Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Which U.S. Political Party Today Trusts People?
“Philanthropy grows with the level of trust in society.” This claim appeared in today’s LA TIMES (10/25/10) in a long article on India’s “rich-poor gap” with photos of a billion-dollar pagoda-like “home” built for Mukesh Ambani, an oil baron, in the middle of Mumbai’s slums. The quote is from Professor Dipankar Gupta of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is also quoted as saying that India has “a trust deficit” that prevents wealthy Indians like Ambani from giving to society in the style of American philanthropists Warren Buffett or Bill and Melinda Gates.
Corruption is blamed for the lack of trust and philanthropy in India, where the traditionally poor are low-caste (or outcaste) Hindus whose karma in a former life is thought to have created their fate in this one. This insidious notion is even part of the belief system of lower caste Indians themselves, who have said things to me like “I am careful, sir, to keep my place (my dharma) in this life so that my next one will be better.” Some mean that spiritually, but many today mean they are willing to do anything to make sure their next life will be as a wealthy upper-caste person. The corruption Indians speak of is simply accepted as part of life, with everyone, high and low, on the take.
Before the recent technological boom of the inter-net, it was difficult for young educated (and I should add, Muslim or higher-born Hindu) Indians to get on the international free-market economy. But electronic, construction, oil and chemical barons (like Ambani, “the world’s fourth-richest person”) have been born overnight, it seems. Also, now we find that when we in the rest of the world have a problem with our computers, cell phones, etc., we speak to young Indians who try valiantly to speak American English (broken down into New York, California, Tennessee and Texas imitations) instead of the distinctive Indian English accent they have learned in school.
This matter of trust or the lack of it intrigues me. Whether we believe in rebirth due to our own actions or being sent to heaven or hell by God when we die surely must play a part in how we view others and how we treat them. Religion is behind our view of truth (and even more so if we believe in no religion at all), at which point truth and trust dance around each other in fascinating ways.
I’ve come to believe that our political groups today in America are clearly based on different views of truth, i.e., reality. Consequently, it appears to me that American political groups view human beings differently, and shape their agendas accordingly. Simply put, if they trust people to do the right thing, their politics reflect that trust; if they do not trust people, their politics reflects that lack of trust. So is it a good thing to trust people or not?
In theory, at least, the United States of America is founded on the idea that all people are the same, regardless of their religious or political views. I love that theory, and believe that our sameness as human beings does indeed trump everything. But in practice most Americans view themselves as citizens of a Christian (or “Judeo-Christian”) nation. That has made a lot of other citizens nervous (and rightly so, I think, but that’s another story.)
The agendas of Democrats and Republicans have taken different forms at different times in our history. President Lincoln, for example, was a Republican. But by today’s standards he would be a Democrat. Ever since the Great Depression the two forms of American political life have been basically the same as they are today, viz., the Democrats indorse the need for government programs that will provide the general public with basic services, whereas Republicans believe in individual liberty to the extent that people can get rich regardless of the general public’s welfare.
What I find interesting in this is that both Democrats and Republicans are overwhelmingly Christian in their religious preference and moral stance, despite their very different political philosophies. They can and do defend their positions with New Testament scriptural references (as witness Matt. 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25 for the Democrats and Matt. 26:11, Mark 14:7, and John 12:8 for the Republicans.) The gist of these obviously contradictory teachings is that rich people cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (an article of faith for Democrats), and that poor, lazy people will always be around, so get used to it (the Republican justification for always saying no.)
Now in terms of answering my original question about which political party today trusts human nature, it would appear that Democrats do not trust human nature and want to control it, whereas Republicans do trust human nature but feel obliged to give a handout to poor people whenever possible. If you are a Democrat you expect to pay taxes for the basic needs of all people in society, rich and poor, because you know that people are naturally selfish and will not take care of the health and welfare of others. Of course Republicans, who in theory trust good (wealthy) people to do the right thing in the trickle-down society, today come out of the womb crying “No taxes!”
Clearly, if you are a Republican you will not want to pay for social programs, such as Social Security and Medicare (and of course the vile Obama Care.) You will want to do whatever you want and get as rich as you can. You will fight to keep government to a minimum, both statewide and nationwide, and you will put your faith in the free market economy. Democrats, however, will want to protect everyone from falling through the cracks, at least to the extent of feeding people, housing them, and protecting them from harm and illness. Lots of laws and taxes are necessary for that bold agenda.
I am a Democrat, third generation. I hold much the same view of human nature that my grandparents and parents held. Historically that view is based on the Christian values of many Protestants who made their way here from Scotland and Ireland in the 19th century. They believed that we are born into this world as pure children of God, who must make our way through life’s thicket of good and evil, and will be judged by God in the afterlife according to how well we do.
Protestants of our type are like children with blank notebooks, who are free to write their own fates, so to speak. We thus choose to follow good or evil, rather than have those qualities in us from birth. We are not burdened with the sins (the “Fall”) of Adam and Eve, as Catholics and many other Christians believe. Instead, we ourselves write all our choices in our notebooks, and will be held responsible by God for those choices after we die. The best choices for us constitute a morality that is pretty clear: our guide in figuring out what is good and what is evil is spelled out in the New Testament.
That text we hold to be the inspired Word of God taught by Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Anointed of God, as perceived by the ancient Jewish communities in the Near East. Shortly after his death (and for believers, the Resurrection) Christ’s life was chronicled by his followers, in an account that has changed how the entire world marks time: for over 2000 years now we have been living in the Christian era, from the traditional date of Jesus’ birth in the “first” century, when God appeared on earth in human form, and continuing through all subsequent years of Our Lord (Anno Domini), including 2010.
My ancestors believed that strength was in numbers, in government as well as almost everything. Unions were a big part of their reality because they assumed that rich people were corrupt. They knew in their hearts that they themselves would be corrupt if they had the money. They observed how the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, and saw that as the way of the world. But they were rebels.
The people around me were quite sure that the only way to improve the world was to put laws in place to make people do the right thing. I remember how my father would point to the cruelty of tyrannical rulers (including especially those in the Vatican) to illustrate to me how life would be if we let dictators with money rule our lives. He sometimes commented under his breath that the history of Europe was just a step above the “dog-eat-dog” record of cave men. America was different.
