Monday, August 13, 2012

Obon and the National Moment of Reflection


Our long-time member Janet L. sent me an e-mail from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship about the National Moment of Reflection and asked if our temple would participate. The American Sikh community suggested the National Moment of Reflection for religious groups throughout the U.S. to include in their Sunday services as a brief remembrance of the victims of last week’s shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. www.saldef.org/oakcreek

That Sunday (August 12) was the service for Obon, a special observance in Japanese Buddhism to express our appreciation of deceased loved ones, particularly to those who passed away since last year’s Obon. By starting our Obon service with the National Moment of Reflection, we were reminded that Buddhism is more than a set of rituals to honor our own dead relatives and personal friends, but it is a teaching to nurture our awareness of the awakened heart-mind that embraces all lives, past, present and future.



In my Dharma talk, I said all too often tragic events occur in our country and at our temple services we neglect to mention them while at all the Christian churches the ministers are talking about the tragedies in their Sunday sermons. We should feel a sense of empathy with the Wisconsin Sikh congregation because our temple could easily be a target for white supremacist extremists. We’re not Christian and though we all speak English and dress Western, we’re a racially and ethnically mixed group with interracial couples and some LGBT folks. Wisconsin is close enough to us in Chicago, but closer yet was Friday’s shooting at the Islamic center in Morton Grove (no one was hurt, but the pellets that were fired could have mortally wounded someone).

The Buddhist teachings help us to confront our own heart-mind, to see that we are no different from those shooters with our harsh judgment of “other” people. To think, “the world would be a better place without those @#$%s” is to have the mind that feels justified in taking the lives of those who look or act differently from us. If we hear the Obon story of Maudgalyayana as his transition from hateful condemnation of his mother to his joyful appreciation of her, then we hear the nembutsu, Namu (stop clinging to your fixed notions) Amida Butsu (and move with Life as it is).

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Wrongly settled, quite rightly

“The important thing,” Tomoko said, “is what it means to you.” Even to the point where you derive meaning which the author did not intend? From the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, to Shinran, to even last Sunday’s Dharma talk by any minister at any temple – their words take on meanings for the listener/reader that these teachers did not intend to convey. When is it necessary to cry out in protest and set the record straight, to be the Tan-ni-sho (“cry over differences tome”)? And when is it okay to be inspired by your misinterpretation of the words you received?


According to my teacher, Dr. Haneda, my reading of Shan-tao (613-681) is completely whack. At the annual Maida Center retreat in Berkeley, I gave a presentation about Shan-tao’s “Song of Encouragement” (Kanshu-ge), also known by Nishi Honganji ministers as Kisambo-ge (“Refuge in the Three Treasures Song”). At the retreat and afterwards, Dr. Haneda let me know my portrayal of Shan-tao was way off-base. I expressed my view of Shan-tao as someone who respected all beings, even those who had not yet seemed to him as very enlightened in their behavior and understanding. I said that at the end of “The Song of Encouragement” (the passage known as Eko-ku, “transferring merit phrases”) Shan-tao expresses the aspiration to receive and share the virtues of all beings:

Gan-ni-shi ku-doku, byo-do se is-sai

During my presentation time, Dr. Haneda pointed out to everyone that in the last verse of “The Song of Encouragement,” Shan-tao is speaking from the view of self-power practice, proclaiming, “I vow to distribute the virtues I’ve accumulated to other people.” Dr. Haneda then added, “Shinran would never say such a thing – to talk of eko (“merit-transference”) as one’s own ability to accumulate virtues and pass them on to others.” It sounded like we’re all wrong to be chanting this passage at our Jodo Shinshu temples. Rev. Paul Vielle of the Spokane Buddhist Church came up with a more palatable translation, “May these virtues be shared will all beings,” by taking out any whiff of anyone taking self-power credit for the merits and for being the one to distribute them.

As they do every year, after the retreat, Dr. Haneda and his wife Tomoko invited everyone to their home for a barbecue lunch. When most people had eaten and already left to drive home or catch flights, I was asked by someone to elaborate on the “not yet” portion of “The Song of Encouragement.” Dr. Haneda then pointed out the verses were not Shan-tao’s confession that he didn’t yet appreciate all the seemingly unenlightened folks, but that it was Shan-tao voicing his respect for only the elite bodhisattvas who were well on their way to enlightenment even though some were not quite there yet.

When Tomoko was dropping me off at the San Francisco airport, I told her how bad I felt about giving a presentation that was so wrong. She said she was so busy at the retreat setting up the meals that she missed my talk and most of the lectures by her husband. She asked me if I thought the retreat topic of eko (“merit-transference”) was “too heavy.” I said it was hard to understand, but I wouldn’t call it “too heavy,” that is, too much over everyone’s heads as to be a waste of time. That’s when she said, “The important thing is what it means to you.”

So maybe Shan-tao was an elitist puffed-up blankety-blank. But I’m the one who hears his words in “The Song of Encouragement” as the call of Oneness, the reminder to me of the complete equality of all beings. The heart/mind of seeking (bodhi-citta) is aroused in all of us together. No one, not even Shakyamuni or Shinran can claim they’ve managed to be a jump or two ahead of the rest of us. Together – we start our new life in Sukhavati (“realm of flowing”).

Do hotsu bo-dai shin, o-jo an-raku koku