Causes & Conditions & Connections

Quick post – in my Dharma Message for this Sunday, I talked about “causes & conditions,” and in doing so, I referenced a slide from a presentation by Duncan Ryuken Williams. I used it partly so that people could see the kanji for “go-en” and liked Professor Williams’s translation, “Mysterious Karmic Conditions.” But I wasn’t looking at the slide when I was doing the talk, and when I was inserting the slide from the presentation into the video, I realized it actually says “Mysterious Karmic Connections”! Oops! I wonder if anyone noticed?

go-en

They aren’t really that different, and yet the two terms, “conditions” and “connections,” could be seen as having different nuances. The term “conditions” is deeply connected to the discourse of cause and effect – as I discussed during the Dharma Talk, conditions are a more peripheral type of cause. Normally we may think of cause and effect as a one-to-one equation, but there are actually many supporting conditions that bring about the resultant effect.

One place that the discourse of causality can be seen is in the Four Noble Truths, which first explains that “life is suffering.” Next, the cause of that suffering is revealed: desire, or sometimes ignorance & desire. Then the cure is shown – by removing the cause, one removes the result, so if one can get rid of ignorance & desire, then suffering can be removed. This equation is a classic example of cause & effect in Buddhism.

But this isn’t the only way to understand conditions, and maybe Duncan Williams’s use of the term “connections” points to another powerful way they are understood in Buddhism. This is an acknowledgment of the vast inconceivability of the conditions that make up my being here in this present moment. It’s not only the conditions that exist in the present (or previous?) moment, but the conditions that led to them, and on and on. And I am connected to all of them. In fact, I only exist in this present moment in relationship to all of those conditions. Some forms of Mahayana Buddhism, such as the Madhyamika School, find the essential purport of this truth to be the Emptiness of all things. This is Wisdom, the last of the Six Perfections. There is a whole class of Sutra literature devoted to this approach to Buddhism.

But Jodo Shinshu seems instead to focus on the significance those various connections have for my life. Realizing that I only exist because of others, whether because of their efforts or even just their existence. I am only a child because of my parents – even though my parents passed away almost 20 years ago I am still a son. And I am also a nephew, a cousin, a grandson and I am only those things because of my aunts and uncle, my cousins, my grandparents. I am only a Buddhist minister because of so many others – not only my teachers but also the people who I want to keep talking to about the things I discussed in a Dharma Talk. Current temple members, but also people I never even met in person, who may have passed away before I was born. Maybe all of that energy is part of the Compassion energy of the Buddha, the dynamic activity of the Vow whose ultimate goal is for me to attain awakening.

Hey, this was supposed to be a quick post! I should keep going, but also need to get this posted so that I can go to bed! Here is the original Dharma Message:

Expressing Awareness and Gratitude with One Word

“Itadakimasu” is one of those interesting Japanese words that doesn’t have an exact counterpart in English. It is usually said before eating a meal. Literally, it means “I receive.” But – and here is where Japanese and English diverge – itadakimasu is the humble form of the neutral form moraimasu, so it might be more accurately said to mean, “I humbly receive.” That’s one clue as to its deeper meaning. The other clue is the kanji that is used: 頂. My favorite online Japanese dictionary, Jim Breem’s WWWJDIC, gives the following for this character: “place on the head; receive; top of head; top; summit; peak.” “Receive” makes sense, but what’s this stuff about the top of the head or placing something on the head?

One place this character can be found is in Junirai, a text attributed to Nagarjuna, the first of the Seven Masters selected by Shinran. Every fourth line of this text repeats “ko ga cho rai mi da son” meaning “Thus I bow my head to Amida” – cho is the same character as in itadakimasu, and rai means to bow. Lowering one’s head and bowing are expressions of deep respect towards someone. This can be seen in the deepest bow: the full five-point prostration where one gets down on the knees, puts the elbows and hands on the ground, and touches the forehead to the floor. (I remember my uncle getting me to do this to my grandmother when I went to visit them in rural Japan decades ago.) But what does it have to do with eating?

