Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Continuing Aspect of Nembutsu

For many years I failed to return a book I borrowed from Dr. Haneda and finally remembered to bring it with me on my recent trip to Berkeley. It was a Jodo-shu commentary and Japanese translation (wa-yaku) of Shandao’s Kangyo-sho (“Contemplation Sutra commentary” – the text that includes the famous White Path story). I had used it as a reference for a study class at the temple and found the book very refreshing. While most Shinshu commentaries on the works of the Magnificent Seven go into a lot of gyrations to tie everything to Shinran’s interpretation, in this Jodo-shu book the passages were explained in a straightforward manner.

A few hours before meeting up with Dr. Haneda I thought I’d do the fortune telling maneuver of opening the book to a random page and see if any passage popped out at me. The words that caught my attention were in the title of a subsection: nembutsu no sozoku (念仏の相続), nembutsu’s/aspect/continuance.

The book went on to explain it in a Jodo-shu way, saying it meant that we should have “namu Amida butsu” coming out of our mouths as often and continuously as possible as the essential practice to bring us rebirth in the afterlife Pure Land. But what struck me in my Shin understanding of “practice” is that it is the nembutsu’s mouthless calling of “namu Amida butsu” which is continuously being heard in my life despite my forgetting about it altogether for days, weeks, months at a time. So even in my down mood, the nembutsu is still continuously in the background (rooted in the ground, streaming down from the skies, floating all around etc.). It is the essence reminding me that despite my bad moods, resentments, anger and self-destructive acting out, I am already assuredly “playing in the forests of the Pure Land” in the present moment.

You may ask “what good is the nembutsu if you keep falling into ugly rages and blue funks?” But it’s not my job to sell the nembutsu as some cure all for our psychological problems which can be too deeply rooted to ever figure out. But for me it’s good enough to know that in my life where everything I attempt fizzles out and relationships quickly become miserable that there is something ongoing, moving forward dynamically in the world.

One thing Shinran learned from Honen is that one can hear the nembutsu from all kinds of people, from animals and plants, from the waters and soil. So during my stay at a Catholic hospital, how do I hear the nembutsu? I’ve been noticing how all the staff members are pleasant to each other and to all the patients despite the pressures they are under with people acutely ill and many hovering near death in their care. Maybe you could say they are just putting on an act as part of their professional demeanor, but I feel a lot of sincerity, especially from the guys in transportation who move patients on gurneys or in wheelchairs to get tests done. As they drive down the hallways and in and out of elevators, those guys greet every staff member by name, from the doctors to the janitors, and receive warm responses. For patients, being in a hospital is uncomfortable enough, but it would be hell if the staff acted like most of us in our work environments, all grouchy at each other – at bosses and underlings and especially at the whiny customers.

So hearing a simple greeting exchanged by hospital workers is hearing the nembutsu. Aaron Lee in his “Be the Refuge” essay, said he worked to be a refuge of peace and compassion to all the health workers he came in contact with during his last few months. I’m crabby to begin with but being sick makes it harder to make myself into someone else’s refuge – with my hoarse voice and constant coughing, I can’t easily rattle off words of concern to the hospital workers. But they consistently show their concern for me. It seemed the lowest point of helplessness when I lost control of my bowels for the first couple days, but one can’t help but appreciate the nurse who comes to clean you up and put on a new diaper. Now that’s the help (not “salvation”) that I feel Shinran means by the word “tasukete.”

Not that I’ll ever recover enough to hit the road again as a speaker, but I want to make the nembutsu the topic of my future workshops. I’ve long had a reputation in BCA as the most boring speaker (I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a repeat invitation to anywhere except Midwest) but I’d like to impose myself on temples where I have a few long-time friends, such as Toronto, New York and Orange County. (At Higashi temples people show up out of duty to support the few ministers Higashi has, no matter how little interest they have in listening to my babble). I’ll never enjoy the big crowds of fans that Dr. Haneda has, but unlike him, I really would like to venture out to places unfamiliar with Jodo Shinshu, such as in the South and Great Plains states. Well it doesn’t have to be me doing the lecture tour. If there’s someone else out there ready to present Shinran seriously (quoting his works in deep passages, not just warm-and-fuzzy slide presentations) to a wide audience, I’m willing to help them with research and expenses, since I won’t be able to go anywhere for a while.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Season for Staying Alive: Starbucks’ Christmas Blend

I debated whether or not I should buy Starbucks’ instant coffee Via in the new Christmas Blend. It was in November seven years ago that my father died after weeks of incapacitation from the effects of chemotherapy for his colon cancer. But while he was in the intensive care unit and too weakened to walk again after five months of chemo, here I am done with my six chemo rounds and still able to get on my (swollen and numb) feet despite all the lingering side effects (nausea, malfunctioning taste buds, low energy etc.). So since it looked like I’ll be around to enjoy the Christmas Blend at least until my surgery in December, in a leap of optimism I bought the 12-pack of granulated coffee.