Later I began to take this reasoning to its extreme and wonder if the “great notion” of communism was not a good thing. But I heard enough about Stalin after WWII in the 1950’s and saw first-hand the hell of collective life under China’s Mao when I visited there for the first time in the 1970’s to know that trying to control human beings by communal mandate was a great mistake. Chaos and control, anarchy and tyranny, are two sides of a coin. There had to be a middle way.
My relatives in Oklahoma in the 1930’s said often that the pragmatism (a middle way if there ever was one) of the Roosevelt doctrine (Franklin’s not Teddy’s) saved their lives. Most of them were farmers and ranchers who lost everything in the natural droughts and unfair economic policies of the 1920’s. When my parents received federal money to work in Comanche County as case workers and manage the Ft. Sill Indian School, they felt FDR’s policies gave their college degrees meaning. The WPA put their expertise to work, thanks to government support, without which they might have starved on the long trek of dust-bowl refugees to California. (My mother assured me that I was born late because she and my father were too busy helping raise their nephews and nieces, but that by 1935 they could count on the government to help them raise me.) Members of my extended family wept for days when FDR died.
For us the road to heaven was clear. We had to choose service over salary. The widows, orphans, and just plain lazy people around us deserved our help. If we had to give all our money to them, so be it. Just making more money to enrich our own lives was dangerous. We didn’t want to die rich and spend eternity in hell! Political activism looked good to us. So we joined protests, against the Truman policy that embraced the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities, and later, against the policy of racial discrimination that in the south still wrapped our country in a cloak of ignorant self-righteousness.
Before that, sometime after WWII, I remember feeling that things were slowly changing around me with my friends and relatives. Many people saw good times ahead and took advantage. My Aunt Jewel, a beauty-shop owner, was fond of saying, “It’s time I looked after Number One: Me!” Before I knew it, all the children of my generation became staunch Republicans. Now many of them are Tea Party know-nothings. Don’t they realize (those who are poor and without jobs) how desperately they need Democratic policies? I am torn between wanting to put them in seminars on political (and moral) responsibility and simply wringing their necks, one by one.
Sorry. It’s a good thing I am not king of the world! My prejudices are so strong against selfishness and greed I verge on fainting or heart attacks all the time. I’m boiling mad at the excesses of wealthy people (yes, even Mr. Ambani) when needy people are all around us. At one point in my life I made some extra money by acting as a scholar in residence on archeological digs and cruises to far away places, for very wealthy (and usually undereducated) people who were blind to anything but how they could make more money. The newly wealthy were the worst.
Give me someone who has inherited their wealth and gone to a good school and I’ll give you the next liberal bleeding heart in the war on poverty. There’s something about a guy who had nothing and then gets rich through hard work or chance. He immediately turns his back on others who are poor, the way he used to be, and vows to prevent them from getting any of his stuff. If he has mega-church pastors who are preaching the feel-good-get-rich gospel he will feel perfectly justified in giving in to his greed. (Of course he also might find his house in foreclosure!)
I’m embarrassed that I would like to kick stingy wealthy people to the moon. I’m even a little ashamed that we Democrats have so little trust in human nature that we feel inclined to control people through government restrictions and taxes. I feel especially guilty because my reading of Christianity says I have not kept the first two major commandments: to love God with all my heart, mind and strength, and to love my neighbors as myself. (It’s really hard to turn your other cheek when you have righteous anger in your heart.)
My guilt as a Christian is nothing, however, compared to my guilt as a student of Buddhism. In my studies of Asian religions as a child and teenager I empathized with the historical Buddha Shakyamuni because he was such a rebel. As a high-born Hindu of the princely Kshyatriya caste, he came to the conclusion that he had no proof that the pillars of Brahmanical teachings – regarding rebirth, karma and caste – were true. Moreover, he suggested that full realization of the oneness of all being, or Enlightenment, could somehow be glimpsed and put to use now, by anybody, long before the eventual Enlightenment (Nirvana) that Hindus believe in was supposed to take place.
My interest in Buddhism turned practical in my twenties. At the insistence of my Kyoto University professors, I began to practice Zen meditation in temples and found it offered me insights that only deepened the practical aspects of Christian love and compassion. Profound stillness allowed me to become empty of myself and full of everything and everyone else. I literally felt filled with respect and love for others as myself. The gap between me and everything else just disappeared, briefly and then intermittently, during meditation. After lots of practice that insight returned even at times when I was not formally sitting in meditation.
These moments of insight (vision, clairvoyance) have appeared to Christian mystics over the century, but not, I think, to Protestants in my tradition. So I am grateful to have Buddhism in my life. My primary Zen teacher in Japan, Miyauchi Kanko, ordained me while we were on a pilgrimage to Buddhist sites across north-central India and into Nepal, in 1970. I have continued to practice and train ever since, in Kyoto and in Seattle, where I established the University of Washington’s Zen Center (now the Temple of the Great Plum.)
After becoming the director of the Asian Studies program at Pepperdine University in 1987, in Malibu, California, I brought leaders of various denominations of Buddhism, as well as Islam and Sufism, to speak to students from time to time. In retirement since 2004, living in Palm Desert, CA, my wife and I have continued a long relationship with the Pure Land Buddhist denomination’s Bukkyo University, both in its campus in LA and in Kyoto, teaching courses in the histories of Japan and the West, and Christianity and Buddhism. We also serve as advisors to Bukkyo students who are attending the College of the Desert near our home. Finally, we both serve St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church and School in various ways, as board members and outreach volunteers.
In eight days Americans will go to the polls to vote for the leaders of their choice in a mid-term election. Everyone is predicting that the conservatives will win. That means Republican, Independent, and Tea Party candidates will split the vote. We Democrats can only hope that the split will be enormous, and that our candidates will be allowed to provide the caring styles of government based on Christian and Buddhist (and yes, Muslim) principles that are directly opposed to the wild and wooly winner-take-all policies of the Bush/Cheney years.
I’m sorry the Republican Party thinks individual freedom means serving self-interests first and society second, if at all. If that’s what their level of trust in society gives them the right to do before practicing philanthropy, then I will wear my Democratic lack of trust as a badge of honor, and practice my philanthropy in public policy.
