Over President’s Day weekend, I attended the family retreat in San Luis Obispo hosted by West Covina for the first time. It is a charming little getaway in the quiet hills, and we awoke to the sound of the temple bell.
Reverend Ken Yamada was the guest speaker and he covered the meaning of Namu Amida Butsu and non-dualism. I’m a forgetful person so it’s helpful to be reminded that it means “I take refuge in Amida Buddha,” the infinite wisdom that awakens the mind, the Light. Someone from West Covina suggested to think of a glass of water on our heads that dumps out when we bow our heads—that represents our ignorance pouring out and the glass becomes empty to receive the teachings. This imagery helps me mentally link the feeling have when I gassho and bow—it feels like surrender.
Rev. Ken lectured that Buddhism is a teaching about non-dualism, which is another way to think of oneness. There is no being and non-being, no birth and death. He reminded us that in everyday life, we often judge our lives with duality: good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, success vs. failure. He said we live in a bubble limited by our ignorance and bombu nature, which is not the whole Truth of the universe—which is oneness, interconnectedness, nirvana.
I can relate to non-dualism in my everyday life, and it reminds me to be open-minded and withhold judgment. My experience with queer people and allies is that we often have to explain that the world is not so binary. (FYI the label “queer” has been largely reclaimed as a term of empowerment by groups such as Queer Nation during the early 1990s). A lot of people’s bubbles have categories of female vs. male, woman vs. man, straight vs. gay, etc. Those are socially constructed identity boxes for sex, gender and sexual orientation that are not representative of everyone’s experiences. I think the truth is that sex, gender and sexuality are all fluid and a spectrum, and the possibilities are endless. I know and love many people who consider themselves gender non-binary, transgender and queer (there are more terms not mentioned here), and chances are you know them too whether you realize it or not. You know me, right? I’m a little queer and sometimes gender-expression non-conforming. Confused? The only boxes are in our heads.
Buddhist non-dualistic thinking can help us better understand non-binary identities, and with our growing understanding we can offer compassion to the best of our bombu abilities.
May we aspire to deeply sense Amida Buddha’s “great compassion”—that we are all in this together.
SHIN BUDDHISM AND FACING HUMILITY
In the July 2019 edition of Bombu Bombu, Reverend Osa said her dharma talks are like a confession. She encouraged her readers to share their stories and confessions about discovering Buddhist teachings in their lives. This inspired me to write about my experience with Buddhism.
As a youngster born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i in the 1950s, I accompanied my parents and grandparents to religious events like weddings and funerals at the various local Honpa Honganji temples. I distinctly remember my elders and the priest saying the Nembutsu. While aware that I was in a Buddhist place of worship, my understanding of it was nil. I don’t know how much the elders knew about Buddhism and what the Nembutsu meant. No one in the family talked about the religion or its particular practices.
My life took the conventional route of education, marriage, and career. In 2016, illnesses changed my life in ways I had thought unimaginable. A two-year stretch began with a cancer diagnosis and over a year of treatment, followed by a near fatal bout with a cancer-related illness in 2018. The latter illness landed me in the hospital for 60 days – one week in an induced coma with intubation, two more weeks in an intensive care unit, and five more in intermediate care. I returned home with permanently damaged lungs. I was in less than poor physical condition. I relied on supplemental oxygen 24/7 and looked forward to three months of visiting caregivers and physical therapists. I was forced into retirement, shutting down a career as a self-employed private investigator. Talk about impermanence!
The realization of impermanence was humbling. I was humbled by basic activities that I could no longer do alone like sitting, standing, walking, and basic cleanliness without an oxygen tank nearby and the compassionate help from nurses, physicians and their assistants, physical and occupational therapists, and hospital spiritual advisers. An attempt to describe the love, daily support and attention from my wife, my sister and brother, and other family and friends would be futile. They watched me sink into a state of demise. My doctors, and they were many, were vague about the extent and duration of recovery, which could last, they said, months, even years. I learned later that they did not expect me to leave the hospital.
I disliked being humbled because it meant a new life. I confused humility with humiliation because a life of accomplishments, self-definition, and independence had gone and been replaced by a life of their opposites. I felt naked and vulnerable because of my dependency on others and inability to control my future.
