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.

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