Shinshu teachings, for the time being because it’s a requirement, I have to help them to learn it. I can hear some people saying we will be wasting our time trying to tackle such outmoded liturgical music, but after reading Rev. Peter’s handouts, I think it can be a worthwhile effort – transcending our time and travelling back to 15th century Japan and deep into the non-verbal channels of the right-brain. The music is to be enjoyed and hopefully the leap over the hurdle of the chanting requirement will lead to more Americans hearing the nembutsu from their fellow Americans.