Why Asia?

We are Glenn and Carol Webb. We are retired academics, now living in Palm Desert, CA, in the place shown just above our picture. We have spent most of our lives studying Asia, with Kyoto, Japan as our port of call. This blog consists primarily of essays, written by me, Glenn Taylor Webb, with the input of my wife, Carol St. John Webb. I began writing most of these essays just before we retired. Some have been published, some not. Most were first presented as lectures.

Our lives were changed by what what we experienced living in two cultures. The different ways of thinking about almost everything in Japan (and Asia in general) made us examine some of our fundamental views of life. As a history professor I had to keep a certain distance between historical events and their effects. But at this stage in my life (I'm 75) I feel like sharing with friends the impact that Japan today has had on my family as well as myself. I'm still writing things down. So take a look and let me know what you think.


Monday, July 3, 2017



Many friends tell me to my face or in print that healthcare is not a right for Americans. I say it is a right for every human being. My friends don't agree.  Many of them are against any kind of government healthcare program.  They defend their position by claiming that people in this country of the brave and free have the responsibility to work hard and take care of the cost of their own healthcare.  That side of the argument says that many poor sick people in America are just lazy and take advantage of social programs already in place.  That seems to go against everything I know about human nature, history, economic conditions, medical science, and plain old luck.  

I'm not ready to let people die on the street, as they used to in many parts of the world, if they were weak and penniless.  I have to believe that the first humans living in caves instinctively believed that animals should be killed, usually with a rock, and eaten.  Pretty soon they treated strangers as enemies and decided they should also be hit in the head with a rock. The biggest rock killed the most people, winning the day.  Later they discovered how to make weapons out of rock, chiseling sharp blades and arrow heads. The best man wins must have been the lesson of thousands of years of human history. Many Americans still think so. Donald Trump is surely a case in point.

But he is by no means alone.  American parents, especially fathers, urge their sons to stand up for themselves.  Get in there and fight, they say.  Don't be a sissy.  My own case is so unlike that.  It was no secret that I was a fat little sissy, a spoiled (I say much-loved) only child who played the piano and hated violence of any kind, even in sports.  My parents protected me from any bullying I encountered by confronting the bullies (and sometimes their parents) with truly frightening consequences if they didn't leave me alone.  So in a way the urge to strike out at strangers was alive and well in my parents. Looking back on it, such primitive instincts were in me, too.  I think I never doubted my superiority to my tormentors, and secretly dreamed of killing all of them in the most gruesome ways the human mind has ever concocted.

Dreaming of how to kill others is nevertheless not the same thing as doing it.  Tripping lightly over history from caves to castles, I can see how advanced weapons and a monetary system soon took the place of rocks, in the hands of people who feared outsiders and used tribal loyalties and religions to maintain their own superiority over others.  The dance of the wealthy over the poor became the only dance in town, all over the world.  Music for the dance was heard in small groups and large groups alike.  Each municipality placed masters over servants, in a pattern that was repeated everywhere in counties, provinces, and nation states. Masters became masters through wealth and power that rendered servants helpless to resist.  Wars often rearranged the master/servant configurations, with kings suddenly reduced to slaves, and vice versa.

Not until modern times did people question the old law, that the strong should win.  The ancient Greeks had a great notion about justice and how it might be achieved in society, but even they had slaves. The idea was reborn in what we call the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but it took the toppling of lots of emperors and kings before the 18th-19th- century revolutions in the name of liberty were successful. Our own Thomas Jefferson put it best in his 1776 declaration that begins, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..." The hope in that statement was clouded, even at that time, and we've been trying to remove those clouds ever since. 

We've pretty much done away with the rule of dictators, but not entirely.  The most outstanding are in Africa.  Some that remain are presidents of republics. The Russian Federation is listed as a "federal semi-presidential republic," according to Wikipedia, which I think means Putin is largely in charge of everything.  The Russians we met in Moscow and St. Petersburg seem to adore him and blame all the problems they encountered after the fall of communism on democracy.  Of course, such modern imperial governments as England, Sweden and Japan have beloved royal families that have very limited power and, in any case, generally follow the dictates of the voting public. Representative government is the enlightened approach to keeping people free in today's world.

Communism, the Great Notion of the 20th century, failed because it took away peoples' freedoms in order to make them equal. Marx and Lenin would frown at the few communist governments still operating today, because they are shot through with liberal features of democracy.  The flag of democracy is flying high today, with each nation putting customs, religious laws, natural resources, and old grievances together in its national identity.  Some people want free markets to govern us all, but that is too close to the dog-eat-dog paradigm of human history to satisfy me. 

