Sunday, August 10, 2014

Rev. Saito's "Bum"

Thanks to my Dharma friends, the last posting got over 30 views, so I am putting up the article by Rev. Gyoko Saito.
= = = = = = = = = =
“Bum” by Rev. Gyoko T. Saito
(from Meditations on Death and Birth, privately published by Joan Sweany, 1983)

[At the title of the article, Rev. Saito wrote in Chinese characters this quote from Shinran’s Gutoku-sho:  “The heart of Gutoku is such that I am inwardly foolish, outwardly wise.” Translation from CWS p. 587]

            Who is the clever fellow?
            I am.
            Because I suffer.

And I think you readers are clever fellows, too.

Once Mr. S was waiting for a bus under the hot summer sun. He noticed a man of about thirty, barefooted, wearing a dirty T-shirt and jeans, coming toward him carrying a newspaper. By the way the fellow was walking, he seemed exhausted. It looked as though he might fall down any minute. Suddenly he stopped in front of Mr. S, pointed to the want-ad section of the paper, and said, “I’m looking for a job. How many blocks do I have to walk to get to this place?” Mr. S looked at the paper. The place was really far.

“It’s about fifty blocks.” When the man heard that, he looked at him without any life, with hopeless eyes. And starting to take a couple steps, he looked as though he was going to collapse.

Human nature is originally good, according to an ancient saying. Mr. S felt such pity that he stopped the man and gave him bus fare, saying, “It’s too far to walk. Take the bus.” As soon as the fellow received the money, he suddenly came to life again and started to walk away happily. Then Mr. S saw him droop into his previous manner and approach someone else, pointing to the same newspaper in the same way.

It was quite a sophisticated game for getting money out of people. This bum was the clever fellow. Yet, though our approach may be even more sophisticated than his, don’t we do exactly the same kind of thing?

Higan means to “go across to the other shore.” How do we go across from this shore of the clever fellow to the other shore, the world of foolishness and ordinariness? According to the Buddhist parable, there is only a pale narrow bridge, a few inches wide, stretching across that river, and the bridge is drenched in flames and lashed by huge waves. How do we cross this bridge which is covered with the fires of anger and washed by the waters of greed? To this, the parable says something quite interesting – that only when a person honestly starts to seek the truth and takes a step forward does he suddenly come to this bridge covered with angry flames and greedy waves.

When Mr. S gave money to the bum, he became the truth seeker. He took one step toward enlightenment. He was the person who did good, who sought the truth. But where this mind of dana [Sanskrit for “generosity”] appeared in his mind, he suddenly saw the huge river of greedy water and angry flames.

In other words, when he saw the bum trying to trick other people, he saw the anger and greed which were in his own mind. When he felt he was tricked by the bum, he felt he was up against the huge river of fire and water. Thus, even though he had done good, he was digging his own grave.

More positively, I say: So long as we seek, we will definitely be confused.

How did Shinran transcend this contradiction? He said that it was by meeting his teacher Honen, who appeared to be utterly foolish but whose inner life was deeply wise. That is, Honen had no illusions about his being, its capacity and his own stupidity. His insight was deeper than anyone else’s. By meeting such a person as Honen, Shinran came to realize how foolish the clever fellow’s way of life really is.

After I met that bum, after I felt I was tricked, I then realized that the essence of my being was no different from his essence. So this bum is the Bodhisattva who reflects the bottomless ignorance of my own being.

== end ==

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Shining Examples: Amida Concrete and Plural

Countless Amida Buddhas reside
In the light of the Buddha of Unhindered Light;
Each one of these transformed Buddhas protects
The person of true and real shinjin.
-- Shinran Shonin, Jodo Wasan
(translation from Collected Works of Shinran, p. 355)

At the 2014 Maida Center retreat in Berkeley, I was glad to see the above wasan (verse written in vernacular Japanese) included in our 20-plus pages of reading material. It comes from the “Benefits in the Present Life” section of Shinran’s Jodo Wasan. That verse and others in the section remind me to appreciate the working of Great Wisdom (aka Unhindered Light) through the lives, human and otherwise, around us.

(at Jodo Shinshu Center, photo by Paul Vielle)
As they tell the journalism students, to help your audience understand an issue, you have to tell the story of specific people, e.g. in a news item about drug crime, you feature a family affected by the problem. Ministers and anyone in Buddhist education should be doing the same thing. Yet how easy it is to find Buddhist speakers and writers floating farther and farther away into the atmosphere with abstract concept upon concept, metaphors morphing into more metaphors. From time to time, Dr. Haneda has come up with brilliant examples of real people to illustrate his points (see “Put Your Lips to the Dust” in his book Dharma Breeze), but in settings such as the annual retreat, he has too many points to cover to take the time to talk of anyone besides Shinran.

