Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Merry Monku and a Bonno New Year

Our weekly study class finished up our around-the-world look at “Western Shin Buddhism” so for the remaining weeks of December I suggested reading some of the Rita Gross’ book that will be in the temple’s Book Club discussion in January. I’m finding it hard to concentrate on reading through whole books, so I wanted the study class to be a motivation for me to at least get started on Buddhism After Patriarchy.

One thing Dr. Gross’ book has me fantasizing about is someday writing my own book – I joked with the study class that its title will be “Monku, Monku, Monku - Rantings of a Shin Buddhist Feminist.” The Japanese word monku is often used in the sense of “complaining, whining, bitching” – so you’ll see T-shirts for sale in Little Tokyo with “Monku, Monku, Monku” to mimic the old slogan fad, “Bitch, bitch, bitch.”

I bring up that word because of a seminar held at the Midwest Buddhist Temple a few months ago. The title was “Women in Buddhism.” I couldn’t go but some members of our temple went and told me that the speaker Rev. Patti Oshita of the Sacramento Buddhist Temple only spoke a bit about Shinran’s wife and daughter (note to Rev. Oshita: Eshinni and Kakushinni are but two of the many underreported women in Buddhism) but she made a big presentation of the “no monku pledge.” She gave out purple wristbands and pledge sheets – people (an audience of mostly women) were told to sign the promise not to complain for 24 hours. One of our members many years my senior just thought it was “ridiculous” – if Shinran’s teachings have sunk in, we know we can go hardly a few minutes without some ego-centered defilement (bonno) kicking in. Another member said it was “disturbing” – a common message from oppressors to the oppressed is “quit your complaining and just be grateful for what you have.” She would know, coming from a background of Jewish forefathers and mothers who were persecuted in Russia and Europe. Do you think the young people protesting injustice on the streets of Chicago want to hear “oh, don’t complain so much, have some gratitude”?

In a way, I feel by complaining, I’m like Ananda in the Larger Sutra – speaking up so that those who come after us will benefit, as Ananda questioned the Buddha, goading him to make the teachings more accessible. We – I and my fellow students of Shinran, especially the women ministers and leaders – need to keep pointing out where the presentations of Shin Buddhism fail to convey the spirit of total equality, of deep respect for each and every being.

If I ever write that book, I’d pay the comic strip artist Lela Lee handsomely to do the cover and illustrations. She is famous for the Angry Little Asian Girl comics (see the “Gender Judo” example at Even if she’s not Buddhist, I think she can relate to my outrage. For example, I wondered about the cover to the book Current of Change: American Buddhist Women Speak Out on Jodo Shinshu by Rev. Patti Usuki (she’s cool, that is, feminist, so don’t confuse her with Rev. Oshita). I asked her who is the woman pictured and she said it was a photo of a young Japanese nun but they cropped her shaved head out of the picture. It’s sort of a slap in the face to all the dedicated women at North American temples that Rev. Usuki wrote about if none of them were “attractive” enough (including Rev. Usuki herself) to be on the cover. It’s like the Dalai Lama saying a female Dalai Lama must be good-looking to have credibility. Rev. Usuki told me who made that decision to have an eye-catching face on the cover – someone I’ve said enough about in previous writings so I better stop my monku here.

I’m sad that Rita Gross passed away recently – hardly any fanfare for her loss. Someday thousands of women and others who don’t identify with patriarchy will look back and loudly praise her for being one of the great pioneer teachers for spreading Buddhism to a wider audience by freeing it from the Asian and Western cultural biases of androcentrism.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hongan as Merton's Description of Love

For the November 28 dialogue event at our temple (held on Shinran’s memorial day), I invited Rev. Brandyn Simmons of Christ Church of Chicago. At the church’s website you can see Rev. Brandyn’s blog “Apophatica.” Before the event, I saw that Rev. Brandyn blogged about his stay at Gethsemani Abbey, so I thought I’d find some Thomas Merton quotes to open up the dialogue between our two organizations (interested people of other religious groups also attended). From this 2014 Huffington Post article Thomas Merton Quotes To Celebrate The American Monk's Birthday” I found this passage from The Way of Chuang Tzu:

The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.

[photo of Merton’s grave by Rev. Brandyn Simmons from blog “Apophatica”]
At first I thought it was a great way to describe “love” that would relate to the Buddhist concept of compassion. Then it struck me – the passage is hongan, the innermost aspiration expounded in the Larger Sutra.

In the story Shakyamuni Buddha tells of the seeker Dharmakara, whose teacher directs him to confront his own heart/mind and question why he keeps categorizing other beings as “good” versus “bad.” To overcome his judgmental habit, Dharmakara makes a series of vows, but they can be distilled into the main, primary – “Primal Vow.” That is the aspiration that wells up from the depths of his being to embrace all with no exception, to show utmost respect (Namu) to each and every being beyond any categorization (Amida) and completely identify with all (Butsu).

Unlike the “love” I spoke about in an early blog post (that still gets occasional views) which indicates the negative notion of possessiveness, the love that Merton describes is our truest aspiration for Oneness. That love is the opposite of the ego’s drive to control and hang on to other beings for the benefits we crave. To let all living beings be “perfectly themselves” is the command of the Buddha in Shandao’s “two rivers, white path” story to “come immediately, just as you are.”

The numerous vows of Dharmakara in the Larger Sutra are all resolutions to stop twisting others into how we think they should be, our ideas of what pleases us. It may seem most of the time that we lack the will to really love others, but Shinran documents for us that the heart/mind of entrusting (shinjin) is a gift that is already given to us. All we need to do is become aware of it – to hear its calling (nembutsu).

In the news these days, we find plenty of examples of conflict from humans trying to control other lives and seeing others as dangerous because they don’t fit our image of goodness. There are no purely evil people – only people who think they are justified in harming and destroying others for not fitting into their idea of propriety. The way to take away that sense of justification is to keep listening to the teachings of all-embracing Oneness, the teachings that make us see that there is no “they” as opposed to “we.” To hear the nembutsu is to hear our deepest wish to see our self and each life as perfect just as we are, inextricably part of one great flow of life. This is Shinran’s radical solution to the terrorism which we all are guilty of promoting.