The level playing field is a feature of democracy.  Everyone in any society starts with a chance to develop interests and talents that can contribute to the fullest development of society.  Good health and healthcare is part of that chance in modern society.  From natal care to death, each person deserves -- has the right -- to be in the best physical and mental health to participate in nation-building.  If I am born with a medical problem, or develop a chronic ailment like cancer, I deserve to have that problem treated by the best physicians in the country.  If I am in an accident, my recovery should be tracked by medical experts.  My psychological welfare, likewise, is to be looked at by professionals in the field. But if my country has no healthcare system in place, I may die if my medical costs are more than I can afford.

No other advanced industrial country in the world allows its citizens to be as endangered as Americans are right now. Most of them have some form of single-payer insurance.  My wife and I are lucky.  We are retired, and receive Social Security that we paid into for sixty years.  We also can afford to have additional health insurance (AARP-United Health Care) for drugs and treatment that Social Security doesn't cover. But our son and many of our friends are not so lucky.  My mother taught school all her life, but was senile for the last seven years of her life, and died in a rest home.  Her Medicare ran out and Medicaid finally ran out, as well. 

Luck is fickle.  That's its nature.  We have some exceedingly wealthy acquaintances.  As it happens, some of them inherited the wealth that they live on today, or that they used to build the wealth they have today.  A few of them hitched their wagons to a star that took them into the outer space of our 1%.  Surprisingly, most admit they don't pay enough taxes to support the health needs of our country.  We also know some moderate-to-very-poor people.  Hard-working people.  Proud people.  To think that these two groups -- the very rich and very poor -- have an equal chance in America's future is ridiculous. Making all Americans responsible for their health care is blind to all the things that keep them from beginning life on a level playing field.  It puts the poor and unlucky in a hole they can't dig out of for several lifetimes. Republicans and Democrats have the responsibility to heal this problem now, by creating universal healthcare for all Americans. I'm no economist, but I know some form of universal, government controlled healthcare, comparable to plans in other highly developed countries, is  
not only possible, but morally imperative.

As a teacher, I also hope all Americans will someday have access to a good education.  Tests after tests show that our public and private schools do not provide it. There are many reasons for that.  But poverty, above all, breeds ignorance. Prejudice does, too.  I almost vomit when people say, about a group of people they have categorized by race, sex or culture, "Well, you know, that's just the way they are."  I realize that up until retirement, except for a few intervals, I was stimulated (and insulated) by very well-educated people all around me.  As the author of the play "Pugwash" said recently about Cyrus Eaton, the financier who brought Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell together in Nova Scotia to discuss nuclear energy, "He believed that thinking was equally as important as making money."  So do I.  University life is not normal. It offers infinite opportunities to examine everything on earth.  Nobody punches anybody out over anything.  Conversations can be animated, but rarely threatening. 

I have also been taught to empathize with others as a moral duty.  My Christian childhood, lifelong study of religions, and years of practice in Japanese Zen temples have all worked together to convince me that I am my brother's (and sister's) keeper, and to love everyone, knowing that I am, in some profound way, everyone. We are all related, even identical. And yet I confess now that when I am out in public rather than behind the speaker's podium, I don't easily relate to most of the people around me. We often don't speak the same language, share the same views of the world, or even listen to the same music. (And, my deepest confession, I've never been able to share the world's infatuation with balls:  football, basketball, baseball, golf, etc.) Regardless of how hard I attempt today to put myself in other people's shoes, I often come away with a sense of failure, even when love remains.              

- At home in Palm Desert, CA, July 2, 2017.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017



For many years I recited the Hanya Shin Gyo, the so-called Heart Sutra, in Japanese, as I was expected to do in the Zen temples in Japan, where I was training, while doing doctoral research at Kyoto University.  I frequently complained to my Zen teachers that I wanted to be able to put this sacred text into my own language.  They always told me to go ahead and do it.  So I tried.  At the UChicago and the UWashington I sought the help of Sanskrit scholars.  We agreed that   every one of our explanations of the text's meaning seemed insufficient. It would remain the enigma it is today (even after I later came to my own feeble interpretation.)

Subsequently, I toyed unsuccessfully with the rhythm of the Sanskrit text, trying to put it into the same cadence that the scripture is chanted in throughout Asia. I assumed then as now that the Heart was chanted in Sanskrit and Pali in all Mahayana Buddhist temples at one time. But I never came up with an exact rhythmic match between the Sanskrit and other Asian languages. However, I found the exact same number of syllables in the Heart Sutra chant in Japan, Korea, China, and Tibet. I wondered how that came about.

