Thursday, September 27, 2012

Heads of Stake: When a "universal" opinion doesn't include yours

The Ten Thousand Ripples project (see my July blog entry “Creeped Out by Public Art”) had its inauguration last Wednesday and Molly, a woman who’s been regularly attending our temple services and study classes, brought me the brochure. Molly was concerned about how I was reacting to the project since in our monthly Sutra Study class I brought it up and got everyone riled up about the offensiveness of the cut-off heads of a Buddha image. Molly then gently interjected that we shouldn’t let ourselves slide into a state of outrage like the people rioting in Egypt and Libya over that anti-Muslim film. When she brought me the brochure she told me the inauguration was all about promoting peace in Chicago-area neighborhoods and especially about engaging schoolchildren in fostering peaceful relations through art.

Today I looked over the brochure and had a meeting at Uptown United with the artist and the Changing Worlds representatives. During the meeting I realized I was feeling uneasy about reading and hearing the phrase “Buddha head” tossed around and so I blurted out that as an Asian American, I find the term derogatory. Growing up I often heard my parents say “buddhaheads” when referring to their fellow second-generation Japanese Americans and I know during the Second World War it was a term applied to the 442nd RCT soldiers from Hawaii as opposed to the mainlanders, the “katonks.” But to hear non-Asians use the term doesn’t sit right with me – what may be endearing within a group, sounds demeaning coming from outside, maybe similar to how women don’t mind their husbands calling them “honey” but they don’t want their male bosses and co-workers addressing them that way.


I told the group it’s better to refer to the Buddha’s facial expression of tranquility and not speak of the decapitated head as an icon of peace. I’m glad that the revised publicity texts will emphasize the image as the artist’s interpretation and take out the wording about “universal.” Everyone is free to interpret an artwork in their own way, but it’s a mistake to think that the great majority of people will see the image in only one particular way. If most European- and African American people along with Christian Asian Americans, such as the artist, see the image of the head as a symbol of peace, that’s fine, but don’t promote that opinion as “universal” when there are those of us who see the broken-off head as an evocation of plunder and disrespect.

The installation of the cut-off Buddha images all around our temple’s neighborhood will be a challenge to me and the congregation to embody the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment – that we can’t let ourselves get upset when we see the sculptures being laughed at, sat on, kicked, defaced etc. etc. It’s just an image and despite what it means to us, we know others will interact with it as they feel. It’s the Buddha’s words and actions that will continue to teach us – that is what we value, not any graphic depiction of a particular person.

Monday, September 24, 2012

For Better or Worse: Buddhists in Politics

Politics is a dirty business, but according to our Buddhist teachers (such as Shuichi Maida in his commentary on the arson incident in Goethe’s Faust), all business is “defiled.” Even the most altruistic endeavor involves the taking of lives – animal, plant and mineral – and/or wrongful speech (deception, withholding facts etc.). Maybe only the monastics can claim to be living a pure life of ahimsa (non-violence) – assuming they eat only vegetables and fruit that the plants willingly release.

Government is needed to keep order in our complicated community lives, so someone has to run for office. A good dozen years ago, a Polish-American member of our temple told me he wanted to run for alderman (for you non-Chicagoans, the city is run by a council made up of ward representatives called “aldermen”). He was going around his neighborhood to collect signatures so he could get on the primary ballot. He told me about one elderly lady who smiled and said he was a good Polish boy when he described his deep roots in the community, having grown up there. Then she asked, “What church do you go to?” As soon as he said “Buddhist Temple of Chicago,” the door slammed shut in his face.

Now it’s not that much of a detriment to declare yourself a Buddhist in elections. In the recent aldermanic elections, one of our temple members, Emily, ran for alderman and noted her affiliation with our temple in her campaign literature. She came in third so she didn’t make it to the run-off but it was a good showing of support from the neighborhood around our temple.

Many of our temple members are and have been involved in government and politics. I feel I can give them as individuals my support even when those individuals may be on different sides of an issue or working to promote a cause I don’t personally agree with. There’s no “Buddha is on our side” advocacy on my part – I just want to be supportive of my fellow Buddhist doing what he or she feels is important in our community life.


Yesterday we learned that someone who has been attending our temple for many years is in the news in regards to his position in public office. I don’t want to rush to judgment since there is probably a lot of complicated history involved, but the person is in an “appearance of impropriety” situation. We all know the media tends to hype things up so I don’t want to depend only on what the news outlets are saying. It could be a case of wanton corruption but my guess is that it’s more in the category of “I thought it was okay because everyone else was doing it and no one was complaining at the time.” It’s like when you find the newspaper vending box is open and everyone is grabbing a paper for free – are you going to be the one who sticks their quarter in first or are you thinking, “What’s twenty-five cents? It’s the newspaper company’s fault for leaving the box open.” In public office, the stakes are higher because the taxpayers end up paying to make up the budget shortfalls. But when office holders fail to consider the burden they create for taxpayers are they any different from any of us who help ourselves to “freebies” when we know we shouldn’t? The cost of our “theft” gets passed on to us eventually.

I haven’t reached out to this particular member yet but I hope we see him sometime and hear how he’s dealing with the karmic causes and conditions that are painting him as the bad guy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

From Religious Segregation to Interfaith Appreciation

In my powerpoint presentation (see title slide below) I did at the recent Eastern Buddhist League conference in Minnesota, I made the point that after we get serious about a particular religious path, there is a phrase of “sorting out” where it is necessary for us to cut ourselves off from the influences of our previous way of life. To receive the message of spiritual liberation from a particular religion, we need to dive in and not get distracted and discouraged by those authoritative voices that formerly held sway over us – whether it’s our parents pleading for us to return to the family fold or a whole society telling us our heritage is inferior to the prevailing culture.


Somewhat paradoxically, the deeper one goes into a spiritual tradition, there arises the calling to go out and work together with people of different religious allegiances. To me, an understanding of one’s own religion is not complete unless it has a vision of inclusiveness, respecting and defending the dignity of all people.

In Jodo Shinshu (“Shin” Pure Land Buddhism) there are many people stuck in religious segregation. In Japan the Buddhist groups are entrenched to the point of ridiculousness. We can’t help chuckling at gatherings of Higashi Honganji in Kyoto when officials speak as if they’re the only ones promoting Shinran’s teachings when we know that just a few blocks away is the headquarters of Nishi Honganji. At American temples you hear too much talk, sometimes coming from the ministers, denigrating not only the Abrahamic faiths but all the other Buddhist sects.

In researching the life of Malcolm X, I read (in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable) how through his immersion in Islam, he came to work with a wide range of civil rights activists, respecting those who were secular, Christian and (shocking to his former Nation of Islam cohorts) women. It made me come to feel that one reason for Shinran’s return to Kyoto after spreading the nembutsu teachings in the Kanto area was his desire to reconnect with the larger tradition of Buddhism. Out in the countryside (of the area that would later develop around Tokyo), he probably felt isolated from the deep soil of Buddhist transmission from which the nembutsu blossomed. It’s just a theory of mine, but I think in looking at Kyogyoshinsho and Shinran’s other works, one can see a widening of his view from sectarian “Pure Land” to true Maha-yana (“large vehicle”) Buddhism.

In Shinran’s place and time there wasn’t any opportunity to meet non-Buddhists, but I think we can feel his appreciation of all lives whenever we engage in dialog and work together with people outside of our temple membership. I applaud the Twin Cities Buddhist Association for hosting the interfaith panel (with Lutheran, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish spokemen) at the Eastern Buddhist League conference and I hope more Jodo Shinshu groups help their members appreciate the wider community of diverse faiths.