Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Everyday Suchness of Death

There is already too much commentary on the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, so I hate to add my two cents. One thing that struck me in President Obama’s comments right after the incident is when he recited the litany of places where recent shootings have taken place, he included “a street corner in Chicago.” Maybe the national attention is easily drawn to an event such as the Newtown school shooting, but for us in the Chicago area, we can’t ignore the daily news of gun violence. Just about every day there’s a shooting and someone is killed or severely injured. Many of the victims have been children – just like the school kids in Newtown, they had their bright futures taken from them. But besides shootings, children die in our Chicago area in other violent ways such as fires, hit-and-run drivers, abusive adults etc. And most of these children you hear about in the news were living in poor black or Latino neighborhoods. So I can’t help feeling people are misdirecting their charity when they send money and gifts to a well-to-do community such as Newtown when there are so many needy families who don’t have benefits like health insurance to pay for trauma counseling.


Looking back with each year, I tend to brood on the losses of family members and dear friends. The Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami reminds me that all of us are touched by death. Even if it’s not the news-worthy violent sort, death rarely comes as a completely peaceful passing as I saw from my father’s and sister’s physical and emotional pain when struggling with cancer.

For me, it’s hard to get excited about my nieces and nephews to a degree that surpasses my sense of grief over those I have lost. At the temple I’m happy to meet newcomers, many of them young adults and their children, but it doesn’t make up for how much I miss the long-time members who’ve died. The most I can hope for is that somehow I can help those who will carry on into the future that I will be absent from.

At least for our temple, continuing into the future means being there to bring the Buddha’s teachings to those who are mourning, those who are facing their own mortality and those seeking ways to overcome the violence in our world. In the Newtown tragedy it is easy to feel sorry for the victims and their families, but the perpetrator is the one who serves as a mirror to the darkness in our own hearts. It’s important to acknowledge that there must have been mental health issues afflicting him, but in much of his mind-set he was no different from any of us. It doesn’t take much for us to feel threatened and want to lash out at those who would take away the things we think we cherish (a loved one’s attention, freedom to do whatever we want, a sense of self-worth etc.). That is our ego-driven thinking which for most of us only leads to non-criminal actions (passive-aggressive “getting even” with strangers and loved ones), but any cutting off of ourselves from other lives is committing “murder” in the spiritual sense. To break out of the thinking that leads to violence, I hope others will join me in continuing to learn from those who’ve transcended the frightened, vengeful self – Shakyamuni, Shinran, Kiyozawa, Akegarasu, Rev. Saito et al.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mrs. Saito and the Music of Tariki

Ah, the liberation by the Power Beyond Self --

It relieves me from delusion and suffering and brings me into a state of awareness and tranquility. In just the thought alone, I can feel these benefits of this liberation.

If it were not for the teachings of liberation by the Power Beyond Self, to the end of my life I would never escape from confusion and despair.

I exist in the murky darkness, defiled and bogged down by my ego.

But in the light of the teachings, I can feel the refreshing breeze playing upon the glimmering ocean of all existence.

                    from “Liberation by the Power Beyond Self” (Tariki no kyusai)
                           by Manshi Kiyozawa (my translation)

I read the above passage to close the “Giving of the Dharma Name” portion of the memorial service for Toshiko Saito this past Sunday. Usually our head minister recites a passage by Shinran in both Japanese and rather stilted English, but for this service I wanted to express my gratitude for the teachings and particularly to Mrs. Saito.

It was Mrs. Saito who told me that Kiyozawa’s Tariki no kyusai was read in unison at the study retreats of Haya Akegarasu which she attended with her husband, Rev. Gyoko Saito. She said Kiyozawa’s poetic phrasing was like music to be sung, not just words to recite in monotone. I got a taste of that music at Otani University when I heard the piece read aloud at Rosen-ki, the memorial service for Kiyozawa. Although far from sounding musical, I read Tariki no kyusai in Japanese for the makura-gyo (“pillow service”) at Mrs. Saito’s coffin, instead of chanting one of the usual sutra verses at the funeral home after passing.


I’m indebted to Mrs. Saito because she didn’t just suggest I go to Dr. Haneda’s classes but she said, “I’ll tell him to expect you.” Wow – no “gotta wash my hair that night” excuse for her. Others had told me about the classes but Mrs. Saito made me feel obligated to go. Because of her insistence, I encountered the teaching of the liberation by the Power Beyond Self.

At the memorial service, her children praised her for going out to study accounting and work in that field to support the family. They mentioned some of the companies Mrs. Saito worked for but left out the one I remember most. One time I ran into Mrs. Saito getting off the Michigan Avenue bus returning home from work. I asked her where she worked and she told me – it was a well-known firm owned by H.H., a man usually photographed wearing his robe and pajamas. She told me not to tell anyone at the temple, afraid people would think it’s not a company where a minister’s wife should be. In the accounting department she probably didn’t have to wear the rabbit ears and cottontail.

The Dharma Name I gave her has two parts. Her main name is Kyo-ki “celebration and joy,” which was suggested by Dr. Haneda from a term Shinran uses to describe his gratitude for encountering the nembutsu teachings. The posthumous title In-go is given to those who especially dedicated themselves to the temple and Mrs. Saito definitely is entitled to such an honor by being the wife of a minister who also served as a Rinban (head of a district temple) in Los Angeles and Honolulu and Kantoku (bishop) of the North America District of Higashi Honganji. Since the family said she loved listening to music and singing, I chose the name from the Amida Sutra where “exquisite music” Myo-on is being produced by a variety of birds and celestial instruments. I’ve heard Mrs. Saito sing Buddhist gathas (hymns) and nostalgic Japanese songs, but what I hear her singing now with her voiceless voice is the music of tariki, the Power Beyond Self.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wrestling and Wondering at Northeastern

On Nov. 13 Northeastern Illinois University had its 14th annual interfaith conference. Even though I’ve got to-do items as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, I accepted the invitation to participate because I remembered how thought-provoking last year’s program was (see my 2-part blog entry “Interfaith Initiative”).

When I arrived on campus and made my way to the Student Union, I encountered the half-head. It was my first time to actually see the Ten Thousand Ripples sculpture. It wasn’t as large as I expected but still disconcerting to see – the sheared off face perched on a concrete corner (see photo below from NEIU’s Twitter feed).

The first event of the conference was “Media’s Portrayal of the Islamic World: Fact vs. Fiction Fight,” a presentation by Mateo Farzaneh. As a history professor he showed this is a centuries-old problem going back to the “mass media” (woodblock prints) of medieval Europe which presented derogatory images of Jews as well as Muslims. Our present-day media (TV news, movies, magazines etc.) isn’t much different in resorting to negative stereotypes. Prof. Farzaneh pointed out that the media isn’t really “free” – in order to attract the audience their sponsors want to sell to, they sensationalize stories and leave out (“censor”) facts and context. The Western media leads people to believe Islam as a religion promotes terrorism, but almost all the violence and unrest in the Middle East is around political not religious issues. One example is when a student asked about hearing news reports of Arab leaders saying, “Death to Israel,” Prof. Farzaneh said that sound-bite doesn’t mean the Arabs want to kill Jewish people. It’s a cry of protest against a political system that is causing hardships for the residents and neighbors of the modern nation of Israel.

In the next event, a panel about interfaith relations, I spoke about the support I received from my interfaith colleagues from various faith traditions for opening up a discussion of the Ten Thousand Ripples project (see previous blog entry about the Treasures of Uptown event). I said Buddhism is about always learning from others and not claiming only we have the absolute truth.

In Rabbi Brant Rosen’s presentation, the thing that struck me was how his tradition has to wrestle with parts of their history where they wreaked destruction on peoples of other faiths. He said Jews have to own the whole tradition with “the good, bad and the ugly.” Instead of rationalizing away the bloody incidents of the past, they must disavow such actions and attitudes now and into the future.

