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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this I was unaware that the temple was connected with Rev. Gyomay Kubose and family. My Tisarana ceremony was officiated by Rev. Koyo Kubose. I am proud to say I was given the Buddhist name Seiyo by him. This name (Fierce Sun) follows in the tradition of the Kubose family.

    I am thankful for work of the Rev. Gyomay and his family and your post deepened my gratitude.