Another movement you may see at temple is when we open the sutra book. Not everyone does it, but the ministers do. Before we open it, we hold it up to our head first. This is the lowering of one’s head as a gesture of respect to the words of the Buddha. I have heard it said that when we do this we “itadaku the book,” in other words, we hold it up to our head to express our reverence for the Buddha’s teachings, the words that we have received. So this word itadaku can also be done with bodily action.

Inversely, one of the interesting things about language is that we can sometimes “do” things with words. This idea was propounded by the British philosopher J. L. Austin, in a lecture released as the book, “How to Do Things with Words.” Examples that he gives include the naming of a ship by stating “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” or a priest or minister marrying two people by stating, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” It is the words that perform the action. And it looks to me that itadakimasu is one such word. By saying “itadakimasu,” I symbolically hold what I am receiving up to my head. Maybe we could actually hold up our plate, but it doesn’t really work in Japan because a lot of times the food is in a bunch of small bowls instead of all mixed together on a plate!

But why are we treating our food with such respect? I’d like to answer this with a story about my chanting teacher, Reverend Haruyoshi Kusada. Among other things, Kusada sensei was the chanting teacher for several generations of BCA ministers. Once, at the end of the semester, he took our chanting class out for lunch. After we said “itadakimasu,” one of the students said to sensei: “I asked my Japanese teacher what itadakimasu means, and she said it doesn’t mean anything, Japanese people just say it before they eat.” Kusada sensei looked appalled, and said, “No, it means gratitude to the entire universe.” The student responded with, “No, my teacher said it doesn’t mean anything,” and Kusada sensei again said, “No, it means gratitude to the entire universe.” He then went on to explain: “The food we are eating is plants and animals that gave their lives. And the plants and the animals need the earth, the rain, the sun. All of those things are in the food we are eating, along with innumerable other causes and conditions. So we say thank you to the entire universe by saying itadakimasu.” Those weren’t his exact words, but you get the idea. I still remember many bits of that day, the ride over with Kusada sensei driving us in his van, the restaurant. Of course I forget most of the other parts, but I’m glad that conversation happened and that I still remember it, and of course I am moved thinking about my teacher, Reverend Kusada. Amazing to think that his words continue to resonate in me today.

So during this time of the Coronavirus and social distancing and Stay at Home/Shelter in Place, when the future is uncertain and many things we used to take for granted are now not so easy and convenient, maybe we should try and incorporate itadakimasu into our daily routine. And if we already do it, to do it not out of habit, but to actually try and experience this gratitude. Taking things for granted means that we consume them mindlessly – instead, we can try and be mindful and aware of how special each meal is, each item we eat, down to a single grain of rice. One way to do this is to say itadakimasu each time we eat something. Of course we should also say Namo Amida Butsu, but I think that itadakimasu means and expresses something special that we can incorporate into our routine and that can help us during this difficult time.

This essay is related to the Dharma Message for Sunday, April 26, 2020:

Buddha Images – Maitreya Buddha

maitreya 1st image

Continuing with the Buddha images theme, this is another image that I expected to be huge but was surprised when I saw it in person. One of the ways that I really got into Buddhism was through art, whether in my discovery of one of my father’s books on Japanese art, a set of postcards I discovered at the end of a semester abroad in Japan during college, or art books I would find in used bookstores. I forget where I picked up the catalog book The Great Eastern Temple but I remember being struck by the image of Maitreya Buddha – it looked so huge and imposing. Imagine my surprise when I went to Nara and saw the image in person – it’s only a little over 3 feet tall! Of course, if I had carefully read the description I would have seen that it was only 39 cm, but the metric thing probably didn’t help.

maitreya 1st image detail

I found the Japanese book at a used bookstore called “Book Off” – picked it up for 105 yen – that’s basically $1!

matreya book cover

I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was related to the English book that I had – they both appear to be related to exhibits, the Japanese one in 1980 at the Nara National Museum (which I believe is where I saw the image, though many years later), the American one in 1986 at the Art Institute of Chicago. They feature many of the same images, and yet the presentation varies slightly.

maitreya both books

For instance, the Japanese book also has a picture of the Maitreya image from an alternate angle:

maitreya alternate angle

I was fortunate too that both books came with documentation of the exhibits.