Koreans and Japanese took their written languages from China, so naturally their version of the Heart Sutra is the same in cadence. Their transcription of the Heart Sutra is written character-for-character in Chinese.  Only their pronunciation of each character is different, while the number of syllables in their recitations of the Heart is the same.  But Tibet surprised me. Its language is totally different, but the monks seem to have used the 7th-century Chinese version of the Heart Sutra and adjusted each character's sound to Tibetan pronunciation, just as the Chinese and Japanese did.  

This was proved to me by personal experience.  On my first trip to Lhasa I followed the voice of a child monk who was chanting by himself in one of the rooms of the Johkang.  At first I just watched him secretly.  He had his eyes closed. Softly I joined my voice to his chant, using the Japanese sounds of "Hanya Shin Gyo" that I knew so well.  His sounds were Tibetan, mine were Japanese, but the number of syllables and the rhythm were the same.  Towards the end, at the "Gyate, gyate..." section, he opened his eyes and looked directly at me. We finished the chant together, at the same time, and smiled at each other. He was about twelve, I reckon, and I could communicate with him only by writing notes in Chinese, the language the government required all Tibetan children to learn, rather than their own. 

On page 11 of a 1985 edition of a sutra book I first compiled in 1970 for Zen students in the Seattle Zen Center (which later became the Temple of the Virtuous Rock, Tokugan-ji), the Heart Sutra appears in Romanized Japanese pronunciation. Students recited that version of the Heart every time they participated in any of the Center's activities. On the next page of the sutra book they could read my short explanation of the Heart Sutra's background and a tentative English translation of the text itself. This is what I wrote:

The Heart Sutra is a verbal description of the enlightened state of consciousness.  It was given by the Great Bodhisattva of Mercy, Avalokiteshvara [C. Guanyin, J. Kannon, etc.], who literally is the Regarder of the Cries of the Universe, whose mercy and compassion is inexhaustible.  His (or if you prefer, her) description of enlightenment comes at the end of the scripture on Perfect Transcendental Wisdom, the Prajna Paramita-sutra, while the historical Buddha Shakymuni, surrounded by his disciples, sat in deep meditation on Vulture Peak near Rajgir, in northern India. While watching the seated Buddha, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara experienced his most profound understanding of transcendental wisdom.  Shariputra, the most intelligent disciple, witnessing his two teachers reach such depths of wordless understanding, begins the Heart Sutra by asking the unanswerable question that the disciples asked constantly about the nature of full perception: "What is it like to achieve such transcendent wisdom?"  The verbal exchange between Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra, beginning with the latter's urgent question and followed by the Bodhisattva's answer, has been regarded, even by the Lord Shakyamuni himself, as the best possible example of a student and teacher exchange. It goes like this, in the body of the scripture itself:

Shariputra:  "Lord Avalokiteshvara, how can students achieve such enlightenment?"

Avalokiteshvara:  "Shariputra, all students must see the natural thusness or emptiness of all phenomena.  Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not apart from form, form is not apart from emptiness.  Feeling, perceiving, even consciousness itself, is empty.  All conditions of being [dharmas] are empty of self and have no characteristics.  The Buddha-Mind is unborn and undying; it is not impure or pure, it neither grows nor shrinks.  Thus there is no form, no feeling, no sight, no thought; no eye, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no sensation, no ideas; nor is there any such thing as hearing well or poorly, or of being wise or stupid; there is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no ending of suffering, or way to end suffering; there is no wisdom, attainment, or nonattainment.  Buddhas and Boddhisattvas awaken through transcendental wisdom.  Gone! Gone! Here, Fully Awake!  This, Oh Sariputra, is how we should live."

What I did not say at the time, when dealing with students' complaints that they didn't find the words "empty" and "emptiness" or even "selflessness" very satisfying, is what I really believe.  And that is, that part of me really misses form and self when I think they are gone.  To feel better, I find myself reassuring myself that any self or form by itself, even mine, will feel better if it agrees to accept all selves and forms as my own. I'll try to continue this Blessed Assurance as long as I live. I like to think of it as the thusness of things, or as the modern Japanese phrase "sono-mama" puts it so sweetly, Just As I Am.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Pentecost, Nembutsu & Zen

There's an old hymn, "The Holy Spirit," that some Christian Protestants sing on Pentecost Sunday. That day this year, in 2017, was just a little earlier this month, on June 3rd.  My wife and I were in the audience that morning at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, CA. The hymn is not great music, but it has some powerful lyrics.  For example: "[The Holy Spirit will remain with us] ... till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes ... and far surpasses the power of human telling." Old-fashioned English.  But it's message is about true transcendence of death, and way beyond that.    

