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.


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