Saturday, August 6, 2016

No Sage, No Stage - Sit Down Buddha

No one from the Midwest Buddhist Temple seems to be reading my blog despite the number of times I’ve mentioned them, so I’ll go ahead and bring up my recent experiences at their temple.

A couple of our temple members went with me to sit in on the new Tannisho class at MBT. Some important Shin Buddhist concepts were presented but somehow I felt like I didn’t hear much about the Tannisho itself.

After the class, I observed that the attendees were rather quiet (compared to the noisy discussions at our temple) and one BTC member who teaches at the nearby community college said her guess is that they didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. As a teacher she’s learned to encourage student participation by giving students a chance to put their voices out there – to introduce themselves and read passages from the material. She said teachers in training are warned to avoid the “sage on a stage” mode, when the instructor stands up in front of a class as if they are the fount of all knowledge looking down on the ignorant masses far below.

So the next week when I was asked to present Chapter Two of the Tannisho, I kept in a sitting position except when I wrote on the blackboard and I had the attendees introduce themselves and read the passages so they could each other’s voices and not just mine. A few people ventured to make comments or ask questions, so it felt a little more like a discussion and not totally a one-way presentation.

I told them that in reading the Tannisho they should think of Shinran sitting around with the people who called themselves his followers (he called them ondobo ondogyo “esteemed fellow travellers, esteemed fellow practicers”). They’re all sitting on the same level, perhaps drinking tea and munching on sweets together much like we were doing. I told them in the portrayal of the historical Buddha in his teaching pose, he is sitting down, moving his hands while talking. I demonstrated with fingers facing up, gesturing, “Hey, what’s a matter you?” (Actually Buddha said, “What’s a matter me?” – the first noble truth.)

[detail from woodcarving by Harry Koizumi]
The Buddhist texts tell us that the historical Buddha and probably all the great teachers engaged in dialogue, not monologue – they sat together with the people, not behind a lectern on a platform. Although in some texts we hear the answer but not the question, I feel the original setting for all the teachings was in informal conversation, not in an auditorium lecture.

People who’ve been to Japan have seen that at most temples and particularly at Jodo Shinshu temples, there is no elevated portion of the hall – no stage. The temples in North America followed the Christian model of raising the front of the room as a platform. I’ve heard it said that because we sit in chairs (or pews) and not on the floor, we need to see what’s going on around the altar. But there’s no ritual justification for having to see the ministers. The altar – the Buddha image and adornments – is what we should be looking up to.

When our temple was erecting its new building in 2006, some of us lobbied to eliminate the raised platform, but the head minister insisted on it and a ramp had to be built to comply with ADA regulations. To me it’s very cumbersome to climb up on the platform for chanting and climb down at funerals for the Dharma Name presentation and at Sunday services for the Dharma talk. Being at an elevated level means I better make sure the socks (tabi) I’m wearing are in decent condition – no holes or stains.

Maybe in Western culture there’s the image of the great orator standing far above the crowd or some Western Buddhist teachers like to perpetuate the idea of the wise man perched on the mountaintop of wisdom. But if we look at Shinran and Shakyamuni Buddha as “regular guys,” we can see them sitting down for coffee or drinks as one of us. Just as they tell parents and grade school teachers to squat down and talk face-to-face with children, it’s best for anyone who conveys the Buddhist teachings to take a load off their feet and go eye-level with their listeners. Because of the way American temples are set up, it’s hard to avoid the “sage on a stage” mode in conducting services, but in our study groups we should be sitting on one level to demonstrate Shinran’s feeling of ondobo ondogyo. To study a text such as Tannisho is about learning together, listening to and respecting each other.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Transforming the Summer of Sorrows

When religion cannot find a meaning for human suffering, human beings far too often become cynical, bitter, negative, and blaming. Healthy religion, almost without realizing it, shows us what to do with our pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.
                                    -- Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality

This summer it seems like we hear of one terrible tragedy after another in the news – here in the U.S. and around the world. I wonder what can any of us do to transform the painful sadness we feel over events such as the shooting in Orlando, the killing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the killings by police of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the massacre in Nice, France, the crackdown on dissidents in Turkey etc. Some people believe we need to be more politically involved but I personally don’t have much faith in the two-party system right now.

As someone involved in religion, I want to talk about how our religious traditions, particularly Shin Buddhism, give us the guidance for transforming our pain, but I must dig deeply and widely to get beyond the fuzzy platitudes and find the sharp wisdom I need to hear.

