Saturday, January 21, 2012

Using Buddhism as a Bludgeon: Forced into absolution

The other day a young woman came by the temple early. Fortunately my husband was there working on address labels for the monthly bulletin mailing and he let her in. When I arrived at the temple, he was talking with her in the hondo (main hall) going over the first chapter of the Dhammapada (the famous twin-verses) from our service book.

He told me she came because the father of her children insisted she go to a Buddhist temple to be “purified.” The woman I’ll call Ita (not her real name) is probably around 30 but could pass for a high school student and has a Latin American ethnic background. She was in a relationship with a man from an Asian country, I’ll call him Mo, and they had two children. Some months ago he was deported when he broke the law (don’t know which law, but apparently he was undocumented).

Back in his home country Mo became involved with a Buddhist temple and attends there regularly to receive guidance and instruction. He told Ita she must go to a temple to get purified or “bad things would happen.”

I sat with Ita in private and we had tea together. It seems her partner calls her continuously and expects her to be at the computer for scheduled Skype sessions. But it’s not for romantic “absence makes the heart grow fonder” chats, but for him to harangue her about all the things she should be doing according to the Buddhist monks he confers with. She said she feels she doesn’t know him anymore because he has become so obsessed with doing proper “Buddhist” things.

In principle, I don’t want to disrespect other Buddhist traditions and their cultural customs, but I told Ita it makes me sad to hear those monks and her partner were talking about a Buddhism that is not what the Buddha taught. I said the Buddha respected everyone’s individual freedom and would never insist that anyone has to be a certain way. My husband made her a photocopy of the whole Dhammapada section of our temple’s service book, so I told Ita if she reads that she’ll see there’s nothing about paying monks to purify you or giving food offerings to have prayers answered.

My husband showed her how to offer incense in the hondo before I arrived, so I said to Ita that she already performed an act of symbolic purification. Although my husband had explained to her that our temple’s ethnic base was Japanese and not the same as her partner’s country, we agreed it was fortunate that she came to our place and not the kind of temple her partner wanted her to visit. I’m afraid as nice and well-meaning as the monks are at those other temples, their cultural perspective would be the same as Mo’s and they would be critical of Ita’s reluctance to accept their customs (if she was a fair-skinned Anglo used to “white privilege,” it might be a different story).

I felt myself tearing as I listened to Ita – I think many of us know the frustration of dealing with someone who tells us to do what they consider the “good” thing to do and when we don’t because it doesn’t feel right to us, they get violently angry and blame us for all the “evil” in the world. People do this with religion all the time, but it’s especially sad to me when Buddhism is used by people to exert control over other people.

Ita said she was raised Catholic but hasn’t been a churchgoer as an adult, yet she believes all religions have good teachings. She is closer to the Buddha’s mind of wisdom than Mo who insists Buddhism is absolutely right and all other religions are wrong.

Namu Amida Butsu – gratitude to the Power Beyond Self (manifested by Ita as the chance visitor to our temple) showing me the danger of using religion to deny the dignity of other lives.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Call to Adventure: An Iconoclast's Journey

It was Rev. Michihiro Ama who sounded the bugle to charge into battle. At the Higashi Honganji ministers’ training session this past July in Los Angeles, he lectured on the history of Jodo Shinshu but wanted us to also think about its future. He gave us excerpts from “Kiyozawa in Concord: A Historian Looks Again at Shin Buddhism in America” by Galen Amstutz (see “Writings” section). In the article, Amstutz accuses Shin Buddhist scholars (followers of Kiyozawa) of being too Japan-centric and squandering opportunities to attract Americans (followers of Thoreau and Emerson) to the nembutsu teachings. Rev. Ama was throwing Amstutz’ criticism at us as a challenge: “So what are you going to do about this?”

Not being in the scholarly ranks, I felt all I could do is put Amstutz’ commentary to the test at our temple’s study classes. I started with his suggestion that we draw parallels between Shin Buddhism and the Protestant Reformation (see previous blog postings) which for me was somewhat familiar territory, having been brought up in the Presbyterian denomination.

