Sunday, July 30, 2017

Come Out of the Bomb Shelter


The person [i.e., our teacher Honen] who has awakened to the jewel of shinjin in his heart does not wander in the darkness of birth-and-death; hence, the heart illuminates beings of illusion. Possessing the jewel of shinjin, the person [our teacher] sweeps away the darkness of our ignorance, and casts a bright light upon us.
            -- Shinran explaining the quote on a portrait of Honen in Songo-shinzo-meimon which is one of the passages Dr. Nobuo Haneda cited in his critique of my Tricycle article “Confronting the Heart of Darkness.” He felt my article made it sound like we’re hopelessly trapped in our ignorant heart of darkness while Shinran points out that through the light coming from the teachers in our lives, that darkness is swept away.

There’s already too many cliché metaphors tying physical health to spirituality but I can’t help drawing a parallel between the bomb shelter mentality of the wellness movement and the acceptance of social isolation in religion.

In the wellness world, people are offered ways to avoid disease and death for 120 years or more. It’s like building a cold-war era bomb shelter in that you’re told to shield yourself away from the stupid hordes of people who consume junk food, contaminated water and polluted air and who expose themselves to germ-laden public spaces, radiation from medical exams and electric waves from TVs, radios and telephones (but keep your computers on so you receive news of the latest wellness products).

In religion there is a similar sounding message of “We have the good stuff that will earn us peace of mind/heaven/union with God etc. We must avoid contact with everyone else destined for hell, those depraved beasts concerned only with base desires (such as for adequate food and shelter).”

During my chemotherapy treatment, I’m supposed to avoid gatherings of people because my immune system is weakened. But though it’s a convenient excuse to get out of boring get-togethers at odd times and locations, I feel with my decreased life expectancy it’s a time to be making more connections with people and not withdrawing from the world to “rest up.”

One gathering I’m sad to be missing right now is the annual Maida Center retreat in Berkeley. The other night I reviewed my notes from last year’s retreat with the question in my mind, “What would Dr. Haneda say about my wanting to be more involved in the world instead of hunkering down in a Dharma-study bunker like Maida Shuichi or Shinran in their later years?” I thought I would hear him saying, “Stay home in your study bunker,” but instead I received insight from his discussion of kuyo 供養 which I’ve hear many times before.

For years I’ve heard Dr. Haneda point out that the term kuyo used in Tan Butsu Ge didn’t simply mean “making offerings to various Buddhas.” Kuyo is a process of going out of your way to seek out teachers to learn from and upon receiving wisdom from them you can’t help but show your appreciation by “making offerings” – giving praise, donating, volunteering, getting PR out on social media etc.

In the retreat notes, Dr. Haneda didn’t say the Buddhas we go to visit have to be “Buddhist” or recognized “teachers” or even human beings. He said we can learn from all kinds of lives as demonstrated by the seeker Dharmakara who became “Namu Amida Butsu” – the one who bows down (Namu) to all lives (Amitayus), receiving enlightened wisdom (Amitabha Buddha) from them.

Of course, I should keep going back to the great texts of the Jodo Shinshu tradition but those teachings only come alive when I experience being in contact with the real lives around me. There’s so much for me to learn from the people whose lives are so different from mine, so I’m grateful for the opportunities though ONE Northside and other community groups to hear from those people and join in support of their struggles.


[Rico and Mark, two activists for affordable housing in Chicago]
The above photo is from the July 6 rally at the Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago demonstrating against the proposed cuts to HUD (Housing and Urban Development). It was invigorating to see and hear all the feisty protestors from the Jane Addams Senior Caucus – seniors from all over the city, black, white, Latinx et al. And the other day our temple hosted nearly a hundred people of various ages and ethnic backgrounds concerned about the Chicago Police Department’s lack of community accountability. These are examples of my experience of kuyo.

Working at the temple is what I’m being paid for, but I feel I’m a more well-rounded minister when I do things beyond my temple duties. Besides the regular temple members I see week-to-week, there are people coming for funerals, weddings, consultations etc. who are new to me. I hope that my being involved in the community outside the temple helps me to be more receptive to the new people who come into the temple.

