Saturday, July 26, 2014
THOUGHTS JULY 22, 2014
At the moment I sit down in despair at my computer, agonizing over the crisis situations I see on CNN, MSNBC, Aljazeera America and regular channels. First, there’s the crash site in Ukraine still open to looting and tampering by pro-Russian thugs (look, I heard them, and that’s what they are!) By all accounts (except Putin’s) they (or Russian troops) shot down a passenger plane with almost 300 innocent people aboard, 200 of them from the Netherlands. And for over a week brutish soldiers have looted the personal effects and identities of the crash victims and refused to let experts examine the wreckage, scattered over an enormous area that includes farms and villages.
Finally these self-proclaimed Russian freedom-fighters allowed bodies to be crudely stacked in poorly-refrigerated cattle cars and shipped to the Netherlands, where for the last two days we have watched crowds of an outraged but dignified people honor their dead as casket after casket in motorcades entered a military base for proper identification and return to loved ones. At the same time, fragments of bodies and important airplane wreckage still have not been collected because pro-Russian troops have not allowed outside experts into the site for long enough to do their jobs. They intend to defend the land they have occupied by force in eastern Ukraine. The fighting is intensifying as I write this. Carol and I are scheduled to spend most of August in Russia (mostly at the Hermitage Museum), so all of this is making us nervous. We leave in a little over a week.
The second major crisis going on right now is between Palestinians and Israelis. Nothing new, but the increasing number of casualties in Gaza as a result of Israel’s “target bombs” is sickening. The 6-year Israeli land-sea-and-air embargo on Gaza is in effect imprisoning and nearly starving the population. In response, the Hamas government built a network of tunnels that allows radical Muslim Gazans to enter Egypt and Israel to kill Jews. It is easy to see why citizens would welcome Hamas military help. But Israel is not going to budge on this. And Hamas-led Palestine seems ready to fight even if every man, woman and child in Gaza is killed in the effort. And despite the fact that few of the hundreds of rockets Hamas fires daily into Israel can penetrate the anti-missile “dome” over the country. So the unequal casualty list to date – nearly a thousand Gazans to 35 Israelis – seems outrageous. Two brief cease-fires have come and gone, and the shelling on both sides has resumed. Pictures of the dead and wounded spill out of the TV screen.
From my posh ivory tower in the California desert (Del Webb Sun City Palm Desert), with almost nobody around me to talk to about anything (or not) -- other than Obama-care (devil-sent), golf, sports, houses owned and sold, hedge funds, the stock market, cruises, restaurants and ballroom dances in the area, and Obama (the Devil himself) -- I try my best to engage people in issues I am passionate about. Those include meditation, Japanese language and customs, and then (working back in time from today) the deadly disputes in Gaza, Israel, Ukraine, Russia, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and the Americas south of Texas and America itself. All of those issues relate to the age-old questions about God and land: what does “He” teach and who owns what? No wonder I was attracted to the pacific (and godless) teachings of Buddhism from an early age!
For my Facebook friends, here are two news flashes from my tower regarding (1) a movie and (2) a magazine article. The movie is BOYHOOD by Richard Linklater, whose WAKING LIFE first knocked the breath out of me when it came out in 2001. Most of his other films have at least made me utter a prayer of thanks for him. But after looking at BOYHOOD for about 3 hours, Carol and I looked at each other and said nothing. What’s to say? This is one fine film. I want to translate it immediately into Japanese and add it to my arsenal of teaching materials for Japanese students learning about America.
The movie was made over a 12-year period in the life of an actual boy, Ellar Coltrane (Mason in the film) from grade school to college. His mother is played by a brilliant Patricia Arquette, and his older sister is played by Linklater’s actual daughter, Lorelei (Samantha in the film.) My only problem with the film is why nobody in it speaks “Texan”, but I think I know why. First, there is a scene in which the laid-back liberal father, played flawlessly by Ethan Hawke, mercilessly (and hilariously) bad-mouths outgoing President George W. Bush. (He even steals a McCain sign from a Texas neighbor’s yard while putting up Obama signs with his son and daughter.) I think that scene would be very confusing if the father sounded exactly like Bush. Also, I think most Americans (and maybe all English speakers) would tire of hearing Texan spoken for the length of a film. Besides, Texans in the flesh can be heard in another Linklater film, “Bernie” (2011), which should satisfy anybody wanting to subject themselves to native speech.
