Monday, December 16, 2013

Many Memorials and Few Moments to Grieve

It wasn’t my idea to take over as minister-in-charge of the temple in June of this year but someone had to take the job as our long-time head minister was retiring. Some years back the temple tried out two young ministers Japan – the first didn’t last long as he and the temple realized he lacked the maturity for the job and the second had to be nudged out long after he failed to meet the standards of his annual evaluation (that had items such as, “take classes to improve English ability” and “learn to get around Chicago.”) And with both there was the problem of the differences of culture and job duties – Buddhist ministers in the Americas work in a similar way as Christian pastors, while most priests in Japan are not expected to do much beyond chanting at funerals and memorials. So for the sake of the temple, I felt I had to take over until we find some new prospects.

But now I’m experiencing one big difference in my life now as opposed to last year. As the part-time associate minister, I wasn’t tied to being at the temple all the time and conducting the Sunday services. So I was able to spend the weeks taking care of my terminally ill sister in Texas and after she passed away, I spent a couple weeks in Minnesota with my mother who was in the hospital at that time. As my mother recovered enough to be sent to a rehabilitation nursing home, I had the time away from hecticness in Chicago to grieve for my sister.

[Gravestones at Ft. Snelling where my father’s ashes are buried]

After I became the full-time minister, I was able to take about three days a month to go visit my mother living in an assisted-living facility. I thought it would be a routine that would continue for a long time as she seemed fairly stable in her condition. But last month she started experiencing difficulty breathing and the doctor gave her the choice of going to the hospital for aggressive intervention or signing up for hospice care. It was my mother’s decision to stay in her place – she had had enough of the hospital for the past couple years. My husband and I visited her at Thanksgiving and I planned to take my usual 3-day visit this week, but early last week my brother reported things had taken a turn for the worse. When I arrived in Minnesota on Wednesday evening it was just a couple hours before she stopped breathing.

On Thursday my brother and I met with the funeral home to plan for a memorial in January and we had a final viewing on Friday. And on Saturday I was back in Chicago to conduct a 25th year memorial service for a temple member family. There was a Mr. Y whose cremation service I conducted the week before and the family had not set a memorial service date yet – I just sent them an e-mail that on the first weekend in January I won’t be available. I have a one-year memorial service this Friday and on the last weekend in December is a 100th day service (because families these days are scheduling their main memorial services so close to the 49th day, we are doing 100th day services as marking the end of the formal mourning period).

I don’t want to sound like a complainer – I have a feeling this is what many other Buddhist ministers have to go through. Because of all the series of memorial services to do for the deceased, it doesn’t leave much time to attend to your own grief. Ministers don’t have the luxury of bereavement leave because people keep dying and families are in need of the series of services to mark the memorial dates. I imagine some time in the future there won’t be such a flurry of memorial services because the non-ethnic Japanese members aren’t concerned with such rituals. But right now our temple has quite a lot of elderly Japanese American members whose families will want the whole nine-yards of ceremonies when time comes to say farewell.

Friday, November 15, 2013

At Northeastern: Bowing to God, Not Male Chauvinists

At the previous two interfaith conferences at Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University, I wrote at length about my experiences, but now I’m too swamped with my temple duties to spend much time on my blog. At this year’s conference, the speaker who impressed me as very dynamic and knowledgeable was Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim chaplain and scholar at Northwestern University in Evanston. I was fortunate to hear her at two panels where she did PowerPoint and video presentations. What was refreshing for me to hear was someone speak unapologetically about feminism as a current concern, not as a bra-burning fad back in the hippie era.

One example Professor Ahmad gave of the present-day feminist fight is the attempt by Western societies such as in France to ban women from wearing traditional Muslim clothing in public. Those authorities claim they want to liberate Muslim women from the “oppression” of their culture, but as Prof. Ahmad pointed out, it is the authorities who want to oppress all women by dictating that they should dress so that men can to look at them. Prof. Ahmad said the argument that women must uncover themselves in public for identification purposes doesn’t hold water because Islamic law allows for women to show their faces to be identified in specific cases such as providing testimony as a witness at a trial.


Just because many religious institutions are patriarchic doesn’t mean the religious teachings oppress women. Throughout history and all over the world, religion has liberated women because they have a higher principle to look to which overrides the commands of their fathers, husbands and sons. In the description of Christian marriage it may seem like the wife is asked to totally obey her husband, but it actually gives her an out from her husband’s rule if the husband is not faithfully following God (e.g. if he’s abusing and cheating his fellow humans).

As in the case of my past visits to NEIU, I continue to be impressed by the young Muslim women who help organize the conferences. I envy their strength – to speak up for themselves and telling people to respect them for their minds, not to ogle them as physical objects. Although I’m so many decades older than them, I was probably thinking the same thing they were: “I want to be Tahera Ahmad when I grow up.”

Just a side note – in my presentation at the conference I talked about how a large number of Boy Scouts are Buddhists and that part of the reason is being open-minded about saying “God” in the oath. In this blog entry title, I could easily say “Bowing down to tariki-hongan.” Although many Buddhists consider themselves atheists, in interfaith relations we need to respect other people’s reverence toward a higher being they call God or Allah etc.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Undeserved Benefits: Galen to the Rescue, Again

Last year I was taken aback when after the memorial service for Mrs. Toshiko Saito (see my December 2012 entry), Dr. Haneda told us it would be his last trip to Chicago. Our temple had gotten used to him coming every November to do the Ho-on-ko seminar up until 2011 when he fell ill the night before his flight to Chicago. We had to improvise the seminar – watching a bit of him lecturing on a DVD and reading a couple of his articles. His seminar was rescheduled for May to commemorate Shinran’s birthday, Tanjo-e. I was hoping the make the Tanjo-e seminar our new annual routine since Dr. Haneda felt the spring weather was easier to take than the November chill.