And it is my hope that in witnessing my kuyo, going out to learn from various teachers, that others are encouraged to get out of their bubbles and discover the great wisdom to be received from the lives around us. It is our continual encounter with tariki, the others-power, that sweeps away the constrictions of our ego-attachment. Then we are liberated into the Realm of Flowingness (Jodo) and not stuck in some stifling bomb shelter.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Invasions of the Body - Medical and Metaphysical


And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.
-- “The Sermon” chapter 9 from Moby Dick by Herman Melville

The content of the true teachings [of Shakyamuni] is that “the origin of sentient beings’ suffering is egoistic desire.” So if this teaching’s influence weakens, the effects of egoistic desire increase. …[So Shinran] said if we do not entrust ourselves to [Amida] Tathagata’s compassionate vow, we will not have a chance for liberation.
-- Kigoshi Yasushi, “True Disciple of Buddha in Contemporary Society” [The Pure Land journal, no.27, 2012-2013, published summer 2017]

In an email from Mike Conway, in response to my telling him I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, he wrote:

This opportunity to live out our human karma--with all of its pains and joys, ups and downs--is really a precious one. Soga [Ryojin] talks about Dharmakara experimenting with each of our karma, taking on what comes and ensuring it leads to the liberation of all sentient beings.

In a way, it made me see the forty-eight vows as Dharmakara’s various experiments to experience people’s different kinds of suffering and of course, there are much more than forty-eight of those. I imagine Soga Ryojin would say that is why Dharmakara is continually in practice, birthing himself in each person as they struggle through new travails. Yet as Mike pointed out in his Dobo magazine article on the first verse of the Jodo Wasan, Shinran experienced Dharmakara’s becoming Amida Buddha as right now as well as “ten kalpas ago.”

When I first announced my cancer on Facebook in Japanese, Kumika Soga (wife of Rev. Jeffrey Soga, Nishi Honganji minister in Hawaii, no relation to Soga Ryojin), commented: “Cancer? I think we all spend our days not knowing tomorrow's life. I'm not [with] cancer, but I don't know if I live longer than you. Let's walk with the Buddha with a smile.” At first I thought of the image of Jesus walking in front, back or at the side of the believer, but after reading Mike’s email, I realized Kumika-san meant that Amida Buddha is within us as we walk through life, not as a separate set of footsteps.

So this metaphysical invasion of my body by the spirit of Dharmakara/Amida is a comforting thought as medicines and devices enter my system. For all my life I prided myself in never having to be in a hospital (until the diverticulitis attack in 2013 which I blame on the stress of becoming the full-time minister) or having an operation (they treated the diverticulitis with intervenous antibiotics). But in the process of diagnosing and treating my cancer, I’ve had to be invaded – the stinging darts shot through the biopsy needles, the radioactive serum for the PET scan and then the frightening first experience of being on an operating table for the port to be inserted – the titanium device slipped into my upper chest and the tube snaked down through a slit in my neck. With the twilight anesthesia I didn’t feel the surgery but for days afterward, I felt the discomfort of having foreign bodies placed under my skin.

Then yesterday was the hours long chemotherapy treatment of four different drugs specific to my triple-positive breast cancer. My husband was with me at the beginning – and everyone in the infusion room must’ve wondered what is this “Natsu Matsuri” those two people are yelling about at each other (it’s the temple’s annual “summer festival” fundraiser this Sunday causing much stress for the both of us). He eventually left to continue with the preparations at the temple, so I had some quiet time to start studying Brazilian Portuguese with a workbook and CD. People told me for chemo I should listen to relaxation talkers or meditation music, but I felt like being productive. My sister-in-law came by to chat and I was grateful she was there when I started feeling chilled and light-headed – the small talk kept me in the moment. When I felt more calmed down and tired, I let her leave (she understood, having sat through the chemo treatment of her friends).

Then I started reading Moby Dick, the book I chose to get me through chemo. I was drawn immediately into Melville’s well-crafted prose with much entertaining humor (particularly in Biblical allusions). But like Twain’s description of how the riverboats awakened his hometown Hannibal to the romance of travel, Ishmael describes his frequent desire to be at sea as a common dream of all men. How I wish to be on the move – sailing through the clouds in a plane. At the Qigong class at the temple we had a visitor from China tell us the story of a man who was diagnosed with terminal cancer but instead of treatment, he chose to travel the whole country by bicycle. After several months, he returned home cancer-free – so that story made me wonder if my cancer is just my rotting wanderlust balled up and expanding with frustration.


[preface verse of Shozomatsu Wasan]
Today I’m staying home to rest up. I’m grateful for the handful of volunteers who stepped up to take care of my Natsu Matsuri prep duties, but I still feel guilty about not being at the temple on such a busy workday. But I read two reminders of how f***ed up I am and how I need to get back to the nembutsu teachings instead of my self-absorption with illness and mortality. One is the paper by Kigoshi-san in the Pure Land journal I just received in the mail. The title was just as I mentioned in my last post “true disciple of the Buddha.” And the other reminder was in “The Sermon” chapter of Moby Dick where the preacher describes and comments on the story of Jonah and the whale. (see quotes above)