The word "Pentecost" is derived from the Greek word for "fifty".  As a kid growing up in a Christian family, I understood that the first Pentecost Sunday marked the very moment, some two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, fifty days after Easter (i.e., after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus), that Christianity as a religion was born.  Pentecost is all about the Holy Spirit showing itself as "flames of fire" and "roaring wind" to Jesus' mother and brothers, his twelve apostles, and to a motley crew of about a hundred Jews and non-Jews. The New Testament says this frightening form of the Holy Spirit actually sat on the heads of this group of first Christians around 9 o'clock that morning, and made them seem like they were crazy drunk.  (It apparently created more chaos than Trump's first fifty days.)

In any case, the old "Holy Spirit" hymn is about the Holy Spirit that is still alive today. Christians who sing it believe that despite how illogical any description of the Holy Spirit may be, its power will benefit them even after death. They feel sure they will be transformed after they die into something better than they were when they were alive. Now, I don't know about you, but this sounds similar to the recitation of Amida's name in Pure Land Buddhism.  Jodo Shu Nembutsu seems to work in ways similar to the Christian Holy Spirit. I believe they both promise a true transcendence of death. 

At St. Margaret's on Pentecost, earlier this month, the hymn was sung at the close of the service.  Before that, scriptures were read and other hymns were sung, the celebration of Christ's body and blood was shared, and the Rector offered a short sermon about how the Holy Spirit works.  He said something to the effect that "the Holy Spirit can only blow into us if we open the window of our hearts."  That sounded good.  Everyone agreed.  But then he said, "However, another window has to be open in order for the roaring wind to blow out of us."  You could almost hear the audience muttering, "What the hell is he talking about?" He went on to explain that people at Pentecost became caretakers of the miraculous power that Jesus gave to human beings.  We have been in charge of how we live our lives ever since. We have the power to do good things with that power. The spirit of Christ will enter us if we let it.  But we have to let it go to others if we expect it to be of any use at all.  Letting it out helps us truly respect our families and others as the precious beings they are. We then see clearly that we are them.

I was born in 1935, one year before Rev. Reikai Nozaki started the Jodo Shu  ministry in America. My life took a direction that most Americans did not take.  It wasn't planned, but I turned out to be a specialist in East Asian cultural history.  Japan, especially, has been a great teacher for the Webb family.  The Christian narrative of our childhoods, with its long history of great music and art, is still very much part of who we are. But my study in college of the art and religions of the world, and especially my study of Japanese history and art, brought Buddhism very close and made it personal.  

My three major professors at Kyoto University insisted that I train in Zen temples while continuing my studies.  (Ironically, those great teachers all came from Pure Land backgrounds.)  The practice of zazen for fifty years has opened my window to a slightly different window.  But it, too, has an adjoining window to the world. Rev. Atone and Rev. Tanaka have helped me keep that window open. There's still plenty of wind blowing through my windows before that final transcendent death. Let's make sure all of us have our windows open, and show our children the value of keeping theirs open, too.

(Transcript of lecture prepared for the 80th Anniversary Celebration of the Jodo Shu Ministry in North America, Los Angeles, CA, in June 2017.) 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Will of God and the Peace of Christ

The Will of God and the Peace of Christ

From my vantage point at age 80 it seems I have spent every waking moment of my life trying to (in the words of the Oxford Dictionary) “analyze [the Laws of God] into workable parts and describe their syntactic roles.”  “Parse” is the word usually linked to that definition (rather than “God”) and it usually is limited to looking carefully at a sentence or a text (often but not always a religious text.) I know I am not the only person in history who has been so obsessed, and I also know that most people find such an obsession strange. 

Very early in my life I became so confused by the contradictions and anomalies of Biblical texts that I was ready to kill myself.  It is then that I started parsing, or if you will, finessing the Will of God.  I knew very well the warning that Paul gave the Colossians, namely, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy … according to the elemental spirits of the universe … [rather than the teachings of] Christ”  (Col. II, 2:10-12.)  In other words, human reason, including the latest findings of scientific exploration, does not help anyone (or at least any Christian) know God. 

To the point, I wanted to know what happens after we die.  I learned that every monotheistic form of religion (i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam) said we would spend eternity in heaven or hell after death.  But to this day I do not know if that is true, or even if heaven and hell exist.  Nor do I know anyone who does.  And yet all wars and acts of terrorism, in the past and now, are fought over that unanswered question.  Who is right?  Who is to say if it matters? I adore religions for their narratives, which teach us about the human condition.  I also love the gigantic body of music and art that has come out of the Christian Church for over 2000 years.  

