No one from the Midwest Buddhist Temple seems to be reading my blog despite the number of times I’ve mentioned them, so I’ll go ahead and bring up my recent experiences at their temple.
A couple of our temple members went with me to sit in on the new Tannisho class at MBT. Some important Shin Buddhist concepts were presented but somehow I felt like I didn’t hear much about the Tannisho itself.
After the class, I observed that the attendees were rather quiet (compared to the noisy discussions at our temple) and one BTC member who teaches at the nearby community college said her guess is that they didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. As a teacher she’s learned to encourage student participation by giving students a chance to put their voices out there – to introduce themselves and read passages from the material. She said teachers in training are warned to avoid the “sage on a stage” mode, when the instructor stands up in front of a class as if they are the fount of all knowledge looking down on the ignorant masses far below.
So the next week when I was asked to present Chapter Two of the Tannisho, I kept in a sitting position except when I wrote on the blackboard and I had the attendees introduce themselves and read the passages so they could each other’s voices and not just mine. A few people ventured to make comments or ask questions, so it felt a little more like a discussion and not totally a one-way presentation.
I told them that in reading the Tannisho they should think of Shinran sitting around with the people who called themselves his followers (he called them ondobo ondogyo “esteemed fellow travellers, esteemed fellow practicers”). They’re all sitting on the same level, perhaps drinking tea and munching on sweets together much like we were doing. I told them in the portrayal of the historical Buddha in his teaching pose, he is sitting down, moving his hands while talking. I demonstrated with fingers facing up, gesturing, “Hey, what’s a matter you?” (Actually Buddha said, “What’s a matter me?” – the first noble truth.)
[detail from woodcarving by Harry Koizumi]
The Buddhist texts tell us that the historical Buddha and probably all the great teachers engaged in dialogue, not monologue – they sat together with the people, not behind a lectern on a platform. Although in some texts we hear the answer but not the question, I feel the original setting for all the teachings was in informal conversation, not in an auditorium lecture.
People who’ve been to Japan have seen that at most temples and particularly at Jodo Shinshu temples, there is no elevated portion of the hall – no stage. The temples in North America followed the Christian model of raising the front of the room as a platform. I’ve heard it said that because we sit in chairs (or pews) and not on the floor, we need to see what’s going on around the altar. But there’s no ritual justification for having to see the ministers. The altar – the Buddha image and adornments – is what we should be looking up to.
When our temple was erecting its new building in 2006, some of us lobbied to eliminate the raised platform, but the head minister insisted on it and a ramp had to be built to comply with ADA regulations. To me it’s very cumbersome to climb up on the platform for chanting and climb down at funerals for the Dharma Name presentation and at Sunday services for the Dharma talk. Being at an elevated level means I better make sure the socks (tabi) I’m wearing are in decent condition – no holes or stains.
Maybe in Western culture there’s the image of the great orator standing far above the crowd or some Western Buddhist teachers like to perpetuate the idea of the wise man perched on the mountaintop of wisdom. But if we look at Shinran and Shakyamuni Buddha as “regular guys,” we can see them sitting down for coffee or drinks as one of us. Just as they tell parents and grade school teachers to squat down and talk face-to-face with children, it’s best for anyone who conveys the Buddhist teachings to take a load off their feet and go eye-level with their listeners. Because of the way American temples are set up, it’s hard to avoid the “sage on a stage” mode in conducting services, but in our study groups we should be sitting on one level to demonstrate Shinran’s feeling of ondobo ondogyo. To study a text such as Tannisho is about learning together, listening to and respecting each other.