Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Will I think like this at age 70?

I found out some time ago, that a "friend" who is quite close to me personally, made an election choice that I felt was a little strange.  This "friend" is a male, over 60, with a high school education, and had built a life working hard in a bureaucratic post with the state and city.  Of course this is the exact demographic that voted for our current administration.  I felt that this person's election choice was strange because, without regard to who is a Republican and who is a Democrat, ultimately your party affiliations do not matter for a presidential election once you are in the polling booth, you are voting for a person or personality.  Why a strange choice then?  Well the person elected has absolutely nothing in common (beyond being a male and over 60) with this "friend".  There is little in common between the two individuals beyond gender and age.

So I then asked this "friend", why did you vote the way you did?  The answer was just as curious.  The "friend" replied, "he wanted change".  I pressed further, "change what?", the answer: "everything".  This from an individual who does not like change.  Who is a creature of habit.  Who refuses to acknowledge that someone who is 20-something years old may have a contribution to make to a discussion, because someone that young brings in "different ideas and thinking".  I pointed all of this out, and was met with silence.  Being me, I had to push buttons.  I said, "you know...what if all of this change brings about catastrophe?  What if, we are faced with attacks on our way of life from outside that causes our system to break down, and WE are faced with something like martial law or worse?".  My "friends" response was chilling:  "I don't care, I am old already, I won't be around.".

Thursday, January 19, 2017

So thanks 2016, but good riddance...

I have decided to scale back greatly on my thoughts, especially personal ones on Facebook, because after all, I represent a temple...and must be somewhat careful in what I say on social media.  Having said that, part of being Buddhist, also means that you must be true to yourself.  If your own inner child is a kind of a*****e, well maybe you should keep your mouth shut in public and only open it amongst friends.  But by all means, please share with the people who care and love you whatever is on your mind.  If you can't do that, there is no point in engaging with people on any level.

So please  know that this blog is personal, does not reflect in any way or form the stance of the organization I am head of, and before some of you start saying that NO...WHAT YOU SAY DOES INFLUENCE AND AFFECT YOUR TEMPLE.  Let me be the first to tell you that people say whatever they feel like to me, very rarely take my advice, and otherwise ignore my musings as the ravings of a person disenchanted with the world.  In short, they didn't hear me before, they don't hear me now.  If you don't like what I have to say, or feel that I may write something that hurts your eyes, by all means don't read my blog.  Not hear to get a google or yelp review...I will leave that for the professionals.

With that, I wish all of you a very happy and healthy New Year!  For all of those people who I encountered who have said to me:  "Last year was the worst one ever for me!"  I will leave you, dear readers, with my standard reply:  "If you are reading this right now, you survived it wasn't the worse one for you by far."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Suchness of Hypocrisy

After almost 20 years of directing Shingon Shu Hawaii, you would think I have seen it all.  For the most part, I can tell you that I have seen some weird things, but probably have a lot more to experience given the many shades of gray your average person comes in.  I don't think 50 shades covers even a small amount of the grayness we can exhibit during our daily interactions.

One of the most interesting and perplexing to me is the particular shade a person is when they come to a sanctuary (church, temple, synagogue, mosque, hut, etc.).  One day I will probably get the nerve to sit down and write a book on the varied people that walk through the temple's threshold, full of religious fervor, superstition, fear, guilt, and a whole lot of hope.  The hope that whatever they did during the week will be forgiven by offering a few sticks of incense.  The hope that bringing flowers to a loved one's niche in our columbarium will erase years and years of possible guilt, and perhaps neglect in the twilight years of that loved ones life.  The hope that a minister will sit in front of you, dust you with powder, then do some incantations and hand motions, and that will relieve you of all the negative karma accumulated on your shoulders you inexorably collect just by living day to day.  I find it interesting, because for a brief moment, the person turns into a bright shining white.  Cleansed of all the crap they uttered or did just by inhabiting this gigantic dust ball we call our home.  But the grayness is there.  Just behind the next corner.  Just over the next hill you are driving over.  We fill ourselves with fear, doing things in a "proper" way because a priest told us it is so.  You must have services on these dates.  You must perform these obligations or your ancestors will be very angry.  You must have me perform these services or things will just not be right.  We do all that just to get rid of that horrible gray.  And yet...we love that gray.  We adore that gray.  We cling to it.  We revert to that gray, shunning the bright white light of good karma, because it hurts our eyes, as if we were actually like the vampires that exist in cheap teen novels.

