Thursday, July 9, 2015

Seeing the Goodness of the Other(Power)

At the Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue, there was a lot of bashing of Calvinism. I would like to think French theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) was a kind and compassionate fellow, but somehow his version of Protestantism has been linked to the most ruthless aspects of capitalism. In Wikipedia’s article on “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” by Max Weber (1905), there’s this paraphrase: 
According to the new Protestant religions, an individual was religiously compelled to follow a secular vocation (German: Beruf) with as much zeal as possible. A person living according to this worldview was more likely to accumulate money.
The new religions (in particular, Calvinism and other more austere Protestant sects) effectively forbade wastefully using hard earned money and identified the purchase of luxuries as a sin. … [Donating] money to the poor or to charity was generally frowned on as it was seen as furthering beggary. This social condition was perceived as laziness, burdening their fellow man, and an affront to God; by not working, one failed to glorify God.

Of course, the Catholics are quick to point out this failing of Protestantism. Instead of demonizing those in need, we should look in their eyes and see Jesus there (Matthew 25: 35-40). Most of the Buddhists agreed that we should see the “basic goodness” in all people. But that declaration was not easy for us four Jodo Shinshu ministers to agree with.


[John Calvin, painting by unknown artist, from Wikipedia]
In some ways, Jodo Shinshu is a kind of Buddhist Calvinism. Since we see ourselves as all morally corrupt beings dependent on Amida’s salvific power, we feel that we can’t help exploiting our fellow corrupt beings for our own selfish gain. In the same way that Max Weber linked Protestantism to the rise of capitalism, Galen Amstutz in his presentation at our temple (November 2013) showed the rise of the merchant class in Japan (17th and 18th centuries) was influenced by the spread of Jodo Shinshu. In many ways it was a positive development – the merchant class helped bring Japan out of the feudal age (lord over serfs) and into a more fluid social structure. But as seen in the poet Miyazawa Kenji’s rebellion against his pawnbroker parents for making money off their poor neighbors, the link between the merchant class and Jodo Shinshu led to abandoning a sense of community with those who are economically disadvantaged through myriad causes and conditions.

Although we want to follow Shinran’s example of seeing ourselves as zai-aku jinju bonbu, foolish beings sunk in sinful evil, it is easy to project that assessments on others. And so we see no “basic goodness” in those suffering in poverty, disability, substance abuse, trapped in the skewed maze of the American prison system etc.

I think Jodo Shinshu teachers need to emphasize how Shinran saw those around him. He didn’t demonize them or project zai-aku jinju bonbu on them. Instead he saw Amida Buddha in every being. Even those who were behaving badly, such as the characters in the Contemplation Sutra, he saw as acting out negative behavior only as a way of educating him.

So in the same way the Catholics talk about seeing Jesus in the eyes of the needy (the poor, the imprisoned, the homeless, the mentally/physically disabled), in Jodo Shinshu we should recognize that tariki, “Other Power,” is manifesting itself to us as “the Other,” that is, as the people outside our comfort zone, those who seem threatening and repulsive.


In that context, I can wholeheartedly agree with the Catholics and Buddhists who see the “basic goodness” of all humans. I myself do not have that basic goodness but I should recognize Amida, the unbounded Light and Life, is always manifesting itself to me as the people I encounter. “Namu Amida Butsu” is not merely a recitation of praise to some far-off divine being but it is saying “Good morning” or “Hello, how are you?” to each person I see on the street.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Sharing Merit and Material

What did Rev. Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco say in his presentation at the “Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue on Suffering, Liberation, and Fraternity” (June 23-27, Rome)? Pretty much what he covered in his Dharmathon talk in April - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Bulb3IHGgI

Since I was at the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley for the Dharmathon, I heard Rev. Kobata’s talk live, so hearing him give a very similar talk in Rome was a disappointment to me. But it was well received by the Catholic delegates – I heard the priests call it a “great homily” and my roommate Anne said everyone was buzzing about it at lunch. Later I was grateful for Rev. Kobata’s talk because it gave me material I could use in translating the eko-mon “merit-transference verse.”

Ministers “steal” each other’s material all the time – it’s all part of sharing the Dharma. When people say our temple’s founding minister created a “new American Buddhism,” I tell them that Rev. Kubose didn’t create anything new but he was a pioneer for putting into English what Manshi Kiyozawa and Haya Akegarasu were saying in Japan (until the 1960s, Rev. Kubose was one of the very few native English-speaking Jodo Shinshu ministers). There’s no need for me to feel flattered when younger ministers tell me they’ve used stories from my presentations in their Dharma talks – it wasn’t really my material to begin with but what I received from Kiyozawa, Akegarasu and Maida in their modern interpretations of Shinran and Shakyamuni Buddha.

