Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Recap With Revisions

Some of you may have already saw or heard about the “Dharmathon” event broadcasted on YouTube last night (April 15, 2015) from the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley. This is an attempt to recap what I wanted to say in my segment:

The title of my talk is “The Liberation Theology of Shinran Shonin.” The term “Liberation Theology” was used from around the mid-1950’s through the ‘70s for a movement mainly started by Catholic priests in Latin America to apply the Christian teachings in creating programs and lobbying for the poor and disadvantaged in their countries – to liberate them from the oppression that kept them in poverty and suffering. However, what I am calling Shinran’s Liberation Theology is not about who to vote for or what programs to lobby for in order to liberate the oppressed, but rather his teachings are about liberating us from being oppressors. Some say the term “theology” doesn’t apply to Buddhism because we don’t talk about God, but I think here it’s appropriate because Shinran is pointing to a perspective beyond our human-centered view, the perspective of the Power Beyond Self which sees the absolute equality of all lives.

As you know Shinran was born into the aristocratic class and spent twenty years at the monastery on Mt. Hiei. During his time the view of the aristocrats and Buddhist practice went hand-in-hand in looking down on the common people. Just as monks believed they could work their way up towards enlightenment through practicing purity in thought, speech and action, the aristocrats believed they earned their privileged position through their morality. The common folk were called akunin, evil persons, because in the course of their work they broke the Buddhist precepts and so they deserved to live lives of misery and deprivation.

Shinran in meeting his teacher Honen and receiving the Pure Land teachings came to see how wrong that attitude of the monks and aristocrats was. Just as we are taken into the heart/mind of nirvana, receiving this great gift that we don’t deserve, we also realize how little we have done to deserve the lesser gifts of material wealth, comfort and health. There is no real basis for our privilege – we didn’t earn it, but came into it largely through causes and conditions beyond our control.

Today in our American society there is a demonizing of the poor and disadvantaged much like during Shinran’s time. We are their oppressors if we look at them as akunin, as deserving to be miserable because they aren’t working hard enough or upholding morality. In Shinran’s confession of being a foolish ordinary person full of defilement, his declaration of being an “evil person,” we see how wrong we are when think we can look down on others.


The third verse (pictured above) of Shinran’s Jodo Wasan [Pure Land verses] sums up his Liberation Theology:

Gedatsu no korin kiwa mo nashi
The Light of liberation is a wheel with no edges, boundaries
Ko-soku kamuru mono wa mina
The touch of this Light reaches everyone
U-mu o hanaru to nobetamo
And it smashes the division between Have and Have-not
Byodo kaku ni kimyo se yo
And our lives are returned to the awakening of absolute equality


Byodo kaku ni kimyo se yo is “Namu Amida Butsu” – to have our sense of privilege challenged and crushed so that we awaken to the absolute equality of all beings. That is our liberation from being the oppressors.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Someone Else's Cows: The Problem With Chanting

Although reciting many religious texts,
If one does not practice accordingly,
He is a heedless man.
Like a cowherd counting the cows of others,
He has no share in the religious life.

Verse 19, Chapter One of Dhammapada (translation by Glenn Wallis, New York: Random House Modern Library, 2007)

We started our new term of the weekly study class with the topic “Dhammapada Backstories.” We are looking at the responsive reading section of our temple’s service book and comparing the Dhammapada selections with the unabridged text in various translations (Max Mueller, Thanissaro Bhikkhu at accesstoinsight.org, Carter/Palihawadana and the newer book by Glenn Wallis)

In our discussion of the 19th verse of Chapter One, it occurred to me that our practice of chanting is much like being “a cowherd counting someone else’s cows.” Chanting as is done in many Jodo Shinshu temples is the sounding of syllables approximating the Japanese pronunciation of the sutras in their classical Chinese translations. It’s like being a schoolteacher who reads off the names of her students every day and hears each one respond “Here!” but she never looks up to see the face of the student or get to know any of them. There is no association of the names with actual children, only the sound of their voices.

As Glenn Wallis says in his introduction, the Dhammapada was not composed to be fine poetry but constructed in particular rhythms and “rhymes” to be conducive to instructing people on the Buddha’s basic teachings. It’s like how most of us learned the alphabet by singing it to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Not only the Dhammapada, but all the Buddhist texts in the languages of Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese etc. were composed to be orally transmitted, to be “chanted” – easily memorized by the chanters and easily understood by the listeners.


[page from the Buddhist Temple of Chicago service book – with English translation of each chanted verse]
A big disconnect happened when Buddhism came to Japan. The aristocrats had the luxury of learning classical Chinese and kept the texts in that language, totally inaccessible to everyone else. In the Kamakura period, teachers such as Shinran wrote Buddhist texts in vernacular Japanese so the common folk could learn the teachings through listening and reading (in phonetic kana letters along with kanji, Chinese characters). But somehow not much was done afterwards to convey the sutras in people’s everyday language.

I told the class a story I heard in Los Angeles from Rev. Tetsuo Unno about how one can’t be thinking about the meaning of texts while you’re chanting them. He said one time he and his brother, the late Dr. Taitetsu Unno (see my January 2015 post), were chanting Shoshinge (Shinran’s poem from Kyogyoshinsho, written in classical Chinese) together at a service. As they went along, he heard his brother getting more and more behind and when he stopped chanting altogether, Rev. Tets looked up and saw Dr. Ty pouring over some passage with his chin in his hand, nodding and muttering “Hmm…”

I’m sure others besides me have felt like that about Shoshinge – for those of us who can read the kanji, we can’t help being struck by Shinran’s expressions and want to spend some time contemplating some of the phrases. But in chanting we have to keep speeding along through the verses. Somehow I don’t think that was Shinran’s intention when he wrote them – they are lessons to be absorbed not strings of mantras to complete at a swift clip.

Sometime in the far, far future, there will be decent translations into recitable English of the texts we now chant during our services. As I told the class, chanting has its physical and mental benefits, but for me it’s mainly background music for the ritual of incense offering.