I was invited to participate in the “Coffee with the Clergy” event at the Lincolnwood Village Hall. (Lincolnwood is a small suburb next to Chicago’s Rogers Park.) As I usually do with presentations, I kept my talk short in order to leave more time for Q&A. I spoke about the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) and how some people who identify as Buddhist are “poor,” lacking one or more of those treasures – no teacher, no sutra studies and no membership in an organization. Maybe to the audience of mostly Christians and a few Muslims, I didn’t seem that different from the Orthodox Jewish rabbi who spoke first – we both emphasized the importance of teacher lineages, study of ancient texts and gathering for recurring observances.
One prevalent misunderstanding that all of us Jodo Shinshu followers have to address is the popular notion that only the shaved head people who withdraw from worldly life to live in monasteries are the ones who attain enlightenment. When one man in the audience expressed such a view, I gave the softball response, “That way works for some people.” But then my husband raised his hand and asked me to point out the downside of the monastic path.
I then said there’s a danger in meditation and other monastic practices that you start out doing them to break out of the ego-self but you end up being more entrenched in your ego and pride. I said that’s why we need to continually read the words of the Buddha who keenly points out the pitfalls we slide into so easily, our tendency to get arrogant about being a Buddhist, instead of letting Buddhism break down the barriers we put between ourselves and others.
After the session one elderly white woman came up to me to defend her image of the monks (the men, not women, she saw as holy people in the group tour she took in Thailand). She said they are the ones who gave up a lot in order to live the monastic life “to better themselves.” I said, “To better themselves for what? For some reward in the afterlife? The Buddha pointed out that our concern for reward and punishment in the next life is a reflection of our ego-attachment. We’ve already received the reward – to live this precious life of here and now. All we can do is be aware that we can do helpful actions that benefit others or do actions that harm myself and others. We’re not doing good and avoiding bad actions because we’re concerned with our own reward and punishment.”
I don’t think my point got through to her, but there was a young Muslim woman listening in after I answered her questions about reincarnation and the afterlife. I felt like she understood what I was getting at. Religion shouldn’t be a means of making us feel we’re a “better” person deserving of special rewards. When she told me she was reluctant to identify herself as Muslim because she is a “poor example,” I said that’s a good attitude to have. It’s not for us to beat our chest and declare, “I’m better than you bunch of losers because I found (Allah, Jesus, Buddha et al).” If our religion can make us humbly admit we are a “poor example,” then we’ve taken an important step closer to the transcendent and away from our limited ego-self.