Tuesday, November 17, 2015

News of Paris and Sandra Bland

I’ve been starting some blog entries that never got finished – about workshops and conferences I attended last month and about the “Speculative Non-Buddhism” blog that entertained me while waiting in the hospital between my husband’s tests, reports, procedures and results earlier this month (he’s okay now). And with a lot of different things going on at the temple, it’s been hard to focus on writing a blog entry lately.

Back in 2002 during what became known as the “Beltway Sniper Attacks,” schools in the suburban Washington D.C. area were under lockdown, keeping the students indoors. I remember hearing on the radio one father said he told his grade-school aged son, “What you are feeling now is not that unusual. There are children in many parts of the world and even here in the United States who everyday live in fear of being shot.” After the two perpetrators were captured, the children in those suburban areas could go back to being carefree playing outdoors, while even now in places around the world and in certain neighborhoods in Chicago, children are well aware that they can become the victims of violence.

I always recall that father’s words when I hear about tragedies such as the terrorist attacks in Paris – what the media plays up as so extraordinary for “nice neighborhoods” is sadly a frequent occurrence for the many who live in the midst of violent conflict. The people killed and maimed by the terrorists were enjoying typical First World pleasures – sports event in a large arena, concert by an American rock band, eating a gourmet dinner and sipping wine and espresso at a sidewalk café. The victims may not have been wealthy, but they like myself were bourgeoisie, having disposable income to spend on leisure activities. The news of Paris motivated some to bring attention to horrific massacres that had been woefully underreported – such as the April attack at a university in Kenya and the suicide bombings in Beirut. The terrorist killings in the Middle East and Africa usually take place in settings more proletariat (people who are struggling to make ends meet) than bourgeoisie – victims were doing what people in the First, Second (former Soviet countries) and Third World mostly do, gather at the marketplace, places of worship, for weddings and funerals, and for the not-to-be-taken-for-granted opportunity of education.

With most of the news media focused on Paris, I would have missed the update on Sandra Bland were it not for Father Michael Pfleger (priest at Chicago’s St. Sabina Church) calling attention to it. I spoke about Sandra Bland at this summer’s Maida Center retreat – contrasting her arrest video with the stories of Buddhist seekers meeting their teachers, how the idea of “encounter” between two humans can go right (when one of them is free from ego-concerns) or go so very wrong. Unlike some of the other African Americans noted in news stories who died in police custody, Sandra Bland was from a bourgeois background – she was from Naperville, a suburban area west of Chicago.

What Father Pfleger was outraged about is the official report from the Texas county where Sandra Bland died – the attorneys asked the court to dismiss charges against the jailers because to them it was a clear case of suicide. They somehow read Sandra Bland’s mind and concluded she was despondent because none of her family members or friends would pay for her bail or come help her. Although there’s a possibility that Sandra Bland was suicidal due to physiological conditions, for the officials to paint her family and friends as heartlessly sending her to her death is reason for anyone to be outraged.

You may be wondering what these ramblings have to do with Buddhism. For one, Buddhism teaches us to be wary of what seems to be the truth – any person purportedly “telling the truth” is only giving a biased account of what they thought they perceived. Much of our bias is non-intentional – we are influenced by our upbringing and many internal and external factors. But from the beginning of humankind, people intentionally bend the facts to fit their agenda (I learned a lot about this in the Hebrew Bible course I took at the Pacific School of Religion one summer). So I really don’t give much credence to the news about what caused the Paris attacks – we all know how easily evidence is manipulated. But the Sandra Bland case should be especially troubling to us – anyone (particularly a person of color) can be targeted, incited, confined, possibly drugged and then reported as a suicide by parties who don’t want to admit to any transgression of society’s carefully structured rules of civilized behavior.

