Saturday, December 24, 2011

Toddlers Welcome: Dharma for Kids of All Ages

Although in the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” class I encourage the students to explore the various kinds of Buddhist groups in the Chicago area, I tell them they are all welcome to come to our temple’s weekly services and study classes. A young woman in this month’s class said she would like to come on Sunday but she felt her two-year-old would be too disruptive.

It is the same comment our temple has been receiving in several recent e-mails through our website, “I would like to come but I have a child…” We keep assuring the inquirers that parents often attend the services with their children, from newborns to teenagers, and several people who regularly attend have toddlers. In the Intro Class one of our newer members vouched for that – he said to the mother of the two-year-old that he’s seen toddlers at the services and if they get a little noisy, the parent just steps out of the room with them.

In general, people feel religious services should be solemn gatherings with a perfectly quiet audience. Many churches have “crying rooms,” usually in the balcony, where parents with restless children can watch the service and hear it over speakers (the Toronto Buddhist Church has such a setup). And maybe people expect Buddhist temples to be even more silent and calm in order to make the atmosphere conducive to meditation. But parents of young children shouldn’t feel excluded from Buddhist services – not only will the parent benefit from hearing the teachings but the children will be influenced by what is going on around them even if they don’t comprehend the words. And if anything, we in the congregation will be reminded of the vibrancy of new, fresh life, when we are joined by those who are ten to eighty years younger than us.

Our temple has Dharma School (program for children to learn Buddhism) which now only meets on the second and fourth Sundays during the school year. (In the future if we get more volunteers, we could offer Dharma School every week.) The current group is made up of grade school age children but they have toddler siblings who join in their class activities such as drawing pictures (see sample below) and going on field trips to experience nature. But even on Sundays when Dharma School is not scheduled, the kids come with their parents and sit through the regular service.

At the meditation centers run primarily for “convert” Buddhists, it may be difficult for parents to attend with their young children. But at most of the temples with ethnic Asian based congregations, chanting is the main activity, so everyone young and old is encouraged to raise their voices together. And there’s no constant sitting perfectly still – you get to stand up to sing gathas and even leave your seat to line up in the aisle to have your turn offering incense. At our temple, more often than not the children manage to sit through the hour-long service without causing major disruption. Usually it’s the once-a-year attendee for the monthly memorial service who is unable to control their child and has to take them out of the room. Lately some people in that category don’t even bother to enter the hondo, “main hall” and they stay in the side hall playing with their kids while their elderly parents sit for the service.

It’s their loss. Life is frantic enough as our self-attachment drives us towards satisfying our myriad desires and the desires of those closely related to us. Those parents and children who don’t participate in the service miss the chance to feel a part of a larger fellowship and take a break from the treadmill of instant gratification. In the article “Boomer Buddhism” (2001) that we read in the Intro Class, Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out that convert Buddhists tend to neglect the important teaching of “renunciation” (of the delusory self). You’re never too old or too young to be exposed the Dharma of challenging the ever-grasping ego.

Monday, December 12, 2011

More Than a Biology Teacher - In Memory of Fred Babbin

Friday night our temple lost a great former leader and active member, Fred Babbin. I met Fred when he first started coming to the Buddhist Temple of Chicago in the early 1980s with his wife Florence to Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s weekly study class. I found out later that Florence had terminal cancer, so although Fred says it was his idea to explore Buddhism, they were both motivated on their spiritual quest by Florence’s struggle with mortality.

In Rev. Kubose’s study class I remember Fred in the pose of Maitreya (the future Buddha) and I think it was unconscious on his part – his fingers along side of his chin as he sat with one leg bent with its foot on the other leg’s knee. Then there was a period when I felt disillusioned with Buddhism and almost left the temple when I was drawn to Dr. Nobuo Haneda’s study class. And there was Fred and Florence who had been studying all along with Dr. Haneda.

In 1984 before Dr. Haneda left Chicago to take the position as Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, he visited with Fred and Florence, knowing he would likely not see her again. He wrote to me (I was studying in Japan) that he couldn’t find anything to say to Florence – but in a way he was receiving the teachings from her, who was bravely facing death. She passed away that summer.

The next time I saw Fred was in 1987. I finished my studies in Japan and was helping Rev. Gyoko Saito in Los Angeles when the Buddhist Temple of Chicago invited me to be the speaker for Ho-on-ko. Fred proudly showed me the little pamphlet on Buddhism he helped put together with Rev. Sunnan (Koyo) Kubose. The nature photos and short sayings on Buddhism in the pamphlet were the basis of the slide show Fred ran during the Natsu Matsuri (summer festival) every year at the temple. I was glad to see he had become very involved with the temple and enthused about getting the word out about Buddhism to more people.

