Saturday, June 27, 2015

Immensely Undeserving: While in Rome

The wrong person was sent to Rome for the Buddhist Catholic dialogue. I've been saying to people that it should be someone such as Taigen Dan Leighton here representing Chicago - someone well known with a track record of social justice work and dialoging with the Catholic Church. I feel very much out of my league although I'm enjoying talking to these heavyweight religious thinkers and activists who patiently put up with me.

I would like to think Taigen-sensei was invited but had to turn them down because he was too busy (he was at the recent White House conference of Buddhist leaders). I know I'll be referred to in the Lion's Roar blog as one of the questionable choices, a person without much authority as a spiritual leader or activist.

So as immensely undeserving as I am for the honor of meeting with this group of 50 or so esteemed masters and venerables and of being with them in the private audience with Pope Francis, I'm here and should at least write about it.


I could do a whole series of posts about all the stimulating discussions and experiences so far (I'm writing this as the conference is still in session). There's so much in Catholic thought that I don't understand such as the Trinity. I asked Rev. Ron Kobata (here along with Rev. Ron Miyamura as Dr. Ken Tanaka's referrals) if he knew much about the Trinity and he said "It's like the tri-kaya (Sanskrit for "three bodies")" and I said that didn't help me because I don't get that either - Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya.

As if three Japanese American Jodo Shinshu ministers weren't enough, Bishop Noriaki Ito is here as well as the referral of Father James Fredericks (the priest that Dr. Haneda kept attacking at a panel discussion a few years ago in Los Angeles). I told Nori-sensei if anyone at Higashi headquarters asks how I got on this trip, tell them I was chosen by the Buddhist Council of the Midwest (and that's a messy story - BCM has a lot of teachers more qualified than me who could've been picked).

One observation Bishop Nori made is that the Buddhist presentations, Mahayana as well as Theravada, sound so far away from Shin Buddhism. I said it seemed Catholicism sounded closer to us. Hearing Father Jim Fredericks talking of the working of God beginning at the point of our despair sounds like what Kiyozawa, Akegarasu or Maida say - except they just say "working" (Father Jim used the Japanese term "hataraki") without the "of God" part.

When my roommate Sister Anne McCarthy (who gave a fiery presentation on women in the early Church) asked me about Pure Land Buddhism, I said "Other Power" (tariki) refers to that ground of being deeper than our ego-attached self. After that I kept hearing the term "ground of being" coming up in the Catholic presentations. Maybe it means I'm too much in the habit of talking about Shinran's teachings using Thomas Merton vocabulary.

So that's my initial stab at reporting on this historic gathering.



Saturday, June 20, 2015

An Unforgiven Man

… People often say, “That is unforgivable between friends,” or “That is incompatible with our friendship.” But such words are not spoken by real friends. Real friends who share the same trust in the Infinite Power Beyond the Self would never have inconsistent feelings about forgiveness. … They would never say a friend’s action is unforgivable or incompatible with their friendship. They fully understand that friends must act in different ways according to their own unique personalities and situations.
            --- Manshi Kiyozawa, “The Real Friend” (from December Fan translated by Nobuo Haneda. Second edition, Los Angeles: Shinshu Center of America, 2014)

Especially when there’s a death, you hear about some messy family situations. Recently I reported to the temple’s board that I would be conducting a memorial service against the wishes of the deceased’s wife and children.

Some time ago I heard that the family of the deceased “Mr. X” found out he had fathered a child with a woman he worked with. Besides the feeling of betrayal that the wife felt, the kids were shocked to find there was less money for their college education because their father was supporting the other woman and her child. For all outward appearances the family was hanging together even after Mr. X became disabled and required constant care at home in between hospital and nursing home stays.

I visited Mr. X at the nursing home a couple times and intended to see him again, but then his sister who often attends our Sunday services told me he had passed away. She told me his family was having his remains cremated and sending the urn to our temple to be held in our nokotsudo (ashes-storing room). A week or so later, Mr. X’s daughter brought over the urn and showed me the e-mail she sent out to her friends and associates. It said there would be no memorial service but people were welcome to visit our temple and pay their respects where the urn was being stored.

The sister decided to go ahead and plan for a public memorial service. I was her willing accomplice because Mr. X had helped me in the past and I thought about my own situation where my brother is my only family member left. Mr. X’s sister had lost her parents and all her siblings several years ago, so this one brother was important to her and she wanted to give him a funeral even if his family refused to do so.

There was a fairly decent turnout for the service – mostly friends of the sister and people who knew Mr. X during his student days. The “other woman” and her son came but the legal wife and children did not make an appearance. Not only were they not seen, but also not heard – no mention of them in the reading of Mr. X’s history or eulogy. When I was reading the customary “Letter on the White Ashes” (Hakkotsu no ofumi) by Rennyo Shonin, I almost wanted to say, “Hey, Rennyo’s birth mother was not his father’s wife, but he turned out okay.”