The magazine article is by Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, and author of a fine introductory book on Japan that I used for years in some of my classes at Pepperdine in Malibu and International Christian University in Omika, Japan. It is called “The Outnation” (1992). The magazine article appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of The Atlantic, p. 20-21, and it deals with the recent troubling matter of certain Christians trying to cut themselves off from mainstream American society and laws in the name of religious freedom. I like the article so much that I am quoting large portions of it here without comment. Its point is very much the point of BOYHOOD, as well, in the sense that both the film and article are telling us that the youth of today may be on the right track to everything.
“I am someone who believes that religious liberty is the country’s founding freedom, the idea that made America possible. I am also a homosexual atheist, so religious conservatives may not want my advice. I’ll give it to them anyway. Culturally conservative Christians are taking a pronounced turn toward social secession: asserting both the right and the intent to sequester themselves from secular culture and norms, including the norm of nondiscrimination. This is not a good idea. When religion isolates itself from secular society, both sides lose, but religion loses more.
… Why the hunkering down? When I asked around recently, a few answers came back. One is the fear that traditional religious views, especially about marriage, will soon be condemned as no better than racism, and that religious dissenters will be driven from respectable society, denied government contracts, and passed over for jobs …
… I wonder whether religious advocates of these opt-outs have thought through the implications. Associating Christianity with a desire – no, a determination to discriminate puts the faithful in open conflict with the value that young Americans hold most sacred. They might as well write off the next two or three or 10 generations, among whom nondiscrimination is the 11th commandment.
… This much I can guarantee: the First Church of Discrimination will find few adherents in 21st-century America. Polls find that, year by year, Americans are growing more secular. The trend is particularly pronounced among the young, many of whom have come to equate religion with intolerance. Social secession will only exacerbate that trend.”
Monday, June 9, 2014
IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW, by Zia Haider Rahman
Reader alert: This is a book rave. I am in awe especially of pages 96-101: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Princeton, Oxford, Statue of Liberty, identity, patriotism, science, philosophy, Muslims, Jews, Christians, religion in general -- informative (and for me transformative) five pages in a novel that is chock full of very human feelings exquisitely expressed on every page. Be prepared to find yourself in the minds of people you might never know otherwise.
Two Muslim men, one from Pakistan but born in Princeton, N.J. to a Pakistani diplomat, the other from Bangladesh (East Pakistan) but raised in Oxford, England, son of shop-keepers. The two of them met in college and kept in touch. When together their conversations were soul-searching, and fill the pages of Rahman’s book. One of those conversation took place in New York in the 1990s.
The first one says he has an American passport and is thrilled when, after returning to America from a trip abroad, he hears “Welcome home!” from a U.S. immigration officer at JFK. The other (who has a British passport) says he would give his life if UK immigration officers at Heathrow would greet him that way after a trip. On impulse, they take the ferry to Liberty Island, where they stand together in front of the famous plaque with the poem by Emma Lazarus, a New York Jew whose forebears immigrated to the U.S. from Portugal.
To the two friends the words seem to come from God/Allah (or perhaps the Virgin Mary), welcoming other immigrants from Europe, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” In the 1920s and ‘30s that would include some of the great Jewish minds of the day, many of whom ended up at Princeton. One of the men imagines that one of those minds must have belonged to his hero, the logician, Kurt Godel (1906-1978).
Not so, says his friend, who points out that the champion of the “true but unprovable” theorem was not Jewish but a Lutheran-born theist who believed in a personal God. As such he was out of step with Albert Einstein, Godel’s colleague, a secular Jewish Deist who believed in God, but in the abstract, following the famous 17th-century Dutch Jewish philosopher, Spinoza (and hero of my youth, after D.T. Suzuki and Joseph Campbell.) And now? Pope Francis says even atheists, along with believers, will go to Heaven as long as all of us do good on earth! (I wonder if he read this book.)
