Monday, December 26, 2016

The Nature of “God” in Shin Buddhism

The first step toward finding God, Who is Truth, is to discover the truth about myself: and if I have been in error, this first step to truth is the discovery of my error."
            - Thomas Merton
(see other relevant quotes at

When I spoke to the Las Vegas Buddhist Sangha earlier this month, I was asked if I knew any books and articles for someone coming from a Christian background to help them understand Jodo Shinshu. Another member asked me for ideas on how to compare or contrast Shin Buddhist terms such as “pure land,” “shinjin,” etc. with Christian concepts. I wanted to write a response to both of them but I’m finding I still need to explore the relation between Christianity and Shin Buddhism.

Although there are some articles out there by Christians trying to understand Shinran’s teachings, it is more helpful to me, and possibly others, to find a clearer understanding of Jodo Shinshu through Christian concepts. This approach probably won’t sit well with those who’ve been raised in Shin Buddhism, especially the temple sons from Japan, so they can write me off as the Presbyterian who never fully bought into Shinshu.

[RIP George Michael – if you listen to his “Father Figure” while reading this post it may not sound so boring]
I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks in understanding Jodo Shinshu is the tendency to anthropomorphize “Amida Buddha.” Throughout Asian Buddhist history, we are told that the images of buddhas and bodhisattvas in human form are only expedient means to get people’s attention and not to get hung up on the forms as something fixed. But even at North American temples where longtime members tell newcomers, “The Buddha image is a symbol, not an idol,” those same members can only envision Amida as a man with arms, legs, face etc.

In reading how the Christian mystics and modern theologians get past the “Sunday School version” of God as the commanding grandfather figure flying on a cloud, we can get closer to how Shinran experienced Amida. As much as Shinran emphasized Amida as all-pervasive and without fixed form, it took someone such as Manshi Kiyozawa several centuries later to see that Shinran was going back to the Sanskrit meaning of Amida as “immeasurable, boundless,” which Kiyozawa correlated to the term used in Western philosophy “infinite” (I like the Japanese term mu-gen, “no limits” better).

Kiyozawa had no qualms about using the term “God” since he already sensed that modern Western philosophy was describing the Power Beyond Self (even if the Christian missionaries in Japan still portrayed God as the bossy old guy on a cloud). Like Shinran, Kiyozawa was experiencing the working of the Unlimited in his own life of frustrating limitations. As in the Merton quote above, Kiyozawa had to learn about his errors through the recognition of the “Who” that is “Truth,” which is called tathagata in Sanskrit (nyorai in Japanese).

Right at the beginning of the Wikipedia definition of God, it says:
The concept of God as described by most theologians includes the attributes of omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), divine simplicity, and as having an eternal and necessary existence. Many theologians also describe God as being omnibenevolent (perfectly good) and all loving.

It called to my mind the ending passage from Waga Shinnen:
The power of Tathagata is limitless. The power of Tathagata is unsurpassed. The power of Tathagata is omnipresent. It pervades everything and works freely, without hindrance. By committing myself to the wondrous power of Tathagata, I have great peace and comfort. By entrusting the great question of life and death to the Tathagata, I have no fear, no discontentment.
            (Nobuo Haneda translation “My Religious Conviction” from December Fan: The Buddhist Essays of Manshi Kiyozawa)

The teachings of the Pure Land sutras and the great teachers of central Asia, China and Korea and the transmission of those teachings by Honen and Shinran work to awaken us to the Power Beyond Self. “Amida” and “God” are labels for something that is not a personified deity we can beseech for favors but rather for the dynamic interaction of myriad causes and conditions I can describe inadequately as “the flow” (which I’d rather use than “the force”).

Unlike the way other Buddhists talk of attaining personal peace of mind through their strenuous efforts and detaching themselves from the defiled world, in Shin Buddhism, we let “the flow” take us into greater participation in the lives around us, not obsessively concerned for our own little “peace and comfort.” Contrary to the impression people get from Kiyozawa’s writings that he was smug and snug in his own little cubbyhole, in reality he was out there dynamically transmitting the Buddhist teachings through public lectures, writing and education. Since Tathagata took away his self-centered fear and discontentment, Kiyozawa could work for the awakening of “great peace and comfort” for all suffering beings.

