Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Gated Community: Fenced-Off Pure Land

At Peoples Church, Rev. Jean Darling organized a meeting to discuss the recent incidents of gun violence at Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue. Even though like our temple, much of her congregation lives far out of the area, she felt that violence in the neighborhood should be a concern of her church. Besides the church members and neighbors, she also invited local clergy including me and I passed on the meeting notice to one couple who lives near that intersection but also to two temple members involved with Heiwa Terrace (one a staff member and the other a board member), the senior apartment building right on that corner. (None of them responded to the notice.)

Among the many hopeful visions for that intersection talked about at the meeting, such as more greenery in the strip mall parking lot and an ice cream/yogurt shop, I knew public access to the Heiwa Terrace garden would be mentioned. During the brief time I was the manager at Heiwa Terrace (1995-96), I always thought it was a shame to have such a large well-kept Japanese garden that no one could enter except the residents. The garden is fenced in with tall iron bars so no one walking by on the street can see it unless they go up to the fence and peer between the bars.

I know security is always a problem – during my tenure there was an awful incident where a resident was followed into the building and to his apartment by a man who beat and robbed him, so it’s understandable that Heiwa Terrace doesn’t want to open its garden to the public. But in a lot of ways the fenced off garden is a metaphor for Jodo Shinshu temples.

A troubled intersection could become safer if neighbors were able to go there to enjoy the serenity of the spacious garden right on the corner. But for now that garden is kept pretty much out of sight by forbidding iron bars. Many Jodo Shinshu temples are also kept behind strict security barriers because of crime in their neighborhoods, but in a metaphorical sense they put up fences to keep out all perceived “outsiders” who might damage the purity of the doctrine treasured within its walls. Although dangers exist when a newcomer tries to take over an organization to promote their own agenda (it’s happened at our place), the fortress-walled temples are closing themselves off from the many people who have a need in this world of sorrows and sufferings for the peace and beauty of the Pure Land teachings.

After my blog entry about the conference in Vancouver (June 2013), I heard from Gregg Heathcote who said the transmission of Jodo Shinshu is not going that smoothly in Australia. Gregg had been ordained but chose to resign from the Nishi Honganji organization in 2008. It seems among other problems, outreach efforts were being hampered by an insistence on strict doctrine. When I was studying in Japan I heard some grad students interpret “we can do no pure good” as “we should not even attempt to do good” but the men and women I encountered at study groups who lived in the real world outside academia knew better – the nembutsu is what gets us on our feet to go out and try to do our best for ourselves and others. Here is Gregg’s critique of the “do-nothing” attitude of Jodo Shinshu purists:

Espousing compassion which in practice is never consummated really troubles me. If we hold onto compassion like a personal gift we have to keep on ice, what the devil are we left with? If selectively calculated inaction is rationalized as being better in accord with the Vow, what then becomes of the nembutsu of naturalness active for the benefit of all beings beyond deluded strictures of self-interest? Is shinjin not expansively organic, rather than proscriptively forensic? Isn’t deep hearing the action of embodiment, not dalliance of intellect? What actually grows in those lotus ponds of the Pure Land when we pre-occupy ourselves with foolish notions of our own individual salvation, negligent of how together in this we all actually are. This richly organic humus of home land and Pure Land radically turns together if it is to come to deeper life and light, Amida’s nexus in Name one and only. We utterly mean this world to one another, and we mean that eko [merit-sharing] of the next world to one another too, or we’re just prattling and preening ourselves going through the mean-spirited motions.

I took a look at the Honganji Buddhist Mission of Australia website and it comes across as incomprehensible for anyone unfamiliar with Shin terminology even though they may know something of Buddhism. If someone is seeking a way to transcend suffering and found other paths of Buddhism have not worked or are inaccessible, what can we tell them about Jodo Shinshu that gives them a glimpse of the unbounded Light? There’s much we can say (one good example is Rev. Fred Brenion’s article “Accepting Our Acceptance” in the Higashi Los Angeles Betsuin’s July bulletin ) but hitting them in the face with a synopsis of “Kyo-gyo-shin-sho” isn’t the best way to attract newcomers.

Just as the Japanese garden at Heiwa Terrace has the potential to provide healing and inspiration to a neighborhood struggling with violence, our Jodo Shinshu temples can offer the same to individuals needing a spiritual perspective for their lives. A temple should not be a gated community requiring special passcodes and approval to get inside – it should be a place with gugan-mon, the wide-open gate.

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.