Wednesday, April 12, 2017

City Hall: Benefitting Self or Benefitting Others

In the Higashi Honganji ministers seminar in Los Angeles in February, the presenter Rev. Michael Conway said that Soga Ryojin felt instead of using the terminology “self power” versus “other power” in Jodo Shinshu, it would be more descriptive to characterize our individual puny power as “self-benefitting power” and the unbounded wisdom and compassion (known as “Amida”) as “others-benefitting power.” Here, “benefitting” means the gifting of spiritual qualities. I fail miserably when I use my faulty abilities to grab spiritual qualities for myself and attempt to wear them as attention-getting garb (as so many Western Buddhists fall over themselves to look humble in saffron one-shoulder robes or in dark gowns with aprons). But when I receive help from those (human and otherwise) with genuine spiritual qualities, then I know there’s the great others-benefitting power working in the world through such beings.

In our world of material benefits, every person and every group uses their power for self-benefitting. Unless you’re a candidate for sainthood like Dorothy Day, it’s hard to claim you are working purely for others-benefitting. But I found there is something about working with people to protest the powerful who amass material benefits for themselves at the expense of those struggling to get by day-to-day. I’m experiencing the Howard Thurman quote about doing what makes you come alive. And I found another Howard Thurman quote that describes what’s been happening to me: “Community cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them — unknown and undiscovered brothers.”

People who were the “unknown and undiscovered” others to me only a few months ago are now a part of my life. A year ago I would never have pictured myself appearing at city hall reading the testimonies of two immigrant Korean small business owners to the zoning committee as part of team of speakers asking the committee to defer their approval of a development until there was more community discussion of the project. Those business owners, the Uptown residents housed and unhoused, the young minister of a small church near our temple, activists who are Asian, black and white – we had come together because of our concern over how a proposed luxury high rise would impact our neighborhood.

[photo of city council chambers]
The zoning committee with one no-vote and one abstention approved the project just as a couple weeks earlier our neighborhood group saw the buildings planning commission unanimously approve the proposal. But in a sense we can “declare victory and run” – the phrase I saw in the book This is an Uprising that I’ve been reading. The developer was probably assured by the alderman that his project would go through smoothly with city hall approval, but after our voices were raised at the two city hall hearings and at a town hall meeting attended by over a hundred people (hosted by our temple), that developer and future developers now know you can’t just come into a community and expect everyone to passively go along with your kicking out long time retail stores and bringing in high priced units to an area in need of decent housing for low-wealth workers, the disabled and seniors.

I know many of the temple members don’t agree with my stance against gentrification but on that issue and others, our temple has a history of accepting the diversity of opinion among its members so I don’t expect anyone to follow or impede me. Whether my involvement in this “cause” is deepening my appreciation of Amida’s others-benefitting power or just leading me into delusion upon delusion, I can’t deny the feeling of aliveness and the thrill of working with people from many different walks of life. It’s not that I feel my minister work at the temple is boring, but I think we all are enriched by having lives outside of our circle of acquaintances at the temple.

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