Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Merry Monku and a Bonno New Year

Our weekly study class finished up our around-the-world look at “Western Shin Buddhism” so for the remaining weeks of December I suggested reading some of the Rita Gross’ book that will be in the temple’s Book Club discussion in January. I’m finding it hard to concentrate on reading through whole books, so I wanted the study class to be a motivation for me to at least get started on Buddhism After Patriarchy.

One thing Dr. Gross’ book has me fantasizing about is someday writing my own book – I joked with the study class that its title will be “Monku, Monku, Monku - Rantings of a Shin Buddhist Feminist.” The Japanese word monku is often used in the sense of “complaining, whining, bitching” – so you’ll see T-shirts for sale in Little Tokyo with “Monku, Monku, Monku” to mimic the old slogan fad, “Bitch, bitch, bitch.”

I bring up that word because of a seminar held at the Midwest Buddhist Temple a few months ago. The title was “Women in Buddhism.” I couldn’t go but some members of our temple went and told me that the speaker Rev. Patti Oshita of the Sacramento Buddhist Temple only spoke a bit about Shinran’s wife and daughter (note to Rev. Oshita: Eshinni and Kakushinni are but two of the many underreported women in Buddhism) but she made a big presentation of the “no monku pledge.” She gave out purple wristbands and pledge sheets – people (an audience of mostly women) were told to sign the promise not to complain for 24 hours. One of our members many years my senior just thought it was “ridiculous” – if Shinran’s teachings have sunk in, we know we can go hardly a few minutes without some ego-centered defilement (bonno) kicking in. Another member said it was “disturbing” – a common message from oppressors to the oppressed is “quit your complaining and just be grateful for what you have.” She would know, coming from a background of Jewish forefathers and mothers who were persecuted in Russia and Europe. Do you think the young people protesting injustice on the streets of Chicago want to hear “oh, don’t complain so much, have some gratitude”?

In a way, I feel by complaining, I’m like Ananda in the Larger Sutra – speaking up so that those who come after us will benefit, as Ananda questioned the Buddha, goading him to make the teachings more accessible. We – I and my fellow students of Shinran, especially the women ministers and leaders – need to keep pointing out where the presentations of Shin Buddhism fail to convey the spirit of total equality, of deep respect for each and every being.

If I ever write that book, I’d pay the comic strip artist Lela Lee handsomely to do the cover and illustrations. She is famous for the Angry Little Asian Girl comics (see the “Gender Judo” example at Even if she’s not Buddhist, I think she can relate to my outrage. For example, I wondered about the cover to the book Current of Change: American Buddhist Women Speak Out on Jodo Shinshu by Rev. Patti Usuki (she’s cool, that is, feminist, so don’t confuse her with Rev. Oshita). I asked her who is the woman pictured and she said it was a photo of a young Japanese nun but they cropped her shaved head out of the picture. It’s sort of a slap in the face to all the dedicated women at North American temples that Rev. Usuki wrote about if none of them were “attractive” enough (including Rev. Usuki herself) to be on the cover. It’s like the Dalai Lama saying a female Dalai Lama must be good-looking to have credibility. Rev. Usuki told me who made that decision to have an eye-catching face on the cover – someone I’ve said enough about in previous writings so I better stop my monku here.

I’m sad that Rita Gross passed away recently – hardly any fanfare for her loss. Someday thousands of women and others who don’t identify with patriarchy will look back and loudly praise her for being one of the great pioneer teachers for spreading Buddhism to a wider audience by freeing it from the Asian and Western cultural biases of androcentrism.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hongan as Merton's Description of Love

For the November 28 dialogue event at our temple (held on Shinran’s memorial day), I invited Rev. Brandyn Simmons of Christ Church of Chicago. At the church’s website you can see Rev. Brandyn’s blog “Apophatica.” Before the event, I saw that Rev. Brandyn blogged about his stay at Gethsemani Abbey, so I thought I’d find some Thomas Merton quotes to open up the dialogue between our two organizations (interested people of other religious groups also attended). From this 2014 Huffington Post article Thomas Merton Quotes To Celebrate The American Monk's Birthday” I found this passage from The Way of Chuang Tzu:

The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.

[photo of Merton’s grave by Rev. Brandyn Simmons from blog “Apophatica”]
At first I thought it was a great way to describe “love” that would relate to the Buddhist concept of compassion. Then it struck me – the passage is hongan, the innermost aspiration expounded in the Larger Sutra.

