Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Tearing Down the Wall of Elitism – Summary of Topic #6 in the Treasured Teachings monthly series


There was no August 2020 session and for this month September I’m announcing the end of the Treasured Teachings series. We are ending with this discussion of the sixth and seventh teachers of the lineage outlined in Shinran’s Shoshinge.


One of the important characteristics of Jodo Shinshu we should emphasize is the repudiation of elitism that is entrenched in much of Western Buddhism. One-upmanship has been a part of human history in almost all cultures and has frequently crept into Buddhist institutions despite movements to return to the Buddha’s teachings of equality. When Buddhism became established in Japan it was the domain of the aristocrats, those who could read and write Chinese texts.


It took a while for the Pure Land teachings of China to make a dent in the Japanese Buddhist consciousness since it was easy to interpret the sutras and commentaries as handbooks to gain spiritual superiority through difficult practices. It was in a Buddhist Churches of America book that I read that the Tendai priest Genshin (942-1017) became interested in the Pure Land teachings because even though he was confident of attaining enlightenment as a learned and disciplined monk, he wondered what chance his non-ordained mother would have. That concern for his mother widened to see the Pure Land teachings as a way for laypeople (of course, for him, it meant aristocrats) to be on a sure path to buddhahood.


Genshin’s importance for us is being an influential enough priest to bring the Pure Land teachings to the attention of serious Japanese Buddhists and eventually to Honen (1133-1212). Genshin appreciated the theory of universal liberation and could see its relevance to his circle of well-to-do folks, but it was Honen who left the Mt. Hiei monastery to put those teachings into practice by bringing them to the residents of Kyoto, rich and poor, upstanding and criminal, authorities and outcasts, and of course, women as well as men. I heard in one of Dr. Mark Blum’s presentations that one of the first groups of people Honen approached were the funeral workers, those considered defiled for their work of handling dead bodies. If Honen could bring them the teachings of universal liberation, there is no one to be excluded, no matter what their work was, what their assigned station in society was.


[Honen sharing the Dharma with the townspeople]

What Shinran observed in Honen and Honen’s community was the “rightly settled” – maybe not perfectly awakened but people who exhibited the Buddha’s open-heartedness of embracing all as fellow seekers. Everyone in hearing the nembutsu was being equally liberated from their ego-shells and into the flow of true life – no one had a leg up on anyone else because they had a special talent or won an award for outstanding achievement. Even those who seem to be so caught up in promoting themselves are only temporarily residing in the “womb-palace of doubt” and will eventually find themselves with everyone else in the Pure Land.


At this time in the United States with people so divided politically, it’s hard to imagine such a view of Oneness. Americans seem so entrenched in the idea of individual achievement that we easily disparage those we think are lacking in initiative and morality. It may seem that the Jodo Shinshu teachings will never have any effect in the society we live in but the nembutsu keeps calling to each of us to see what the Buddha saw, the way Honen lived, the truly liberated view of Shinran respecting the buddhas and bodhisattvas all around him.


Friday, August 7, 2020

The Seemingly Narrow Path – Summary of Topic #5 in the Treasured Teachings monthly series

In our July 2020 session we discussed how Daochuo (aka Tao-ch’o, Doshaku 562-645) contrasted the Pure Land path with the “path of sages” and how Shandao (aka Shan-tao, Zendo 613-681) spoke of this route as a narrow white path in his two-rivers parable. (BTW, of all the Magnificent Seven teachers, Daochuo and Shandao were the only ones who were teacher and student in real life.)


[photo of Patagonia from Facebook page “Mother Earth”]

I said what most people in the West think of as Buddhism is the “path of sages” and I think many got into Buddhism like me because we wanted to be sages, free of the dirt of messy worldly life.  We want to climb up to the high mountain peaks to be far above the masses of ordinary beings.


I heard Dr. Nobuo Haneda recently say the Pure Land path is described as “narrow” but it’s actually so subtle that it’s hard to see. We would rather look away from our raging waters of anger and greed and escape to an icy mountaintop. But as in my own experience, the narrow white path appears only when you’re looking right at the towering waves of your own hates and desires.