maitreya pamphlets

I might also point out the interesting identification of the image with Maitreya Buddha as opposed to Maitreya Bodhisattva. Usually Maitreya is considered a bodhisattva who will eventually attain Buddhahood in our world, but he is sometimes referred to as Buddha. This may be partly due to the understanding of Maitreya as having achieved the highest Bodhisattva stage, with the next stage being supreme enlightenment and perfect Buddhahood. A high level Bodhisattva such as this is basically a Buddha. Also, Maitreya is living his last life now in the Tushita Heaven, so when that life ends he will become the next Buddha of our Saha world. In a letter to a follower, Shinran Shonin mentions this:

…The Larger Sutra speaks of “[the stage] next [to enlightenment], like Maitreya.” Since Maitreya is already close to Buddhohood, it is the custom in various schools to speak of him as Maitreya Buddha. (Collected Works of Shinran, 528)

Shinran goes on to say that the person of Shinjin, the Entrusting Mind, is “like Maitreya.” One of the implications of this is that the person of shinjin, at the end of their life, will be born in the Pure Land of Amida and instantly attain Buddhahood, much like Maitreya at the end of his life in the Tushita Heaven.

Even though Jodo Shinshu stresses exclusive reliance on Amida Buddha, it is still interesting and enriching to study and enjoy other forms of Buddhism – there may be connections that we haven’t expected or foreseen. There may even be no connection, but it is also important to respectfully engage traditions other than one’s own. And actually, art may be one of the best ways to do this!

 

Easter Reflections of a Buddhist Bassist

One of the people I follow on social media is Bootsy Collins. He began his rise to fame as the bassist for James Brown, later joining George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic consortium. But Bootsy became a star in his own right, with hit singles from Bootsy’s Rubber Band, his Star basses and glasses, numerous collaborations with Bill Laswell, and guest spots with various artists such as Deee-lite & Fatboy Slim. I have actually been fortunate to meet Bootsy a couple of times – you may have seen this as my profile picture:

bootsy_harry_sq

You might expect this in my hieronymous music blog, but why here in my Gyokyo Buddhist blog? Well, this is what Bootsy posted on Twitter the day before Easter:

The “One” for Me, might not be the “One” for U & Vice-Verse. Funk says; We have different taste! Yr Father Don’t have to be My Father for us to be in the Same Family. Families fight too. Funkateers we all gotta Share the Air, it Makes Good Sense to Care! Bootsy baby!!!

I find this to be a profound message of diversity and acceptance. Bootsy has been talking about the “One” for decades – it is the essence of funk taught to him by James Brown. He can be seen and heard describing the approach in this video clip from the BBC Rock School series from the ‘80s (I have vague memories of my friend Tobin playing this for me while we were in high school in Tokyo.):

Basically, you hit the downbeat – the “One” – hard, then you can fill in all the other spaces, or leave space in the other spaces. But is this the “One” that Bootsy is talking about here? The introduction to a 2017 interview with Vibe suggests otherwise:

Bootsy Collins is a firm believer in the creator, or as he likes to say, the one. His faith, paired with drive and patience have kept him sane in an ever changing world. 

This seems to be backed up later in the interview:

I would hope that someone who isn’t aware of funk would learn something from this album.

That’s pretty much the key. I didn’t know anything. I was 19 traveling around the world with James Brown. I couldn’t believe it at the time. You just never know what the one has for you. You just take what you got and you do the best you can with it. You just have to keep moving.

This article suggests that the “One” could be equated with the Christian God. But in the Bootsy Collins episode of Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus, Bootsy is more explicit:

The concept of the One works not only in music but in life, y’know – you gotta figure out what that one is for you, and keep coming back to it. And for me, that just meant being in a great band. Playin’ it is one thing, livin’ it is a whole ‘nother thing, but when in doubt, just come back to the One.

