Monday, May 15, 2017

I Am The Poison

Ke ryo shin shi          假令身止
Sho ku doku chu       諸苦毒中

Even if my body is immobilized
In the poison of various sufferings

(from the verse “Tan Butsu Ge” in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra)

I was going to title this post “rethinking poison as a metaphor in Buddhism” but it’s better to state my conclusion up front and let you know this isn’t a leisurely musing about figures of speech.

In many Buddhist passages there is a warning to avoid poison such as the Dhammapada saying, “An unwounded hand may handle poison… as there is no evil for one who does not commit evil.” And in the Tannisho we hear Shinran saying, “Just because you have the antidote doesn’t mean you should drink more poison.” But these passages could be interpreted in a dualistic sense – there are evil things (acts, thoughts) which I should keep out of my system in order to have good spiritual health.

But if we look to the fundamental Buddhist teaching of transcending the ego-self, then it is the sense of “I” which is the real poison destroying our life and the lives around us. So my struggle cannot be trying to get rid of the poison of “I” but to accept that it is already in my system. Even if it grows rampantly to kill off my individual life, I have been given the assurance that all of my karma (thoughts, words and deeds) is embraced by the Unbounded Life (aka “Amida”) even as the elements of my physical body become a part of the “white ashes” of the world.

In trying to research treatments, I’m so sick of hearing how everything is poison – chemotherapy is poison, junk food is poison, sugar/salt/carbs/oils etc. etc. are poison, deodorants and toothpaste are poison, tomatoes are poison, all meat and dairy products are poison, peanuts and cashews are poison, tap and bottled water are poison, any food that is not organic and raw is poison and worse yet, alcohol and caffeine are poison. Also, some say all these unregulated “life-saving” drugs can also be poison when they are administered by mentally unbalanced hucksters outside of the U.S.

Should I take in more poison to add to the decades of poisoning my body as I shared fun get-togethers with friends, relatives, fellow seekers and scholars? Should I cut off all ties to those who would tempt me with poisonous treats – or I can I maintain a stoic abstinence around people who are relishing those treats?

I’m afraid poison is all I leave behind – all the hate and resentment I’ve felt and expressed towards others, all the cruel acts that injured people mentally and physically. I have to accept that is the legacy I leave behind. I won’t be like Aurora, the teenager I knew at the temple thirty years ago, who spent her last months giving of herself to various uplifting causes, including helping corral the little Dharma School kids at the temple for us flustered Dharma School teachers.

This may be my last post for a while (and may not be up long as the temple censors come calling for me). Maybe it’s fitting that my blog got going when I went to Texas to take care of my dying sister and now it will become the journal of my journey into nothingness.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

No Reward for Being Better

I was invited to participate in the “Coffee with the Clergy” event at the Lincolnwood Village Hall. (Lincolnwood is a small suburb next to Chicago’s Rogers Park.) As I usually do with presentations, I kept my talk short in order to leave more time for Q&A. I spoke about the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) and how some people who identify as Buddhist are “poor,” lacking one or more of those treasures – no teacher, no sutra studies and no membership in an organization. Maybe to the audience of mostly Christians and a few Muslims, I didn’t seem that different from the Orthodox Jewish rabbi who spoke first – we both emphasized the importance of teacher lineages, study of ancient texts and gathering for recurring observances.

One prevalent misunderstanding that all of us Jodo Shinshu followers have to address is the popular notion that only the shaved head people who withdraw from worldly life to live in monasteries are the ones who attain enlightenment. When one man in the audience expressed such a view, I gave the softball response, “That way works for some people.” But then my husband raised his hand and asked me to point out the downside of the monastic path.

I then said there’s a danger in meditation and other monastic practices that you start out doing them to break out of the ego-self but you end up being more entrenched in your ego and pride. I said that’s why we need to continually read the words of the Buddha who keenly points out the pitfalls we slide into so easily, our tendency to get arrogant about being a Buddhist, instead of letting Buddhism break down the barriers we put between ourselves and others.

After the session one elderly white woman came up to me to defend her image of the monks (the men, not women, she saw as holy people in the group tour she took in Thailand). She said they are the ones who gave up a lot in order to live the monastic life “to better themselves.” I said, “To better themselves for what? For some reward in the afterlife? The Buddha pointed out that our concern for reward and punishment in the next life is a reflection of our ego-attachment. We’ve already received the reward – to live this precious life of here and now. All we can do is be aware that we can do helpful actions that benefit others or do actions that harm myself and others. We’re not doing good and avoiding bad actions because we’re concerned with our own reward and punishment.”