The person who spoke and wrote about continually encountering the Unhindered Light in the bodies of beings in his everyday world, in the community and in the world known through history and the news, was Rev. Gyoko Saito. For my presentation at the Maida Center retreat, I had the group read Rev. Saito’s piece “Bum.” [I think if I get at least 30 hits on this post, I’ll put the piece on my blog.] I told the retreat attendees that it’s not much different now in our temple’s Uptown neighborhood. We have plenty of bodhisattvas teaching us true dana (generosity) by asking for train fare to get to some far-off home/work/relatives destination.

I wish I could be like Rev. Saito who recounted stories of the hundreds of Amida Buddhas he found in the temple membership and on the streets of Chicago. Maybe I just need time to get to know people longer or somehow break down my inattentiveness to the essence of their being

At the retreat I pointed out Ruby T., our temple member attending the retreat for the first time and said I tell her story in my article “Women’s Liberation in Buddhism” (see In fact, I use Ruby’s story quite frequently and at many venues. It makes real the metaphor in Manshi Kiyozawa’s “Peace Beyond Ethics.” The boy carrying the heavy tea-service tray is like Ruby when her husband fell ill and she felt the burden of becoming responsible for her whole family. The mother in Kiyozawa’s metaphor who walks behind the boy and helps hold up the tray is the chorus of “We’ll help you, Mommy” that Ruby heard from her small children. For Ruby in this situation “Namu Amida Butsu” is not some abstract summation, but a flash of deep awareness of the Power Beyond Self.

I know our temple membership is full of stories like Ruby’s and hopefully I can get to know them and learn for myself the concreteness of the many, many “transformed bodies” of Amida.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Relationships are not "Attachments"

Many times when our temple receives requests to have “a monk” visit someone in the hospital who was identified as Buddhist, I end up referring them to other temples more in line with the patient’s nationality or the caller’s expectations. The other day I received such a request – the caller said she didn’t belong to a local temple but went occasionally to the Vipassana center near Rockford. She was suggesting to her mother to look into Buddhism now that her mother was being placed in palliative care at a nursing home after release from the hospital. When I heard that her mother had weakening kidneys, I agreed to see her, thinking of my own mother who kept refusing dialysis and finally had to go into hospice care.

For my first visit the daughter met me at her mother’s room. When her mother, Diane, said she’s an avid reader of the New York Times and the New Yorker and the daughter said she gave her mother a book on meditation and psychology with a long, technical title, I apologized for bringing a “lightweight” book – Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s The Center Within. Since our temple’s bookstore items were packed away to make room for the summer festival, it was the only book I could wrench out of the storage box. Although I’ve joked about that book being for people with ADHD (i.e. articles are too short and underdeveloped), I thought the final article “Every Day is the Last Day” was a nice presentation of the Buddhist attitude towards death and dying.

A couple weeks later when I was in the neighborhood of the nursing home, I went to visit Diane. She had read Rev. Kubose’s book thoroughly and observed how dated it was, written before our temple had much diversity (dozens of European Americans among the hundreds of ethnic Japanese) and before gay and women’s liberation would challenge Rev. Kubose’s old-fashioned outlook on gender and marriage. Maybe not so much in Rev. Kubose’s book, but in some materials Diane had read about Buddhism from time to time, she found exhortations to cut “the ties that bind” while most advice she’s received on health and aging encourages people to develop social networks.

I explained to Diane that the big misunderstanding about Buddhism is that it is against “attachment” to other people (see my Oct. 18, 2011 entry “The word ‘love’ - the negative connotation in Buddhism”). The “attachment” Buddhist teachers disparage is the attitude of possessiveness towards other beings, treating them as objects to control. In my reading and experience I’ve seen that those who are spiritually awakened cultivate their connections to people. They recognize that our relationships with others is the concrete manifestation of the truth of interdependency, the truth that there is no separate self because each life is part of the interactive network of all lives.

So I told Diane she is already living the truth of interdependency – in her close relation with her daughter, in her phone conversations with her brother on the West Coast and with her local friends (she mentioned a good friend just called to tell her about attending the Pride Parade the day before). During our conversation I wondered if she was expecting me to say something wise but instead I’d ask more questions about her personal life.

