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. 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.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

What’s Wrong With Saying “Namo Amida Butsu”

[Note: Since the 1990s, Nishi Honganji prefers to use the spelling “Namo Amida Butsu” while Higashi Honganji continues using “Namu.” Sounds the same: Nah-mah-dahb’]

Now I need to explain what I was trying to say for my Dharmathon talk titled “STFU” recorded this past week (Sept. 27, 2017). I don’t think I am the first or will be the last person to complain about those individuals who have to burst out with frequent shouts of “Namo Amida Butsu!” causing a disturbance for those of us trying to listen to what is going on at the time, such as a minister giving a Dharma talk.

Actually it’s not just the rudeness of old men loudly demonstrating their piety that I’m questioning, but whether there are any reasons for saying that string of syllables aloud. I can think of two – cultural and ritual. For centuries “Namo Amida Butsu” has been a part of Japanese Buddhist culture (and in the cultures of other East Asian countries with the phrase spelled out differently). Way before Honen and Shinran, it was heard in the cities and countryside of Japan, in and outside of Buddhist sites – spread by hijiri, wandering monks, such as Kuya. So despite the wide range of how to interpret the phrase (magic mantra, plea for the afterlife, expression of inner peace, etc.), it is a familiar sound that Japanese people can voice comfortably.

As in any religious tradition, it helps to have some stock phrases that everyone can chime in on at the start and finish of certain sections of the service (readings, meditation, chanting). So saying “Namo Amida Butsu” together and in response to the leader during a weekly Sunday service, memorial/funeral, wedding etc. serves as punctuation in the flow of ritual routines.

But outside of those two contexts, is there a need to say “Namo Amida Butsu” out loud? I used to think Shinran specified oral recitation when he used the verb sho-suru but then Dr. Haneda pointed out that the original meaning of sho (tonaeru) was to “carefully consider.” As is described in Japanese dictionary sources, the Chinese character is a stylized picture of the scales of balance. Maybe when the person doing the weighing announced when the object was in balance, the verb came to have the meaning of “vocalizing.”

The great Higashi lineage teachers such as Kiyozawa and Maida don’t write about “Namu Amida Butsu” very much and for all the times I’ve heard Rev. Gyoko Saito speak in services and lectures, he seldom inserted “Namu Amida Butsu.” But what all the great teachers do talk about is the nembutsu. For certain persons at particular times, the nembutsu could take the form of saying “Namo Amida Butsu.” But the nembutsu that the great teachers describe is too profound and universal to be restricted to a specific kind of action.

The title of this post is a statement, not a question. Here are three general categories of why I refer to the saying “Namo Amida Butsu” as the seven-syllable barrier.

It perpetuates the impression that Jodo Shinshu is an exclusive group that identifies as Japanese.
The saying of “Namo Amida Butsu” seems like a special phrase that the insiders say to each other like members of some old men’s lodge. And in Jodo Shinshu no matter what country you are in and what language you speak, you are required to say the phrase in Japanese pronunciation – an indication of the primacy of Japan and its culture.

It makes Buddhism into hocus-pocus incantation rather than teachings of self-examination and awakening to reality.
Just as Zen in the West played into the American cultural streak of anti-intellectualism (“You don’t have to know what Buddha or anyone else said, just sit on this here cushion until I hit the gong”), too many Jodo Shinshu ministers get to play the part of the Wise Master, “Just keep saying Namo Amida Butsu and don’t worry about what it means,” instead of making the effort to explain anything that smacks of scholarship (sutras, history etc.). What’s lost is the opportunity to hear the essence of the Buddha-Dharma which is what Shinran dedicated his life to bringing to us through his many written works.

It becomes a “required practice” which contradicts the ultimate Mahayana principle of unconditional access to awakening for all beings.
To hear the strained speech of the current Otani-ha abbot, a deaf-mute, should be a reminder to us all that saying “Namo Amida Butsu” is not an “easy practice” for anyone with physical or mental disabilities. Recitation becomes a forced custom divorced from what “Namo Amida Butsu” was meant to express. Suppose Shinran had a laugh that was a high-pitched “Tee hee hee” and everyone thought they had to copy it exactly in order to attain his level of bliss. That recitation ignores what made Shinran laugh in the first place and the fact that laughter is a spontaneous expression of enjoyment with each person having their own unique way of laughing. Instead of enjoying a good laugh, the imitators are stuck joylessly repeating “Tee hee hee, tee hee hee.”

