Friday, July 3, 2015

Sharing Merit and Material

What did Rev. Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco say in his presentation at the “Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue on Suffering, Liberation, and Fraternity” (June 23-27, Rome)? Pretty much what he covered in his Dharmathon talk in April -

Since I was at the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley for the Dharmathon, I heard Rev. Kobata’s talk live, so hearing him give a very similar talk in Rome was a disappointment to me. But it was well received by the Catholic delegates – I heard the priests call it a “great homily” and my roommate Anne said everyone was buzzing about it at lunch. Later I was grateful for Rev. Kobata’s talk because it gave me material I could use in translating the eko-mon “merit-transference verse.”

Ministers “steal” each other’s material all the time – it’s all part of sharing the Dharma. When people say our temple’s founding minister created a “new American Buddhism,” I tell them that Rev. Kubose didn’t create anything new but he was a pioneer for putting into English what Manshi Kiyozawa and Haya Akegarasu were saying in Japan (until the 1960s, Rev. Kubose was one of the very few native English-speaking Jodo Shinshu ministers). There’s no need for me to feel flattered when younger ministers tell me they’ve used stories from my presentations in their Dharma talks – it wasn’t really my material to begin with but what I received from Kiyozawa, Akegarasu and Maida in their modern interpretations of Shinran and Shakyamuni Buddha.

During the dialogue we enjoyed hearing songs and chants from various Buddhist and Catholic traditions. Before going to Rome, some of us decided Bishop Nori would lead our “Japanese chanting” group. We had the slot right before meditation on Friday morning, so we decided Rev. Alan Senauke would introduce the meditation portion. He said the meditation should be closed with a reading of a “merit-transference” verse but Nori said that the eko-mon was already included in our chanting. So I said we could read the English translation of the eko-mon. I didn’t have one handy with me so Nori told me to go ahead and give my own translation.

The term that hung me up in the eko-mon is “o-jo.” Every time when I conduct the meditation session at our temple and we read the eko-mon, I have to explain to newcomers that “go to be born into the land of peace” doesn’t have to mean you die and get reincarnated in some afterlife paradise. So for this group of Catholics who believe in heaven and Buddhists who mostly believe in reincarnation, I wanted to put forth the modern Jodo Shinshu presentation.

Then it occurred to me to use something from Rev. Kobata’s talk that the whole group had heard the day before – his acronym for ALIVE. He had quoted Howard Thurman, “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” And Rev. Kobata said that we come ALIVE: Aware, Loving, Inspired, Valued and Engaged. So this is how my translation of the eko-mon came out:

            I aspire to share these virtues
            Equally with all beings
            And in all of us together
              The heart of awakening arises
            And we go forth, coming alive
              That is, as Rev. Kobata told us, we become A.L.I.V.E.
              --Aware, Loving, Inspired, Valuing, and Engaged--
            Coming ALIVE in the realm of peace and joy

I was fortunate to meet the real life example of Rev. Kobata’s acronym – Papa Francesco. Even though he spoke and moved with weariness, in the meeting with our group of 50-some people, Pope Francis was very much aware and loving. He’s definitely inspired by Jesus Christ and all the great saints, particularly the enlightened St. Francis of Assisi. And besides making each of us feel valued (he took a moment to read my name tag before shaking my hand), in his Loudato Sii he reminds us to appreciate all the lives that comprise the planet earth. And finally, you can’t ask for a more engaged pope – how easy it has been for popes (and Buddhist lamas, gomonshus, roshis et al) to act aloof and above everyone else, but Francis uses his high profile position to call us into interaction, across races, countries and religions. And although he has yet to promote the ordination of women, at least he called off the attack dogs on the American nuns, so I believe in time he’ll set the stage for women to take a more leading role in Catholicism. He definitely showed no sign of discriminating against anyone in our group for their gender, skin color or status (lay or clerical). Unlike some of the Buddhist monks at our conference who were blatantly sexist, the Pope showed each one of us his utmost respect.

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