On Saturday at the World Buddhist Women’s Convention in Calgary, there was a presentation by keynote speaker Rev. Nana Yanase. She was only a few minutes into describing her childhood when a music track kicked in. That’s when we knew it wasn’t a Dharma talk but a performance. Rev. Yanase is known in Japan as the “singing nun” – she is a Jodo Shinshu minister who gives concerts of the songs she writes. The crowd of nearly 2,000 were seated in the convention hall according to region. The Japan delegates (around 1,200) and Brazilians (a small mostly Japanese-speaking group) sat in the left and center sections and the U.S. and Canadian groups on the right. The seating division was for the large screen projections – PowerPoint slides in Japanese were shown on the left screen and English titled ones on the right (and interpreters’ words were transmitted to headsets). Rev. Yanase punctuated the narrative of her life with songs and in one song, “Oyasumi (Good Night)” I saw the English translated lyrics projected on the screen had the line, “we love one another,” but the Japanese she sang was, “Otagai ni daiji ni shite.”
Rev. Yanase put up some Buddhist passages on her PowerPoint slides, but that one lyric line stuck with me. It can be literally translated as “We make each other important,” or more idiomatically as “we take care of each other.” In her dramatically delivered story, she said she fell into a deep depression after she was struck with ovarian cancer and had a hysterectomy – in Japan, a woman who can’t bear children is considered damaged goods. But a big boost to her “singing nun” career came with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan.
Although both Nishi and Higashi Honganjis have been doing relief work there without a lot of fanfare, the area is heavily influenced by its Zen temples. And as those Zen temples attended to the immediate needs of the survivors, they also served as gathering places for morale building events such as “singing nun” concerts. Seeing slide after slide of Rev. Yanase posing with various groups of smiling survivors, at first I thought, “Boy, she’s really self-promoting.” But then in the context of that one line of lyrics, I saw the men, women and children surrounding her in those photos as finding a way to forget their troubles for a few moments and reach out to this young woman who feels sorry that she’ll never bear babies. It is their expression of making her important to them that I found very moving.
It is so easy for us to dismiss others for their overblown estimation of themselves, but it is in our embracing of them as important that we transcend our own self-attachment (that nagging urge to be judge and jury). The kid who declares he or she will be an astronaut, superhero or the doctor who will cure cancer is projecting his/her wish for adoration on a worldwide stage. I still do the same thing, wanting to make myself important. Watching the star-turn facial expressions and hand gestures of Rev. Yanase on the large screen reminded me of my fantasies of becoming a famous enka singer. But as glamorous as she appeared, Rev. Yanase had on her nose what looked like a pimple (in the photo that I found, it may be something more permanent like a wart). Seeing that zit blown up a hundred-fold on the screen made me grateful to not be so much in the public eye.
“Namu Amida Butsu” is the calling that points out the pimples, warts, blackheads etc. on our noses, the sense of moral judgment that we mistakenly believe is so infallible. Yet as ashamed as we should be of ourselves, instead of confining ourselves in a hole, there’s something liberating in being able to make others important. In this web of interactively making each other important (Otagai ni daiji ni shite), we can’t help but feel the embrace of unbounded Wisdom. Thank you Rev. Yanase for showing us the shining faces of Namu Amida Butsu in your PowerPoint presentation.