In the next session was a chance for students to share their views on interfaith relations. The majority of those young men and women who spoke up were Muslims. They see the need for interfaith forums so their fellow students could better understand that they follow a faith of peace and hear how hurt they feel when they’re lumped in with bomb-throwers. To me it’s always refreshing to see the Muslim women looking so stylish in their hijabs (and a few wore veils below their eyes). They prove that women don’t have to practically reveal their whole bodies to look fashionable.

One African American woman became tearful saying she’s been subjected to condemnation by her family for not joining their religion (which she didn’t identify). She said she tried several religions and found she couldn’t believe in any of them. She said she didn’t want her child to join a religion if it makes him hateful as her family members have been toward her. After the session the Interfaith Youth Core representative went to speak to the student. I wondered what she was saying to her since the words seemed to comfort her. My hope is that the young mother will find that in interfaith forums no one will condemn her for not joining a religion and that it’s okay to not believe in any particular faith. In fact, anyone who wouldn’t embrace her as a fellow human being can no way be considered a truly religious person.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Religion and Art Question Each Other

On Sunday November 11, our temple hosted the “Treasures of Uptown” interfaith coalition’s gathering called “Ripples of Respect: Appreciation or Appropriation?” The impetus for the gathering was to have a public forum about the Ten Thousand Ripples project, but we wanted to cover the general issue about artists using religious images. We were fortunate to have a panel of three representatives – of the Buddhist, Native American and Muslim communities and a group of 40 or so attendees from various faith backgrounds.


Tom Lane (ordained as a teacher by the Ch’an Institute) gave a comprehensive presentation about images in Buddhism, particularly the Zen iconoclastic attitude. He mentioned some of my comments on the half-heads and he expressed some concern that the sculptures would be abused. To Tom’s concern a man in the audience from Rogers Park testified that the sculptures already installed around his area seemed to be unmolested and he and others approached them with respect.

I had thought Native American Sharon Okee-Chee Skolnick would speak out against cultural appropriation, but she spoke as an artist saying that religion must be questioned. Artists must be completely free to express themselves without any religion dictating what they can and cannot depict. In talking about herself she mentioned that she had had Christianity drummed into her as a child, so I can understand her view of religion as some anti-creative, oppressive force. She seemed to support the Ten Thousand Ripples project in that an artist should be able to use any image from any religion to express what she feels (and on her website Indira Johnson seems to riff on Hindu and Buddhist motifs).

K. Rizwan Kadir from the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove made his case that for those in the media (artists, writers, film makers et al), even though they have the freedom to express what they want no matter how offensive or hurtful it may be to others, they also are free to not go down that road of setting destructive forces into motion. It may be that part of making art is to draw attention to oneself by deliberately slandering what is sacred to devout people, but couldn’t artists create great works that don’t go out of their way to demean the faith of their neighbors? When someone in the audience asked about some groups considering laws to outlaw sacrilegious depictions, he said there’s no way to draw a firm line to define what is sacred and what is not. He said you could make it illegal to slander Mohammed, but then those who are out to offend Muslims will make slanderous depictions of his family members.

Artists see themselves as challengers to the status quo, so they will be provocative by poking fun at and denigrating what some people consider “holy.” But religious teachers remind all of us, including the artists, that we can’t be going around offending others. Art without any respect for other beings is just another form of “hate speech,” spewing out irrational prejudice against those who are different from you.

We all applaud the goals of the Ten Thousand Ripples project and the sponsoring agency, Changing Worlds, to foster peace in our neighborhoods through art appreciation. Artists are free to present what they say depicts “peace,” but each of us is free to interpret the works from our own backgrounds, including our deeply felt religious commitments.

The second half of our gathering was a chance for each of us to make art with clay and a variety of decorations, a session led by art therapist Sharon Hyson. At the end the pieces were arranged in a “mandala” on one table – we’re hoping photos will be up soon on the temple Facebook page.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The 53 Buddhas: Sudhana Walks In the Door

On Halloween night, our study group continued in our reading of the Larger [Sukhavativyuha] Sutra. For the section where the historical Buddha rattles off the names of 53 Buddhas who preceded the teacher Lokesvararaja (Seijizai-o) of his story’s protagonist Dharmakara, I wanted to use a reference to the Avatamsaka Sutra and I found this intriguing article by Dr. Alfred Bloom called “Sudhana’s Quest.”

My teacher Dr. Haneda and probably many other Jodo Shinshu scholars see the Avatamsaka (aka Garland, Flower Ornament, Hua-yen, Kegon) Sutra as a foreshadow of the Pure Land tradition’s Larger Sutra. The list of 53 Buddhas is an echo of the 53 teachers mentioned in the Avatamsaka Sutra who are visited by the young seeker named Sudhana (Zenzai doji).


I was struck by what Dr. Bloom wrote about seeking as the expression of enlightenment.

… An aspect of the teaching in the Sutra is that the search for enlightenment is itself the indication that enlightenment is already actively present within us. What we seem to be striving for on our own is already given in our striving. In effect we do not gain enlightenment which we could not know even if we gained it. Rather, it is because of enlightenment that we are striving.

I told the study class that each of them by showing up are already manifesting enlightenment. And also it means anyone who steps into our temple is already on the path of enlightenment because they have the seeking spirit – whether they are a long-time member or a first-time visitor who chose to write about our temple for their high school social studies class.

About midway through our class, there was a knock on the front door. One of the study class members opened the door and in walked a woman and a tiny boy about 4-5 years old. When I saw the boy was carrying a pumpkin-orange tote bag, I realized he was on his Halloween rounds. Since we didn’t have any wrapped candy around, we offered them the cookies we had out for our class refreshments. The boy probably had a costume on under his winter coat but we didn’t inquire what he was dressed as.

Since the woman and boy were African American, I assumed they were from the neighborhood (besides the subsidized unit buildings around the temple, there is a shelter for homeless women with children just around the corner). At the temple we talk a lot about getting more involved with the neighborhood and at least we had a few occasions to invite kids inside who happened to be passing by – for Dharma School parties or Bon Odori dancing. But we wish we could reach out to more kids in the Uptown area, for them to come in and enjoy some fun and treats along with the members’ kids who mostly come from the suburbs. Having their presence in the temple  is not for us to introduce them to Buddhism but for us to deepen our understanding of the Dharma in our interaction with them. The Avatamsaka Sutra uses the metaphor of the jeweled net to describe our interdependence with all other lives. If we cannot see those jewels sparkling so close to the temple building, our sense of oneness is woefully inadequate.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fans of Each Other: Mutually Supporting

I was in Los Angeles for a ritual training workshop at the Higashi Honganji Betsuin and my husband was trying to get a hold of me. When I didn’t answer my cell phone, he left messages with two of the ministers also attending the workshop. One was Rev. Nori Ito, Bishop of the North America District. He asked me later what that was all about and I told him a family who belonged to the Midwest Buddhist Temple scheduled an ashes burial service and found out their minister, Rev. Ron Miyamura, wouldn’t be able to do it so Rev. Ron suggested they call me. Rev. Nori thought it was strange that me as a Higashi Honganji minister would do a service for a Nishi Honganji temple but I told him we (BTC and MBT) cover for each other all the time and also give and get help from the Jodoshu minister. Rev. Nori might have been more surprised if I mentioned that the Shingon minister has done services for our members and when he was unavailable he told me to go ahead and do the ashes burial service for a Shingon follower (I chanted Hannya Shingyo and read Kukai’s “I-ro-ha” poem).

In a place like Los Angeles, there are plenty of ministers within each Buddhist sect and denomination so they never have to ask for help from ordained people of other sects. But in Chicago the Buddhist clergy cooperates in helping out other temples’ members. Sectarian differences don’t come much into play for most memorials or weddings – people just want a ceremony that feels Buddhist.