The way she breathed with difficulty and occasionally fell into light sleep in mid-sentence reminded me so much of my mother in the last few weeks she was alive. After I left Diane, I thought that in a way any dying mother is my mother, any ailing sister is my sister, any father in chemotherapy is my father. Maybe that is the only empathy I can muster for others – to relive with them my recent experience of losing the three family members. Buddhism says we should be careful not to project our past experience onto judgments of the present, but I can’t help feeling if my grief is worth anything to others it’s to let them know I have been and will be the witness to the transient moments of a precious human life.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Heavy Karma: The Fat Lady Sings

In the famous White Path Parable of Shan-tao that Honen, Shinran and so many Pure Land teachers after them have quoted and commented on, a voice ahead on the path calls to the traveler, “Come straightway, just as you are!” But as much as I’m okay with “just as you are” means one doesn’t have to be more educated or perform more good deeds to be on the path of enlightenment, I can’t help thinking I’d fit on that narrow white path more easily if I was twenty pounds lighter.

[My favorite opera/cabaret singer Jeanne Scherkenbach performing at the temple’s 2013 summer festival. Hear her marvelous singing live on June 22 at Blue Star Bistro]

On Facebook I posted a photo of myself and a minister whose temple I was visiting and it led to an exchange of comments with Ken O’Neill, a former Buddhist Churches of America kaikyoshi (“overseas minister” – official designation for ordained people serving outside of Japan). (Many years ago my teacher Dr. Nobuo Haneda got me a copy of Ken’s critique of BCA’s poor treatment of non-Japanese American kaikyoshi in the mid-20th century.) Ken was directing his comments more to my pot-bellied friend than 20 lbs. overweight me but it made me want to open a discussion about whether body image makes one less effective as a religious teacher. Ken said, “what kind of Dharma is expressed with obesity?” and he referred to fitness guru Paul Chek saying a spiritual mentor should be able to preach in a g-string.

It’s probably true that most of the ordained men and women in the monastic traditions could show off their svelte bodies in a g-string, but among the Jodo Shinshu ministers in the U.S. I don’t think many of us over 40 would want to strip down in public (the Canadian ministers seem to be in better shape – maybe from trudging through the snow eight months out of the year).  My response to Ken was that slim ministers may not have a deep understanding of Shinran’s teachings if they are too enamored of their ability to keep in shape.

I said that to Ken because I find my lack of success in controlling my weight reminds me so poignantly of the limitation of my self-power. I’ve seen some of my minister friends go from skinny student to wide-load professional and now as I’ve been head minister full-time, I understand why. You don’t have much control over your schedule and having to skip meals leads to foraging the snacks leftover from gatherings at the temple or going overboard at the otoki (meals with the family after a memorial service). Before I was full-time at the temple, I used to take the long walk (20 minutes each way) from my house to the public library several times a week but now I can barely schedule my library visit for once a week. And when you’re running around to get to things on time (including returning library materials on the due date), you end up jumping in the car instead of getting in any walking.

Ken’s comments made me wonder if being fat makes me look less attractive as a teacher to those who are seeking to learn from Buddhism. Yet I tell myself it’s not so important how I look to others as how I look at them. In getting on my own case for not doing more to lose weight, I have to be careful not to project my disgust with my burgeoning body onto other people. How other people came to their present shape is the result of many factors and most are beyond their control. When I was a teen I remember my sister had a friend who was obese and she said her family had to live on food stamps. From then I realized that many poor people are overweight because on a limited budget they end up addressing their constant hunger with easy fixes of fattening food. When we see very physically fit people it’s likely they are affluent enough to shop at Whole Foods and engage in costly exercise regimens.

For all my life until now, I would think, “I’ll never be as fat as my mother” and it gave me a sense of superiority, that I could be better than her. The day after she died, I packed all her clothes into bags to give to the Goodwill but I saved a few things for myself. Now as I’m wearing some of her clothes I find that they aren’t as loose on me as I thought they would be.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

From the Pure Land: Poetry and Jazz

For this month, I just want to plug two sources of inspiration for me – the avant-garde music of Renee Baker and the articles in Poetry magazine. Last Thursday I attended “CreateFest III” a collection of musicians directed by Renee Baker performing at the Peoples Church. It was very challenging for me to listen to the jazz-influenced improvisation music (with spoken word and dancing), especially when my daily commute music is mostly pop stations. The day happened to be the 100th birthday of Sun Ra and one group got everyone chanting “Space is the place” to invoke his spirit.