Such a long time ago and far away in China, Daochuo and Shandao pointed out the Pure Land path when so many of the scholar-priests and their lay followers were convinced Buddha only taught about the path of sages and that’s how they interpreted the sutras. Zendo dokumyo bussho-i is Shinran reminding us in Shoshinge that throughout history teachers like the Magnificent Seven had to come along to point out that Shakyamuni spoke of ALL beings sharing in Awakening, not just those whose hard work and smarts qualified them as sages.


The Pure Land path starts out looking narrow but as one walks it, it becomes wider as we notice all the Dharma friends and teachers walking along with us. I might rail about how “the West” doesn’t give much attention or respect to the nembutsu teachings, but to have a handful of folks from other states and Canada joining these Zoom sessions shows me that the path is truly a wide one.


I highly recommend reading Taitetsu Unno’s book River of Fire, River of Water (including the poignant chapter “The Spirit of the Valley”) but for a quick read on the White Path Two Rivers parable, here’s a link to Rev. Marvin Harada’s article.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Discovering Your True Life – Summary of Topic #4 in the Treasured Teachings monthly series

On June 27, 2020 on Zoom we watched the lecture “The Role of the Teacher in Zen and Jodo Shinshu,” a presentation by Prof. Melissa Curley of the analysis of Kyoto School philosopher Keta Masako. Prof. Curley said in Keta’s view, the difference between Zen and Shinshu is in Zen the teacher acts as a wall – challenging the student to go over him, while in Shin the teacher serves as a window – the person becoming transparent so the student sees the rich transmission behind him.

For Shinran, all the teachers in his Magnificent Seven scheme are windows, allowing him to see through to the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. In Topic #3, I talked of the Mahayana rebellion, that Nagarjuna had to wrestle the true message of universal awakening away from the clutches of those who wanted to make Buddhist institutions for elites only. Now in this topic, we looked at Tanluan (476-572) who was attracted intellectually to Buddhist philosophy but encountered the living truth of Buddhism only after he was faced with a life-threatening illness.

He abandoned the useless metaphysics of Buddhism and sought the magic formulas for regaining health in Taoism (not the Western idea of Taoism as a purely philosophical path). He happened to encounter Bodhiruci, a monk from Central Asia, bringing Buddhist texts to the Chinese. Bodhiruci showed him the Pure Land teachings of Vasubandhu who focused on the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra. In Vasubandhu’s commentary, Tanluan received the awakening to the truth of each life is a part of the Unbounded Life (Amitayus) and Light (Amitabha). He no longer felt anxious about whether and when his illness would terminate his individual life and in his zeal to spread the Pure Land teachings he recovered and went on to live several more years. I said it was like Mr. Noboru Sanwo of Kingsburg, California who was told his cancer would kill him within six months but he lived another ten years once he found the clear presentation of Shinran’s teachings in the works of Shuichi Maida. He became friends with Rev. Gyoko Saito who was a brother-disciple with Maida in Akegarasu’s group. I was fortunate to sit in on one of the study sessions Mr. Sanwo held for people in the Fresno area to discuss Maida’s works and the urgent concerns they each had about hearing the Buddha’s teachings of transcending ego-attachment.

Right now in isolation due to the coronavirus lockdown, it’s hard for me to relate to Tanluan’s joy of giving up the idea of an individual self for the experience of being interconnected to all lives. There’s much to learn from Tanluan so I wait to see him through the window provided by Shinran in the Kyogyoshinsho which I can only look through when given the chance by translators such as Nobuo Haneda (weekly Maida Center class) and Michael Conway (monthly ministers seminar) on the internet these days.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Mahayana Rebellion – Summary of Topic #3 in the Treasured Teachings monthly series

There are two main points of this topic:

1. The Mahayana (“large vehicle”) movement was a rebellion against elitism – the monastic institution was excluding people who weren’t morally “worthy” (didn’t strictly uphold the rules). And it was also a rebellion for the true essence of the Buddha’s teachings which was that all beings participate in awakening – that there is no requirement that leaves anyone out. This is the fundamental teaching symbolized by the jewel that was hidden in the “dragons’ lair,” the entrenched hierarchy of institutional Buddhism that Nagarjuna had to fight his way through in order to bring that jewel into the open air.