Saturday, March 15, 2014
True Self – 主人公
Some days just fall into place like a trot into a gallop. (Point of reference: I grew up in Oklahoma riding horses bareback.) Today -- Tuesday, March 11, 2014 -- was like that. This morning I was looking at a calligraphic scroll with this enigmatic three-character Sino/Japanese phrase, written by one of my Japanese Zen teachers. Its meaning is always a shock.
The three characters, taken individually, literally mean “Master, Person, Lord”. In any Japanese-English dictionary the phrase is defined as “the leading person in a literary or dramatic work.” The phrase in Buddhist texts conveys a different meaning, one that I have known by heart for at least fifty years. Consistently, the old scribes knew it as a euphemism for the fully awakened being. On a scroll like the one I was looking at this morning it says to me, “You, you idiot, are IT!” It reminds me that nobody was born for me and nobody dies for me. I am the protagonist in my own life, in a true life in which I am everything and everyone.
When I see or hear the phrase I immediately stop, look and listen. The phrase strikes me dumb. I don’t really hold my breath, but it’s as though a thief has crept into my house and I am trying to keep quiet so I can take the proper action – attack or escape. In my Zen lineage all priests have the word “cold” for the first character of their temple names. That’s because cold in this case is a euphemism for enlightenment, which perhaps feels much as I have described it. And for a horse it is as natural as moving from a trot into a gallop.
For me, being struck dumb is invariably sexy. I am an impotent old man, have been for many years, but the magic of sex and the miracle of love that goes along with it just wipe me out. Maybe because I was an only child, but the coming together of two people in love makes me dance and sing and cry and laugh out loud. I don’t have to do it to feel it. The very idea of being fully awake to the joy and pain of every other creature is my True Self at work. What a guy!
So that’s the episode that started my day today. After hanging the scroll on the wall and watching as Carol placed an orchid arrangement in front of it, I sat down to read a bit before joining Carol later at dance class. First I played a little Kachaturian and Bach on the piano at home to guard against memory loss in my fingers, and then rehearsed West Coast Swing and Nightclub Two-Step for three hours with a hardy bunch of retirees in the dance studio nearby. That was quite a workout, but after returning home I couldn’t get an article I had read earlier in the current New York Review of Books out of my mind: “India: You’re Criminal If Gay.”
The article was written by Leila Seth, mother of the brilliant novelist Vikram Seth, who just happens to be gay. Mrs. Seth is 83, her son Vikram was born in 1952. She is a lawyer and distinguished High Court judge. She is outraged at the anti-homosexual stance the Indian government has taken lately. My wife and I are 78, and our gay son Burke was born in 1962. Carol and I are retired professors, who lost our son in 2005 to a brain aneurism. Vikram Seth and his mother have bravely allowed her article and his poem to be published with the invitation to publish them free of charge. Please take a look at p. 22 of the Mar. 20 issue of NYRB. But please read Vikram’s poem now, and add your Amen. - GTW
THROUGH LOVE’S GREAT POWER
Through love’s great power to be made whole
In mind and body, heart and soul –
Through freedom to find joy, or be
By dint of joy itself set free
In love and in companionhood:
This is the true and natural good.
To undo justice, and to seek
To quash the rights that guard the weak –
To sneer at love, and wrench apart
The bonds of body, mind and heart
With specious reason and no rhyme:
This is the true unnatural crime.
St. Margaret’s Forum
Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 - Dr. Glenn T. Webb
The Art of Living in the World with Awareness, Respect and Trust –
Responding to Buddhism
1. Two months ago I gave a lecture at the International Buddhist Study Center in Little Tokyo. My audience was made up of Japanese business and religious leaders, consulate officers, and Buddhist clergy. My topic was American customs and religious beliefs that puzzle the Asian community. Of particular concern to my listeners was how they should respond when someone asks them if they believe in God. (Just for the record, I always tell them to say yes, just to avoid trouble.)
