Monday, April 25, 2016

The Power of Karma: Defining "Afterlife"

I usually avoid jumping into Facebook discussions (especially those noisy Shin Buddhist ones), but about a year ago, the Uptown Uprising page posted a story on Jay Michael describing how he overcame ill health and was enjoying his success as a real estate developer. Several comments talked about “karma” – saying that if the law of karma was working, Mr. Michael would be suffering and dying for all the misery he’s caused by displacing longtime tenants from low-rent apartments in Uptown and nearby neighborhoods. I had to enter my comment that karma does not mean that illness and death are punishments for evil deeds and that success and power are rewards for good deeds. I said Mr. Michael is subject to the consequences of his actions that harm other people, but I didn’t go into how and when the karmic results would bite him in the butt.

If you Google Mr. Michael’s name, you’ll find mostly good things written about him – he passed away from lymphoma at age 34 in January of this year. But my bias is that what I’ve heard about him in Uptown is his disregard and disdain for the people who can’t afford the upscale, super-healthy lifestyle he promoted in his residential and commercial developments. Yes, I was one of the people (along with many faith leaders, such as Rev. Jean from Peoples Church) picketing his home in 2013.

Now I have some ideas using him as an example of how the power of karma defines what is called “afterlife.” This past Friday I spoke to the students at the Chicago Academy for the Arts in two social studies classes and the question came up, “How do Buddhists consider the afterlife?” I answered that as a minister talking to families who just lost a loved one, I don’t talk about the loved one’s spirit travelling to some other realm. What I do talk about is karma – that everything the loved one thought, said and did is still continuing to work in our lives and will continue to have effects even beyond our lifetimes. I gave the example of Prince, who had just passed away – his physical life no longer exists, but he left us with great songs to sing and dance to. That for me is his afterlife – that he continues to be alive in the world for me now.

The Buddha saw how egocentric the popular notion of reincarnation was – people wanted themselves to be rewarded for doing good and wanted to see others punished for doing bad. That idea of karmic reward and punishment crept back into the Buddhist literature not too long after the Buddha died, but one can easily see how incongruous it is with the teachings of transcending the ego, of waking up from the delusion of having a self that has a permanent substance separate from the rest of reality.

The teaching of karma is to make us aware of how our thoughts, words and deeds have rippling effects in the world – maybe not in the immediate future but somewhere down the line. Rather than being concerned about getting our prize or avoiding our punishment, we should be doing what we can to make life more fulfilling for our contemporaries and future lives and trying to turn around the bad consequences we (and our predecessors) already set in motion.

On Saturday our temple held a memorial service for the late Mrs. M, who passed away at age 90 from a decline in her physical and mental health. The various family members – in-laws and grandchildren – spoke about how selflessly giving she was. I knew her as a sweet lady but talking to some of the people in the large turnout that day, I learned she had reached out to many people and touched them with her kind support and encouragement. She had long been active at the temple with various groups and involved in the Japanese American community, but like many women of her generation she was known mainly as “the wife” of a high-profile community and cultural arts leader.

Although I knew many of the relatives and friends attending were devout Christians, in my Dharma message I had to say that Mrs. M wasn’t concerned about whether she was going to heaven or not after she died. In her thoughts, words and deeds, she was bringing heaven to all the lives she touched. Her afterlife is the continuing effects of her karma on everyone who remembers her and she serves as an example of how we should care for others, not for thanks or reward, but because it’s the thing to do.

Now getting back to Jay Michael – his afterlife is to be long known by increasing numbers of people as someone who brought hell to Chicago neighborhoods. He serves as the example of extreme narcissism – focusing on healthiness as a benefit for the affluent and denying the dignity of those who have untidy lives of struggling with disadvantages imposed by poverty, racism and other burdens of society’s past karma. In a way, it’s a shame he died so young – he might have eventually woken up like Prince Siddhartha to how maintaining a high-class lifestyle is destructive to your own life as well as to so many other lives.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The History of Our Temple’s Confirmation Ceremony

At some point I have to fess up to my Jodo Shinshu minister friends – yes, I conducted a confirmation ceremony at our temple. Yes, I know that technically only a bishop (district head) or abbot (denomination head) is supposed to confirm that a living person has taken refuge in the Three Treasures (any minister can do it for a deceased). But our temple has a history of conducting the ceremony for people, so that’s the story to cover my oshiri.