(Above – photo from June 2009, Chicago Sun-Times. Think of Rev. Ron as low-keyed Lou and me as hot-headed Ozzie.)

It’s always hard to give a talk at a memorial service when you didn’t know the deceased. The only thing the family of Mr. W told me was that their father was an avid sports fan and everyone was asked to come to the memorial service wearing jerseys of their favorite teams. I went to the service at the funeral home hoping to learn more about Mr. W. It was a Christian ceremony conducted by the pastor from Mr. W’s daughter’s church. The family wanted him to deliver a Christian message for the sake of Mrs. W who is Christian. The minister showed a graceful respect in talking about visiting Mr. W during his illnesses. He didn’t come out and say Mr. W was a Buddhist, but said he always asked Mr. W if it was okay to pray for him and Mr. W cheerfully consented. In his closing prayer the minister asked that God draw Mr. W nearer to Him which I think is a nice way of saying, “There’s still hope even in the afterlife for this person to find Jesus.” It may not be what the hardline Christians believe, but I’ve heard it expressed by Asians who know their many ancestors died as Buddhists.

Mr. W had made it clear to his son that he wanted a Buddhist ceremony, so at the gravesite before the short ashes burial service, I did a Dharma Name presentation. Only that morning I picked out a phrase from San Sei Ge (Juseige to you Nishi folks) – “that my Name is voiced throughout the ten directions.” It occurred to me that hearing the Name, Namu Amida Butsu, is like hearing the cheering of sports fans for their home team. So I explained Mr. W’s Dharma Name “voice [heard] throughout” as hearing him continuing to root for his family and friends, that he will keep guiding and inspiring them. In Namu Amida Butsu, they will hear his voice and the voices of all the Buddhas, enlightened teachers, and Bodhisattvas, spiritual guides. As players on the field of our own life, there will be setbacks and challenges, but we will hear the cheers from the stands, telling us to keep going forward.

Doing the service for the MBT member was a hoyo (Dharma-event) for me, a chance to gain a little more understanding of the nembutsu and receive the encouragement of Amida (Unbounded Light and Life).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Compassion Across the Board: Not OK to hate the haters

I attended the “Chicago Rally” for the Southern Poverty Law Center with my husband who’s been a long-time supporter of the group and I came away with a similar feeling that I had when we went to hear SPLC’s co-founder Morris Dees speak at a suburban college a couple years ago. It’s that discomfort with hearing that it’s okay to despise other human beings if we put them in the category of violent racial bigots. I get that same feeling when I see some historical movies and docudramas where the white people beating up on the black people are acting like zombie monsters that deserve to painfully dismembered. It’s the depiction of racism as something like rabies that makes an animal go on a rampage and killing them is the only way to stop them.

Of course SPLC doesn’t condone violence against the perpetrators of hate crimes. Besides wanting to see bullies get sentenced in criminal court to imprisonment, SPLC has the legal strategy of using the civil court proceedings to sue white supremacist groups into bankruptcy. In his PowerPoint presentation at the rally, SPLC’s Richard Cohen said in court he tries to be cordial towards the men who’ve preached terror against minorities and conspired to destroy SPLC’s offices and personnel. Yet in the images he chose to show us and in his description of the hate crime perpetrators, Cohen wanted to evoke our disgust towards what seemed to be hulking sub-human creatures.

The Buddhist teachings remind us that it’s an egoistic indulgence to point out how awful other people are so that we feel justified in dismissing the worthiness of their lives. In our study class we read some excerpts from Haya Akegarasu’s Lectures on the Larger Sutra (an unpublished translation by Rev. Marvin Harada) which included the following passage:

… the Buddha does not say that everyone is no good. The Buddha says everyone is wonderful, splendid. There isn't anyone who is no good. Everyone is noble. Those who break the precepts are noble. Murderers are noble. Shakyamuni Buddha saw all beings as noble. He looked up to all beings. This is the shout of "all beings have Buddha-nature!”


A newcomer in the group said he knows Buddhism teaches compassion, but how can you respect someone who’s done terrible things such as murder? But that’s the point the Buddha conveys to us in texts such as the Larger Sutra – it ain’t really compassion unless it means looking up with respect (not downwards with pity) at all beings, to not pick and choose only those we think are worthy. Yes, we take action to stop those who are hurting others, but all the while we see them as beings of worthy Life, knowing their present actions are the result of causes and conditions of myriad forces of their personal and society’s past. The reality is that each life can and will change from one moment to the next – any of us could end up committing a crime, just as a former criminal can turn out to be an effective activist in helping young people to overcome the negative influences in their communities. There is no justification for hating the haters -- they are exactly the same as us – driven by ego-selfishness yet at bottom calling out with the innermost aspiration for Life.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Heads of Stake: When a "universal" opinion doesn't include yours

The Ten Thousand Ripples project (see my July blog entry “Creeped Out by Public Art”) had its inauguration last Wednesday and Molly, a woman who’s been regularly attending our temple services and study classes, brought me the brochure. Molly was concerned about how I was reacting to the project since in our monthly Sutra Study class I brought it up and got everyone riled up about the offensiveness of the cut-off heads of a Buddha image. Molly then gently interjected that we shouldn’t let ourselves slide into a state of outrage like the people rioting in Egypt and Libya over that anti-Muslim film. When she brought me the brochure she told me the inauguration was all about promoting peace in Chicago-area neighborhoods and especially about engaging schoolchildren in fostering peaceful relations through art.

Today I looked over the brochure and had a meeting at Uptown United with the artist and the Changing Worlds representatives. During the meeting I realized I was feeling uneasy about reading and hearing the phrase “Buddha head” tossed around and so I blurted out that as an Asian American, I find the term derogatory. Growing up I often heard my parents say “buddhaheads” when referring to their fellow second-generation Japanese Americans and I know during the Second World War it was a term applied to the 442nd RCT soldiers from Hawaii as opposed to the mainlanders, the “katonks.” But to hear non-Asians use the term doesn’t sit right with me – what may be endearing within a group, sounds demeaning coming from outside, maybe similar to how women don’t mind their husbands calling them “honey” but they don’t want their male bosses and co-workers addressing them that way.


I told the group it’s better to refer to the Buddha’s facial expression of tranquility and not speak of the decapitated head as an icon of peace. I’m glad that the revised publicity texts will emphasize the image as the artist’s interpretation and take out the wording about “universal.” Everyone is free to interpret an artwork in their own way, but it’s a mistake to think that the great majority of people will see the image in only one particular way. If most European- and African American people along with Christian Asian Americans, such as the artist, see the image of the head as a symbol of peace, that’s fine, but don’t promote that opinion as “universal” when there are those of us who see the broken-off head as an evocation of plunder and disrespect.

The installation of the cut-off Buddha images all around our temple’s neighborhood will be a challenge to me and the congregation to embody the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment – that we can’t let ourselves get upset when we see the sculptures being laughed at, sat on, kicked, defaced etc. etc. It’s just an image and despite what it means to us, we know others will interact with it as they feel. It’s the Buddha’s words and actions that will continue to teach us – that is what we value, not any graphic depiction of a particular person.

Monday, September 24, 2012

For Better or Worse: Buddhists in Politics

Politics is a dirty business, but according to our Buddhist teachers (such as Shuichi Maida in his commentary on the arson incident in Goethe’s Faust), all business is “defiled.” Even the most altruistic endeavor involves the taking of lives – animal, plant and mineral – and/or wrongful speech (deception, withholding facts etc.). Maybe only the monastics can claim to be living a pure life of ahimsa (non-violence) – assuming they eat only vegetables and fruit that the plants willingly release.