2. Of course, Buddhism doesn’t speak of God, so that is the problem. Today I am talking to you as an expert in Asian cultural values and Buddhism, telling you what I think the historical Buddha Shakyamuni might say about the so-called religion that bears his name. I assume most of you are Christians and are here because you are curious about Buddhism and would like to know more about it.
3. But why should I be the one to speak to you on the subject? That in itself is a long story that I will share bits of as I go along. I feel that my focus here must be on two points: (1) the Hindu/Buddhist view of reality, and (2) the very different view that Jews, Christians and Muslims have of reality. After I have finished we can discuss the differences.
4. Let me start by asking you a question. How many of you know what miso is? Answer: miso is a fermented paste made of soy beans, barley, rice, salt, and a yeast culture called kojikin. Small portions of miso paste mixed with hot water makes a delicious broth that is served at mealtime throughout East Asia.
5. What, you ask, does miso have to do with Buddhism or me or anything? Well, I use it here merely to lead into my thoughts on how to live in the world with awareness, respect and trust. When my family and I first arrived in Japan, in 1964, we contacted some missionaries from the Church of Christ, the Christian denomination associated with Pepperdine University and indeed with my family and my wife’s family.
6. You will hear more about the history of this denomination shortly. But right now I want to tell you a funny story about a hymn that is popular in Churches of Christ. It was published in 1907 by J. G. Dailey, an obscure composer of spirituals and gospel songs. The first line of the song asks the question: “Why Did My Savior Come To Earth …?” The song ends in a chorus with the answer: “…Because He Loved Me So.”
In Japan the little bi-lingual children of the few missionaries living there were quite sure the answer in the song referred to God’s love of miso. In their minds it made perfect sense that God would send his Only Begotten Son so that He, too, could enjoy the wonderful taste of miso!
7. Quite a misunderstanding, right? But misunderstandings can be more interesting than understandings sometimes. Could it be that both of these – involving God’s love for me and the taste of miso -- touch the truth of things in their own way?
8. In any case, what we UNDERSTAND (識) is exactly what I want to talk about today. We can understand simple things without probing the mystery of life at all. But to understand the mystery of life and death, particularly the one about what happens to us after we die, we have to take a leap of faith. That leap is built on sacred stories rather than on reason.
The stories in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions, despite their differences, require us to believe that the ultimate understanding of reality belongs to God. The Hindu-Buddhist stories, on the other hand, require us to discover ultimate truth within ourselves, sometimes with assistance from spiritual guides.
(Re the Chinese character on the screen: to study Buddhism seriously you almost have to know the rudiments of Sanskrit and Chinese. There are many words in scriptures from both languages for “understand”, but I’ve chosen the Chinese character for my purposes here.)
9. I grew up in the Churches of Christ. The founders of that Protestant denomination were part of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment (going back to Locke, Hume and Kant.) They were determined to “restore” the New Testament church on earth using logic and common sense. They insisted on a rigorous study of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, to get at Biblical teachings linguistically. They insisted as well on a knowledge of the latest archaeological and historical findings of the time, in order to put the teachings in their context. Once that was done, the devout Christian was free to do what the Bible taught or take the consequences.
11. My father, R. O. Webb, was a devout Christian of this type. He took a PhD in history in 1918 from the University of Oklahoma. Before that, he did work at the University of Chicago. In Henderson, Tennessee, he was a student of Arvy Glenn Freed (1863-1931), a Church of Christ minister and professor at Freed-Hardeman University. My father and mother named me after Dr. Freed. They also made sure I knew the Bible well enough to recite many passages of scripture in three languages. (Both my parents were federal employees, as directors of the Indian School in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, and were welfare agents covering Comanche County, as well.)
12. Family friends tell me that my father took great pride in telling them how at the age of three or four I came to him one day and asked if it was true what Jesus said in John 14:6, viz., that “… nobody comes to the Father except by me.” I guess I was upset because I said (or so the story goes), “Well, I think that is very unfair! What about all those people who lived on earth thousands of years before Jesus was born?”