But after giving the eulogy at Mrs. Saito’s memorial, Dr. Haneda said a spring trip was out of the question because he’s booked up with West Coast temples through June. During the summer months he needed to prepare for the annual retreat and his lecture circuit in Japan throughout September and October. When I saw Dr. Haneda at the past summer’s retreat, he sounded open to doing a seminar via Skype, but he no longer wanted to travel outside the West Coast because it was too hard on his health.

For this year’s Ho-on-ko seminar, I asked Buddhist art scholar Gail Chin of Canada to return to Chicago after her extended visit for our Eastern Buddhist League conference over Labor Day weekend. Her topic “The Depiction of Women in Japanese Buddhism” would attract a wide range of people and I told her I’d do the introduction and closing discussion to relate her topic to Shinran’s views on women.

Last week Gail announced she had to cancel due to sudden developments in her field of work. Also last week among (or because of) all the hectic activities at the temple, I developed a sharp pain in my abdomen which resulted in my spending two nights in the hospital with a case of diverticulitis. It was the first time I actually had to be in the hospital as a patient.

Upon getting out of the hospital I had to forgo the prescribed rest and get back to the temple matters. One thing hanging over my head was finding a replacement speaker for the Ho-on-ko seminar. It was an inspired suggestion of my husband’s – try seeing if Galen Amstutz is available since we were already considering him as a guest speaker in the future.


I contacted Galen and he happily accepted our invitation. In my great relief I was reminded of the other times I felt helped by Galen – such as that recounted in my January 2012 entry “Call to Adventure.” The earlier time was when I was studying in Japan and decided to go for ordination, a Rev. Emoto who worked at the Higashi Honganji headquarters office said he would help me through the process. He said he wanted to help an American to pay back the help he received from an American – Galen Amstutz, who had been studying at Ryukoku University before he became minister at the Arizona Buddhist Temple. It was never quite clear to me what were all the things Galen did for Emoto-san but Emoto-san was so happy to help me as his way of expressing his gratitude to Galen.

Many years later when I finally met Galen in person at a conference, I asked him about Emoto-san and he said he had no recollection of such a person. To me it was true dana (generosity) – to help someone and then totally forget who they were.

The flip side of dana is to be the recipient of benefits that you really don’t deserve. To know that I didn’t do a thing in the past to deserve such kindness, yet somehow someone else set in motion the benefits given to me. All of you Jodo Shinshu people recognize this scenario: kalpas ago pure practice was perfected, vows were fulfilled and here we are now, reaping the benefits of Awakening. Namu Amida Butsu, indeed!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Asian Buddhist Roots: Remembering Barb H.

I feel frustrated that I haven’t been able to finish any of the blog entries I started this month. One reason is having three people in a row passing away – in our Jodo Shinshu tradition each death requires a series of memorial services, not just one big funeral as in other religions. So instead of long essays, I’ll have to try to squeeze in some short comments from time to time.

Mr. H. passed away at age 92 and the public memorial service will be in a couple weeks at the Midwest Buddhist Temple where he was a member. However, since I knew the family from my teenage days in Minnesota, they had asked me to visit him in the hospital and during my third visit he let go and passed away peacefully with his family members present. I conducted the first of the series of memorial services – the makura-gyo (“pillow sutra”).

The other day Mrs. H. and her three generations of offspring gathered at the funeral home for a post-cremation service and I chanted with the MBT minister, Rev. Ron Miyamura. Beside the urn for Mr. H. was an urn for his daughter Barb. She had died over twenty years ago in Minnesota and at that time her ashes were stored in an urn too unwieldy in size and weight for the MBT nokotsudo (columbarium) so they used this occasion to place her ashes in an urn to match her father’s.

Seeing her urn brought back my memories of Barb. For those of us who attended the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, she was a trailblazer. She was in that first wave of third-generation Japanese Americans who had their consciousness of being Asian (and proud!) raised by the Black Power movement. When I think about it, she inspired those of us coming to the University later to take advantage of our time on campus to learn about our Asian history and culture, no matter what our chosen major happened to be. And it was students like her who raised their voices and made sure the University heard their demands for more courses on Asia and also Asian American heritage.


For me, it was important to read (in translation) Kawabata, Mishima, Dazai etc. to learn about myself and I would advise all young people to explore their ethnic identities through literature and other arts. And in discovering my roots, I also found an affinity towards Buddhism. It’s seen all over how a large proportion of Asians and Asian American are very conservative Christians (I feel sorry for the progressive Christian minority always being drowned out by their fundamentalist relatives), rejecting Buddhism as the archaic, superstitious part of their cultural legacy. But Buddhism is so much a part of our Asian background it should be embraced as an integral element in our spirituality even if we profess a different religious affiliation.