From that time through the 1990s and into the 21st century, Fred continued as a leader at the temple, holding the board position of Vice President of Religious Affairs, since he was one person who deeply cared about the temple as a Dharma learning center. After Dr. Haneda had left Chicago, it was Fred who kept the Buddhist Educational Center going – by leading a weekly book discussion group and teaching the Introduction to Buddhism course.

Besides his involvement with BTC, he became active in the Buddhist community in Chicago as part of the Buddhist Council of the Midwest. He was a key person in reviving the annual Visakha celebration where all the Buddhist groups of the Chicago area come together for educational panels and ethnic entertainment. Fred became involved with Buddhist refugee communities, notably the Tibetans and Cambodians, volunteering much of his time and helping them connect with needed resources.

When I returned to Chicago in 1995, I found that Fred had remarried, to the lively and charming Ruth. Although in the mid-1990s, some people broke away (as the Heartland Sangha) from our temple accusing the membership of being prejudiced against non-ethnic Japanese, Fred didn’t let that prejudice bother him. He and Ruth were fixtures at the social gatherings of the Asoka group which is almost all second-generation Japanese Americans (Nisei). Even as some Asoka members muttered anti-Semitic comments in Japanese (and even in English), Fred was warm and friendly to everyone. In time they all came to know him by name instead of as “that Jewish guy” and the Nisei embraced him and Ruth as fellow senior members (“Keiro-kai”).

Since Fred was a high school biology teacher, he was drawn to the straight-forward no-nonsense presentations of Buddhism of Rev. Gyomay Kubose and Dr. Haneda and would have had a hard time accepting all the fantastical descriptions in the liturgy of other Buddhist groups (including in the service books used by many Jodo Shinshu temples). The Buddhist Temple of Chicago was fortunate to benefit from Fred’s many years of energetic service, as he retired and continued well into his eighties. Due to his and Ruth’s declining health, he was not able to visit our temple very often in the past three, four years, so it’s a shame that many of our newer, ethnically diverse members don’t know who he was. But in many ways they are following in the path that he blazed – coming to the temple to listen to the Buddha’s teachings and doing all he could to make sure it continues as a Dharma-learning center.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Trembling at Dawn - Bodhi Day Thoughts

In the Eastern Asian tradition of Buddhism (transmission through China), the historical Buddha’s enlightenment (Bodhi=awakening) is commemorated on December 8. (However, historical evidence supports the Southern Asian tradition of saying his awakening occurred in early summer. Understandably, the Chinese wanted to move the date close to the winter solstice to give them something to celebrate in the long dark days before the lunar new year.)

In our Wednesday study class I brought Martin Luther back in the discussion because his views on grace put in perspective for me the significance of Honen’s (and Shinran’s) emphasis on being the recipient of “merit-transference.” In Martin E. Marty’s article “Martin Luther’s Reckless Grasp on Grace” (see I was struck by the criticism of “cheap grace” – the smug feeling church-goers have about being saved without having to do good works. The real experience of grace comes only from the kind of struggle Martin Luther went through as a monk, confronting the hopelessly irredeemable self. This trembling at truly seeing the defiled self was called “guilt” in the article – a word I’ve long avoided in discussing Buddhism. (In Japanese they use a word meaning “confession,” the interior sense of shame for the “deep realization of the limited self.”) But isn’t what Shinran confesses in the Shin (“True Faith”) chapter of Kyogyoshinsho the awareness of his own guilt?

When Shakyamuni sat under the tree and looked into himself, he saw nothing but miserable murkiness and shouted out his despair “Avidya!” (Oh darkness!). The awakening that occurred was not his conscious doing but the pure gift of grace or as Dogen says, “If ten thousand Dharmas advance and make us learn and attain self, then that is real awakening.”

Mahayana, and in particular Jodo Shinshu, is always questioning the narrative of Shakyamuni as the self-made buddha who pulled himself up into enlightenment by the boot-straps of his superior meditation skills. Our ego loves to project itself into stories of the conquering hero, but the teachings of Buddhism make us see the ugliness of our drive to conquer. The dawn of truth breaks through the darkness of our self-attachment – not the other way around.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sickness, death and quilt raffle: Ho-on-ko 2011

The Friday before the Ho-on-ko weekend was emotionally hectic. The morning started out with a phone call from Dr. Haneda’s wife saying that they cancelled their trip to Chicago. On Thursday evening Dr. Haneda told his wife he wasn’t feeling well and then in the early morning hours of Friday he developed a fever. Since Dr. Haneda is a liver transplant recipient, his wife felt it best to wait for a specialist to examine him and not to go to the hospital emergency room (the worst place for someone with a suppressed immune system).

