Saturday, December 27, 2014

Virtue of Foolishness: Gutoku Tora-san

There’s a lot for me to process after my three-week stay in Japan – two weeks of training at the Higashi Honganji head temple and one week travelling with my brother’s family. What I want to write now is about the two movies I watched on the flight back to the U.S. Their contrast could be a metaphor for where Jodo Shinshu stands in the midst of Western Buddhism.

During my dinner, I watched the 2003 Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai.” I often refer to that movie when I lecture on Manshi Kiyozawa and the Meiji Era, admitting that I’ve only seen bits of it on TV. So I was glad to finally have a chance to watch it.

It’s an absorbing film to watch but the story reminded me of the old TV miniseries “Shogun” with Richard Chamberlain. In the movie there was protest against the rising military-industrial complex with the samurai representing the more compassionate way of life. As embodied by Ken Watanabe’s character Katsumoto, the ideal samurai is an alluring hero, devoted to Zen serenity and disciplined code of honor.

After I slept some, I wanted to see the Tora-san movie before the flight ended. Some might dismiss the long-running series of Tora-san movies as lightweight slapstick comedies, but I always felt the ones I’ve seen were each well-crafted and somehow there’s a serious spirituality informing the formulaic plots.


The film I watched was the 1982 “Tora-san the Expert” (see poster above). Early on in the film, Tora-san attends a Buddhist funeral. When Tora-san is invited to offer incense, he ceremoniously whips out his scrunched up koden (condolence money) envelope and kneels down in a strict gassho (palms together) pose. Then instead of reaching into the granulated incense holder section of the oblong container before the altar, he mistakenly puts his fingers in the section with the burning incense. With a yelp of pain, he tosses up the burning incense grains he had pinched and they fall down into the neckline of the priest. The priest then yells in pain and a bustle of people are trying to help him by pulling off the layers of his formal robes, stripping him down to his underwear.

That scene is exactly what Jodo Shinshu teaches us – that we are bonbu, foolish ordinary beings, who pompously try to look wise and moral but end up screwing things up for ourselves and others. Yet as much trouble Tora-san gets himself into and causes for others, in the end he is embraced by everyone’s love, by the many lives (Amitayus) around him, particularly embodied by his sister Sakura, who is the bodhisattva Kannon in an apron and slacks.

Those of us brought up in the West are like the Tom Cruise character in “The Last Samurai” when we are drawn to the exotic surface of Buddhism. “Yes, this is calmness, this is the honorable way to follow,” we think and dream of being the gallant warrior conquering all our defilements and attaining a “good death.” But as the Tom Cruise movie and all other depictions of samurais show, the way of the warrior is really about glorifying one’s self and one’s tribe and putting down everyone else.

In the Tora-san movies, despite the slapstick roughhousing and flying insults, the plots are really about getting people together. No one is violently assaulted out of spite or for revenge. Instead there’s the comedy of come-uppance – I can’t help identifying with the priest in that hilarious scene. He covers himself up with shiny robes of authority but suddenly stung by the burning grains of suffering, he’s hopping around with his shabby real self exposed.

You don’t have to be Japanese to enjoy the Tora-san movies but I can see those movies won’t appeal to Westerners who’d rather see Japan as a samurai culture. (Ironically the director of the Tora-san series, Yoji Yamada, won international acclaim with his samurai films.) But Tora-san movies show the down-to-earth and caring aspects of modern-day Japan, just as Jodo Shinshu brings us a get-real Buddhism, not a package of attractive but unattainable fantasies.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Gifts from Cowardice: AWOL Siddhartha

When I was living in Los Angeles and helping at the Higashi Honganji temple there, the Los Angeles Times interviewed Rev. Noriaki Ito and in the printed article it had him saying he and his friend Wayne Yokoyama went to study Buddhism in Japan to escape the draft. At the time I teased Wayne about it, “Nori spilled the beans and now everyone knows you were draft dodgers.” But now looking back on how important both those guys have been in making Shinran’s teachings more accessible in the English-speaking world, it’s a wonderful thing that the draft motivated them to go to Otani University and study under the great teachers in Kyoto. Wayne is the tireless translator of a whole range of Jodo Shinshu works and has done a huge amount of research on D.T. Suzuki, Honen and other major Buddhist figures. (In his findings, it’s apparent Shinran is more faithful to Honen’s teachings than the “official” disciples of Honen who suppressed some of Honen’s ideas to avoid the ire of the political powers.) Rev. Nori is now the bishop of the North America District and continues to work hard to bring the Higashi Honganji temples into the 21st century. But besides their significance as contributors to Jodo Shinshu in the West, both of them have been invaluable to me as friends, guides and moral supporters. I would hate to think where I would be without them. So I am deeply grateful they did not end up as soldiers in Vietnam – possibly not coming home or returning too physically and mentally wounded to function.

