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.