Monday, June 27, 2016

LGBTQIA Spells Sangha – Never Too Young to Feel Welcomed

Back in April I attended the East-West Ministers Seminar in Berkeley and in one of the workshops, Elaine Donlin, minister’s assistant at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, presented ways to make our temples welcoming to the LGBTQIA community. She said what makes her feel we need to do much more is the number of teens and young adults who contact her saying they are afraid to come out to their temples, especially if their families are longtime active members.

That made me realize we need to get the message of welcoming out to the children, so for my next Dharma School talk, I told the kids that gender identity is a spectrum and there is no strict category you have to fit in. I told them about the Buddhist Churches of America’s Bishop Umezu who brought up his child as a girl but that person now as a young adult identifies as male. I figured maybe not all the kids understood what I was saying, but someday when some of them are older they may feel rejected for being gender non-conforming and then remember, “Oh, Rev. Patti said in Buddhism it’s okay to be who you are.”

[Shinran atop a rainbow beach towel]
For the first time in our temple’s history, I decided to call the service on the last Sunday in June “Rainbow Pride Sunday.” Coming two weeks after the tragic shooting in Orlando, I felt we should be more affirming of our openness to all people. Even though the attendance was sparse (it was summer, people wanted to avoid the Pride Parade traffic and many of our LGBTQIA members were already at the parade), by publicizing the special service on Facebook, it gets the word out to those who may be “Buddha-curious” that they will be welcomed at our temple.

It was a lay speaker Sunday, so at the service our member Nancey gave a whole history of the gay pride movement including her own involvement. Although Dharma School is on break, families come in the summer with their kids and I have to sometimes tone down the content of my talks for them. But I realized it was important for the two families who came with kids to hear Nancey’s talk – those kids may be the ones who later will appreciate Buddhism’s message of accepting all lives, including your own.

So “pride” is not a dirty word or a deadly sin in Buddhism. For me it translates as “self-dignity” – recognizing the preciousness of your own life and not letting other forces tell you that you are less than human. And as Buddhists, we will fight those forces and help all people feel pride in being just as they are. Shinran during his time saw how various groups of people felt marginalized for being “aku-nin” (evil people) and he pointed to the sutras and commentaries to explain the Great Wish (hongan) is for all beings to be embraced in oneness, as equally dignified.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Dealing Rather Than Denying: Learning from Honen Shonin

As I mentioned in a previous post, sometimes I’ve done funeral-memorial services for people who identify with a Japanese Buddhist sect other than Jodo Shinshu. The other day I did a funeral for a woman who was a long-time member of Jodo-shu (“Pure Land sect,” the group founded by Honen Shonin long before Shinran met him). After the local Jodo-shu minister passed away, she and her children asked me to do the annual memorial services for her husband – small family gatherings that didn’t warrant calling the overseeing minister from Los Angeles to do.

For her service in place of Rennyo’s “Letter on the White Ashes” (Hakkotsu no ofumi) which is read at Jodo Shinshu services, I chose to read two excerpts from An Anthology of the Teachings of Honen Shonin (trans. Joji Atone and Yoko Hayashi, Los Angeles: Bukkyo University, 1998). One selection “Life is Fleeting” (p. 33 from Chokuden, Chapter 32) has similar wording about the transience of life as Rennyo’s letter, but ends with the departed soul facing King En’ma, Lord of the Realm of the Dead, asking, “Having been born in a world where the teachings of the Buddha prevailed, why did you leave there without having practiced them?”

I felt I needed a passage that described some of those teachings to put into practice so I chose an excerpt from “The Genuine Heart” (p. 56 from the Shichi-kajo kisho-mon):
Satisfy greed with small gratification.
Mitigate anger by venerating your elders and nurturing your descendants.
Overcome ignorance by rejecting the delusive worlds, aspiring for birth in the Pure Land, and devoting oneself to a life of service.
The cultivation of these attitudes will rid us of a heart filled with falsity
And result in the emergence of the truly genuine heart.
To shun the myriad evil passions of this delusive world
And to recite the Nembutsu are the true practices of the genuine heart.

I made some slight modification to the wordings to the two quotes I used and I have yet to see the original Japanese passages. I won’t go into all my spiel here, but many of you know I can go on and on about how Shinran is more faithful in quoting Honen than Honen’s Jodo-shu disciples who had their high-profile butts to cover due to the persecution of the Nembutsu followers for daring to suggest all lives are equal in dignity. But I’d like to think the passages I used in the service are fairly accurate in conveying Honen’s teachings.

What strikes me is that Honen realistically knew from his own experience as a monk on Mt. Hiei for over thirty years and then as the monastery dropout mingling with the various classes of people in Kyoto that it is a delusion to think one can be rid of the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance by one’s own efforts. To say, “Yeah, I got rid of those poisons for good,” is to be in complete denial about their continual bubbling up in our heart/mind and showing up in our thoughts, words and deeds. But the monasteries perpetuated the idea that they were special places away from the defiled everyday world where people could devote themselves to the practices that achieved victory over the barriers to enlightenment.

[graphic from]
Honen found what worked for us in the defiled everyday world of having families, working for a living and getting along with other beings is to deal with rather than try to deny our three poisons. You feel driven by desire for this and that? How about telling yourself, “Yes, you can have a taste of it at least.” Whether it was eating meat, having sex or getting drunk, Honen felt it was okay for people to get it out of their system by indulging just a bit, so they could go back to putting their heart/mind on the Buddha (nen “to think, remember,” butsu “the Buddha, awakening”). Are you filled with anger? Take a little time to remember those of the past who made your life possible and to think about your hopes for those who’ll bring the world into the future. Maybe you’re still angry for their sake (such as the outrage expressed by the late Muhammad Ali in the above quote) or maybe you’ll see how futile it is to get mad over something that looks petty and selfish in the grand timeline of the generations. What about that bothersome ignorance that keeps sprouting up out of the depths of darkness? Can’t do much about it but in the meantime there’s lots you can be doing to help others and make the Pure Land more evident in the perception of your surroundings.

I can’t say I knew the departed very well, having only gotten to know her in her 90s. But it was nice to hear from the family that my explanation of Honen’s words helped them see how she was a person who truly followed the Buddhist teachings. As Honen and later Shinran saw, it is those ordinary folks who show us how to live lives of “small gratification,” “veneration” and “nurturing,” “service” to others in their family, business and social lives. They show us that dealing with the three poisons is a far more effective strategy than trying to get rid of them. They have let go of the job of trying to be their own saviors – and so they were freed up to be “just as they are,” selflessly doing what has to be done.