Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shakyamuni, Our Fellow Seeker

Recently various North Park University classes have been visiting our temple, so much so that I joked they should make me an adjunct professor. The sociology class came by as part of their research on how urban churches interact (or not) with their neighborhoods. I told them we have a few regular members from the surrounding SROs (single-room occupancy buildings for mostly those on social security disability) and shelters. But the nearby residents who don’t get involved with our temple are the upwardly mobile professionals who purchase the expensive condos. Some of them will visit out of curiosity but they don’t come back. When Uptown starting undergoing gentrification (low-rent apartment buildings torn down or renovated for condominiums), some people at our temple were glad – thinking we would gain some high-income young people as members.

I told the class that I believe those affluent 20- and 30-somethings don’t come back because we emphasize the Buddha’s teaching that all beings are equal. In my Dharma School message on Hanamatsuri, the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, I said his legendary birth cry of “Tenjo tenge yuiga dokuson” means “No one is better than me and no one is worse than me. Each and every living being is to be respected.” To the sociology class, I said that kind of message doesn’t resonate with people who believe they got to their socio-economic position through their own hard work and developed skills. For them there are other Buddhist groups, such as Zen and Vajrayana, that give them a ladder of rankings to work up into higher and higher levels of enlightenment. In the Pure Land tradition, the nembutsu teachings knock us down from our perches of self-righteous morality and hard-practice macho pride and lower us into the most profound level of awakening of “being an ordinary person.”


With this year’s Hanamatsuri, I realize in the Pure Land tradition we need to reframe the narrative of the historical Buddha’s life to show him as our fellow seeker, what Shinran called ondobo ondogyo. As in the PBS special “The Buddha,” too often the Buddha is presented as a spiritual super-hero, a peak of superiority over others that we should aspire to or at least bow down and “worship,” that is, groveling at his feet for favors. So as I said at the Hanamatsuri services at our temple and at the Toronto Buddhist Church, we should see most of what is called “Buddhist practices” as Shakyamuni’s way of guiding people through what he experienced in the six years of his asceticism (age 29 to 35). It is hard for any of us to understand jiriki muko, the futility of self-power, unless we put our own mental and physical abilities to the test. Then in the wake of our failures, the Pure Land teachings make more sense as we hear Shakyamuni sharing with us the content of his awakening under the bodhi tree. His shout of “Avidya!” (not-clear) is translated as “Namu Amida Butsu,” so that in hearing this call, we participate in his experience of breaking through the ego-shell and walking out into the wide bright world like a chick hatching out of an Easter egg.

With Shinran as the model, we can talk about Shakyamuni as a man who saw himself as sharing the Dharma, learning through interaction with others, rather than as a privileged elitist preaching down to the masses from on high. As our temple neighbors teach us, there is so much to learn from listening to the Dharma together, to see the working of the Great Light of Wisdom (Amitabha) even in those struggling with physical disabilities, mental illness and poverty.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Great Wisdom Heart: Nembutsu Between the Lines

In our Wednesday class, the topic has been “Secrets of the BTC Service Book.” Of course, we don’t have any secret teachings – what we’re doing is looking at the back-stories of the readings we use in our Sunday services. For example, in examining “The Golden Chain,” I presented the history of Dorothy and Ernest “Shinkaku” Hunt who helped with English materials for the Hawaii Hompa Hongwanji Mission but like many of the early Western Buddhists, they found it difficult to comprehend Shinran’s teachings.

Yesterday our class looked at the Hannya Haramita Shingyo (Heart of Wisdom Sutra) which in our current (2009) service book comes after the two Larger Sutra excerpts, Tan Butsu Ge and San Sei Ge. I pointed out that since our 1984 service book, we regularly chant the Heart Sutra at our Sunday service.

The English translation we use is based on the book Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra – Heart of the Great Wisdom Paramita Sutra with Commentary (Chicago: Dharma House, 1975). The book is a compilation by Nancy DeRoin of explanations Rev. Gyomay Kubose gave at the meditation sessions over several months. Back in the 1950s, Rev. Kubose had been lecturing on the Heart Sutra to Japanese-speaking audiences according to my husband whose father (a Shingon sect follower) attended the class.


In talking about the book to the study class, I said I blame Nancy DeRoin for filtering out any mention of Jodo Shinshu. From attending the meditation sessions from the late 1970s and early 1980s, I recall Rev. Kubose often talking of the nembutsu teachings. But the book seems designed to appeal to those people at our temple who called themselves “non-sectarian” but were prejudiced against anything that wasn’t Zen.

For the class, I focussed on Rev. Kubose’s discussion of “ignorance” (mu-myo) and “human troubles” (bon-no). The Heart Sutra is supposed to be about “wisdom” prajna, but it points to our confrontation with avidya “not-clear.” It says, “there is no extinction of ignorance” (mu mu-myo jin). Rev. Kubose (echoing his teacher Haya Akegarasu, see Heard by Me, pp 199-203) describes the historical Buddha’s awakening:

[When] Gautama looked into himself …[he realized] he was the source of all, the essence, the foundation of ignorance. Then, no one bothered him. When one opens one’s own mind, in the whole world, there is nothing to throw away, nothing to seek. It just is. Ignorance doesn’t bother us. All the bonnos (human troubles) don’t have to be hated. We are just as we are. We are nothing but bundles of bonnos. We are nothing but ignorance… this very ignorance, these very bonnos are the cause of enlightenment. (p. 28)

Bonno is a term not in the Heart Sutra but it’s hard for Shinran to talk for long without bringing it up. It is both dukha (stress) and klesa (defilement) and it is totally what we are 24/7. In the Heart Sutra’s pointing out of our clinging, calculating self, it is the call of “Namu!” - the call to come just as we are, with our hearts cluttered and confused by self-serving desires.

On page 29 Rev. Kubose says “To know the eternal now is Zen, is Nembutsu” and I wish Nancy DeRoin could have included his explanations. Rev. Kubose was talking to people who felt they knew what Zen meant, but we all need to be reminded that the nembutsu is the Buddha’s hand hitting us upside our self-infatuated heads. Instead of “nothing to throw away, nothing to seek,” we want to throw away the messy parts of human life that don’t fit the jigsaw puzzle of Perfect Peace, while we seek out the feel-good phrases that feed our delusion of being “improved and improving.”

Rev. Kubose was such a brave pioneer of presenting Jodo Shinshu in English but his legacy has been hijacked by the likes of those “non-sectarian” people who split from our temple in the late 1990s. The one person I believe is the true Dharma heir of Rev. Gyomay Kubose is Rev. Marvin Harada of the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, CA. He came to Chicago to study in the early 1980s when Rev. Kubose could still reference Shinran. Rev. Marvin went on to carry forward that deeply-grounded transmission. The others who attached themselves later to the mentally declining Rev. Kubose only have a superficial grasp of the written works such as his Heart Sutra commentary.