Some of the biggest hypocrites are people who believe they "go to church".  Maybe sporadically.  They are not the ones that help with the cleaning, and endless chores that make it possible for a church or temple to run smoothly.  They donate...making sure it is tax deductible.  With that donation comes a belief that they have a say not only in how the temple or church is run, but in how other people within the congregation should live, dress, speak, or be intimate with.  They come to service, if there is something going wrong with a member of their family.  They are gray...dark gray.  Almost black.  Because is there anything worse, layperson or clergy, who wrap themselves in the righteousness or entitlement that they believe their religion owes them?  There isn't.  That is the suchness of their kind.  How do we handle this then?  By knowing that gray really goes with everything!  The right gray is just right with either black or white.  The right gray is classy, subdued, and tasteful.  The right gray is the ultimate color of the middle way.  Feel a degree.  Feel the right amount.  Be gray, in a cool way.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

When a keynote speaker..sort of...disses their host...

Jodo-E Service at Jodo Mission of Hawaii.  Reverend Narashiba of Jodo Mission of Hawaii was very kind to let myself and Rev. Quinn Hashimoto sit with the ministers during the service on this 8th of December, regarded as the day the Buddha attained enlightenment (at least to Western calendars) and my birthday! The service was a beautiful one, and included the main Japanese sects of Buddhism in Honolulu.  I say main because the Hawaii Buddhist Council is made up of what many consider to be the BIG SEVEN of Buddhism in Hawaii and sort of excludes other nationalities' Buddhist temples, and the newer schools of religion in Japan.  Our temple used to be the headquarters of the Shingon Sect, but since we are independent and do not have a recognized by the Hawaii Buddhist Council Bishop sitting at our temple we cannot be part of the organization.  Long story short, the attendance was large, but more importantly, the keynote speaker was impressive.  Dr. Shoho Machida of Hiroshima University, with a long list of credentials ranging from a Masters of Divinity from Harvard and a PhD from University of Pennsylvania, to teaching at the prestigious Tokyo University gave a lecture.  Dr. Machida's enviable curriculum vitae is like catnip to the religious aristocracy, who for the most part love to engage with people "of learning" as it gives weight to an otherwise intangible subject: religion and faith.

Unfortunately, with most people who have pursued a life in religious academia, much of what they have to say goes against the rules and dogma that so carefully guard the ecclesiastical world.  Always it seems that the more a person studies religion and its meaning and place in our world and society, the bigger question of "WHY?" grows to blimp like proportions.  Dr. Machida pointed out that for many the appearance of wisdom that one can convey simply through credentials, looking intelligent, or aged with all of the connotations of wisdom that entails, or worse, because of the robes that are worn as a mark of the individuals separation from the secular world, is a facade.  One can have all of the things mentioned, but without actually living, experiencing desire, having goals beyond the rote recitation of sutras, is a person really excavating to get to the Buddha nature within?  Without digging to get to that nature, that compassion and tolerance, are we really being faithful and religious?  Another interesting thought that was brought up:  a person who keeps mentioning God, Jesus, Allah, or Buddha is far more distant from those ideals of worship than one who keeps them in their heart.  If you know that they exist in your heart and live your life accordingly, you don't have to keep telling everyone how much you believe, nor do you need to qualify your belief by inserting their names in every pronouncement you make.  Obviously this lecture seemed weird in a temple that, like the majority of Buddhist temples, are adorned in gold and silk, with the servants of the Buddha likewise clothed...reciting repetitiously the name of the Buddha...and then falling asleep during the most informative part of the program...Dr. Machida.  I don't say that as an insult or jibe really, in fact I think these guys are just keeping it real for themselves.  And that is just okay!  Buddha wouldn't mind.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Is it possible to practice compassionate ways in the modern world?

Today's Honolulu Star Advertiser ran a blurb from PBS Hawaii which owns a parcel of vacant land near the Hawaii Convention Center. City crews are busy removing a giant homeless tent village occupying the site right across the street from a venue that will be in the global spotlight in a few days. As many of you know, in less than a week, APEC lands in Honolulu, along with world leaders that make a difference...I am of course referring to big name corporations who want to do business in various Asian countries (of course the leaders of those countries will be here as well), and Honolulu needs to be cleaned up to attract some attention from these guys as well.