My wanting to wander and be free of the restrictions of my current situation is all my egoistic desires – that is, just wanting pleasures for myself. The ego-self can’t let go of its desires so the only hope of overriding its grip is to immerse one’s self in Amida’s vow, or God’s will – the flow of true life which will carry one along to unknown and mostly painful experiences and eventually death. To want to escape that is as futile as Jonah seeking flight on a ship to Spain and then ending up in the belly of the whale. As the preacher points out, it is only when Jonah gratefully acknowledges his punishment instead of begging for mercy, that God brings him to liberation into the life he is meant to live - the whale spits Jonah out on the beach. This whale of cancer – I’m stuck in it for now and who knows what beach it will spit me out on.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

No Fanfare: The True Buddha-Disciple

How many of you can say your college drinking buddy is now the university president? I’m so proud to say, “Yes, my classmate Kigoshi Yasushi is currently the  president of Otani University.” But after reading the article in the June 2017 issue of Higashi Honganji’s magazine Dobo, I’m even prouder of my dear friend Yasushi (aka “Harry”) – I see he is a true disciple of our teacher Shunsho Terakawa (see my Tricycle magazine article http://tricycle.org/magazine/confronting-heart-darkness/).

A year after I enrolled, when Kigoshi-san joined the Master’s level of the Terakawa zemi (seminar group), we all thought,  “What a party boy!” He wanted to go out drinking every week though our normal schedule was once a month. But I cherish the memories (what’s left of them in my addled brain) of those weekly binges – besides me, there was the Brazilian student Joaquim, so our pub-crawlings through Kyoto were truly international conferences. After a couple months, we had to go back to our monthly schedule because it was too much of a financial strain on our limited pocketbooks at the time.

I’ve met up with Kigoshi-san at various IASBS (Int’l Assn. of Shin Buddhist Studies) conferences and I’m hoping I’ll still be alive and well enough to see him in Los Angeles for the Dharma Seeds (Higashi Honganji’s lay leader training program) seminar next year. But in case I’m not around for that, I’m writing this post for all of you Dharma Seeds attendees.

One thing you should know about Kigoshi-san is what he’s been trying to keep secret for many years – ever since the 2011 tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan, he’s been leading an ongoing volunteer project to help the victims. He’s been organizing students and faculty members to go to the affected area on an overnight bus – do their work for a full day – then return to Kyoto overnight, so no one has to require overnight lodging. I heard that the volunteers assist in the hard work of cleaning up the debris and doing what they can to help the victims deal with the details of going on with their lives.


[photo from Dobo magazine]
The cat is out of the bag now, since in the June 2017 Dobo issue, Prof. Shimazono Susumu brings up Kigoshi-san’s volunteer work in their dialogue. The article’s dialogue brings Sophia University religious studies professor Shimazono into conversation with Kigoshi-san on the topic of “End of Life Questioning of Religion.” Following Terakawa-sensei’s footsteps, after our time in graduate school at Otani University, Kigoshi-san went on to do comparative religious studies in Tokyo and in Europe.

Actually I found they didn’t discuss “end of life” questioning of religion as much as how many people who aren’t necessarily facing imminent death are seeking answers to life’s problems. Kigoshi-san states that young people want a religion that addresses the suffering of others, suffering brought about through upheavals such as war and natural disasters. Religion can’t be about just my individual salvation and the condemnation of all others to hell. For Kiyoshi-san as a teacher and administrator, it is very much a part of the students’ education in Buddhism to be involved in the specific problems of real people, not some abstract concept of “helping the world.” For those who are going back to their temples as ministers, they need the hands-on experience of grappling with Buddhist principles of non-self and interconnection by working with others in community service. Otherwise the Buddhism they preach from their pulpits will be purely hypothetical.

The article blew me away (not easy to do right now in my preoccupation with health issues) – how Kigoshi-san and Prof. Shimazono make the case for the crucial role of religion in the world today. There is so much grief and loneliness felt by people in various segments of society – the elderly, the disabled, the socially and economically oppressed – yet the teachings of Buddhism have shown the way for centuries how to overcome such sadness and isolation. Kigoshi-san in the Higashi Honganji way (of Kiyozawa et al) states that it’s not about telling people to wait for their rebirth in the Pure Land after they die, but it’s really about awakening to the realm of flowingness in our day-to-day, moment-by-moment interactions with other beings (human and otherwise).