There may be some of the literal-minded Shin Buddhists who will say I shouldn’t be comparing Amida with the Christian God “because Amida is this-and-this, not that-and-that…” But Shinran stresses to us that the workings of Amida’s aspiration is beyond our comprehension. The power of “the flow” is not confined to any one culture or religion. Who is to definitely decide that the Tathagata that Kiyozawa experiences is different from the “Who is Truth” that Merton and other Christians discover in their lives? 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

South Side Grief Comes to Ravenswood

In my Dharma talks since the election, I’ve been emphasizing the need for people to listen respectfully to each other and be understanding of those whose views differ from ours. But last night I witnessed something that makes me wonder if I could really give some people that respect.

It was a march organized by the Chicago Housing Initiative, a group using our temple space for some of its meetings. After a rally at the American Indian Center to learn about the rise in homicides in Chicago due in many ways to cuts in city programs, we marched a few blocks to the mayor’s house.

Once we gathered in front of the home, there were several testimonies about the 771-plus victims of violence in the city this year including the woman in the photo above from the Sun-Times story. But it was when another woman in a wheelchair was speaking about losing her young son that all of a sudden, a man came through our gathering, pushing his way between the woman and the news cameras and reporters. People started exclaiming “Hey, go around - don’t cut in front of her,” and all I remember him responding is, “I can’t be walking in the street with all the snow.”

He looked much like the actor Wayne Knight who played the Newman character in Seinfeld and the lawyer in “Jurassic Park.” But unlike Newman he was well-groomed and wearing a stylish wool overcoat. I thought, “What’s wrong with him that he doesn’t want to get his nice shoes and pants messed up in the snow?” Or he could’ve just waited a couple minutes for our gathering to finish up the media event and then disperse.

It occurred to me later that maybe he wanted to deliberately disrupt the woman’s tearful testimony. Some of you might have seen the video on social media of a man giving a homophobic rant in a town square and then a guy playing a bagpipe comes by to drown him out. So in a similar way for the well-dressed Newman, barging in on our gathering was him drowning out the woman who dared to accuse his good neighbor Mayor Emanuel of somehow causing her son’s death.

Needless to say, the woman was quite upset about the disruption. She wanted her voice to be heard through the broadcast media. She and the other speakers who came from the south side were expressing their pain over the losses and trauma of their neighborhoods, a world away from where we stood in Ravenswood, the quiet northside community of quaint Victorian homes with plenty of resources for families to raise healthy, well-achieving children.

The homophobic speaker in the bagpipe video wasn’t really suffering from threats to his life and health so I don’t feel I need to worry about his being upset with the bagpiper. But I felt bad that in so many enclaves in our nation, people don’t have the opportunity to hear from those whose lives have been so degraded by forces that want to maintain privilege and power. That guy walking through our gathering didn’t want to hear of the southsiders’ grief and by cutting right in front of the cameras, it was like he didn’t want others to hear it either.

Is that what our ego-self is like? Our own desire to get somewhere quickly with a minimum of muss to our clothes is more important that letting someone express her grief and call for our help in preventing future violent deaths? I’d like to think something positive about the barging in neighbor. Maybe he was actually some poor actor that really needed the pay so he went along with getting dressed up and disrupting the event.

You can hear more about the event at this link:

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Vertigo" and the Thirty-Fifth Vow

[This article assumes the reader is familiar with the Alfred Hitchcock film “Vertigo.”] The 35th vow from the Larger Sutra has been problematic for Jodo Shinshu but the inaccuracy of the existing English translations has led to a lot of misunderstanding about the Pure Land teachings. One example of this is found in Rita M. Gross’ book Buddhism After Patriarchy where she relied on information from the scholar Diana Y. Paul. Dr. Paul strikes me as one of those Japanese Americans such as Rich Dad author Robert Kiyosaki who seem disconnected from their cultural heritage, especially from the energetic Buddhism of the common people (as opposed to the austere Zen of the samurai). Back in the 1990s, if Dr. Gross had done an internet search instead of researching academic papers, she might have come across my article (which I recommend to those who aren’t familiar with the 35th vow).

I saw the movie “Vertigo” a long time ago and I remember it left me with a sour feeling about the story. I thought it showed the Kim Novak character as an evil woman who deserved to be punished. When our temple’s movie club group announced they would be showing “Vertigo,” I looked up some feminist analysis of the movie to prepare myself for watching it again.

What I found is that the story can be seen as the depiction of the James Stewart character’s devolving view of women. Then it hit me – the three women in the story could be correlated to the three terms in the 35th vow: nyo-nin, nyo-shin and nyo-zo, which are all rendered as “women” in the English translations.