Friday, August 13, 2010
I have only recently learned of two events that make me sad, but in very different ways. First, I mourn the death, but the very nearly-selfless life, of Robert Aitken Roshi. My sadness comes from the end of Aitken’s steady influence for peace and justice in our world. I pray that his disciples (and there are many) will continue his legacy.
The second event that makes me sad is the recent public flap over Shimano Eido Roshi’s unrestrained love of women (just Google his name or the name of his Daibosatsu Zendo.) His latest sexual dalliance has resulted in him (and his wife) stepping down from the board of the New York Zendo. Unfortunately, Eido Roshi is not alone among Japanese Zen teachers outside of Japan in seducing or being seduced by his female students.
I turn 75 this year. At least fifty of those years, part of them, were spent training in Zen monasteries in Japan. As a serious student of Japan and Buddhism, I witnessed the considerable restraint that “parishioners” (danka, in Japanese) impose on the Buddhist leaders in their neighborhoods.
Those restraints come from rules that make it absolutely forbidden to father a child with a woman and refuse to marry her. I know of dozens of Japanese priests who have broken that rule and who have been summarily dismissed from their training temples.
There is no similar rule in Japabnese temples governing the conduct of a married priest who has sex outside of marriage. But all of the priests who have done the latter have done so with a professional bar-girl, geisha, ets. I know of only two priests who have had sex with a female STUDENT.
To be clear, there are no female students in the main Zen priest-training temples in Japan. The two instances I mention were foreign women who came to the priests asking to train with them privately. This is a post-war phenomenon, and similar to the situation we have in Zen centers outside of Japan.
I think the sexual misconduct that has gone on in American and European Zen centers has taken place because the Japanese teachers have no parishioners to restrain their sexual urges. They have been treated like holy sages, gurus, whose every whim is taken very seriously. The could not easily get away with their behavior in their own country.
What I have learned from all of this cultural and religious cross-breeding is how fragile our lives are. And how easily we damage them. Out of ignorance or selfish motives we fail to fulfill the very tenets of the Buddhadharma when we take ourselves so seriously that we feel we can tear down accepted social standards of behavior.
Zen Buddhism seems especially guilty of allowing contradictory behavior to seem enlightened. But even Tibetan priests who left their Tibetan communities to teach foreigners have similarly been allowed to act upon their sexual urges with impunity.
As I approach my last years in this amazing dance of life and death, marveling in the self-and-other trips we all must take, I can only hope that Zen and other forms of Buddhism with survive this crisis and not be characterized by it in Wikipedia forever.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
LOVE LETTER TO KURT’S SANGHA ON THE TERM ROSHI AND ITS USE
Recently I have heard that some of you are thinking you should be referring to Kurt as Roshi, and I agree with you. As Kurt’s teacher, the one who ordained him and gave him his priest name, I think he has demonstrated to you what a Roshi is, so this is just a matter of calling a spade a spade. If you do this he will be the first “Cold Mountain” Roshi in America. Let me explain.
The use of the term “Roshi” (老子) has an interesting history. In Japan it is one of several terms associated with the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism, which originated with the Tang Dynasty Chinese priest Lin Chi (臨済), Rinzai in Japanese, who died in 867. Over twenty branches of this denomination existed in China by the time it was brought to Japan by the Japanese priest Eisai (栄西) in 1191, after he had trained in China for a number of years. Japanese Zen is divided into three large branches. Two branches were brought by Japanese priests who went to China to train at the end of the 12th century. A third branch was brought to Japan by a Chinese priest, at the behest of the Japanese Shogun, in the 17th century.
The Rinzai tradition of Eisai retains the large body of literature featuring koans (公案) to aid trainees in their understanding of reality. They convey how Zen masters in the past (most of them from ancient China) broke through to enlightenment. The Soto (曹洞) tradition of Zen, which was brought to Japan by Dogen (道元) does not use koans. The third branch of Chinese Zen, the Huang-po (黄檗), known as Obaku in Japanese, was brought to Japan by the Chinese priest Yin Yuan (陰元), known in Japanese as Ingen. Like Rinzai, Obaku Zen also uses koan literature in its training regimen.
The Chinese priest Han Shan (寒山), or Kanzan, as he is known in Japan, is perhaps best known for his poetry today, and may have been part of the circle of priests around Lin Chi in the 9th century. His “Cold Mountain” Temple in Suzhou is the headquarters of the lineage (that you now belong to.) Perhaps the mutual use of koan training linked the Rinzai and Obaku traditions together for some 500 years, from the 9th century to the 17th, making it no surprise that the Chinese priest Yin Yuan brought with him to Japan some Rinzai priests of the Han Shan lineage in the 1660’s. Nor is it surprising that at the same time Zen temples of the Han Shan lineage sprang up in the same area.
It is this Han Shan branch of Rinzai that I brought to America after studying with Miyauchi Kanko Roshi (宮内寒光老子) in Kameoka for a number of years. It was during a pilgrimage we made together to Buddhist sites in India in 1971, in Patna, that Kanko Roshi gave me his personal seal of succession, or inka (印可). The terms “Roshi” and “inka” were probably used in all sects of Zen in China, but in Japan they indicate that the people using the terms are part of the Rinzai or Obaku denominations rather than Soto. In America the distinction made in Japan still holds, except in groups where the traditions have become mixed. But in recent years the practice of referring to the leader of any Zen group outside of Japan as “Roshi” has become widespread.
In theory the title of Roshi should be conferred on a person with inka succession by that person’s master only when the master is on his deathbed. The title itself (written 老子) means “Old Child” and in practice could not be held by someone who was less than about sixty years of age. Historical records throughout East Asia abound of two old men, separated in age by no more than ten years, passing the title from one to the other, master to disciple. The idea is that two people who have truly plumbed the depths of reality itself are passing on a torch of wisdom and responsibility. That torch is truly alive in only one person at a time in a lineage.
I was around 35 years old when I received inka, and Miyauchi Roshi was approaching 80. He was urging me to take on the responsibilities of the lineage in Japan as well as the temple he grew up in, maintained, and used as his base to minister to neighboring families whose ancestors lived there since the 17th century. I had been an ordained Zen priest since 1968, but the idea of a foreigner taking on the job as abbot of a Japanese temple seems odd to people in Japan, even though that has happened a few times (including one involving a student of mine.)
