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.