A Filipino man named Ritchie was a regular attendee of our study group (until he passed away a few years ago) and he said even though Catholicism was the dominant religion in the Philippines for centuries, there was archeological evidence of Buddhism’s presence in the islands. I am glad to report that at our temple there are a number of non-Japanese Asians who are “coming back” to Buddhism as part of their Asian heritage. Of course our temple welcomes people of all ethnic backgrounds – many from Judeo-Christian cultures – but I think there’s something to be said about needing to know the Asian mindset in order to appreciate Buddhism more deeply, to get out of the boxes that Descartes and Aristotle put into Western thinking. So I say “okage-sama de” (I stand in your shadow) to Barb who wasn’t afraid to voice her rebellion against the European-centric educators at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Into the Past to Step Forward

This month, September 2013, marks the 120th anniversary of the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago as part of the Columbian Exposition. For the ninety or so attendees of the Eastern Buddhist League Conference (August 31- September 2) hosted by our temple’s membership, the significance of the 1893 event was brought into focus with valuable insights for the outreach activities in our respective communities. (The Eastern Buddhist League consists of Jodo Shin groups in Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Illinois and Ontario, Canada.)

The conference gave us a chance to learn about Buddhism’s introduction in North America by such pioneers as Japanese Zen teacher Shaku Soen (1860-1919), his student D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), Suzuki’s wife Beatrice (1878-1939), Suzuki’s sponsors in LaSalle, Illinois, industrialist Edward C. Hegeler (1835-1910), his son-in-law Paul Carus (1852-1919) and Canadian lawyer and art expert, Norman MacKenzie (1869-1936).

For both the descendants of Japanese immigrants and the “convert” members, it sounds jarring to hear the title of Paul Carus’ 1894 book The Gospel of Buddha. But it points to the spirit of Carus and the times – his desire to present the fundamental trans-sectarian teachings of Buddhism by appealing to those who only knew the religion of Christianity. Although Jodo Shinshu teachers have emphasized the many ways we are different from other Buddhist paths and from Abrahamic religions, we should recognize that the presentation of Shinran’s teachings might be better served by taking a respectful attitude towards other faith traditions instead of being aggressively antagonistic.


The photo above depicts the re-enactment at the conference of the dialogue between Edward Hegeler and Shaku Soen, with Dr. M. Blouke Carus reading the part of his great-grandfather and Bishop Noriaki Ito reading the Zen master’s words. In the dialogue we hear the thoughtful questions and contemplations of Westerners open to what Buddhism has to say. All of us North Americans, present temple members and members-to-be, are Edward Hegeler, seeking a clearer understanding of the truth and gratefully receiving guidance for our search. And the whole Buddhist tradition, in and outside of Jodo Shinshu, is embodied in the teacher, who conveys the insights of the human being Shakyamuni, not confined by sectarian boundaries.

That the nembutsu reverberates out in ten directions means we are all - Zen and Shin, Buddhist and Christian - embraced in its all-inclusiveness. Learning about the pioneers of the past reminds us to share the Dharma with all people, regardless of race and ethnicity AND regardless of their sectarian and religious affiliation. Just as Edward Hegeler and Paul Carus called their publishing company “Open Court,” our temples should be open courts – places that are welcoming to all and full of lively discussions. Those pioneers remind us that instead of trying to convert and criticize others, we should share with them the joy of discovering what Buddhism teaches us, and that no one has the “final word” because the world around and inside of us is continually changing and bringing us new challenges.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Shinshu: Confronting the Heart of Darkness

For the August memorial service, I spoke about the 68th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, mentioning the loss of my paternal grandmother’s parents and siblings who lived within a mile of the Hiroshima ground-zero. The main content of my talk was about the public lecture my Otani University advisor, Prof. Shunsho Terakawa, gave in the mid-1980s. At that time Prof. Terakawa has just lost his old friend, a schoolmate who had died of cancer.

In his lecture Prof. Terakawa said he and that friend were attending a school outside of Hiroshima City. On a rare day off from classes, August 6, 1945, they decided to take a bus into the city to hang out there. The 8 o’clock bus was packed so they decided to wait for the next bus. Then at about the time that bus would have arrived in the city, they heard and felt the impact of the uranium bomb and saw the mushroom cloud. They started walking into the city urgently wanting to find out what happened. What they saw was utter destruction with overwhelming numbers of dead and dying people for blocks and blocks. Prof. Terakawa described the people walking out of the city as frightening sights with swatches of burned skin hanging off their bodies and eyeballs falling out of their sockets. For Prof. Terakawa and his friend it was an experience of utter helplessness, knowing there was nothing they could do for any of the people crying out in pain and fear. As a teenager it was too much for him to process, but memories of that day shaped the direction and depth of his study of religion.

[Detail from print “Atomic Bike” by David Tanimura ( Note as of 2016, the artist is now known as Danielle Tanimura]

I remember the title of his public lecture as Ningen no mumyo, “Humanity’s Darkness.” He spoke of the atomic bombings not as America’s doing but as the vicious actions of all of us as human beings upon our fellow human beings. In this way Prof. Terakawa had entered the mind of Prince Siddhartha sitting under the pipal tree. In his self-examination, the prince was forced to confront himself as the cruel warrior, no different from his father and all the kings before and after him, commanding their armies to rain down destruction on any clan, village or kingdom that posed a threat to their prosperity.

When the prince saw the blood-thirsty horror in the depth of his being, he shouted “Avidya!” What Buddhists call the Awakening arose with that shout, but there are different interpretations of what that shout meant. In an article Rev. Gyomay Kubose wrote early in our temple’s history, he translated “Avidya!” as “Oh, how ignorant I am.” He was following most English writers in portraying Buddhism as the striving to overcome “ignorance.” But I really believe at least for that particular time (1950s to 1970s) Rev. Kubose was deliberating softening the meaning of mumyo, so he wouldn’t scare away the Americans attracted to the “peace and love” message of Buddhism. I am sure that Rev. Kubose, as someone partially schooled in Japan and a live-in student of Haya Akegarasu for many years, well knew that mumyo is more accurately translated as “darkness.”

