Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Great Matter of Life Until Death

I find myself thinking of my father a lot these days as I experience the various side effects of chemotherapy. In the last few months of his life, my father suffered through a lot of pain and discomfort and I often say it’s the chemicals that killed him in 2010 not the colon cancer. A couple months into his chemotherapy he was falling at home so my brother got him a rolling walker (“rollator” like the one pictured below). I’ve been wondering if I’ll need one soon – my feet are numb and there’s a painful weakness in my legs when I move them. A few too many times at the Eastern Buddhist League conference when I was going up and down the stairs at the Midwest Buddhist Temple I felt myself falling backwards and had to grip the hand rails tightly to pull myself upright (somehow though, I danced through the Bon Odori workshop without keeling over).


Although in my last post it sounds like I was silent at EBL, they actually gave me a forum to speak – I was one of a dozen people in the “TED talks.” There was a strict five-minute limit and it seemed I mumbled a bunch of asides and then my time was up. I remember saying my father felt his knees buckle the first time he saw his father in his coffin – it was my grandfather’s death that led my father to reconnect with Buddhism after being away from it from the time he married my Baptist mother. And I remember saying after my five minutes was called, “The great matter of life and death.”

Connecting the dots, it seems I was trying to say that my father is an example of someone who became serious about the Buddhist path when confronted with the fact of death. In my clumsy way it was my protest against all the talk of marketing and mission statements at EBL, all the business of “attracting new people” with various attention-grabbing gimmicks. If there are people like my father who come to Buddhism with “the great matter of life and death” weighing heavily on their mind, we should offer them something more substantial than icebreaker “eightfold path” games.

I would say all my Higashi teachers said that Rennyo’s phrase “go-sho no ichi-dai-ji” does not mean “the great matter of the after-life” as you find in the Nishi Honganji translations. “Go-sho” means your life from this moment on (the moment that causes and conditions brought you to encounter the Buddha-Dharma) as opposed to “zen-sho” the life you were living rather mindlessly up to now. So one attempt at translating the phrase might be, “the great matter of life until death.”

What my father listened to after he reconnected with Buddhism somehow spoke to that great matter of his own life until death, but I don’t know what specific aspects of the teachings he heard as a new member of the Twin Cities Buddhist Association. In his retirement my father was busy enough with various Japanese American community groups but he heartily volunteered to help the local Buddhist group and then he got active with the Eastern District, becoming the treasurer and was training as a minister assistant. He became a delegate to the national meetings of the Buddhist Churches of America. Despite hearing all the inside dirt on BCA’s politics, wastefulness and costly misjudgments, he dedicated much time and effort to the organization as a worthy vehicle for conveying Jodo Shinshu in the United States.

To me his life until his death was one of giving out of gratitude, doing the things that would benefit many people in significant ways. Even after he was diagnosed with colon cancer and started the debilitating chemotherapy, he did what he could for the Buddhist group and the other community service organizations. For my last post I tagged the keyword “giving up” but that is not how my father felt in his final weeks. He continued up to his last conscious moment to express his concern for others.


In the hours after he lost consciousness there was only the sound of his rough breathing which I’ve told people to me it sounded like the nembutsu as uttered by Shinran in his dying moments. It was not “Oh save me Amida,” but “Even while entangled in my self-benefitting desires, I am settled into the awareness of interconnection with all beings.” When his breathing stopped, I was the one now confronted with the great matter of life until death.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Moving To the Exit

“Now it’s time for the ghost to disappear,” Kiyozawa Manshi said in his last letter to Akegarasu Haya. For this 2017 Eastern Buddhist League conference hosted by the Midwest Buddhist Temple, I felt like a ghost who needed to get used to the idea of disappearing soon.

In my past blog posts on the annual EBL conferences, I would mainly describe the keynote speaker presentations but I don’t have much to say here about Rev. Kurt Rye from the Placer County Buddhist Church. Like Jeff Wilson, he should be the current and future face of Shin Buddhism – a non-Asian, articulate native English speaker. In his public lecture on Saturday he presented Shin Buddhism through a discussion of Western and Japanese psychology. Rev. Rye with his background working in mental health services before becoming a minister is probably more effective in presenting Jodo Shinshu to North Americans than someone who brings up Kiyozawa. Soga, Shinran, Shandao et al.