At the first session of the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” class I offer at our temple a few times a year, I go over the life story of the historical Buddha. I point out that Siddhartha was born not in the top caste, the brahmins, but in the next one down, the ksatriya, warrior class. His father was not king of the whole Indian continent but the ruler of one of many small kingdoms, all in continual warfare to defend their turf and attack the others for their resources. To be king meant to be a successful general and so all men in the warrior class were trained in the military arts and sciences. If anything, during his early manhood, Siddhartha must have been very buff, continually working out as well as keeping himself intellectually sharp.


(woodcarving by Harry Koizumi depicting Siddhartha leaving the palace)
I have yet to come across any accounts of Siddhartha testing his skills in battle. He supposedly won his bride in a contest of martial arts, but that would have been just a ceremonial display, not an urgent fight between armies. Although we have the story of the Four Gates to explain his leaving the palace (he was depressed by the sights of sickness, old age and death and then inspired by the truth-seeking beggar with the shining face), I wonder if the real reason he ran out on his kingdom was to avoid becoming a player on the battlefield, living out the anguish of Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita. Despite the pleasures he was surrounded by in the palace, he had to be aware that his expected vocation in life would be to follow his father as the general leading the charge of conquest.

Since Buddhism is one of the great religions that arose during what Karen Armstrong calls the Axial Age, the key question it was faced with was how to stop warfare which at that time became efficiently destructive of lives and property. For the young Siddhartha, going out to seek the truth was his aspiration, but maybe like Rev. Nori and Wayne, it was the impending threat of going to war that made starting his quest all the more urgent. Sometimes when we are running away to save our own skin we end up entering the path of spiritual liberation that we wouldn’t have gotten around to if we weren’t so scared.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

At Peace with War: Overcoming the Anti-Military Attitude

DePaul University with funding from the McCormick Foundation and other sponsors invited faith-based groups from throughout the Chicago area to participate in the “Multi-Faith Veteran Support Initiative.” I’m glad I went to one of the several orientation events they had, conference-room sized events with followers from a diversity of religions where I felt comfortable bringing up a point. The main kick-off event was just held – about a hundred people or so at the banquet room of the Union League Club. I would say two-thirds or more of the attendees were African-Americans from a handful of church groups. That should not be surprising since the Veterans Administration data shows the majority of veterans live on the south side of the city.

But I felt too intimidated by the preponderance of Christians to say much to anyone. It was hard to engage in conversation with the blacks – as soon as I said I was from the Buddhist temple, they seemed to write me off. The Catholics and United Church of Christ people were more cordial – at least willing to answer the questions I asked them about their work. Though I give DePaul a lot of credit for making their veterans outreach project multi-faith, it’s certainly not something encouraging “interfaith” cooperation.


My main reason for attending the event was to hear the keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock (see photo above), because I’ve seen her name on a lot of events here and on the West Coast. She holds the distinction of being the first Asian American woman to earn a doctorate of divinity, but as she told her story to us, it seems she wasn’t brought up to have much identification as Asian (her mother was from Japan). I was disappointed that she spoke of Buddhism in a brief generalized way (not much different from Dr. Haneda lumping all Christians together). She made a reference to Obon but her description would make anyone dismiss it as some superstitious placation of ghosts.

For me the most powerful message from her and the other featured speakers was that in order for organizations to help veterans re-connect with spirituality (Dr. Brock’s concept of “soul repair”) people need to have a better understanding of military life, the life that veterans lived for several years before returning to civilian life. The testimony of many veterans is that God has judged them for being murderers, including those who did not fire weapons, but participated indirectly or even just for surviving attacks that killed their comrades. So going to a church where people feel self-righteous about their relative lack of sin can be painful for veterans seeking a sense of acceptance in the spiritual sense.

I think this is one outreach project where Jodo Shinshu can speak to those veterans dealing with “moral injury” (the term Dr. Brock has popularized to indicate the wounded sense of having violated one’s moral beliefs). Honen and Shinran saw the meanness of their own aristocratic class members denigrating poor working people for breaking Buddhist precepts (e.g. taking life, false speech, having sexual relations). In their teachings they pointed out that because each of us is full of ego-attached defilements, why dump on those who had no choice but to be butchers, tanners, hunters or even prostitutes?

