Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Relationships are not "Attachments"

Many times when our temple receives requests to have “a monk” visit someone in the hospital who was identified as Buddhist, I end up referring them to other temples more in line with the patient’s nationality or the caller’s expectations. The other day I received such a request – the caller said she didn’t belong to a local temple but went occasionally to the Vipassana center near Rockford. She was suggesting to her mother to look into Buddhism now that her mother was being placed in palliative care at a nursing home after release from the hospital. When I heard that her mother had weakening kidneys, I agreed to see her, thinking of my own mother who kept refusing dialysis and finally had to go into hospice care.

For my first visit the daughter met me at her mother’s room. When her mother, Diane, said she’s an avid reader of the New York Times and the New Yorker and the daughter said she gave her mother a book on meditation and psychology with a long, technical title, I apologized for bringing a “lightweight” book – Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s The Center Within. Since our temple’s bookstore items were packed away to make room for the summer festival, it was the only book I could wrench out of the storage box. Although I’ve joked about that book being for people with ADHD (i.e. articles are too short and underdeveloped), I thought the final article “Every Day is the Last Day” was a nice presentation of the Buddhist attitude towards death and dying.

A couple weeks later when I was in the neighborhood of the nursing home, I went to visit Diane. She had read Rev. Kubose’s book thoroughly and observed how dated it was, written before our temple had much diversity (dozens of European Americans among the hundreds of ethnic Japanese) and before gay and women’s liberation would challenge Rev. Kubose’s old-fashioned outlook on gender and marriage. Maybe not so much in Rev. Kubose’s book, but in some materials Diane had read about Buddhism from time to time, she found exhortations to cut “the ties that bind” while most advice she’s received on health and aging encourages people to develop social networks.

I explained to Diane that the big misunderstanding about Buddhism is that it is against “attachment” to other people (see my Oct. 18, 2011 entry “The word ‘love’ - the negative connotation in Buddhism”). The “attachment” Buddhist teachers disparage is the attitude of possessiveness towards other beings, treating them as objects to control. In my reading and experience I’ve seen that those who are spiritually awakened cultivate their connections to people. They recognize that our relationships with others is the concrete manifestation of the truth of interdependency, the truth that there is no separate self because each life is part of the interactive network of all lives.

So I told Diane she is already living the truth of interdependency – in her close relation with her daughter, in her phone conversations with her brother on the West Coast and with her local friends (she mentioned a good friend just called to tell her about attending the Pride Parade the day before). During our conversation I wondered if she was expecting me to say something wise but instead I’d ask more questions about her personal life.

The way she breathed with difficulty and occasionally fell into light sleep in mid-sentence reminded me so much of my mother in the last few weeks she was alive. After I left Diane, I thought that in a way any dying mother is my mother, any ailing sister is my sister, any father in chemotherapy is my father. Maybe that is the only empathy I can muster for others – to relive with them my recent experience of losing the three family members. Buddhism says we should be careful not to project our past experience onto judgments of the present, but I can’t help feeling if my grief is worth anything to others it’s to let them know I have been and will be the witness to the transient moments of a precious human life.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Heavy Karma: The Fat Lady Sings

In the famous White Path Parable of Shan-tao that Honen, Shinran and so many Pure Land teachers after them have quoted and commented on, a voice ahead on the path calls to the traveler, “Come straightway, just as you are!” But as much as I’m okay with “just as you are” means one doesn’t have to be more educated or perform more good deeds to be on the path of enlightenment, I can’t help thinking I’d fit on that narrow white path more easily if I was twenty pounds lighter.

[My favorite opera/cabaret singer Jeanne Scherkenbach performing at the temple’s 2013 summer festival. Hear her marvelous singing live on June 22 at Blue Star Bistro]

On Facebook I posted a photo of myself and a minister whose temple I was visiting and it led to an exchange of comments with Ken O’Neill, a former Buddhist Churches of America kaikyoshi (“overseas minister” – official designation for ordained people serving outside of Japan). (Many years ago my teacher Dr. Nobuo Haneda got me a copy of Ken’s critique of BCA’s poor treatment of non-Japanese American kaikyoshi in the mid-20th century.) Ken was directing his comments more to my pot-bellied friend than 20 lbs. overweight me but it made me want to open a discussion about whether body image makes one less effective as a religious teacher. Ken said, “what kind of Dharma is expressed with obesity?” and he referred to fitness guru Paul Chek saying a spiritual mentor should be able to preach in a g-string.