Government is needed to keep order in our complicated community lives, so someone has to run for office. A good dozen years ago, a Polish-American member of our temple told me he wanted to run for alderman (for you non-Chicagoans, the city is run by a council made up of ward representatives called “aldermen”). He was going around his neighborhood to collect signatures so he could get on the primary ballot. He told me about one elderly lady who smiled and said he was a good Polish boy when he described his deep roots in the community, having grown up there. Then she asked, “What church do you go to?” As soon as he said “Buddhist Temple of Chicago,” the door slammed shut in his face.

Now it’s not that much of a detriment to declare yourself a Buddhist in elections. In the recent aldermanic elections, one of our temple members, Emily, ran for alderman and noted her affiliation with our temple in her campaign literature. She came in third so she didn’t make it to the run-off but it was a good showing of support from the neighborhood around our temple.

Many of our temple members are and have been involved in government and politics. I feel I can give them as individuals my support even when those individuals may be on different sides of an issue or working to promote a cause I don’t personally agree with. There’s no “Buddha is on our side” advocacy on my part – I just want to be supportive of my fellow Buddhist doing what he or she feels is important in our community life.


Yesterday we learned that someone who has been attending our temple for many years is in the news in regards to his position in public office. I don’t want to rush to judgment since there is probably a lot of complicated history involved, but the person is in an “appearance of impropriety” situation. We all know the media tends to hype things up so I don’t want to depend only on what the news outlets are saying. It could be a case of wanton corruption but my guess is that it’s more in the category of “I thought it was okay because everyone else was doing it and no one was complaining at the time.” It’s like when you find the newspaper vending box is open and everyone is grabbing a paper for free – are you going to be the one who sticks their quarter in first or are you thinking, “What’s twenty-five cents? It’s the newspaper company’s fault for leaving the box open.” In public office, the stakes are higher because the taxpayers end up paying to make up the budget shortfalls. But when office holders fail to consider the burden they create for taxpayers are they any different from any of us who help ourselves to “freebies” when we know we shouldn’t? The cost of our “theft” gets passed on to us eventually.

I haven’t reached out to this particular member yet but I hope we see him sometime and hear how he’s dealing with the karmic causes and conditions that are painting him as the bad guy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

From Religious Segregation to Interfaith Appreciation

In my powerpoint presentation (see title slide below) I did at the recent Eastern Buddhist League conference in Minnesota, I made the point that after we get serious about a particular religious path, there is a phrase of “sorting out” where it is necessary for us to cut ourselves off from the influences of our previous way of life. To receive the message of spiritual liberation from a particular religion, we need to dive in and not get distracted and discouraged by those authoritative voices that formerly held sway over us – whether it’s our parents pleading for us to return to the family fold or a whole society telling us our heritage is inferior to the prevailing culture.


Somewhat paradoxically, the deeper one goes into a spiritual tradition, there arises the calling to go out and work together with people of different religious allegiances. To me, an understanding of one’s own religion is not complete unless it has a vision of inclusiveness, respecting and defending the dignity of all people.

In Jodo Shinshu (“Shin” Pure Land Buddhism) there are many people stuck in religious segregation. In Japan the Buddhist groups are entrenched to the point of ridiculousness. We can’t help chuckling at gatherings of Higashi Honganji in Kyoto when officials speak as if they’re the only ones promoting Shinran’s teachings when we know that just a few blocks away is the headquarters of Nishi Honganji. At American temples you hear too much talk, sometimes coming from the ministers, denigrating not only the Abrahamic faiths but all the other Buddhist sects.

In researching the life of Malcolm X, I read (in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable) how through his immersion in Islam, he came to work with a wide range of civil rights activists, respecting those who were secular, Christian and (shocking to his former Nation of Islam cohorts) women. It made me come to feel that one reason for Shinran’s return to Kyoto after spreading the nembutsu teachings in the Kanto area was his desire to reconnect with the larger tradition of Buddhism. Out in the countryside (of the area that would later develop around Tokyo), he probably felt isolated from the deep soil of Buddhist transmission from which the nembutsu blossomed. It’s just a theory of mine, but I think in looking at Kyogyoshinsho and Shinran’s other works, one can see a widening of his view from sectarian “Pure Land” to true Maha-yana (“large vehicle”) Buddhism.

In Shinran’s place and time there wasn’t any opportunity to meet non-Buddhists, but I think we can feel his appreciation of all lives whenever we engage in dialog and work together with people outside of our temple membership. I applaud the Twin Cities Buddhist Association for hosting the interfaith panel (with Lutheran, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish spokemen) at the Eastern Buddhist League conference and I hope more Jodo Shinshu groups help their members appreciate the wider community of diverse faiths.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Obon and the National Moment of Reflection

Our long-time member Janet L. sent me an e-mail from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship about the National Moment of Reflection and asked if our temple would participate. The American Sikh community suggested the National Moment of Reflection for religious groups throughout the U.S. to include in their Sunday services as a brief remembrance of the victims of last week’s shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

That Sunday (August 12) was the service for Obon, a special observance in Japanese Buddhism to express our appreciation of deceased loved ones, particularly to those who passed away since last year’s Obon. By starting our Obon service with the National Moment of Reflection, we were reminded that Buddhism is more than a set of rituals to honor our own dead relatives and personal friends, but it is a teaching to nurture our awareness of the awakened heart-mind that embraces all lives, past, present and future.

In my Dharma talk, I said all too often tragic events occur in our country and at our temple services we neglect to mention them while at all the Christian churches the ministers are talking about the tragedies in their Sunday sermons. We should feel a sense of empathy with the Wisconsin Sikh congregation because our temple could easily be a target for white supremacist extremists. We’re not Christian and though we all speak English and dress Western, we’re a racially and ethnically mixed group with interracial couples and some LGBT folks. Wisconsin is close enough to us in Chicago, but closer yet was Friday’s shooting at the Islamic center in Morton Grove (no one was hurt, but the pellets that were fired could have mortally wounded someone).

The Buddhist teachings help us to confront our own heart-mind, to see that we are no different from those shooters with our harsh judgment of “other” people. To think, “the world would be a better place without those @#$%s” is to have the mind that feels justified in taking the lives of those who look or act differently from us. If we hear the Obon story of Maudgalyayana as his transition from hateful condemnation of his mother to his joyful appreciation of her, then we hear the nembutsu, Namu (stop clinging to your fixed notions) Amida Butsu (and move with Life as it is).

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Wrongly settled, quite rightly

“The important thing,” Tomoko said, “is what it means to you.” Even to the point where you derive meaning which the author did not intend? From the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, to Shinran, to even last Sunday’s Dharma talk by any minister at any temple – their words take on meanings for the listener/reader that these teachers did not intend to convey. When is it necessary to cry out in protest and set the record straight, to be the Tan-ni-sho (“cry over differences tome”)? And when is it okay to be inspired by your misinterpretation of the words you received?

According to my teacher, Dr. Haneda, my reading of Shan-tao (613-681) is completely whack. At the annual Maida Center retreat in Berkeley, I gave a presentation about Shan-tao’s “Song of Encouragement” (Kanshu-ge), also known by Nishi Honganji ministers as Kisambo-ge (“Refuge in the Three Treasures Song”). At the retreat and afterwards, Dr. Haneda let me know my portrayal of Shan-tao was way off-base. I expressed my view of Shan-tao as someone who respected all beings, even those who had not yet seemed to him as very enlightened in their behavior and understanding. I said that at the end of “The Song of Encouragement” (the passage known as Eko-ku, “transferring merit phrases”) Shan-tao expresses the aspiration to receive and share the virtues of all beings:

Gan-ni-shi ku-doku, byo-do se is-sai

During my presentation time, Dr. Haneda pointed out to everyone that in the last verse of “The Song of Encouragement,” Shan-tao is speaking from the view of self-power practice, proclaiming, “I vow to distribute the virtues I’ve accumulated to other people.” Dr. Haneda then added, “Shinran would never say such a thing – to talk of eko (“merit-transference”) as one’s own ability to accumulate virtues and pass them on to others.” It sounded like we’re all wrong to be chanting this passage at our Jodo Shinshu temples. Rev. Paul Vielle of the Spokane Buddhist Church came up with a more palatable translation, “May these virtues be shared will all beings,” by taking out any whiff of anyone taking self-power credit for the merits and for being the one to distribute them.