13. This is exactly the kind of common sense answer that the Church of Christ approved, so I think my father was proud of me, in spite of my blasphemy. But at that young age I also learned what it means to take a leap of faith, by trusting God to let those poor people into heaven, even though they lived long before Jesus was born! Moreover, I had to remind myself that man’s ways are not God’s ways (Isaiah 55:8 ) and that we cannot find God by searching for Him (Job 11:7).
14. Well, that’s all true according to the way the monotheistic religions of the ancient Near East see things. Jews, Christians and Muslims view things vertically, with each of us bound to our Creator. (Indeed, the Latin word for “religion” denotes the link between God and man.) We cannot understand the mind of God, but we trust and obey Him in order to live eternally with Him in heaven after we die. This, most assuredly, is the faith of our fathers.
15. But that version of the way things are is not the only one. It is not compatible with the notion of reality that came out of ancient India, where we are not vertically connected to God but horizontally, so to speak, to our past selves and each other. In the Hindu/Buddhist view we are in a constant struggle to return to a perfect realization of the interconnectedness of all being. That goal is Enlightenment, which we alone can reach. Hindus say we will reach that together after eons of rebirths, and with a lot of help from Hindu gods. (We will look at what Buddhists say about that later.)
16. Both concepts of reality, the vertical and horizontal, seem to have emerged in two parts of Asia – in Palestine and India -- at about the same time, around 2000 B.C., with scribes putting the basic beliefs into writing at least by 1000 B.C. Of course, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic scribes continued their elaborations well into the first 1000 years of the Christian era, bringing revolutionary changes to the original formulations. But in historical terms, they wrote the classic story of East and West.
17. Let’s take a closer look at the Indian case. Brahmanical hymns and scriptures are the basis for the Hindu world-view. They imply that the universe began as a perfect entity, unsullied by differences of any kind. This non-differentiated Perfection they call Brahman (梵). The Chinese character refers to both the Sanskrit language itself and to the all-inclusive Self (with a capital “S”) that later became divided up into our normal distinctions of I, you, he, she, it, we, you and they.
18. Brahmanical texts do not seem to ask how Perfection came into being. They simply begin with its dissolution, at some point in time, into all of the selves we are today. And they call those many selves Atman (我), the “collective memory” of Perfection, or better yet, its spark, that is in all sentient beings. (In Buddhism that memory is known as the Buddha Nature.) This little spark of perfection gives us the ability to return to Perfection and thus reach Enlightenment. But only (according to Hinduism) after we collectively evolve, so to speak, into the memory and reality of Brahman.
19. In the meantime, each Atman-carrying self must endure countless rebirths, reincarnations, going through many levels of realization in the four human castes (四性): Brahmin priests, Kshatriya protectors, Vaishya citizens, and Shudra servants. Castes below the lowest are Outcastes: humans who are as unaware of perfection as animals and demons. (We who are not Hindu, I found out, are to be pitied for not knowing their caste, because we will have to make it to Enlightenment blindfolded, as it were!)
20. Each Hindu caste has its own Dharma (法), or set of rules to live by. Each human being is born to parents of the same caste and dharma, and thus each family knows precisely its members’ places not only in society, but in their progress on the return trip to perfection. They must go by the rules of their dharma, but they also can call upon the avatars, the gods, the spiritual guides, who appear in art and in human history to help them climb the ladder to spiritual realization. Shakyamuni Buddha and Jesus Christ are both reincarnations of Vishnu, for example, in Hinduism.
21. Now let’s turn to Buddhism specifically. Around 600 B.C. the historical Buddha began to challenge one very important aspect of Hindu teachings. He was of the Kshatriya protector class. He was a prince, who left his father’s palace to deepen his understanding of life and death. He was a rebel. And after undergoing every spiritual practice available, he ultimately concluded that what Hinduism taught about the subject might very well be true, but that he was not sure.
22. With that blasphemous doubt in his mind, the Buddha insisted the only path to Enlightenment was a personal one, a “middle path” of deep meditation in a life full of compassion towards all creatures. Turning down the volume of self-concern and being aware of the needs of others was a key element in his teachings. That was the sure method of reaching Enlightenment, the only Dharma.