If I ever see him I will be the first person to tell the Apostle Paul that I have not heeded his warning. For sixty-three years I have been thoroughly captivated by Buddhist teachings regarding intensive meditation, leading to a perception of myself as not separated by anything on earth (or in heaven, for that matter.)  However, I cannot say that the Hindu/Buddhist notion of reincarnation is true, either.  I can say, as a Zen priest (and on a good day, when I’m not ranting at people for not going my way), that with my last breath I will extol the Peace of Christ. 

For this reason, I am sympathetic to the Democratic nominee for Vice President, Tim Kaine, who has also parsed his childhood Catholic faith.  He clearly is a man of very good will. He is a Roman Catholic educated by Jesuits.  Sen. Kaine can waffle on the Church’s teachings on adultery, abortion and homosexuality because he also favors following laws that promote human rights. At the same time he uses his faith to fight against killing and racism.  He seems to have been born with a heart that wants justice and liberty for all. He has fought and won cases against corruption wherever he sees it.  He will not fight Dear Bernie’s revolution, but that, I believe is a good thing.  Even the word “revolution” would put Mr. Trump in the Whitehouse for sure.

Thursday, December 22, 2016



Saturday, December 16, 2016.  Today Carol and I decorated the tree that Reg and I assembled while he was here for Thanksgiving.  It’s in three parts.  Each section needs to be “released” from its tightly bundled form that it took last year when the tree was put away in a box in the garage.  It is artificial, a Chinese masterpiece of imitation, and perfect for the desert. 

Today it was time, time to decorate the Christmas tree.  Such an old custom from my childhood.  Is it really so many years since I decorated my first?  I’m 81 now.  The tree back then was a spindly thing that came from far away, only to end up in a grocery store in Oklahoma.  I loved how it smelled. I wanted that smell again this year.  So Carol insisted on getting a real Douglas fir wreath from Costco.  It’s on our coffee table. The drier it gets the stronger its smell, a fragrant death poem.

I dread Christmas.  It brings back memories of secretly setting up a tree in our living room during the war in the 1940s. After making sure the electric wreath candles with American flags were properly displayed in our windows, I was put in charge of the tree.  The Church of Christ we belonged to warned that Christmas itself was a pagan custom.  So some members refused to put up Christmas trees in their homes.  But I wanted instinctively to worship the baby Jesus under my tree.  So I did.  And my parents were fine with that.  I made a crèche with my mother’s old perfume bottles and some of her handkerchiefs (ruined as soon as the lids were screwed on.)  The rest of the year these dolls depicted various characters in my plays, produced on a small stage made with a chair and blanket, for an audience of neighborhood kids. 

Part of the feeling of sadness that overwhelms me every Christmas season comes from remembering my parents and my special relation to them as an only child.  They raised me like a new adult friend who came to live with them. If anything, I think they loved me more than I loved them, a shameful thing to admit. It was the three of us in a strange world.  I didn’t really know anybody else as well as I knew them, and they’ve been gone for a very long time (father in 1970, mother in 1980.)  I miss them, and just thinking of them, which I always do at Christmas, makes me sad.   

But my sadness also comes from the Christian story.  Who could think up such a tale?  Start with sex, a young couple, Mary and Joseph.  She’s pregnant, but claims to be a virgin, and he knows he didn’t do it.  He’s even ready to “put her aside publicly” as the law required a man to do if he discovered his betrothed was not a virgin.  But that might sign her death warrant in a court of law. So he kept quiet, out of love.  To make matters worse, Mary claimed that an angel had told her she would become pregnant and bear a son, who was anointed by God, the Christ, to be the savior of the world.

In spite of everything, Joseph took care of Mary and this helpless baby, and they raised him to be a good Jew. Maybe too good. Even before puberty he began to spout off about life and death, to teachers and anyone who would listen.  And he performed miracles.  Before long he had a motley crew of followers, young men and some women (even a few wealthy ones.)  The Jewish community was split trying to decide if Jesus was the Christ or a heretic. Believers thought his kingdom would come with a show of power and majesty greater than any ever known.

The story in scriptures lets us know early on that his rebellion was mostly gentle, but he became threatening enough for Jewish leaders to label him a heretic and for Roman authorities to charge him with treason. Both counts required his death on the cross.  Depictions of his “Passion” in our family Bible mesmerized me.  The death of goodness.  Human cruelty.  Injustice writ large.  It was at the foot of that cross in mostly 19th-century European paintings that I became an art historian. Images that human beings made of the flesh-and-blood mystery of life and death cut more deeply into my heart than sunsets, mountains or stretches of beach and waves ever could.  