As they do every year, after the retreat, Dr. Haneda and his wife Tomoko invited everyone to their home for a barbecue lunch. When most people had eaten and already left to drive home or catch flights, I was asked by someone to elaborate on the “not yet” portion of “The Song of Encouragement.” Dr. Haneda then pointed out the verses were not Shan-tao’s confession that he didn’t yet appreciate all the seemingly unenlightened folks, but that it was Shan-tao voicing his respect for only the elite bodhisattvas who were well on their way to enlightenment even though some were not quite there yet.

When Tomoko was dropping me off at the San Francisco airport, I told her how bad I felt about giving a presentation that was so wrong. She said she was so busy at the retreat setting up the meals that she missed my talk and most of the lectures by her husband. She asked me if I thought the retreat topic of eko (“merit-transference”) was “too heavy.” I said it was hard to understand, but I wouldn’t call it “too heavy,” that is, too much over everyone’s heads as to be a waste of time. That’s when she said, “The important thing is what it means to you.”

So maybe Shan-tao was an elitist puffed-up blankety-blank. But I’m the one who hears his words in “The Song of Encouragement” as the call of Oneness, the reminder to me of the complete equality of all beings. The heart/mind of seeking (bodhi-citta) is aroused in all of us together. No one, not even Shakyamuni or Shinran can claim they’ve managed to be a jump or two ahead of the rest of us. Together – we start our new life in Sukhavati (“realm of flowing”).

Do hotsu bo-dai shin, o-jo an-raku koku

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Creeped Out By Public Art

Probably “WTF” comes closest to my reaction when I received an e-mail saying that a community group wants to place this artwork in our temple’s neighborhood.

The explanation of the imagery seems to come from a realm that regards Buddhism as some extinct, exotic religion (the artist is from India):

“For some years now, artist Indira Johnson has used the emerging Buddha head as a symbol of the search for peace and self-realization. Because of the popularity of Eastern thought, yoga, meditation and other Eastern practices in mainstream culture, the Buddha image has evolved into a universal icon for peace, its cosmic dimension making it an archetypal symbol that crosses religious lines and reinforces its universality. Balancing between its secular face, popularized on T shirts, seen in garden shops, used by rock bands and trendy restaurants and its spiritual dimension the Buddha image, captures a growing societal longing for peace in an increasingly fragmented world.”

Uh, hello?! In Uptown as in many other urban neighborhoods, there are people who identify themselves as Buddhists and belong to active, on-going organizations called temples. The Buddha image for us is not just another motif in people’s gardens, rock band T-shirts and restaurant d├ęcor. The image represents much more than a pretty icon of “yeah, peace, man.”

I’m happy to report that members of our community interfaith coalition, the Treasures of Uptown, are sympathetic to my concerns. I hope in an upcoming meeting we can let the Uptown community leaders know that before they agree to a public art display that uses religious imagery, they should hear what people of that religion feel about it.

This is the statement I’ve come up with:

Problem with “Buddha-head”

In one of the major Buddhist scriptures, the Lotus Sutra, there is a description of Bodhisattvas (apprentice Buddhas) emerging from the ground, ready to roll up their sleeves and get busy helping those in need. To me Indira Johnson’s sculpture does not evoke this dynamic sense of “emerging” but instead looks more like a passive victim subjected to burial. Rather than inspiring a sense of peace, the imagery harkens to the custom of feudal and imperial Japan of burying people alive as torture and punishment.

Another issue is that showing the Buddha as just a head is representative of the long history of the plundering of Asian artifacts by the West. One of our temple members toured Southeast Asia and showed us photo after photo of altars where an out-of-proportion plastic head has been placed on the bodies of Buddha statues. The original heads of the sculptures were looted to sell on the Western art market. In the small community temples they are afraid to replace the heads with anything other than plastic for fear of looters returning in search of more Buddha-heads to adorn Westerners’ living rooms.

To me it’s like the recent athletic shoe design with the ankle chain – one person’s idea of a cute joke evokes the nightmares of a whole group of people’s history.

Postscript - TGFI: Thank Goodness For Impermanence
At the meeting our community interfaith group had with the artist and Uptown United, I was relieved to learn that the 10,000 Ripples project is a short-lived public art installation similar to the cow statues that were put up throughout Chicago a few years ago. (Other cities have seen such temporary art motifs.) I can't do anything about the design and location of the 10 Buddha half-heads in the neighborhood, but they are willing to discuss amending the explanations (like the one quoted above). The artist said other Buddhists had no problem with her work - she got approvals in Evanston from a Zen group leader and the owner of the Tibet Center and in the Albany Park neighborhood, the Cambodians were all for it.

Post-postscript - see further development mentioned in Sept. 27 blog entry "Heads of Stake"

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sukhavati: No Lines, No Waiting

At the end of May our temple website received two similar requests from young men – one was leaving prison and the other was leaving his good-paying job at Apple. Both wanted to join a Buddhist monastery to devote the rest of their lives to working towards enlightenment. Then this past weekend two young men came to the temple also talking about a joining monastery. One was a white guy who was going to start a job overseas and wanted to spend his summer at a monastery. I told him what I told the two on-line inquirers – to look at the ads in Tricycle Magazine and search on the internet.

But on Sunday an Asian guy with a shaved head came to attend our morning service. I’ll call him “Yul” (didn’t quite catch his real name) and he said he was Mongolian but was leaving soon for Thailand to become a Buddhist monk. I remarked that his own culture was Buddhist, part of the same Vajrayana tradition as Tibet and Nepal, but he responded, “Vajrayana really screwed up Buddhism. Only Theravada preserves pure Buddhism.” I said, “Buddhism in all the Asian countries are going to have cultural elements that weren’t part of original Buddhism. I bet you’ll find that in Thailand there’s a lot going on at temples that are just cultural customs.”

I asked why he was going to Thailand instead of finding a monastery in the U.S. and he said every place he looked into had a waiting list of one to two years. I found it interesting that he was told “one or two years.” I imagine it’s not because they expect senior monks to be passing away soon, but based on past experience the monasteries predict a number of people starting out now will drop out after one or two years of monastic living.

Yul in his dead seriousness and impatience is probably not so different from how the great teachers such as Shinran and Dogen were in their youth. Or like most of us when we first enter the adult world – we expect everything to be transparent and uncorrupted and are quick to accuse our elders of having messed things up.

As I told both of the website inquirers and tried to get across to Yul in my Dharma talk, you don’t need to join a monastery to enter the path of awakening. Of the millions of people worldwide who identify themselves as Buddhist, only a tiny percentage are living as monks and nuns. The path of seeking is open to all people – those who don’t have the time or money to join a monastery can still participate in learning the Dharma and performing practices at gatherings for lay people led by trained leaders who may not necessarily be ordained.

In Jodo Shinshu we learn that the idealistic concept of purity that we cling to is as much a lie as believing we could be forever young and able-bodied. Rev. Gyoko Saito said it’s like the image of a deep pool of still, clear water – after a time of being enclosed the stagnant water becomes foul and cloudy. His teacher, Haya Akegarasu said real purity is symbolized by a babbling brook – the water is continually moving and being refreshed. This purity is what is meant by the “pure” in Pure Land. The Sanskrit “sukhavati” also points to this. Sukha is the opposite of dukha, that is, freely flowing with the dynamism of life as opposed to being stuck in one’s fixed ego-centered concepts.