The Starbucks store near the temple was the scene of a shooting on November 2nd that resulted in one person killed and two injured. The alderman went overboard speaking on the local news in blaming the store for allowing drug dealing on its premises and declaring he would have the store closed. From what I’ve read from customers and the store itself, there was no drug dealing going on in the store then or before. The shooting happened in the store because the deceased person ran in there to get away from the shooter after a deal had gone bad a couple blocks away.

In addition to my self-interest in wanting the coffee shop near my workplace, I didn’t want the store closed knowing it was also served as a place for the disadvantaged to rest a while, away from the weather. I saw the counter people readily gave a cup of ice water to anyone who asked for it so that even the destitute folks could sit and sip from a Starbucks cup like the paying customers. It seemed to be a place where I saw a lot of consultations going on – people needing help meeting with social workers, guidance counselors, ministers et al. Also because the store is in the same building as the Asian Human Services office, there are many customers with Asian faces, speaking a variety of languages.

Along with over 1,300 others, I signed an online petition protesting the alderman’s threats to close the store. It was heartening to hear that the Starbucks CEO came to the store a couple days ago to show his support of the employees and their work.

People may deride Starbucks as just another heartless corporation and the wellness gurus disparage it as another “weapon of mass destruction” along with Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds for its unhealthy beverage and food offerings. But as strange as it may sound to some ideological purists, I think the Starbucks store in Uptown offers a model of community openness that our temple should emulate. Like Starbucks our temple is part of a conglomerate (the “organized religion” sector shunned by the spiritual “nones”) and we hawk products for income (memorial services for Asians wanting to honor ancestors and comforting chanting and meditation for people running from unhappy experiences in institutions with strict requirements). But we should welcome those who don’t have money to give and let them find a refuge for a while from the harsh elements outside (such as the recent shootings, harassment from the police, disrespectful treatment by those who parcel out substandard jobs and housing etc.). And as the Starbucks in Uptown seemed to be a meeting place for people to connect with needed services, material and emotional, the temple should be a place for forming relationships that lead people to helping each other.

But what about hearing the Dharma – isn’t that what the temple is for, a bigger priority than serving weak tea to socialize over? The way I see it, it is for me to focus on hearing the Dharma, at the temple and elsewhere – not for me to force others to hear it. All I can do (barely these days) is share a bit of the Dharma lessons I’m struggling with in my Sunday service talks and monthly bulletin articles. Due to my condition, I’ve given up on the weekly study class and the Buddhism introduction course, so the monthly sutra study class is my only opportunity to read the Buddha’s words with others and share questions and comments. As we read in our last class, the Buddha reminds us to live in the richness of the present and not in the imagined future or over-and-done-with past. Namu to the dark roast Christmas Blend though it may be the result of people’s pain in the past (bad corporate treatment of farmers and store workers) and the cause of my worsened health in the future.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Ten Thousand Nien-fo

Though I was living in Los Angeles when the Hsi Lai Temple opened in 1988, I hadn’t had an opportunity to visit there until this past weekend. I happened to be in the LA area for my aunt’s funeral and on Facebook I heard about the service for Aaron Lee at Hsi Lai.

The service was held at the Memorial Pagoda, a building out of sight for tourists since it is behind the majestic Main Hall. Inside the pagoda there is a round room with seating for about 100 people (during the service the doors were kept open for the seated and standing overflow crowd). At the start of the service, a nun who looked and sounded like a teenager, explained the program. Each person was handed a pamphlet with the chanting in Chinese characters and romanized pronunciation (they used the Wade-Giles spelling, so this post uses nien-fo rather than the Pinyin spelling nianfo). The nun asked us all to chant with the handful of monks and nuns leading the service. She said the chanting was for Aaron to hear, “and he is more familiar with your voices than ours.” I was prepared to fold my legs under me to sit seiza on the cushioned row-bench but she asked us all to stand.