Of course there is the conclusion to this story that makes Christianity what it is.  The empty tomb.  The resurrection.  His female followers being the first to recognize him.  His incredulous “this can’t be true!” male disciples (especially poor Thomas, my doppelganger.)  And finally, His lift-off into Heaven, where He sits once again with God and the Holy Spirit, Three in One. It is at this point, after Christianity became a world religion under dictators who waged war against all unbelievers, that I began to lose interest.  I kept feeling sorry for all the people who lived before Jesus was born who might be in Hell because they never knew him, and thus could never follow him.  My teachers shamed me for my doubt, assuring me that God would take care of such people.  Cop out.  I was about five.

By that time music had already shown me the way to God.  The piano allowed me to explore a world of utter beauty, which I was willing to share on stage, even if I was sick before every performance, worried that I would not be able to disappear into the magical world that my fingers could expose in works created to the glory of God by my favorite classical composers of Western music -- Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.  Ethnomusicologists certainly show us plenty of examples of music other than the one that grew up in Christian Europe.  But for me all great music lies firmly in the history of the church.  Even the secular works by the great composers are tinted with some of the glory that causes you to kiss earth and sky at the sound of their masses and oratorios for soloists, orchestras and great choirs.  They can turn human brutality and suffering heavenward and transform them briefly into hymns of ravishing devotion and praise.

How ironic that the church could produce such moments of transcendence, while committing a continuous sin against humanity throughout history.  I’ve seen and heard in real time, as well as in stories and pictures, of the brutality that we human beings have committed, often in the name of God.  I’m sad at Christmas because I miss my parents, and I feel sad that I love the Christmas story but distrust the churches that claim custodianship of it. Many of their teachings set my teeth on edge because I see so much injustice in them.  I can’t stand injustice.  Especially my own judgmental nature, based as it is on a sense of right and wrong.  I don’t deny there is a right and wrong.  I just don’t see a way of living without dealing personally (following Dostoyevsky’s lead) with crime and punishment.

 Such dealing, however, makes me an accessory to the crime with every punishment I can devise.  I am, now and forever, a bleeding heart. There is a way out of a bleeding heart, so to speak.  The practice of meditation learned in Japanese Zen temples allows me to reach deeply into that heart for a glimpse of the “Not Two,” a state of perfect identification with all being.  But I am practical. I see the results of actions and cannot shut up if I find them unjust. 

In the 1950s I was almost arrested in a little Alabama town for inciting a rebellion among black citizens.  At Kyoto University in the ‘60s and the University of Washington in the ‘70s I actively protested the war in Vietnam. In 1970 I saw for myself that communism in China had created a police state.  Ten years later I watched Chinese police carry off and abuse Buddhist nuns in Tibet for demonstrating against the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans. When I visited the Buddhist temples in Tibet destroyed by China’s Red Guards, and learned of their torture and abuse of priests, I was enraged.  At one point, for “assaulting” a Chinese guide I was expelled from Lhasa and sent back to Cheng-du. I found it ironic and ultimately unforgivable, that Chinese officials ordered the ethnic cleansing of Tibet in the name of egalitarianism.  

I became aware of Japan in grade-school because growing up I was told the Japanese were doing terrible things to Americans.  I hated them for their attack on Pearl Harbor, which I saw pictures of in magazines and newspapers.  I was petrified with fear of such evil people.  In my child’s mind I was afraid they were coming for me. But later, when I saw the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in newsreels, I cried for the Japanese. I went to the local library in December of 1945 and asked for all the books on Japan they had. Those books turned me into a student of that country for the rest of my life. I learned a lot about Japan. In 2011 the Japanese government, on behalf of Emperor Heisei, awarded me a medal for my fifty years of teaching about Japanese history.

In retirement I can look back on my life as though it belongs to someone else. It has deposited me here in the desert, with Carol by my side, leaving both of us safe and sound in a kind of paradise.  Clearly, the people and events in my life have been very kind to me and to my loved ones.  It seems that only Christmas brings back the sadness in my heart.  Under the Christmas tree I have to cry.  That’s where my heart breaks, every year.  Any place else and at any other time I am happy and grateful, even when some injustice fills me with outrage.  Moments of potential danger loom, such as the recent election, against which I will continue to rage, simply because it is unjust, unwise, and wrong. But whatever the DJT presidency may bring, I cannot imagine that it will make me as sad as the loss of my parents, along with the loss of any answer to the mystery of life and death. Nothing can ever be done about that loss.  I leave it under the Christmas tree.  

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Living As If …

Friends here in the California desert who know something about my life and Carol’s life today often ask the two of us, “When you go into LA to the Pure Land Buddhist temple and school to teach Japanese students visiting from Bukkyo University in Kyoto, what do you teach?  Do you teach them English?”  They usually are surprised to learn that no, we do not teach English because the students have classes in English during the short time they are here, taught by two well-trained ESL teachers.  The answer is that we teach them about God and Buddhism.