Prince Siddhartha became Buddha, the Awakened One, when he saw his own avidya – his own dark, dark heart/mind. What he confronted wasn’t some abstract notion of “ignorance,” lack of knowledge, but a visceral realization of his ready willingness to wreak pain and death on other lives. It is this presentation of his Awakening that the Buddha gives us in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra. How do we come to grips with our warrior nature? We aspire to keep investigating all the ways we separate ourselves from others and dismiss the worth of their lives. We aspire to “own” all evils, so that we cannot use morality as a yardstick to justify our condemnation of other living beings.

Jodo Shinshu emphasizes this radical stance more so than other paths that claim you can practice your way out of the heart of darkness. When Shinran says (Tannisho, Chapter 13) “Given karmic conditions, I could do anything,” he means, “I could be Adolf Hitler.” In our study group sessions, I used to ask, “Can you see Hitler being born in the Pure Land?” but now I realize the real issue is ONLY when I can see myself as Hitler will I truly be born in the Pure Land. Namu Amida Butsu is the calling to me to come just as I am, dark heart and all.

Friday, July 12, 2013

In the Company of (mostly white) Men: Interfaith Iftar

Although the American Islamic College is only a few blocks from our temple, I finally went there for the first time for their interfaith Iftar dinner last night. They had invited me to events a couple times last year but I had to decline because I was too busy dealing with family matters. When they invited me for this event, I felt I would make the effort to go despite my long list of things to get done for the temple.

I was relieved of much of my nervousness about venturing into a new place when I was greeted by Akiko. She is a young Muslim woman that I met two years ago at an interfaith memorial service for the victims of the earthquake-tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan (the area where Akiko is from). Most of the early arrivals for the Iftar dinner were men – clergy and faculty from the Catholic Theological Union and Lutheran School of Theology, both institutions being honored at the dinner for their long history of dialogue and cooperation with the American Islamic College. Eventually a few more women arrived, such as the protestant chaplains I chatted with.

The women of AIC were quite busy with putting on the program – one as the announcer, others as audio-visual technicians, photographers, food service managers etc. Almost all like Akiko wore headscarfs (hijab) and colorful flowing outfits that completely covered arms and legs. Yet they moved as efficiently in their tasks as athletes in tank tops and shorts. The speakers who came to the podium, however, were all men.

At one point the program had to be put on hold because it was officially sundown and the Ramadan daily fast was to be broken with everyone taking a drink of water and eating a date. Then we went upstairs from the dining hall to the mosque for prayers. I can’t help thinking how wonderful it must be to live in a Muslim country when you hear the beautiful chanting of the calls to prayer from morning to night. It’s almost like being onstage in an opera with gorgeous arias filling the air around you.

In the mosque, the men went to the front of the room while I followed the women going off to one side behind a standing rattan screen. The screen wasn’t meant to be a wall – we could easily see the men through and around it. Some people might say otherwise, but to me it felt like we women had a special corner reserved for us. The Muslim women lined up in a row to do their bowing and we of other faiths stood behind them. Yet it felt like we were all one group, united in sisterhood. In most gender-integrated settings, even if women are in the majority their presence is easily diluted by the men asserting their will to be acknowledged.

After the service, we were served a tasty dinner and the program resumed with more men speaking at the podium. Except for the Mediterranean complexion of the Eastern Orthodox bishop, all the other men called to the podium to accept awards for their interfaith work had Anglo faces. While hearing the long resumes of each one and listening to their eloquent speeches, it dawned on me that I was invited as an affirmative action token – someone with lightweight qualifications but as a woman and racial minority my appearance would provide visual proof of diversity.


(Turkish painting I received as gift from the American Islamic College)

I hadn’t prepared a fancy speech because I assumed at an interfaith event I would just have to offer some prayerful words. As preface to reading the Dhammapada selection about non-violence, I condemned the Buddhists in Burma who were terrorizing the Muslim minority.

            Seeing myself in others, then whom can I hurt?

            The person who seeks happiness in hurting those who also seek happiness

            Will never find happiness …

            The one who lives in quietness and virtue, who has ceased to harm all other beings,

            He, even if he wears fine clothes, is a true seeker

After the event ended, I talked with Akiko and the other AIC women and it seemed to them I wasn’t a token but their representative as serious women in religion. Even though the male awardees acknowledged the women in their organizations who helped in the cause of interfaith understanding, somehow there was no big effort to get awards for them. Anyone in the religious world knows women are very involved – even an all-male monastery couldn’t operate without the donations and volunteer services of women supporters. Maybe it’s time for the spotlight to shine more on the behind-the-scenes females and people of color and less on the light-skinned front men.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Getting Out of Canada Alive

After my interview with Tricycle magazine, I suggested they send a reporter to Vancouver for the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference (May 31-June2) because “people with baseball bats will be waiting for me.” Actually at the conference ( the only talk of baseball bats was from Bill Staples, author of Kenichi Zenimura: Japanese American Baseball Pioneer, who was there to explore Zenimura’s Jodo Shinshu faith (

I thought that with the Tricycle interview and my paper “Penetrating the Seven-Syllable Barrier,” I would be stirring up some controversy, but instead it was Galen Amstutz who bore the brunt of criticism from those who want to keep Pure Land Buddhism “pure.” In my previous blog entry (January 2012 “Call to Adventure”), I said that I wanted to contact Galen but since I never got around to it, seeing him at the conference gave me the opportunity to tell him in person how I was trying to implement his suggestions for presenting Jodo Shinshu at our Chicago temple.