But for me to stay in Japan, and for my wife Carol and our two sons Burke and Reg to spend the rest of our lives there, away from our relatives in America, did not seem appropriate. We would return almost every year to see how things were going, but my mission seemed to be as an academic and encourager of Zen students. Unfortunately, my opting not to accept my teacher’s kind offer resulted in the end of the line for Cold Mountain practice in Japan. As for the title of Roshi, Master Miyauchi decided that if I was too young to accept it he would refer to me as “Koji” (居士) instead, which implies that I am the one who carries the “Intentions of the Household” (in Sanskrit, the term is grihapati.) In Japan “Koji” is equivalent to “Daishi” (大師), which is like “Saint”.
“Roshi” may have been better after all! Priest names are conferred on disciples almost from the moment they enter the Zendo. Certainly from the moment they formally take refuge in the Buddha, his teachings, and the sangha. Those names, known in Japanese as anmyo (安名), are “names of peace” literally, to distinguish us from our birth names that come with luggage that is blood-related and sometimes bloody. When you receive your anmyo you are immediately a “cloud and water” (雲水) person, who strives to move and behave the way clouds and flowing water do: humbly, helpfully, selflessly. People in Japan then refer to you (male or female) as “Osho-san” (和尚さん), or “Ms./Mr. Peaceful”.
In Japanese temples the first syllable of your anmyo is passed down in your lineage. Ours, of course, is (in Japanese pronunciation) “Kan”. We all are children of Kan (or Han, if you prefer Mandarin), and that Chinese character, as you know means “cold”. The second character you receive from your teacher, who chooses it to make a name for you that will inspire you to be what the name suggests, which is always far beyond what human effort can produce.
Let’s take my name, the priest name I’ve had for over forty years, as examples of how such names work. My name is Kangan (寒巖), which essentially translates as “Cold Rock”. But the Buddhist imagery of the name gets lost in that translation. It makes me sound like a lump, a clod, which I am, but that’s not exactly what the name says I aspire to be. “Cold” in Buddhism is the stunned silence that pervades an early morning scene after a heavy snowfall. It is the chill that leaves everything in suspended animation, with selfish concerns stunned into breathless awareness. Clear sound overwhelms distinctions between self and other, inner and outer, here and there. This beautiful image is what your name begins with, what our names begin with. Buddhist dictionaries say the word cold in practical terms is a synonym for a host of adjectives including nourishing, humble, paternal, fair-minded, and selfless. And we are the object they describe!
Now let’s look at the second character of my priest name, pronounced “gan” in this case. The direct translation of the character is simply “rock”. My response to that is good and bad. First, I was such a sissy as a boy, a piano prodigy who never played sports. It was good to hear in my adult proto-Buddhist stage that I am a rock! Like Stallone! That is definitely good. But I feel bad because my Christian up-bringing cringes at the thought that I must compete with the “rock upon which I will build my church …” (St. Peter, I’m so sorry.)
When I consult Chinese and Japanese Buddhist dictionaries further, in an attempt to get to the heart of the matter, I find that the character “gan” refers to a massive rock, a cliff, really, overlooking the ocean, with crashing waves hitting it over and over, and all sorts of plants and birds finding refuge on it. Now that’s nice. Add the Kan and Gan characters together and Cold Rock becomes a big basalt rock face with fissures for all creatures to take root in while ignorance pounds away on the surface. Becoming a humble and selfless protector for all is not easy for a nervous, self-serving gadfly like me. But that’s my name.
In Japan everyone refers to every else as Mr./Ms. So-and-So, by adding the suffix “san” or “sama” (様、さん、さま) to the name. But it is a cardinal sin, simply unthinkable, to ever refer to yourself with such titles. In other words, in Japan people will always address me as Mr. Webb, or Webb-san. (If they know me well they may call me Glenn-san.) But if they know I am a teacher they may use the suffix “sensei” (先生) meaning teacher (literally, “someone born before me”), so they will say “Webb-sensei” (or just Sensei.) But I will never sign anything or make reference to myself as Mr. or Dr. or Professor Webb or Sensei. Never.
In addition to the priest name that we receive from our teachers, there is also the generic title, Buddhist Priest, which in Japanese has two forms. Most people today in Japan refer to priests as “Obo-san” (お坊さん) or less politely, “Bozu” (坊主). The “bo” in these terms (with a long “o”) refers to the place where Buddhist priests live, i.e., temples. This form for “Buddhist Priest” is not very kind. (It is the form used by Japanese who believe the Buddhist clergy is a burden on society.) A more respectful way of referring to a Buddhist Priest is “Osho” (和尚), a short “o” followed by a long “o”. The word literally means “Peace Everlasting” and the implication is clear that Buddhist clergy are peaceniks. I can refer to my self as an Osho. But others would refer to me as Osho-san (和尚さん).
A further complication: in temples the trainees (unsui-san) usually refer to themselves and to each other using only the second character of their priest name. Thus, I call myself Gan. Others call me Gan-san (巖さん). This is an iron-clad rule. Before he died, my teacher, as I explained earlier, referred to me as Gan-koji. I called him Ko-roshi (光老子), or simply, Roshi-sama (老子様). (Literally his name means Cold Light.)
All of this leads me to Kurt’s priest name, his anmyo. The minute I set eyes on Kurt, back in our make-shift classroom Zendo on the University of Washington campus, I smelled snow. (See above.) He was sitting there, his first day, in full lotus, with the soles of his feet facing up. But they were not in front of him where most Buddhas put them. They were all the way out to the sides of his body, like little TV trays waiting for dishes of popcorn.
Years later when it came time to give him a priest name to legitimize him as the leader of a group of sitters at his university post, I chose the second character Kan (感), which has the literal English sense of “Feelings”. Like my Cold Rock, with its aloof sound, Kurt as Cold Feelings sounds even worse. (Worst of all, of course, is the sound of Kankan, as in French Can-can, to the English ear!) Again, the Buddhist imagery is important here.
