Thursday, August 27, 2015

My IASBS Paper (might be helpful to those trying to describe Shinran)

The Subjective View of the Student: Angulimāla and Myōhōbō

            Even the one who committed evil all their life
            If they encounter the wide-vow
            Their arrival to the world of peace and nurturing
            Is a testament to the result [of that encounter]

            一生造悪        Isshō zō aku
            値弘誓            chi gu zei
            至安養界        shi an nyō kai
            証妙果            shō myō ka

                        --from Shōshinge (my translation)

What was Shinran Shonin like? When we read his own words, people easily get the idea that he was some depressed person with low self-esteem, describing his utter incorrigibility, such as the confession in Kyōgyōshinshō:

How wretched I am! [Shin]ran, the stupid bald-headed one, deeply submerged in the wide ocean of desires and cravings, confusingly lost among the huge mountains of worldly fame and interests, has no aspirations for being counted among the elite of the definitely assured group and feels no pleasure in approaching the really true experience. How deplorable! How heart-rending!
            -- “True Faith” chapter, p. 160. D.T. Suzuki et al translation.
Shinran’s Kyōgyōshinshō (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

In the visual depictions of Shinran (including the kagami no goei said to be drawn directly from observation)[below - from Wikipedia], he seems to be scowling in a bad mood. In a way, I feel that’s how Shinran wanted to be seen by the public, as an unattractive sourpuss, rather than as a stately charismatic hero to be admired.

So when I’m asked “What kind of person was Shinran?” I point to the story of Myōhōbō 妙法房. In that account we get a glimpse of how Shinran was seen by someone who became his student. This subjective view of the student is not something unique to Shinran but it is mirrored in the story of Angulimāla, the serial killer that encounters the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. And it shows us how great teachers of the past were seen by those who initially approached those teachers not with a worshipful attitude but full of murderous intent. And how the encounter with those teachers changed the murderers into dedicated students of the Dharma.

Both the story of Myōhōbō in the Godensho (“Life of Shinran”) and the account of Angulimāla in the Majjhima Nikaya (“Middle Length Discourses”) are told in the third person but the subjective details point to the actual tellers of the tales, who were Myōhōbō and Angulimāla themselves.

Subjective Perception of Time

One characteristic of the subjective view is the perception of time. In Angulimāla’s account, he is chasing after the Buddha but unable to catch him.

Then the Blessed One willed a feat of psychic power such that Angulimāla, though running with all his might, could not catch up with the Blessed one walking at normal pace. Then the thought occurred to Angulimāla, “Isn’t it amazing! Isn’t it astounding! In the past I’ve chased and seized even a swift-running elephant, a swift-running horse, a swift-running chariot, a swift-running deer. But now, even though I’m running with all my might, I can’t catch up with this contemplative walking at normal pace.”
(“Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala” MN86, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, November 2013 revision. Access to Insight website:

Although the account attributes Angulimāla’s inability to catch up to the Buddha as the Buddha’s “feat of psychic power,” if we hear Angulimāla as the teller of the tale, he’s recalling the feeling of moving in slow motion. Something profound is affecting him, overriding his habitual impulsiveness for instant gratification.

Likewise, in the Godensho (by Kakunyo, translated by D.T. Suzuki and Gesshō Sasaki in Collected Writings on Shin Buddhism. Kyoto: Shinshū Ōtaniha, 1973) if we hear Myōhōbō recounting his story, he says he knew Shinran Shonin frequently (yori-yori 時々) travelled the Itajiki Pass, but as many times (do-do 度々) as he waited there to jump Shinran and kill him, the occasion never occurred (sono setsu o togezu). It’s not so much that Shinran had a radar warning system detecting dangers on the pass, but that something was holding Myōhōbō back from being at the pass for as long and as often as he thought he was.

