Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Shining Examples: Amida Concrete and Plural

Countless Amida Buddhas reside
In the light of the Buddha of Unhindered Light;
Each one of these transformed Buddhas protects
The person of true and real shinjin.
-- Shinran Shonin, Jodo Wasan
(translation from Collected Works of Shinran, p. 355)

At the 2014 Maida Center retreat in Berkeley, I was glad to see the above wasan (verse written in vernacular Japanese) included in our 20-plus pages of reading material. It comes from the “Benefits in the Present Life” section of Shinran’s Jodo Wasan. That verse and others in the section remind me to appreciate the working of Great Wisdom (aka Unhindered Light) through the lives, human and otherwise, around us.

(at Jodo Shinshu Center, photo by Paul Vielle)
As they tell the journalism students, to help your audience understand an issue, you have to tell the story of specific people, e.g. in a news item about drug crime, you feature a family affected by the problem. Ministers and anyone in Buddhist education should be doing the same thing. Yet how easy it is to find Buddhist speakers and writers floating farther and farther away into the atmosphere with abstract concept upon concept, metaphors morphing into more metaphors. From time to time, Dr. Haneda has come up with brilliant examples of real people to illustrate his points (see “Put Your Lips to the Dust” in his book Dharma Breeze), but in settings such as the annual retreat, he has too many points to cover to take the time to talk of anyone besides Shinran.

The person who spoke and wrote about continually encountering the Unhindered Light in the bodies of beings in his everyday world, in the community and in the world known through history and the news, was Rev. Gyoko Saito. For my presentation at the Maida Center retreat, I had the group read Rev. Saito’s piece “Bum.” [I think if I get at least 30 hits on this post, I’ll put the piece on my blog.] I told the retreat attendees that it’s not much different now in our temple’s Uptown neighborhood. We have plenty of bodhisattvas teaching us true dana (generosity) by asking for train fare to get to some far-off home/work/relatives destination.

I wish I could be like Rev. Saito who recounted stories of the hundreds of Amida Buddhas he found in the temple membership and on the streets of Chicago. Maybe I just need time to get to know people longer or somehow break down my inattentiveness to the essence of their being

At the retreat I pointed out Ruby T., our temple member attending the retreat for the first time and said I tell her story in my article “Women’s Liberation in Buddhism” (see In fact, I use Ruby’s story quite frequently and at many venues. It makes real the metaphor in Manshi Kiyozawa’s “Peace Beyond Ethics.” The boy carrying the heavy tea-service tray is like Ruby when her husband fell ill and she felt the burden of becoming responsible for her whole family. The mother in Kiyozawa’s metaphor who walks behind the boy and helps hold up the tray is the chorus of “We’ll help you, Mommy” that Ruby heard from her small children. For Ruby in this situation “Namu Amida Butsu” is not some abstract summation, but a flash of deep awareness of the Power Beyond Self.

I know our temple membership is full of stories like Ruby’s and hopefully I can get to know them and learn for myself the concreteness of the many, many “transformed bodies” of Amida.

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