[Tibetan depiction of Nagarjuna receiving sutras from the water-dragon]
Unfortunately throughout Buddhist history the elites wanted to keep burying that jewel and characterize awakening as their own private prize and so Mahayana rebels (such as Shinran) arose to reclaim the Buddha’s teachings for the people, all people. Today there are still Buddhist groups in the West who call themselves “Mahayana” but are very elitist, clinging to the narrative that only morally pure, intellectually superior people can be enlightened.

2. Shinran saw Nagarjuna as a prime example of someone from that erroneous narrative who came to embrace the Pure Land teachings. One evidence of this is he started writing a commentary on the ten Bodhisattva stages but gave up during his study of the second one because the first one, the Stage of Joy, struck him so powerfully. Shinran quotes passages of Nagarjuna where he hears Nagarjuna speaking from his heart to Shinran’s heart.

If you want to study the “morally pure, intellectually superior” figure of Nagarjuna worshipped by elitists, that’s okay as a side project. But if you are a Shin Buddhist follower your time and effort is better spent hearing Nagarjuna’s words of passionate joy as received by Shinran. From Shinran’s view, Nagarjuna, like all the other koso (“high monks”), started out trekking the difficult path but realized there was no way of transcending the ego if you’re continually thinking, “I’m doing this to win my prize.” The so-called “easy path” is the true “everybody on board” vehicle of Mahayana.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Confessions of Shakyamuni – Summary of Topic #2 in the Treasured Teachings monthly series

The main point of this topic is to emphasize that the teachers recognized in this Buddhist lineage don’t think of themselves as “teaching” but as sharing with others their experiences that led them to the Path and continue to deepen their awakening.  This goes all the way back to the historical Buddha. His first “sermon” was actually his answer to the question “What happened to you?” when the five ascetics saw he had visibly changed from the man they were together with practicing austerities.

What happened to me? Let’s see – I was feeling miserable with the way the world is (first noble truth) so I wanted to find the cause of my distress. It wasn’t from outside of me but from deep within – the darkness (avidya), the ego-centered greed (tanha) that I cannot rationally account for (second noble truth). But somehow I received an awakening to the interconnected unity of Life that transcends the inherent ego-attachment of each of us (third noble truth). And now I can go forward on a path taking me through a process of living my life in a wholesome way, starting with seeing the Right View is not “my” view but the universal perspective that is beyond my limited ego-attached view; Right Thoughts are not “my” thoughts but the mental karmic causes and conditions belonging to and affecting all of us; Right Speech is not “my” speech etc. etc. (fourth noble truth).

If we don’t receive Shakyamuni’s words as his first-person singular talk-stories, then he will come off as “preachy,” telling the unwashed masses what his superior judgment sees as what they should and shouldn’t do. And much of the Buddhist scriptures written down long after his death want to paint him that way so that the monastics and scholars can step into the preachy role themselves.

But I am calling the Buddha’s words his “confessions” because he is telling us about the actions in his ongoing life that turned out to be helpful or unhelpful to others and himself. In our online Zoom session in April 2020 we read the first chapter of the Dhammapada, which in the original language of Pali is called “the twin verses,” but somehow the early English translators titled it “choices.” The translators of that Victorian age were very moralistic (as are many Western Buddhists today) and they believed morally superior people were those who could rationally choose to do the right thing and reap the rewards.

What helped me to hear the Buddha’s words as his confessions was reading the Japanese originals of the writings of Kiyozawa Manshi (1863-1903) and hearing him sound like a finger-wagging nag in the various English translations. Kiyozawa, like Shinran the teacher he looked up to, wrote about how the awareness of his moral failings deepened his appreciation of the Power Beyond Self that embraced the reality of all his actions whether they were mere mistakes or crimes against humanity. So at the April 2020 session I showed that the first chapter of the Dhammapada was much like Kiyozawa’s “Liberation by the Power Beyond Self.”

[My translation used in the 1988 Los Angeles Higashi Honganji service book]

Shakyamuni is saying I am the one who has brooded on my hurt feelings after being insulted and that has led me down the rabbit hole of paralyzing resentment. So I had to learn to recover from insults and even physical assaults because harboring resentment towards others only clouds up my mind. There is no sense of freely choosing, “To brood or not to brood?” because emotions – even for an Awakened One – erupt from our irrational subconscious. As we should all know, the last thing you want to say to a person mourning the loss of a loved one is “Suffering is inevitable but misery is optional.”