The Stopping Place

In Angulimāla’s account, unable to catch up with the Buddha, he stops in his tracks and yells out, “Stop, contemplative, stop!” The Buddha responds, “I have stopped, Angulimāla. You stop,” and goes on to say:

            “I have stopped, Angulimala, once and for all,
            having cast off violence toward all living beings.
            You, though, are unrestrained toward beings.
            That’s how I’ve stopped and you haven’t.”
                        (Ibid. Access to Insight website)

In hearing this, Angulimāla can come to rest after realizing how driven his life had been. He was named Angulimāla “finger-necklace” because he sliced off a finger from each of his victims and collected them on a necklace. Although there are commentaries speculating on why he was driven to commit murder after murder, attacking large groups on the road or laying towns to waste, his basic motivation is the same as all human beings. We are deludedly attached to our ego-self and feel we must destroy any being that gets in the way of our survival and flourishing. The Buddha calls out to all of us to just stop – stop being blindly pushed into destroying everything around us for the sake of enhancing what we deludedly think is a permanent, separate self. “You stop” is the Buddha calling us to examine that delusion and deconstruct the fears and anxieties it has built up.

Myōhōbō feeling foiled in his attempts to ambush Shinran on the road decides to go where Shinran is staying. The place is Shinran’s contemplation room, zen-shitsu 禅室. Having missed his chances to attack Shinran in transit, Myōhōbō comes to Shinran at a place of stillness. As in the case of Angulimāla, Myōhōbō is forced to stop running, being pushed around by his blind desires and finds himself in a place where he can contemplate his own heart/mind.

Called Forth in Welcome

For most of us, if we are faced with a person holding a weapon fully intending to kill us, our fear would overcome us. But what is fear but the expression of exclusively loving our ego-self, wanting it to survive and thrive and hating all other lives that seem to thwart our desire. The Buddha in his many teachings shows us the way to overcome the delusion of the separate, permanent self and to realize the interdependency of our life with all lives, that is, the teachings of no-self and oneness.

When Angulimāla approaches the Buddha with the intent to kill him, he sees a person without a trace of fear, a person whose face is full of loving-kindness (such as the moon-loving face the Buddha shows Ajatasatru in the Nirvana Sutra). Instead of “Get away from me, you monster!” the Buddha says to Angulimāla, “Come, bhikkhu.” The Buddha totally accepts Angulimāla as his fellow practitioner – they are brothers in seeking the Dharma.

Upon entering the contemplation room, Myōhōbō is welcomed by Shinran. Shinran is calm and shows Myōhōbō an expression of respect (son-gen 尊顔). Myōhōbō is overcome with regret over his murderous intent as he feels completely accepted by this man who sees everyone as a friend and no one as an enemy.

Abandoning the Weapons

In both stories, swords and arrows are broken and discarded and the men dedicate themselves to a new life of learning the Dharma, no longer at odds with the world and wishing violence on anyone. It is unlikely that either the Buddha or Shinran recounted these stories to the other students - “All I did was smile at him and he threw away his sword. Boy, I can really turn on the charm, right?” Rather in both these stories, we hear the protagonist giving their subjective view of what happened.

Probably in Shinran’s case, he would see himself as having no role in anyone’s complete change of life. We see that attitude in Tannisho, chapter six, “If I could make others say the nembutsu through my own devices, they would be my disciples. But how arrogant it is to claim as disciples those who live the nembutsu through the sole working of Amida’s compassion.” (Taitetsu Unno translation, Tannisho: A Shin Buddhist Classic. Honolulu: Buddhist Study Center Press, 1995) For Myōhōbō, his encounter with Shinran was the experience of the “working of Amida’s compassion.” In his subjective view, Shinran was exerting a tremendous power to turn him around – making time slow down and stop and calling him to a deep level of identification with all beings.

If there was a security camera video of Myōhōbō meeting Shinran, we would see nothing happening with Shinran. We would only see Myōhōbō brandishing his weapons and then throwing them down. We would ask, “What happened?” Only by entering Myōhōbō’s subjective view of Shinran can we get a glimpse of how the nembutsu teachings manifested themselves in Shinran’s effect on people.