It’s okay if you young men like Yul out there still want to join a monastery. But while you’re on the waiting list or slowly saving up money for your trip to Thailand, India, Japan etc., please visit your local non-monastic Sangha and discover the ever-renewing purity of down-to-earth ordinary life.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Many Fingers Pointing to the Moon - Or Not

My planned speech for tomorrow’s event (what I’ll actually say may be different)

Keynote Speech – Int’l Buddhism Festival - June 2, 2012

This year’s theme for the Buddhist Council of the Midwest’s International Buddhism Festival is “Buddhism in the Digital Age.” What we call “Buddhism” – the texts, customs, institutions etc. – is the proverbial “finger pointing to the moon.” Buddhism itself is not “the Truth” but it is a collection of paths that lead us to awakening to the truth. Words and pictures, rituals and practices – are all expressions for guiding us beings deluded by selfish concerns to awaken to actual reality. What goes on and around the internet are just new versions of fingers pointing to the moon. But there is a danger that some of those fingers are not pointing to the Truth and are instead sending people into further delusion, into traps that shut them away from the bright vibrancy of life.

Some ages ago, the term “night stand Buddhist” was coined to describe the millions of Americans who identify themselves as Buddhist even though they do not participate in any Buddhist organization. They are called “night stand Buddhists” because all they know about Buddhism is from the books that sit on the end table by their bed, books that they’ll read a bit of before going to sleep. Now with the internet, that trend has morphed into what we could call “laptop Buddhists” – people whose only contact with Buddhism is what they read on-line.

Although Buddhism started out as an oral tradition, it was able to spread throughout Asia through the written word, translated in several different languages. Though there may have been some scholarly hermits holed up alone behind their stacks of scrolls, we don’t hear about “night stand Buddhists” in the history of Asian Buddhism.

I think one reason for this is that the sutras and commentaries in the Asian languages somehow inspire the reader to seek out active participation with other people. It’s like when you read an exciting book with an ending that leaves you hanging. You want to find others to discuss it with to get their interpretations. You want to seek out the author and ask questions of him or her, or if that person has passed on, you hope to find experts who could clarify the book’s meanings for you. And in joining with others who were moved by the book, you learn from them that there are many lessons in the book that changed their lives for the better.

Too much of what is written about Buddhism in English in books and on-line encourages a smug passivity in the reader. The reader can think, “Yes, I get it now and I’m well on my way to enlightenment, while the stupid people around me have no clue.” The night stand Buddhists might be the ones who’ll pay big bucks to be in a crowded auditorium for a glimpse of the Dalai Lama, but they don’t believe they need to learn from anyone on an up-close and personal level.

In other words, the digital and printed fingers that claim to be pointing to the moon are instead encasing people in one-seater cars on a dead-end road of self-congratulation. There is no arousing of the Bodhi heart/mind that makes you question your limited ego-centered thinking and seek out real-live people already on the road of awakening.

The internet can work as a positive force in leading people to the Buddha, the Dharma and most importantly, to the Sangha. Although there’s a lot of misleading and sloppy information on-line, anyone can easily access many of the major Buddhist texts in English. One of my heroes in Buddhism today is Thanissaro Bhikkhu (fka Geoffrey DeGraff) who set up the website where you can find most of the Pali canon and many great essays and commentaries. Even though he and his monastery are Theravada, I would call them truly Mahayana – for transmitting the large vehicle of Buddhism, open to all.

For our temple in particular, having a website and Facebook page has brought people to us through e-mail that might have been too shy to phone or show up in person unannounced. I tell them they should come to our temple, or any of the Buddhist gatherings in the Chicago-area, to meet people face-to-face. Otherwise if they continue as “do-it-yourself” Buddhists, they will end up in the worst state of delusion, cutting themselves off from the living truth by getting caught up in a fixed state of “enlightenment.”

For all of you here representing the groups in the Buddhist Council of the Midwest, I hope you take full advantage of the internet, to use it as a conduit bringing people to the path of self-transcendence, instead of letting them get mired in the on-line quicksand of delusions. Give them the finger – the digital digit that brings them into the company of live and in-person seekers enjoying the light of the moon.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Self-examination in Poetry: Metaphors Be With You

Since April I’ve been at the temple every Sunday but more weeks than not I’m out of town (either in Minnesota helping in my mother’s transition to assisted living or in Texas with the on-going settlement of my late sister’s affairs). So for the Wednesday study group we’ve been trying Skype as a way for me to conduct the class when I’m not in Chicago. The class gathers at the temple and my husband uses a large monitor hooked to a laptop for the members to see me coming over the internet.

In our second try with Skype, we had a lively discussion – at times I couldn’t make out all the comments when people were speaking at the same time. We read two poems by Kotaro Takamura (1883-1956) which were translated by Rev. Gyoko Saito and Joan Sweany in A Garland of Bright Flowers (poems and essays by various Japanese writers) published privately by Joan Sweany as “Orchid Press” in 1995.

I found it intriguing that Rev. Saito was drawn to translate Takamura’s poems and articles but the anthology he and Joan Sweany put together gives very little information about the writers. They only note that Takamura was known as a sculptor and had studied under August Rodin. There wasn’t much more information on him at the English version of Wikipedia. I wanted to know how Buddhism influenced Takamura. His father (Koun Takamura) and the master his father worked under were both sculptors of Buddhist statues. In the translation of one poem there was a reference to a place called “Iwano prefecture” so I went into the Japanese version of Wikipedia to find that Takamura had lived in Iwate prefecture and for a while was associated with the brother of the poet Kenji Miyazawa (who died before Takamura went to Iwate). Miyazawa in turning away from his parents’ Jodo Shinshu faith, turned to Nichiren Buddhism and his work shows the strong influence of the Lotus Sutra. Takamura, however, seems to have an affinity with Zen.

Image of Kotaro Takamura from Wikipedia.

Here’s an except from Takamura’s poem “To a Mob” which generated much of the discussion:

Look at the starved faces of those who curdle in anger

            Clumping their eyebrows into a snarl;

Look at their weakness and fear

            Irrelevant to the essential.

You secondary selves separated by screens!

You who float weightless like animals on water.

See that poverty of yours, then look at the clear moon

            About to unfold over the hill.

Feel how this winter night is charged!

One member of the group, Joe, took the references to “starved faces” and “that poverty of yours” literally and thought Takamura was putting down poor people. I reminded the group that after reading all the Joseph Campbell material in January and February, we should appreciate the use of metaphors in expressing spiritual themes. (The Star Wars flavored subtitle above is from a placard I saw in the University of Minnesota alumni magazine.) The “starved” and “poverty” in the poem describe the lack of spiritual richness.

I was glad that Lisa made the criticism that I was going to make – in this poem and in some other Buddhist writings (Zen in particular), there is a tone of arrogance and an elitist attitude. The poet from his enlightened perch is looking down on all the deluded beings who are so out of touch with the deeper reality of life.

But the poem is valuable if we read it for our own self-examination. It is the “clear moon” that charges up the winter night that makes me see how lost in petty concerns I am – I know I operate like an animal floating around, walled off from others by the screens of my arbitrary judgments. And I know how much I snarl and curdle in anger, too crippled by weakness and fear (defending and asserting my ego-self) to touch what is the essential (hongan, the innermost aspiration of unbounded Life). I am sure that is how Rev. Saito read the poem – hearing its expression of Namu Amida Butsu.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Not "Practice" but "Great Living" of D.T.Suzuki

I want to get back to studying Buddhism, but I find it difficult to concentrate on much (besides television shows) so soon after my sister’s passing and now worried about my mother’s health. Spending my days at the nursing home where my mother is at, I was afraid I didn’t have any serious material to read during the times when she’s napping but then I remembered that I had the latest newsletter from the Shinran Bukkyo Center with me.