Our founding minister, Rev. Gyomay Kubose, did the Ti-Sarana ceremony for just about anyone who asked. Back around 1980 I was one of those people he did it for even though he hardly knew me. I had been attending the temple for only a few months but felt I should be “confirmed” if I was already teaching the kids in Dharma School and had signed up to be a member.

It’s unclear how many people Rev. Kubose might have confirmed but everyone heard about the two men who got arrested for some crime and told the police they were Buddhist priests “ordained” by Rev. Kubose. The temple leadership was concerned that newcomers could easily confuse the Ti-Sarana ceremony as an ordination, but I don’t know what was said specifically to Rev. Kubose about vetting the applicants more thoroughly.

I have yet to hear of Rev. Gyoko Saito doing Ti-Sarana during his time at our Chicago temple. The people who studied under him told me they didn’t feel a need to get a Dharma Name and certificate as Rev. Kubose’s students did. Later, as bishop of the North America district when Rev. Saito served in Los Angeles, he conducted a Ti-Sarana ceremony for the members of the Brooklyn sangha that was led by Rev. Joseph Jarman.

Rev. Kubose’s son, Rev. Sunnan Koyo Kubose did several Ti-Sarana confirmations at our temple when he was assistant minister and later through the breakaway group, the Heartland Sangha. He wanted to designate people as his students by giving them Dharma Names with the Chinese character “yo(sunshine), the same as in his “Ko-yo.”

Rev. Yukei Ashikaga was asked to do the ceremony but he felt hesitant, knowing the Higashi Honganji rules and the unfortunate incident of the criminal “Buddhist priests.” When I was associate minister, I worked with the religious affairs chairperson, Fred Babbin, to come up with criteria that Rev. Ashikaga would find acceptable. We framed the “two years” triple qualification – the applicant must be a paid member for two years and during that two years demonstrate ongoing study of Buddhism and giving service to the temple (helping out at events, doing routine chores etc.). Still, on top of that Rev. Ashikaga made the applicants write a two-page essay on how they became interested in Buddhism and why they wanted to be confirmed as a Buddhist. In the fifteen or so years of having the policy in place, Rev. Ashikaga confirmed only a handful of people.
When I became the full-time resident minister, I agreed to do the confirmation ceremony for the qualified applicants. Instead of the essay, on the form I asked them to write a sentence of what they will do to help the temple in the future. I kept accepting applications, but didn’t get around to scheduling the ceremony for a couple years

I saw that the temple’s supply of kataginu (neck sashes) was sparse – a variety of old fading fabrics, so when I went to Japan in December of 2014, I planned to buy something similar to what we used in the past. As it turned out, I got around to shopping for kataginu when I was almost out of time and money, so I got ten of the cheapest ones available at one of the Higashi Honganji robe stores in Kyoto.

Finally I scheduled the ceremony for this year’s Founder’s Day service (the memorial for Rev. Gyomay Kubose) and by then I had nine applicants. Since that Sunday was Easter, I figured only a few of those nine would be available but instead they all wanted to come and I had to come up with nine Dharma Names all at once (two people got names from the Amida Sutra and the rest from the Larger Sutra’s Tan Butsu Ge verse section).

One thing that surprised me is after the ceremony I asked everyone to applaud and the applause went on for several minutes, with some members even standing up as if it was an ovation at a concert.

[photo showing the symbolic "head shaving"]

Later our temple president Bill said it was fitting to have the ceremony on Rev. Kubose’s memorial because the group of nine showed the fruition of his vision to make Buddhism accessible to all Americans, not just the ethnic Japanese. Bill pointed out that only one of the nine was Japanese American and the rest were of other ethnicities, such as Irish, Polish, Korean, African and Native American. He also pointed out that it was a diverse group for sexual preference and identity (yes, you see our intersex activist in the picture, see her blog Maybe that’s the reason for the long applause – cheering for our temple’s success in bringing Buddhism to a wide range of people.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Macro-Buddhism: Brava, Rev. Usuki

In the recent newsletter of the Higashi Honganji Los Angeles temple ( ) Rev. Peter Hata writes of what he learned about Jodo Shinshu and language from Rev. Patti Usuki when he was invited to speak at her San Fernando Valley temple. The article reminded me how deep Rev. Usuki’s thinking is on Jodo Shinshu and what a shame that in her interview in Tricycle (Summer 2011) she comes across as shallow (one problem was the interviewer Jeff Wilson somehow didn’t employ his great skill in translating cliché Shin phrases into plain English).

