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.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Too Bogged Down to Blog: In Need of Anicca

After my last blog entry where I revealed a little too much of myself, I’ve been trying to come up with something informative but impersonal, but felt stuck. For the March issue of the temple bulletin I found an article of Rev. Gyoko Saito’s where this passage describes the state I’ve been in:

... But so often we stand still in this known world and think about what we should do next; or we feel we understand everything about life and say, “Life is thus and so;” or we affirm ourselves, “I am it!” and fall into the kind of difficulty described in the Buddhist parable of “the river of water and the river of fire.” The raging river of water is the endless desire that cannot be satisfied; the river of fire is uncontrollable anger. Faced with the sight of both rivers, we tend to stop walking.

When I fall into this state, and stop developing the new life of mine, then I always hear the teacher’s voice: “Walk, and the way shall open up.” When I stop walking, when I get self-satisfied about my achievements, or when I feel self-pity as a result of my mistakes, or when in the world of criticism I say of others, “He is no good, she is no good,” or when because of anger I stop taking steps, stop moving – then I am killing myself. But when I start to walk, listening to the voice of life - “Walk, and the way shall open up” – then my life continuously develops and a new world open ups, no matter what I did previously.

--from Meditations on Death and Birth (privately published by Joan Sweany, 1983

I see Rev. Saito as a Jodo Shinshu hero. He calmly tolerated those personal difficulties that he could not control, but he didn’t settle for a blah existence of “accept and be grateful,” the message that much of the Jodo Shinshu presentation seems to emphasize. Like the other heroes – Shinran, Kiyozawa, Akegarasu, Maida – Rev. Saito answered the “call to adventure” – to leave the world of “should do” and enter the unknown, going into “the belly of the beast,” not afraid to challenge the authorities who tried to prevent Buddhism’s message of liberation from reaching more people.

Not sure how I’ll get moving through my rivers of desire and anger, but I’m glad for the voice of Rev. Saito, the voice giving meaning to Namu Amida Butsu – the call to the life of moving forward, anicca, continual dynamic change.