Shinran calls himself wretched and deplorable because he has no good ego-self worth holding on to. So what if he’s threatened with imminent death? He already feels settled in the wide-vow, the great aspiration of Being Itself which takes in all of life, excluding none. He sees the man pointing weapons at him as just another friend in the Dharma, ondōbō御同朋, ondōgyō御同行. For Myōhōbō this encounter brought him to the world of peace and nurturing and it is “a miracle, indeed” or as voiced in Angulimāla’s story, “It’s amazing, it’s astounding.”

Friday, August 21, 2015

No Finger Wagging, Please

Here are two translations of the same passage from Kyogyoshinsho, second chapter (“Gyo” cf. Higashi Honganji Seiten p. 181, verse 59).

When we are such sinners as we are in our present life,
How can we be in accord with the Pure Land?
I say: when the Name is pronounced, sins are effaced,
As a bright lamp is brought into the darkness.
            Translation by D.T. Suzuki et al
            Kyogyoshinsho, 1973 edition page 47, 2012 edition page 79

Question: Countless are the acts of karmic evil in this life that obstruct you;
How can one such as you enter there?
Answer: When we say the Name, our karmic evil is eradicated;
It is like a shining lamp entering the dark.
            Translation by Dennis Hirota et al
            Collected Works of Shinran, page 42 section 35

This passage (Shinran’s quoting of Tz’u-min’s verse on The Pratyutpanna-samadhi Sutra) and the two translations were noted in an article in the June 2015 newsletter of the Shinran Bukkyo Center in Tokyo. I kept meaning to read the issue earlier because my oshiego (“pupil” as in grade school kid) Mike Conway is in it [pictured below] but I just happened to look at it a few days ago.

In these two translations I see the big difference between the “Sunday School” version Jodo Shinshu presented by Nishi Honganji and the “esoteric” version of the modern Higashi Honganji teachers. In the translation made by Team Hirota, there’s a big finger wagging at us, “How can such a person as you enter the Pure Land, dragged down by all your acts of evil? The only option for you is to become one of us, faithfully reciting Namo Amida Butsu.”

Interestingly, the Shinran Bukkyo Center translated Suzuki’s stilted English into contemporary Japanese which says something like: “In this life where we are so deep in this much sin, how can we have a self that is fit for the realm of purity? By the Name being voiced, our sins are pulled out and swept aside, like the darkness broken up by a bright lamp.”

What D.T. Suzuki brought to the translation of Shinran’s words is the Zen sense of personal urgency – this Buddhism stuff is about me, this person here, finding a way out of my suffering, not some hypothetical generalized theory on spirituality. In the Tz’u-Min text and much of Sino-Japanese Buddhist literature, there are no pronouns so it’s the translator’s prerogative to put in “you,” “I,” “we,” “he” (mostly used) and “she” (hardly used). It’s not only Shinran who identifies as “we” in Tz’u-Min’s talking about sinners, but it’s Suzuki as well. Thanks to Wayne Yokoyama’s research, we can see D.T. Suzuki as someone struggling with messy personal problems (conflicts with his wife, son and others). He wasn’t the 24/7 serene sage that Thomas Merton paints him to be (and Merton had his own messes to deal with in his later years). Wayne feels that despite how Suzuki seems to identify wholly with Zen, he must have felt a personal connection to Shin Buddhism, knowing he wasn’t completely exempt from being bonno-gusoku-bonbu, a foolish ordinary person filled with defilements.

