Friday, September 23, 2016

The Dangerous Role: Kiss Humility Goodbye


Although I have very little empathy or compassion,
I like the perk of being called “teacher.”
                        -- from Shozomatsu Wasan (my translation)

I remember when I started attending the Sunday morning meditation session at our temple, not many weeks went by for me to notice the pecking order – so-and-so was Rev. Kubose’s number one assistant, such-and-such was number two and so on down the line. And the ambition arose in me to get into that pecking order and rise to the top. Looking back on it now, I wonder where did that ambition come from – newly joining a Buddhist group and right away seeing myself moving up the ranks to an exalted position? My guess is it came from the Buddhist books (mostly Zen) I was reading at the time.

It’s not just from the English translations and Western culture, but Buddhism from the very beginning has been used by people to feed their egos even though the teachings are about freedom from ego-attachment. The historical Buddha lived at a time when people were seeking direct spiritual experience instead of going through Brahmanic priests. Ironically institutional Buddhism has become the means for people to be the priests who get to command others to look up to them.

Of course, for the teachings to be transmitted we need to have guides to point out the misunderstandings and clarify the points that get muddled in cultural and linguistic contexts. But for anyone to take on that role, they must be aware of the grave danger: in conveying the teachings of not-self, one can get totally engulfed by the sense of self-importance.

My message to all of you in the roles of assistants at our temple and at other Buddhist centers is also a stern reminder to myself: kiss humility goodbye. It’s no use putting on the charade of “I’m not a teacher – I’m only a student.” The only way I can think about it is: to be in the role of Dharma teacher is to know you are really a smug asshole.

If you don’t want to think of yourself as a smug asshole, then don’t be a Dharma teacher. If you take on that role, it will be apparent to people far and wide that you are full of yourself, no matter how much you deny it.

I think Shinran felt so strongly about defending his teacher Honen and passing on the Pure Land teachings that he had to keep telling himself, “I know I’m a smug asshole and will forever be known as one, but getting down on paper the great teachings from Honen means more to me than my self-esteem.”

Most Jodo Shinshu people translate Shinran’s ji-shin-kyo-nin-shin as “First I must receive/understand the teachings, then I can help others to receive/understand them.” Now I’m thinking he’s saying, “For me to receive and deeply understand the teachings, I need the help of others who are receiving and understanding the teachings.”


The above thoughts have been on my mind as I’m preparing to ramp up the training of our temple’s lay leaders so they can serve in the minister role when I’m out of town, incapacitated and someday retired (or run out on a rail). Then this morning I saw the comment of Tucker, a Midwest Buddhist Temple member, reacting to my “No Sage, No Stage” post. He is the nin-shin, the others who are receiving/understanding that I need to learn ji-shin-kyo more from. I should remember that all of you folks politely nodding and keeping silent are just as vocal as Tucker in telling me, “You smug asshole!” That is when I truly hear Namu Amida Butsu.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Buddhist Children are Not All Male, Pale and Hairless

So far I haven’t gotten anyone to join my campaign against images of boy monks. They are all over Facebook, the various Buddhist magazines and probably posters and calendars. I got flamed for saying those images shouldn’t be on Facebook’s “You know you’re Japanese American when…” page. I said photos of boy monks don’t reflect current Japanese culture and they have nothing to do with the non-monastic Buddhism of Japanese Americans. Although historically in Japan and still in many Asian countries, orphaned boys were raised in Buddhist monasteries, people should be aware that the lifestyle of asceticism is not a great way for children to grow up – there’s very little freedom for the creativity and expression of play and having interaction with the larger community (i.e. female family and friends). When I see pictures of boy monks, I feel sad about how restrictive their lives must be, not being able to enjoy just being a kid.

And my disdain is extended to those cute and cuddly “Buddha Doodles” by Molly Hahn. Once in a while her cartoons show a female character (and occasionally, a person of color), but for the most part she draws one or two Caucasian figures with baby faces and in open-jacket monk garb (bare chested to indicate their maleness) and shaved heads. If you see enough of those drawings, you can understand why Shinran scowls for his portraits. He wants to remind us that Buddhism deals with the nitty-gritty of real life and is not about floating around in some cotton candy dream world.

