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.

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