Why Asia?

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

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

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

St. Margaret's Forum



              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 () 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 ().  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 (), 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 (), 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?   

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