I remember one of the topics discussed in Prof. Terakawa’s seminar was the concept of “true Buddha-disciple” that Shinran emphasized in his Kyogyoshinsho. Now I’m happy to say I can see the manifestation of that true Buddha-disciple in my classmate, my good old drinking buddy, Kigoshi-san. Not by just being a scholar but by walking the walk, he shows us the way of Oneness, of transcending the ego-self.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

If I'm Sixty-Four

Fifty years sounds like a long time – a whole half-century. But it was only fifty years ago that I had my fourteenth birthday party at my maternal grandparents’ house and my family and relatives presented me with the brand-new Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

We posed for a photo of me happily displaying the album cover with my maternal relatives around me – if I saw it now I’d see all the people no longer alive: my sister, my mother, my oldest aunt and my grandparents. And now as the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of this groundbreaking album, I can’t help thinking, “It’s not when I’m sixty-four but if I’ll see my sixty-fourth birthday.”

[photo courtesy of Ron Lee]
When I think of all the songs on that album – I loved every one of them – I find that “She’s Leaving Home” appeals to me more poignantly now than it did then. How I long to run away from all the dietary restrictions and “beat cancer” regimens that I’m tied to now. I just want to pack my suitcase and take off for anywhere – Berkeley, Kyoto, Sao Paulo – where I can meet up with my Dharma friends to have fun, drink and eat what I want, and of course, listen to and discuss the Buddhist teachings together (I’m missing out on this year’s International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference at Musashino University near Tokyo).

Instead I’m forced to deal with reality where I am – what all the Buddhist teachers tell us to do. I have no anxieties about my “afterlife” – I’ve been assured (by Mike Conway quoting Soga referring to Shinran) of perfect nirvana at the moment of death. It’s the days now and upcoming that are full of struggle – within and around myself – trying to sort through all the information from sources I’m skeptical of on different levels and making my decisions against the advice of others who want healing for me but don’t make a convincing case for the “alternative” methods.

At the temple I’m trying to hand off responsibilities to various volunteers, but it’s hard to think of things I was routinely doing until they come up – such as publicity for the upcoming summer festival. If things fall through the cracks when I’m incapacitated or expired, they can blame me for my poor planning.


Namu Amida Butsu – for my article in the next temple bulletin, I’m simply quoting Rumi’s poem “The Guest House.” (This link is to the Coleman Barks translation, but I plan to investigate newer translations.) http://allpoetry.com/poem/8534703-The-Guest-House-by-Mewlana-Jalaluddin-Rumi

Monday, May 15, 2017

I Am The Poison


Ke ryo shin shi          假令身止
Sho ku doku chu       諸苦毒中

Even if my body is immobilized
In the poison of various sufferings

(from the verse “Tan Butsu Ge” in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra)

I was going to title this post “rethinking poison as a metaphor in Buddhism” but it’s better to state my conclusion up front and let you know this isn’t a leisurely musing about figures of speech.

In many Buddhist passages there is a warning to avoid poison such as the Dhammapada saying, “An unwounded hand may handle poison… as there is no evil for one who does not commit evil.” And in the Tannisho we hear Shinran saying, “Just because you have the antidote doesn’t mean you should drink more poison.” But these passages could be interpreted in a dualistic sense – there are evil things (acts, thoughts) which I should keep out of my system in order to have good spiritual health.


But if we look to the fundamental Buddhist teaching of transcending the ego-self, then it is the sense of “I” which is the real poison destroying our life and the lives around us. So my struggle cannot be trying to get rid of the poison of “I” but to accept that it is already in my system. Even if it grows rampantly to kill off my individual life, I have been given the assurance that all of my karma (thoughts, words and deeds) is embraced by the Unbounded Life (aka “Amida”) even as the elements of my physical body become a part of the “white ashes” of the world.

In trying to research treatments, I’m so sick of hearing how everything is poison – chemotherapy is poison, junk food is poison, sugar/salt/carbs/oils etc. etc. are poison, deodorants and toothpaste are poison, tomatoes are poison, all meat and dairy products are poison, peanuts and cashews are poison, tap and bottled water are poison, any food that is not organic and raw is poison and worse yet, alcohol and caffeine are poison. Also, some say all these unregulated “life-saving” drugs can also be poison when they are administered by mentally unbalanced hucksters outside of the U.S.

Should I take in more poison to add to the decades of poisoning my body as I shared fun get-togethers with friends, relatives, fellow seekers and scholars? Should I cut off all ties to those who would tempt me with poisonous treats – or I can I maintain a stoic abstinence around people who are relishing those treats?

I’m afraid poison is all I leave behind – all the hate and resentment I’ve felt and expressed towards others, all the cruel acts that injured people mentally and physically. I have to accept that is the legacy I leave behind. I won’t be like Aurora, the teenager I knew at the temple thirty years ago, who spent her last months giving of herself to various uplifting causes, including helping corral the little Dharma School kids at the temple for us flustered Dharma School teachers.

This may be my last post for a while (and may not be up long as the temple censors come calling for me). Maybe it’s fitting that my blog got going when I went to Texas to take care of my dying sister and now it will become the journal of my journey into nothingness.