(photo: Rev. Michihiro Ama talks with Prof. Galen Amstutz at the 2013 IASBS conference)
I hope to write in future posts about the various topics brought up at the conference, but for now I want to discuss how Galen ended up being the target of metaphorical rotten tomatoes. It started on the first day of the conference with a session of talks by Richard Payne (Institute of Buddhist Studies) and Kristin Johnson Largen (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg), both touching on the problems of presenting Pure Land Buddhism in the West. Galen commented that Shin Buddhist scholars were complicit in fostering many of the misconceptions about Shinran’s teachings. That session got him thinking about how to stimulate more discussion of that problem.

On the morning of the third day of the conference, Galen was the respondent for the panel dealing specifically with Shinran’s thought. He announced that if there was time after all the papers and discussion, he would like to present some “meta-issues” about Jodo Shinshu. After the four wonderfully deep papers (the real “meat” of the conference, I felt) from two Otani and two Ryukoku University scholars, there wasn’t time for Galen’s presentation. I went up to him afterwards and said he could come to my panel and talk about his meta-issues in conjunction with my paper because I felt it would be in a similar vein.

My panel was in the afternoon – more people seemed to be outside the meeting room than inside, probably having had enough of sitting for hours in hard chairs. My paper was first and after a couple comments, I asked Galen if he wanted to say something and he said he’d wait until the panel was finished. There was only one other paper since the third person on the schedule was absent. After Mutsumi Wondra (Ryukoku grad student from the Orange County temple) gave her detailed paper on “Namo Amida Butsu” referencing the Larger Sutra, Shinran’s writings and a poignant American poem, Galen got up and announced himself as the player from the stands coming up to bat as a last minute substitution. I realized later that I should have explained to the moderator and audience that I had invited Galen to speak because there wasn’t time for his presentation in the morning session. Without any explanation for them, it really did look like a random person from the stands was coming onto the field seeing that a scheduled player was a no-show.

Through the Power Point presentation he prepared, Galen threw out his ideas of “upaya” (Sanskrit for “skillful means”) to address the meta-problem of communicating Shin Buddhism to North Americans. He said the “particular kind of language, complex and rich” used in classical Shin texts just don’t have much appeal to those outside Jodo Shinshu circles. He felt there were so many different ways to make Shin Buddhism attractive to Westerners: emphasizing its non-monastic institutions, relating to the anti-self-help sentiments expressed in Burkeman’s The Antidote, bringing in cognitive science that shows our consciousness is not so much in control, etc. etc.

However, the audience was rather hostile to all the suggestions – categorizing them as trying to “sell” Jodo Shinshu by passing it off as something it’s not. Japanese Canadians from the Vancouver temple felt Jodo Shinshu is fine just as it is and it’s not for them to try to bring more outsiders into the fold. The Australians were vocal in their objections – Alex Minchinton felt any “upaya” must be based in the wisdom of Buddhism, not Western sciences, and moderator John Paraskevopoulos made the concluding remark that “re-framing Shinran doesn’t do him justice. We need to make clearer the distinctions which give the Shin teachings their compelling power.” (They must be doing something right in Australia for Jodo Shinshu to attract such sharp and sensitive people as Alex and John, and others I’ve met at previous IASBS conferences such as Gregg Heathcote.)

I regret that I didn’t insert myself more into the discussion because I agree with much of what Galen said and has been saying – that Jodo Shinshu is too insular and needs to find expression beyond a Japan-centric context. It may eventually fade away as a religious tradition in North America, but for now I’m grateful that it is well and alive for me. So much of the IASBS conference including Galen’s comments have deepened my appreciation of the liveliness of Shinran’s teachings. According to the metaphor Dr. Haneda often uses, the nembutsu is the Drano that clears the gunk out of our spiritual plumbing, so that we can truly be alive in this ever-changing, interconnected universe.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Gambaru Guy: Fred Yoshitomo Sasaki 1932-2013

[Note: I didn’t want to use my blog to publish my Dharma talks, given at weekly or special services or events, but because I’ve been busy and will be busy (I’ve got to work on that paper for the conference I’m going to in Vancouver) I’m posting this talk from the memorial service I recently conducted at our temple.]


Today we are gathered together to honor and celebrate the life of Fred Yoshitomo Sasaki and we express our condolences to his family and the relatives and dear friends who knew him over many years. On behalf of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, I would like to express our gratitude towards Mr. Sasaki for his generous support.

In the Buddhist tradition, a person receives what is called a Dharma Name, or Homyo, either during a confirmation ceremony or for most people, upon their death. The Dharma Name signifies that the person is a follower of the Buddhist teachings, the Dharma, and the name also reflects the person’s spiritual quality.

Since I did not know Mr. Sasaki personally, I tried to get a sense of who he was from his son Fred John. He told me, as many of you already know, that Mr. Sasaki liked to shout “Ganbaru!” [Also romanized as “Gambaru”] That word is translated in many ways, such as “Hang in there” or “Keep going strong.” Literally, it is a verb with two parts – the first part “Gan” means “to stay firm” and the second part “Baru” comes from the verb “Haru” which means “to stretch.” In other words, “Ganbaru” means to stay firm and keep extending that strength, such as when you’re battling obstacles or running a race.