But Amstutz’ other suggestion of bringing out the “mytheo-poetic” aspects of Shin Buddhism was alien to me. In our temple’s presentation of Buddhism, we make it a point to avoid the “mumbo-jumbo” of mystic elements and we readily explain away (or outright dismiss) any descriptions of supernatural events.

For an iconoclast, the journey into the world of icons is an adventure into the unknown. I’ve thought of writing to Amstutz-sensei for advice – haven’t done it yet, but I did buy the Doty book he cited in his article. When I confessed to the study class that for the winter term we would be looking into something I hardly know about, one member lent me a copy of The Power of Myth, the book based on the 1985-86 PBS interviews of Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers. For me, reading the book is a plunge into strange waters. I am grateful for the plain-speaking Moyers’ questions and comments – a side of cooked vegetables to offset the heaps of mashed potatoes and gravy.

As in the hero’s journey scheme, a guide appeared to give me support as I stepped into the unknown. At the Sunday service I announced that we’ll be reading Joseph Campbell in the study class and afterwards William (aka FierceBuddhist in the blogosphere) came up to me, letting me know he had studied and taught mythology and folklore. He came to the first meeting of our class bringing a large color reproduction of the hero’s journey scheme from the comic book “Action Philosophers!” (Giant-size thing, volume 1) and he has given me some material from the David Leeming book.

 Already I can’t help being the muckraker. In Campbell’s account of Shakyamuni under the Bodhi tree, he recounts the usual episodes of Mara’s army of warriors and seductive daughters. But he adds:

Finally the Lord of Lust and Death transformed himself into the Lord of Social Duty and argued, “Young man, haven’t you read the morning papers? Don’t you know what there is to be done today?” The Buddha responded by simply touching the earth with the tips of the fingers of his right hand. Then the voice of the goddess mother of the universe was heard, like thunder rolling on the horizon, saying, “This, my beloved son, has already given of himself to the world that there is no one here to be ordered about. Give up this nonsense.” Whereupon the elephant on which the Lord of Social Duty was riding bowed in worship of the Buddha, and the entire company of the Antagonist dissolved like a dream. (p. 140)

I wondered where Campbell got that, so I went to and found an article by Ananda W. P. Guruge, a Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar, titled “The Buddha's Encounters with Mara the Tempter.” In Section III dealing with non-canonical Buddhist literature, Guruge points out that the stories of Mara’s temptations were embellishments of the Buddha’s philosophical analysis detailed in the Pali canon. A couple of examples he gives seem to jibe with Campbell’s version: A Chinese source says “Mara brought a bundle of official notices purporting to be from Sakya princes to dissuade the Buddha from continuing his quest” and another compilation has Mara trying “to challenge the Buddha’s right to the seat on which he is seated; the earth is summoned as a witness; the earth quakes and Mara and his hosts run in disarray.”

The story of the Lord of Social Duty is not that far-fetched as many Buddhist teachers have had to struggle against the expectations of the society of their day (for example, Kiyozawa was burdened by his samurai-class Confucian ethics). But Campbell’s account shows we have to take the “monomyth” idea with several grains of salt. Myth theorists can easily pick and choose stories from non-canonical Buddhist literature to make neat parallels (“Jesus had three temptations and so did Buddha!”). And much of that literature has been translated by westerners adding their own Romantic spin – and then the myth scholars regurgitate it with even more spin.

Still, I think it can be valuable to me (and maybe the others in the study class) to use these mythical accounts as a source of encouragement and inspiration. We may not have a hero’s journey as exciting as Luke Skywalker’s but there are very real battles in life that we are called to fight.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Dawn Brightness: Nembutsu Heard By Americans

Like Bedford Falls without George Bailey, Chicago would have been a very different place for Buddhists without Rev. Gyomay M. Kubose. Without him hardly anyone outside the Japanese community would have heard of Jodo Shinshu (“Pure land true essence,” aka Shin Buddhism) until the 1970s when third generation members of the Midwest Buddhist Temple (MBT) started marrying non-ethnic Japanese. Even then until the late 1980s, it was rare for someone to join MBT unless they were related to one of the long-time member families.

