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.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Diverse Fellowship on New Year's Day

The New Year’s Day celebration at our temple gave me a break from my usual moaning and complaining to feel genuine gratitude. In past years our Japan-born head minister and his wife hosted the New Year’s Day event as a Japanese O-shogatsu (“first month”) feast. But I knew that over the course of the year, quite a few of the Japanese ladies responsible for making traditional dishes were incapacitated, beset with family concerns or no longer around (deceased or moved away). So I put the word out that for this New Year’s Day pot luck any kind of “festive food” would be appreciated.

As many temples do, our temple has a service on New Year’s Day but hardly any of the regular Japanese American members come because they have their own family gatherings to attend. I was always late to the service because my husband’s family has their New Year’s Day ritual to do on that morning (each member drinks a ceremonial cup of sake, then everyone has ozoni, clear soup with mochi, rice dumpling). It never finished in time for us to be at the temple when the service started. This year I skipped out on my in-laws so I could be at the temple early to open up for people coming to set up for the lunch.

Since the New Year’s Day service is attended primarily by non-ethnic Japanese members, I didn’t see the need to feature Japanese food. But I worried there might be a crowd of visitors (non-members who show up only for this occasion) and hardly any food. As it turned out, a few Japanese American members not obligated to morning family rituals and many of the newer non-Japanese members brought generous portions of a variety of colorful dishes. There were even plenty of leftovers for people to take home.


In between the service and the feast, there is the ringing of the outdoor hanging bell 108 times – the number symbolizing the many defilements from last year we need to cast off. At first we only had ten people lined up to hit the bell with the wooden mallet, so I was told to do the first eight and each one afterwards would do ten. But then there was the arrival of three visitor families – all with a Japan-born mother, American father and a couple kids. They all wanted to join in, so I told them to do five hits each. Was I or anyone else counting to see if it added up to 108? Nah. Our defilements are beyond counting and no amount of bell ringing will get rid of them.

For those visitor mothers, our retired head minister and his wife, it might have been disappointing to start the new year without the traditional Japanese food (but that didn’t stop any of them from piling up their plates at the buffet table). For me, it was an event evoking so much gratefulness – to open up the new year with the multi-ethnic camaraderie that sets our temple ahead of other Buddhist groups in North America. African, Latin, Asian, European and Native Americans all together wishing the best for each other, starting off anew on the path of seeking.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Many Memorials and Few Moments to Grieve

It wasn’t my idea to take over as minister-in-charge of the temple in June of this year but someone had to take the job as our long-time head minister was retiring. Some years back the temple tried out two young ministers Japan – the first didn’t last long as he and the temple realized he lacked the maturity for the job and the second had to be nudged out long after he failed to meet the standards of his annual evaluation (that had items such as, “take classes to improve English ability” and “learn to get around Chicago.”) And with both there was the problem of the differences of culture and job duties – Buddhist ministers in the Americas work in a similar way as Christian pastors, while most priests in Japan are not expected to do much beyond chanting at funerals and memorials. So for the sake of the temple, I felt I had to take over until we find some new prospects.

But now I’m experiencing one big difference in my life now as opposed to last year. As the part-time associate minister, I wasn’t tied to being at the temple all the time and conducting the Sunday services. So I was able to spend the weeks taking care of my terminally ill sister in Texas and after she passed away, I spent a couple weeks in Minnesota with my mother who was in the hospital at that time. As my mother recovered enough to be sent to a rehabilitation nursing home, I had the time away from hecticness in Chicago to grieve for my sister.

[Gravestones at Ft. Snelling where my father’s ashes are buried]

After I became the full-time minister, I was able to take about three days a month to go visit my mother living in an assisted-living facility. I thought it would be a routine that would continue for a long time as she seemed fairly stable in her condition. But last month she started experiencing difficulty breathing and the doctor gave her the choice of going to the hospital for aggressive intervention or signing up for hospice care. It was my mother’s decision to stay in her place – she had had enough of the hospital for the past couple years. My husband and I visited her at Thanksgiving and I planned to take my usual 3-day visit this week, but early last week my brother reported things had taken a turn for the worse. When I arrived in Minnesota on Wednesday evening it was just a couple hours before she stopped breathing.

On Thursday my brother and I met with the funeral home to plan for a memorial in January and we had a final viewing on Friday. And on Saturday I was back in Chicago to conduct a 25th year memorial service for a temple member family. There was a Mr. Y whose cremation service I conducted the week before and the family had not set a memorial service date yet – I just sent them an e-mail that on the first weekend in January I won’t be available. I have a one-year memorial service this Friday and on the last weekend in December is a 100th day service (because families these days are scheduling their main memorial services so close to the 49th day, we are doing 100th day services as marking the end of the formal mourning period).

I don’t want to sound like a complainer – I have a feeling this is what many other Buddhist ministers have to go through. Because of all the series of memorial services to do for the deceased, it doesn’t leave much time to attend to your own grief. Ministers don’t have the luxury of bereavement leave because people keep dying and families are in need of the series of services to mark the memorial dates. I imagine some time in the future there won’t be such a flurry of memorial services because the non-ethnic Japanese members aren’t concerned with such rituals. But right now our temple has quite a lot of elderly Japanese American members whose families will want the whole nine-yards of ceremonies when time comes to say farewell.