In the story Shakyamuni Buddha tells of the seeker Dharmakara, whose teacher directs him to confront his own heart/mind and question why he keeps categorizing other beings as “good” versus “bad.” To overcome his judgmental habit, Dharmakara makes a series of vows, but they can be distilled into the main, primary – “Primal Vow.” That is the aspiration that wells up from the depths of his being to embrace all with no exception, to show utmost respect (Namu) to each and every being beyond any categorization (Amida) and completely identify with all (Butsu).

Unlike the “love” I spoke about in an early blog post (that still gets occasional views) which indicates the negative notion of possessiveness, the love that Merton describes is our truest aspiration for Oneness. That love is the opposite of the ego’s drive to control and hang on to other beings for the benefits we crave. To let all living beings be “perfectly themselves” is the command of the Buddha in Shandao’s “two rivers, white path” story to “come immediately, just as you are.”

The numerous vows of Dharmakara in the Larger Sutra are all resolutions to stop twisting others into how we think they should be, our ideas of what pleases us. It may seem most of the time that we lack the will to really love others, but Shinran documents for us that the heart/mind of entrusting (shinjin) is a gift that is already given to us. All we need to do is become aware of it – to hear its calling (nembutsu).

In the news these days, we find plenty of examples of conflict from humans trying to control other lives and seeing others as dangerous because they don’t fit our image of goodness. There are no purely evil people – only people who think they are justified in harming and destroying others for not fitting into their idea of propriety. The way to take away that sense of justification is to keep listening to the teachings of all-embracing Oneness, the teachings that make us see that there is no “they” as opposed to “we.” To hear the nembutsu is to hear our deepest wish to see our self and each life as perfect just as we are, inextricably part of one great flow of life. This is Shinran’s radical solution to the terrorism which we all are guilty of promoting.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

News of Paris and Sandra Bland

I’ve been starting some blog entries that never got finished – about workshops and conferences I attended last month and about the “Speculative Non-Buddhism” blog that entertained me while waiting in the hospital between my husband’s tests, reports, procedures and results earlier this month (he’s okay now). And with a lot of different things going on at the temple, it’s been hard to focus on writing a blog entry lately.

Back in 2002 during what became known as the “Beltway Sniper Attacks,” schools in the suburban Washington D.C. area were under lockdown, keeping the students indoors. I remember hearing on the radio one father said he told his grade-school aged son, “What you are feeling now is not that unusual. There are children in many parts of the world and even here in the United States who everyday live in fear of being shot.” After the two perpetrators were captured, the children in those suburban areas could go back to being carefree playing outdoors, while even now in places around the world and in certain neighborhoods in Chicago, children are well aware that they can become the victims of violence.

I always recall that father’s words when I hear about tragedies such as the terrorist attacks in Paris – what the media plays up as so extraordinary for “nice neighborhoods” is sadly a frequent occurrence for the many who live in the midst of violent conflict. The people killed and maimed by the terrorists were enjoying typical First World pleasures – sports event in a large arena, concert by an American rock band, eating a gourmet dinner and sipping wine and espresso at a sidewalk cafĂ©. The victims may not have been wealthy, but they like myself were bourgeoisie, having disposable income to spend on leisure activities. The news of Paris motivated some to bring attention to horrific massacres that had been woefully underreported – such as the April attack at a university in Kenya and the suicide bombings in Beirut. The terrorist killings in the Middle East and Africa usually take place in settings more proletariat (people who are struggling to make ends meet) than bourgeoisie – victims were doing what people in the First, Second (former Soviet countries) and Third World mostly do, gather at the marketplace, places of worship, for weddings and funerals, and for the not-to-be-taken-for-granted opportunity of education.

With most of the news media focused on Paris, I would have missed the update on Sandra Bland were it not for Father Michael Pfleger (priest at Chicago’s St. Sabina Church) calling attention to it. I spoke about Sandra Bland at this summer’s Maida Center retreat – contrasting her arrest video with the stories of Buddhist seekers meeting their teachers, how the idea of “encounter” between two humans can go right (when one of them is free from ego-concerns) or go so very wrong. Unlike some of the other African Americans noted in news stories who died in police custody, Sandra Bland was from a bourgeois background – she was from Naperville, a suburban area west of Chicago.

What Father Pfleger was outraged about is the official report from the Texas county where Sandra Bland died – the attorneys asked the court to dismiss charges against the jailers because to them it was a clear case of suicide. They somehow read Sandra Bland’s mind and concluded she was despondent because none of her family members or friends would pay for her bail or come help her. Although there’s a possibility that Sandra Bland was suicidal due to physiological conditions, for the officials to paint her family and friends as heartlessly sending her to her death is reason for anyone to be outraged.

