Tuesday, September 23, 2014

At Peace with War: Overcoming the Anti-Military Attitude

DePaul University with funding from the McCormick Foundation and other sponsors invited faith-based groups from throughout the Chicago area to participate in the “Multi-Faith Veteran Support Initiative.” I’m glad I went to one of the several orientation events they had, conference-room sized events with followers from a diversity of religions where I felt comfortable bringing up a point. The main kick-off event was just held – about a hundred people or so at the banquet room of the Union League Club. I would say two-thirds or more of the attendees were African-Americans from a handful of church groups. That should not be surprising since the Veterans Administration data shows the majority of veterans live on the south side of the city.

But I felt too intimidated by the preponderance of Christians to say much to anyone. It was hard to engage in conversation with the blacks – as soon as I said I was from the Buddhist temple, they seemed to write me off. The Catholics and United Church of Christ people were more cordial – at least willing to answer the questions I asked them about their work. Though I give DePaul a lot of credit for making their veterans outreach project multi-faith, it’s certainly not something encouraging “interfaith” cooperation.


My main reason for attending the event was to hear the keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock (see photo above), because I’ve seen her name on a lot of events here and on the West Coast. She holds the distinction of being the first Asian American woman to earn a doctorate of divinity, but as she told her story to us, it seems she wasn’t brought up to have much identification as Asian (her mother was from Japan). I was disappointed that she spoke of Buddhism in a brief generalized way (not much different from Dr. Haneda lumping all Christians together). She made a reference to Obon but her description would make anyone dismiss it as some superstitious placation of ghosts.

For me the most powerful message from her and the other featured speakers was that in order for organizations to help veterans re-connect with spirituality (Dr. Brock’s concept of “soul repair”) people need to have a better understanding of military life, the life that veterans lived for several years before returning to civilian life. The testimony of many veterans is that God has judged them for being murderers, including those who did not fire weapons, but participated indirectly or even just for surviving attacks that killed their comrades. So going to a church where people feel self-righteous about their relative lack of sin can be painful for veterans seeking a sense of acceptance in the spiritual sense.

I think this is one outreach project where Jodo Shinshu can speak to those veterans dealing with “moral injury” (the term Dr. Brock has popularized to indicate the wounded sense of having violated one’s moral beliefs). Honen and Shinran saw the meanness of their own aristocratic class members denigrating poor working people for breaking Buddhist precepts (e.g. taking life, false speech, having sexual relations). In their teachings they pointed out that because each of us is full of ego-attached defilements, why dump on those who had no choice but to be butchers, tanners, hunters or even prostitutes?

Many Buddhists now put anyone with the military in that “evil person” category. Too many descriptions of “Right Livelihood” in the Eightfold Path say that anything to do with handling weapons (building, selling, using) is forbidden. At one of our Buddhist Council of the Midwest annual gatherings, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship wanted to put out literature and a petition protesting putting in a naval academy program at a local high school. Some of us felt that was something too political to be at our event. To condemn young people (especially from disadvantaged households) who want to consider going into the military is like the anti-abortion protestors who block clinics and terrorize the clients but don’t offer to help people caught in the financial and emotional distress of unwanted pregnancies.

The book Zen at War brought up some poignant discussion and important information about how Buddhist groups in Japan cooperated with the imperial government during World War II, but it had a sanctimonious attitude looking down on anyone participating in military campaigns as unqualified to be a “true” Buddhist. I am not for going to any war, but history and current events show us that war is the reality we must acknowledge. There are many reasons why people join the military and we can’t judge them as moral failures as if our hands are so untainted by the spoils of war. Wars happen because of our greed as consumers, our failure to pay attention to how government officials are interacting with other countries.


