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.