During the dialogue we enjoyed hearing songs and chants from various Buddhist and Catholic traditions. Before going to Rome, some of us decided Bishop Nori would lead our “Japanese chanting” group. We had the slot right before meditation on Friday morning, so we decided Rev. Alan Senauke would introduce the meditation portion. He said the meditation should be closed with a reading of a “merit-transference” verse but Nori said that the eko-mon was already included in our chanting. So I said we could read the English translation of the eko-mon. I didn’t have one handy with me so Nori told me to go ahead and give my own translation.


The term that hung me up in the eko-mon is “o-jo.” Every time when I conduct the meditation session at our temple and we read the eko-mon, I have to explain to newcomers that “go to be born into the land of peace” doesn’t have to mean you die and get reincarnated in some afterlife paradise. So for this group of Catholics who believe in heaven and Buddhists who mostly believe in reincarnation, I wanted to put forth the modern Jodo Shinshu presentation.

Then it occurred to me to use something from Rev. Kobata’s talk that the whole group had heard the day before – his acronym for ALIVE. He had quoted Howard Thurman, “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” And Rev. Kobata said that we come ALIVE: Aware, Loving, Inspired, Valued and Engaged. So this is how my translation of the eko-mon came out:

            I aspire to share these virtues
            Equally with all beings
            And in all of us together
              The heart of awakening arises
            And we go forth, coming alive
              That is, as Rev. Kobata told us, we become A.L.I.V.E.
              --Aware, Loving, Inspired, Valuing, and Engaged--
            Coming ALIVE in the realm of peace and joy


I was fortunate to meet the real life example of Rev. Kobata’s acronym – Papa Francesco. Even though he spoke and moved with weariness, in the meeting with our group of 50-some people, Pope Francis was very much aware and loving. He’s definitely inspired by Jesus Christ and all the great saints, particularly the enlightened St. Francis of Assisi. And besides making each of us feel valued (he took a moment to read my name tag before shaking my hand), in his Loudato Sii he reminds us to appreciate all the lives that comprise the planet earth. And finally, you can’t ask for a more engaged pope – how easy it has been for popes (and Buddhist lamas, gomonshus, roshis et al) to act aloof and above everyone else, but Francis uses his high profile position to call us into interaction, across races, countries and religions. And although he has yet to promote the ordination of women, at least he called off the attack dogs on the American nuns, so I believe in time he’ll set the stage for women to take a more leading role in Catholicism. He definitely showed no sign of discriminating against anyone in our group for their gender, skin color or status (lay or clerical). Unlike some of the Buddhist monks at our conference who were blatantly sexist, the Pope showed each one of us his utmost respect.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Women, Religious: My new buds

During the Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue, we came to know one another over the several days of last week. I could feel in a real way we had become friends with each other. But there were some people you loved from the moment of meeting them – and I have to say for me, they were the women.

Of all the Catholics participating the dialogue, there were three women, two laypersons Susan and Lorraine, and one nun, Sister Anne, my roommate for the conference. All of them are outstanding in different ways in their respective positions with the Church. I could say I met the cream of the crop, but I have a feeling they are representative of many, many lay and monastic women.

On the first day of the dialogue, we began with meditation and only Anne with her seiza bench got on the floor with me (using a spare pillow from our room). I expected at least some of the Buddhist monastics would meditate on the floor but everyone seemed comfortable in chairs. When I sit in most chairs, I’m too short-legged to plant my feet on the floor and although some of the Buddhist monks and nuns were able to fold their legs sitting in the chairs, I’m afraid if I did half-lotus or seiza in any molded seat chair that I could easily fall out or over. Only sitting on the floor lets me feel grounded. In the following days that all began with meditation, only Mushim (a former monastic) got on the floor, using a folded blanket as her cushion.

From meditation each day we moved to the chapel for mass. For that first mass, without thinking I just noticed where Anne and Susan were sitting and went to sit with “my buds.” When mass started I realized they were sitting in the front row because they had roles in conducting the mass – Anne led the singing and Susan did the readings. Yet the fact that I gravitated towards them, showed I felt a kinship beyond the labels of Christian versus Buddhist.


[photo taken at the Vatican]
Just as impressive as the Catholic women were the Buddhist female monastics. Although they had the same shaved heads and robes as the monks of Chinese and Vietnamese lineages, they were more like the Catholic women – open-minded and warm-hearted, confident without acting authoritative, and exhibiting a lot of creativity and resourcefulness. I hate to be critical, but I was surprised that Buddhist monks much younger than me came off sounding like old fuddy-duddies, so behind in acknowledging sexual/gender diversity and the need to speak up for the disenfranchised. The male Buddhists seemed to be lagging a couple centuries behind the most conservative Catholic men.


After the dialogue, some of us noted that the male Buddhist and Catholic men expressed views that the female followers would find hard to agree with. We said maybe for the next Catholic-Buddhist dialogue, we women should get together and talk about the concerns we share, such as advocating for equality. Apparently a lot of men, no matter what their religion, don’t see much wrong with enjoying a privileged position. And while historically religion has been used to justify that privilege, women have been at the forefront in recapturing the message of equality in both Christianity and Buddhism.