Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Macro-Buddhism: Brava, Rev. Usuki

In the recent newsletter of the Higashi Honganji Los Angeles temple ( http://hhbt-la.org/documents/TheWayFeb16.pdf ) Rev. Peter Hata writes of what he learned about Jodo Shinshu and language from Rev. Patti Usuki when he was invited to speak at her San Fernando Valley temple. The article reminded me how deep Rev. Usuki’s thinking is on Jodo Shinshu and what a shame that in her interview in Tricycle (Summer 2011) she comes across as shallow (one problem was the interviewer Jeff Wilson somehow didn’t employ his great skill in translating cliché Shin phrases into plain English).

Her keynote speech at the May 2015 World Buddhist Women’s Convention in Calgary was and is still memorable for me. Even though Rev. Nana Yanase, the glamorous “singing nun” from Japan was the main draw, most of the North American women I heard from thought Rev. Usuki’s talk was way more substantial, “A real Dharma talk, not a show-biz performance.”

She brought out the idea (which here I’ll call “macro-Buddhism”) that our following the Dharma in everyday life isn’t just about being nice to family, friends and our fellow temple members. In the embrace of unlimited wisdom (Amitabha), our concern should extend to beings throughout the world - people and other living creatures adversely affected by environmental damage, wars and the unbridled power of corporations.


[Rev. Usuki at the IASBS Conference in Berkeley, CA]
At the August 2015 International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference, while discussing my paper, I mentioned one part of Rev. Usuki’s Calgary speech and somehow that was the only thing Prof. Kenneth Tanaka and others remembered from my presentation. That story was her description of being Angulimala: when she worked for the Canadian government, she was part of a project bringing infrastructure to rural areas of Latin America. She thought they were doing a good thing, bringing roads, plumbing and electricity to the poor indigenous people (who had managed for centuries without such amenities). But then what followed was the corporations came in and stripped the rain forests and natural resources away from the residents and they were left in real poverty, barely existing on barren, polluted land.

In the March 2016 issue of Wheel of Dharma, she has an article titled, “If You See Something, Say Something,” but she turns that oft-seen anti-terrorism slogan totally around. In the article she chides Buddhist ministers and their temple members for not speaking up against the anti-Muslim rhetoric and violent hate crimes in the U.S. and in supposedly Buddhist countries. She asks:

Knowing we are imperfect beings is no excuse for inaction. In our indebtedness to Infinite Light and Life that got us to this comfortable state, are our hearts open to the call “to respect and aid one another and do our best to work towards the welfare of society”? [wording from the Jodo Shinshu Creed]

She makes the case that our professions of gratitude for our religious freedom are hollow if we turn a blind eye to the persecution and media demonization of those who identify (or are identified) as Muslim.


Reading her article makes me realize I need to make more effort to bring our temple members into dialogue with Muslims. We should have empathy for them because it wasn’t that long ago when Japanese Americans and particularly Buddhists were considered terrorist threats by the U.S. government. In Shin Buddhism, recognizing the equality of all beings is expressed by “Come as you are,” so when we see that groups of people are told they can’t be a part of society because of their religion, ethnicity, national origin etc. – yeah, we better raise our voice in loud complaint (monku) and take concrete actions as the manifestation of Amitabha’s embrace of all.

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