When Mr. Sasaki’s son mentioned in one of the ‘zines he did with his father that there is a picture of someone stretching out their body so vigorously that his dentures pop out, that hilarious image made me want to put the word for “stretch” in Mr. Sasaki’s Dharma Name. So I came up with the Dharma Name “Zen-cho” which means “good stretch.” The Chinese character “Zen” part meaning “good” could be read in Japanese as “Yoshi” as in Mr. Sasaki’s middle name, Yoshitomo. The Chinese character “Cho” is the same as the “baru” in “Ganbaru” – it’s an ideograph showing an archery bow on the left side and the symbol for “extension, length” on the right side. “Cho” or “haru” is to stretch as in setting the string of an archery bow for shooting an arrow.

“Good stretch” might sound a little whimsical for a Dharma Name, but I feel it expresses the Buddhist teaching of appreciating what we have received from others. In our case, it is Mr. Sasaki who has stretched out – extended – goodness to us. And this stretching out will continue even though he is no longer with us in his physical form. Especially for his son and grandson, Mr. Sasaki acted as that bow from which he wanted them to fly out from as arrows, going as high and far as they want to in life.

In hearing the nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu, we can hear Mr. Sasaki saying, “Ganbaru!” The Namu part is telling us to reflect and realize we are not living just for our self and by our self and the Amida Butsu part expresses the awakening to our interconnection with all the life around us. Let us “Ganbaru” – stay firm and stretch out in our seeking the truth, in our transcending of our petty superficial selves. Even if some of you are not religious or interested in Buddhism, I hope the inspiration from Mr. Sasaki gives you a little glimpse of what the Buddha is teaching us – to stretch out of our self-centered little worlds and extend our appreciation of others, to discover in the unfolding of each moment of life the fresh, creative energy and richness of experience.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

At the Movies: Identifying with Impermanence

After I heard film critic Roger Ebert passed away, I made sure we had plenty of copies of the temple’s March bulletin out on the free literature counter. The front page article of that issue was written by our head minister Rev. Ashikaga and was titled, “Mono no Aware” (moh-noh noh ah-wah-reh) about the phrase he heard Roger Ebert use during his lecture on the films of Yasujiro Ozu. Rev. Ashikaga was fortunate to see and hear Mr. Ebert in person but I can only claim a couple degrees of separation. (One of my friends took a film class from Mr. Ebert and told me he kept hitting on her – they were both single at the time.)

While writing his article, Rev. Ashikaga asked me how “mono no aware” is translated in English, so I pulled up some information from the internet. In his article, Rev. Ashikaga wrote, “The phrase is derived from the word a-wa-re meaning sensitivity or sadness, and the word mo-no meaning things. The phrase describes beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things and gentle sadness at their passing.”


(1982 photo from Chicago Tribune)

One of my Facebook friends posted the essay that Roger Ebert wrote explaining his outlook on death of which I’m sure most of you have seen excerpts. What struck me is not any “sensitivity or sadness” about his own impermanence, but a hearty acceptance of the transiency of life. It made me think those translations I Googled for Rev. Ashikaga were a little off-base. Instead of “sadness,” the word a-wa-re could mean a poignant identification with impermanence.

In an article in the March 2013 issue of the Higashi Honganji magazine Dobo, Shin Buddhist scholar Rev. Shuho Minowa and novelist Kenzaburo Oe discuss the difference between kanashii (sadness) and a-wa-re in light of the second anniversary of the northeastern Japan earthquake-tsunami disaster. Kanashii was the sadness they felt for all those who perished in the disaster – nothing could be done for them now. But they agreed a-wa-re had a more dynamic nuance – it meant becoming aware of a sad situation in which we can take action. For example, Mr. Oe had become an activist in the anti-nuclear power movement, to lessen the chances of another Fukushima power plant radiation release in the future. Rev. Minowa could see that temples are helping the people cope with the loss of family members and livelihoods in the disaster.

Roger Ebert had that kind of mono no aware – in his living with illness and disability and the quickening inevitability of death, he took dynamic action in connecting with others, in joining in the flow of life and lives, joyfully exploring the kaleidoscope world of art and popular entertainment. Some people might think a charity worker such as Mother Theresa is the epitome of compassion, but I think Mr. Ebert showed us there is great com – passion (“with fellow feeling”) in appreciating the expressiveness of people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

There’s something about watching movies that heightens our sense of time and changes. I’ve often recommended the Japanese movie “After Life” to people, particularly those who are facing a serious illness (see On the morning of what would be my sister’s last day alive, she said to me, “What am I going to do about my life?” and I was at a loss of what to say. Then I found myself talking to her about that movie (and also the last scene in the “Flags of Our Fathers” movie) and told her to think of a memory she’d like to preserve for eternity. When my brother arrived and offered to set up a DVD player at her bedside, she chose the movie “Inception” to watch. It would be the last movie she would ever see. Later on when I got around to watching her DVD, I thought maybe my sister passed away hearing that Edith Piaf song “Je Ne Regrette Rien” (“I regret nothing”) and feeling herself moving into one of those special-effects constructed dream-worlds.