I had heard from some temple members that while I was absent (on one of my frequent out of town trips which I sorely miss now), the lay talk at the Sunday service was given by a person presenting Kiyozawa’s piece as being about choices. “No, no, no!” is what I wanted to scream but actually I made the case quite calmly to that person who did attend the Zoom session on this topic. I don’t think I convinced her and some of the others in attendance who are too entrenched in the prevalent Western Buddhist narrative of making moral judgments of others. But I hoped to offset the effect her lay talk might have had on the other members. Kiyozawa is being realistic in saying I more often than not tend to forget about transcending my self-interests and I end up spiraling down into self-pity and paralysis. But there must be something deep, deep within and all around me which leads me to remember the awakening to Oneness (nembutsu). That something is the voice calling, “Namu Amida Butsu.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Shakyamuni As A Seeker – Summary of Topic #1 in the Treasured Teachings monthly series

Here are some of the main points of the presentation. Please note my presentation is based on the lineage of Higashi Honganji teachers (Japan and U.S.) and that other Buddhist groups will have different presentations because of their particular viewpoints.

1. The historical Buddha Shakyamuni was a human being
He was no different from any of us and his path of seeking is the same one we are on.

2. The importance of the teacher
The “four gates” story is just a legend – any 29 year old would already know about old age, sickness and death. Shakyamuni could no longer be happy with his pampered life knowing that it would inevitably end in death from old age, sickness and possibly the violence of war. But in the four gates legend, he encounters the man in rags begging for food and sees the man’s face is shining with joy and serenity, what the Buddha would describe in the Larger Sutra as ko-gen-gi-gi “light face majestic.” That man is the teacher for Shakyamuni – the evidence that there was something worth seeking for to transcend his concerns about the sufferings of life.

3. The provisional stages
The time (age 29 to age 35) that Shakyamuni spent studying under various spiritual teachers and doing harsh ascetic practice represented the provisional stages of self-centered ethical and religious practices. Coming from a privileged background, he probably needed the discipline of being denied instant gratification, and later he recommended the ascetic lifestyle to the monks and nuns who followed him because most of them came from well-off families.

4. The awakening of true liberation means breaking out of the ego-shell and identifying with all beings.
When Shakyamuni tumbled down the mountain of elitism and landed in the valley of ordinary life, he experienced the true awakening of breaking out of his self-concerns and finding interconnection with all beings - humans, animals, plants, minerals. In the Lotus Sutra he tells the monks and nuns that all they were doing was preparation for the real enlightenment that is available to all beings, not just to those who did special practices. The Buddha found that laypeople – those who worked and cared for family members – didn’t need the monastic life because the harshness of their own life struggles brought them to hear the teachings of freedom and equality. Western Buddhists for too long heard the narrative that the monastic life was the superior path and the traditions like Pure Land were for those who were too stupid and morally lax to do the hard practice required for attaining enlightenment. But teachers from Nagarjuna through to Shinran realized the Buddha taught that the real experience of awakening is evidenced by identifying with all beings and losing all justification to look down on any of them. [See reading material “The Third Birthday” by Rev. Gyoko Saito]

Monday, February 10, 2020

Birth and No-Birth

Hanamatsuri, the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, is a time for temples to celebrate children. The hanamatsuri service begins with a parade of o-chigo, children dressed as lords and ladies of ancient Japan, and at some temples the service includes or is followed by children’s music and dance performances. Another time when children are celebrated is at the Hatsu Mairi (official “first visit”) ceremony, the Buddhist equivalent of a christening, where the parents of newborns and toddlers pledge to raise their children with respect to the Three Treasures.

While we celebrate birth and children, I think Buddhists should also discuss the matter of no-birth. It has happened to many people, mostly in a private way – the loss of a fetus that was growing in the womb but never made it to birth as a child. It happens involuntarily as a miscarriage but it also happens as a decision to abort.

In the early 1990s I was asked to be a speaker for a Young Buddhist Association conference in Southern California. At one of the planning meetings, the minister who was the main conference speaker told the young adults that one of his occasional duties while he was studying in Japan was to escort teenage girls to and from an abortion clinic. These were the daughters of temple-going Japanese Americans who had the means to send their girls to Japan for a quick discreet abortion. But after telling the kids about this, the minister went on to advise them to campaign against legal abortions in the U.S. because “as Buddhists we are against the taking of life.”