[Rev. Kurt Rye lecturing at the Midwest Buddhist Temple]
At every EBL gathering as much as I enjoy seeing old friends again from New York, Washington D.C., Twin Cities, Cleveland, Seabrook and Toronto and meeting new people from those temple groups, I find a lot to complain about in the schedule of activities. This time, I realized I no longer have a say that will affect things in the future – I won’t be here for the future so I should let those who will continue to be around call the shots. There were things I wanted to tell my temple’s delegates about what to say and not say at the conference and what suggestions and ideas they should put forth, but I reminded myself that they are free to form the future they want since I’m not the one to lead them to that future. In some ways it was freeing to think of myself as moving toward the exit – being in the room to observe but having no part in the ongoing goings-on.

Being a ghost means you’re there hearing and seeing people but they can’t hear or see you unless like the Patrick Swayze character in the movie “Ghost” you put some effort in an attention getting action. I was sitting with two women at break time who were agreeing that although Buddhism seems hard to understand at first, it doesn’t take long for it eventually to get clearer and clearer. And they both felt they were going to temple long enough (a few years) for things to be pretty clear and expected to continue to progress at that pace. “But you have to be patient with the times when things are unclear,” I said in my ghost voice that to them was like a faint whirr from the ventilation, not audible as words.

A lot of the talking to and among attendees was like that. As a ghost still lingering on a once familiar scene, I see that things are rapidly changing as whatever influence I used to have has dissipated. For everyone from “those who wear the robes” (Buddhist Churches of America’s certified minister assistants) to those who just joined their temple group, Buddhism is something they conscientiously use daily in their lives and all are anxious to sell it to others – like a deodorant or mouthwash to clear away other people’s unpleasant smells. Even the members of my temple seem to carry themselves as if the designation “lay leader” means not just a helper to me but a step towards becoming ordained as the next minister (which some of them already thought they should be even before my time). As everyone already knows the four noble truths and eightfold path and feels they live up to those principles far better than any non-Buddhist, there is no need to listen to ministers flapping their lips for more than a few minutes but there’s no time to lose in each of them getting their sales pitch for Buddhism out to the unwashed hordes.

For a brief interval at the EBL convention, I was out of the ghostly existence and back in the reality where I interacted with others – that was when I attended the Japanese discussion with ministers Rev. Nariaki Hayashi of Ekoji (Washington D.C.) and Rev. Earl Ikeda of the New York Buddhist Church. For the first and only time during the conference, I heard the actual words of Shinran and a discussion of his central teaching – that we are royally f*cked up by our ego-attachments and don’t really know sh*t about how life is changing and shifting moment by moment, yet in painful recognition of our helplessness we are taken in and made alive in the power of universal life which constantly aspires to liberate all beings from the delusion of the separate self.

I tried to write that mouthful without resorting to Japanese terms but I know my attempts to express those terms in English misses out on a lot of rich nuance. In Japanese both Rev. Hayashi and Rev. Ikeda could get into deep detail and bring clarity to concepts that get muddled in English translation. Having read articles by both ministers in their temple bulletins, I get the feeling that they think their English-speaking members just don’t know enough about Jodo Shinshu (or want to know about how it differs from “general” Buddhism) to even begin to grasp the basic ideas of Shinran so those ministers (like so many Japanese and bilingual ministers before them) don’t go down that path. It keeps their members happy to read short “simple” pieces that confirm they already understand Buddhism.


So in the English-speaking sanghas of people who think “come as you are” means they get to do their own thing and call it Buddhism, I will continue to exist as a ghost. Leaving through the exit can’t come soon enough.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Oh, Lonesome Me (and Every One Else)

There must be some way I can lose these lonesome blues
Forget about the past and find someone new
I’ve thought of everything from A to Z
Oh, lonesome me!
            -- from “Oh, Lonesome Me” by Don Gibson

When I was attending college (freshman and sophomore years) in the Philadelphia area, one of my favorite albums was After the Gold Rush by Neil Young. And one song from the album that I learned to play on guitar was “Oh, Lonesome Me” written by country singer Don Gibson. Whenever I sang it, I would think of Phil, a handsome, athletic Japanese American high school boy I fell hard in love with.