In an early scene of “Vertigo,” the James Stewart character Scottie is with his good friend and former fiancĂ©e Midge. She is nyo-nin, the female person – a whole personality who relates as an equal to Scottie and maybe a bit maternally. Then Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeleine – not as a person but for the perfection of her surface beauty. She is nyo-shin, the female body, for him to look at and possess. After he believes he’s lost Madeleine, he finds Judy and despite her protests, he proceeds to mold her into a copy of Madeleine. Judy to him is only a nyo-zo, a female image, a reproduction of what he once possessed.

In the 35th vow, it is nyo-nin, the female person, who hears Namu Amida Butsu and awakens bodhi-citta, the heart/mind aspiring for awakening. Those female-persons then “renounce the state of being” nyo-shin, female bodies for males to gaze at and possess. They also refuse to be reborn – reconfigured by men – as nyo-zo, female images.

In the film “Vertigo,” Judy has a chance to assert her personhood and confess to Scottie her involvement in the scheme with Madeleine’s husband, but she throws it away in order to win his love by becoming his reproduction of Madeleine. To me, this is her real sin – to throw away her own life to satisfy her selfish craving for “acceptance” by someone who claims to be her superior. It speaks to the dilemma of women from Buddha’s time, from Shinran’s time and even our mothers’ time – we put ourselves one lifetime away from awakening by handing over our lives to those we believe are necessary for our validation.

Jodo Shinshu is not a teaching that says women are inferior because they must be reborn as men to gain Buddhahood. Instead, the 35th vow in the Larger Sutra is a warning to women that they lose their chance for Buddhahood in their lifetime if they succumb to the dominant male view of women to be only nyo-shin (bodies) or nyo-zo (images). All persons can be reborn in the Pure Land – but historically women didn’t get to see themselves as persons during their lifetimes and had to wait for that after-life liberation from gender.

Now I can appreciate the film “Vertigo” as a feminist teaching lesson. As much as society pressures us to be the perfect embodiment of physical beauty, we will only end up with the misery Judy suffers if we dedicate our lives to pleasing the male gaze. Just as the Jodo Shinshu teachings freed the working classes from feeling subservient to the ruling class, the teachings also are for waking up women to their own personhood, to not let ourselves be ruled by the devolving view that some men will have of us as their objects to possess and control.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Liberation from Complacency: Post-Election Musings

I was going to write a post “Buddhists are Trump Supporters” about the many Buddhists, including a good portion of Japanese and other Asian Americans, who voted for Donald Trump for president. (I know because quite a few of my family members, friends and temple members have declared it.) But instead I want to share my personal feelings about the election.

I’ve heard and seen lots of people, such as my interfaith clergy colleagues, depressed about the election results. Our temple hosted ONE-Northside’s community discussion of post-election next steps and in our discussion the woman sitting next to me was trembling and in tears as she voiced her fears as a Mexican immigrant with many friends and relatives in the U.S. I think the forum was good for her and others feeling personally threatened by the election results – to know that many of their neighbors want to support them emotionally and morally in their struggle.

[from the meeting: whiteboard suggestions, mine is in pink]
Yet among all the distraught people, I feel buoyant about the election results. I’m glad that Clinton lost (I voted for Jill Stein, the only candidate who bothered to visit Standing Rock and support the protest against the Dakota Access Pipe Line). If Clinton had captured the winning Electoral College votes, the progressives would think “Yay, we won!” and be lulled into complacency while Clinton could get away with doing nothing for the progressive agenda or even taking actions (as she has done in the past) against it.

As I keep saying to people, the election results were a wakeup call to us, showing us that we have a lot of work to do with our fellow Americans in order to actualize the principle of equality throughout the country. We each have to feel empowered at the grassroots level instead of believing the wealth-accumulating elites* (whether their name is Trump or Clinton) know what’s best for our communities.

Am I getting too far off the track from Buddhism? No, I think the Buddha and the Pure Land tradition teachers such as Shinran recognized our own spiritual awakening develops and deepens with our interaction and appreciation of others, especially those who don’t fit our ideas of “acceptable” (groups disparaged for being “redneck,” “racist,” “uneducated” etc.).  Too many people in other Buddhist groups, and even some notable Shin teachers, have fallen under the influence of the elitist mindset. For many frustrated Americans, marching through the streets helps to blow off steam but a lot of the post-election ranting is about blaming and demonizing Trump and his supporters, creating more barriers and rifts between people. Teachers like Kiyozawa Manshi realized we need to do the hard work of self-examination - challenging our own elitism - and reach out to the people beyond our bubbles of like-mindedness.