I was shocked that he said this and I had to respond: Even though Buddhism is against the taking of life, there are circumstances where have to kill, such as taking the lives of animals and plants for our food. One young man then put his hands up at his sides to pantomime a balance scale. “You mean, on one hand, the value of a human baby,” he said, “is equal – on the other hand – to a hamburger?” The kids all busted out laughing and agreed with the main minister that my pro-choice argument was ridiculous.

Maybe I should’ve talked about how killing was acceptable to Japanese American Buddhists because our heroes had to murder fellow human beings. The soldiers of the 442nd battalion had to kill scores of Germans in the fierce European battles and the Military Intelligence Service interpreters by intercepting Japanese messages helped the U.S. to target and exterminate Japanese troops, some of who might have been relatives of the MIS soldiers. Up through today there are Japanese Americans who identify as Buddhist who as soldiers, police, border patrol etc. have had to kill human beings as part of their duties.
[In Japan, Jizo bodhisattva statues symbolize the spirits of dead children]

In Japan there is the tradition of Buddhist memorial services for “mizuko,” unborn children, and although some proportion of mizuko are miscarriages, probably most are aborted fetuses. In one of his Dharma talks in Japanese, Rev. Yukei Ashikaga (the former head minister in Chicago, now retired in Japan) said he has performed some mizuko memorial services. It was usually for young Japanese who came to the U.S. to study. Rev. Ashikaga understood their circumstances – with limited financial resources and the obligation to concentrate on their studies, the students were in no position to have and raise a child. Even now there is one couple who annually send a donation from Japan to the temple for conducting a memorial service for their unborn child.

Recently this issue of abortion rights came to my mind when I attended meeting of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. We split up into groups interested in particular campaigns and I joined the group working on the repeal of PNA, the Illinois law requiring parents to be notified before a minor can have an abortion In the office where we gathered, there was a flip chart page on the wall titled “Religion.” It had a long list of items that religions cite to condemn women who have abortions, such as “women’s duty is to have children” and patriarchal rule (men in control). I had to tell the group, “No, that’s not Buddhism!”

So I’m writing this article to explain why Buddhism respects and in no way condemns the women who have chosen or are considering abortion. First of all, we don’t need to debate “when does life start?” because Buddhism recognizes that our existence at this very moment is the result of eons of causes and conditions through many generations and geographical locations. One’s birth father and birth mother met through an uncountable variety of circumstances and even they themselves wouldn’t be able to explain fully what led them to conceiving a child.

Bringing a child into this world entails more than the physical act of giving birth. The mother and usually the father and the families of both have to consider if they have the resources to raise the child in a nurturing, safe setting. I admire the church my cousin attends in North Carolina for taking an active role in finding appropriate homes for the children of unwed mothers as part of their anti-abortion campaign, but in most cases the Christian groups who oppose abortion feel no obligation to help the individual babies born to parents unable to care for them.

In Buddhism we learn that none of us is in a position to judge others since there is so much about another’s circumstances that we can never know. The most we can do is express our view that a particular action may be destructive to the network of lives, but we cannot condemn a whole person for taking the particular action that we disagree with. When we examine ourselves, we know there’s a lot we’ve done which was regrettable and we would hate other to condemn us for those mistakes. And sometimes we know those actions were not mistakes but the best option that seemed available at the time. So looking at others, we need to give them the same leeway we want others to give us.

In the Chicago Reader interview of Paula Kamen, playwright of “Jane: Abortion and the Underground,” she reminds us that abortion is not a binary issue of childbirth versus choice because many women who’ve had to choose abortion have had or went on to have children that they were able to adequately care for. In the recent article in the Guardian, we see that couples have to choose abortion when the society they live in doesn’t support them in raising children in a safe, healthy setting.

As many pro-choice activists say, if you’re against abortion, don’t have one, but please don’t restrict the options for people who don’t have the resources you enjoy. As Buddhists we do all we can to enhance and promote life, but we recognize there are circumstances where people have had to kill a living being. To those who had to terminate a pregnancy, we send out thought-waves of compassion. We don’t have to understand why they had to do what they did but we respect them as whole persons and give them our non-judgmental support.