23. Like Jesus, the Buddha never wrote down a single word himself. Disciples formulated doctrines, writing in their master’s voice. By the 3rd century B.C. the great king of India, Ashoka, had declared Buddhism to be the state religion. But by 600 A.D. Hinduism had reemerged, swallowing up Buddhism in its wake. Then, with the coming of the Moguls in the 16th century, India began its long struggle between Hindus and Muslims, which unfortunately has not ended, despite the creation of Islamic Pakistan and Hindu India in 1945.
24. After Buddhism was made obsolete in India, the religion spread to others parts of Asia where today it claims more followers than any other religion on earth. Buddhist teachings are followed in tens of millions of Buddhist temples throughout Asia and the rest of the world. But Buddhists differ from one another as much as Baptists and Catholics do. In some ways Buddhist denominations seem as unlike each other as Judaism is to Christianity and as the two of them are to Islam. So I must be selective about what kind of Buddhism I discuss today.
25. Most of my actual training in Buddhism has been in Japan. I have also spent time learning from teachers in India, Tibet, China and Korea. But I will end my talk today by describing some of the features of Japanese Buddhism as I experienced them. Let’s start with a little history. The Buddhist priesthood in India, like the Christian priesthood in Palestine, did not exist at first. Once established, however, it required priests to take care of the spiritual needs of lay people. And, to be celibate! That is still true in every Buddhist country except Japan.
26. In the 6th century, when Buddhism was adopted in Japan, the priesthood became hereditary. It has remained so almost without exception to the present day. For over fourteen hundred years Buddhist priests in Japan have married and their eldest sons have inherited the temples and congregations that their families have served. Over five million such temples are in operation in Japan today.
27. It would never occur to ordinary Japanese, from other classes in society, to ask a temple to allow them to enter the priesthood. So when American hippies began knocking on Zen temple doors in the 1950’s, abbots did not know what to think. From 1964 through 1966, my professors at Kyoto University encouraged me to deepen my understanding of Japanese history and culture by practicing meditation at Zen temples. That was not part of my plan, but it changed my life.
28. Buddhism at its core puts the responsibility on each of us to search the scriptures, all scriptures. It also insists that we go deeply into our own consciousness for understanding. (Note that I did not say “conscience”! Because my conscience, I believe is something that is tied to my cultural and religious prejudices.) The historical Buddha plumbed the depths of his own consciousness, his own mind, and I think that is what he proposed for all of us.
29. Sakyamuni Buddha did claim that Enlightenment can be reached by each one of us individually, in direct contradiction of Hindu belief. But he did say it was not easy to get there! Not surprisingly, the hard work of training for self-realization seemed to call for specialists, i.e., priests. The priesthood did eventually emerge, some 400 years after the Buddha’s death, permitting ordinary followers to tend to everyday matters and trust the priests to lead them.
30. At the same time, progressive priests looked for a way that allowed ordinary people to be more involved, one that would be easier. This easier way is known as the “Great Vehicle” (or Mahayana) form of Buddhism that encompasses almost all denominations of Buddhist practice today. Some priests began to rely on scriptures, dating to the first two centuries of the Christian era, that tell wonderful stories that chart the way. I am particularly fond of the story of Queen Vaidehi, who lived at the time of the historical Buddha, 600 years before Christ.
31. According to scriptures of a major form of Pure Land Buddhism (S. Sukhavati, J. Jodo), the queen and her husband the king enraged their sons by renouncing Hinduism and adopting Buddhism. For that the sons had their father killed and left their mother to starve to death in prison. In response to her pleas the Buddha is said to have taught her how to visualize a beautiful place, a Pure Land in the afterlife, where personal ignorance (controlled by karma) could be short-circuited, so to speak, and the cycle of reincarnation stopped.
32. The queen learned that this beautiful place was created by Amitabha (J. Amida), the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. And that all people caught in pain and ignorance can be reborn there simply by developing their faith in Amitabha’s promise. Once there they have no impediment to their own powers of insight, and they can improve, then return to earth and bring themselves and others to Enlightenment. Other forms of Mahayana Buddhism, including Zen, offer similar stories of compassion towards ordinary folks (although I would not call the Zen path easy, for reasons I will explain momentarily.)