I decided to go ahead with the Saturday seminar because it was a publicly announced event and there was no way to know who would be coming and contact all of them. I felt the seminar should focus on Dr. Haneda, so I put together a handout of his articles from the May 2011 issue of The Dharma Breeze (see, to be prefaced with a viewing of the DVD of the 2009 Maida Center retreat where Dr. Haneda outlines the similarity between Shakyamuni’s and Shinran’s spiritual breakthroughs.

While I was working on that preparation, I received a call from the Chicago funeral home that serves most of the Japanese American community. A family had lost their loved one to sudden illness the day before and because they knew my husband (when he was a youngster in judo and Japanese school) they wanted me to officiate the funeral service. The deceased had attended our temple mainly in his childhood so I really didn’t know him. It was sad to hear of someone dying so young (in mid-60s) and I couldn’t help noticing it was on the date exactly a year from my father’s death.

Later on Friday we heard from Mrs. Haneda who sounded relieved that her husband’s fever had gone down and the specialist doctor had diagnosed him with stomach flu (much less frightening than organ rejection).

On Saturday I wasn’t expecting much of a crowd since I notified all of the study group members of Dr. Haneda’s absence. But 24 people showed up – only one person decided to leave when he was told Dr. Haneda wasn’t coming. He wanted at least to make a donation – normally for Dr. Haneda’s seminar we take up a collection but I had no intention of doing that for our impromptu session. Then I remembered the Quilt Raffle and told him he could donate by buying a ticket.

The crafts group at our temple has been making a quilt every year to be raffled off at the summer festival “Natsu Matsuri.” It’s always a very lovingly made quilt, hand-sewn by the ladies (mostly Japanese speaking) who gather twice a month at the temple. This year when they got a hold of the raffle winner who lived on the West Coast, he said not to trouble ourselves with shipping it to him and donated it back to the temple. The sold raffle ticket-stubs had been tossed out with the Natsu Matsuri trash, so the group began selling raffle tickets again with Ho-on-ko Sunday as the drawing date. Not many had been sold before this month, but Ms. R did a great job of promoting the raffle at the study classes and the seminar. By Sunday over $300 had been made in donations.

At the seminar there was a nice mix of long-time and newer members and one first-time visitor (and several folks from the Midwest Buddhist Temple). There were questions and comments from a wide variety of participants. It gave me a chance to really speak up for Dr. Haneda’s presentation of Jodo Shinshu which varies from what people heard from textbooks and some older-generation Japanese ministers.

The Sunday service felt a little lonely without a guest speaker. It was a special service with the chanting of Shoshin-ge, readings in Japanese and English from the Godensho (biography of Shinran) and all the ceremonial decorations not seen at normal services. The highlight of the day was at lunch when the quilt raffle drawing winner was announced – the young couple that I married this past summer who just moved into an apartment near the temple. The quilt will be one more reminder to them of their connection to the Sangha.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Interfaith Initiative - Part 2 of 2

In the early 1980s when I was in the weekly study class at our temple led by Nobuo Haneda, he told us he attended a panel discussion on religions at the University of Chicago – just to hear the famous Zen Buddhist scholar, Masao Abe (1915-2006). Dr. Haneda said he was extremely disappointed because the whole time was taken up with the Jewish, Christian and Muslim speakers attacking each other and defending their own faith while Prof. Abe hardly said more than a few words. I remember Dr. Haneda (in his 30s at the time) saying if he was on that panel, he would have been speaking up for Buddhism.

That story comes to mind because I wonder if there were Buddhists who felt that way after my appearance on the evening panel of the Interfaith Conference at Northeastern Illinois University on Nov. 17. Only one member from our temple was there and she said to me, “It seemed your talk was so short compared to the other people.”

I said, “They told us on the panel that we only had about five minutes each to speak.”

“So you’re the only one who followed instructions,” she said.

Although the event was scheduled for an hour, after I and the other speakers (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) spoke, there was barely time for two students to ask questions.

The theme of the conference was “Hope and Healing: Reconciliation Through Peace.” I said for Buddhists, it meant we have to stop criticizing other religions for causing wars and abuse. By looking at how Buddhists have failed to live up to the core teachings of peace, we could have more understanding towards people of other faiths who get pulled away from their own religions’ teachings of peace due to various causes and conditions.

