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.

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