Whenever Phil came over for a date, the relatives I lived with – my maternal grandparents, aunts and uncle – would give him a warm welcome. In the Philadelphia Japanese American community, everyone knew his parents were well-to-do, living in the Main Line area. But when he brought me once to his home, his family wasn’t very welcoming to me – his impeccably groomed, college-educated mother was especially cold, seeing me as a dumb slob – they all knew my mother’s family was a bunch of manual laborers in the greenhouse business.

My dates with Phil only lasted a couple months as he moved on to date others. At Japanese American gatherings I saw how swiftly he swooped down on any female newcomers. I heard about his reputation as someone dating several girls and women serially and simultaneously, so I felt like the “Oh, Lonesome Me” song had to be written for me to sing about my heartache over Phil.

In my teen years and twenties, like probably most of you, I believed that lonesome feeling came from missing out on a union with a romantic partner, a “soul mate.” But after a couple dozen relationships and over twenty years of marriage, I’ve come to feel “lonesome” is something more fundamental and more deeply felt with age. We’ve all heard of marriages and friendships that were a “perfect team” but our first-hand experience only proves there is no being totally in sync with another person.

Sometimes I think those who marry outside of their ethnic group are better off – they don’t waste time on arguments like me and my husband have on topics like the correct pronunciation and meaning of Japanese phrases. Because of our separate experiences of living in Japan, we’ve heard the language in very different contexts. The more you seemingly have in common on the surface, the more nit-picky variances you find to disagree about.

And that’s what being “lonesome” is about – the frustration of finding no one else thinks, talks and acts exactly like you. Because of our unique individuality, we can’t help being attached to the particular traits and habits instilled in us by the unfathomable causes and conditions of our singular life. Those of us who have partners or any kind of roommates are blessed with the valuable Dharma lesson every day of being forced to see our ego and its attachments in offensive and defense modes of action. If you’re the hermit on the mountaintop or the political leader (e.g. Dalai Lama) surrounded by yes-men, your “peace of mind” is just a bubble of delusion if there is no experience of daily conflict with others.

But isn’t Buddhism about awakening to the Oneness of life and living in harmony? As teachers in the Pure Land tradition, such as Shinran, Akegarasu Haya and Maida Shuichi remind me, one has to be aware of their own “lonesomeness” and recognize the continual friction of our ego-attachment bumping up against the lives of other beings. Only people who know they are truly “lonesome” and there is nothing their limited human actions can to do create a seamless union with any other being – only those persons who have awakened to ki no jinshin (deep awareness of the limited self) can experience ho no jinshin (deep awareness of the Dharma), the working of the Others-Power, that dynamically undulating web of lives that supports and influences us, embracing and transforming even our craziest ego-driven destructive thoughts, words and actions. Beyond and encompassing “everything from A to Z” is the call of Namu Amida Butsu.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Come Out of the Bomb Shelter


The person [i.e., our teacher Honen] who has awakened to the jewel of shinjin in his heart does not wander in the darkness of birth-and-death; hence, the heart illuminates beings of illusion. Possessing the jewel of shinjin, the person [our teacher] sweeps away the darkness of our ignorance, and casts a bright light upon us.
            -- Shinran explaining the quote on a portrait of Honen in Songo-shinzo-meimon which is one of the passages Dr. Nobuo Haneda cited in his critique of my Tricycle article “Confronting the Heart of Darkness.” He felt my article made it sound like we’re hopelessly trapped in our ignorant heart of darkness while Shinran points out that through the light coming from the teachers in our lives, that darkness is swept away.

There’s already too many cliché metaphors tying physical health to spirituality but I can’t help drawing a parallel between the bomb shelter mentality of the wellness movement and the acceptance of social isolation in religion.

In the wellness world, people are offered ways to avoid disease and death for 120 years or more. It’s like building a cold-war era bomb shelter in that you’re told to shield yourself away from the stupid hordes of people who consume junk food, contaminated water and polluted air and who expose themselves to germ-laden public spaces, radiation from medical exams and electric waves from TVs, radios and telephones (but keep your computers on so you receive news of the latest wellness products).

In religion there is a similar sounding message of “We have the good stuff that will earn us peace of mind/heaven/union with God etc. We must avoid contact with everyone else destined for hell, those depraved beasts concerned only with base desires (such as for adequate food and shelter).”