The character can and does mean many things, but in Buddhist literature it conveys the sense of the full realization of all things, heart-body-mind realization. Wisdom, perception, empathy, understanding … you get the picture. Unlike my rock image, which is certainly a thing, this one is human - very cerebral/emotional, and tied exclusively to human feelings. Kankan (or, if you prefer the sound better, Kangan – identical to my name) is definitely a human being. That’s your Kurt. What do you think? Am I right?
So far I’ve been talking about the different Japanese customs that impact the way people relate to each other with titles, including those of priests in and out of temples. When you compare those with the customs and titles that have been transplanted outside of Japan, the story is very different. Some Japanese “missionaries” have imposed the Japanese system very strictly, and with mixed results, I think. Others have tried to hybridize and fuse Japanese and non-Japanese ways. Their ways are my ways, but I take them even further than they do. I hate to sound smug, but right or wrong (and by now I hope you know being right doesn’t amount to a hill of beans!) I take living in the moment very seriously: spiritually, but also historically and culturally.
Time and circumstances do indeed have a way of interrupting traditions and sometimes changing them completely. This happened in Japan during the Second World War. All priests were conscripted to fight in the military. And whole lineages, of families as well as temples, died out. By some calculations, after the war Japan’s population had shrunk by almost half. The Zen lineages and those of Buddhism as a whole certainly did not die out. But old traditions in general became suspect, because they were seen as contributing to Japan’s defeat.
It was in this narrative that Japan’s traditional arts, including Buddhist practices, began to take root outside Japan. Or I should say the rooting began with beatniks and hippies who knocked on the doors of Japanese Zen temples and the studios of traditional artists -- some of them so decimated by the war that many had little hope for recovery -- and asked to be admitted as disciples. This was like the victors seeking help from the vanquished. The Japanese were incredulous. Why are these foreigners here? What do they want?
Ordinary pre-War Japanese would never have dreamed of seeking entrance to temples and studios (the way the beatniks and hippies were) unless they were members of a priest family, or a family of artisans. To attempt such a thing would amount to forcing their way into a social class they didn’t belong to by blood. They had their own social class (farmer, merchant, samurai or aristocrat) and couldn’t imagine trying to change it to that of a priest or artisan. Foreigners didn’t know any better. They just wanted enlightenment!
That is how the Zen and other forms of Buddhism began to leave Japan and spread throughout the world. Unlike Christian missionaries (with all due respect in both directions) Buddhist priests have no Great Commission that requires them to go into all the world and spread the Gospel. I think it is fair to say that the priests who actually did leave the country and try their luck in foreign countries felt a little lost. Things looked pretty grim in Japan for priests, but all these foreigners clamoring for their instruction was enticing.
I personally helped a number of them get their green cards and set up shop in the United States. Gurus from India had already established a tradition here in the first decades of the 20th century. And I’m afraid that tradition was continued with regard to attitudes of Westerners towards Japanese spiritual teachers. Big mistake! Each Japanese priest, before leaving Japan, had always been under the strict control of their particular branch of Buddhism, and were supported financially and critically by the dozens, sometimes hundred of families that lived and died in the neighborhood he came from.
Buddhist priests in Japan are not and never were gurus. They have no followers. Disciples, yes, but not followers hungering for enlightenment. Usually their disciples are the sons of other priests in the same order, who send their sons to them for training. (It is said your own father cannot train you properly.) So when the first Japanese Zen priests began arriving in America in the 1950’s some may have felt like they had died and gone to heaven. Or, as some of them expressed to me, “What should I do? Do these people (young Americans and Europeans) want to become real priests or do they just want me to answer their questions? “
Language, of course, was a major obstacle in transmitting Japanese Buddhism to the West. In the best cases the result has been a transformation of Japanese Buddhism into a thoroughly non-Japanese hybrid, appropriate to the cultures in question. Actually, I think that is what the transmission of the Buddhist Dharma requires. If you end up with a bunch of people from one culture just imitating people from another culture, you don’t have much, in my opinion. For me, having faith in one’s teacher and his teachings is not a matter of believing or doing what you are told without having some understanding of his culture and the culture that produced his teaching.
Using the Japanese term Roshi in your sangha (another term worthy of discussion) may not have as much significance as the term Mister -- or Doctor, or Professor, or Reverend, or just Dear Friend -- to people who speak English and have grown up in America. It in fact is a Chinese term that has no equivalent in the Pali/Sanskrit texts of Indian Buddhism. “Old Child” was a Chinese title used for great Chinese teachers long before Buddhism was introduced in China.
Sometime in the second century AD, Chinese emperors started adding the new religion of Buddhism to the ritual Daoism (and practical Confucianism) that had always controlled ancestor worship and funerals. This sparked a religious debate lasting for a thousand years, beautifully chronicled in a late third century text called “Daoism [Old Child] Versus Barbarian [Buddhist] Teachings”(老子化胡経), a text that in the 1920’s was included (No. 2139) in the mammoth Japanese Taisho Period collection of Buddhist scriptures and related texts. As the title of that work shows, the term Roshi had been associated so completely with the semi-historical founder of Daoism, Laozi (Lao-Tse in pre-Communist Romanization), that the Chinese considered “Roshi” to be synonymous with Daoism.
But a little less than two thousand years ago the founders of the Rinzai tradition of Zen Buddhism in China used the term Roshi for their oldest, most venerated leaders, and the practice was continued in Japan. As a nominally Rinzai group in America you probably have more right to the term than other American Zen groups. But you could follow the Chinese precedent of using a native term for a foreign religion by choosing an American title for your leader. It really is up to you. What’s in a name, after all? May I suggest “Lover Boy”?
With deep love and respect,
Glenn Taylor Webb, also known as Cold Rock
Age 74, March 4, 2010, Palm Desert, CA
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
THE STORY OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN AS A PARABLE ABOUT AMERICA TODAY
It occurs to me that the story of the Good Samaritan is an effective parable about America today. Samaritans in ancient Jewish history were (and still are, the few that remain) outcastes. The fact that the writer of Luke chose to preface the word Samaritan with “good” is appropriate, because Jews never saw a good Samaritan. That is why the ostensibly good Jews, the priests and Levites, who walked along a country road, did nothing to help the Samaritan who lay raped and pillaged at the side of the road. The lesson of the parable, as presented by Jesus, is to chastise orthodox Jews for not being able to help a person because their religion deemed such people unworthy.