It’s probably true that most of the ordained men and women in the monastic traditions could show off their svelte bodies in a g-string, but among the Jodo Shinshu ministers in the U.S. I don’t think many of us over 40 would want to strip down in public (the Canadian ministers seem to be in better shape – maybe from trudging through the snow eight months out of the year).  My response to Ken was that slim ministers may not have a deep understanding of Shinran’s teachings if they are too enamored of their ability to keep in shape.

I said that to Ken because I find my lack of success in controlling my weight reminds me so poignantly of the limitation of my self-power. I’ve seen some of my minister friends go from skinny student to wide-load professional and now as I’ve been head minister full-time, I understand why. You don’t have much control over your schedule and having to skip meals leads to foraging the snacks leftover from gatherings at the temple or going overboard at the otoki (meals with the family after a memorial service). Before I was full-time at the temple, I used to take the long walk (20 minutes each way) from my house to the public library several times a week but now I can barely schedule my library visit for once a week. And when you’re running around to get to things on time (including returning library materials on the due date), you end up jumping in the car instead of getting in any walking.

Ken’s comments made me wonder if being fat makes me look less attractive as a teacher to those who are seeking to learn from Buddhism. Yet I tell myself it’s not so important how I look to others as how I look at them. In getting on my own case for not doing more to lose weight, I have to be careful not to project my disgust with my burgeoning body onto other people. How other people came to their present shape is the result of many factors and most are beyond their control. When I was a teen I remember my sister had a friend who was obese and she said her family had to live on food stamps. From then I realized that many poor people are overweight because on a limited budget they end up addressing their constant hunger with easy fixes of fattening food. When we see very physically fit people it’s likely they are affluent enough to shop at Whole Foods and engage in costly exercise regimens.

For all my life until now, I would think, “I’ll never be as fat as my mother” and it gave me a sense of superiority, that I could be better than her. The day after she died, I packed all her clothes into bags to give to the Goodwill but I saved a few things for myself. Now as I’m wearing some of her clothes I find that they aren’t as loose on me as I thought they would be.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

From the Pure Land: Poetry and Jazz

For this month, I just want to plug two sources of inspiration for me – the avant-garde music of Renee Baker and the articles in Poetry magazine. Last Thursday I attended “CreateFest III” a collection of musicians directed by Renee Baker performing at the Peoples Church. It was very challenging for me to listen to the jazz-influenced improvisation music (with spoken word and dancing), especially when my daily commute music is mostly pop stations. The day happened to be the 100th birthday of Sun Ra and one group got everyone chanting “Space is the place” to invoke his spirit.

(Sun Ra photo by Andrew Pultier/Redferns)
Although I knew about Poetry Magazine from articles in the Chicago Reader and last year I did a memorial service for the father of someone on the magazine staff, I became interested in it when a new member in our weekly study group brought up the article “The Poetic Torture-House of Language” by Slavoj Zizek from the March 2014 issue. So when I got a solicitation in the mail, I decided to get a subscription. Reading the June 2014 issue, I have the same reaction to the CreateFest concert – I need to be more exposed to these experimental kinds of expression.
Why? Because it doesn’t bring me closer to the “Pure Land,” Jodo which should actually be translated as “realm of flowingness,” if I keep using the same phrases and wordings in talking about it. In jazz and poetry, I’m confronted with ways of expression that shake me out of my fossilized thinking – I’m hearing the “flowingness” of life and not the tied-down neatness of structured presentations.
Now I understand a little better why Rev. Gyoko Saito was so attracted to Joseph Jarman and his wife Thulani Davis. (Rev. Saito arranged for both of them to receive tokudo ordination at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto though neither seems to have much affinity for or knowledge of Shinran’s teachings.) It wasn’t so important to Rev. Saito that Joseph or Thulani “got” Buddhism, but it was important to deepening his own understanding of Buddhism to be exposed to Joseph’s expressive music and Thulani’s spirited writing about the African American experience. Rev. Saito saw with other ministers it’s so easy to get trapped in a cocoon of classical Japanese culture in presenting Buddhism in America. For the teachings of Shinran to come alive in this country, we need words and music that speak to our heart of hearts and not just to appeal to an intellectual attraction to exotic Asian culture.