I don’t think my point got through to her, but there was a young Muslim woman listening in after I answered her questions about reincarnation and the afterlife. I felt like she understood what I was getting at. Religion shouldn’t be a means of making us feel we’re a “better” person deserving of special rewards. When she told me she was reluctant to identify herself as Muslim because she is a “poor example,” I said that’s a good attitude to have. It’s not for us to beat our chest and declare, “I’m better than you bunch of losers because I found (Allah, Jesus, Buddha et al).” If our religion can make us humbly admit we are a “poor example,” then we’ve taken an important step closer to the transcendent and away from our limited ego-self.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Assured by the past, comforted by the future

During the time I was helping at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, one night after Japanese folk dance practice at the Zen temple, my car was hit broadside by a speeding vehicle going the wrong way down a one-way street. When the police were sending me to the county hospital they asked who they should call so I gave them Rev. Gyoko Saito’s name and number. Sure enough, Rev. Saito came to the crowded emergency room and took me back to the temple. After I washed up in the Japanese style bath in his apartment, he gave me bedding to sleep on a couch in the temple’s lobby (which I had done a few times before when I partied too much to drive home). For a few hours, I wasn’t able to fall asleep when I thought about the stories of people in car accidents never waking up the next day due to concussions.

But then at one point I realized, “I encountered the nembutsu teachings from Dr. Haneda. That is enough – so I can die satisfied.” After that, I fell asleep until the early morning janitorial service crew woke me up.

Now in the same way I felt assured by my encounter with the nembutsu teachings through Dr. Haneda, I feel comforted that there are younger people out there who will continue in Dr. Haneda’s inspiring path of bringing the nembutsu to America - Michael Conway, for one, and our temple’s dear Native American member, Wendy.

This past Sunday Wendy gave a very articulate account of the Dharma Seeds retreat (Higashi Honganji’s North America District’s program) she attended in February where Rev. Mike was the main speaker. It made me happy to hear her describe how Rev. Mike is teaching about Shinran Shonin but also for how she appreciated what Rev. Mike described as his personal experience of receiving the nembutsu teachings.

[Rev. Michael Conway lecturing at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago]
Hopefully Wendy is not the only one influenced in the Dharma Seeds workshop and at our temple’s seminar, service and study class by Rev. Mike Conway in March. If anything, Rev. Mike is the reason I call my three years at Otani University and going through the Higashi Honganji rigamarole as worth it.  The “West” needs to hear Jodo Shinshu from non-ethnic Japanese – to hear how powerful Shinran’s teachings are, transcending geography and ethnicity.

After seeing my father (d. 2010) and sister (d. 2012) struggle with cancer, I don't want to be just another documenter of cancer’s effects. I want to be that spotlight that shines on the young and fantastic Dharma teachers coming up behind me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

City Hall: Benefitting Self or Benefitting Others

In the Higashi Honganji ministers seminar in Los Angeles in February, the presenter Rev. Michael Conway said that Soga Ryojin felt instead of using the terminology “self power” versus “other power” in Jodo Shinshu, it would be more descriptive to characterize our individual puny power as “self-benefitting power” and the unbounded wisdom and compassion (known as “Amida”) as “others-benefitting power.” Here, “benefitting” means the gifting of spiritual qualities. I fail miserably when I use my faulty abilities to grab spiritual qualities for myself and attempt to wear them as attention-getting garb (as so many Western Buddhists fall over themselves to look humble in saffron one-shoulder robes or in dark gowns with aprons). But when I receive help from those (human and otherwise) with genuine spiritual qualities, then I know there’s the great others-benefitting power working in the world through such beings.

In our world of material benefits, every person and every group uses their power for self-benefitting. Unless you’re a candidate for sainthood like Dorothy Day, it’s hard to claim you are working purely for others-benefitting. But I found there is something about working with people to protest the powerful who amass material benefits for themselves at the expense of those struggling to get by day-to-day. I’m experiencing the Howard Thurman quote about doing what makes you come alive. And I found another Howard Thurman quote that describes what’s been happening to me: “Community cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them — unknown and undiscovered brothers.”