The Shinran Bukkyo (Japanese for “Buddha-Teaching”) Center is a research institute in Tokyo sponsored by Higashi Honganji. One important project they have been working on is the republication of D.T. Suzuki’s translation of Shinran’s Kyogyoshinsho. It’s not a complete translation because Suzuki died after translating only four of the six chapters and there are many parts where Suzuki veers towards a general Mahayana interpretation of the passages instead of presenting the passages from Shinran’s unique viewpoint. To me it’s a valuable work because it’s a much needed alternative to the currently accepted “standard” The Collected Works of Shinran (known as the CWS) published by Nishi Honganji. Right now the anticipated publication date is July of this year.

As part of their work on the project, the Shinran Bukkyo Center invited scholars to give lectures on Suzuki’s translation and the reports on the lecture series appear in their newsletters and full transcripts are published in their journal. What a pleasant surprise it was to open this month’s newsletter to see the recent speaker was our Chicago guy, Michael Conway. I call Mike my “oshiego” (“child that I taught” – what a grade school teacher would call her former pupil) since he came regularly to our temple’s study classes before he went to Japan. But it’s very embarrassing to hear him introduce me to people as his “sensei,” because he’s become such an advanced scholar of Buddhism, accomplishing much in Japanese and English with so many decades ahead of him. He currently teaches at Otani University and has appeared at scholarly conferences throughout the world.

In the report, one of the points Mike made in his lecture was why he thought D.T. Suzuki chose “Great Living” as a translation for “dai-gyo” when the standard English translation for “gyo” has long been the word “practice.” Mike said the word “practice” in English refers to actions done with the purpose of gaining some reward. (As in “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” – “Practice!”) But D.T. Suzuki was well aware that “Namu Amida Butsu” was not something done over and over in order to get better at it and win the all-expenses-paid trip to the Pure Land. Suzuki resonated to Shinran’s focus on “suchness” and so he could taste the nembutsu as that which guides us to being in accordance with “Reality as-it-is.” This accordance is meant to be experienced, not “practiced,” so to Suzuki it made more sense to see Shinran’s use of the word “gyo” to refer to “living” – and “dai-gyo” is the Great Living of unbounded life, i.e. Amida.

For me Reality as-it-is means jagged unstable ground beneath my clumsy feet. But where there is a lack of readiness, willingness and ability for “practice,” there is the wide open path of Great Living.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cowgirl All Dressed in White Linen

You would think any seriously practicing Buddhist would have their ojuzu (meditation beads) in their hands at least some time every day, especially if they’re a minister. But during my stay in Texas to take care of my sister, I only took my beads out of my purse twice. The first time was for the improvised memorial service at the request of a temple member (see previous blog entry). The second time was last night – as the two mortuary workers, a young woman and man, carried my sister’s body wrapped in a white sheet from the bedroom to the gurney set up in the hallway.

My brother didn’t want to see it. He had just arrived that afternoon and was able to spend several hours with our sister while she was still conscious.

He went to the front door to hold it open as the two workers wheeled the gurney out of the house. With my hands in gassho (palms together) and the ojuzu around them, I walked behind in the same manner as a minister following the coffin in a funeral recessional.

I wanted to keep my hands in gassho, but before leaving the house, the woman from the mortuary extended her hands to me. I let her take my one hand in hers. “Sorry for your loss,” she said. Then she did the same with my brother.

Namu Amida Butsu. Sorry – loss – ours.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Forgetting and Remembering - Others as the Buddha

Don't try to be too wise; don't always try to search for something profound to say. You don't have to do or say anything to make things better. Just be there as fully as you can. And if you are feeling a lot of anxiety and fear, and don't know what to do, admit that openly to the dying person and ask his or her help.

From The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

I was surprised that the “Caregiver’s Guide” pamphlet from the hospice service (providing care to my sister dying of cancer in Texas – see previous blog entry) had two quotes from recognizably Buddhist writers – one was Jack Kornfield and the other Sogyal Rinpoche. The latter’s quote in the pamphlet was short so I Googled it to read a fuller version (see

Being here fully is just not happening. I find myself forgetting every little thing, even things that used to be routine with me. I try to write down important things dealing with my sister’s care, but the sheets of paper and sticky notes are all piled here and there in disarray – as the to-do list gets longer. And I’m not talking to my sister about my fears and anxieties, since she lets me know she has enough on her mind and doesn’t want to hear my troubles.

As much as we say we want to be “there” for someone – we are elsewhere a lot of the time. And the internet makes it easy to be other places mentally while you are physically in one place. I’ve been taking care of a lot of temple correspondence by e-mail, mostly about the Buddhism Intro class which I’ve postponed a week. Yesterday my husband e-mailed me a scan of the handwritten note sent to me by a temple member, Mr. J, an elderly Japanese American.

When I read Mr. J’s note I realized I completely forgot about performing a memorial service on the anniversary of his wife’s death as he had requested a month ago. Mr. J had been hospitalized for a while and was not up for the drive from the western suburbs to the temple, so I offered to go to his house to do the memorial service and asked his son to set it up. The son called me later and said his father didn’t want that and so I intended to comply with Mr. J’s original instructions to just do the chanting on the date without his presence.

(Photo by Joanne Kamo)

As it turned out I had to come to Texas to deal with my sister’s declining health and the memorial date of Mr. J’s wife had come and gone. Mr. J wrote the note as a reminder to me of his original request but he began reminiscing about her death twelve years ago: “I took her to the hospital for heart valve replacement. We had never thought it would be the end that night. We made a recovery room for her by the window so she can see birds and squirrels. Never entered our mind of the outcome that day. I thank you for being there that night.”

That night when my husband and I went to the hospital we saw Mrs. J was unconscious and hooked up to a breathing machine. At one point the family said it was getting late for us and nothing much was happening – I wanted to go home and get to bed but my husband said he had a feeling we should stay a little longer. We stayed and maybe it was about an hour or so later when I saw the monitor by Mrs. J’s bed go “flatline” and the alarm went off. It was the first time I was in the presence of a person at the moment of death. After the medical personnel completed their procedures, the family gathered around Mrs. J’s body and I conducted the Makura-gyo (“pillow sutra”) service. [Customarily the service is done within a day after the death since ministers are called after the fact and often end up doing the service at the funeral home.]

After reading Mr. J’s note, I got out the chanting pages I tuck away in my appointment book and I went to a window in my sister’s house that looks out on her back yard, thinking of the recovery room Mrs. J’s family had set up for her. I saw birds landing and flying around the patio with all the plants my sister had cared for. I didn’t have a bell with me, so for the gong-striking parts of the chant, I tapped with my fingers on a metallic angel figure that was by the window. A couple days late, but I performed the memorial service for Mrs. J – grateful to be reminded of what I had forgotten: tariki, the power beyond self.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Tripping Over Uncertainty: No Skillful Means

I thought “constant change” (mujo = not-always) would be an inspiring theme for the new year, but impermanence is a big pain in the oshiri when you need to make travel plans. I didn’t want to blog about my personal issues, but my being away from Chicago does affect the people at the temple. I’m scheduled to do a 4-week course “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” in March, but at this point, I’m wondering when I’ll be back in Chicago.

Back in mid-February my sister’s health took a turn for the worse and she asked if I or my brother could come down to Texas to help her settle her affairs (which included setting her up on a hospice program). I paid for a one-week round trip ticket to Austin but it looks like I definitely can’t go home that soon since it’s taking time to set up all the hospice care arrangements. In some moments my sister is busy putzying around and seems able to do most things herself (she expressed that she does not desire the constant company of me and my brother) but other times she’s weak and in pain and I would hate to go away even with a caregiver visiting her daily.

In the daily e-mail I receive from Tricycle magazine, they had a quote from (one of my big idols) Thanissaro Bhikkhu saying we should keep up the intention to be skillful in our every thought, word and deed. It hit home with me in my present situation – I’m pretty clueless and clumsy dealing with all the things my sister needs to have done. I’m so bad at making efforts and so easily distracted by entertaining trivia (like watching the Oscars).