The other speakers could tell dramatic stories of reconciliation, but I only came up with the fact that our temple has several Asian American (U.S. born and immigrant) members from ethnic groups (Korean, Chinese, Filipino etc.) that were brutally oppressed by Imperial Japan. (That imperialistic expansion was supported by all the Japanese Buddhists except the handful who were executed or imprisoned.) To me, those non-ethnic-Japanese members who come to hear the teachings and become actively involved in our temple help to break down the prejudice many Japanese Americans have felt towards other Asians.

From being on the Northeastern campus and talking to some of the students, I felt a lot of hope for the future – there’s a real spirit of diverse people working together to make things better for all of society.

(I composed most of this entry a couple days ago. Now I’m struggling with the news today that my teacher Dr. Haneda is ill and had to cancel his visit to Chicago this weekend.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Interfaith Initiative - Part 1 of 2

The highlight for me at the Interfaith Conference at Northeastern Illinois University on Nov. 17 was the first event of the program, “Peacemaking in the Classroom.” Although it was geared towards educators in citing real-life cases of conflict resolution that teachers encounter with students, parents and fellow teachers, the principles could apply to any interpersonal conflict. The co-presenters referred to each other as devout men of faith – Tom Masters, a Christian (his book on spirituality in education is pictured here) and Ron Ramer, a Jew. Their approach to classroom conflict resolution was based on the work of Chiara Lubich (1920-2008), an Italian woman who brought the Focolare (“hearth”) movement to educators throughout the world.

One of Lubich’s principles was “Be the first to love.” Although in an earlier posting to this blog, I said the word “love” has a negative meaning (possessiveness, self-serving attachment) in Buddhism, the presenters interpreted the word to mean “acknowledge the dignity of the other person,” to humble yourself (“speak from a level one-down”) and let go of your assumptions and any sense of power over them. To that I can’t help but say “Namu Amida Butsu.”

In the second event of the conference, a round table discussion, I was seated next to one of the speakers, Sanjay Mehrotra, an engineering professor from Northwestern University who spoke of the deep spiritual resonance he receives from Hinduism. He shared that resonance with us by chanting “Om—peace…” I wanted just to be a listener, but then a Jain student in the audience requested that all of us join in the chant with Prof. Mehrotra.

I’m not the glad-handing type, in contrast to the Caucasian religious leaders who easily greet each other and strike up conversations. But I felt I should make contact with someone at that venue, so I spoke to Prof. Mehrotra after the discussion and asked for his information, saying I’d like him or someone from the Hindu community to speak at our temple. I realized that if Jews and Christians can work together, Buddhists should reach out to Hindus and learn more about them. We should “be the first to love” – to let go of negative assumptions and our sense of superiority. We need to get to a place of respectful sharing instead of being stuck in the brutal bashing that Stephen Asma does in his Why I Am a Buddhist (myself and others have been just as guilty).

Friday, November 18, 2011

Criminal Converts - appreciating Honen, part 3

In the weekly study class we read the story of Mimi (“Ears”) Shiro, the thief and murderer who became a devoted follower of Honen. For years after he encountered Honen and spent time listening to the Buddha-Dharma, Shiro continued to work as a thief. It is recorded that Honen said to him:

Since [the karma] we are born with has to play itself out, there is no way we can abandon the ways we make our livelihood every day. But what I want to ask you to do is this: when you feel your bad karma getting worked up and about to overpower you, say the nembutsu, and I assure you that the solemn promise [Vow] that Amida Tathagata made out of great pity and great compassion will come to your rescue.

(from The Life of Honen Shonin compiled by Kakunyo Shonin, translated by Wayne S. Yokoyama)

What is striking (and didn’t sit well with some of us) is that Honen doesn’t tell him to give up his criminal ways and become a law-abiding citizen. I think this reflects Honen’s own experience struggling as a monk for nearly thirty years—learning that it is very difficult and probably impossible to consciously change your self in a substantial way. Rather than tell Shiro to change his outward behavior, Honen wanted to open Shiro up to dealing with the basis of all destructive behavior (whether dubbed criminal or not by society) which is our deluded self-attachment. In “Namu Amida Butsu,” Shiro is reminded of the larger life that embraces him and all lives in an interconnected equality. What is called “the great compassion of Amida Buddha” is the acceptance of each and every being for who they are at this moment without any hint of condemnation (sesshu fusha).

In time “Ears” Shiro gave up his outlaw ways, just as we have seen in other narratives of criminal converts in Buddhism such as the Angulimala Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 86, see We could easily condemn the “monsters” we hear about on the news, but on reflection we see their destructive behavior (exerting power to harm others) comes from not knowing they are already accepted by the great compassion of the universe (unbounded Light and Life).

