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.