Monday, February 16, 2015

Needing a Better Word for "Forgiveness"

Our temple hosted the Treasures of Uptown Interfaith Coalition event – watching and discussing the film “Unlikely Friends” ( I heard about it from Tricycle Magazine which time to time notifies its subscribers about small films dealing with big issues, and I recommended it to Treasures for an upcoming event. The film was a nice follow-up to “The Power of Forgiveness” which we showed at a previous event. But it was more intimate, focusing on a few individuals, not famous or tied to big organizations, who come together to know each other as friends – the convicted perpetrators and the people harmed by them.

With the wintry weather, we didn’t have the turnout we hoped for, but the twenty or so people who came were a good cross-section of community members. In our discussion we noted that people in the film kept saying that “forgiveness” of criminals doesn’t mean condoning their destructive acts. But as Seth from Peoples Church commented, the word “forgiveness” is commonly used to mean “wipe away,” such as a debt or fees are “forgiven.” He said we probably need a better word for what “Unlikely Friends” illustrated for us – to see the other as human and not categorized on the basis of one act.

As seen in my rant in the last entry and some other entries, I don’t like to be put in a category and looked upon as an object – whether as a “Buddhist,” “Asian,” “female” etc. In the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” classes I tell the students they probably all know what it’s like to be categorized, when they hear “your kind” or “you people.” I tell them what the Buddha taught is to get us out of that thinking – about ourselves and other beings. Whether it’s reading from Pure and Simple by Upasika Kee Nanayon or The Record of Lin-chi, we hear the great teachers telling us to approach life with an open heart/mind and not make the mistake of imposing “name and form” on our experiences.

As I heard on a recent broadcast of the NPR show “Invisibilia” (, it’s useful for us as infants and children to put things in categories, but real people don’t fit neatly into any kinds of categories. In our discussion of the film “Unlikely Friends,” we acknowledged how easy it is to talk of “criminals” and “victims” as one-dimensional objects. The individuals in the film bravely proved to themselves and each other that they won’t let one terrible act in the past define who they are and will be and how they interact with mutual respect.

In Buddhism the principle of kshanti comes close to the idea of forgiveness. The Sino-Japanese translation nin-niku could be interpreted as “forbear abuse,” but the character nin is also used in Buddhist translations to indicate “insight.” It’s one thing to forbear “put up with” things, but it’s another to strive for insight – understanding of the situation, one’s self and the others involved. In the film, it was not only the people who were harmed who tried to understand the perpetrator, but the convicts were grateful for the chance to get to know those victims. As “Mark” said, he had seen “Steve,” the policeman he shot several times as “just something in the way,” but in their correspondence and meeting together, he has to recognize Steve as a person living with the physical pain and disability from that assault. The film notes that convicts tend to blame their victims for what happened but for those who get to meet the victims (or the grieving family members of the person murdered) they learn to take responsibility for their own actions and be freed from the paralyzing bonds of self-pity.

Remarkably the film didn’t delve into the shameful problem of racism in the American justice system – the three pairs of individuals presented in the film were all looked Caucasian (one convict had a Spanish-sounding name). Only in the commentary of Azim Khamisa (who was featured in “The Power of Forgiveness”) is there a story where the perpetrator is African American. Mr. Khamisa with powerful insight recognizes the deprived circumstances of the boy who murdered his son, circumstances common to urban segregated neighborhoods. In the footage from various prisons shown during the commentaries, one can’t help notice the great majority of prisoners are dark-skinned.

In our discussion group we were fortunate to have Fate, a worker in the Violence Prevention project of Cease Fire, who spent twelve years in prison after committing crimes with a youth gang. He brought to our attention the problem of ex-convicts still judged as “criminals.” That is one area for we religious leaders to raise our voices – to ask our members as employers and landlords to put the teachings of non-prejudice into practice. Though most of us may not be convicted criminals, according to the Teachings, we have already committed and keep committing crimes (of thought, word and deed) against other living beings, and we wouldn’t want anyone to keep bringing up our defilements as a reason to deny us jobs and housing.

