Monday, June 6, 2016

Dealing Rather Than Denying: Learning from Honen Shonin

As I mentioned in a previous post, sometimes I’ve done funeral-memorial services for people who identify with a Japanese Buddhist sect other than Jodo Shinshu. The other day I did a funeral for a woman who was a long-time member of Jodo-shu (“Pure Land sect,” the group founded by Honen Shonin long before Shinran met him). After the local Jodo-shu minister passed away, she and her children asked me to do the annual memorial services for her husband – small family gatherings that didn’t warrant calling the overseeing minister from Los Angeles to do.

For her service in place of Rennyo’s “Letter on the White Ashes” (Hakkotsu no ofumi) which is read at Jodo Shinshu services, I chose to read two excerpts from An Anthology of the Teachings of Honen Shonin (trans. Joji Atone and Yoko Hayashi, Los Angeles: Bukkyo University, 1998). One selection “Life is Fleeting” (p. 33 from Chokuden, Chapter 32) has similar wording about the transience of life as Rennyo’s letter, but ends with the departed soul facing King En’ma, Lord of the Realm of the Dead, asking, “Having been born in a world where the teachings of the Buddha prevailed, why did you leave there without having practiced them?”

I felt I needed a passage that described some of those teachings to put into practice so I chose an excerpt from “The Genuine Heart” (p. 56 from the Shichi-kajo kisho-mon):
Satisfy greed with small gratification.
Mitigate anger by venerating your elders and nurturing your descendants.
Overcome ignorance by rejecting the delusive worlds, aspiring for birth in the Pure Land, and devoting oneself to a life of service.
The cultivation of these attitudes will rid us of a heart filled with falsity
And result in the emergence of the truly genuine heart.
To shun the myriad evil passions of this delusive world
And to recite the Nembutsu are the true practices of the genuine heart.

I made some slight modification to the wordings to the two quotes I used and I have yet to see the original Japanese passages. I won’t go into all my spiel here, but many of you know I can go on and on about how Shinran is more faithful in quoting Honen than Honen’s Jodo-shu disciples who had their high-profile butts to cover due to the persecution of the Nembutsu followers for daring to suggest all lives are equal in dignity. But I’d like to think the passages I used in the service are fairly accurate in conveying Honen’s teachings.

What strikes me is that Honen realistically knew from his own experience as a monk on Mt. Hiei for over thirty years and then as the monastery dropout mingling with the various classes of people in Kyoto that it is a delusion to think one can be rid of the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance by one’s own efforts. To say, “Yeah, I got rid of those poisons for good,” is to be in complete denial about their continual bubbling up in our heart/mind and showing up in our thoughts, words and deeds. But the monasteries perpetuated the idea that they were special places away from the defiled everyday world where people could devote themselves to the practices that achieved victory over the barriers to enlightenment.

[graphic from]
Honen found what worked for us in the defiled everyday world of having families, working for a living and getting along with other beings is to deal with rather than try to deny our three poisons. You feel driven by desire for this and that? How about telling yourself, “Yes, you can have a taste of it at least.” Whether it was eating meat, having sex or getting drunk, Honen felt it was okay for people to get it out of their system by indulging just a bit, so they could go back to putting their heart/mind on the Buddha (nen “to think, remember,” butsu “the Buddha, awakening”). Are you filled with anger? Take a little time to remember those of the past who made your life possible and to think about your hopes for those who’ll bring the world into the future. Maybe you’re still angry for their sake (such as the outrage expressed by the late Muhammad Ali in the above quote) or maybe you’ll see how futile it is to get mad over something that looks petty and selfish in the grand timeline of the generations. What about that bothersome ignorance that keeps sprouting up out of the depths of darkness? Can’t do much about it but in the meantime there’s lots you can be doing to help others and make the Pure Land more evident in the perception of your surroundings.

I can’t say I knew the departed very well, having only gotten to know her in her 90s. But it was nice to hear from the family that my explanation of Honen’s words helped them see how she was a person who truly followed the Buddhist teachings. As Honen and later Shinran saw, it is those ordinary folks who show us how to live lives of “small gratification,” “veneration” and “nurturing,” “service” to others in their family, business and social lives. They show us that dealing with the three poisons is a far more effective strategy than trying to get rid of them. They have let go of the job of trying to be their own saviors – and so they were freed up to be “just as they are,” selflessly doing what has to be done.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Interfaith: Benefitting Others and Self

[Preface: This has been a difficult month for getting a blog post out there. I started several different pieces but things keep happening to pull my interest away from finishing each piece. Already it’s the last day of the month, so here’s a very short one for now.]