Most economists are saying (as if anyone actually listens to them anymore) that APEC won't bring business to Hawaii and for the most part they are right, we aren't the most business friendly of states. But it doesn't mean we can't try right? Are we practicing compassion by worrying about the homeless in that vacant lot but not giving a portion of our earnings to fund a shelter for them(because in the end that is what it would take, the government doesn't really have a plan for them)? Is it compassionate to forget about the family working their butts off to pay their mortgage, send kids to school, and feed them properly? I say that because if you read the article, their spokeswoman says that it has nothing to do with APEC at all, and this was planned months ahead. Why not just call it like it is? If we don't make Honolulu look like a responsible place, why would anyone want to do business here? More business means more jobs...more tax revenues...a better life for EVERYBODY. Buddha taught us all compassion, but to practice it intelligently. Let us not overlook the silent masses who are not occupying Wall Street, or protesting in the streets, or rioting, but simply trying to get by. When a responsible organization tells their talking head to say disingenuous lines in order to make themselves look better it just demonstrates to us that people may be mistaking our compassionate stance as stupidity.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Panel on Buddhism in Western Culture

On the 20th of October, my temple hosted Vipassana Hawaii's annual panel of Buddhist scholars and thinkers, as part of their meditation seminar series they hold at various places in different countries. The attendance was a little shy this year as opposed to last, but a nice group nonetheless. The subject: Buddhism and its effects on Western Culture

One of the panelists was an ex-pat Brit who practices as a monk in Thailand. He gave an interesting talk about how Americans should, like everything else they get their hands on, "make Buddhism their own"...and there were analogies to spaghetti, and pizza, and other things that we not only adopted, but may have ADAPTED and sent back to their respective country of origin. The ex-pat monk also gave a great dialogue of life as a monk in Thailand, and how it is a mistake for everyone to put monks, and religious people on a pedestal, since almost EVERY male in Thailand at one point or another follows monastic disciplines for a bit. He went on to talk about all of these 20 year old men shaving their heads, putting on the signature saffron robes of the Thai Buddhist Monk, and the family bringing food to the monastery and praying and bowing before the same 20 year old son they ordered to take the garbage out the night before. Of more amusement was how soon after the rites were finished and the meals were enjoyed by all in attendance, the young man would be chided by his uncles or grandparents who said he didn't chant in the correct way! From being an object of devotion to just another member of the family. However I detected something in this dialogue about how Western culture perceives Buddhism, and it isn't positive.

I think as people living in the West, we all like to believe that there is innate equality amongst everyone. Whether this is true or not, is besides the point, it is a perception that we all love to cultivate. For this reason, many love to embrace the ideals of Buddhism which promote that kind of equanimity amongst brothers and sisters, but it isn't always the case. My 17 years of intimate dealings with Japanese schools of Buddhism proves that there is nothing so far from the rules of equality than the monastic order in Japan. For one, there is a dynastic system in Japan that requires priests to have sons that will eventually take over the temple, all of the property and cemetery rights the temple possesses. While it would be nice to say that parents are doing that in order to keep the religion alive, many sons are forced to assume minister's robes because no one in the family really wants to give up lucrative rights to owning cemeteries that only religious organizations (read: temples in Japan) have. When a single plot in metropolitan Tokyo can go far north of $50,000 USD, along with annual maintenance fees which a plot owner is required to fork over, you can imagine why the first born male had BETTER take over the temple. More often, you will find that the temple, if not already a recognized tourist location, or part of a pilgrimage route, owns a preschool or daycare center on a large parcel of land, much like their Western counterparts (oddly something that we gave them an idea for!). This imparts an immense annual revenue for the temples, and along with donations associated with memorial services (required in Buddhist rites), funerals, and blessings, places the minister of a large temple into a social strata akin to the aristocracy (this is not the case for all temples, especially smaller rural ones where most priests do their mission out of love and respect for their order, and usually have other jobs to make ends meet, but these temples and their associated ministers do not make up the administrative power for the larger sects). For the ex-pat Brit, I would assume that had he gone to Japan, which he probably did, the larger temple organizations would no sooner give him directions to the nearest train STATION then would let him train as a disciple.
The ex-pat monk did reveal that he was having difficulty with his visa in Thailand, and that he was not the head of his own monastery, but lived in one. There is a difference. Which is why I felt a little tinge of disappointment. How can anyone tell us to OWN and MAKE a religion into something comprehensible and relevant in America when the very advocates for change are shackled by ties to the East, an East that probably gives him trouble with a visa, and don't even think about getting your own monastery?