The other point is compassion – for the victims and the perpetrators and for many of us who are both at the same and varying times. Shuichi Maida emphasized the Zen phrase “heijo-tei,” which Dr. Haneda translated as “flat-ordinariness.” I think it points to the ultimate equality of all beings. The people who were killed in Paris were no more special than the victims in Beirut or Kenya. The people who carried out the killings were no more evil than any of us – when we’re easily swayed to think some lives are not worthy and can be destroyed for our noble cause (think of the monks in various Asian countries resorting to violent means of “eliminating” the Muslims who don’t fit in their idea of a peaceful Buddhist state). To me “Black Lives Matter” is not a contradiction of “heijo-tei” but it’s a reminder of how much we violate the spirit of “heijo-tei” when a group is abused by those who feel superior. “Black Lives Matter” is Namu Amida Butsu – it’s being hit upsides our privileged judgmental heads and confronting us with the shining dignity of all beings. Despite what they look like, despite what we think they’ve done – they are shining with the truth of the past, present and future which we must aspire to understand more deeply with its pain and tears.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Freeing Women from Depression - Some Preliminary Thoughts

Two names that sound similar to me are Sylvia Plath and Sunya Pratt – the names of two very different women. Most people know of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) who suffered from depression and committed suicide at the age of 30. There have been times in my life when I strongly identified with her – feeling there is so much you want to give to and get from the world but you feel like a failure, unable to be what people consider “a good woman.”

So this past Sunday when I was guest speaker at the Seattle Buddhist Church I said that the occasion they were commemorating – the annual honoring of Shinran’s wife Eshinni and daughter Kakushinni – “sends the wrong message to our young people.” I said the message it was sending was that women were valued only for being supporters of some great man. To honor someone who really contributed to Buddhism as her own person rather than as someone’s wife or daughter, I said the Seattle temple should be commemorating Rev. Sunya Pratt (1898-1986).

Contrary to the 1986 L.A. Times article (http://articles.latimes.com/1986-03-01/local/me-13148_1_buddhist-temple), Rev. Pratt was not an entirely self-taught Buddhist but as Rev. Ama’s book (Immigrants to the Pure Land) clarifies, she was the student of one of the top scholars of Shin Buddhism of the time, Rev. Gendo Nakai (unfortunately no relation to my husband). As Rev. Ama’s book details, Rev. Nakai was a visionary in realizing for Jodo Shinshu to develop a foothold in the West, it needed non-ethnic Japanese ministers and he trained several. But Sunya Pratt seemed to be the one person who really grasped Jodo Shinshu (not stuck in the moralistic Theravada mode as Ernest and Dorothy Hunt of Hawaii were).

Why didn’t she succumb to the depression of women such as Sylvia Plath? I believe in “Namu Amida Butsu” she heard the voice of encouragement from the entire universe – “You can do it – don’t listen to the petty complaints. Listen deeply to the aspiration to bring all beings to awakening.”

At the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference in August, there was a paper presented by Prof. Angela Andrade on depression. Although Angela-sensei can’t always attend the biennial IASBS conference, I’m always happy to see her and listen to her papers. A non-ethnic Japanese from Brazil, she has been deeply permeated by the Shin teachings and was able to spend some time in Berkeley studying under Dr. Haneda (pictured together below). At this IASBS conference, I was glad she presented the paper “An Inquiry into a Contemporary Expression of Pain: A Shin Buddhist Approach.” I wished we had more time for her to dialogue in public with Dr. Carmela Hirano, a practicing psychiatrist and minister assistant at the Salt Lake City temple.

Reading Prof. Angela’s paper I see the clue for freeing women from the kind of depression Sylvia Plath experienced. Although “general” Buddhism addresses the issue of real vs. delusionary sense of self, Prof. Angela’s paper points to Shinran’s radical key to liberation from depression:

What a joy that I place my mind on the soil of the Buddha’s Universal Vow, and I let my thoughts float on the sea of the Inconceivable Dharma.

In Shin Buddhism, no woman has to be the “good girl” – we can be like the song from the Disney film “Frozen” singing, “I don’t care - what they’re going to say, let the storm rage on.” In a way, it’s no wonder that Rennyo Shonin found women particularly receptive to the Shin teachings. “Society already tells us we’re flawed – now we hear the Buddha telling us to flap our wings and fly into the great horizon.”

