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