People who were the “unknown and undiscovered” others to me only a few months ago are now a part of my life. A year ago I would never have pictured myself appearing at city hall reading the testimonies of two immigrant Korean small business owners to the zoning committee as part of team of speakers asking the committee to defer their approval of a development until there was more community discussion of the project. Those business owners, the Uptown residents housed and unhoused, the young minister of a small church near our temple, activists who are Asian, black and white – we had come together because of our concern over how a proposed luxury high rise would impact our neighborhood.

[photo of city council chambers]
The zoning committee with one no-vote and one abstention approved the project just as a couple weeks earlier our neighborhood group saw the buildings planning commission unanimously approve the proposal. But in a sense we can “declare victory and run” – the phrase I saw in the book This is an Uprising that I’ve been reading. The developer was probably assured by the alderman that his project would go through smoothly with city hall approval, but after our voices were raised at the two city hall hearings and at a town hall meeting attended by over a hundred people (hosted by our temple), that developer and future developers now know you can’t just come into a community and expect everyone to passively go along with your kicking out long time retail stores and bringing in high priced units to an area in need of decent housing for low-wealth workers, the disabled and seniors.

I know many of the temple members don’t agree with my stance against gentrification but on that issue and others, our temple has a history of accepting the diversity of opinion among its members so I don’t expect anyone to follow or impede me. Whether my involvement in this “cause” is deepening my appreciation of Amida’s others-benefitting power or just leading me into delusion upon delusion, I can’t deny the feeling of aliveness and the thrill of working with people from many different walks of life. It’s not that I feel my minister work at the temple is boring, but I think we all are enriched by having lives outside of our circle of acquaintances at the temple.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Dharma Lesson from Yuri Kochiyama

When I talked up the showing of the film, “Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice,” I thought half the temple membership would be filling up the auditorium at the Block Museum on the Northwestern University campus last month. But only a handful of the folks I knew showed up and the total audience for the film showing was pretty thin.

Maybe just as well – it wasn’t a well made film (it seemed like in the mid-1990s sound recording for film must’ve been pretty primitive). But for me, the life of Yuri Kochiyama illustrated the Dharma lesson I try to impart at every memorial service – “That feeling of respect and gratitude you feel for your deceased loved one should carry over to a widening circle of compassion for the lives around you.”

(above quote alone is a Dharma Lesson - BTW, she was Muslim)
Yuri Kochiyama lost her father to the World War II hysteria against the ethnic Japanese in America (after Pearl Harbor he was jailed despite his poor health and died the day after he was released). Her passion for justice is a directing of her outrage over her father’s loss into the energy to fight for all people in the United States who are mistreated by the majority white society and the government.

Her story is a rare exception among Japanese Americans. While she raised her family in Harlem and got involved in the parents’ group which led her to activism with the black and Latino liberation movements, most Japanese Americans followed the white flight out of the inner cities to more affluent neighborhoods. This is reflected in our temple’s history – leaving the south side in the mid-1950s to move to the north side where most of the members were relocating during the time of real estate fear-mongering and redlining. And in the 1980s and -90s, there was a strong push to find a new location in a “nicer” neighborhood (such as northwest Chicago or Morton Grove) away from the black, brown and red people of Uptown.

Right now there are a lot of young Japanese Americans saying they’re against the “Muslim registry” (such as my cousin’s daughter, but I don’t hear many calling for reparations for African Americans as Yuri Kochiyama did. It’s good that young JAs relate to the recent immigrants, such as those from Muslim countries, but I wish more Asian Americans would relate to those whose ancestors were brought to the U.S. as slaves, to those who were here first and saw their lands taken away from them and to those vast numbers of descendants of Europeans who are in or near poverty due to shifts in the economy.

For many Americans, Yuri Kochiyama is seen as unpatriotic for her anti-government remarks (see the furor over the May 19, 2016 Google doodle), but she reminds us that the mindset of powerful interests that incarcerated the ethnic Japanese during World War II is still prevailing in policies and procedures that violate the rights of people of color and lower-income whites and deny them the opportunities easily accessed by residents of affluent areas. Yuri Kochiyama’s life reminds me of the Dharma teachings of considering myself and all beings as “we” - not to be divided into us (“we work hard and have morals”) versus them (“they’re lazy and just want to kill and rob”). My hope is that at our temple as we become Dharma friends with diverse ethnicities and those of differing socio-economic statuses, we categorize less and emphasize more with all the lives around us. That is, genuinely hearing the call of Namu Amida Butsu instead of just giving it lip-service.