Poetry magazine
Renee Baker

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shakyamuni, Our Fellow Seeker

Recently various North Park University classes have been visiting our temple, so much so that I joked they should make me an adjunct professor. The sociology class came by as part of their research on how urban churches interact (or not) with their neighborhoods. I told them we have a few regular members from the surrounding SROs (single-room occupancy buildings for mostly those on social security disability) and shelters. But the nearby residents who don’t get involved with our temple are the upwardly mobile professionals who purchase the expensive condos. Some of them will visit out of curiosity but they don’t come back. When Uptown starting undergoing gentrification (low-rent apartment buildings torn down or renovated for condominiums), some people at our temple were glad – thinking we would gain some high-income young people as members.

I told the class that I believe those affluent 20- and 30-somethings don’t come back because we emphasize the Buddha’s teaching that all beings are equal. In my Dharma School message on Hanamatsuri, the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, I said his legendary birth cry of “Tenjo tenge yuiga dokuson” means “No one is better than me and no one is worse than me. Each and every living being is to be respected.” To the sociology class, I said that kind of message doesn’t resonate with people who believe they got to their socio-economic position through their own hard work and developed skills. For them there are other Buddhist groups, such as Zen and Vajrayana, that give them a ladder of rankings to work up into higher and higher levels of enlightenment. In the Pure Land tradition, the nembutsu teachings knock us down from our perches of self-righteous morality and hard-practice macho pride and lower us into the most profound level of awakening of “being an ordinary person.”


With this year’s Hanamatsuri, I realize in the Pure Land tradition we need to reframe the narrative of the historical Buddha’s life to show him as our fellow seeker, what Shinran called ondobo ondogyo. As in the PBS special “The Buddha,” too often the Buddha is presented as a spiritual super-hero, a peak of superiority over others that we should aspire to or at least bow down and “worship,” that is, groveling at his feet for favors. So as I said at the Hanamatsuri services at our temple and at the Toronto Buddhist Church, we should see most of what is called “Buddhist practices” as Shakyamuni’s way of guiding people through what he experienced in the six years of his asceticism (age 29 to 35). It is hard for any of us to understand jiriki muko, the futility of self-power, unless we put our own mental and physical abilities to the test. Then in the wake of our failures, the Pure Land teachings make more sense as we hear Shakyamuni sharing with us the content of his awakening under the bodhi tree. His shout of “Avidya!” (not-clear) is translated as “Namu Amida Butsu,” so that in hearing this call, we participate in his experience of breaking through the ego-shell and walking out into the wide bright world like a chick hatching out of an Easter egg.

With Shinran as the model, we can talk about Shakyamuni as a man who saw himself as sharing the Dharma, learning through interaction with others, rather than as a privileged elitist preaching down to the masses from on high. As our temple neighbors teach us, there is so much to learn from listening to the Dharma together, to see the working of the Great Light of Wisdom (Amitabha) even in those struggling with physical disabilities, mental illness and poverty.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Great Wisdom Heart: Nembutsu Between the Lines

In our Wednesday class, the topic has been “Secrets of the BTC Service Book.” Of course, we don’t have any secret teachings – what we’re doing is looking at the back-stories of the readings we use in our Sunday services. For example, in examining “The Golden Chain,” I presented the history of Dorothy and Ernest “Shinkaku” Hunt who helped with English materials for the Hawaii Hompa Hongwanji Mission but like many of the early Western Buddhists, they found it difficult to comprehend Shinran’s teachings.

Yesterday our class looked at the Hannya Haramita Shingyo (Heart of Wisdom Sutra) which in our current (2009) service book comes after the two Larger Sutra excerpts, Tan Butsu Ge and San Sei Ge. I pointed out that since our 1984 service book, we regularly chant the Heart Sutra at our Sunday service.

The English translation we use is based on the book Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra – Heart of the Great Wisdom Paramita Sutra with Commentary (Chicago: Dharma House, 1975). The book is a compilation by Nancy DeRoin of explanations Rev. Gyomay Kubose gave at the meditation sessions over several months. Back in the 1950s, Rev. Kubose had been lecturing on the Heart Sutra to Japanese-speaking audiences according to my husband whose father (a Shingon sect follower) attended the class.


In talking about the book to the study class, I said I blame Nancy DeRoin for filtering out any mention of Jodo Shinshu. From attending the meditation sessions from the late 1970s and early 1980s, I recall Rev. Kubose often talking of the nembutsu teachings. But the book seems designed to appeal to those people at our temple who called themselves “non-sectarian” but were prejudiced against anything that wasn’t Zen.