Many Buddhists now put anyone with the military in that “evil person” category. Too many descriptions of “Right Livelihood” in the Eightfold Path say that anything to do with handling weapons (building, selling, using) is forbidden. At one of our Buddhist Council of the Midwest annual gatherings, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship wanted to put out literature and a petition protesting putting in a naval academy program at a local high school. Some of us felt that was something too political to be at our event. To condemn young people (especially from disadvantaged households) who want to consider going into the military is like the anti-abortion protestors who block clinics and terrorize the clients but don’t offer to help people caught in the financial and emotional distress of unwanted pregnancies.

The book Zen at War brought up some poignant discussion and important information about how Buddhist groups in Japan cooperated with the imperial government during World War II, but it had a sanctimonious attitude looking down on anyone participating in military campaigns as unqualified to be a “true” Buddhist. I am not for going to any war, but history and current events show us that war is the reality we must acknowledge. There are many reasons why people join the military and we can’t judge them as moral failures as if our hands are so untainted by the spoils of war. Wars happen because of our greed as consumers, our failure to pay attention to how government officials are interacting with other countries.


I’m not sure how the Buddhist teachings can do the “soul repair” and “acceptance by a non-judgmental higher authority” that Dr. Brock spoke about, since we don’t talk about “souls” and “God.” But maybe for those veterans of any ethnic background who don’t find a reconnection with their spirituality at the Christian centers, our place and other Buddhist temples can give them a sense of being at peace with their past and open to the fresh new moments of the present.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Yee Haw Mazel Tov: Just Your Typical Buddhist Wedding

Of all the Buddhist groups in the West and possibly the whole world, Jodo Shinshu temples are the most experienced in weddings. Since Shinran Shonin was recognized as one of the first openly married teachers, it makes sense that we his followers acknowledge marriage as a significant rite and in most cases, something to celebrate. Before and even now after Shinran, the clergy in other Buddhist traditions are expected to be celibate and for them and their lay followers, any kind of bond between humans is derided as an obstacle to achieving enlightenment.

About once a month our temple gets a call or e-mail requesting a Buddhist wedding. In almost every case the parties are not Buddhist and are just looking for an exotic Asian backdrop for their ceremony or wanting to please relatives from Asia, so I refer them to other temples in the area. Unlike memorial services which are usually planned out in a week or two, wedding planning seems to consume several months. (The humorist Dave Barry commented that a wedding actually involves the same elements as a funeral – a minister, music and food, and asked why does one take so long to plan and the other is put together in a couple days.) I don’t want to tie up my time and mental energies on weddings, but I will take on requests from the members and friends of our temple.


(On the Buddhist Temple of Chicago dance floor)
The wedding we had this past Saturday was several years in the making. Tracy has been part of the temple since birth – her father’s extensive family has been involved in the temple since the early days.  However, her mother and her side are Jewish. I had Tracy as my Dharma School student and I remember although her parents brought her and her sister to temple on most Sundays, there were times when their mother felt it was important for the family to be at synagogue. It wasn’t that much different from the interfaith couples whose kids alternated between Dharma School at our temple and Sunday School at a church.

Tracy was a trailblazer as a young adult in coming out as lesbian and her partner Patsy soon became a fixture at our temple, helping at various activities. So even though some of our elder members had to be continually educated (i.e. scolded) about the things they said or did that discriminated against new members because of their race or socio-economic status, we never had to preach to them about accepting same-sex couples because they had already embraced Tracy and Patsy as people they appreciated having around.

Several years ago when many churches and religious groups such as Soka Gakkai in Chicago started performing same-sex marriages, we asked Tracy and Patsy when would they like to have their ceremony at our temple. They said, “When it’s legal in Illinois.” Finally last year the state legalized same-sex marriages and this year when it became effective Tracy and Patsy got their license and had a small celebration at a Boys Town bar, but for the big bash at the temple they wanted time to plan.

And big bash it was. With about 100 guests – family, temple members (including Tracy’s pals from her Dharma School days), friends and business colleagues, it was quite a crowd of different ages and ethnicities. But for that night we were all cowboys – that is, the theme for the wedding and reception was the Old West. Everyone from the toddlers to the 80-somethings was dressed in western wear – big hats, bandanas and boots. For the ceremony I started out with “Howdy” and ended with telling the crowd to yell “Yee haw!” as the brides kissed.

