Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wrestling and Wondering at Northeastern

On Nov. 13 Northeastern Illinois University had its 14th annual interfaith conference. Even though I’ve got to-do items as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, I accepted the invitation to participate because I remembered how thought-provoking last year’s program was (see my 2-part blog entry “Interfaith Initiative”).

When I arrived on campus and made my way to the Student Union, I encountered the half-head. It was my first time to actually see the Ten Thousand Ripples sculpture. It wasn’t as large as I expected but still disconcerting to see – the sheared off face perched on a concrete corner (see photo below from NEIU’s Twitter feed).

The first event of the conference was “Media’s Portrayal of the Islamic World: Fact vs. Fiction Fight,” a presentation by Mateo Farzaneh. As a history professor he showed this is a centuries-old problem going back to the “mass media” (woodblock prints) of medieval Europe which presented derogatory images of Jews as well as Muslims. Our present-day media (TV news, movies, magazines etc.) isn’t much different in resorting to negative stereotypes. Prof. Farzaneh pointed out that the media isn’t really “free” – in order to attract the audience their sponsors want to sell to, they sensationalize stories and leave out (“censor”) facts and context. The Western media leads people to believe Islam as a religion promotes terrorism, but almost all the violence and unrest in the Middle East is around political not religious issues. One example is when a student asked about hearing news reports of Arab leaders saying, “Death to Israel,” Prof. Farzaneh said that sound-bite doesn’t mean the Arabs want to kill Jewish people. It’s a cry of protest against a political system that is causing hardships for the residents and neighbors of the modern nation of Israel.

In the next event, a panel about interfaith relations, I spoke about the support I received from my interfaith colleagues from various faith traditions for opening up a discussion of the Ten Thousand Ripples project (see previous blog entry about the Treasures of Uptown event). I said Buddhism is about always learning from others and not claiming only we have the absolute truth.

In Rabbi Brant Rosen’s presentation, the thing that struck me was how his tradition has to wrestle with parts of their history where they wreaked destruction on peoples of other faiths. He said Jews have to own the whole tradition with “the good, bad and the ugly.” Instead of rationalizing away the bloody incidents of the past, they must disavow such actions and attitudes now and into the future.

In the next session was a chance for students to share their views on interfaith relations. The majority of those young men and women who spoke up were Muslims. They see the need for interfaith forums so their fellow students could better understand that they follow a faith of peace and hear how hurt they feel when they’re lumped in with bomb-throwers. To me it’s always refreshing to see the Muslim women looking so stylish in their hijabs (and a few wore veils below their eyes). They prove that women don’t have to practically reveal their whole bodies to look fashionable.

One African American woman became tearful saying she’s been subjected to condemnation by her family for not joining their religion (which she didn’t identify). She said she tried several religions and found she couldn’t believe in any of them. She said she didn’t want her child to join a religion if it makes him hateful as her family members have been toward her. After the session the Interfaith Youth Core representative went to speak to the student. I wondered what she was saying to her since the words seemed to comfort her. My hope is that the young mother will find that in interfaith forums no one will condemn her for not joining a religion and that it’s okay to not believe in any particular faith. In fact, anyone who wouldn’t embrace her as a fellow human being can no way be considered a truly religious person.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Religion and Art Question Each Other

On Sunday November 11, our temple hosted the “Treasures of Uptown” interfaith coalition’s gathering called “Ripples of Respect: Appreciation or Appropriation?” The impetus for the gathering was to have a public forum about the Ten Thousand Ripples project, but we wanted to cover the general issue about artists using religious images. We were fortunate to have a panel of three representatives – of the Buddhist, Native American and Muslim communities and a group of 40 or so attendees from various faith backgrounds.


Tom Lane (ordained as a teacher by the Ch’an Institute) gave a comprehensive presentation about images in Buddhism, particularly the Zen iconoclastic attitude. He mentioned some of my comments on the half-heads and he expressed some concern that the sculptures would be abused. To Tom’s concern a man in the audience from Rogers Park testified that the sculptures already installed around his area seemed to be unmolested and he and others approached them with respect.

I had thought Native American Sharon Okee-Chee Skolnick would speak out against cultural appropriation, but she spoke as an artist saying that religion must be questioned. Artists must be completely free to express themselves without any religion dictating what they can and cannot depict. In talking about herself she mentioned that she had had Christianity drummed into her as a child, so I can understand her view of religion as some anti-creative, oppressive force. She seemed to support the Ten Thousand Ripples project in that an artist should be able to use any image from any religion to express what she feels (and on her website Indira Johnson seems to riff on Hindu and Buddhist motifs).

