Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Everyday Suchness of Death

There is already too much commentary on the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, so I hate to add my two cents. One thing that struck me in President Obama’s comments right after the incident is when he recited the litany of places where recent shootings have taken place, he included “a street corner in Chicago.” Maybe the national attention is easily drawn to an event such as the Newtown school shooting, but for us in the Chicago area, we can’t ignore the daily news of gun violence. Just about every day there’s a shooting and someone is killed or severely injured. Many of the victims have been children – just like the school kids in Newtown, they had their bright futures taken from them. But besides shootings, children die in our Chicago area in other violent ways such as fires, hit-and-run drivers, abusive adults etc. And most of these children you hear about in the news were living in poor black or Latino neighborhoods. So I can’t help feeling people are misdirecting their charity when they send money and gifts to a well-to-do community such as Newtown when there are so many needy families who don’t have benefits like health insurance to pay for trauma counseling.


Looking back with each year, I tend to brood on the losses of family members and dear friends. The Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami reminds me that all of us are touched by death. Even if it’s not the news-worthy violent sort, death rarely comes as a completely peaceful passing as I saw from my father’s and sister’s physical and emotional pain when struggling with cancer.

For me, it’s hard to get excited about my nieces and nephews to a degree that surpasses my sense of grief over those I have lost. At the temple I’m happy to meet newcomers, many of them young adults and their children, but it doesn’t make up for how much I miss the long-time members who’ve died. The most I can hope for is that somehow I can help those who will carry on into the future that I will be absent from.

At least for our temple, continuing into the future means being there to bring the Buddha’s teachings to those who are mourning, those who are facing their own mortality and those seeking ways to overcome the violence in our world. In the Newtown tragedy it is easy to feel sorry for the victims and their families, but the perpetrator is the one who serves as a mirror to the darkness in our own hearts. It’s important to acknowledge that there must have been mental health issues afflicting him, but in much of his mind-set he was no different from any of us. It doesn’t take much for us to feel threatened and want to lash out at those who would take away the things we think we cherish (a loved one’s attention, freedom to do whatever we want, a sense of self-worth etc.). That is our ego-driven thinking which for most of us only leads to non-criminal actions (passive-aggressive “getting even” with strangers and loved ones), but any cutting off of ourselves from other lives is committing “murder” in the spiritual sense. To break out of the thinking that leads to violence, I hope others will join me in continuing to learn from those who’ve transcended the frightened, vengeful self – Shakyamuni, Shinran, Kiyozawa, Akegarasu, Rev. Saito et al.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mrs. Saito and the Music of Tariki

Ah, the liberation by the Power Beyond Self --

It relieves me from delusion and suffering and brings me into a state of awareness and tranquility. In just the thought alone, I can feel these benefits of this liberation.

If it were not for the teachings of liberation by the Power Beyond Self, to the end of my life I would never escape from confusion and despair.

I exist in the murky darkness, defiled and bogged down by my ego.

But in the light of the teachings, I can feel the refreshing breeze playing upon the glimmering ocean of all existence.

                    from “Liberation by the Power Beyond Self” (Tariki no kyusai)
                           by Manshi Kiyozawa (my translation)

I read the above passage to close the “Giving of the Dharma Name” portion of the memorial service for Toshiko Saito this past Sunday. Usually our head minister recites a passage by Shinran in both Japanese and rather stilted English, but for this service I wanted to express my gratitude for the teachings and particularly to Mrs. Saito.

It was Mrs. Saito who told me that Kiyozawa’s Tariki no kyusai was read in unison at the study retreats of Haya Akegarasu which she attended with her husband, Rev. Gyoko Saito. She said Kiyozawa’s poetic phrasing was like music to be sung, not just words to recite in monotone. I got a taste of that music at Otani University when I heard the piece read aloud at Rosen-ki, the memorial service for Kiyozawa. Although far from sounding musical, I read Tariki no kyusai in Japanese for the makura-gyo (“pillow service”) at Mrs. Saito’s coffin, instead of chanting one of the usual sutra verses at the funeral home after passing.


I’m indebted to Mrs. Saito because she didn’t just suggest I go to Dr. Haneda’s classes but she said, “I’ll tell him to expect you.” Wow – no “gotta wash my hair that night” excuse for her. Others had told me about the classes but Mrs. Saito made me feel obligated to go. Because of her insistence, I encountered the teaching of the liberation by the Power Beyond Self.

At the memorial service, her children praised her for going out to study accounting and work in that field to support the family. They mentioned some of the companies Mrs. Saito worked for but left out the one I remember most. One time I ran into Mrs. Saito getting off the Michigan Avenue bus returning home from work. I asked her where she worked and she told me – it was a well-known firm owned by H.H., a man usually photographed wearing his robe and pajamas. She told me not to tell anyone at the temple, afraid people would think it’s not a company where a minister’s wife should be. In the accounting department she probably didn’t have to wear the rabbit ears and cottontail.

The Dharma Name I gave her has two parts. Her main name is Kyo-ki “celebration and joy,” which was suggested by Dr. Haneda from a term Shinran uses to describe his gratitude for encountering the nembutsu teachings. The posthumous title In-go is given to those who especially dedicated themselves to the temple and Mrs. Saito definitely is entitled to such an honor by being the wife of a minister who also served as a Rinban (head of a district temple) in Los Angeles and Honolulu and Kantoku (bishop) of the North America District of Higashi Honganji. Since the family said she loved listening to music and singing, I chose the name from the Amida Sutra where “exquisite music” Myo-on is being produced by a variety of birds and celestial instruments. I’ve heard Mrs. Saito sing Buddhist gathas (hymns) and nostalgic Japanese songs, but what I hear her singing now with her voiceless voice is the music of tariki, the Power Beyond Self.