But in this confusion, I kept flashing on a translation from Sanskrit I had come across in a cancer support publication in 2017 that read: “Suffering is holding on to something that has already changed.” I didn’t know what to make of this, but during those months before I nearly crossed the “Rainbow Bridge,” I occasionally recited the advice to myself again and again.
I now thought of this Sanskrit advice while in the depths of humility. My response was to do the opposite. Mired in negativity and a sense of physical decline, utterly humbled, I thought it best to respond to the Sanskrit adage by doing something I considered to be “positive” and use this new life to “grow” both mentally and intellectually. I launched into reading history, philosophy and politics, my favorite topics, and classical Russian and American literature, which I had read at a minimum in high school.
Though jazzed at first about “growing”, I couldn’t shake the constancy of humility. It was not going away. As I grew tired of reading, I asked myself questions like, “For what, who was I doing this for, am I trying to impress someone, what’s the point in being cultivated and learned?” Trying to get me to go easy on myself, my wife reminded me that “growing” was a “natural human” response.
Humility and the Sanskrit adage dogged me. It was clear that humility and “something that has already changed” were inextricably tied, so I decided to look into Buddhism, considering it a mere inquiry at the time. Early in 2019, I enrolled in an introductory class on Buddhism taught by Rev. Ken Yamada of Higashi Honganji Temple at a local adult education campus. I managed to attend only three sessions because illness struck again, hospitalizing me for two stays.
I learned that Buddhism is about suffering and how to address it. One source stated that Buddhism is about humility and nothing more. I also learned that the cessation of suffering is found in suffering itself. How profound it was to consider that humility was the source of its own resolution!
When I regained some strength, I began attending a weekly Shin Buddhist study session led by Dr. Nobuo Haneda of the Maida Center of Buddhism. I learned that humility was critical to self-understanding and that ultimately, we aspire to shed our ego. I also learned that humans, without really knowing it, long to discover their True Self, a self that is not based on ego and selfishness.
I connected with these basic tenets and realized that humility remained constant because it lay at the foundation of human existence and life. The notion of a True Self, then, reflected the wisdom that comes from humility. I sometimes feel that it’s a privilege to have been humbled by impermanence in this life.
Studying Shin Buddhism has become an intellectual and spiritual pursuit. Now, there is no reason for reading and studying. It is just happening.
There is one crucial lesson in my experience, and that is, I could not have done it alone. I could not have questioned and negated my dislike of humbleness without the teachings of Shin Buddhism. I am grateful for this.
A Buddha In My Junior High School
Mika continued to study Shodo but she also continued to seek out other art forms and crafts. She was, I think, not seeking the art form as much as she was searching to find herself in some form of artistic endeavor. “Who am I?” she was asking. “How will I find myself?”
It was in this search that she had a rare opportunity to observe a famous pottery maker. He was from Japan where he often made pottery for the emperor of Japan. Indeed, he was a very good and well known ceramicist.
Mika, along with everyone else who was watching this man, was mesmerized by his skill with the clay on the wheel. As the wheel spun around, he shaped the clay up and down and made it wider and then narrow. It was so smooth and graceful. The man quickly and easily made a dozen pieces from tea cups to plates to large bowls.
After he shaped the pieces, he removed them from the wheel and placed them to the side. After they sat for a while, he turned them upside down and returned them to the wheel so that he could shape a small lip… or a foot… on the bottom of each piece. He very carefully made each foot smooth and level so the pot could stand safely. And then he did something that Mika could not understand. Very carefully, he took a small knife and cut a little “V” shaped chip out of the foot of each piece.
It seemed like everyone saw him make these small chips but nobody said anything. Everyone was in awe of this master craftsman and nobody wanted to question him. Since he was the chosen potter of the emperor, whatever he does must be perfect. Isn’t that obvious?
But Mika, spoke up. “Grand Master, why do you cut a small chip out of every bottom lip?”
The master replied, “I am so glad you asked!” You see, I work very hard and very carefully and I try to make every piece as perfectly as I possibly can. But I know that I am human and nothing I do is really perfect. I give my very best pieces to the emperor and I leave them as close to perfection as possible. But I know that even though I try my best, my pieces are never truly perfect and so, in all my other pieces, I cut a small chip out of each one to remind myself that they are not perfect and I must continue to do my best to achieve excellence.