It is Suzuki and Shinran letting us hear their question – “What about us guys who’ve done and keep doing a lot of bad things? Won’t we have too much karmic baggage to get through the security checkpoint for the realm of pure-flowingness?” And it is Shinran and probably Suzuki as well who hear in the calling of the Name, “Come straightaway, just as you are, without having to fix yourself up – come forward into this great flow of Life.” In the Higashi presentation, it doesn’t matter who is saying that Name and even how they’re saying it (in Japanese “Namu Amida Butsu” or in a more direct translation in everyday words). The experience of hearing it feels to us as if someone switched on the lamp in a room where it was too dark to see anything. Of course, the acts of evil and their karmic consequences don’t disappear but the burden of worrying about them has been lifted. Those “sinful obstructions” are swept to the side to play themselves out as we are called upon to step forward and participate in the great intricate unfolding of life in the here and now. (The story of Angulimala clearly illustrates that point so I’m thinking of posting my IASBS paper in this blog.)

I’m writing this after my husband expressed his concern that the article just published in Tricycle makes me sound like I’m still a lovesick teenager – he said it will be hard for people to take me seriously. But I don’t need people to take me seriously – if what I say to convey Buddhism makes sense to them or not is up to them, not because I claim any authority, i.e. “seriousness.” I’m grateful for being at that conference in Berkeley – for the reminders that I’m not such a serious authority or serene sage but still just a messy-minded fool which made the teachings sink in more poignantly, like antiseptic into a wound.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Cracking the Shinshu "Code" - Some Initial Thoughts

I’m still mulling over that remark from the IASBS (Int’l Assn. of Shin Buddhist Studies) conference, that the modern Higashi Honganji presentation of Jodo Shinshu is “esoteric.” In a way, it’s a reminder to me that every time I attempt to present Jodo Shinshu to any audience, it’s more likely than not that they’ll find it all Greek to them.

It is the case for any serious religion that because the teachings challenge our habitual thoughts and feelings, those teachings will seem too complex and subtle to understand easily. Of course, there’s the “Sunday School version” which serious Christians lament about – “How can people as adults keep believing in the Big Daddy God who grants our wishes and punishes only those people we call ‘bad guys’?”

The Sunday School version of Buddhism, particularly Shin Buddhism, is not much better. I think Honen would be the first (followed by Genshin, Shandao, et al) to go into dry heaving, hearing the Pure Land teachings described as, “You get to be reborn in a luxurious paradise after death if you behave like good little kids and keep reciting Namu Amida Butsu as your reservation confirmation number.”

One reason the modern Higashi presentation sounds “esoteric” is that so many temples still give people the “Sunday School version” of Jodo Shinshu. Listening to some Nishi Honganji trained ministers, such as Rev. Bryan Siebuhr, I wonder if that’s the only version they were taught in Japan and at the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Maybe Amida Buddha looks different from the Big Daddy God that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but instead of giving Mankind the finger, Amida sends out rays of light from his third eye to the chosen few who’ve earned the badge of “shinjin” (requirements: donate to your temple, look pious, don’t question any B.S. from headquarters).

Kiyozawa Manshi [pictured above] as a deep thinking intelligent person who wasn’t raised in the temple-family system, couldn’t help but feel, “This is so stupid,” when he was taught the Sunday School version of Jodo Shinshu as much as he tried to fit in as the outsider awarded a Higashi Honganji scholarship (to be groomed as an expert refuter of the waves of Christian missionaries invading Japan at his time). Thank goodness he was motivated to read deeply into what Shinran actually taught and the fundamental teachings of the historical Buddha.

What Kiyozawa found was not only a philosophy of a highly developed sophistication rivaling anything produced in Europe (he and Kierkegaard would’ve hit it off marvelously), but a religious presentation that would become the spiritual basis of his own life.

For those of us influenced by Kiyozawa through Akegarasu Haya and his Chicago minister students, Rev. Gyomay Kubose, Rev. Gyoko Saito and Dr. Nobuo Haneda, there is this so very accessible portal to Jodo Shinshu. It is such a useful portal that it gives deep meaning to whatever we hear from those of the Nishi Honganji presentation (and so, I can appreciate people like Rev. Siebuhr for the truths they point out in the teachings).