Several years ago at our temple we were blessed to have the participation of the late Johnny King, an activist for violence prevention who got me involved in the expungement campaign (Illinois Senate Bill 788 signed in 2003). One time when he didn’t show up for study class I found out he was arrested for parole violation and I had to navigate the online prisoner registry to find out where he was so I could send him the reading materials. Now we have a presently attending member who confided his past conviction to me but I’m not identifying him to other members so that he won’t be stigmatized. There may be others in our midst who were and maybe are criminals, but the important thing is for them to be accepted totally as our fellow Dharma-learners at the temple.
[Post script Feb. 21 - I should add that as we well know in the Chicago area, that the person convicted for a crime is not necessarily guilty. Too many people, especially those of color, get caught up in the justice system serving prison terms for crimes they didn't commit while the actual perpetrators can't be found or have managed to escape prosecution. So we should keep in mind that the ex-cons returning to our communities may not have been criminals at all.]

Friday, February 13, 2015

Searchers and Researchers

Yesterday I had to deal with two PO’ed people. One was a Dharma School parent (thankfully it was the superintendent Diana talking and e-mailing with her and not me directly) and the other was a community college student e-mailing about her class assignment.

Our outgoing temple president wrote an article in the February bulletin about how the number of first-time visitors had doubled from 2011 (253 people) to 2014 (496 people). He noted that our temple has become the “go-to place in Chicago for those exploring Buddhism.” But from the two people I had to deal with yesterday, I see it’s not such a good thing that our temple comes up on top in anyone’s Google search.

[photo shows form given to first-time visitors against background of the fabric patch cushion we use for our metal folding-chairs]
The great majority of first-time (and only-time) visitors are college and high-school students who had an assignment “to visit a house of worship of a religion outside of your own.” For the most part these kids (and the parents who have to chauffeur them) stay in the background and don’t bother anyone much except to ask a couple questions and take a photo proving they were there. But it becomes a problem for our members when the students start to get too intrusive – such as one group showed up with elaborate film equipment, sticking their camera in each person’s face as they went up to offer incense. We’ve since then asked people not to photograph during service and to ask for our members’ permission before filming them.

We’ve had dozens of graduate students doing studies of our temple which involved observing various activities over several weeks and doing extensive interviews of a sample group of members. So I didn’t think anything different about the Northwestern University student who came saying her study is about children and religion. I directed her to Diana, the superintendent, and thought it would be no big deal for the student to observe the Dharma School classes.

After the student’s second visit and a request to have families go through an interview process, we heard from the upset parent. She said it was very disconcerting for grade-school children to be asked, “How does it feel to be part of a minority religion?” She said it was careless of us to allow an outside party to be in the Dharma School classrooms without any checking of their credentials. These days it’s imaginable that someone with criminal intent could claim they are just a student doing research. So now at least when it involves contact with children, our temple will have to insist on references and a background check of anyone visiting us for the supposed purpose of academic research.

The e-mail exchange I had with the student from Harold Washington College shows that even academic research isn’t such a great thing for our temple to be participating in. The student felt that as someone taking a “Philosophy of Religion” course, we should be pleased that she chose our group to visit and myself as the minister and the whole temple leadership should be willing to drop everything to answer the boatload of questions she has about Buddhism. She felt by praising Buddhism as the religion she’s most excited to explore, that we should be welcoming her as our potential next leader (i.e. savior). We get a lot e-mails like that and it makes me feel like we’re the apes and the students all think they are Dian Fossey saving us from extinction because of their willingness to study us. Most of the time someone more diplomatic than me will respond to the student inviting them to attend our Sunday service, but yesterday and a few times in the past, I responded as someone in a real bad mood (essentially telling her to get in line and take a number with all the other students coming on Sundays wanting interviews for their class papers) and so the student wrote back accusing me of making her feel “inferior.”

I think I better prepare a stock response – telling the students to go visit the Midwest Buddhist Temple (I already did that with the second Northwestern student also researching “children and religion”). At Midwest, the office manager Jesse is there most of the week and on Sundays, willing and able to answer all kinds of questions people have about Buddhism. Midwest also has a whole cadre of “minister assistants” (including Jesse) certified by the Buddhist Churches of America – so I’ve also started referring churches and schools to Midwest who want a speaker to travel hours to their location.

I’ve heard Dr. Mark Unno say he did his research on the Shingon sect because he didn’t want to subject his own beliefs in Jodo Shinshu to the rigors of American academic analysis. I’m grateful that in Japan at places such as Otani University it’s okay to be a searcher and researcher at the same time and almost all the professors are deeply committed to Buddhism as the basis for their own lives. But in the West, academics feel it’s a liability to be emotionally attached to their object of study (one University of Wisconsin professor told me Dr. Haneda would’ve made a good scholar if he wasn’t such a gudosha, “seeker of the Way”). So for all you scholars and would-be scholars, if you want to study Buddhists in the same way you observe lab rats, please stay away from me and our temple’s members. But if you are sincere about exploring Buddhism as a possible basis for your own life, our doors are wide open for you.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Reincarnation of Manshi Kiyozawa

I usually tell people I’m an agnostic about reincarnation, but if there’s a case to be made for the possibility of one life continuing in another body, I’d say it was Manshi Kiyozawa (1863-1903) returning to this world as Shuichi Maida (1907-1967).