33. Tantric (or “secret”) Buddhist practices began to spread in the 7th century (especially in Tibet.) They make it easier to rely on countless Buddhas, mostly ethereal, through mantras, mandalas, and secret teachings and initiations that summon the powers of such fully-realized beings in order to give priests and lay persons the strength to face and overcome self-ignorance. Ironically, I am regarded by many scholars in my field as a Buddhist iconographer, i.e., a leading expert on the vast array of Buddhist images – my family would call them idols – that are used in Tantric Buddhism. (Ah yes, life is full of ironies!)
34. To my mind, the followers of Tantric Buddhist sects come close to praying to the “deities” behind these images, if not the images themselves. For me, some of the images are astounding works of art, and I fully appreciate the human need to have them. Their stories are fascinating beyond belief. But I do not consider them sacred, any more than I consider the masterpieces of Christian art that command similar devotion from some believers, to be sacred.
35. I grew up in a family in love with another story, the story of the Creator God of the Universe who came to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Annointed One, the Christ. The question I asked myself more than fifty years ago is, “Can I be aware of Buddhism, respect it and its followers, and trust its methods to enhance my heritage? In short, can a Christian be a Buddhist? My answer is an unqualified, “Yes!”
36. Original Buddhism places no restrictions that I can see on the Gospel narrative. In fact, one of the abbots of a Japanese temple begged me to conduct a weekly Bible class for the young men in training with me. He hoped I would focus on the Trinity and said he thought a Christian should use meditation as a time to pray.
The Buddha’s core message does seem to be, “Do whatever you have to do to be inwardly quiet, listen to the world you think of as outside of you, and open yourself to it.” I could be wrong, but I think God must be pleased that I don’t get in His way anymore when offering up prayers. The late abbot of the Cold Mountain Temple in Suzhou, the site of my lineage in Zen, wrote a calligraphic scroll for me when I visited him in 1993. What he wrote thrills my heart. In English it assures me that “Only in Silence Can the Truly Wonderful Be Known.”
37. As for the outer trappings of Japanese Zen practice – reading and reciting daily teachings in Japanese, wearing priest’s clothing, following the rules about eating and doing daily chores in certain ways, and in general being Japanese for all intents and purposes – my students know I do not recommend keeping those trappings.
38. For me, however, it was necessary to break through many barriers of physical and mental pain brought on by the particular way Zen meditation (zazen) is done in Japan. And those barriers must be broken. Sitting Zen-style is not easy. In Japan it still requires a full lotus position: cushion under the buttocks, feet pulled up onto the inner thighs, and knees resting on the ground.
39. I thought I could not do that at first. But teachers pulled my legs into position, pushed my back fully upright, and made sure my head was high, my chin down, and my eyes slightly open. Hands are always held in the lap, clasped in positions that vary with the denomination of Zen being followed. (Yes, there are denominations!) Each period of sitting is between 30 to 45 minutes, with only a 2-minute break between each period. During a normal day in Japanese Zen temples there are three hours of sitting in the morning, three in the afternoon, and three more at night.
40. The pain, even for young Japanese, is excruciating. At first I would always hyperventilate and vomit after about 15 minutes. Once I began to get used to the pain (after the first year) I was able to sit “on top of” my pain and experience the first stages of consciousness exploration. My heart rate and breathing slowed down measurably, and “unhinged gratitude” often brought tears to my eyes. My prayers became quite wordless. The trick (as one of my students later put it wisely) is to live in that state regardless of what you are doing.
41. By now you must wish I would stop talking. I’m sure I have gone over the 40 minutes I was allotted. Let me conclude by saying that I don’t know what the Buddha would say about Buddhism today. But he would be very happy, I’m sure, with the opening of the third form of the “people’s prayers” in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer. We say it every Sunday this time of year. It begins with the admonition, “May we all become one.” I think Prince Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, would say “Amen!” to that. But he probably would point out that we already ARE one! The challenge, he would say, is to decide what to do about that. How do we live together as one? In short, how do we practice the art of living?