Tomorrow is the Obon service, considered a major service to attend by many ethnic Japanese. No, I’m not going to talk about the Ullambana Sutra story – I’m sick of it already. But it’s another opportunity for me to crack the “Shinshu code” – to try and explain why these teachings of Shinran are so life-saving for me.
[8/16/2015 Post-rant edit/postscript - I decided to talk about Nembutsu since people are coming to the service to nen (think about, remember) their loved ones.]

Monday, August 10, 2015

Settled Heart/Mind (Anjin): From Esoteric to Personal

At any IASBS (Int’l Assn. of Shin Buddhist Studies) conference, the highlight for me is the Otani University panel, “my guys.” On Saturday, Galen Amstutz and his wife hosted a post-panel dinner. In the midst of our lively conversation, someone said they were told after the panel presentation, “All that Kiyozawa-Soga-Yasuda stuff is esoteric,” that is, incomprehensible to anyone not “in the know” about the Higashi Honganji interpretation of the Jodo Shinshu teachings. For most of the conference attendees – ministers and members of Buddhist Churches of America temples (Nishi Honganji) and several presenters who are not closely tied to Jodo Shinshu – what the Otani panel presented was Greek to them. It made me sad to hear that the religious thinking that I feel closest to sounds mystifying to everyone else.

[Otani University panel - Prof. Kaku is second from the left] 
One of the panel presentations that moved me personally was Kaku Takeshi’s paper on Yasuda Rijin (1900-1982). Kaku’s exposition was very intriguing, going into Yasuda’s thoughts before and after his dialogues with Paul Tillich. As with the other presenters, Kaku had way too much material to summarize in the time allotted, but as he scrambled to wrap up his presentation, I read ahead in his handout and found a recounting of Yasuda’s interaction with a minister named Orie.

Rev. Orie and Yasuda exchanged a series of letters when Rev. Orie was suffering through the progression of cancer in his upper palate. As you would imagine anyone in his situation, Orie is reaching out to Yasuda as a renown teacher for advice on how to find anjin, the settled heart/mind, in the midst of his physical and mental pain.

Kaku’s paper does not describe Yasuda’s responses but in the summary of Orie’s series of letters, there is a movement from “What should I do to attain anjin?” to “My struggle for anjin is a sign of my self-centered wish for control.” Orie realizes from Yasuda’s presentation of Shinran’s teachings that true anjin can only be something he receives from tariki, the Power Beyond Self. That Power is working whether he feels it or not, so all he can do is “simply live out his life.”

That shift from “Woe is me!” to “My own spiritual attainment is no longer a concern” is the religious experience described in Jodo Shinshu. It’s not a grumbling “Oh I give up – nothing matters anymore” but a joyful “There’s something greater than myself that is working through me to take part in the world.”

It was what I needed to hear. Despite my acting neutral, at the conference I could see my mind all twisted and deranged, obsessed with that guy from my past who happened to be there. Of course there are a ton of other things wrong with me – in how I create discord with my husband, the temple members and the people in the groups I’m involved in. How come Buddhism doesn’t fix all that and help me be a sane, peacemaking person?

In the case of Rev. Orie suffering from cancer and all the guilty thoughts it evoked, he realized all his efforts to earn pain relief by doing penance for his past misdeeds were based on the delusion of an autonomous ego-self deserving of rewards such as unflappable serenity and faultlessness. Rather than treat his situation as a punishment, Rev. Orie accepted it as just the dynamically changing experience of living in the present. No matter how painful, awkward or humiliating it could be, his moment-to-moment life was part of the intricate working of unbounded Wisdom/Compassion.

Walking back and forth from my hotel to the conference venue along Shattuck Avenue, I felt like I was just as mentally unhinged as the apparently homeless people on the sidewalks asking for money and mumbling or shouting incoherently. My empathy for them is only “puny compassion,” but in the settled heart/mind that is directed to each of us, we participate in the ongoing aspiration of Huge Compassion to embrace all beings with no exception. It may sound like an esoteric teaching but it is the transcendent perspective that gives my life grounding.