Getting back to my talk at the Seattle temple, I said to the young folks, “Dream big – even though your parents and others say you can’t do that because you’re a girl or you’re a boy, you’re Japanese or Spanish whatever. In Namu Amida Butsu we hear Amida which means ‘no boundaries.’ Find yourself a good teacher like Rev. Sunya Pratt found in Rev. Gendo Nakai. That’s the way to be who you are and not what others say you have to be.”

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Tanko Guantanamera Bushi: 2015 Eastern Buddhist League Conference in Cleveland, OH

I was going to title this post about the EBL conference “North American Faces of Jodo Shinshu.” But I think everyone who attended the banquet will remember the conference’s highlight was when we did the moves of the Japanese dance “Tanko Bushi” (Coal Miner’s Song) to the live band’s performance of the 1960s pop hit “Guantanamera” with a revved up Latin beat. (You can see a video clip on our temple’s Facebook page.)

Shin Buddhism in North America should be multi-cultural – embracing the varieties of peoples in Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Caribbean nations. Let the other Western Buddhist groups worry about being an elite sea of pale faces with a few dots of color. From the get-go (in India and Central Asia) the Pure Land tradition was about crossing the ethnic tribal divides and welcoming all by dropping restrictive requirements such as monastic discipline, specialized education, pumped up bodies and finely honed mental skills.

The conference’s keynote speaker Prof. Jeff Wilson is the face of Jodo Shinshu in North America. He’s much younger than us baby boomers on the downhill side of life, so he’ll be around for the current and future generations of seekers. His upbringing and adulthood in the U.S. reflects several regions – New England, the South, LA and NYC. He currently teaches and lives in Canada and the good parts of Canadian culture seem to be rubbing off on him – the considerateness and unjaded sense of humor (I think of the old comedy show Second City TV, more kindler and gentler than Saturday Night Live).

Prof. Jeff has received tokudo (initial ordination) from Nishi Honganji and can function pretty much as a minister but since his main job is as a college professor and also a published researcher on Buddhism, he’s much like the late Dr. Taitetsu Unno in knowing the need to speak about Jodo Shinshu to people outside the temples. For those people he can help them understand Shin Buddhism as an authentic path of Buddha-Dharma and not some aberrant idol-worship offshoot from East Asia.

As much as I enjoy these annual EBL gatherings for the chance to be with dear old friends and make new ones, we seem to spend much of the time talking about organizational issues rather than doing deep listening of the teachings. So I appreciated that Prof. Jeff brought up some essential teachings about the limitations of self-centered efforts and even quoted Shinran (gasp!).

For me the biggest shock was during the Q & A session when a member of the Midwest Buddhist Temple said Shin Buddhism needs to use language that’s more understandable “instead of professorly terms like innermost aspiration.” I was surprised that person said that even after he attended the recent seminar at our temple where Rev. Marvin Harada (Orange County Buddhist Church) explained why he liked to use “innermost aspiration” as a more accessible translation for hongan than the standard “Original Vow” or “Primal Vow.” It makes me wonder how the Buddhist Churches of America organization is training its minister assistants. Because the great majority of them don’t know the Japanese language, they are taught to accept terms such as shinjin as having no English equivalent. But as much as the word hongan can’t be captured exactly in any English translation, there should be involved discussions of the meanings and implications of those Chinese characters and how Pure Land teachers used the word in their commentaries.

I know the last thing Rev. Gyoko Saito wanted was for us to sound “professorly” in our sharing of the Jodo Shinshu teachings. But just because BCA and Higashi are training ministers and leaders in English, it doesn’t mean we should stop explaining the meanings of the Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese terms. It sounds like the BCA through the Institute of Buddhist Studies has been trying to standardize all the Jodo Shinshu terms and phrases (I was a bit disappointed when Rev. Marvin gave the party line justification for continuing to say “saved” and “salvation”). But as Prof. Jeff said, this is the time for Shin Buddhist groups to experiment and offer various types of presentations, including using different translations for terms. Maybe those at our temple who speak languages other than English can give some multicultural richness to the Jodo Shinshu vocabulary, so our texts will have more mambo and less mumbo-jumbo.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

My IASBS Paper (might be helpful to those trying to describe Shinran)