There was a buffet that included the tender beef brisket Tracy’s mother made, served with Japanese rice. Then for a good three or more hours it was non-stop dancing – featuring a few country-western hits, but mostly the dance hits of the 1990s to today’s pop. At one point, I interrupted the DJ and put on “Tanko Bushi” (coal miner’s dance), so we could do some Bon Odori (Japanese folk dancing). Then what surprised me later was the DJ playing an extended version of “Hava Nagila.” The crowd first hoisted up the two brides, but then they came down and Tracy’s parents were seated in chairs with people in circles dancing around them and from time to time the dancers converged on the senior couple with shouts of “Mazel Tov!”

Probably any minister would be happy to see the sight – the temple so alive with the energy of young people having a good time. It’s possible we may not see many of those guests back at our temple for services, but at least they’ll be telling their friends, “We went to a wedding at the Buddhist temple and it was awesome!” Nothing like a rowdy hoe-down to destroy the stereotype of Buddhism as a passive unfeeling religion.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Rev. Saito's "Bum"

Thanks to my Dharma friends, the last posting got over 30 views, so I am putting up the article by Rev. Gyoko Saito.
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“Bum” by Rev. Gyoko T. Saito
(from Meditations on Death and Birth, privately published by Joan Sweany, 1983)

[At the title of the article, Rev. Saito wrote in Chinese characters this quote from Shinran’s Gutoku-sho:  “The heart of Gutoku is such that I am inwardly foolish, outwardly wise.” Translation from CWS p. 587]


            Who is the clever fellow?
            I am.
            Why?
            Because I suffer.

And I think you readers are clever fellows, too.

Once Mr. S was waiting for a bus under the hot summer sun. He noticed a man of about thirty, barefooted, wearing a dirty T-shirt and jeans, coming toward him carrying a newspaper. By the way the fellow was walking, he seemed exhausted. It looked as though he might fall down any minute. Suddenly he stopped in front of Mr. S, pointed to the want-ad section of the paper, and said, “I’m looking for a job. How many blocks do I have to walk to get to this place?” Mr. S looked at the paper. The place was really far.

“It’s about fifty blocks.” When the man heard that, he looked at him without any life, with hopeless eyes. And starting to take a couple steps, he looked as though he was going to collapse.

Human nature is originally good, according to an ancient saying. Mr. S felt such pity that he stopped the man and gave him bus fare, saying, “It’s too far to walk. Take the bus.” As soon as the fellow received the money, he suddenly came to life again and started to walk away happily. Then Mr. S saw him droop into his previous manner and approach someone else, pointing to the same newspaper in the same way.

It was quite a sophisticated game for getting money out of people. This bum was the clever fellow. Yet, though our approach may be even more sophisticated than his, don’t we do exactly the same kind of thing?

Higan means to “go across to the other shore.” How do we go across from this shore of the clever fellow to the other shore, the world of foolishness and ordinariness? According to the Buddhist parable, there is only a pale narrow bridge, a few inches wide, stretching across that river, and the bridge is drenched in flames and lashed by huge waves. How do we cross this bridge which is covered with the fires of anger and washed by the waters of greed? To this, the parable says something quite interesting – that only when a person honestly starts to seek the truth and takes a step forward does he suddenly come to this bridge covered with angry flames and greedy waves.

When Mr. S gave money to the bum, he became the truth seeker. He took one step toward enlightenment. He was the person who did good, who sought the truth. But where this mind of dana [Sanskrit for “generosity”] appeared in his mind, he suddenly saw the huge river of greedy water and angry flames.

In other words, when he saw the bum trying to trick other people, he saw the anger and greed which were in his own mind. When he felt he was tricked by the bum, he felt he was up against the huge river of fire and water. Thus, even though he had done good, he was digging his own grave.

More positively, I say: So long as we seek, we will definitely be confused.

How did Shinran transcend this contradiction? He said that it was by meeting his teacher Honen, who appeared to be utterly foolish but whose inner life was deeply wise. That is, Honen had no illusions about his being, its capacity and his own stupidity. His insight was deeper than anyone else’s. By meeting such a person as Honen, Shinran came to realize how foolish the clever fellow’s way of life really is.


After I met that bum, after I felt I was tricked, I then realized that the essence of my being was no different from his essence. So this bum is the Bodhisattva who reflects the bottomless ignorance of my own being.

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