[behind the Main Hall, no photos were allowed at the Memorial Pagoda]
The crowd which consisted overwhelmingly of Chinese Americans of Aaron’s age (late 20s to early 30s) seemed to have no trouble following the shifting melodies and pronunciation of the chants. During the Heart Sutra, I fell into chanting in Japanese since it was easier than reading the romanized syllables for the Chinese. Then during the chanting of Namo Omito Fo (which the pamphlet said to do a hundred times), the nuns distributed cut flower blooms and directed us to go row by row to offer up the flowers to a tray on the altar.

During this chanting, I let my tears flow with the tears of those around me. The calling of the name of Namo Amita(-abha/ayus) Buddha was the music of mourning, seemingly endless but not feeling tiredly repetitious. I started out singing loudly but then had to do it sporadically as I felt weak and light-headed from the hecticness of the weekend and anemia (side effect from chemotherapy). It took bouts of concentration to keep myself from losing consciousness.

When the nuns and monks saw the lines for the flower offering coming to an end, they switched to the shorter “Omito fo” and a swifter melody. The chanting was brought to a close, then the service continued with the Dharma talk (the young priest gave one of those “I didn’t know the guy, but here’s what you better know about Buddhism” sermons), some moving personal tributes and a slide show. Although reference was made to Aaron’s “be the refuge” essay, it would’ve been nice in that setting if someone could have riffed on that.

It is difficult for me to even think of being a refuge for anyone or anything at this time. For me to follow Aaron’s example of helping and encouraging others, I’ll need quite a few more hyakumanben (100 x 10,000) of nien-fo (remembrance of what awakening is). Yet if I contemplate the “ultimate refuge” that Shinran sings about in his verses (Jodo Wasan), I see Aaron Lee has been a part of that refuge, or rather, he has become that refuge. As I keep pointing out – the working of Namu Amida Butsu comes to us in very concrete ways, not as giant magic fingers from the sky. Aaron Lee - in his life activities and his words – is the manifestation of Amita(-ayus/-abha) for me and hundreds of others, showing us the path of ego-transcendence.

The young nun at Hsi Lai told us to chant so Aaron would hear our voices, but in the hundred-fold repetitions of nien-fo it was Aaron calling to us by the names of our true selves.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Heart From Aaron Lee

It’s said all the time, especially at funerals, that when someone dies, it should make you appreciate your own life more. I haven’t had much appreciation for my life lately if you’ve seen my recent posts, sounding eager to make my exit. But maybe the death of Aaron Lee (Oct. 21, 2017) is a call for me to find a way to live my life despite all the sh*tty circumstances going on these days (such as backlogs and clashes at the temple).

I engaged with Aaron in person only a couple of times. He came to our temple when Rev. Nori Ito from Los Angeles Higashi Honganji was a guest speaker. At that time I heard about how Aaron energized the young Asian Americans at LA area campuses to get involved in Buddhist associations and that he hoped to do the same in the Chicago area. There may have been another time I ran into him either in Chicago or LA.

Since that time, I thought our only connection was Facebook. In September 2016 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma and needed a bone marrow donor, I shared the “Be the match” posts and tried to bug my Asian friends with Jewish spouses to have their kids register. It moved me that despite all the medical ordeals Aaron was going through, he posted words of encouragement to me through my cancer journey and often gave the thumbs up “like” response to my posts.

Yet it wasn’t until his death was announced on Facebook that I saw on Mushim Ikeda’s page that Aaron’s secret identity all this time was “Arun,” the author of the Angry Asian Buddhist blog. http://www.angryasianbuddhist.com I remembered it was just a week ago that I got a notification from Twitter that Arun had hit the heart icon to “like” my last tweet and when I went to my account, I saw that in fact he hit the heart on most of my tweets, sometimes the only person to do so.

So besides the many thumbs up on Facebook, Aaron was giving me the heart sign on Twitter. I knew the Angry Asian Buddhist blog referred a lot of people to my blog posts but last night I decided to scroll through his whole blog from its start in 2008.

I felt embarrassed to see he mentioned my name many times and included my picture twice. But in reading his posts I saw what an important voice he was – a celebrating voice that cheered on Asian Americans as Buddhist leaders and activists but also a fierce voice that decried the portrayal of Western Buddhism as led by privileged whites (mostly male) claiming their practice was more “pure” than what the backward immigrants from Asia did. Because he raised this voice of outrage and supported other Buddhists who felt ignored and denigrated by the mainstream media presentations, there’s hope that the next generation of Buddhist leaders and teachers in America and Canada will be a diverse group, encompassing the gender spectrum, various racial identities (including mixed race) and representing all socio-economic levels instead of the white baby-boomer elites who’ve dominated the scene for so many decades.