Her keynote speech at the May 2015 World Buddhist Women’s Convention in Calgary was and is still memorable for me. Even though Rev. Nana Yanase, the glamorous “singing nun” from Japan was the main draw, most of the North American women I heard from thought Rev. Usuki’s talk was way more substantial, “A real Dharma talk, not a show-biz performance.”

She brought out the idea (which here I’ll call “macro-Buddhism”) that our following the Dharma in everyday life isn’t just about being nice to family, friends and our fellow temple members. In the embrace of unlimited wisdom (Amitabha), our concern should extend to beings throughout the world - people and other living creatures adversely affected by environmental damage, wars and the unbridled power of corporations.

[Rev. Usuki at the IASBS Conference in Berkeley, CA]
At the August 2015 International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference, while discussing my paper, I mentioned one part of Rev. Usuki’s Calgary speech and somehow that was the only thing Prof. Kenneth Tanaka and others remembered from my presentation. That story was her description of being Angulimala: when she worked for the Canadian government, she was part of a project bringing infrastructure to rural areas of Latin America. She thought they were doing a good thing, bringing roads, plumbing and electricity to the poor indigenous people (who had managed for centuries without such amenities). But then what followed was the corporations came in and stripped the rain forests and natural resources away from the residents and they were left in real poverty, barely existing on barren, polluted land.

In the March 2016 issue of Wheel of Dharma, she has an article titled, “If You See Something, Say Something,” but she turns that oft-seen anti-terrorism slogan totally around. In the article she chides Buddhist ministers and their temple members for not speaking up against the anti-Muslim rhetoric and violent hate crimes in the U.S. and in supposedly Buddhist countries. She asks:

Knowing we are imperfect beings is no excuse for inaction. In our indebtedness to Infinite Light and Life that got us to this comfortable state, are our hearts open to the call “to respect and aid one another and do our best to work towards the welfare of society”? [wording from the Jodo Shinshu Creed]

She makes the case that our professions of gratitude for our religious freedom are hollow if we turn a blind eye to the persecution and media demonization of those who identify (or are identified) as Muslim.

Reading her article makes me realize I need to make more effort to bring our temple members into dialogue with Muslims. We should have empathy for them because it wasn’t that long ago when Japanese Americans and particularly Buddhists were considered terrorist threats by the U.S. government. In Shin Buddhism, recognizing the equality of all beings is expressed by “Come as you are,” so when we see that groups of people are told they can’t be a part of society because of their religion, ethnicity, national origin etc. – yeah, we better raise our voice in loud complaint (monku) and take concrete actions as the manifestation of Amitabha’s embrace of all.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Questions and Feedback: Thus I Have Asked

The first step in identifying “heresy” is to refuse all identifications with the subjective intuitions and experience of the “heretic,” and to see his words only in the impersonal realm in which there is no dialogue – in which dialogue is denied a priori.
                                                -- Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

I checked out the above cited book from the library in anticipation of being stuck in jury duty and I renewed it once, but after four weeks, I only managed to read the first section “Barth’s Dream.” One thing that impressed me is that although people have described Merton as self-absorbed, in that section he gives us glimpses of the monastic community and talks about particular monks as well as quoting the many teachers of Western and Eastern thought that he learned from. The above quote is Merton’s commentary on how the writings of Meister Eckhart were systematized into twenty-eight propositions, distilling the lively human being Eckhart into some stone statue of “contemplative monk.”

The quote struck me because too many depictions of the historical Buddha (and all the subsequent teachers) show him as lecturing down to the people. One feature of the accounts in the Pali canon such as Sutta Nipata and Majjhima Nikaya is we see the Buddha in conversation with individuals, particularly laymen and women from various walks of life. In the Sanskrit canon, if the Buddha converses with anyone it’s usually either an esteemed disciple such as Sariputra or a cosmic bodhisattva such as Maitreya.

