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.”

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