One benefit of interfaith discussion is finding out how others see your religion. At the recent Universal Muslim Association of America gathering after our interfaith panel, I was sitting at dinner with one of the UMAA Chicago leaders. I told him I liked his speech about being close to God and the Quran, and he said, “I visited your temple a couple years ago in the Sacred Spaces tour.” I told him it was the Midwest Buddhist Temple that was a part of that tour, not our temple. He said the visit left him with an uneasy feeling about Buddhism. “It seems to be a religion that each person comes up with his own ideas along the way. The person explaining Buddhism to the tour group kept saying, ‘In Buddhism, we listen to our inner self and follow that.’”

I told him that’s not how I see Buddhism – it’s not a “Do-it-yourself, make it up as you go along” religion. In our sect, Jodo Shinshu, we recognize there is a power beyond our ego-self and there are teachings to help us become aware of that power. I hate to speculate on who gave the explanation to the Sacred Spaces tour, but I know there are many people (including ministers) at Jodo Shinshu temples who would say the same thing, “We don’t need texts or external experts – it’s our inner voice that guides us.”

[from UMAA conference goodie-bag, a souvenir magnet]
In fact, I think a lot of people who identify as Buddhist feel that same way – that somehow Shakyamuni Buddha turned on the green light for each person to do their own thing and call it “Buddhism,” free of the restrictions of any organized form of religion. But anyone who bothers to read any bit of the sutras knows that Shakyamuni wasn’t just flapping his jaws and saying, “Don't accept what I say – go find out for yourself what the truth is.” On the contrary he was pointing out for us the pitfalls of relying on our deluded judgments and challenging us to test our fixed ideas against the flux of real life.

In addition to the oft-heard Western Buddhist rejection of “book learning,” there is the tendency to characterize Buddhism as pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps to enlightenment. In the 1990s my father was chauffeur in Minneapolis to Dr. Alfred Bloom on a lecture tour in the Midwest. At one public lecture, a man stood up and asked Dr. Bloom, “Do Buddhists believe in God?” My father said Dr. Bloom simply gave an emphatic, “No!” and the questioner promptly left the room. My father told me this story in a chuckling “What the heck!” way – but my impression is that he and most of the people present would’ve preferred to see Dr. Bloom engage the questioner in discussion.

I feel it’s the Buddhists who close off interfaith discussions by refusing to listen to anything that references “God” with a capital G – “We don’t go that sh*t.” If we get past the label, we find much of what is said in monotheistic religions is a deeply experienced sense of tariki, the power beyond self. For example, one of the imans at the interfaith discussion said he rejects the narrow sectarian views of the militant Wahhabis. He said God’s mind is beyond our human comprehension and that the Quran says that in the diversity of life we see the beauty of creation and that includes the diversity of religious expression. So any group that claims only they follow the true way of God are deludedly believing they know God’s mind.

Humans need to be taken down a notch or ten – we think we have the answers but our attachment to our “rightness” makes us intolerant towards others. Religion, including Buddhism, has the wisdom of the ages, of the transcendent, that makes us humble listeners and more open-hearted towards others.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Power of Karma: Defining "Afterlife"

I usually avoid jumping into Facebook discussions (especially those noisy Shin Buddhist ones), but about a year ago, the Uptown Uprising page posted a story on Jay Michael describing how he overcame ill health and was enjoying his success as a real estate developer. Several comments talked about “karma” – saying that if the law of karma was working, Mr. Michael would be suffering and dying for all the misery he’s caused by displacing longtime tenants from low-rent apartments in Uptown and nearby neighborhoods. I had to enter my comment that karma does not mean that illness and death are punishments for evil deeds and that success and power are rewards for good deeds. I said Mr. Michael is subject to the consequences of his actions that harm other people, but I didn’t go into how and when the karmic results would bite him in the butt.

If you Google Mr. Michael’s name, you’ll find mostly good things written about him – he passed away from lymphoma at age 34 in January of this year. But my bias is that what I’ve heard about him in Uptown is his disregard and disdain for the people who can’t afford the upscale, super-healthy lifestyle he promoted in his residential and commercial developments. Yes, I was one of the people (along with many faith leaders, such as Rev. Jean from Peoples Church) picketing his home in 2013.

Now I have some ideas using him as an example of how the power of karma defines what is called “afterlife.” This past Friday I spoke to the students at the Chicago Academy for the Arts in two social studies classes and the question came up, “How do Buddhists consider the afterlife?” I answered that as a minister talking to families who just lost a loved one, I don’t talk about the loved one’s spirit travelling to some other realm. What I do talk about is karma – that everything the loved one thought, said and did is still continuing to work in our lives and will continue to have effects even beyond our lifetimes. I gave the example of Prince, who had just passed away – his physical life no longer exists, but he left us with great songs to sing and dance to. That for me is his afterlife – that he continues to be alive in the world for me now.

