Monday, June 16, 2014

Heavy Karma: The Fat Lady Sings

In the famous White Path Parable of Shan-tao that Honen, Shinran and so many Pure Land teachers after them have quoted and commented on, a voice ahead on the path calls to the traveler, “Come straightway, just as you are!” But as much as I’m okay with “just as you are” means one doesn’t have to be more educated or perform more good deeds to be on the path of enlightenment, I can’t help thinking I’d fit on that narrow white path more easily if I was twenty pounds lighter.

[My favorite opera/cabaret singer Jeanne Scherkenbach performing at the temple’s 2013 summer festival. Hear her marvelous singing live on June 22 at Blue Star Bistro]

On Facebook I posted a photo of myself and a minister whose temple I was visiting and it led to an exchange of comments with Ken O’Neill, a former Buddhist Churches of America kaikyoshi (“overseas minister” – official designation for ordained people serving outside of Japan). (Many years ago my teacher Dr. Nobuo Haneda got me a copy of Ken’s critique of BCA’s poor treatment of non-Japanese American kaikyoshi in the mid-20th century.) Ken was directing his comments more to my pot-bellied friend than 20 lbs. overweight me but it made me want to open a discussion about whether body image makes one less effective as a religious teacher. Ken said, “what kind of Dharma is expressed with obesity?” and he referred to fitness guru Paul Chek saying a spiritual mentor should be able to preach in a g-string.

It’s probably true that most of the ordained men and women in the monastic traditions could show off their svelte bodies in a g-string, but among the Jodo Shinshu ministers in the U.S. I don’t think many of us over 40 would want to strip down in public (the Canadian ministers seem to be in better shape – maybe from trudging through the snow eight months out of the year).  My response to Ken was that slim ministers may not have a deep understanding of Shinran’s teachings if they are too enamored of their ability to keep in shape.

I said that to Ken because I find my lack of success in controlling my weight reminds me so poignantly of the limitation of my self-power. I’ve seen some of my minister friends go from skinny student to wide-load professional and now as I’ve been head minister full-time, I understand why. You don’t have much control over your schedule and having to skip meals leads to foraging the snacks leftover from gatherings at the temple or going overboard at the otoki (meals with the family after a memorial service). Before I was full-time at the temple, I used to take the long walk (20 minutes each way) from my house to the public library several times a week but now I can barely schedule my library visit for once a week. And when you’re running around to get to things on time (including returning library materials on the due date), you end up jumping in the car instead of getting in any walking.

Ken’s comments made me wonder if being fat makes me look less attractive as a teacher to those who are seeking to learn from Buddhism. Yet I tell myself it’s not so important how I look to others as how I look at them. In getting on my own case for not doing more to lose weight, I have to be careful not to project my disgust with my burgeoning body onto other people. How other people came to their present shape is the result of many factors and most are beyond their control. When I was a teen I remember my sister had a friend who was obese and she said her family had to live on food stamps. From then I realized that many poor people are overweight because on a limited budget they end up addressing their constant hunger with easy fixes of fattening food. When we see very physically fit people it’s likely they are affluent enough to shop at Whole Foods and engage in costly exercise regimens.

For all my life until now, I would think, “I’ll never be as fat as my mother” and it gave me a sense of superiority, that I could be better than her. The day after she died, I packed all her clothes into bags to give to the Goodwill but I saved a few things for myself. Now as I’m wearing some of her clothes I find that they aren’t as loose on me as I thought they would be.