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.


  1. I love the line... "to know the eternal now is Zen, is Nembutsu". As the Quakers like to say "It speaks to my condition". Gassho.