The Subjective View of the Student: Angulimāla and Myōhōbō

            Even the one who committed evil all their life
            If they encounter the wide-vow
            Their arrival to the world of peace and nurturing
            Is a testament to the result [of that encounter]

            一生造悪        Isshō zō aku
            値弘誓            chi gu zei
            至安養界        shi an nyō kai
            証妙果            shō myō ka

                        --from Shōshinge (my translation)

What was Shinran Shonin like? When we read his own words, people easily get the idea that he was some depressed person with low self-esteem, describing his utter incorrigibility, such as the confession in Kyōgyōshinshō:

How wretched I am! [Shin]ran, the stupid bald-headed one, deeply submerged in the wide ocean of desires and cravings, confusingly lost among the huge mountains of worldly fame and interests, has no aspirations for being counted among the elite of the definitely assured group and feels no pleasure in approaching the really true experience. How deplorable! How heart-rending!
            -- “True Faith” chapter, p. 160. D.T. Suzuki et al translation.
Shinran’s Kyōgyōshinshō (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

In the visual depictions of Shinran (including the kagami no goei said to be drawn directly from observation)[below - from Wikipedia], he seems to be scowling in a bad mood. In a way, I feel that’s how Shinran wanted to be seen by the public, as an unattractive sourpuss, rather than as a stately charismatic hero to be admired.

So when I’m asked “What kind of person was Shinran?” I point to the story of Myōhōbō 妙法房. In that account we get a glimpse of how Shinran was seen by someone who became his student. This subjective view of the student is not something unique to Shinran but it is mirrored in the story of Angulimāla, the serial killer that encounters the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. And it shows us how great teachers of the past were seen by those who initially approached those teachers not with a worshipful attitude but full of murderous intent. And how the encounter with those teachers changed the murderers into dedicated students of the Dharma.

Both the story of Myōhōbō in the Godensho (“Life of Shinran”) and the account of Angulimāla in the Majjhima Nikaya (“Middle Length Discourses”) are told in the third person but the subjective details point to the actual tellers of the tales, who were Myōhōbō and Angulimāla themselves.

Subjective Perception of Time

One characteristic of the subjective view is the perception of time. In Angulimāla’s account, he is chasing after the Buddha but unable to catch him.

Then the Blessed One willed a feat of psychic power such that Angulimāla, though running with all his might, could not catch up with the Blessed one walking at normal pace. Then the thought occurred to Angulimāla, “Isn’t it amazing! Isn’t it astounding! In the past I’ve chased and seized even a swift-running elephant, a swift-running horse, a swift-running chariot, a swift-running deer. But now, even though I’m running with all my might, I can’t catch up with this contemplative walking at normal pace.”
(“Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala” MN86, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, November 2013 revision. Access to Insight website: accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html)

Although the account attributes Angulimāla’s inability to catch up to the Buddha as the Buddha’s “feat of psychic power,” if we hear Angulimāla as the teller of the tale, he’s recalling the feeling of moving in slow motion. Something profound is affecting him, overriding his habitual impulsiveness for instant gratification.

Likewise, in the Godensho (by Kakunyo, translated by D.T. Suzuki and Gesshō Sasaki in Collected Writings on Shin Buddhism. Kyoto: Shinshū Ōtaniha, 1973) if we hear Myōhōbō recounting his story, he says he knew Shinran Shonin frequently (yori-yori 時々) travelled the Itajiki Pass, but as many times (do-do 度々) as he waited there to jump Shinran and kill him, the occasion never occurred (sono setsu o togezu). It’s not so much that Shinran had a radar warning system detecting dangers on the pass, but that something was holding Myōhōbō back from being at the pass for as long and as often as he thought he was.