Thank you Mr. Ebert for showing us it’s okay to love and learn from the movies.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Unsaved Bodhisattva: In Praise of Adolfo

When the funeral home director called and asked if I’d do a “Buddhist portion” for a service with a Christian minister, I thought, “No problem,” since I’ve participated in several mixed faith services before. Last year I did chanting at two Christian memorial services – the ministers I worked with were both progressive-minded women who welcomed my participation. But this time the experience was quite different.

After the funeral director e-mailed me the information, I spoke with the widow a couple times over the phone. She said she and all of her husband’s family are Christian, but her husband told her he became Buddhist during his time in the army. The widow didn’t know what sect her husband joined. All she knew is he said he was unable to find a similar group when he returned to Chicago. I looked up his army base on-line and saw the nearby groups were Soka Gakkai (Japanese Lotus Sutra), a Korean Zen and a Thai Theravada temple – groups that can be easily found all over the Chicago area.

I explained to the widow about the custom of offering incense during the chanting. She said she and a few of the relatives would be willing to offer incense in honor of her husband. So at the funeral I explained to the attendees that the chanting (Tan Butsu Ge) was about praising the deceased and that he will be their guide and teacher in helping them to more deeply appreciate the lives around them. After the chanting, I delivered a brief Dharma message. I said I couldn’t explain much about Buddhism in a few minutes but I speculated that maybe one teaching that attracted Adolfo, the deceased, was the idea of Oneness. In seeing all lives, all events and things as Oneness, Buddhism has no quarrel with other religions and honors the value of every one and every moment, no matter how unpleasant they may seem at first.

After my talk I went to sit down among the crowd and the pastor, a 30-ish man with a fashionably cropped beard came to the podium and proceeded to blast away at everything I said. He spoke with the urgency of someone administering the antidote to a snake-bite victim – the poison must be decisively counteracted before it can spread and do damage. He exhorted everyone in the room to hear the call of Jesus and join the exclusive group of those who would be saved by Him and have all their sins washed away.
Following the minister’s sermon and prayer, relatives and friends were asked to come up and share their stories of Adolfo. I lost count of all the people who spoke but the testimonies went on for an hour and a half. A couple people were the like the minister, expressing their concern that Adolfo had turned away from Christianity and also like the minister, they wanted to believe that in his last days Adolfo had shown signs of accepting Jesus and was now in Heaven in the embrace of the Lord.

All the others who spoke did not touch on specifically religious matters as they testified to how Adolfo went out of his way to help many relatives and friends and significantly changed their lives. Sometimes it was just being there for someone going through a painful time and for others, it was his encouragement to dedicate themselves to go deeper into their studies and artistic endeavors.

Although the minister reiterated the standard Protestant line that salvation is gained only through faith in Jesus and not by any good works, it became obvious to me that Adolfo was someone who didn’t need to be “saved.” The devout Christians who felt anxiety over whether Adolfo found true faith are not much different from the Jodo Shinshu people I’ve heard saying they worried about whether their loved ones had enough shinjin for birth in the Pure Land.

It is a reflection of our ego-attachment that we want to have assurance that our loved ones came around to our view of qualifying for afterlife paradise. Shinran, on the other hand, felt that he wasn’t in a position to pull people closer to salvation – in fact, he felt that many people around him were actually bodhisattvas (beings of “bodhi,” seeking/attaining awakening) in disguise (gonke, “manifested forms”). Like the characters in the Contemplation Sutra, those disguised bodhisattvas were there to guide him to awakening through inspiring acts or through giving him challenges to work through. It is they who take on the responsibility of guiding me to spiritual liberation – not the other way around.

Although I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Adolfo, listening to all the stories about him made me see him as a bodhisattva for me as well as for the many people attending the service. In his short life (he died from an accident), he accomplished much in awakening people to the interconnectedness of life – for example, for a cousin to pursue her career in drama, not to become a famous actress but to affect the lives of people through art. Most memorial services I’ve attended were for elderly people, but this crowd was of the age group that you see dancing the night away at weddings. They unselfconsciously quoted Adolfo and his friends in X-rated language from their conversations, phone calls and text messages.

Despite how the Christian minister shot up my talk, I think of the service as a hoji – Dharma event. Maybe in some way Adolfo has called at least one person, in the near or far future, to seek the path of Oneness, to go beyond the mindset of condemning the “unsaved.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

No Big News: Revealed as a Big Bombu (Total Fool)

“Cutting off the root of all deluded ideas, which is thinking as if one were a sage*,” said the World-honored One,

“And eliminating any craving that exists within,

He should keep on learning always with clear awakening.”

                        --Sutta Nipata, Chapter “Quickness” (Sn 4.14 v. 916)

*Adapted from the translation by Nobuo Haneda (unpublished manuscript of Face to Face With Shakyamuni by Shuichi Maida). Dr. Haneda had used the word “saint” but in our discussion in the February 10 sutra study class, we felt that for those of us raised in a Christian-based culture, the word “saint” implies moral purity and altruism. In the Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation on the website, he uses the phrase “I am the thinker.” What Shakyamuni is pointed out is the basic error of our believing we can think based on pure wisdom when in reality our thinking is clouded by the egocentric duality of “me vs. everything else.”

Every picture tells a story – but not necessarily a true one. The pictures of me in the latest issue of Tricycle Magazine are all posed – I’m not actually doing the things they depict. And those things are what I’m most clumsy at – chanting, lighting candles (matches don’t like to cooperate and forget about lighters) and ringing the outside hanging bell, the ritual called the “kansho” (sounding the invitation to enter the temple). Usually it’s our head minister Rev. Ashikaga or my husband who does the kansho before temple services and for the past year it’s been our newest lay leader, Rodel. Even when Rodel hesitantly started out in the Sunday morning routine, he rang the bell much better than I ever did.