In the Shoshinge class at our temple, I said the translations of Shinran’s verses about Honen are all way off. So I tried my hand at putting into English what the words say to me:
My teacher Genku [Honen], who clarified the Buddha’s teachings,
Identified and empathized with the “good” and “evil” foolish ordinary beings.
He established in this remote [from the continent] land, the true essence from the great Teaching [Practice, Shinjin] to Realization [i.e. kyogyoshinsho]
For the spreading of the selected Primal Vow [aspiration to awaken to oneness] in this defiled world.
[paraphrase of Honen’s Senchaku-shu:]
“The repeated return to the [stifling little] house of turning around in birth-and-death is decidedly caused by getting stuck in feelings of doubt.
The swift entrance into the [expansive] community of tranquility and unforced joy is inevitably brought about by shinjin [entrusting heart/mind].”

[photo from the Tent City Love picnic that some of our temple members helped with earlier this month]

What I think Shinran heard from Honen is how we must be continually opening our hearts to others and catching ourselves when the ego tries to erect any kind of barrier. In the killings, injuries and incarcerations in the news (and for many folks, it’s happening to their own families and communities), our sorrow should remind us to open our hearts wider and not hunker down in our exclusive tribe, blaming the outsiders.

Buddhism for some people becomes that gated community to keep out the riff-raff with their evil influences. Honen realized the “refuge” of the monastery was actually an encampment in denial of our interdependence with other lives, especially those who are judged as inferior. Like Prince Siddhartha leaving his family’s palace, Honen had to leave the fortress of aristocratic priests and seek out the truth that the Buddha awakened to – the truth of life as it really is: a flow of myriad elements, diverse outlooks and behaviors, a kaleidoscope of bodies and hearts/minds shifting, stumbling and soaring.

In each “Namu Amida Butsu,” we hear the scolding for our divisiveness and the insistent invitation to become more aware of the unbounded life that embraces all. How this will play out in concrete detail for me and the temple is yet to be seen.

Monday, June 27, 2016

LGBTQIA Spells Sangha – Never Too Young to Feel Welcomed

Back in April I attended the East-West Ministers Seminar in Berkeley and in one of the workshops, Elaine Donlin, minister’s assistant at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, presented ways to make our temples welcoming to the LGBTQIA community. She said what makes her feel we need to do much more is the number of teens and young adults who contact her saying they are afraid to come out to their temples, especially if their families are longtime active members.

That made me realize we need to get the message of welcoming out to the children, so for my next Dharma School talk, I told the kids that gender identity is a spectrum and there is no strict category you have to fit in. I told them about the Buddhist Churches of America’s Bishop Umezu who brought up his child as a girl but that person now as a young adult identifies as male. I figured maybe not all the kids understood what I was saying, but someday when some of them are older they may feel rejected for being gender non-conforming and then remember, “Oh, Rev. Patti said in Buddhism it’s okay to be who you are.”

[Shinran atop a rainbow beach towel]
For the first time in our temple’s history, I decided to call the service on the last Sunday in June “Rainbow Pride Sunday.” Coming two weeks after the tragic shooting in Orlando, I felt we should be more affirming of our openness to all people. Even though the attendance was sparse (it was summer, people wanted to avoid the Pride Parade traffic and many of our LGBTQIA members were already at the parade), by publicizing the special service on Facebook, it gets the word out to those who may be “Buddha-curious” that they will be welcomed at our temple.

It was a lay speaker Sunday, so at the service our member Nancey gave a whole history of the gay pride movement including her own involvement. Although Dharma School is on break, families come in the summer with their kids and I have to sometimes tone down the content of my talks for them. But I realized it was important for the two families who came with kids to hear Nancey’s talk – those kids may be the ones who later will appreciate Buddhism’s message of accepting all lives, including your own.

So “pride” is not a dirty word or a deadly sin in Buddhism. For me it translates as “self-dignity” – recognizing the preciousness of your own life and not letting other forces tell you that you are less than human. And as Buddhists, we will fight those forces and help all people feel pride in being just as they are. Shinran during his time saw how various groups of people felt marginalized for being “aku-nin” (evil people) and he pointed to the sutras and commentaries to explain the Great Wish (hongan) is for all beings to be embraced in oneness, as equally dignified.

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.