(Next, I will be reporting on the Nov. 17 interfaith events at Northeastern Illinois University.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Penn State and Shinran: Introducing Jodo Shinshu to visiting students

November is the month for observing Ho-on-ko, the memorial of Shinran (our temple follows the Higashi Honganji calendar), but I wondered how I would talk about Shinran on Sunday when several students from various colleges and the Naperville Central High School would be visiting for their assignments in world religions classes.

I started with something they would all be familiar with – the scandal at Penn State. The alleged perpetrator, the former assistant football coach, used his position as an authority figure to coerce children into having sex. But the long-time head coach and the whole football program wanted to suppress information that would threaten the power they enjoyed over the university community. The scandal illustrates that dark urge in our human nature to conquer and control other beings and things.

In the time of the historical Buddha, humankind was organizing into kingdoms with armies to attack other kingdoms and massacre whole towns. The Buddha, among others of that time, sought a way to overcome that urge for power. Although he started out thinking there was some pure “soul” inside himself, he was confronted by the greed and anger in his mind. In calling it out “Avidya!” (Darkness!) he was released from the barriers that separated him from other beings. In awakening to the interconnectednes and equality of all lives, he realized there is no justification for exerting power over anyone or anything else.

However, people will use religion to justify power-grabbing. After the Buddha’s passing, some monastics used the strict observance of rules and rituals to assert their superiority over others. A movement called Mahayana (“large vehicle”) then arose to recognize the essence of the Buddha’s teachings is to encompass all beings as equals.

Among the various strands of the Mahayana movement, the Pure Land group opened up access to the Buddhist teachings for laymen and women of various strata of society in central Asia, China and Korea. Unfortunately when Buddhism was imported by Japan, it became the domain of the aristocrats. At the dominant monastery on Mt. Hiei near the capital of Kyoto, monks were exposed to the Pure Land teachings but they classified them in the category of “meditation” – a code word for “practices only we refined intelligent men can do, not for the dumb, klutzy peasants and women.”

Honen saw through that sham definition of “meditation” and found in the Pure Land teachings, he could hear the Buddha speaking for the equality of all beings. He left the monastery and brought Buddhism to the men and women of the city and he was joined by other drop-out monks such as Shinran.

But after Honen’s passing, some of his followers felt pressured by authorities to downplay the message of non-discrimination. Shinran, in his writing and sayings, kept Honen’s mission alive and spread the Pure Land teachings throughout Japan. And because of him, today our temple can offer access to the Buddha’s teachings to the diverse population of Chicago.

In “Namu Amida Butsu” we hear the calling to awaken to the Oneness of life. It is the reminder to let go of the urge to have power over others and at the same time, know that no person has the right to conquer us because we are all equal. That is the true way to peace.

I told the students to learn more about the Pure Land teachings from the bulletins and books at our temple since much of the information in textbooks and on the internet is “way off base.”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Passage to Freedom - appreciating Honen, part two

Honen’s “conversion passage (eshin mon)” – from Shan-tao’s Exposition on the Meditation Sutra (Sanzengi chapter, Shinshu Shogyo Zensho p. 538)

 … to pronounce single-mindedly the Name of Amida alone, whether walking or staying, sitting or lying, whether for a long time or for a short time, to keep pronouncing the Name from moment to moment [is] called the right practice which truly assures (one to be born in the Pure Land), as it is in accordance with (Amida) Buddha’s (Original) Vow.

Adapted from Kemmyo Taira Sato’s translation in Great Living (American Buddhist Study Center, 2010), page 9.

In our Wednesday study class we are still discussing the life of Honen (on our 3rd week now) and I showed them the above passage and asked what they thought was in it that jumped out and hit Honen between the eyes. Honen was around 42 years old (a good 20-some years before Shinran would meet him) when his life was changed by this passage. He had entered the Mt. Hiei monastery as a teenager and thoroughly studied Tendai doctrine. He also travelled to Nara and learned from the older Buddhist sects and he is said to have read the entire collection of sutras and commentaries five times. After all those years of studying, why did this passage of Shan-tao (Jpn. Zendo) move him?

Mr. M who was attending our group for the first time said Honen must have been searching for a practice in Buddhism that would be open to everyone. I said, “That’s what I used to think.” But I’ve come to believe that Honen wasn’t worrying about “everyone” as an abstract concept, but he was going through a personal crisis and desparately seeking the answer for himself, just as Shakyamuni left his princely palace to seek the way out of his own anxiety.