I’m not sure how the Buddhist teachings can do the “soul repair” and “acceptance by a non-judgmental higher authority” that Dr. Brock spoke about, since we don’t talk about “souls” and “God.” But maybe for those veterans of any ethnic background who don’t find a reconnection with their spirituality at the Christian centers, our place and other Buddhist temples can give them a sense of being at peace with their past and open to the fresh new moments of the present.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Yee Haw Mazel Tov: Just Your Typical Buddhist Wedding

Of all the Buddhist groups in the West and possibly the whole world, Jodo Shinshu temples are the most experienced in weddings. Since Shinran Shonin was recognized as one of the first openly married teachers, it makes sense that we his followers acknowledge marriage as a significant rite and in most cases, something to celebrate. Before and even now after Shinran, the clergy in other Buddhist traditions are expected to be celibate and for them and their lay followers, any kind of bond between humans is derided as an obstacle to achieving enlightenment.

About once a month our temple gets a call or e-mail requesting a Buddhist wedding. In almost every case the parties are not Buddhist and are just looking for an exotic Asian backdrop for their ceremony or wanting to please relatives from Asia, so I refer them to other temples in the area. Unlike memorial services which are usually planned out in a week or two, wedding planning seems to consume several months. (The humorist Dave Barry commented that a wedding actually involves the same elements as a funeral – a minister, music and food, and asked why does one take so long to plan and the other is put together in a couple days.) I don’t want to tie up my time and mental energies on weddings, but I will take on requests from the members and friends of our temple.


(On the Buddhist Temple of Chicago dance floor)
The wedding we had this past Saturday was several years in the making. Tracy has been part of the temple since birth – her father’s extensive family has been involved in the temple since the early days.  However, her mother and her side are Jewish. I had Tracy as my Dharma School student and I remember although her parents brought her and her sister to temple on most Sundays, there were times when their mother felt it was important for the family to be at synagogue. It wasn’t that much different from the interfaith couples whose kids alternated between Dharma School at our temple and Sunday School at a church.

Tracy was a trailblazer as a young adult in coming out as lesbian and her partner Patsy soon became a fixture at our temple, helping at various activities. So even though some of our elder members had to be continually educated (i.e. scolded) about the things they said or did that discriminated against new members because of their race or socio-economic status, we never had to preach to them about accepting same-sex couples because they had already embraced Tracy and Patsy as people they appreciated having around.

Several years ago when many churches and religious groups such as Soka Gakkai in Chicago started performing same-sex marriages, we asked Tracy and Patsy when would they like to have their ceremony at our temple. They said, “When it’s legal in Illinois.” Finally last year the state legalized same-sex marriages and this year when it became effective Tracy and Patsy got their license and had a small celebration at a Boys Town bar, but for the big bash at the temple they wanted time to plan.

And big bash it was. With about 100 guests – family, temple members (including Tracy’s pals from her Dharma School days), friends and business colleagues, it was quite a crowd of different ages and ethnicities. But for that night we were all cowboys – that is, the theme for the wedding and reception was the Old West. Everyone from the toddlers to the 80-somethings was dressed in western wear – big hats, bandanas and boots. For the ceremony I started out with “Howdy” and ended with telling the crowd to yell “Yee haw!” as the brides kissed.

There was a buffet that included the tender beef brisket Tracy’s mother made, served with Japanese rice. Then for a good three or more hours it was non-stop dancing – featuring a few country-western hits, but mostly the dance hits of the 1990s to today’s pop. At one point, I interrupted the DJ and put on “Tanko Bushi” (coal miner’s dance), so we could do some Bon Odori (Japanese folk dancing). Then what surprised me later was the DJ playing an extended version of “Hava Nagila.” The crowd first hoisted up the two brides, but then they came down and Tracy’s parents were seated in chairs with people in circles dancing around them and from time to time the dancers converged on the senior couple with shouts of “Mazel Tov!”

Probably any minister would be happy to see the sight – the temple so alive with the energy of young people having a good time. It’s possible we may not see many of those guests back at our temple for services, but at least they’ll be telling their friends, “We went to a wedding at the Buddhist temple and it was awesome!” Nothing like a rowdy hoe-down to destroy the stereotype of Buddhism as a passive unfeeling religion.