At one of the Maida Center retreats, Rev. Ken Yamada of the Berkeley Higashi Honganji Temple told his story of driving his wife to the hospital when she became critically ill. He was speeding but it seemed like the route was full of traffic jams and aggravations and he was getting more anxious and swearing at all the other drivers. Then Naomi told him, “Whether we make it to the hospital quickly or not – it’s all up to Amida.” To hear her calm settling into true entrusting (shinjin) helped Rev. Ken let go of his anger and drive more sensibly. Everything turned out okay – Naomi received treatment and recovered.

As Amida means the unbounded power of conditions and events beyond our control, then Amida includes the reality of one’s own limitations and inabilities. We can’t will ourselves to suddenly become strong and competent and without years of intense monastic training, even our intention to be skillful goes off track more often than not. I’m finding out that the Namu in “Namu Amida Butsu” doesn’t just mean “bowing down” – sometimes it means tripping over and falling flat on your face.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"No Thanks" to DIY: Sangha is the Context

The “free special offer” you get when you subscribe to a publication is usually something next to useless. I recently signed up for an online subscription to Tricycle magazine (I can always thumb through the print edition when I visit Barnes & Noble) and I was glad they had a “no thanks” button to click when their free special offer popped up. Whether digital or print, the last thing I needed was a guide to meditation, no matter how many experts were contributors.

But I understand that for a lot of people searching for peace in their lives, any instruction on how to meditate is valuable. And there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of people on the internet who are hungry for any information about Buddhism they find because they live too far away from any Buddhist group. Yet there are all those “night-stand Buddhists” (those who read and write books on Buddhism) who could easily walk or take public transportation to a Buddhist center but don’t want to interact in person with any “organized religion” followers, as if we have some kind of filthiness that would contaminate their practice of “pure” Buddhism.

On the Tricycle magazine website I was impressed by a recent essay “Living Buddhism” by David Brazier – so much so that I posted the link on my Facebook page and sent the article to our temple’s Dharma School teachers. Here’s an excerpt:

Lack of a coherent and meaningful community life and way of relating to others is, arguably, the cause of much of the suffering that people seek to resolve in Buddhism. If what they get is a do-it-yourself, on-yourself, by-yourself, for-yourself, at-a-price technique, this is not going to do the trick, even if it does provide some secondary gains or palliative satisfactions. In Asia, Buddhism has flourished by being a focus for community life. Communities are held together by shared values, attitudes, and forms that affirm their deepest sense of reality. Most traditional Buddhists have little if any concern for their own attainment of enlightenment, except in the very long term. Their spiritual and religious concerns are more immediate: the well-being of their community, the relationships they have with fellow sangha members, and, above all, their relationship to the Buddha, the Tathagata. Buddhism flourishes through an other-centered, rather than a self-centered, orientation toward life. Otherness here refers both to ordinary others—one’s neighbors, for example—and spiritual others—the Tathagata and other spiritual presences. Practice in an other-centered context means expressing one’s devotion, whether practically or ceremonially, toward the other.

The article made me realize I should appreciate anyone who wants to learn about Buddhism through human contact. With all the books, DVDs, YouTube videos etc. on “how to meditate,” I should feel reverence for the person who reaches out to our temple to explore Buddhism in the presence of fellow human beings (although for every ten e-mails and phone calls we get from people wanting to visit, only one will actually show up at the door).

One story that keeps inspiring me is what I heard Rev. Bob Oshita (of the Sacramento Buddhist Temple) tell at an Eastern Buddhist League convention a couple years ago. He talked about his college student days when he started to seriously explore Buddhism and said he went to the San Francisco Zen Center to learn sitting meditation (zazen). He felt uncomfortable and unsure of what to do so he knew he was fidgety and breathing unsteadily, yet when the session was over, the teacher, Dainin Katagiri (1928-1990), said to the group, “Your zazen is much better than mine.” Through Rev. Bob’s story I heard the nembutsu of Katagiri-sensei – he was casting off his high stature as a well-known Zen roshi and humbly bowing down to the pure seeking spirit he received from the newcomers. The story continues to remind me that however jaded I tend to get, I am fortunate to encounter all these new and on-going seekers and be revitalized by their ever-fresh, earnest spirit of going forth to experience truth.

In the above quote, Brazier is talking about devotional Buddhist groups in general, but in our temple’s teaching lineage (Kiyozawa, Akegarasu, Maida), there are no separate “spiritual others” apart from the “ordinary others.” From the viewpoint of Katagiri-sensei, the Bodhisattva Dharmakara was manifesting himself as the fulfilled Amida Buddha in the bodies of the struggling zazen students, so sincere in taking their first steps onto the path of awakening. The tatha-agata is thus-coming through our temple doors with each man, woman and child who enters, no matter how poorly groomed or mentally “out of it” they may seem to be. Whether it is the meditation sessions I preside over when the regular leader is out of town or the weekly and monthly study sessions, there is no Buddha and Dharma for me unless there are those ordinary-looking “spiritual others” present-- the Sangha.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The High Seas of Mujo: From Melville to Chin

A great description of my feeling “stuck” was in an excerpt from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that William posted on Facebook (maybe we’re all going through the winter blahs):

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

I’m not about to sign up for a whaling expedition (that would be politically incorrect), so I’m wondering about ways for the mind to be set free to roam to seas while the body is mired down to the land of “oughtness.” In our Wednesday study class, I saw the contrast between the seafaring vs. landlubber approaches to religion when we read Joseph Campbell’s metaphoric interpretation of the Bible’s account of creation and story of Adam and Eve. Karen kept interjecting with the literal viewpoint she learned in her fundamentalist Christian past. Although she’s far from that now (thanks in part to the Campbell series on PBS), she said her family and old friends continue to feel that way. (And judging from recent news stories, there are a whole lot of Americans like that.)

I recognize that there’s a lot of comfort in having a religious view that’s dictated down to you and everything is cut-and-dried about how you should act in the world. It’s like feeling the ground beneath you—solid and supporting, never-changing. It’s not just in Christianity, but probably in all religions and cultures there are groups who prefer stability and conformity in beliefs and behavior.

But not for the Buddha and serious seekers throughout Buddhism’s history – they learned through awakening to suffering that life cannot be lived according to set formulas. Our other reading in the Wednesday class was from the last part of Rev. Saito’s article “San Gan Tennyu” (title refers to the process of the three vow-gates that Rev. Saito illustrated by using the story of Helen Keller). Rev. Saito was not afraid to blast the “pre-programmed” kind of Buddhists who see karma only in terms of self-attachment (resigning themselves to misfortunes caused by their bad karma of the past and daydreaming of future rewards for their good karma). The calculating mind of self-benefit has to be broken through in order to be in contact with life itself, the “dynamic, organic, huge net in time and space.” To know life as mujo (“not-always,” i.e. continuous change) is to ride the waves of the open seas.

Adam and Eve were thrown out of the garden of Oneness when they tasted the fruit from the tree of knowledge and starting judging each thing (including their self) as separate and against other things. We still live in the world of relativity and need to be discriminating to function in our jobs and as citizens in particular societies. But the Buddha and teachers such as Shinran keep reminding us of the fallacy inherent in those concepts that divide life up into pieces to be measured and ranked.

We need to be vigilant in calling out the falseness of those concepts when they are used to devalue and subjugate people. Recently Seiichi sent me an article about Frank Chin, the pioneering Asian American writer (photo above by Corky Lee). The article evokes a nostalgic feeling for my young adult days when I was so excited reading about “yellow power” (anyone else remember the newspaper “Gidra”?), taking pride in my Asian roots that I shared with various Asian ethnic groups, not just the Japanese. But Chin is challenging me to question the present-day situation where Asians (as well as other non-Anglos) are still being portrayed as less than full persons by the dominant Western culture. True awareness of Oneness is to recognize the value of each life in all his or her uniqueness, instead of grouping people into condescending categories.