Ms. S and Ms. U together pointed to the sensation Honen probably felt when he read this passage – freedom. Ms. U said Honen was trying to find release from ignorance and defilements, feeling chained and caged by them. And Ms. S said Honen might have felt relieved to find out he didn’t have to do the rigorous practices of the monastery, that there was a way of release that didn’t require such measures. Honen appeared to be capable of doing such practices, but those practices were dragging Honen down further into self-attachment.

Ms. C focussed on the phrase “whether walking or staying, sitting or lying” to mean the activities of everyday life and that the reciting of Namu Amida Butsu could be a meditative form of breathing.

I responded to her comment by focussing on the “Buddha’s Vow” and from that Mr. J pointed to the heart/mind of compassion that includes each and every one. In this sense, through Shan-tao’s passage, Honen finally found the key to what his dying father told him to seek – the realm beyond conflicts and discrimation, seeing the equality and interconnection of all beings.

(I hope the students don’t mind that I only referred to them by gender and first initial – maybe they were hoping their names would become famous through this blog. Also participating in the discussion were Ms. A, Ms. R. and Mrs. Tsuji.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Releasing my inner Andy Rooney: what students read about Buddhism

[Message to the English literature teacher]

Thank you for responding to my concerns about what your students are reading in the study of the “sacred texts” of world religions. On Sunday our temple was visited by B. from your class and we appreciate her respectful attitude in wanting to learn about how Buddhism is practiced by our temple members. I gave her some of my suggestions for readings on Buddhism – the Dhammapada (I suggest using a translation without all the intrusive commentary such as Wisdom of the Buddha: The Unabridged Dhammapada, paperback ISBN-13: 9780486411200), The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus (an introduction for Westerners using actual sacred texts for sources), and What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula (it might be more suited for a philosophy class than a literature one).

Since I am from a Japanese background I could recommend some Japanese authors whose works reflect their Buddhist beliefs – the haiku poetry of Basho, the short stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (a little on the dark side like Edgar Allen Poe), the novels of Yasunari Kawabata. (For post-war experiences of Buddhism in Japan, there are the philosophical essays of Shuichi Maida and several other writers.)

For literary works from other Asian countries, you can consult a specialist in Asian literature. Although the trend now and into the future is for Buddhism to be embraced by more non-ethnic Asians, to appreciate the rich historical heritage of Buddhism, it’s best to read about it from Asian sources as an opportunity to introduce your students to cultural viewpoints outside the predominantly white Euro-American perspective.

Reading Hesse’s Siddhartha to learn about Buddhism is like listening to Justin Bieber to learn about Soul R&B music. From him you can get a flavor of the style, but he’s no Marvin Gaye. Uncle Tom’s Cabin might be interesting to read for its historical significance but would you seriously read it to learn how African Americans thought and felt during that time? It would be better to read the writings of people such as Frederick Douglass.

Thank you for hearing me out – I probably sound like an old grouch like the late Andy Rooney.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Larger Sutra - synopsis of Oct. 30 Dharma talk

1. Steve Jobs and Zen

Married in ceremony conducted by a Japanese Soto Zen priest named Kobun Otogawa.

In PBS News Hour interview, surprised to hear biographer Walter Isaacson say that Jobs was influenced by Zen Buddhism “to break the rules.” Zen emphasizes the precepts, formality, very structured activities – but there are many anecdotes of “iconoclastic” behavior in Zen literature (mostly in Rinzai, not Soto). Founder of Japanese Soto Zen sect, Dogen, taught ka-hitsu (“not necessarily so”) to encourage thinking outside conventional expectations, so that might’ve been some influence on Jobs.

2. Sanford Commencement Address in 2005

Recently ordained West Covina temple member, Peter Hata, wrote that all of the innovative Apple products will be overshadowed by the gadgets of the future, but Steve Jobs might be continued to be remembered for his 2005 speech at Sanford. Rev. Peter says the talk illustrates the Buddhist principles of interconnectedness and impermanence. Read the article at:

3. Embracing the Bozos

Steve Jobs felt for his company to be successful, only the top talent should be hired. To keep on anyone with mediocre job performance would bring on “the Bozo explosion” – that the mediocre people would bring in more mediocre people. My thought on hearing this was – then where are all us bozos supposed to go to earn a living?