Maida had a body that Kiyozawa would wish for – tall and strong. Maida could have pursued athletics but gave up all sports in high school. According to an interview with his sister that I read in the Kaiundo newsletter, Maida was a discus thrower but after a teammate lost his grip and the discus flew into the stands injuring some spectators, Maida saw that all sports involved possible injury to other beings. His insistence on avoiding harm to other beings was poignantly expressed in his refusal to engage in the military exercises imposed on young males in Imperial Japan. In two articles we read in our weekly study class, “Rusty Rifle” and “Leg Injury,” he echoes the “cowardly” stance I posit about the historical Buddha in my previous post (October 2014 “Gifts from Cowardice: AWOL Siddhartha”).

Yet as enthusiastic I am about revisiting Dr. Haneda’s translations (from the early 1980s study class he conducted at our temple) of Maida’s autobiographical writings, the current class wonders why we’re reading this material. To them he sounds like a jerk as a young man and they anticipate he will have some dramatic conversion into a saintly sage. In his description of himself, he seems to have an attitude completely contrary to the Buddhist teachings of transcending selfishness and being mindful of helping others:

I think of myself as an impudent [waga-mama] person. In other words, I think of myself as an irresponsible person. My outlook on life can be summarized by one word: impudence. Impudence is equal to insolence, and further to egotism. In impudence, arrogance can be found. This arrogance has much to do with cowardice or timidity. I am an extremely timid, cowardly and devious person. Therefore, I become impudent when I behave in a cunning and irresponsible manner. I do not like to accept responsibility and prefer to avoid it. In order to keep aloof from my responsibilities, I live as if I were a stranger to the results of my actions. I live my life always pretending ignorance.
            (from “The Rusty Rifle,” Complete Works XI, pp. 20-22)

To me, Maida writes about himself in the same vein as Shinran’s harsh self-examination. To see one’s total self-centeredness is to bemoan the depth of one’s defilement but at the same time it’s a joyful recognition of the unlimited Light of wisdom that makes one’s defilement stand out so obviously.

Reincarnation or not, the real link between Kiyozawa and Maida is Haya Akegarasu (1877-1954). Akegarasu was Kiyozawa’s student and Maida’s teacher. And all I know is the “flash” that hit me when I first came to this temple was something that was said about Akegarasu by one of the ministers. As Maida describes the lecture where he first encountered Akegarasu:

Rev. Akegarasu pointed to his forehead, a place between his eyebrows and said, “If you intently watch here and listen to my talk, you must have some kind of flash at least once during these three nights. It is alright if you don’t know what made you have the flash. It is all right if you don’t remember the content of my talk. Truth is a flash. If you can experience only one flash, you have not wasted your time in coming here to listen to my talk.”
(From “The Midsummer Night Dream,” Complete Works VII, pp. 385-6. Cf. Heard By Me, p 27)

I don’t even remember which minister I had heard, but more and more, I believe it was Rev. Gyoko Saito because for all of his life in America he only wanted to convey Akegarasu’s teachings and never be looked up as himself being any kind of teacher (much less a “venerable”).

When I went to hear Mike Conway’s public lecture in Kyoto (while I was there for ritual training at Higashi Honganji in December), he was introduced as someone who encountered Buddhism through Akegarasu. As he mentioned in that lecture and his other talks, at least Mike can identify me as the minister who spoke and he remembered the content of the poem I quoted – it was Toa Nomoto’s verse given at one of Akegarasu’s memorial services. Akegarasu’s memorial day is August 27, usually a sweltering time in Japan (zansho, “remaining heat” as well as high humidity). Ms. Nomoto said, “In the midst of summer heat, a cool breeze is felt.”

In the life of Shuichi Maida we see that the summer heat of our burning defilements is never tamped down or escaped, but we can hear how he enjoyed the cool breeze of Dharma coming through his teacher. In the weeks ahead I may continue to fail in convincing the class attendees of Maida’s significance, but I’ll be enjoying how his insights deepen my appreciation of the nembutsu in my life.