Friday, November 15, 2013

At Northeastern: Bowing to God, Not Male Chauvinists

At the previous two interfaith conferences at Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University, I wrote at length about my experiences, but now I’m too swamped with my temple duties to spend much time on my blog. At this year’s conference, the speaker who impressed me as very dynamic and knowledgeable was Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim chaplain and scholar at Northwestern University in Evanston. I was fortunate to hear her at two panels where she did PowerPoint and video presentations. What was refreshing for me to hear was someone speak unapologetically about feminism as a current concern, not as a bra-burning fad back in the hippie era.

One example Professor Ahmad gave of the present-day feminist fight is the attempt by Western societies such as in France to ban women from wearing traditional Muslim clothing in public. Those authorities claim they want to liberate Muslim women from the “oppression” of their culture, but as Prof. Ahmad pointed out, it is the authorities who want to oppress all women by dictating that they should dress so that men can to look at them. Prof. Ahmad said the argument that women must uncover themselves in public for identification purposes doesn’t hold water because Islamic law allows for women to show their faces to be identified in specific cases such as providing testimony as a witness at a trial.


Just because many religious institutions are patriarchic doesn’t mean the religious teachings oppress women. Throughout history and all over the world, religion has liberated women because they have a higher principle to look to which overrides the commands of their fathers, husbands and sons. In the description of Christian marriage it may seem like the wife is asked to totally obey her husband, but it actually gives her an out from her husband’s rule if the husband is not faithfully following God (e.g. if he’s abusing and cheating his fellow humans).

As in the case of my past visits to NEIU, I continue to be impressed by the young Muslim women who help organize the conferences. I envy their strength – to speak up for themselves and telling people to respect them for their minds, not to ogle them as physical objects. Although I’m so many decades older than them, I was probably thinking the same thing they were: “I want to be Tahera Ahmad when I grow up.”

Just a side note – in my presentation at the conference I talked about how a large number of Boy Scouts are Buddhists and that part of the reason is being open-minded about saying “God” in the oath. In this blog entry title, I could easily say “Bowing down to tariki-hongan.” Although many Buddhists consider themselves atheists, in interfaith relations we need to respect other people’s reverence toward a higher being they call God or Allah etc.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Undeserved Benefits: Galen to the Rescue, Again

Last year I was taken aback when after the memorial service for Mrs. Toshiko Saito (see my December 2012 entry), Dr. Haneda told us it would be his last trip to Chicago. Our temple had gotten used to him coming every November to do the Ho-on-ko seminar up until 2011 when he fell ill the night before his flight to Chicago. We had to improvise the seminar – watching a bit of him lecturing on a DVD and reading a couple of his articles. His seminar was rescheduled for May to commemorate Shinran’s birthday, Tanjo-e. I was hoping the make the Tanjo-e seminar our new annual routine since Dr. Haneda felt the spring weather was easier to take than the November chill.

But after giving the eulogy at Mrs. Saito’s memorial, Dr. Haneda said a spring trip was out of the question because he’s booked up with West Coast temples through June. During the summer months he needed to prepare for the annual retreat and his lecture circuit in Japan throughout September and October. When I saw Dr. Haneda at the past summer’s retreat, he sounded open to doing a seminar via Skype, but he no longer wanted to travel outside the West Coast because it was too hard on his health.

For this year’s Ho-on-ko seminar, I asked Buddhist art scholar Gail Chin of Canada to return to Chicago after her extended visit for our Eastern Buddhist League conference over Labor Day weekend. Her topic “The Depiction of Women in Japanese Buddhism” would attract a wide range of people and I told her I’d do the introduction and closing discussion to relate her topic to Shinran’s views on women.

Last week Gail announced she had to cancel due to sudden developments in her field of work. Also last week among (or because of) all the hectic activities at the temple, I developed a sharp pain in my abdomen which resulted in my spending two nights in the hospital with a case of diverticulitis. It was the first time I actually had to be in the hospital as a patient.

Upon getting out of the hospital I had to forgo the prescribed rest and get back to the temple matters. One thing hanging over my head was finding a replacement speaker for the Ho-on-ko seminar. It was an inspired suggestion of my husband’s – try seeing if Galen Amstutz is available since we were already considering him as a guest speaker in the future.


I contacted Galen and he happily accepted our invitation. In my great relief I was reminded of the other times I felt helped by Galen – such as that recounted in my January 2012 entry “Call to Adventure.” The earlier time was when I was studying in Japan and decided to go for ordination, a Rev. Emoto who worked at the Higashi Honganji headquarters office said he would help me through the process. He said he wanted to help an American to pay back the help he received from an American – Galen Amstutz, who had been studying at Ryukoku University before he became minister at the Arizona Buddhist Temple. It was never quite clear to me what were all the things Galen did for Emoto-san but Emoto-san was so happy to help me as his way of expressing his gratitude to Galen.

Many years later when I finally met Galen in person at a conference, I asked him about Emoto-san and he said he had no recollection of such a person. To me it was true dana (generosity) – to help someone and then totally forget who they were.

The flip side of dana is to be the recipient of benefits that you really don’t deserve. To know that I didn’t do a thing in the past to deserve such kindness, yet somehow someone else set in motion the benefits given to me. All of you Jodo Shinshu people recognize this scenario: kalpas ago pure practice was perfected, vows were fulfilled and here we are now, reaping the benefits of Awakening. Namu Amida Butsu, indeed!