[“Daruma” faces colored by our temple’s Dharma School students]
But my main beef is that images of boy monks do a disservice to our Dharma School students who even from a young age will readily identify themselves as “Buddhist.” I don’t want people thinking, “Oh you can’t be Buddhist – you don’t look like the Buddha Doodles. You have hair, you wear regular clothes and you’re (female, dark-skinned, disabled, not-so-cute etc.).”

I think our Dharma School students got it together much more so than any boy monks – they live with the challenges of the larger society of school, neighborhood, family and organizations such as the temple they attend. Yet they have time, even during Dharma School class, to feel free to express themselves, play around, and participate in fun group activities such as games and music performances. They learn lessons about Buddhism through stories and hands-on productions (for example, my husband has taught the kids about impermanence through having them do science experiments and cooking), not from spending hours in grueling meditation and chanting marathons. They don’t just recite “The Golden Chain,” they know what it means to live it in a diverse society of living beings. It’s easy to think you’re being kind and gentle if you stay within the walls of the monastery, but our Dharma School students have seen “those who are weaker than myself” means the people right outside our temple doors who are homeless, suffering from physical and mental illness and struggling to survive. One time the Dharma School kids were just leaving the temple and the police pulled up and threw a group of young men against the squad car. I heard one of the mothers explain, “They’re being arrested for DWB, ‘driving while black.’” Of course, we don’t know if the police were justified in roughing up those men, but at least our kids see in the real world you could be picked on just for how you look.


I hope those of us involved with Jodo Shinshu and the other traditions such as Nichiren and Soto Zen, that came out of Kamakura-era Japan when Buddhism spread among the non-elites, will show more and more of ourselves and our children to the world. Then the common image of “Buddhist” will be an adult or child with hair on their head and dressed in regular clothes, but with that expression of joy and liberation that you don’t see in the photos of the boy monks smiling for the camera while trapped inside the cage of enforced conformity.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Singing to the Skies: Imagery of the Afterlife

At this year’s Eastern Buddhist League conference hosted by the Seabrook Buddhist Temple (in Bridgeton, New Jersey), one of the most enjoyable workshops I’ve ever attended was the gatha singing presentation. Music professor Kimie Carrie Tanaka was fantastic in teaching us the songs, able to explain the melody lines even to those who don’t read music or who haven’t heard the songs before. Her husband, Buddhism researcher Rev. Kenneth Tanaka, commented on the lyrics. Of the five songs we covered, two were established gathas (“hymns” we sing at Sunday services), two were gathas by the late Linda Castro and one song was a surprise to me. It was “Yuyake Koyake” (“sunset skies”) which we usually consider a Japanese children’s song, but Ken’s description of the lyrics as imagery of “going to the Pure Land” gave the song a poignancy for me.


[Kenneth Tanaka lecturing at 2016 EBL conference]
Now I hear the song as helping us accept the death of loved ones. Currently I’m reading Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of The Eternal Return and it’s making me see our Buddhist memorial rituals as expressing the transcendence of historical time (the fact of each life’s finite existence) by connecting to a sacred sense of time (eternity in the now).

The first verse describes seeing our loved one in the process of dying. Realizing their death is near, we see them first as a blazing sunset (yuyake), then an afterglow (koyake). The sound of the temple bell is the calling to leave the finite life and so the children in the song “take each other by the hand and go home.” It reminds me that in the case of my mother-in-law, my husband said in the hospital the moment before she died, she looked up as if there was someone coming for her. It was like someone in her past, such as her dearest sister, was coming to take her hand and lead her “home.” The last line of the verse says “Let’s go home together with the crows” – so to the sound of nature’s cries and the sight of wings in the sky, our loved one leaves their worldly life to return to the origin of all life.

The second verse is how we see our loved one after they have “returned home” (as I said in an earlier post, how we see them is their “afterlife.”) There is a great round moon glowing in the night sky – we see the brilliance of their whole life. Then as we go back to our ordinary lives carrying out the whims of our deluded ego-selves (“when the little birds are dreaming”), we are reminded of the continual inspiration of our loved ones, seeing the stars twinkling in the sky.

Now I’m thinking it’s a song we can sing at memorial services. Here’s the whole song in Japanese:

Yuyake koyake de, hi ga kurete / Yama no o-tera no kane ga naru
Otete tsunaide, mina kaero / Karasu to issho ni kaerimasho

Kodomo ga kaetta, ato kara wa / Marui ookina o-tsuki sama

Kotori ga yume o miru koro wa / Sora ni wa kira-kira kin no hoshi