K. Rizwan Kadir from the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove made his case that for those in the media (artists, writers, film makers et al), even though they have the freedom to express what they want no matter how offensive or hurtful it may be to others, they also are free to not go down that road of setting destructive forces into motion. It may be that part of making art is to draw attention to oneself by deliberately slandering what is sacred to devout people, but couldn’t artists create great works that don’t go out of their way to demean the faith of their neighbors? When someone in the audience asked about some groups considering laws to outlaw sacrilegious depictions, he said there’s no way to draw a firm line to define what is sacred and what is not. He said you could make it illegal to slander Mohammed, but then those who are out to offend Muslims will make slanderous depictions of his family members.

Artists see themselves as challengers to the status quo, so they will be provocative by poking fun at and denigrating what some people consider “holy.” But religious teachers remind all of us, including the artists, that we can’t be going around offending others. Art without any respect for other beings is just another form of “hate speech,” spewing out irrational prejudice against those who are different from you.

We all applaud the goals of the Ten Thousand Ripples project and the sponsoring agency, Changing Worlds, to foster peace in our neighborhoods through art appreciation. Artists are free to present what they say depicts “peace,” but each of us is free to interpret the works from our own backgrounds, including our deeply felt religious commitments.

The second half of our gathering was a chance for each of us to make art with clay and a variety of decorations, a session led by art therapist Sharon Hyson. At the end the pieces were arranged in a “mandala” on one table – we’re hoping photos will be up soon on the temple Facebook page.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The 53 Buddhas: Sudhana Walks In the Door

On Halloween night, our study group continued in our reading of the Larger [Sukhavativyuha] Sutra. For the section where the historical Buddha rattles off the names of 53 Buddhas who preceded the teacher Lokesvararaja (Seijizai-o) of his story’s protagonist Dharmakara, I wanted to use a reference to the Avatamsaka Sutra and I found this intriguing article by Dr. Alfred Bloom called “Sudhana’s Quest.”

My teacher Dr. Haneda and probably many other Jodo Shinshu scholars see the Avatamsaka (aka Garland, Flower Ornament, Hua-yen, Kegon) Sutra as a foreshadow of the Pure Land tradition’s Larger Sutra. The list of 53 Buddhas is an echo of the 53 teachers mentioned in the Avatamsaka Sutra who are visited by the young seeker named Sudhana (Zenzai doji).


I was struck by what Dr. Bloom wrote about seeking as the expression of enlightenment.

… An aspect of the teaching in the Sutra is that the search for enlightenment is itself the indication that enlightenment is already actively present within us. What we seem to be striving for on our own is already given in our striving. In effect we do not gain enlightenment which we could not know even if we gained it. Rather, it is because of enlightenment that we are striving.

I told the study class that each of them by showing up are already manifesting enlightenment. And also it means anyone who steps into our temple is already on the path of enlightenment because they have the seeking spirit – whether they are a long-time member or a first-time visitor who chose to write about our temple for their high school social studies class.

About midway through our class, there was a knock on the front door. One of the study class members opened the door and in walked a woman and a tiny boy about 4-5 years old. When I saw the boy was carrying a pumpkin-orange tote bag, I realized he was on his Halloween rounds. Since we didn’t have any wrapped candy around, we offered them the cookies we had out for our class refreshments. The boy probably had a costume on under his winter coat but we didn’t inquire what he was dressed as.

Since the woman and boy were African American, I assumed they were from the neighborhood (besides the subsidized unit buildings around the temple, there is a shelter for homeless women with children just around the corner). At the temple we talk a lot about getting more involved with the neighborhood and at least we had a few occasions to invite kids inside who happened to be passing by – for Dharma School parties or Bon Odori dancing. But we wish we could reach out to more kids in the Uptown area, for them to come in and enjoy some fun and treats along with the members’ kids who mostly come from the suburbs. Having their presence in the temple  is not for us to introduce them to Buddhism but for us to deepen our understanding of the Dharma in our interaction with them. The Avatamsaka Sutra uses the metaphor of the jeweled net to describe our interdependence with all other lives. If we cannot see those jewels sparkling so close to the temple building, our sense of oneness is woefully inadequate.