The Buddha saw how egocentric the popular notion of reincarnation was – people wanted themselves to be rewarded for doing good and wanted to see others punished for doing bad. That idea of karmic reward and punishment crept back into the Buddhist literature not too long after the Buddha died, but one can easily see how incongruous it is with the teachings of transcending the ego, of waking up from the delusion of having a self that has a permanent substance separate from the rest of reality.

The teaching of karma is to make us aware of how our thoughts, words and deeds have rippling effects in the world – maybe not in the immediate future but somewhere down the line. Rather than being concerned about getting our prize or avoiding our punishment, we should be doing what we can to make life more fulfilling for our contemporaries and future lives and trying to turn around the bad consequences we (and our predecessors) already set in motion.

On Saturday our temple held a memorial service for the late Mrs. M, who passed away at age 90 from a decline in her physical and mental health. The various family members – in-laws and grandchildren – spoke about how selflessly giving she was. I knew her as a sweet lady but talking to some of the people in the large turnout that day, I learned she had reached out to many people and touched them with her kind support and encouragement. She had long been active at the temple with various groups and involved in the Japanese American community, but like many women of her generation she was known mainly as “the wife” of a high-profile community and cultural arts leader.

Although I knew many of the relatives and friends attending were devout Christians, in my Dharma message I had to say that Mrs. M wasn’t concerned about whether she was going to heaven or not after she died. In her thoughts, words and deeds, she was bringing heaven to all the lives she touched. Her afterlife is the continuing effects of her karma on everyone who remembers her and she serves as an example of how we should care for others, not for thanks or reward, but because it’s the thing to do.

Now getting back to Jay Michael – his afterlife is to be long known by increasing numbers of people as someone who brought hell to Chicago neighborhoods. He serves as the example of extreme narcissism – focusing on healthiness as a benefit for the affluent and denying the dignity of those who have untidy lives of struggling with disadvantages imposed by poverty, racism and other burdens of society’s past karma. In a way, it’s a shame he died so young – he might have eventually woken up like Prince Siddhartha to how maintaining a high-class lifestyle is destructive to your own life as well as to so many other lives.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The History of Our Temple’s Confirmation Ceremony

At some point I have to fess up to my Jodo Shinshu minister friends – yes, I conducted a confirmation ceremony at our temple. Yes, I know that technically only a bishop (district head) or abbot (denomination head) is supposed to confirm that a living person has taken refuge in the Three Treasures (any minister can do it for a deceased). But our temple has a history of conducting the ceremony for people, so that’s the story to cover my oshiri.

Our founding minister, Rev. Gyomay Kubose, did the Ti-Sarana ceremony for just about anyone who asked. Back around 1980 I was one of those people he did it for even though he hardly knew me. I had been attending the temple for only a few months but felt I should be “confirmed” if I was already teaching the kids in Dharma School and had signed up to be a member.

It’s unclear how many people Rev. Kubose might have confirmed but everyone heard about the two men who got arrested for some crime and told the police they were Buddhist priests “ordained” by Rev. Kubose. The temple leadership was concerned that newcomers could easily confuse the Ti-Sarana ceremony as an ordination, but I don’t know what was said specifically to Rev. Kubose about vetting the applicants more thoroughly.

I have yet to hear of Rev. Gyoko Saito doing Ti-Sarana during his time at our Chicago temple. The people who studied under him told me they didn’t feel a need to get a Dharma Name and certificate as Rev. Kubose’s students did. Later, as bishop of the North America district when Rev. Saito served in Los Angeles, he conducted a Ti-Sarana ceremony for the members of the Brooklyn sangha that was led by Rev. Joseph Jarman.

Rev. Kubose’s son, Rev. Sunnan Koyo Kubose did several Ti-Sarana confirmations at our temple when he was assistant minister and later through the breakaway group, the Heartland Sangha. He wanted to designate people as his students by giving them Dharma Names with the Chinese character “yo(sunshine), the same as in his “Ko-yo.”

Rev. Yukei Ashikaga was asked to do the ceremony but he felt hesitant, knowing the Higashi Honganji rules and the unfortunate incident of the criminal “Buddhist priests.” When I was associate minister, I worked with the religious affairs chairperson, Fred Babbin, to come up with criteria that Rev. Ashikaga would find acceptable. We framed the “two years” triple qualification – the applicant must be a paid member for two years and during that two years demonstrate ongoing study of Buddhism and giving service to the temple (helping out at events, doing routine chores etc.). Still, on top of that Rev. Ashikaga made the applicants write a two-page essay on how they became interested in Buddhism and why they wanted to be confirmed as a Buddhist. In the fifteen or so years of having the policy in place, Rev. Ashikaga confirmed only a handful of people.
When I became the full-time resident minister, I agreed to do the confirmation ceremony for the qualified applicants. Instead of the essay, on the form I asked them to write a sentence of what they will do to help the temple in the future. I kept accepting applications, but didn’t get around to scheduling the ceremony for a couple years

I saw that the temple’s supply of kataginu (neck sashes) was sparse – a variety of old fading fabrics, so when I went to Japan in December of 2014, I planned to buy something similar to what we used in the past. As it turned out, I got around to shopping for kataginu when I was almost out of time and money, so I got ten of the cheapest ones available at one of the Higashi Honganji robe stores in Kyoto.