For the class, I focussed on Rev. Kubose’s discussion of “ignorance” (mu-myo) and “human troubles” (bon-no). The Heart Sutra is supposed to be about “wisdom” prajna, but it points to our confrontation with avidya “not-clear.” It says, “there is no extinction of ignorance” (mu mu-myo jin). Rev. Kubose (echoing his teacher Haya Akegarasu, see Heard by Me, pp 199-203) describes the historical Buddha’s awakening:

[When] Gautama looked into himself …[he realized] he was the source of all, the essence, the foundation of ignorance. Then, no one bothered him. When one opens one’s own mind, in the whole world, there is nothing to throw away, nothing to seek. It just is. Ignorance doesn’t bother us. All the bonnos (human troubles) don’t have to be hated. We are just as we are. We are nothing but bundles of bonnos. We are nothing but ignorance… this very ignorance, these very bonnos are the cause of enlightenment. (p. 28)

Bonno is a term not in the Heart Sutra but it’s hard for Shinran to talk for long without bringing it up. It is both dukha (stress) and klesa (defilement) and it is totally what we are 24/7. In the Heart Sutra’s pointing out of our clinging, calculating self, it is the call of “Namu!” - the call to come just as we are, with our hearts cluttered and confused by self-serving desires.

On page 29 Rev. Kubose says “To know the eternal now is Zen, is Nembutsu” and I wish Nancy DeRoin could have included his explanations. Rev. Kubose was talking to people who felt they knew what Zen meant, but we all need to be reminded that the nembutsu is the Buddha’s hand hitting us upside our self-infatuated heads. Instead of “nothing to throw away, nothing to seek,” we want to throw away the messy parts of human life that don’t fit the jigsaw puzzle of Perfect Peace, while we seek out the feel-good phrases that feed our delusion of being “improved and improving.”

Rev. Kubose was such a brave pioneer of presenting Jodo Shinshu in English but his legacy has been hijacked by the likes of those “non-sectarian” people who split from our temple in the late 1990s. The one person I believe is the true Dharma heir of Rev. Gyomay Kubose is Rev. Marvin Harada of the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, CA. He came to Chicago to study in the early 1980s when Rev. Kubose could still reference Shinran. Rev. Marvin went on to carry forward that deeply-grounded transmission. The others who attached themselves later to the mentally declining Rev. Kubose only have a superficial grasp of the written works such as his Heart Sutra commentary.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Eating the Popcorn and Missing the Movie: Keeping Quiet About Shinran

A couple times when we were coming home from some event, my husband would have a sudden craving for popcorn and instead of going straight home to make some, he would drive to a movie theatre and have me run in and buy a bucket. I think a lot of people who pop in a Buddhist temple are like that – wanting to satisfy a notion of “I need some meditation now!” but not wanting to stick around for the real purpose of the temple, to receive the Buddha’s teachings of transcending the self.

It’s a very common scenario at Jodo Shinshu temples – we offer meditation to get people in the door, but we can’t convince all of those people to stick around for the main feature, the service where we listen to the nembutsu and Shinran’s teachings. Unfortunately at our temple the main meditation leader is probably like the lay teachers at the other temples – they don’t see any need to encourage people to stay for service because they rarely attend it themselves. But I was surprised to hear from someone at the Midwest Buddhist Temple that she and her husband attended the meditation sessions there for years, yet Rev. Ogui never said anything to encourage them to stay for the regular service. So she was not aware of Shinran Shonin and the nembutsu teachings until Rev. Ogui left to become the Buddhist Churches of America’s bishop and Rev. Siebuhr took over. What made Rev. Ogui think it wasn’t worth mentioning Shinran to people who came for meditation – did he think they weren’t interested, weren’t “ready” because they were too enamored with Zen, or that because they were non-Japanese it wouldn’t make sense to them? Rev. Siebuhr in his zeal probably thought everybody needs to hear about Shinran and maybe he turned off the people in those three categories (not interesed, too Zen-minded, too Western-thinking), but for the woman who told me the story and quite a few others at her temple, they were grateful that he introduced them to an approach in Buddhism that really spoke to them in their struggles with real-life problems.

This past Sunday I invited a former Midwest Temple member to our monthly class on the Shoshinge (Shinran’s long poem tracing the transmission of the Pure Land teachings). I told him I started the class for people who want to be minister assistants. I said, “We’re taking our time studying the Shoshinge to learn what Shinran taught. I don’t want them to be the like BCA minister assistants, hardly knowing anything about Shinran’s teachings,” and he chimed in, “Well, they made me a minister assistant and I still don’t know much about Shinran’s teachings.”