As a multiracial ½ Buddhist Minister ½ Bassist, this is fascinating for me. On one level, he is talking about music, and on another, possibly talking about a greater, deeper spiritual reality. I love the fact that music (funk) and spirituality (?) are interwoven. But going back to the post I began with, the recognition that there are multiple “Ones” is the key insight that we need right now. Whether with freedom of religion in the United States, or religious tolerance throughout the world, as long as we cling to our own teachings as the only Truth then we will always have conflict and discrimination. One of the hardest things to do is to allow the Other to be themselves, even if “they” are completely different than “we” are. As a multiracial person of a minority religion, I often feel “Othered” in the current climate of the United States, and yet I also need to beware of doing the same thing to others/Others.

This morning’s bomb attacks in Sri Lanka are a chilling reminder that there is still so much hate in the world – as of yet no one has claimed responsibility, but the fact that Christians were targeted on Easter seems to point to a religious agenda. The words of the Dhammapada – “Hate is not overcome by more hatred; hate is only overcome by the absence of hatred” – and Martin Luther King Jr. – “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” – are especially relevant today. As soon as we give in to hate, accepting it and allowing it to be a driving force in our lives, then we begin to slide down a slippery slope. I hope that Bootsy’s suggestion that we can be different and yet still be part of the same family touches some hearts – at the very least it reinforces a view that I hold personally and reminds me to resist hate and instead listen and try and learn.

New Year’s Resolution update

This article won’t come out until the March issue of the Busshin (the newsletter of the Buddhist Church of Oakland), but my blog readers get a sneak preview!

Sometime early this year – within the first couple of weeks I believe – I made a New Year’s Resolution. I talked about it at a couple of services, but here is the way I stated it on Twitter: “…if I get into a difficult situation, to try and see things from at least one more perspective.”

Have I been successful? Well, actually I have been fortunate that I haven’t been placed in any particularly difficult situations so far this year. But I have seen other people having difficulties and it affirmed for me that the ability to see things from multiple perspectives can be helpful. In fact, only being able to see things from one’s own perspective could have something to do with a situation being difficult.

We need to be careful, however. Of course, it would be great if we could see every situation from multiple perspectives – it might help us make better decisions and have less suffering. But it is almost impossible to do! Notice that I said “multiple perspectives,” not just “two perspectives.” Because the reality is that there are many different angles from which we can look at anything. And sometimes, those multiple perspectives may be irreconcilable, as in the film “Rashomon” by Akira Kurosawa (based on short stories written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and themselves worth reading).

Also, if the ability to see situations from multiple perspectives was a requirement, then those who couldn’t do so would be excluded, and that is not how Jodo Shinshu Buddhism works. Amida Buddha made the Vow and established the Name – Namo Amida Butsu – precisely for foolish beings; i.e., people who can’t see things from multiple perspectives.

And yet, realizing that my personal viewpoint is limited can help remind me that I am a foolish being. And trying to do this in my daily life can help me incorporate Buddhism outside of the temple. Church services, whether just a regular Dharma Family Service, a Shotsuki Memorial Service, or a special service like Spring Ohigan which we are observing on March 18, allow us to listen to the Dharma so that it can permeate our lives wherever we are.

The Life of the Buddha

I wrote this capsule summary of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life for a newsletter article, but ended up going in a completely different direction and scrapped it. But I thought I would share it here:

The historical Buddha was born a prince, and spent his early life sheltered in the palace. But at the age of 29 he embarked on a spiritual quest, renouncing his kingdom and setting off in search of something different than a worldly life of pleasure. Early attempts at meditation were swiftly mastered, so he shifted to difficult ascetic practices. After six years, he was exhausted and no closer to his goal. So at age 35, he quit the ascetic practices for good and sat under a tree. Reinvestigating the meditation he had experimented with earlier, he penetrated to the true nature of reality and attained awakening. Recognizing that others could benefit from what he had learned, he stood up and embarked on a forty-five year teaching career. At the age of 80 he became ill, passing away surrounded by disciples, and leaving behind a tradition that grew and transformed into the various forms we have today.

Thought I would also include this incredible statue of Shakyamuni from around the time that he quit the ascetic practices and attained awakening. Often people think the Buddha was obese (actually those images are one of the lucky gods, Hotei) but actually he must have been emaciated after five years of fasting.

fasting_buddha1sm

How do YOU do Xmas?