It’s a sad fact that successful ventures in any field entail the exclusion of other people. Even in the sphere of religion there was the notion that you had to keep the bozos out – that only the select few who proved their worthiness were allowed to access the world of transcendence. The historical Buddha had to keep reminding people that isn’t the case, and in the Larger Sutra he tells us the story of Dharmakara who vowed to overcome his judgmental thinking and embrace all beings in his awakening. From Dharmakara’s fulfillment of his vows, we have the Name, Namu Amida Butsu, to remind and call to us, to hear the innermost aspiration for Oneness. In Namu Amida Butsu all beings are included, even a Steve Jobs at his worst, warts and all.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Right on, Rev. Sato - appreciating Honen, part one

In our weekly study class we’re just starting to discuss Honen (1133-1212) and I found a great description of the historical background of Honen in Kemmyo Taira Sato’s book Great Living. In the introductory section “The Pure Encounter Between Master and Disciple,” Rev. Sato gives Honen his proper due (which I think is way over-due in Jodo Shinshu circles) as the person who found in the Pure Land teachings what he was searching for years and years – the essence of the Buddha’s awakening to all lives as equal and worthy.

Rev. Sato’s book is a commentary on Tannisho and so far I’m finding it very appealing to my nerdy interest in textual analysis because he brings a lot of scholarly research to his presentation. I know him to be a very devout person, but in the book he doesn’t keep banging you over the head with “shinjin this and shinjin that” as other devoutly written commentaries tend to do.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Martin Luther seen in Shinran's teaching of the Three Vow-Gates

In Sunday’s Dharma talk I wanted to use Martin Luther’s life to illustrate the “Three Vow-Gate Transition” (sangan tennyu) found in Shinran’s teachings. When Martin Luther (1483-1546) abandoned his father’s plan for him to be a lawyer, he entered the phrase of Necessary Gate (yo-mon). With the plague taking the lives of people around him, the necessity of seeking a religious life was brought to the front of his attention by a lighting storm. Then as a monk, Luther looked for the true teachings of Christianity and was appalled by the actions of the church hierarchy (luxurious living, corruption, sale of “indulgences” – paper guarantees that donors would spend less time in purgatory) that had no relation to the words of the Bible. This phrase of True Gate (shin-mon) is important for us to sort out for ourselves what is spiritual as opposed to ego-based religious practices. I feel Luther did not make it to the final phase of the Wide-Vow Gate (gugan-mon) because in his later years he turned against the peasants (by advocating authoritarian rule) and wrote extreme diatribes against Jews.

(Picture of Luther posting his “Ninety-five Theses” – his protest against the corrupt practices of the Church.)
But for his courage and conviction in standing up against the Church (at that time all Europeans were expected to be Roman Catholic), Luther set in motion forces that eventually allowed many Christians to find their way to the Wide-Vow Gate. Not just the obvious groups such as the Unitarians and Universalists, but many individual Protestants and Catholics were free to explore their spirituality to the depth of what the Wide-Vow Gate entails – the complete embrace of all beings in the Power Beyond Self, the compassion symbolized by Amida Buddha. (To learn more about Luther, I recommend the PBS DVD.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

It was a dark and stormy night: appreciating Nichiren

Despite the high winds and rain, six people came for Wednesday’s study class. Continuing our look at the “Protestant Reform” movements of Kamakura era (12-13th centuries) Japan, we read about the life of Nichiren and read a letter titled “Earthly Desires are Enlightenment.” I chose that reading (rather than the polemic pieces he’s more famous for) because it shows Nichiren’s Mahayana spirit of embracing the world as a whole, without the judgmental duality of sacred vs. profane. The Zen pioneers Eisai and Dogen (but not Nonin) were big into strict adherence to the precepts and the regulations of monastery life. But Nichiren was much in the same mode of Honen of accepting the common people who could not follow the lay or monastic precepts to the letter.
I thought the stormy weather fitted right in with the story of the Mongol invasion of Japan being thwarted by the “kami-kaze” (divine wind) which some say Nichiren had invoked.

Picture from Wikipedia:
Mongol Invasion (Japanese: Mooko shuurai), by Kikuchi Yoosai, 1847. Ink and water colors on paper. Tokyo National Museum. Shows the destruction of the Mongol fleet in a typhoon

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The word "love" - the negative connotation in Buddhism

In this past Sunday's Sutra Study class we had a discussion about the word "love" - as it appeared in the reading below (from the "Struggle and Argument" chapter of Sutta Nipata):

           [someone asks Shakyamuni:]
“From where do struggles, arguments, grief, sorrow, selfishness, arrogance, and the slandering of others arise?
Please teach me from where they arise.” 

