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.

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