Mika never tried to make pottery herself but she always felt that she had learned a great lesson from this potter. “Even though I am not a potter, I can always strive to be excellent at whatever I do. And I do not have to be ashamed because I cannot make beautiful pottery. I can do other things and become a master if I always try my best. It is not my goal to make perfect pottery but it will be my goal to be a master of whatever I do even though I know I can never do it perfectly."
A Buddha In My Junior High School
For about a year now, Mika had been keeping a journal. Not a diary… she didn’t write about boy-friends or bad grades or the teacher with the voice that sounded like chalk on a blackboard… she just wrote a page of notes every week that described what seemed to be going on in the world around her. And she enjoyed going back a few pages every once in a while to read about what was happening a month or so ago.
When she was scanning the old pages, she noticed that she often wrote about her favorite “momiji”… the maple tree her dad planted in the front yard. In the winter, the branches were almost completely bare. It almost looked dead. But a few weeks later, she saw some tiny buds beginning to grow. And shortly after that, there were these tiny little green leaves. Mika thought they were cute. She thought, “They are just like puppies or kittens…little babies.”
By springtime, the leaves were bright yellow and green. In the morning sun, they virtually lit up like Christmas tree lights. And as the weather got warmer and warmer, they developed reddish colors around the edges. Mika thought “Mother Nature is really an artist.”
But then, the reds began to cover the entire leaves and they changed from red to brown and they began to look very dry. Soon after, the first leaves began to fall to the ground and Mika was saddened to realize that the leaves were dying. She closed her journal and set it down. She felt like her puppies…her kittens…her leaves were dying and she almost cried.
It took a few days before Mika had the strength to open her journal again. She was going to write her next weekly entry but she decided to review a few old pages before she started writing. She was reminded that the tree had been dormant, looking almost dead, but then it started to grow new leaves. The thought of the new leaves cheered her. On another page, she noted that her grandfather was bright and alert but living in a retirement home because he was getting old and needed assistance. And she found a page that focused on her new baby nephew who was celebrating his very first birthday. She put the journal down again and began to think. And then she looked into the mirror and thought some more.
The idea of oneness is central to the Buddhist practice. What is Oneness? Harmony among all people is Oneness. Equality regardless of race, sex, or where you’re from is Oneness. Compassion for those in need is Oneness. Buddhist Oneness goes beyond these ideals. Buddhist Oneness is the truth of life. What is Oneness? "Do you see a cloud in this paper? You must see the cloud in the paper because without a cloud there is no rain, and without rain, there are no trees, and without trees, there is no paper. Do you see a steel mill in this paper? You must see a steel mill in this paper because without a steel mill there will be no steel. Without steel there would be no ax or saw, no ax or saw to cut the tree! No tree, no paper. Do you see Oatmeal in this paper because if you don’t see Oatmeal or a good breakfast in this paper, for the loggers, the people that cut the trees, without a good breakfast, the loggers would not have the energy to cut the trees. No trees, no paper!" First, nothing is alive free of outside environment. Second, no single part is more important than another.
The oral history of the birth of Buddha says that he took seven steps and cried "Above the heavens and below the heavens I alone am most noble." This is the "birth cry of the Buddha." He is not saying he is better than anyone; rather he is recognizing that all people are unique, that we are all noble by birth. This individual uniqueness is Oneness.
With this thought, I want to share these Notes and Quotes from my friend’s art room:
Think… imagine… create… The most we can do is our best. Take advantage of the unexpected. Think about things.
Observe the world around you, because observation is at the heart of your work. Celebrate mistakes. Be kind. Be respectful. Share your work to help teach others. Copying is OK. Be inspired by music. Draw and write what you think, feel, observe, learn and discover. Try new things… and try your best. It's OK to fail; you can always try again. Think big, think bigger… Imagine your art will change the world. Find your own pace, take risks, be receptive to new ideas.
It's special to be you.
Reference: Buddhist Temple of Chicago Bulletin, May 2018, The Nature of Oneness by Bill Bohlman.
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