In Jodo Shinshu marriage is accepted as “ordinary” for both the ordained and lay people (unlike some stricter forms of Buddhism which even ask lay people to become celibate once they receive the precepts). So the incidence of extramarital affairs is brought up from time to time. In a pamphlet from the Southern Alberta temple I received at the recent world convention in Calgary, among the “frequently asked questions” about incense, beads etc. is a question about Jodo Shinshu’s stance on extramarital affairs. Rev. Yasuo Izumi points out one should be mindful of how our actions may hurt others’ feelings, but also cautions us against passing judgment on other people since we will never understand the whole complex situation.

In my own lineage, I know our temple wouldn’t exist without the scandal exposing Haya Akegarasu’s infidelity which led him to delve seriously into the Larger Sutra and finally understand why his teacher, Manshi Kiyozawa, broke away from the Buddhism of feudal-age Japan. Then Akegarasu’s disciple Shuichi Maida found himself in an extramarital relationship that tested his commitment to the Buddhist teachings. Those of us in Chicago who studied under my teacher saw the development and fallout of his dalliance with one of our fellow-students. So Mr. X has a lot of company in the “straying husbands” club.

For my Dharma talk at Mr. X’s memorial, I spoke about the third and final gate of the Three-Vow Transition (Sangan tennyu) that Shinran wrote about. Even though it’s hard for us to get out of our judgmental stances, the innermost aspiration of the unbounded Light/Life (Amida) is to take in all and abandon none. It is the wide-vow gate, gugan-mon, the gate that is so wide that it’s no longer a gate that lets some in and keeps some out. Despite the unforgiven state of Mr. X in relation to his legal family, in Namu Amida Butsu, we recognize that ultimately we are all forgiven and accepted into spiritual liberation despite our egregious misbehavior. It is our life itself, not the weighing of our good and bad deeds, that is embraced in the One Infinite Life.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Making Each Other Important

On Saturday at the World Buddhist Women’s Convention in Calgary, there was a presentation by keynote speaker Rev. Nana Yanase. She was only a few minutes into describing her childhood when a music track kicked in. That’s when we knew it wasn’t a Dharma talk but a performance. Rev. Yanase is known in Japan as the “singing nun” – she is a Jodo Shinshu minister who gives concerts of the songs she writes. The crowd of nearly 2,000 were seated in the convention hall according to region. The Japan delegates (around 1,200) and Brazilians (a small mostly Japanese-speaking group) sat in the left and center sections and the U.S. and Canadian groups on the right. The seating division was for the large screen projections – PowerPoint slides in Japanese were shown on the left screen and English titled ones on the right (and interpreters’ words were transmitted to headsets). Rev. Yanase punctuated the narrative of her life with songs and in one song, “Oyasumi (Good Night)” I saw the English translated lyrics projected on the screen had the line, “we love one another,” but the Japanese she sang was, “Otagai ni daiji ni shite.”

Rev. Yanase put up some Buddhist passages on her PowerPoint slides, but that one lyric line stuck with me. It can be literally translated as “We make each other important,” or more idiomatically as “we take care of each other.” In her dramatically delivered story, she said she fell into a deep depression after she was struck with ovarian cancer and had a hysterectomy – in Japan, a woman who can’t bear children is considered damaged goods. But a big boost to her “singing nun” career came with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan.

Although both Nishi and Higashi Honganjis have been doing relief work there without a lot of fanfare, the area is heavily influenced by its Zen temples. And as those Zen temples attended to the immediate needs of the survivors, they also served as gathering places for morale building events such as “singing nun” concerts. Seeing slide after slide of Rev. Yanase posing with various groups of smiling survivors, at first I thought, “Boy, she’s really self-promoting.” But then in the context of that one line of lyrics, I saw the men, women and children surrounding her in those photos as finding a way to forget their troubles for a few moments and reach out to this young woman who feels sorry that she’ll never bear babies. It is their expression of making her important to them that I found very moving.


It is so easy for us to dismiss others for their overblown estimation of themselves, but it is in our embracing of them as important that we transcend our own self-attachment (that nagging urge to be judge and jury). The kid who declares he or she will be an astronaut, superhero or the doctor who will cure cancer is projecting his/her wish for adoration on a worldwide stage. I still do the same thing, wanting to make myself important. Watching the star-turn facial expressions and hand gestures of Rev. Yanase on the large screen reminded me of my fantasies of becoming a famous enka singer. But as glamorous as she appeared, Rev. Yanase had on her nose what looked like a pimple (in the photo that I found, it may be something more permanent like a wart). Seeing that zit blown up a hundred-fold on the screen made me grateful to not be so much in the public eye.


“Namu Amida Butsu” is the calling that points out the pimples, warts, blackheads etc. on our noses, the sense of moral judgment that we mistakenly believe is so infallible. Yet as ashamed as we should be of ourselves, instead of confining ourselves in a hole, there’s something liberating in being able to make others important. In this web of interactively making each other important (Otagai ni daiji ni shite), we can’t help but feel the embrace of unbounded Wisdom. Thank you Rev. Yanase for showing us the shining faces of Namu Amida Butsu in your PowerPoint presentation.