We have done this ever since we retired (in 2004) from Pepperdine University, the Church of Christ school in Malibu.  We also have spent a semester each year teaching undergraduates and graduates in the Pure Land (Jodo-shu) university in Kyoto, Japan.   (Note: “Bukkyo” means “Buddhist” or “Buddhism” in Japanese.)  Explaining to Japanese students and American neighbors how East and West are miles apart in almost every way conceivable --  is not easy!  We needed help.

The priests/administrators of Bukkyo University Los Angeles (BULA), Rev. Dr. Joji Atone and Rev. Kodo Tanaka have been very kind to us for over twenty years, inviting us to teach these classes in Los Angeles and act as advisors each year to three students from the Kyoto campus who spend a full year at the College of the Desert, near our home.  They also have encouraged me to write articles they have published in both English and Japanese for “Light of Wisdom,” the denomination journal.

Our format for sometime now has been to discuss our fundamentally different views of existence first, and secondly to compare everyday cultural traits, such as bathing, eating, rules governing behavior inside and outside of the home, and how schools are run. Our language differences are discussed all the time, in both English and Japanese.  For some time Rev. Tanaka and I have worked as a team, trying to get the students to express their own opinions and making sure everything is clear to them. The class is fairly intensive, going two mornings or all in one day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

We always start with God and what we call the “God Story” that all Jews, Christians and Muslims base their understanding of human existence upon.  We start by showing them how “In God We Trust” is on every U.S. dollar bill.  Then we discuss trust in a Creator Being as an all-encompassing belief that leads to worship.  As children whose personal and national identity is found in Shinto and reverence for ancestors, and whose state religion is the one taught by the historical Buddha (whom they will assure you had nothing to do with their birth much less the creation of the world), these kids have no concept of God.  At this point some person in the group usually says something like, “Japanese don’t have a religion like that.”  And that is true enough. 

Yesterday we returned from our latest session with Bukkyo students in LA.  This time Rev. Tanaka had the brilliant idea of having the God Story acted out by the students themselves. He chose one male student to be God.  Someone switched off the lights in the room, then at Rev. Tanaka’s prompting the student said in a loud voice, “Let there be light!” and the light was switched back on.  (Very dramatic!)   Then the boy was told to say he would create a person “in His own image” and Adam popped up to stand by God’s side.  Then Adam said he was lonely.  So the boy who was God took a rib from his colleague Adam’s side (rather roughly) and Rev. Tanaka led a young woman over to stand with God and Adam.

This went on for some time, through a little more Genesis, at which point we asked the students to consider this part of the God Story.  Could they believe it?  Nobody could.  They questioned how anyone could.  We pointed out that even Americans who claim not to be religious use the word “God” in times of crisis, as in, “Oh, my God!”  And every disaster shown on TV includes survivors who say things like, “This was God’s will” or “God took care of us.  We are so blessed.”  The idea that some powerful being “in heaven” was looking down on them and protecting some people while others died seemed preposterous and every silly.  The students argued that their parents had made them and that any thought of them being made by the God of the Jews, Christians or Muslims was ridiculous. 

Asked what they thought happened to us after we die the first response was, “we turn into smoke and ashes that ultimately are scattered on the ground.”  Others pointed out that most families have some of their dead relatives’ ashes kept in a jar in Buddhist temples.  At that I asked if they believed their ancestors had spirits or souls.  Everyone said yes.  “In fact,” as one kid pointed out, “everyone in Japan visits the temples where all their relatives’ remains are kept in order to light candles so that their ancestors spirits can find the way back to the human realm for a yearly visit.  This is the festival of Obon (お盆), literally, a tray offering for the dead.  In Sanskrit the word is ullambana, and refers to prayers and offerings of food prepared for spirits caught in the cycle of rebirth that Hinduism and Buddhism say all beings are subject to.  This brought us to the topic of reincarnation.   So we asked them about what they thought about reincarnation.  That topic is explained differently by different denominations of Buddhism, but it is accepted as a fact.

I enjoy reading what scientists have found out about how the universe came out of the Big Bang and developed, life along with it, after zillions of years. Evidence of that development is completely convincing.  But then I wonder what led to the Big Bang in the first place. Religions have been the only real source of information about that.  I have been pretty clear with everyone about my own understanding of both the God Story and the Hindu/Buddhist notion of reincarnation.  Since we have no proof of either theory, I am a skeptic.  I simply do not know if God and reincarnation are true.  The terms agnostic or atheist are both too strong to apply to me, I think.  I am willing simply to live as if the two perceptions of life and death are true.  We have a thousand-year-old history of glorious music and art thanks to the Christian version of the God Story.  I have been a student of both all my life.  And the Zen side of Buddhism has provided me with a means of entering into profound perceptions of selfhood that I would never have reached otherwise.  I have learned that I may be an only child but my selfhood is indisputably linked to every being on earth.  Carol has always encouraged Japanese students not just to appreciate but to go back to Japan and actually take lessons in the spiritual arts, the “Ways” of tea and flowers, that Zen provides.  It is for these reasons that I enjoy living as if Western religions and Eastern philosophies were true.