Whenever December rolls around, I can’t help but think about Christmas. I have ambiguous feelings about it – my family celebrated it when I was a kid in Massachusetts, but when I was 11 we moved to Tokyo and it was never the same – I think my dad even had to go to work! Even after we moved back to the US, we never really celebrated Christmas anymore, especially not like we used to.

It seems that there are several possible Buddhist reactions to Christmas. The most common one that I see is to just do it unproblematically. In this case it’s not the Christian version of Christmas that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, it is what we might call either the Pagan or secular version with Santa Claus, Christmas Trees, and of course PRESENTS!

Another response I have seen is to try and integrate it somehow with Buddhism, for instance, having a “Bodhi Tree” instead of a Christmas Tree, using a Dharma Wheel or other Buddhist symbols as ornaments, or conflating Santa Claus with Hotei, the smiling monk with a cloth sack who entertains children.

The third possible response is to reject Christmas. I have heard stories that this was much more common in BCA temples before I got involved in the 1990s. It does still exist here and there – sometimes we put Christmas lights on the Bodhi Tree in the office, and I have heard one or two people say “We don’t celebrate Christmas” with the implication that we shouldn’t have the lights.

bodhi tree office xmas 2017.JPG

Which option do you choose? I have taken all three at different points in my life. When I was a student I used to contemplate integrating it (that’s when I came up with the Hotei idea) – in the years since, I just kind of accept the secular version. But I also appreciate the attitude of rejecting it. I remember having Jewish friends when I was a kid that didn’t celebrate it at all – I found out that they would often go to Chinese restaurants because those were the only ones that were open. If I am truly Buddhist, why would I need Christmas? The United States of America is supposed to be a land of freedom and diversity – I embrace the difference that I embody as a multiracial person and as a follower of a minority religion, and I shouldn’t have to celebrate Christmas.

But I also get that one of the most important aspects of Christmas for many of our members is FAMILY. Maybe we can appropriate Christmas as part of the Gratitude Season that I have written about before – spend it with the people you love, and express that love and appreciation, allowing it to energize us through the winter so that we can face the New Year with the renewed hope and inspiration given to us by the Wisdom and Compassion of the Buddha.

(Reprinted from Buddhist Church of Oakland Busshin Newsletter, Dec. 2017)

Is there a Baby Buddha Inside You?

What do you think of when you think about Hanamatsuri? Shakyamuni Buddha’s birthday? Lumbini’s Garden? Kambutsu (bathing the Baby Buddha)? How about a six-tusked elephant?

Right now, I’m wondering if maybe there’s a Baby Buddha ready to be born within each of us. Maybe each time I feel a twinge of caring when I see someone else suffering, each time I get an insight into myself or the world around me, maybe my “inner Buddha” is born. Can I then cultivate it, nourish it, so that someday I become a Buddha myself? There are theories in Buddhism where we each have this potential for awakening within us – this is one understanding of the term “Buddha Nature.”

But maybe it’s harder than it looks. Those insights I mentioned don’t happen for me that often. And even if I do have one, it’s so easy to start thinking more about myself than others again. Maybe my Baby Buddha waits patiently for the next time I have a selfless thought to help someone else, or realize something else about the true nature of things.

If I don’t have this Baby Buddha inside of me, it’s ok. Shinran Shonin did not emphasize this potential for awakening. In fact, in looking at himself he felt that he had NO Buddha Nature inside him – that he was among “those who lack the seed of Buddhahood” (icchantika). And yet even someone like that – someone like me? – can still become Buddha. In fact, this type of person is precisely the object of Amida Buddha’s compassion. Becoming aware of this, one entrusts in the Buddha with great joy and gratitude.

I know that Hanamatsuri is a service that also brings us great joy, to get to bathe the Baby Buddha and listen to the Dharma. For Buddhist Church of Oakland’s 2017 Hanamatsuri Service on Sunday, April 9, our guest speaker is Sensei Blayne Higa, a student from the Institute of Buddhist Studies. If you have a Baby Buddha then bring it along, if not then come bathe ours at the Buddhist Church of Oakland – remember, Kambutsu begins at 9:30!

babybuddha_plastic1b

Where Do We Draw the Line?