The Stopping Place

In Angulimāla’s account, unable to catch up with the Buddha, he stops in his tracks and yells out, “Stop, contemplative, stop!” The Buddha responds, “I have stopped, Angulimāla. You stop,” and goes on to say:

            “I have stopped, Angulimala, once and for all,
            having cast off violence toward all living beings.
            You, though, are unrestrained toward beings.
            That’s how I’ve stopped and you haven’t.”
                        (Ibid. Access to Insight website)

In hearing this, Angulimāla can come to rest after realizing how driven his life had been. He was named Angulimāla “finger-necklace” because he sliced off a finger from each of his victims and collected them on a necklace. Although there are commentaries speculating on why he was driven to commit murder after murder, attacking large groups on the road or laying towns to waste, his basic motivation is the same as all human beings. We are deludedly attached to our ego-self and feel we must destroy any being that gets in the way of our survival and flourishing. The Buddha calls out to all of us to just stop – stop being blindly pushed into destroying everything around us for the sake of enhancing what we deludedly think is a permanent, separate self. “You stop” is the Buddha calling us to examine that delusion and deconstruct the fears and anxieties it has built up.

Myōhōbō feeling foiled in his attempts to ambush Shinran on the road decides to go where Shinran is staying. The place is Shinran’s contemplation room, zen-shitsu 禅室. Having missed his chances to attack Shinran in transit, Myōhōbō comes to Shinran at a place of stillness. As in the case of Angulimāla, Myōhōbō is forced to stop running, being pushed around by his blind desires and finds himself in a place where he can contemplate his own heart/mind.

Called Forth in Welcome

For most of us, if we are faced with a person holding a weapon fully intending to kill us, our fear would overcome us. But what is fear but the expression of exclusively loving our ego-self, wanting it to survive and thrive and hating all other lives that seem to thwart our desire. The Buddha in his many teachings shows us the way to overcome the delusion of the separate, permanent self and to realize the interdependency of our life with all lives, that is, the teachings of no-self and oneness.

When Angulimāla approaches the Buddha with the intent to kill him, he sees a person without a trace of fear, a person whose face is full of loving-kindness (such as the moon-loving face the Buddha shows Ajatasatru in the Nirvana Sutra). Instead of “Get away from me, you monster!” the Buddha says to Angulimāla, “Come, bhikkhu.” The Buddha totally accepts Angulimāla as his fellow practitioner – they are brothers in seeking the Dharma.

Upon entering the contemplation room, Myōhōbō is welcomed by Shinran. Shinran is calm and shows Myōhōbō an expression of respect (son-gen 尊顔). Myōhōbō is overcome with regret over his murderous intent as he feels completely accepted by this man who sees everyone as a friend and no one as an enemy.

Abandoning the Weapons

In both stories, swords and arrows are broken and discarded and the men dedicate themselves to a new life of learning the Dharma, no longer at odds with the world and wishing violence on anyone. It is unlikely that either the Buddha or Shinran recounted these stories to the other students - “All I did was smile at him and he threw away his sword. Boy, I can really turn on the charm, right?” Rather in both these stories, we hear the protagonist giving their subjective view of what happened.

Probably in Shinran’s case, he would see himself as having no role in anyone’s complete change of life. We see that attitude in Tannisho, chapter six, “If I could make others say the nembutsu through my own devices, they would be my disciples. But how arrogant it is to claim as disciples those who live the nembutsu through the sole working of Amida’s compassion.” (Taitetsu Unno translation, Tannisho: A Shin Buddhist Classic. Honolulu: Buddhist Study Center Press, 1995) For Myōhōbō, his encounter with Shinran was the experience of the “working of Amida’s compassion.” In his subjective view, Shinran was exerting a tremendous power to turn him around – making time slow down and stop and calling him to a deep level of identification with all beings.

If there was a security camera video of Myōhōbō meeting Shinran, we would see nothing happening with Shinran. We would only see Myōhōbō brandishing his weapons and then throwing them down. We would ask, “What happened?” Only by entering Myōhōbō’s subjective view of Shinran can we get a glimpse of how the nembutsu teachings manifested themselves in Shinran’s effect on people.

Shinran calls himself wretched and deplorable because he has no good ego-self worth holding on to. So what if he’s threatened with imminent death? He already feels settled in the wide-vow, the great aspiration of Being Itself which takes in all of life, excluding none. He sees the man pointing weapons at him as just another friend in the Dharma, ondōbō御同朋, ondōgyō御同行. For Myōhōbō this encounter brought him to the world of peace and nurturing and it is “a miracle, indeed” or as voiced in Angulimāla’s story, “It’s amazing, it’s astounding.”