During my chemotherapy treatment, I’m supposed to avoid gatherings of people because my immune system is weakened. But though it’s a convenient excuse to get out of boring get-togethers at odd times and locations, I feel with my decreased life expectancy it’s a time to be making more connections with people and not withdrawing from the world to “rest up.”

One gathering I’m sad to be missing right now is the annual Maida Center retreat in Berkeley. The other night I reviewed my notes from last year’s retreat with the question in my mind, “What would Dr. Haneda say about my wanting to be more involved in the world instead of hunkering down in a Dharma-study bunker like Maida Shuichi or Shinran in their later years?” I thought I would hear him saying, “Stay home in your study bunker,” but instead I received insight from his discussion of kuyo 供養 which I’ve hear many times before.

For years I’ve heard Dr. Haneda point out that the term kuyo used in Tan Butsu Ge didn’t simply mean “making offerings to various Buddhas.” Kuyo is a process of going out of your way to seek out teachers to learn from and upon receiving wisdom from them you can’t help but show your appreciation by “making offerings” – giving praise, donating, volunteering, getting PR out on social media etc.

In the retreat notes, Dr. Haneda didn’t say the Buddhas we go to visit have to be “Buddhist” or recognized “teachers” or even human beings. He said we can learn from all kinds of lives as demonstrated by the seeker Dharmakara who became “Namu Amida Butsu” – the one who bows down (Namu) to all lives (Amitayus), receiving enlightened wisdom (Amitabha Buddha) from them.

Of course, I should keep going back to the great texts of the Jodo Shinshu tradition but those teachings only come alive when I experience being in contact with the real lives around me. There’s so much for me to learn from the people whose lives are so different from mine, so I’m grateful for the opportunities though ONE Northside and other community groups to hear from those people and join in support of their struggles.


[Rico and Mark, two activists for affordable housing in Chicago]
The above photo is from the July 6 rally at the Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago demonstrating against the proposed cuts to HUD (Housing and Urban Development). It was invigorating to see and hear all the feisty protestors from the Jane Addams Senior Caucus – seniors from all over the city, black, white, Latinx et al. And the other day our temple hosted nearly a hundred people of various ages and ethnic backgrounds concerned about the Chicago Police Department’s lack of community accountability. These are examples of my experience of kuyo.

Working at the temple is what I’m being paid for, but I feel I’m a more well-rounded minister when I do things beyond my temple duties. Besides the regular temple members I see week-to-week, there are people coming for funerals, weddings, consultations etc. who are new to me. I hope that my being involved in the community outside the temple helps me to be more receptive to the new people who come into the temple.

And it is my hope that in witnessing my kuyo, going out to learn from various teachers, that others are encouraged to get out of their bubbles and discover the great wisdom to be received from the lives around us. It is our continual encounter with tariki, the others-power, that sweeps away the constrictions of our ego-attachment. Then we are liberated into the Realm of Flowingness (Jodo) and not stuck in some stifling bomb shelter.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Invasions of the Body - Medical and Metaphysical


And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.
-- “The Sermon” chapter 9 from Moby Dick by Herman Melville

The content of the true teachings [of Shakyamuni] is that “the origin of sentient beings’ suffering is egoistic desire.” So if this teaching’s influence weakens, the effects of egoistic desire increase. …[So Shinran] said if we do not entrust ourselves to [Amida] Tathagata’s compassionate vow, we will not have a chance for liberation.
-- Kigoshi Yasushi, “True Disciple of Buddha in Contemporary Society” [The Pure Land journal, no.27, 2012-2013, published summer 2017]

In an email from Mike Conway, in response to my telling him I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, he wrote:

This opportunity to live out our human karma--with all of its pains and joys, ups and downs--is really a precious one. Soga [Ryojin] talks about Dharmakara experimenting with each of our karma, taking on what comes and ensuring it leads to the liberation of all sentient beings.

In a way, it made me see the forty-eight vows as Dharmakara’s various experiments to experience people’s different kinds of suffering and of course, there are much more than forty-eight of those. I imagine Soga Ryojin would say that is why Dharmakara is continually in practice, birthing himself in each person as they struggle through new travails. Yet as Mike pointed out in his Dobo magazine article on the first verse of the Jodo Wasan, Shinran experienced Dharmakara’s becoming Amida Buddha as right now as well as “ten kalpas ago.”

