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.