I wasn’t raised Buddhist. So part of becoming a minister was getting to know the Buddhist holidays. I had to learn when they happened, what they meant, etc. Some are related to the historical Buddha’s life, others to Shinran’s life. Several are related to the calendar – New Year’s Eve & Day, and Ohigan in both the spring and fall. Ohigan is perhaps most often associated with the Six Perfections, or paramitas in Sanskrit. Mahayana Buddhists must be familiar with these, for they are the foundation of the Bodhisattva Path to Buddhahood. But once we get to know them, what do we do next?

I would like to suggest three possibilities. One is to study them deeply and try and put them into practice in our lives, in fact, to try and perfect them – hence the name. This is the approach of many Buddhist schools, but usually it is restricted to monastics – can a lay person really devote their life to wisdom and compassion in every moment of every day?

Another option is to ignore them. Or learn them, and yet not bother trying to incorporate them into everyday life. Usually, I think that we may listen to the talk, perhaps increase our knowledge a bit, but then as soon as we leave the temple, or leave the hondo – or maybe even as soon as we leave our seat! – we get caught up in everyday life and just trying to get by.

These two possibilities are extremes – devote your entire life to the Six Perfections, or ignore them. I would hope that many if not most of us end up somewhere in between. And yet, here is the question I would like to ask: Where do we draw the line? How much is good enough? When is it ok to ignore the Six Perfections? I wonder if this is the crux of Jodo Shinshu. Shinran found that he was incapable of performing selfless compassion or awakening perfect wisdom – he left the monastery searching for an answer, and encountered the Nembutsu teaching. The teaching that he left us allows foolish beings such as ourselves who are incapable of practice to encounter the Dharma and have our lives changed by the inconceivable compassion of Amida Buddha.

I wish I could write more and explain it better, but this is the hardest part of Jodo Shinshu – it is the Easy Practice and yet very subtle and difficult to express in words. That is part of the life of the Jodo Shinshu follower – to try and walk this path between perfecting Wisdom & Compassion and just ignoring them. The Buddhist Church of Oakland’s Spring Ohigan Service on Sunday March 19, 2017 is a perfect time to reflect on this conundrum!

 

dharmawheel cranes1

 

(This Dharma Wheel is mounted in the entrance lobby to the Buddhist Church of Oakland. It is composed of gold origami cranes, and was made by the BCO Jr. YBA before I became the resident minister (so pre-2009). The Dharma Wheel can represent many things – often it is seen as a symbol for the Noble Eightfold Path, which is also a synonym for the Middle Way, and thus an appropriate symbol for Ohigan.)

September 1

September 1 is a significant date, for all of us in the Buddhist Churches of America as well as for myself personally. On September 1, 1899, two ministers dispatched by Nishi Hongwanji arrived in San Francisco. According to a pamphlet issued in 1969 by the BCA “Sunday School Department,” this date was designated “BCA Founding Day.” This 100 year plus history has seen many struggles and difficulties. And yet, the existence of our temples and communities has allowed the teachings of Shinran Shonin and the Buddha to nurture and console those in need.

September 1 was a significant date twice in my life. On September 1, 1996, having decided that I wanted to study Buddhism and become a minister, I moved from Boston to Berkeley to attend the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Ten years after that, on September 1, 2006, I was assigned to the Buddhist Church of Lodi, marking the official beginning of my ministerial career. These dates are extra special this year because it means that I moved out to California to embark on my path to ministry twenty years ago! And as of this year I have now been a BCA minister for ten years.

So where am I at? I have enjoyed the past ten years, getting to know the members at the temples I have served (first Lodi, then Oakland starting in January 2009). I have continued to address the balance between my ministry and music – for a while they were more closely aligned, but recently I have been keeping them more separate. I continue to try and address the challenge of opening the temple to more than just the traditional family-based membership – to be honest though, I don’t feel that I have been that successful. A lot of it really is about balance – the Middle Way continues to be one of my favorite Buddhist teachings – and I hope to manage to balance out the various aspects of ministry and my life as the Dharma School year is set to open soon!