As a modern parable, I see the lesson this way: President Obama and people who now bear the label “liberal” have been raped and pillaged by the conservatives in the GWB (last letter standing for a word rhyming with “tush”) camp. The priests and Levites in this analogy are so certain of their religion and politics that they have lost sight of human compassion, the hallmark of their religion, i.e., Christianity. Judging by the large number of objections my comments in “Great Depression Babies” elicited, I would say my interpretation of this old parable, while effective, will bring me more misery. Let me just say that anyone who is against a healthcare plan that will bring comfort to people who cannot afford health insurance is conservative only in the way that the Gospels find despicable.
Monday, March 1, 2010
Beyond a Moral Compass
In my paper “A Moral Compass” I tried to differentiate in a very general way between Eastern and Western religions by pointing out their profoundly different doctrines. I also editorialized a bit with the recommendation that we not take the doctrines so literally that we end up losing what Karen Armstrong calls “practical compassion” or missing what Alexander McCall Smith says is the “moral compass” in all religions.
In the wake of that paper, a number of questions surfaced about Eastern religion, a couple in particular: one concerns the worship of Buddhist images, and the other concerns the ancient Chinese traditions of Confucianism and Daoism.
In “A Moral Compass” I purposely did not bring those issues up, and people seem to want to know why. What follows is my response, starting with the question about Buddhist image worship.
Many people, Asian and non-Asian, have been exposed to the sight of family members or friends “worshipping” the Buddha or Buddhist images of various kinds. They have asked why I have not included that practice in what I wrote about Buddhism in general. That question is especially appropriate, since I am regarded by my peers as something of an expert in Buddhist iconography, or the meanings behind the statues and paintings made by Buddhists for devotional purposes.
After years of studying Buddhist doctrine, when I actually went to Japan, Korea, China, Tibet, and Thailand, to do graduate fieldwork, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of devotional images everywhere I looked. I wanted to study them, to know what they represented and how they were used by believers. The same impulse had driven me much earlier in my life regarding Christian images.
As a child growing up in the Church of Christ, a Scottish brand of Protestantism (but not, I must add, the brand known as Presbyterianism), I was taught that making and using Christian images (such as Christ on the cross, and even a simple crucifix) was idolatry. My teachers were especially dismissive of the Roman and Orthodox Catholic faiths for their widely-known use of images (and for all the other reasons that are buried in history but still throb with pain and resentment in the Catholic/Protestant struggle.)
In the Churches of Christ in southwestern Oklahoma and Texas there were no Christian symbols for me to see. A typical church building was a very plain structure with the barest of essentials. The congregation faced a speaker’s platform behind which was a built-in tank of water for baptisms. There was a lady, however, who came to my church (and to hundreds of other Churches of Christ, I later learned) to paint scenes of the River Jordan on the three background walls of our baptistery.
I was entranced by the realistic scene she created of a woodland setting with a stream, drawn in perspective, and a white dove floating in the blue sky above. The river seemed to flow into the very water where at age ten I was “buried with Christ” in full emersion, “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” For me, at the time at least, such magical set-designs made up for the lack of art in the Church of Christ circle.
At a fairly young age (perhaps in reaction to the iconoclasm of my faith) I became interested in art history, which is to say Christian art. It was not until very recently that I had the opportunity to see for myself the great monuments of Christian art in European churches and museums, but even before entering college (in 1953) I knew hundreds of them from photographs in books.
Maybe because of this personal experience, I was not surprised to learn, in my subsequent studies of Buddhism, that there were no images made of the historical Buddha for centuries after his death. After all, I had grown up understanding that there were no images of Jesus in the early Christian community. So it seemed logical that the first images of Shakyamuni were not made right away.
In my mind I guess I concluded that these two men became objects of worship only after they were long dead, when their followers needed to see their heroes. I think I also wondered if there was not some link between them, in as much as the images of Jesus and Shakyamuni began to appear historically at roughly the same time.
Christian images first appeared in Rome under Contantine (d. 337), and Buddhist images appeared in Pakistan and India under the Kushan Kings at about the same time. Not only that, but the images in both places had their heads backed by golden haloes of light, signifying the transcendent nature of themselves and their teachings.
Since many of the first Buddhist images wore toga-like robes and were made by artists from Roman outposts (such as Gandhara in Pakistan), it is a good guess that the influence went from West to East, carried by Roman converts to Buddhism. They may have felt it was about time their newly-adopted faith in Asia had images like those in Christian Rome.
Whatever the case, for well over 2000 years, the making of devotional images of the founders and other subjects of Buddhist and Christian veneration has flourished. Just as it is possible to distinguish image-rich Catholicism from generally iconoclastic Protestantism in the West, similar observations can be made about which forms of Buddhism make liturgical use of images and those that do not.
Let me say unequivocally that there is no form of Buddhism in the world that regards religious images with the disdain that the Church of Christ does in the American south and southwest. Not even Islam, which is quick to level the charge of idolatry on other religions for daring to depict God in human form, can compare. At least Muslim children can take pride in the rich heritage of their faith’s architecture and decorative art.
When my Sunday school teachers wanted to show me what idolatry was they pointed to the poor misguided Latin American Catholics with their churches filled with statues they brought out on festival days. Above all, my teachers snarled at statues of the Virgin Mary, the very embodiment of the corruption of Roman Catholic history. When I said I thought that our worship of money, or even our arrogant defense of our “true” religion could be idolatry, too, they dismissed me as the spoiled brat I was.
With that in mind, I left the “use of idols” in Buddhist Asia out of my “A Moral Compass” paper. But it must be said that every Buddhist denomination in Asia reveres religious icons, and the ideas behind them. Even Zen temples, the Buddhist denomination with the least number of Buddha statues and paintings (and few liturgical texts governing their use in practice), have images of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom Manjushri in their meditation halls. This image is meant to help trainees remember that they must respect deep silence over their most learned rhetoric: in his famous debate with the scientist Vimalakirti, Manjushri came to see that both science and religious imaginings were of limited value, and useless when it came to probing the mysteries of the truly wonderful.
