Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tsunagari: Reality is Community

At the international convention of Higashi Honganji (Otani-ha) temple members called “World Dobo Gathering” held this past weekend (August 27-28) in the Los Angeles area, there was only one talk that struck me even though there were many talks given by a wide variety of speakers, some I highly respect (and some, not so much). That talk, early on the first day, was part of a “young scholars” presentation, to show the general membership that there are some up and coming scholars of Buddhism interested in the Higashi sub-sect of Jodo Shinshu. Melissa Anne-Marie Curley, assistant professor at Ohio State University, was the first of the three to speak. Even though she and the other two were at last year’s International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference in Berkeley, I missed their talks because they were scheduled the same time as panels I was obligated to attend.


[photo taken at WDG 2016]
What Melissa said really captured the essence of Buddhism, that essential message that gets lost in the presentation of Buddhism in the West by the more high profile groups, Zen, Tibetan and Theravadin (the original three wheels that Tricycle magazine referred to in its early years). It is not enough for Buddhists to learn that the individual sense of ego-self is a delusion – there has to be the experience of living as “no-self.” That direct experience of reality is found in community with all beings, which Melissa said is what the philosopher Tanabe Hajime referred to as “Amida Buddha, not a One or Many,” but beyond such categories. She said while Mahayana groups hold up the “virtuoso bodhisattva” as the model to strive for, in Jodo Shinshu, we are inspired by Shinran who honored all beings as his siblings, feeling closely related to all of them. He didn’t just call them his fellow travellers on the spiritual journey, but his esteemed (using the prefix “on-“) fellow travellers (ondobo, ondogyo).

If there is no sense of connection (tsunagari, in Japanese) to all lives, then there is no experience of reality. It’s easy for monks and certified meditation adepts to claim they are unattached to the ego-self, but if they guiltlessly look down on others as “ignorant,” “needing to be awakened,” “shallow and unskilled” etc. etc., they are the ones trapped within walls of delusion. Shinran’s teachings remind me that there is no justification for considering myself superior to anyone else, but too many other presentations of Buddhism tell people it’s okay to put others down and feel you’ve earned your perch above the unwashed masses.

The very busy two-day event had poignant moments of reality as community for me. Although as I said, I didn’t think much of some speakers’ talks, I was touched that one speaker I was very critical of gave me a lovely souvenir (omiyage, product of your home area that you give to people you visit) and it reminded me how indebted I am to him because of all the help he gave me. I always complain that these big gatherings don’t give us much time to listen to and discuss the Dharma, but this time I felt it was a Dharma lesson about the sense of community to be chanting, singing and dancing (yes, we did Tanko Bushi) with all the three hundred or so attendees that I may never know well, agree with or see again. We can’t help but feel connected by coming together. Just to eat together is literally sharing life, as the words in our before and after meal recitations remind us that we take in the nourishing substances of other living beings.

There were times when I needed a break from the crush of bodies, but I think even the most introverted people can feel a sense of community by relating to others from afar rather than cutting off contact with feelings of hatefulness (labeling the other people as “toxic” or “stupid” etc.). In the calls and emails our temple receives from young men looking to join a Buddhist monastery, I hear their desire to run away from people they can’t deal with (e.g. bosses, parents, women) and to be in the company of like-minded men striving for some “perfect” state of mind. Monastic life can be useful for some seekers, giving them a break from society’s expectations (as in the case of women who couldn’t or wouldn’t be wives and mothers), but a monk in a mountaintop retreat can be more trapped in individual ego than someone out in the world, dealing with a whole variety of people on a daily basis.

The thing we must not forget whether we gather with three hundred people from around the world at a classy hotel or attend a Sunday service at our local temple is that we are just as connected to those outside the building as we are to those inside with us. At all these Jodo Shinshu gatherings in North America, we keep hearing the refrain of “the teachings aren’t just for the ethnic Japanese – somehow we have to reach those outside the Japanese community.” If ever the karmic effects of our thoughts have power, we should be envisioning all kinds of people as our spiritual siblings. Not that we can use telepathy to draw people to our temples and make them join, but if we ourselves can feel the connection to everyone, regardless of their religion or lack of it, we are experiencing the reality of community.


So I’m very grateful to Melissa Curley for bringing out that essential message of Buddhism and pointing out the way for us to live it.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

No Sage, No Stage - Sit Down Buddha

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.