*Postscript 11-18-2016 - I know not everyone can see or will read the comments below, but I hope some of you will. I appreciate that Ann called me out for my over-generalizing about Clinton supporters and being too dismissive of them, since just like the Trump supporters, they are a varied mixture of people with different concerns. At the same time I'm calling for more understanding of others, I see that I have a long way to go in understanding people, particularly those I interact with often (I'm assuming Ann is one of our temple members, but I haven't checked with all the Anns and Annas yet). Based on the comments, I could write the whole post over but for now I put the asterisk after "wealth-accumulating elites." The phrase doesn't quite capture what I meant and could be misleading. There are families of modest income who are building up their nest-egg for retirement and emergencies, so you could say they are accumulating wealth. But I meant the less than 1% who take in money and assets way beyond conceivable need/use for it all.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Hurdle to be Enjoyed: The Chanting Requirement

My brief two-day trip to Los Angeles was worthwhile on several levels and for various aspects, but one highlight was attending the Wednesday study class at the Higashi Honganji temple taught by Rev. Peter Hata. The group is starting a unit covering Shinran’s poem Shoshinge, but Rev. Peter wants them to appreciate Shoshinge not just for its content but for the experience of chanting it. From the class and the two handouts Rev. Peter shared with me, I almost want to rescind my
April 2015 blog post “Someone Else’s Cows.” Rev. Peter makes a very convincing argument for chanting as a community spiritual experience that doesn’t require knowing the meaning of the words.

I’ve been in discussion with Higashi’s North America District about having some of our Chicago temple members considered for ordination. For tokudo, the initial ordination, candidates must pass a chanting test. I think a number of our members could do a passable job of the Amida Sutra, Shoshinge and the two Larger Sutra excerpts “Tan Butsu Ge” and “San Sei Ge,” but I voiced concern over requiring the American candidates to chant the mitsu-yuri (“three vibrations”) style of the nembutsu-wasan follow-on to Shoshinge.

When I helped at the Los Angeles temple (late 80s – early 90s), it was standard to chant mitsu-yuri at regular services, but since then, the norm has become dobo-hosan, the post-war style developed to make it easier for laypeople to chant the nembutsu-wasan follow-on.

I worried about the long uphill trek it would be to get my tokudo candidates to learn mitsu-yuri, but after Rev. Peter’s class, I realize this is an opportunity for me to share my enjoyment of the music of 15th century Japan based on the folk singing “yodels” one hears in shi-gin (poetry recitation), min-yo (folk songs), Noh and Kabuki plays. Mitsu-yuri has a dramatic build-up – the first section starts slow and solemn, the second section bubbles with lively anticipation and the final section is the all-stops-out shouting of joyful tones. The musical structure expresses our Jodo Shinshu path – first, it’s “I’ll give it a try but I don’t expect it to do much for me because my misery is so entrenched,” then it becomes “there’s some interesting stuff here, making me change my view of a lot of things,” and finally, “Whoa! I’ve been searching so long and IT found me, opening me up to the power of life around and within me. Hooray! Hallelujah!” Particularly with the usual six Jodo Wasan verses chanted at most services, we are drawn into Shinran’s joy of feeling liberated after being so long under the burden of narrow self-centeredness.

In my case, I know what the words mean in Japanese, so I wonder if my members can find the emotion in the syllables of an unfamiliar language. In my Wednesday study class, I asked everyone to join me in chanting dobo-hosan style, the six Jodo Wasan verses we just studied. I said, “It’s like singing opera,” that is, you know as you pronounce the sounds that they represent words that have meaning. But musician Ruth said most classic operas are in languages which have similar sentence structures to English with many recognizable words (der ring, l’amour, un bel di), while Shinran’s 12th century Japanese is far from what Western singers are used to.

Although I feel that knowing mitsu-yuri won’t do a whole lot for the American candidates in helping them spread the Jodo Shinshu teachings, for the time being because it’s a requirement, I have to help them to learn it. I can hear some people saying we will be wasting our time trying to tackle such outmoded liturgical music, but after reading Rev. Peter’s handouts, I think it can be a worthwhile effort – transcending our time and travelling back to 15th century Japan and deep into the non-verbal channels of the right-brain. The music is to be enjoyed and hopefully the leap over the hurdle of the chanting requirement will lead to more Americans hearing the nembutsu from their fellow Americans.