Finally I scheduled the ceremony for this year’s Founder’s Day service (the memorial for Rev. Gyomay Kubose) and by then I had nine applicants. Since that Sunday was Easter, I figured only a few of those nine would be available but instead they all wanted to come and I had to come up with nine Dharma Names all at once (two people got names from the Amida Sutra and the rest from the Larger Sutra’s Tan Butsu Ge verse section).

One thing that surprised me is after the ceremony I asked everyone to applaud and the applause went on for several minutes, with some members even standing up as if it was an ovation at a concert.

[photo showing the symbolic "head shaving"]

Later our temple president Bill said it was fitting to have the ceremony on Rev. Kubose’s memorial because the group of nine showed the fruition of his vision to make Buddhism accessible to all Americans, not just the ethnic Japanese. Bill pointed out that only one of the nine was Japanese American and the rest were of other ethnicities, such as Irish, Polish, Korean, African and Native American. He also pointed out that it was a diverse group for sexual preference and identity (yes, you see our intersex activist in the picture, see her blog Maybe that’s the reason for the long applause – cheering for our temple’s success in bringing Buddhism to a wide range of people.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Macro-Buddhism: Brava, Rev. Usuki

In the recent newsletter of the Higashi Honganji Los Angeles temple ( ) Rev. Peter Hata writes of what he learned about Jodo Shinshu and language from Rev. Patti Usuki when he was invited to speak at her San Fernando Valley temple. The article reminded me how deep Rev. Usuki’s thinking is on Jodo Shinshu and what a shame that in her interview in Tricycle (Summer 2011) she comes across as shallow (one problem was the interviewer Jeff Wilson somehow didn’t employ his great skill in translating cliché Shin phrases into plain English).

Her keynote speech at the May 2015 World Buddhist Women’s Convention in Calgary was and is still memorable for me. Even though Rev. Nana Yanase, the glamorous “singing nun” from Japan was the main draw, most of the North American women I heard from thought Rev. Usuki’s talk was way more substantial, “A real Dharma talk, not a show-biz performance.”

She brought out the idea (which here I’ll call “macro-Buddhism”) that our following the Dharma in everyday life isn’t just about being nice to family, friends and our fellow temple members. In the embrace of unlimited wisdom (Amitabha), our concern should extend to beings throughout the world - people and other living creatures adversely affected by environmental damage, wars and the unbridled power of corporations.

[Rev. Usuki at the IASBS Conference in Berkeley, CA]
At the August 2015 International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference, while discussing my paper, I mentioned one part of Rev. Usuki’s Calgary speech and somehow that was the only thing Prof. Kenneth Tanaka and others remembered from my presentation. That story was her description of being Angulimala: when she worked for the Canadian government, she was part of a project bringing infrastructure to rural areas of Latin America. She thought they were doing a good thing, bringing roads, plumbing and electricity to the poor indigenous people (who had managed for centuries without such amenities). But then what followed was the corporations came in and stripped the rain forests and natural resources away from the residents and they were left in real poverty, barely existing on barren, polluted land.

In the March 2016 issue of Wheel of Dharma, she has an article titled, “If You See Something, Say Something,” but she turns that oft-seen anti-terrorism slogan totally around. In the article she chides Buddhist ministers and their temple members for not speaking up against the anti-Muslim rhetoric and violent hate crimes in the U.S. and in supposedly Buddhist countries. She asks:

Knowing we are imperfect beings is no excuse for inaction. In our indebtedness to Infinite Light and Life that got us to this comfortable state, are our hearts open to the call “to respect and aid one another and do our best to work towards the welfare of society”? [wording from the Jodo Shinshu Creed]

She makes the case that our professions of gratitude for our religious freedom are hollow if we turn a blind eye to the persecution and media demonization of those who identify (or are identified) as Muslim.

Reading her article makes me realize I need to make more effort to bring our temple members into dialogue with Muslims. We should have empathy for them because it wasn’t that long ago when Japanese Americans and particularly Buddhists were considered terrorist threats by the U.S. government. In Shin Buddhism, recognizing the equality of all beings is expressed by “Come as you are,” so when we see that groups of people are told they can’t be a part of society because of their religion, ethnicity, national origin etc. – yeah, we better raise our voice in loud complaint (monku) and take concrete actions as the manifestation of Amitabha’s embrace of all.