You may be wondering what these ramblings have to do with Buddhism. For one, Buddhism teaches us to be wary of what seems to be the truth – any person purportedly “telling the truth” is only giving a biased account of what they thought they perceived. Much of our bias is non-intentional – we are influenced by our upbringing and many internal and external factors. But from the beginning of humankind, people intentionally bend the facts to fit their agenda (I learned a lot about this in the Hebrew Bible course I took at the Pacific School of Religion one summer). So I really don’t give much credence to the news about what caused the Paris attacks – we all know how easily evidence is manipulated. But the Sandra Bland case should be especially troubling to us – anyone (particularly a person of color) can be targeted, incited, confined, possibly drugged and then reported as a suicide by parties who don’t want to admit to any transgression of society’s carefully structured rules of civilized behavior.

The other point is compassion – for the victims and the perpetrators and for many of us who are both at the same and varying times. Shuichi Maida emphasized the Zen phrase “heijo-tei,” which Dr. Haneda translated as “flat-ordinariness.” I think it points to the ultimate equality of all beings. The people who were killed in Paris were no more special than the victims in Beirut or Kenya. The people who carried out the killings were no more evil than any of us – when we’re easily swayed to think some lives are not worthy and can be destroyed for our noble cause (think of the monks in various Asian countries resorting to violent means of “eliminating” the Muslims who don’t fit in their idea of a peaceful Buddhist state). To me “Black Lives Matter” is not a contradiction of “heijo-tei” but it’s a reminder of how much we violate the spirit of “heijo-tei” when a group is abused by those who feel superior. “Black Lives Matter” is Namu Amida Butsu – it’s being hit upsides our privileged judgmental heads and confronting us with the shining dignity of all beings. Despite what they look like, despite what we think they’ve done – they are shining with the truth of the past, present and future which we must aspire to understand more deeply with its pain and tears.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Freeing Women from Depression - Some Preliminary Thoughts

Two names that sound similar to me are Sylvia Plath and Sunya Pratt – the names of two very different women. Most people know of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) who suffered from depression and committed suicide at the age of 30. There have been times in my life when I strongly identified with her – feeling there is so much you want to give to and get from the world but you feel like a failure, unable to be what people consider “a good woman.”

So this past Sunday when I was guest speaker at the Seattle Buddhist Church I said that the occasion they were commemorating – the annual honoring of Shinran’s wife Eshinni and daughter Kakushinni – “sends the wrong message to our young people.” I said the message it was sending was that women were valued only for being supporters of some great man. To honor someone who really contributed to Buddhism as her own person rather than as someone’s wife or daughter, I said the Seattle temple should be commemorating Rev. Sunya Pratt (1898-1986).

Contrary to the 1986 L.A. Times article (, Rev. Pratt was not an entirely self-taught Buddhist but as Rev. Ama’s book (Immigrants to the Pure Land) clarifies, she was the student of one of the top scholars of Shin Buddhism of the time, Rev. Gendo Nakai (unfortunately no relation to my husband). As Rev. Ama’s book details, Rev. Nakai was a visionary in realizing for Jodo Shinshu to develop a foothold in the West, it needed non-ethnic Japanese ministers and he trained several. But Sunya Pratt seemed to be the one person who really grasped Jodo Shinshu (not stuck in the moralistic Theravada mode as Ernest and Dorothy Hunt of Hawaii were).

Why didn’t she succumb to the depression of women such as Sylvia Plath? I believe in “Namu Amida Butsu” she heard the voice of encouragement from the entire universe – “You can do it – don’t listen to the petty complaints. Listen deeply to the aspiration to bring all beings to awakening.”

At the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference in August, there was a paper presented by Prof. Angela Andrade on depression. Although Angela-sensei can’t always attend the biennial IASBS conference, I’m always happy to see her and listen to her papers. A non-ethnic Japanese from Brazil, she has been deeply permeated by the Shin teachings and was able to spend some time in Berkeley studying under Dr. Haneda (pictured together below). At this IASBS conference, I was glad she presented the paper “An Inquiry into a Contemporary Expression of Pain: A Shin Buddhist Approach.” I wished we had more time for her to dialogue in public with Dr. Carmela Hirano, a practicing psychiatrist and minister assistant at the Salt Lake City temple.

Reading Prof. Angela’s paper I see the clue for freeing women from the kind of depression Sylvia Plath experienced. Although “general” Buddhism addresses the issue of real vs. delusionary sense of self, Prof. Angela’s paper points to Shinran’s radical key to liberation from depression:

What a joy that I place my mind on the soil of the Buddha’s Universal Vow, and I let my thoughts float on the sea of the Inconceivable Dharma.