The large influx of Japanese Americans coming to Chicago from the internment camps in 1944 led to the creation of a variety of social groups, so having two Jodo Shinshu temples is not so remarkable (MBT was founded several months before our temple). Rev. Kubose easily drew people to him with his great charisma, but more importantly, he was an American-born English speaker which MBT’s minister was not. So unlike MBT’s founding minister and members, Rev. Kubose was adept at mingling outside the Japanese community, building bridges of good will, most notably with the famous Rev. Preston Bradley of the Peoples Church.

Through the 1950s, Rev. Kubose nurtured a growing group of non-ethnic Japanese members who formed the American Buddhist Association. Like many pioneering ministers before him (see Michihiro Ama’s 2011 book Immigrants to the Pure Land), Rev. Kubose drew these seekers from the general American population to Jodo Shinshu by emphasizing the basic trans-sectarian Buddhist teachings. I see his pamphlet American Buddhism as a critique of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), warning them that they will fail to attract Americans from Judeo-Christian backgrounds to Jodo Shinshu if they stick with narrowly sectarian terminology and neglect showing Shin in relation to Buddhism in general (and Zen in particular).

In the 1970s (or earlier), Rev. Kubose took advantage of the hippie generation’s interest in Zen by offering meditation at our temple. Although it was presented in a modified Soto Zen format, I remember the unison recitation of “Namu Amida Butsu” was always part of each session and more prolonged nembutsu chanting was included in the overnight meditation (sesshin) that we did a couple times a year. The nembutsu was a central part of Rev. Kubose’s messages, including his oft-repeated Dharma School talk, “Thank you my shoes.”

In the Wikipedia entry recently submitted on our temple, I was not happy that the reviewing editor linked the mention of Rev. Kubose to a website that has the biography written by his family. For the most part it is a decent write-up but I chafed at the last line, “all his life he taught non-sectarian Buddhism.” Alongside the biography is a list of the many honors Rev. Kubose had received, but it made me think of the one honor the Kubose family rejected at his death. The bishop of the North American district of Higashi Honganji wanted to bestow an ingo (posthumous title) for Rev. Kubose but the family nixed the idea. I guess they were afraid any honor coming to their father from Higashi Honganji would conflict with the image of him waving the banner of “non-sectarianism.”

In his book (mentioned above), Rev. Ama writes, “Although Rev. Kubose claimed to be non-sectarian, he often promoted the teachings of Kiyozawa and Akegarasu.” To Rev. Ama and anyone educated in the Higashi Honganji presentation of Jodo Shinshu, the nembutsu teachings of Manshi Kiyozawa (1863-1903) and Haya Akegarasu (1877-1954) are very apparent in Rev. Kubose’s writings and talks. After I returned from my studies in Japan, I found in re-reading some of Rev. Kubose’s works, he directly translates Akegarasu’s words (with little or no attribution to his beloved teacher). Some people claim Rev. Kubose originated a “new direction” in Buddhism but I think Rev. Kubose would agree that for the most part he was expressing in English the revitalization of Jodo Shinshu carried out by Kiyozawa and Akegarasu. (If anything, Rev. Kubose represents a break from the direction BCA was taking during the 20th century.)

Thanks to Rev. Kubose, our temple is a place open to all and many who did not have ties to the Japanese community were able to hear the nembutsu as the call to break out of the shell of self-attachment and be liberated in the awareness of Oneness. Thanks to Rev. Kubose, we are continuing (in the Buddhist Educational Center he started) to deepen our appreciation of Shinran and the Larger Sutra. As the opening blog posting for this new year, I express my gratitude to Gyomay (“Dawn-brightness”) Sensei for passing on the Dharma legacy of Namu Amida Butsu to me and to so many others.