What “Namo Amida Butsu” expresses is the voice of hongan, the deepest aspiration, the universal wish to awaken to the interconnected oneness of all life, liberated from the delusion of self. At the recent Dharmathon, I would say the story that Rev. Fred Brenion told was an example of the nembutsu. In his job working at a prison for the criminally insane, he encountered a woman who had murdered her children. He couldn’t help feeling a sense of revulsion about her crime, yet he felt enabled to say to her, “There is no pit too deep for God’s hand to reach into.” Knowing she was a Christian, Rev. Fred felt it was better to tell her that instead of trying to convert her with talk of Amida’s Light. To me, hearing that story was to hear the nembutsu, the voice of hongan, the universal wish – the voice that makes us contemplate and remember (nem-) what awakening (-butsu) is.

These days I feel like I am following my father to the grave – he started chemotherapy in the month of June in 2010 and through the subsequent months his physical conditioned weakened. My intake of food has diminished due to constant nausea and malfunctioning taste buds and now what little food I ingest doesn’t take long to be going out the other end. So I’m thinking I may barely last to Ho-on-ko which would be the time of year my father died. That means I feel more of an urgency to say what I have to say and try to improve on clarity. I may have very little support for my assertions but I’ll put them out there hoping it stimulates others to come up with more substantial insights. Like anyone else, I hate to be criticized but with a shortened mortality, I don’t have to worry about being passed over for promotions or going through a process of ex-communication, and it would be a relief if my temple fires me (then someone else can worry about all the janitorial and clerical chores).

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Great Matter of Life Until Death

I find myself thinking of my father a lot these days as I experience the various side effects of chemotherapy. In the last few months of his life, my father suffered through a lot of pain and discomfort and I often say it’s the chemicals that killed him in 2010 not the colon cancer. A couple months into his chemotherapy he was falling at home so my brother got him a rolling walker (“rollator” like the one pictured below). I’ve been wondering if I’ll need one soon – my feet are numb and there’s a painful weakness in my legs when I move them. A few too many times at the Eastern Buddhist League conference when I was going up and down the stairs at the Midwest Buddhist Temple I felt myself falling backwards and had to grip the hand rails tightly to pull myself upright (somehow though, I danced through the Bon Odori workshop without keeling over).

Although in my last post it sounds like I was silent at EBL, they actually gave me a forum to speak – I was one of a dozen people in the “TED talks.” There was a strict five-minute limit and it seemed I mumbled a bunch of asides and then my time was up. I remember saying my father felt his knees buckle the first time he saw his father in his coffin – it was my grandfather’s death that led my father to reconnect with Buddhism after being away from it from the time he married my Baptist mother. And I remember saying after my five minutes was called, “The great matter of life and death.”

Connecting the dots, it seems I was trying to say that my father is an example of someone who became serious about the Buddhist path when confronted with the fact of death. In my clumsy way it was my protest against all the talk of marketing and mission statements at EBL, all the business of “attracting new people” with various attention-grabbing gimmicks. If there are people like my father who come to Buddhism with “the great matter of life and death” weighing heavily on their mind, we should offer them something more substantial than icebreaker “eightfold path” games.

I would say all my Higashi teachers said that Rennyo’s phrase “go-sho no ichi-dai-ji” does not mean “the great matter of the after-life” as you find in the Nishi Honganji translations. “Go-sho” means your life from this moment on (the moment that causes and conditions brought you to encounter the Buddha-Dharma) as opposed to “zen-sho” the life you were living rather mindlessly up to now. So one attempt at translating the phrase might be, “the great matter of life until death.”

What my father listened to after he reconnected with Buddhism somehow spoke to that great matter of his own life until death, but I don’t know what specific aspects of the teachings he heard as a new member of the Twin Cities Buddhist Association. In his retirement my father was busy enough with various Japanese American community groups but he heartily volunteered to help the local Buddhist group and then he got active with the Eastern District, becoming the treasurer and was training as a minister assistant. He became a delegate to the national meetings of the Buddhist Churches of America. Despite hearing all the inside dirt on BCA’s politics, wastefulness and costly misjudgments, he dedicated much time and effort to the organization as a worthy vehicle for conveying Jodo Shinshu in the United States.

To me his life until his death was one of giving out of gratitude, doing the things that would benefit many people in significant ways. Even after he was diagnosed with colon cancer and started the debilitating chemotherapy, he did what he could for the Buddhist group and the other community service organizations. For my last post I tagged the keyword “giving up” but that is not how my father felt in his final weeks. He continued up to his last conscious moment to express his concern for others.

In the hours after he lost consciousness there was only the sound of his rough breathing which I’ve told people to me it sounded like the nembutsu as uttered by Shinran in his dying moments. It was not “Oh save me Amida,” but “Even while entangled in my self-benefitting desires, I am settled into the awareness of interconnection with all beings.” When his breathing stopped, I was the one now confronted with the great matter of life until death.