It makes me wonder, what’s the big secret about Shinran? In Rev. Ama’s book Immigrants to the Pure Land, we see how the Jodo Shinshu ministers from Japan had to spend time educating people (particularly non-Japanese members) about Buddhism in general but that approach made it difficult to “move” them on to Shinran’s teachings because they liked the “Theravada” ethnical mode so much. But it’s been over a hundred years since those early missions in Hawaii and the West Coast and in most metropolitan areas Jodo Shinshu temples are no longer the only Buddhist game in town. We don’t have to be stuck in the “introduction to Buddhism” role anymore.

I made copies of Gordon Bermant’s essay “American Jodo Shinshu Practice“ (from Path of No Path: Contemporary Studies in Pure Land Buddhism Honoring Roger Corless, edited by Richard K. Payne) for the people in the Shoshinge class. I want them to read Gordon’s article (inspired, of course, by the tremendous outreach work of Rev. Kenryu Tsuji) because it addresses the hurdles of presenting Jodo Shinshu to people acquainted only with the “hard practice” forms of Buddhism (Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana). We don’t have to be mum about Shinran’s teachings because people seem too into “self-power” – we can show them that the nembutsu path takes time and effort but over the years the dividends far exceed the investment. We can tell them it’s okay if it doesn’t make sense right off the bat, and point to people like Gordon (and the stories of  the many Jodo Shinshu followers at all the various temples) as testaments to the life-changing power of Namu Amida Butsu.

I’m psyched right now to be going to Los Angeles to attend a lecture series by Dr. Takami Inoue about “Entering the Stream.” In other forms of Buddhism, one can get so easily discouraged by what seems to be constant backsliding and lack of progress, but Shinran reminds us that once having encountered the nembutsu teachings, our hard-to-change-bad-habits-deluded messing-up-for-others-and-ourselves self is taken into the stage of non-retrogression, supported by deep layers of wondrous awakened ones of the past and present.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Nirvana Day for Dharma School

When I was a Dharma School  teacher in the late 1970s, one Sunday Rev. Gyoko Saito for his talk to the children in service spoke about a very young boy who committed suicide in Japan. It may have been a sensational story in Japan at that time, but I couldn’t relate to it and probably the Dharma School students didn’t understand either why Rev. Saito was so affected by the news. Later that day at the Dharma School teachers meeting, everyone including Rev. Gyomay Kubose criticized Rev. Saito for bringing up such a dark topic for the children’s portion of the service.

Now I’m the one who brought up the subject of death in a Dharma School talk. At last Sunday’s Nirvana Day, I tried to explain to the kids why we “celebrate” the historical Buddha’s death instead of just his birthday and enlightenment day. I said that as much as you like a song or a story, it has to have an ending. But even though a person’s life ends, they leave something behind to continue to teach you, just as the Buddha told his disciples to look to the teachings and not cling to him as a person who must die.


Then I told them that as I was looking for photos for our temple’s Google listing, I found one of them learning taiko, the Japanese drums. I asked them if they remember Linda, the lady who taught them. Then I said Linda’s husband died this past Thursday. It’s very sad (he was only 65 years old) but Linda’s husband as the leader of the taiko group and all his other activities has influenced many, many people, so like the Buddha, he has left teachings behind.

So I’m not sure if the kids could even relate to the loss of someone they knew indirectly, but the adults in the service shared my sorrow and concern for Linda, the widow. Especially because many of us are Baby Boomers, it’s hard to hear about someone dying in their 50s or 60s – unlike the usual announcements at Sunday service of someone in their 80s or 90s passing away after several months of decline.

It seems since my mother’s death in December, I’ve been conducting cremation and memorial services non-stop. I see children of all ages at these services and I wonder how the death affects them. At Saturday’s memorial service for Mr. Y., a little girl went to the podium and announced, “My grandpa was the best grandpa ever!” But what will she remember about her grandfather as she grows into her teens and twenties? I was fortunate as an adult to spend time with all four of my grandparents, but I remember very little of my interaction with them as a child. Yet whether or not we remember or know anything about our grandparents, their lives have affected ours and will continue to influence us.

I had the Dharma School kids say “Namu Amida Butsu” together to remember Linda’s husband as one of the uncountable lives we honor and respect in the nembutsu. “Namu Amida Butsu”  reminds us of the truth that all the loved ones and not-so-loved ones who’ve gone before us continue to be a part of us. This truth is what we so often forget as we identify with our current thoughts and retrievable memories. Our hearts and minds are much deeper and vaster than that which we call “my” self.