(Detail of photo by Chicago photographer John Faier for Tricycle Magazine)

Those in the know will see in the kansho photo that our wooden mallet for hitting the bell is damaged. A couple of years ago the piece that holds the head on the handle broke off, so we jury-rigged the head and handle together. In a way, the mallet is a metaphor for my fifteen minutes of fame in Tricycle – everyone now sees I’m messed up but they also see I’m functioning and carrying on.

The Chinese Pure Land teachers such as Daochuo (Tao-cho, Jpn. Doshaku) described the Path of Sages as the stage of our spiritual search where we want to devote ourselves to the religious teachings and practices that bring us to the state of sagehood, far removed from our greed, anger and stupidity. But at some point we realize we are damaged goods that can’t be made spotlessly new. We can’t be fixed and made whole. For me as an individual there is no “closure,” no “getting over it” – but in entrusting to the Power Beyond Self, I become aware that I am and always have been participating in the wholeness of life itself.

One who makes the error of believing he is the sage, the purely objective thinker, is cutting himself off from the intricate fabric of ever-changing designs – the life which flows deep inside and all around him.

In Maida’s commentary on the above Sutta Nipata verse, he says “eliminating any craving” really means to honestly confront them instead of wishing them away. Maida feels Shinran would hear the verse as Shakyamuni’s confession that he is watching the various cravings that keep arising in him.

The Pure Land path is for those of us who are messed up, broken and damaged, morally incontinent (unable to control the leaking out of greed, anger and stupidity in our thoughts, words and actions) – that is, we’re “bombu,” the complete opposite of a sage. In this awareness we go forward, functioning the best we can, grateful to keep learning of the people, events, organisms, elements etc. that attest to our interconnection with the Unbounded Life, the Limitless Wisdom. Namu Amida Butsu.

(revised 3-8-13 - one of my new year's resolutions is to use the pinyin spellings of Chinese Buddhist names but I got Daochuo wrong in my original entry. I double-checked with Daochuo expert Michael Conway)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Not Sectarian: Learning Widely and Deeply

When we say our temple is “non-sectarian” it means we have no official ties to any larger Buddhist organization. But from our founding minister Rev. Gyomay Kubose on, all our ministers have been ordained at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto, which is the headquarters of the second largest Jodo Shinshu sub-sect. (The largest is Hompa Honganji, aka Nishi Honganji, the official organization of the Buddhist Churches of America.) But one of the great characteristics of Higashi Honganji in its development from the Meiji period (when Japan was opened to the West) is the fostering of awareness of Jodo Shinshu in connection to all of Buddhism and the continuing interaction with Western thought and religion.

Proof of this is the curriculum for priests at Otani University. The first president (when it was known as Shinshu College) Manshi Kiyozawa felt all priests in training should learn about Buddhism as a whole and about the religious and philosophical teachings outside of Asia. When I was at Otani, the kyoshi (full ordination) program required us to take at least two courses of Buddhist topics outside of Jodo Shinshu and two courses of Western philosophy and religion. At the same time at Nishi Honganji’s Ryukoku University, the kyoshi students only had to take required courses in Jodo Shinshu doctrine and history. (However, I’m sure there are many BCA ministers like Rev. Marvin Harada who elected to take courses in non-Shin Buddhist courses.)

In the book Cultivating Spirituality: A Modern Shin Buddhist Anthology (eds. Mark L. Blum and Robert F. Rhodes, State University of New York, 2011), you can get a taste of the progressive thought of Higashi Honganji teachers of the 20th century. (The hardback version of the book is pricey at $75, but SUNY just released the paperback edition.) Mark’s historical summary and introduction to Kiyozawa are well worth reading as are the introductions to the other thinkers, Ryojin Soga, Daiei Kaneko and Rijin Yasuda.
[no picture for now - Blogger is not letting anyone upload images, but see]
I haven’t read any of the translated articles except I’m currently plowing through Yasuda’s ”A Name but Not a Name Alone” (the title is Paul Tillich’s description of the nembutsu after his conversation with Yasuda). I have to say “plowing” because it’s written in such academic prose (with words like noesis and noema). I have a feeling the Japanese can’t be as complicated because teachers such as Yasuda wanted to communicate clearly to their audiences. In my upcoming trip to Japan I hope to hunt down some of those writings in the original Japanese.

Yasuda and the other teachers in the book very much demonstrate that wide and deep learning of the Buddhist tradition and the openness to finding similar concepts in Western thought. Back in the day (early to mid-20th century), Jodo Shinshu was presented in a sort of vacuum, as a supposedly Buddhist sect that cut itself off from the rest of Buddhism, so it’s no wonder other Buddhists treated Pure Land the same way as mainstream conservative Christians look at Mormonism, as some weird Johnny-come-lately aberration. The Higashi teachers are continuing in Shinran’s Kyogyoshinsho footsteps in that they see the nembutsu as clearly evolving from the Buddha’s teachings in its many developments (Theravada, esoteric, Zen etc.).

In our weekly study class this quarter we’ll be delving into Chinese Zen (Ch’an) to appreciate its liveliness and influence on Buddhism’s development and also because it forms the background to how many Westerners have first come to Buddhism before encountering Jodo Shinshu.