[Shakyamuni Buddha replies:]
“Struggles, arguments, grief, sorrow, selfishness, arrogance, and the slandering of others arise because of love.
Struggles and arguments are connected with the selfish mind. When an argument arises, one starts to slander others.”

from Face to Face With Shakyamuni by Shuichi Maida, unpublished translation by Nobuo Haneda

In an alternate translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff)
verses 862-863 of “Kalaha-vivada Sutta: Quarrels & Disputes”
we see the verb used is "to hold [something/someone] dear." Of course, there is nothing wrong with feeling "love" or "holding dear" towards family and friends, sports teams, favorite dishes etc. The problem comes in when we get possessive ("attached"), clinging and controlling. The class decided to read the word "love" in this passage as "selfish love" as opposed to the usual connotation of unselfish love (agape, in Greek). We look forward to continuing our monthly study of this chapter as Maida guides us towards Shinran's teachings of self-examination and the Power Beyond Self.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What's Zen got to do with it?

In the Wednesday study group we finished our 3-week exploration of how Zen was introduced in Japan during the Kamakura (12-13th century) era, reading excerpts from Henrich Dumoulin’s Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 2: Japan and some of Dogen’s writings translated by Nobuo Haneda (from the material I received in the study class he did at BTC in the early 1980s).

In reading about the Zen pioneers Nonin (Daruma school), Eisai (Rinzai school) and Dogen (Soto school), I learned more about the times of Honen and Shinran, especially the pressures from the Tendai sect (headquartered on Mt. Hiei) that the Zen groups had to contend with. I think it helps to appreciate Honen and Shinran more when we see how teachers like Dogen broke away from their Mt. Hiei training and sought out what they saw as the fundamental essence of Shakyamuni’s teachings.

Also in reading Dogen’s eloquent distillation of the Buddha’s teachings (which he wrote in simple Japanese to communicate to the common people), we see a lot of similarities with Shinran’s thought. It seems a shame that the two didn’t cross paths. Dogen was turned off by nembutsu practice early on in his search after leaving Mt. Hiei (he said people reciting nembutsu sounded like croaking frogs to him) and in his later years, I think all the persecution from Tendai forces was getting to him and he became more crotchety, blasting Rinzai adherents and insisting on strict monastic practice (similar to Martin Luther’s turning away from the concerns of common folk and writing anti-Semitic bombasts). So it is unlikely that Dogen would have been receptive to Shinran and his teachings.

But in the person of Shuichi Maida (Dr. Haneda’s teacher), Dogen does meet Shinran and we can appreciate Dogen’s expression of niju-jinshin, the two-fold deep entrusting (aware of the limitations of the self and the unlimitedness of the Dharma).

Section Two of Genjokoan:

If we carry our self and learn and attain ten thousand Dharmas, then we call that being lost.

If ten thousand Dharmas advance and make us learn and attain self, then that is real awakening. 

Buddhas are those who greatly awaken to their lostness. 

Lost beings are those who are greatly lost by awakening.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sutra study, the live chat room at our temple

Maybe in the near future, we will have virtual meetings, but for now we welcome everyone to our old fashioned face-to-face gatherings to study Buddhism together. On Wednesday evenings at 7pm we have our weekly discussion - for Fall 2011 we are discussing "Protestant Buddhism." Tomorrow and the past 2 weeks we've been looking into the emergence of Zen in Japan and next week we'll explore Nichiren and his focus on the Lotus Sutra.

Monthly, generally the 3rd Sunday, we have Sutra Study class meeting around 12:30pm (after morning 11am service and refreshments). Please join us this Sunday the 16th as we continue our reading of the Sutta Nipata, the chapter on fighting with others (don't come if you've never experienced conflict). See photo (by Kay S.) of our group (too bad, I don't look as stylish as my avatar). For more photos, see the "Views of Diversity" album at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago Facebook page.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Taking the show on the road (on-line, that is)

Following in the digital footsteps of Rev. Bryan Siebuhr ("Recovering Buddhist Priest"), late of the Midwest Buddhist Temple, I'm trying my hand at a blog. (see NOTE below )
Today the Buddhist Temple of Chicago celebrated its 67th anniversary. We want to cheer for our diversity, but in the head minister's greetings, I find we still use the "clubby" language of the Japanese American community - talking about the "Issei" and "Nisei" etc. I have to keep catching myself when I use these terms and translate them - Issei= the generation of Japanese who immigrated to America; Nisei=the children of the Issei, born on American soil.
The microcosm of the temple is the "dojo" (place of practice) for the Buddhist teaching of Oneness - we learn to be more aware of others and their sensibilities as we welcome the newcomers and realize they don't always share our clubby language and unspoken rules of conduct.

April 2013
NOTE - For those of you looking for Rev. Siebuhr's blog, he recently started it up again at:

Sept. 2014
Rev. Siebuhr hasn't updated the above blog since 2013. For his current whereabouts, see