When I first announced my cancer on Facebook in Japanese, Kumika Soga (wife of Rev. Jeffrey Soga, Nishi Honganji minister in Hawaii, no relation to Soga Ryojin), commented: “Cancer? I think we all spend our days not knowing tomorrow's life. I'm not [with] cancer, but I don't know if I live longer than you. Let's walk with the Buddha with a smile.” At first I thought of the image of Jesus walking in front, back or at the side of the believer, but after reading Mike’s email, I realized Kumika-san meant that Amida Buddha is within us as we walk through life, not as a separate set of footsteps.

So this metaphysical invasion of my body by the spirit of Dharmakara/Amida is a comforting thought as medicines and devices enter my system. For all my life I prided myself in never having to be in a hospital (until the diverticulitis attack in 2013 which I blame on the stress of becoming the full-time minister) or having an operation (they treated the diverticulitis with intervenous antibiotics). But in the process of diagnosing and treating my cancer, I’ve had to be invaded – the stinging darts shot through the biopsy needles, the radioactive serum for the PET scan and then the frightening first experience of being on an operating table for the port to be inserted – the titanium device slipped into my upper chest and the tube snaked down through a slit in my neck. With the twilight anesthesia I didn’t feel the surgery but for days afterward, I felt the discomfort of having foreign bodies placed under my skin.

Then yesterday was the hours long chemotherapy treatment of four different drugs specific to my triple-positive breast cancer. My husband was with me at the beginning – and everyone in the infusion room must’ve wondered what is this “Natsu Matsuri” those two people are yelling about at each other (it’s the temple’s annual “summer festival” fundraiser this Sunday causing much stress for the both of us). He eventually left to continue with the preparations at the temple, so I had some quiet time to start studying Brazilian Portuguese with a workbook and CD. People told me for chemo I should listen to relaxation talkers or meditation music, but I felt like being productive. My sister-in-law came by to chat and I was grateful she was there when I started feeling chilled and light-headed – the small talk kept me in the moment. When I felt more calmed down and tired, I let her leave (she understood, having sat through the chemo treatment of her friends).

Then I started reading Moby Dick, the book I chose to get me through chemo. I was drawn immediately into Melville’s well-crafted prose with much entertaining humor (particularly in Biblical allusions). But like Twain’s description of how the riverboats awakened his hometown Hannibal to the romance of travel, Ishmael describes his frequent desire to be at sea as a common dream of all men. How I wish to be on the move – sailing through the clouds in a plane. At the Qigong class at the temple we had a visitor from China tell us the story of a man who was diagnosed with terminal cancer but instead of treatment, he chose to travel the whole country by bicycle. After several months, he returned home cancer-free – so that story made me wonder if my cancer is just my rotting wanderlust balled up and expanding with frustration.


[preface verse of Shozomatsu Wasan]
Today I’m staying home to rest up. I’m grateful for the handful of volunteers who stepped up to take care of my Natsu Matsuri prep duties, but I still feel guilty about not being at the temple on such a busy workday. But I read two reminders of how f***ed up I am and how I need to get back to the nembutsu teachings instead of my self-absorption with illness and mortality. One is the paper by Kigoshi-san in the Pure Land journal I just received in the mail. The title was just as I mentioned in my last post “true disciple of the Buddha.” And the other reminder was in “The Sermon” chapter of Moby Dick where the preacher describes and comments on the story of Jonah and the whale. (see quotes above)


My wanting to wander and be free of the restrictions of my current situation is all my egoistic desires – that is, just wanting pleasures for myself. The ego-self can’t let go of its desires so the only hope of overriding its grip is to immerse one’s self in Amida’s vow, or God’s will – the flow of true life which will carry one along to unknown and mostly painful experiences and eventually death. To want to escape that is as futile as Jonah seeking flight on a ship to Spain and then ending up in the belly of the whale. As the preacher points out, it is only when Jonah gratefully acknowledges his punishment instead of begging for mercy, that God brings him to liberation into the life he is meant to live - the whale spits Jonah out on the beach. This whale of cancer – I’m stuck in it for now and who knows what beach it will spit me out on.