If Zen is less guilty of idolatry in Buddhism, Tantric and Pure Land denominations practice exactly what my upbringing would describe as idolatry. Tantric Buddhism, which is best seen in Tibetan Buddhism, exists as well in all parts of East Asia (e.g., Tendai and Shingon in Japan.) Of all forms of Buddhism, this one seems at first glance to be close to Hinduism, simply because of the vast number of deities in its pantheon.
But the aim of Enlightenment in Tantric sects of Buddhism is clearly Buddhist rather than Hindu: each of us can aim for it without actually waiting for all parts of ourselves to wake up in what amounts to universal perfection. Each Tantric Buddha (including all forms of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and guardians) has specific names, powers, and duties of his (or her) own. Each can be summoned by Tantric priests, and can offer assistance of an appropriate kind to supplicants.
Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the Lord Who Sees the Cries of Suffering, and best known today by “her” Chinese name, Kuanyin, is a favorite subject for statues and paintings throughout the Buddhist world. For Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama is believed to be the present incarnation of Avalokiteshvara. This veneration of a living Buddha is unique to Tantric Buddhism in Tibet, but it is merely another way that supernatural help is offered to individual believers who cannot easily awaken on their own. Tibetan Buddhists clearly act towards His Holiness the Dalai Lama in ways that can only be called worshipful.
They also consider some statues and paintings of specific deities to be more powerful than others. So it seems reasonable to say that Tantric Buddhists do indeed worship Buddhas of many forms, including the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. But they certainly are not worshipping him or any Buddha as the creator of the universe. They are just following a form of Buddhism that allows them to seek outside help in their quest for full self realization.
Another form of Buddhism offering help outside oneself is Pure Land Buddhism, which is based primarily on the two Sukhavati-vuya Pure Land texts. Pure Land Buddhism (which in Japan has two branches, the Jodo-shu and the Jodoshin-shu) reserves a special place of honor for the Buddha Amitabha in its practice. He is described as an especially compassionate Awakened Being (his name means Buddha of Infinite Light and Love”) who made a holy vow to bring all forms of life in all castes or states of being, regardless of their karmic past, into a karma-free realm, or Pure Land, where they can escape the chain of rebirth long enough to purify themselves and return to the karmic level, finishing their lives as useful creatures fit for Buddhahood.
This version of Buddhist doctrine (which a Theravadin priest in Thailand once described to me, with a twinkle in his eye, as “the most creative form of Mahayana Buddhism”) was born in China to appeal especially to the laboring masses who had little opportunity to develop their minds and practice the meditation required to reach the higher spiritual levels that are the goals in most sects of Buddhism.
At the same time, the founders of Pure Land Buddhism were suggesting that even the most spiritually mature person, on his own effort, was still incapable of living the sort of selfless life of wisdom and compassion that would lead to a breakthrough into Buddhahood. All of us, Pure Land Buddhists say, need help; and of all the help offered by Awakened Beings in Buddhist scripture, the holy vow made by the Buddha Amitabha is clearly the surest way for all sentient beings to follow.
The Chinese Communist Revolution altered Buddhism and all religions there forever by banning them for thirty years and then allowing them to open for business again under government control. In China the Pure Land form of Buddhist practice is almost indistinguishable from other denominations; it is so mixed with others that “Buddhism” serves as the government’s general term to refer to all.
As a result, Chinese Pure Land temples often includes Zen meditation as well as the
chanting of Amitabha’s name. The fat and dirty 8th-century Zen monk/hero, nicknamed “Cloth Bag” (Pu Tai, known as Hotei in Japan) frequently takes the place of the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya, on Chinese temple altars. And I have seen quite a few images of Daoist deities in Chinese Buddhist temples, looking not the least bit out of place.
Buddhist denominational differences are preserved in Japan like countless other foreign things that were brought into the country hundreds and hundreds of years ago. So I will use the Pure Land tradition there to make a general comment on what that denomination may have looked like anywhere in East Asia between the 12th and 19th centuries.
There are two forms of Pure Land doctrine in Japan, one following on the heels of the other, historically speaking. Honen (1133-1212), established the faith in Japan, following Chinese teachers who emphasized the necessity of chanting the name of the Buddha Amitabha as a sign of devotion and faith in his holy vow to “save” the faithful in his Pure Land (J. Jodo). But Honen’s disciple Shinran took the teaching to an even simpler level. Faith alone, coming from a pure heart of dependence, was all that was necessary.
Therefore, the underlying focus of Pure Land Buddhism is tenaciously on the Buddha of Infinite Light and Love. But the means of focus is vocal in one branch of the faith (Jodo-shu) – with endless repetition of the name of Amitabha in prayer bringing the believer into a state of utter devotion, while the focus on the Holy Vow of Amitabha in the other branch (Jodo Shin-shu) is silent, buried deep in the believer’s heart, without any outward sign of self effort.
Pure Land temples in Japan are almost as austere as Zen temples, except for the focus on Amitabha. A statue of him is always the main image on the altar, with the Chinese Pure Land patriarch Shantao on one side and Honen on the other. In Jodo-shu temples another statue of Amitabha will be in a room where serious group chanting (nembutsu) can be done, with each person supplied with a copy of scripture and a small percussion block known as a “Wooden Fish” (mokugyo) to set the rhythmic beat.
All of this is not so far from Christian evangelical worship, with chanting taking the place of praise songs and Amitabha standing in for a personal Jesus. Even though the Buddhist focus is not on a personal God in Heaven, it is just too close for me to feel comfortable, in either place. At the risk of sounding foolish (but still wanting to explain why I left Tantric and Pure Land practices out of my previous attempt to put Eastern and Western religions in perspective), I would say that for me Tantric Buddhism is too Catholic and Pure Land Buddhism is too Protestant.
Now, as to the question of Daoism and Confucianism, and why I chose not to mention them in my “Moral Compass” paper, the simple answer is I consider them to be stuck in a view of reality that inherently excludes half the world. At first the Western religions were similarly stuck, appealing only to people in the ancient Near East, but gradually going international. Anyone can convert to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. The same is true of Buddhism, which had a huge boost from the person we speak of as the historical Buddha in India. Just as Jesus (with Paul’s help) opened up Judaism by making his new form of Jewishness available to everyone, Shakyamuni likewise opened up the Brahmanic view to all humanity, by challenging the Hindu caste system of laws governing each caste in Indian society, and giving everyone the same law (Dharma) to live by. From that time onward, anyone has been free to convert to Buddhism.