I realize that such confessions on my part have worked at cross-purposes for my relatives and some friends in Christianity.  More and more I am coming to realize that confessing some doubt about the reality of reincarnation may be irritating to my friends in Pure Land Buddhism, too.  It is true that I have been quite critical of some religious doctrines and practices in the West, particularly in the Church of Christ that I grew up in.  That has resulted in ending many friendships I had as a child.  On the Buddhist side, even though I took vows in Japan as a Zen priest in 1968 and have led Zen students through their paces ever since, I have criticized the structure of Japanese Zen and the behavior of many Zen priests at the same time.  But to my great delight, I have found priests of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan to be exceptionally willing to explore Buddhist teachings.  The great Japanese spokesman for Zen history and culture, the beloved Daisetsu Suzuki (1870-1966), was himself from a family of Pure Land believers in the JodoShin-shu denomination.  To my surprise, many of my other Zen teachers in Kyoto were also born into that denomination.  I have come to believe that Buddhist scholarship in Japan has come largely from Pure Land backgrounds. 

But I’m now sure I am running the risk of alienating Pure Land believers by not treating reincarnation as a fact.  I may only be confessing doubt, but for most of the people on earth that is like expressing doubt about the existence of God.  For that reason I plan to keep my mouth shut on the subject for the rest of my life, which I hope is not too much longer.  I’m dying to find out what happens, really.  Last Saturday I tried to get the Japanese students in our class to put into words what they would say about Buddhism to their host-families in Temecula, CA (where they are scheduled to be at this very moment.) 

I was prepared to hear things like, “Buddhism is about enlightenment,” or “It’s a philosophy of life,” or even “We Japanese are Buddhists in name only.”  We had prepared them to be careful about answering whether or not Buddhists believe in God, because we had one boy last year whose host-parents had him baptized.  (The kid thought it was cool.)  My favorite moment came when one young woman, who had been more quiet and hesitant to speak than anyone, instead of answering our question, got up and slowly walked over to the blackboard and wrote two Sino-Japanese characters (Kanji) to express what she wanted her host-parents to know about Buddhism.  She wrote  利他 (altruism, benefitting others)  - I was speechless.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Thoughts on Fascism

Now with the DNC in its second day and the RNC behind us, I realize I have been struggling not to use the word “fascism” to describe the structure of the Trump Train.  Mainly, I think, because I thought Donald Trump was too shallow to deserve the title of Republican nominee.  But then I saw true Republicans bowing to him, largely, I think, because of his huge audience of worshippers, fire-brand nationalists who to me seem hell-bent on dropping out of the world after building defenses against it. 

This morning (July 26, 2016) I ran across the word “fascism” in an unlikely place:  a review in the LA Times by its formidable music critic, Mark Swed, who was clearly impressed by last Sunday’s performance at the Hollywood Bowl of Puccini’s Tosca directed by our man, Gustavo Dudamel.  The Master Chorale, Children’s Chorus, full-throated soloists, and of course the LA Phil received glowing praise.  Even the sound system was just right.  It must have been spectacular and I wish I had been there.

But then, Swed’s phrase “the attraction of fascism” jumped out at me like a bullet shot out of the middle of the article.  Just on the face of it the phrase makes sense.  Mob rule is attractive!  People who feel fear and hatred of anything they can’t understand, the easy thing to do is circle the wagons. They kill the Indians but cannot see the nuclear holocaust up ahead. Their battle cries become ecstatic in a swell of human emotion that gives them comfort and a sense of purpose.  Ironically, Swed’s use of the phrase elevates to the highest level both Puccini’s opera and Dudamel’s masterful musicians, becoming in Swed’s mind somehow “a telling indictment of the attraction of fascism.”

Does that mean we use the crowd’s clamor against them?  I don’t know. Maybe our situation calls to mind Napoleon and his troops, Scarpia and the other villains, Mussolini, Hitler, ad infinitum.  (Please add your favorite.)  They are the ones who cause all the trouble until true love finally has the last word, even if it means stabbing evil and jumping off a wall.  Sorry for the melodrama, folks.  But life is an opera.  And Shakespeare had it right:   “Man is a giddy thing & much ado about nothing.”