Friday, October 3, 2014

Gifts from Cowardice: AWOL Siddhartha

When I was living in Los Angeles and helping at the Higashi Honganji temple there, the Los Angeles Times interviewed Rev. Noriaki Ito and in the printed article it had him saying he and his friend Wayne Yokoyama went to study Buddhism in Japan to escape the draft. At the time I teased Wayne about it, “Nori spilled the beans and now everyone knows you were draft dodgers.” But now looking back on how important both those guys have been in making Shinran’s teachings more accessible in the English-speaking world, it’s a wonderful thing that the draft motivated them to go to Otani University and study under the great teachers in Kyoto. Wayne is the tireless translator of a whole range of Jodo Shinshu works and has done a huge amount of research on D.T. Suzuki, Honen and other major Buddhist figures. (In his findings, it’s apparent Shinran is more faithful to Honen’s teachings than the “official” disciples of Honen who suppressed some of Honen’s ideas to avoid the ire of the political powers.) Rev. Nori is now the bishop of the North America District and continues to work hard to bring the Higashi Honganji temples into the 21st century. But besides their significance as contributors to Jodo Shinshu in the West, both of them have been invaluable to me as friends, guides and moral supporters. I would hate to think where I would be without them. So I am deeply grateful they did not end up as soldiers in Vietnam – possibly not coming home or returning too physically and mentally wounded to function.

At the first session of the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” class I offer at our temple a few times a year, I go over the life story of the historical Buddha. I point out that Siddhartha was born not in the top caste, the brahmins, but in the next one down, the ksatriya, warrior class. His father was not king of the whole Indian continent but the ruler of one of many small kingdoms, all in continual warfare to defend their turf and attack the others for their resources. To be king meant to be a successful general and so all men in the warrior class were trained in the military arts and sciences. If anything, during his early manhood, Siddhartha must have been very buff, continually working out as well as keeping himself intellectually sharp.


(woodcarving by Harry Koizumi depicting Siddhartha leaving the palace)
I have yet to come across any accounts of Siddhartha testing his skills in battle. He supposedly won his bride in a contest of martial arts, but that would have been just a ceremonial display, not an urgent fight between armies. Although we have the story of the Four Gates to explain his leaving the palace (he was depressed by the sights of sickness, old age and death and then inspired by the truth-seeking beggar with the shining face), I wonder if the real reason he ran out on his kingdom was to avoid becoming a player on the battlefield, living out the anguish of Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita. Despite the pleasures he was surrounded by in the palace, he had to be aware that his expected vocation in life would be to follow his father as the general leading the charge of conquest.

Since Buddhism is one of the great religions that arose during what Karen Armstrong calls the Axial Age, the key question it was faced with was how to stop warfare which at that time became efficiently destructive of lives and property. For the young Siddhartha, going out to seek the truth was his aspiration, but maybe like Rev. Nori and Wayne, it was the impending threat of going to war that made starting his quest all the more urgent. Sometimes when we are running away to save our own skin we end up entering the path of spiritual liberation that we wouldn’t have gotten around to if we weren’t so scared.


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