To me, it’s not just about the little piece of turf called “Buddhists” in the American religious landscape of mostly Abrahamic faiths. It is a continuing mission to uphold the basic principles of Buddhism (and I’d say most religions) to respect the dignity of all peoples, their cultures and histories, and consider all lives as equal in intrinsic worth. Buddhism in the West as been too long dominated by those who consciously or unconsciously claim superiority over the “others” and in today’s political climate, it’s too easy for Buddhists to retreat into their sheltered meditation bubbles, deluding themselves that they are apart from and above those in the fray.

Where does this leave me? I’d like to hurriedly fade into the sunset in hopes that the young ones are already in place, ushering in the new world of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Aaron/Arun did much to encourage and promote those vocal young folks, especially the women, but he kept in touch with old fogies such as Mushim and I, letting us know we need to be around to give our support to the up and coming generations of North American Buddhists – not just Asians, but the Latinx, African and Native Americans and the “woke” European Americans who want it pointed out to them when they are carelessly flaunting their privilege.

Not sure how I’ll ride out the turmoil with things around me going to hell in a handbag but I’ll cherish the electronic hearts and thumbs up I’ve received from Aaron Lee. Let them remind me to keep raising my voice, if only just here in my blog.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

In Need of Help, Not Salvation


The inconceivable [power] of the declared aspiration of Unbounded Light/Life is helping me,
And when I am made aware of being born anew,
The thought arises in my heart/mind to vocalize the remembrance of awakening;
This means definitely receiving the benefit of being grasped, never to be abandoned.

These words of Shinran at the start of Tannisho have meant a lot to me – in Japanese. How to convey them in English is still a struggle for me, so the above translation is just my latest attempt.

It was two years ago when I was one of three guest speakers at the annual Women in Buddhism conference at the Seattle Buddhist Church that I started to make the case that Shinran is talking about “help” not “salvation” in this Tannisho passage. My presentation was on “Care-Receiving,” how the Jodo Shinshu teachings provide support for those who are care-givers, particularly the baby-boomer aged women who are caring for disabled family members (e.g. parents, spouse, child).

In Japanese “tasukete” could mean “save me!” if you are trapped in quicksand and need your life saved. But “tasukete” could also mean “help me” when you need to request assistance getting across a hazardous street that you must traverse frequently. “Salvation” or even “spiritual liberation” (term favored by Dr. Haneda) sounds like a “won and done” event, whether accomplished at a past moment or a time in the future (e.g. one’s death). But if daily or several times a week you’ve got family responsibilities to fulfill, heaven and hell don’t mean much when you’re more concerned about keeping up your energy and strength, somehow juggling a long list of demands on your time and staying focused when subjected to verbal abuse and distrust.

Now that my health is so poor (if cancer doesn’t kill me, the side effects from treatments probably will) and I’ve witnessed the deaths of my parents, sister and so many temple members, the idea of securing a cushy cubbyhole in the afterlife seems so abstract. The more urgent concern is getting by day-to-day, moment-by-moment, while one still has life and responsibilities to others. One of the things I’m so impressed with when visiting people near death is how seriously they perform their duties towards you as their guest. At a time when they are in much physical discomfort, they express their thanks and concern for you and others – “Have some candy,” “How’s your husband?” “I wonder how Mr. So-and-so is doing after his accident,” etc.

That’s the help I need and I’m grateful for when I’m aware of receiving it. When I as much and more so than anyone else am so self-centered, it really must be a great inconceivable power working to enable me to interact effectively with others.

Maybe when I was younger I was like the strivers in Buddhism and other religions, trying to do all the “right” things so that the final judgment on my life will get me to the “better place.” Now the ideas of eternal damnation or heaven forever just sound like fantasies like living happily ever after with the handsome prince. What I get from Shinran and the Kiyozawa lineage of teachers is that my “self” is of no consequence once my physical life ends. If I have some soul or mind-matter that has to burn in hell for eons, it’s no big deal in the larger scheme of things.

For now it’s help that I need and help that I receive from the working of Unbounded Light/Life. (This working manifests itself through the teachings, through the cooperation and opposition of other people, through the many natural and artificial influences in the environment.) Though my predominant tendency is to mess things up for myself and everyone else and I wish I could just chuck it all and go into hiding, there’s that call of the Innermost Aspiration (hongan) reminding me that I and all beings together are grasped, never to be abandoned. Whether we can get along or not most of the time is a matter of transient phrases – what is going forth unobstructed is each of our lives interdependent with all other lives, into joy, into sorrows, into wisdom and compassion.