The sutras begin with “Thus I have heard” (nyo-ze ga-mon), supposedly said by Ananda as he recounts the words of the Buddha after his death. But actually as we see in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, it’s more accurate to have Ananda saying, “Thus I have asked.” The expositions by the Buddha were initiated by those who asked questions, who wanted clarification of the Dharma, because they had specific struggles in their own lives.

The previous meditation leader at our temple would conclude the sessions with what I would call “pontification.” The late gentleman was extremely hard of hearing so if anyone had questions, he didn’t notice them, but also he fell into that stereotypical idea of Buddhism of “When the Master speaks, you all must listen.”

I’ve told the volunteers who took over as meditation leaders to take the time to know the people who come – ask for feedback and questions. I gave them the acronym PB&J – explain posture, breathing and joining together. It is the joining together that makes meditation more than an exercise in navel-gazing – it becomes an opportunity to open up to each other. So I’ve been pleased when I arrive at the temple on Sunday morning to see Carlos right after the meditation session engaged in conversation (sometimes in Spanish) with the participants.

As much as I hate to listen to one-way conversations, I hate hearing myself doing all the expounding. I need feedback; I need questions. When I was studying in Japan, the teachers assumed we’re all there to listen to them without questions. One time at an informal retreat, I asked, “What is non-retrogression (futaiten)?” and my classmates burst out in laughter. So I went on to clarify, “What does non-retrogression mean concretely (gutai-teki)?” Now when I explain non-retrogression I can only talk about it in terms of my own experience – it is the awareness that my life changed in an irrevocable way when I encountered Buddhism. Though my behavior seems unchanged, I can no longer see life the way I used to.

Jodo Shinshu as much as other Buddhist sects has that dangerous tendency to make the teachings a one-way street – telling people to submissively accept the words of an automaton Shinran. The real Shinran as well as the real Shakyamuni Buddha, the real Nagarjuna, the real Kiyozawa Manshi – would be saying to us, “Let’s talk and listen to each other’s questions.”

Monday, February 8, 2016

"Thank Buddha" Asian American Community Leaders

At the Asian American Coalition of Chicago’s annual Lunar New Year banquet, awards are given out to recognize adults and youth for their exemplary community service.  This year as they read the bios of the awardees, there was no shying away from mentioning religious affiliations. There were a few Christians, some Muslims and Hindus and several Buddhists. The youth awardee for the Japanese American community, Lane Mita, said he was active at both Christ Church of Chicago and the Midwest Buddhist Temple. For Japanese Americans, so many families identify as both Christian and Buddhist (due to the affiliations of parents and grandparents), that hardly anyone sees a conflict.

[photo from Japanese American Citizens League, Chicago chapter]
As we hear at all the different entertainment and sports award shows, people grabbing their trophies are quick to say, “I want to thank God” or “Thank you, Jesus,” so it was refreshing to me to hear the awardees in their bios express gratitude for Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings. They specifically stated that it was those teachings that inspired them and guided them in doing community service – making medical and mental health services more available, working for social justice for the economically disadvantaged, bringing not just traditional arts to young people but giving them opportunities to express themselves in the current American culture.

To me this shows how wrong the Western stereotype of Asian Buddhists is. The “convert” Buddhists think they’re the ones who actually read the teachings and implement them in “engaged Buddhism” while they see the Asians as trapped in their old-country modes of rituals and superstitions. For the awardees at the banquet, American-born or long-time residents of the U.S., they have been receiving the words of the Buddha most of their lives and taking them to heart, hearing Shakyamuni’s call to identify with the sufferings of others and find ways to alleviate them.

Asian American Buddhists are American Buddhists and are and have been engaged in American society in more widespread and effective ways than those non-Asians who recently identified as Buddhist. Somehow the notion is out there in numerous books and articles that Asian Americans are just a small segment of American Buddhism - for example the cover of The Lion’s Roar, sparked a lot of discussion But just as in the past century there were Asian American Buddhists who brought their practice of Buddhist principles into their work places and social circles, there’s a new and growing crop of young people making their voices heard and organizing for change in society. Let’s not dismiss their grounding in the Buddhist teachings as “outdated” because they didn’t learn from white teachers who claim transmission from charismatic gurus. If anything, their grounding is more grounded because they have an appreciation of Buddhism as a tradition that goes back many generations, many centuries, not just something that popped up in the U.S. when beatniks started reading D.T. Suzuki.