It is our own fault as Westerners that we refuse to actually make changes in the way Buddhism is practiced. For one thing, there are many, many people dissatisfied with the way Buddhism is "transmitted" from teacher to disciple, and exactly what this "transmission" actually means. You can't blame any one for feeling uncomfortable, because there are no real parameters involved in having someone "receiving" the teachings. In my own form of Buddhism, Shingon, there are many proponents who say you can't learn anything from reading about Shingon it must be orally transmitted. You can't know what the qualifications of any minister is because the transmission they receive is secret. You must trust in the lineage of the minister. That would be like going to school and trusting that the teacher you are learning a subject from is qualified to teach you this subject without a degree from an impartial institution, but the person who taught the same class previously and before retiring "transmitted" what he/she knew to the next teacher. Some people would mark what I say as being anti-Shingon, because Kobo Daishi stated that he can't teach the rituals and secrets to people by writing, he must communicate face to face. However, I am an American and realize that Kobo Daishi was in fact a product of his time. In Heian Japan, there was no religious freedom, and monks were given decrees by which to open monasteries and carry out ordinations by the government, which carefully rationed the number of monks ordained per year. Moreover, privileges were given to "favored" religions, so there was constant vying for political attention. I cannot see Kobo Daishi readily giving his rivals (and he didn't) tips on how to become the "popular" religion in the court. Why a prolific writer who wrote magnum opuses on sutras and their importance would relegate his teachings to oral communication only is a mystery, no matter what anyone pulls out to be deemed as ecclesiastical fact. The point is, Kobo Daishi had to commit Shingon to paper to make his argument to the Emperor.
As a westerner, and especially as a Caucasian, do not assume that everyone in Japan is just so warm and fuzzy about you because you are "gaijin". In Shingon especially, I have encountered many scholars who have practiced some disciplines up in famous monasteries in Japan...but please note that I say "scholars"...for the most part, students, academics, and scholars are welcome for training. If you come from a good western school, better yet, the welcome will be greater. On the other hand, if you are a wandering backpacker, don't expect the shoji doors to be slid quickly to the side and zabuton placed next to the resident minister's seat at the altar. It does actually happen, sometimes. But you will usually find that the temple that does that is considered "rogue", and on the fringe of the administrative power of the headquarters of that sect. So much for treating all humanity as equal, and spreading the word of Buddhism to everyone for their eternal happiness.
AND YET, despite all that, even Americans are wrapped up in the "lineage" of someone. Yes lineage is important. It represents a continuation of a teaching, not necessarily Buddha's teaching, but A teaching that is recognized as a viable source from which to make reference on your journey as a Buddhist on this earth. But how can we OWN a religion, when we all just want to be tenants? Are we incapable of making interpretations of writings on our own? Even Buddha said, "don't believe what I say...DO, and see what happens".

My point? I have participated in a lot of these panel discussions, usually with academics who have strong degrees to back up their arguments...but have no argument to back up. We all like to complain about the old Japanese (Thai, Cambodian, Chinese, insert your favorite Asian country here) minister who visited and made a fuss, and was picky, and etc., but in the end we still look for validation. We still have all of these great symposiums about Buddhism and its effect on Western Culture, what about Western Culture and its effect on Buddhism?

Friday, April 9, 2010

For my many readers...

Which, including myself numbers two at the moment, thank you two for your kindness! I find myself at a crossroads. Today was Hanamatsuri, and therefore a day of great celebration for Buddhists, not all mind you because we do not all follow the same calendar, but for a good amount of Buddhists nonetheless. Our minister who is from Japan, and supposedly trained in Japan (he is the second son of a temple family, which in Japan means...absolutely nothing) and is therefore considered to be a minister from the day he leaves the womb, did nothing to mark the day besides adding in one chant to our Sunday services on the 4th. I said nothing, because I am primarily the administrative director of the mission, and its president. From my start 15 years ago at Shingon Shu Hawaii I made it very clear that I would not interfere with the practices and methods of any minister assigned to be the resident at our temple. I am fully aware that in all respects this minister is an employee of the Shingon Shu Hawaii and according to its by-laws serving at the pleasure of its board of directors. I have been told on many occasions to get rid of him. Inside I feel that this may not be the best thing to do. Why? For one, is it being Buddhist to give up on someone like that? Of course it may be ridiculous of me to continue thinking that this person will come around and understand that life in Hawaii is very different from Japan. The hierarchy of the ministry there, as well as the position of the Buddhist priest in the community is very different than what it is in Hawaii. For the most part I would hazard a guess that the position attracts far more respect here in the islands than it would in Japan. In Japan if you are merely the son of a minister at the temple, and you are following in your father's footsteps, than your contributions to society at large is small at best. A scholar may be regarded differently, but I know many people who feel that the ministry in Japan is inhabited by those unable to function or operate in the "real world". Now that I am witness to this person's seeming lack of ambition, and careless attitude towards the recognized holy days of our religion, I am not surprised at all that people of my generation and younger have little to do with their neighborhood temple or shrine, which is very sad indeed.
I welcome any thoughts, my dear two readers, and if in fact others are reading this blog as well, as to what the Buddhist thing would be to do...I ask that because I know that sooner or later, I will have to do what an administrator needs to do, personal philosophy notwithstanding.