But the ancient Chinese view of the way the world works has ancestral trappings that prevent the conversion-friendly nature of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism from ever developing. For this reason, Westerners attracted to Daoism, for example, study it as a philosophy rather than adopt it as a religion. Confucianism is a bit friendlier, at least to East Asians, because it provides practical solutions to everyday problems. But it, too, when fully carried out to the letter, requires practitioners to honor (and yes, worship) their ancestors above all else. The major East West religions, on the other hand, are transcendental rather than ancestral.
Every civilization on earth began its journey towards religion with ancestor worship, which we normally speak of as folk religion. Such “religions” predate the transcendental religions we’ve been looking at. Daoism and Confucianism, despite developing philosophical traditions of great beauty, are tied to the oldest ancestor worship systems in North, East, and Southeast Asia. Some are still alive today (none more plainly so than Japanese Shinto.) Ancestor worship in India before Hinduism is not alive today as a separate entity, but the hints of it we have seen are un-Chinese.
Relics found in ancient Chinese tombs, as well as in modern ones, show the clearest evidence of the ancestor worship that drove Daoism and Confucianism from the outset. Oracle-bone geomancy going back some 2000 years before the Christian era reveals that maintaining a harmonious relationship between heaven and earth was always the goal of the Chinese people. That goal was given the name Dao (Tao) or Way, and was thought to be made up of two opposing elements: the earthly-dark-wet-female Yin and heavenly-light-dry-male Yang.
The ancient Chinese assumed that before being born we were in a state of perfect harmony in the Dao. But once we enter this world we face a life-long struggle to achieve a balance between Yin and Yang. Such harmony in life, filled with the spirit-breath of life-and-death known as Chi, was believed to be almost impossible to achieve. So when a person died it was left to his living relatives to assist him achieve a harmonious spirit.
Through ritual burial offerings of food, bronze vessels, money, paintings and statues, the Yin-inspired part of the dead would be persuaded not to stay unhappy and incomplete in the dark earth but to reunite with its Yang-inspired part in the life-giving heat of the sun. These offerings also added to the inadequate supply of spirit-breath that the dead may have achieved in life.
The ancient Confucian classics– especially the Book of Changes (I-Zhing) and the Book of Ritual (Li-Zhing) – offer precise instructions as to how the living should maintain harmony in the family through ancestor worship. In its bare outlines, fathers are in charge of families, regional rulers are over families, the emperor is head of the entire nation, and heaven is over the emperor.
Such division into high and low is the foundation of Confucian morality. It was also incorporated in folk religions in much of Asia. Male-dominant societies are nothing new (in fact, they are still with us), but the Confucian sense of high/low is not only sexist, it also contains a certain elitist element that says the brightest people are obviously superior to the not-so-bright, and the wealthy people are educated, thus probably superior, etc. In short, the high are superior and the low are inferior.
Because of the Daoist/Confucian answer to what happens after we die, there is an implied responsibility on the high to take care of the low and a deeply felt duty on the part of the “inferior” to obey the commandments of the “superior”. The relationship is that of parent to child and child to parent. Bottom line: children will feel obliged to defend and correct the faults of dead parents without fail, and expect their children to do the same for them.
I hear Westerners say all the time that so-and-so is looking down on them from heaven. And Jewish, Christian and Islamic doctrines do not suffer very much as a result. But ask almost anyone in Buddhist Asia if they believe their ancestral spirits are alive and must be honored by daily rituals; they will say yes, which puts them in open conflict with basic Buddhist doctrine, which teaches that within forty-nine days after we die we are reborn in a form of our own karmic creation (unless, of course, we have attained full awakening as a Buddha.) Old beliefs die hard, and are often retained, sometimes in formal ways.
Japan is a case in point: when Buddhism was established in the 6th century as the state religion, about half the nation’s Shinto priest families, who had been in the business of keeping family records straight for centuries, were asked by the new Buddhist government to allow their sons to become Buddhist priests, who then became heads of families responsible for educating children and preparing bodies for Buddhist cremations. Shinto priest families merely continued attending to newborns and overseeing their stages of growth, including the arranged marriages that keep things in the family.
Buddhism thus had a steady supply of priests in the eldest sons of many Shinto priest families whose class identity before the 6th century had been as priests in “the Way of the Gods”. Buddhism was formally acknowledged in Shinto as “Both Aspect” (Ryobu) Shinto, in which every ancestral spirit was also identified as a specific Buddhist deity. Carried into ordinary Japanese life, most families have both Shinto and Buddhist altars in their homes to honor the dead in both aspects.
My students are used to hearing me say that Shinto is not a religion, but a national ancestral organization. It has played a vital role in Japanese history, longer than Buddhism. But it is not a religion that people outside of Japan can convert to. To put it another way, when a Japanese person goes to a Shinto shrine on some important occasion, such as when an infant child is brought to be formally introduced to the ancestral gods enshrined there and receive their blessing, the person and the child must be Japanese. The idea that a non-Japanese person (even one of mixed race) would participate in such a ritual is unthinkable.
On the other hand, my wife and I have lived in Japan long enough, and have so many dear Japanese friends, that we have been asked to participate in Shinto birth ceremonies and weddings. On one occasion we acted as the official go-betweens (nakodo) in a wedding, for which we had to have the approval of the Shinto national registry, but only after we ourselves were registered as members of a Japanese family rather than the foreigners we are.
This is a very long answer to the questions about idolatry and ancestor worship in Buddhism, which I now must admit exist in Eastern cultures in the ways I have described. But I would offer the plea to realize that these elements are not at the core of the Eastern religious mainstream, e.g., Hinduism and Buddhism.
They do not altar in any way the vast difference between the theistic world of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and the atheistic world of Hinduism and Buddhism. I would say the worship of transcendental images in Asia is probably a relic of a premature religious consciousness, in which ancestor worship played a vital part, and which has indeed had an effect on how people in the Eastern cultures of our world live their lives, now as in the past.
- Glenn T. Webb, in Palm Desert, May 19, 2009.