In Shin Buddhism, no woman has to be the “good girl” – we can be like the song from the Disney film “Frozen” singing, “I don’t care - what they’re going to say, let the storm rage on.” In a way, it’s no wonder that Rennyo Shonin found women particularly receptive to the Shin teachings. “Society already tells us we’re flawed – now we hear the Buddha telling us to flap our wings and fly into the great horizon.”

Getting back to my talk at the Seattle temple, I said to the young folks, “Dream big – even though your parents and others say you can’t do that because you’re a girl or you’re a boy, you’re Japanese or Spanish whatever. In Namu Amida Butsu we hear Amida which means ‘no boundaries.’ Find yourself a good teacher like Rev. Sunya Pratt found in Rev. Gendo Nakai. That’s the way to be who you are and not what others say you have to be.”

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Tanko Guantanamera Bushi: 2015 Eastern Buddhist League Conference in Cleveland, OH

I was going to title this post about the EBL conference “North American Faces of Jodo Shinshu.” But I think everyone who attended the banquet will remember the conference’s highlight was when we did the moves of the Japanese dance “Tanko Bushi” (Coal Miner’s Song) to the live band’s performance of the 1960s pop hit “Guantanamera” with a revved up Latin beat. (You can see a video clip on our temple’s Facebook page.)

Shin Buddhism in North America should be multi-cultural – embracing the varieties of peoples in Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Caribbean nations. Let the other Western Buddhist groups worry about being an elite sea of pale faces with a few dots of color. From the get-go (in India and Central Asia) the Pure Land tradition was about crossing the ethnic tribal divides and welcoming all by dropping restrictive requirements such as monastic discipline, specialized education, pumped up bodies and finely honed mental skills.

The conference’s keynote speaker Prof. Jeff Wilson is the face of Jodo Shinshu in North America. He’s much younger than us baby boomers on the downhill side of life, so he’ll be around for the current and future generations of seekers. His upbringing and adulthood in the U.S. reflects several regions – New England, the South, LA and NYC. He currently teaches and lives in Canada and the good parts of Canadian culture seem to be rubbing off on him – the considerateness and unjaded sense of humor (I think of the old comedy show Second City TV, more kindler and gentler than Saturday Night Live).

Prof. Jeff has received tokudo (initial ordination) from Nishi Honganji and can function pretty much as a minister but since his main job is as a college professor and also a published researcher on Buddhism, he’s much like the late Dr. Taitetsu Unno in knowing the need to speak about Jodo Shinshu to people outside the temples. For those people he can help them understand Shin Buddhism as an authentic path of Buddha-Dharma and not some aberrant idol-worship offshoot from East Asia.

As much as I enjoy these annual EBL gatherings for the chance to be with dear old friends and make new ones, we seem to spend much of the time talking about organizational issues rather than doing deep listening of the teachings. So I appreciated that Prof. Jeff brought up some essential teachings about the limitations of self-centered efforts and even quoted Shinran (gasp!).

For me the biggest shock was during the Q & A session when a member of the Midwest Buddhist Temple said Shin Buddhism needs to use language that’s more understandable “instead of professorly terms like innermost aspiration.” I was surprised that person said that even after he attended the recent seminar at our temple where Rev. Marvin Harada (Orange County Buddhist Church) explained why he liked to use “innermost aspiration” as a more accessible translation for hongan than the standard “Original Vow” or “Primal Vow.” It makes me wonder how the Buddhist Churches of America organization is training its minister assistants. Because the great majority of them don’t know the Japanese language, they are taught to accept terms such as shinjin as having no English equivalent. But as much as the word hongan can’t be captured exactly in any English translation, there should be involved discussions of the meanings and implications of those Chinese characters and how Pure Land teachers used the word in their commentaries.

I know the last thing Rev. Gyoko Saito wanted was for us to sound “professorly” in our sharing of the Jodo Shinshu teachings. But just because BCA and Higashi are training ministers and leaders in English, it doesn’t mean we should stop explaining the meanings of the Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese terms. It sounds like the BCA through the Institute of Buddhist Studies has been trying to standardize all the Jodo Shinshu terms and phrases (I was a bit disappointed when Rev. Marvin gave the party line justification for continuing to say “saved” and “salvation”). But as Prof. Jeff said, this is the time for Shin Buddhist groups to experiment and offer various types of presentations, including using different translations for terms. Maybe those at our temple who speak languages other than English can give some multicultural richness to the Jodo Shinshu vocabulary, so our texts will have more mambo and less mumbo-jumbo.