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

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.)