(Sun Ra photo by Andrew Pultier/Redferns)
Although I knew about Poetry Magazine from articles in the Chicago Reader and last year I did a memorial service for the father of someone on the magazine staff, I became interested in it when a new member in our weekly study group brought up the article “The Poetic Torture-House of Language” by Slavoj Zizek from the March 2014 issue. So when I got a solicitation in the mail, I decided to get a subscription. Reading the June 2014 issue, I have the same reaction to the CreateFest concert – I need to be more exposed to these experimental kinds of expression.
Why? Because it doesn’t bring me closer to the “Pure Land,” Jodo which should actually be translated as “realm of flowingness,” if I keep using the same phrases and wordings in talking about it. In jazz and poetry, I’m confronted with ways of expression that shake me out of my fossilized thinking – I’m hearing the “flowingness” of life and not the tied-down neatness of structured presentations.
Now I understand a little better why Rev. Gyoko Saito was so attracted to Joseph Jarman and his wife Thulani Davis. (Rev. Saito arranged for both of them to receive tokudo ordination at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto though neither seems to have much affinity for or knowledge of Shinran’s teachings.) It wasn’t so important to Rev. Saito that Joseph or Thulani “got” Buddhism, but it was important to deepening his own understanding of Buddhism to be exposed to Joseph’s expressive music and Thulani’s spirited writing about the African American experience. Rev. Saito saw with other ministers it’s so easy to get trapped in a cocoon of classical Japanese culture in presenting Buddhism in America. For the teachings of Shinran to come alive in this country, we need words and music that speak to our heart of hearts and not just to appeal to an intellectual attraction to exotic Asian culture.

Poetry magazine
Renee Baker

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shakyamuni, Our Fellow Seeker

Recently various North Park University classes have been visiting our temple, so much so that I joked they should make me an adjunct professor. The sociology class came by as part of their research on how urban churches interact (or not) with their neighborhoods. I told them we have a few regular members from the surrounding SROs (single-room occupancy buildings for mostly those on social security disability) and shelters. But the nearby residents who don’t get involved with our temple are the upwardly mobile professionals who purchase the expensive condos. Some of them will visit out of curiosity but they don’t come back. When Uptown starting undergoing gentrification (low-rent apartment buildings torn down or renovated for condominiums), some people at our temple were glad – thinking we would gain some high-income young people as members.

I told the class that I believe those affluent 20- and 30-somethings don’t come back because we emphasize the Buddha’s teaching that all beings are equal. In my Dharma School message on Hanamatsuri, the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, I said his legendary birth cry of “Tenjo tenge yuiga dokuson” means “No one is better than me and no one is worse than me. Each and every living being is to be respected.” To the sociology class, I said that kind of message doesn’t resonate with people who believe they got to their socio-economic position through their own hard work and developed skills. For them there are other Buddhist groups, such as Zen and Vajrayana, that give them a ladder of rankings to work up into higher and higher levels of enlightenment. In the Pure Land tradition, the nembutsu teachings knock us down from our perches of self-righteous morality and hard-practice macho pride and lower us into the most profound level of awakening of “being an ordinary person.”


With this year’s Hanamatsuri, I realize in the Pure Land tradition we need to reframe the narrative of the historical Buddha’s life to show him as our fellow seeker, what Shinran called ondobo ondogyo. As in the PBS special “The Buddha,” too often the Buddha is presented as a spiritual super-hero, a peak of superiority over others that we should aspire to or at least bow down and “worship,” that is, groveling at his feet for favors. So as I said at the Hanamatsuri services at our temple and at the Toronto Buddhist Church, we should see most of what is called “Buddhist practices” as Shakyamuni’s way of guiding people through what he experienced in the six years of his asceticism (age 29 to 35). It is hard for any of us to understand jiriki muko, the futility of self-power, unless we put our own mental and physical abilities to the test. Then in the wake of our failures, the Pure Land teachings make more sense as we hear Shakyamuni sharing with us the content of his awakening under the bodhi tree. His shout of “Avidya!” (not-clear) is translated as “Namu Amida Butsu,” so that in hearing this call, we participate in his experience of breaking through the ego-shell and walking out into the wide bright world like a chick hatching out of an Easter egg.

With Shinran as the model, we can talk about Shakyamuni as a man who saw himself as sharing the Dharma, learning through interaction with others, rather than as a privileged elitist preaching down to the masses from on high. As our temple neighbors teach us, there is so much to learn from listening to the Dharma together, to see the working of the Great Light of Wisdom (Amitabha) even in those struggling with physical disabilities, mental illness and poverty.