Thursday, September 1, 2016
Living As If …
Friends here in the California desert who know something about my life and Carol’s life today often ask the two of us, “When you go into LA to the Pure Land Buddhist temple and school to teach Japanese students visiting from Bukkyo University in Kyoto, what do you teach? Do you teach them English?” They usually are surprised to learn that no, we do not teach English because the students have classes in English during the short time they are here, taught by two well-trained ESL teachers. The answer is that we teach them about God and Buddhism.
We have done this ever since we retired (in 2004) from Pepperdine University, the Church of Christ school in Malibu. We also have spent a semester each year teaching undergraduates and graduates in the Pure Land (Jodo-shu) university in Kyoto, Japan. (Note: “Bukkyo” means “Buddhist” or “Buddhism” in Japanese.) Explaining to Japanese students and American neighbors how East and West are miles apart in almost every way conceivable -- is not easy! We needed help.
The priests/administrators of Bukkyo University Los Angeles (BULA), Rev. Dr. Joji Atone and Rev. Kodo Tanaka have been very kind to us for over twenty years, inviting us to teach these classes in Los Angeles and act as advisors each year to three students from the Kyoto campus who spend a full year at the College of the Desert, near our home. They also have encouraged me to write articles they have published in both English and Japanese for “Light of Wisdom,” the denomination journal.
Our format for sometime now has been to discuss our fundamentally different views of existence first, and secondly to compare everyday cultural traits, such as bathing, eating, rules governing behavior inside and outside of the home, and how schools are run. Our language differences are discussed all the time, in both English and Japanese. For some time Rev. Tanaka and I have worked as a team, trying to get the students to express their own opinions and making sure everything is clear to them. The class is fairly intensive, going two mornings or all in one day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
We always start with God and what we call the “God Story” that all Jews, Christians and Muslims base their understanding of human existence upon. We start by showing them how “In God We Trust” is on every U.S. dollar bill. Then we discuss trust in a Creator Being as an all-encompassing belief that leads to worship. As children whose personal and national identity is found in Shinto and reverence for ancestors, and whose state religion is the one taught by the historical Buddha (whom they will assure you had nothing to do with their birth much less the creation of the world), these kids have no concept of God. At this point some person in the group usually says something like, “Japanese don’t have a religion like that.” And that is true enough.
Yesterday we returned from our latest session with Bukkyo students in LA. This time Rev. Tanaka had the brilliant idea of having the God Story acted out by the students themselves. He chose one male student to be God. Someone switched off the lights in the room, then at Rev. Tanaka’s prompting the student said in a loud voice, “Let there be light!” and the light was switched back on. (Very dramatic!) Then the boy was told to say he would create a person “in His own image” and Adam popped up to stand by God’s side. Then Adam said he was lonely. So the boy who was God took a rib from his colleague Adam’s side (rather roughly) and Rev. Tanaka led a young woman over to stand with God and Adam.
This went on for some time, through a little more Genesis, at which point we asked the students to consider this part of the God Story. Could they believe it? Nobody could. They questioned how anyone could. We pointed out that even Americans who claim not to be religious use the word “God” in times of crisis, as in, “Oh, my God!” And every disaster shown on TV includes survivors who say things like, “This was God’s will” or “God took care of us. We are so blessed.” The idea that some powerful being “in heaven” was looking down on them and protecting some people while others died seemed preposterous and every silly. The students argued that their parents had made them and that any thought of them being made by the God of the Jews, Christians or Muslims was ridiculous.
Asked what they thought happened to us after we die the first response was, “we turn into smoke and ashes that ultimately are scattered on the ground.” Others pointed out that most families have some of their dead relatives’ ashes kept in a jar in Buddhist temples. At that I asked if they believed their ancestors had spirits or souls. Everyone said yes. “In fact,” as one kid pointed out, “everyone in Japan visits the temples where all their relatives’ remains are kept in order to light candles so that their ancestors spirits can find the way back to the human realm for a yearly visit. This is the festival of Obon (お盆), literally, a tray offering for the dead. In Sanskrit the word is ullambana, and refers to prayers and offerings of food prepared for spirits caught in the cycle of rebirth that Hinduism and Buddhism say all beings are subject to. This brought us to the topic of reincarnation. So we asked them about what they thought about reincarnation. That topic is explained differently by different denominations of Buddhism, but it is accepted as a fact.
I enjoy reading what scientists have found out about how the universe came out of the Big Bang and developed, life along with it, after zillions of years. Evidence of that development is completely convincing. But then I wonder what led to the Big Bang in the first place. Religions have been the only real source of information about that. I have been pretty clear with everyone about my own understanding of both the God Story and the Hindu/Buddhist notion of reincarnation. Since we have no proof of either theory, I am a skeptic. I simply do not know if God and reincarnation are true. The terms agnostic or atheist are both too strong to apply to me, I think. I am willing simply to live as if the two perceptions of life and death are true. We have a thousand-year-old history of glorious music and art thanks to the Christian version of the God Story. I have been a student of both all my life. And the Zen side of Buddhism has provided me with a means of entering into profound perceptions of selfhood that I would never have reached otherwise. I have learned that I may be an only child but my selfhood is indisputably linked to every being on earth. Carol has always encouraged Japanese students not just to appreciate but to go back to Japan and actually take lessons in the spiritual arts, the “Ways” of tea and flowers, that Zen provides. It is for these reasons that I enjoy living as if Western religions and Eastern philosophies were true.
I realize that such confessions on my part have worked at cross-purposes for my relatives and some friends in Christianity. More and more I am coming to realize that confessing some doubt about the reality of reincarnation may be irritating to my friends in Pure Land Buddhism, too. It is true that I have been quite critical of some religious doctrines and practices in the West, particularly in the Church of Christ that I grew up in. That has resulted in ending many friendships I had as a child. On the Buddhist side, even though I took vows in Japan as a Zen priest in 1968 and have led Zen students through their paces ever since, I have criticized the structure of Japanese Zen and the behavior of many Zen priests at the same time. But to my great delight, I have found priests of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan to be exceptionally willing to explore Buddhist teachings. The great Japanese spokesman for Zen history and culture, the beloved Daisetsu Suzuki (1870-1966), was himself from a family of Pure Land believers in the JodoShin-shu denomination. To my surprise, many of my other Zen teachers in Kyoto were also born into that denomination. I have come to believe that Buddhist scholarship in Japan has come largely from Pure Land backgrounds.
But I’m now sure I am running the risk of alienating Pure Land believers by not treating reincarnation as a fact. I may only be confessing doubt, but for most of the people on earth that is like expressing doubt about the existence of God. For that reason I plan to keep my mouth shut on the subject for the rest of my life, which I hope is not too much longer. I’m dying to find out what happens, really. Last Saturday I tried to get the Japanese students in our class to put into words what they would say about Buddhism to their host-families in Temecula, CA (where they are scheduled to be at this very moment.)
I was prepared to hear things like, “Buddhism is about enlightenment,” or “It’s a philosophy of life,” or even “We Japanese are Buddhists in name only.” We had prepared them to be careful about answering whether or not Buddhists believe in God, because we had one boy last year whose host-parents had him baptized. (The kid thought it was cool.) My favorite moment came when one young woman, who had been more quiet and hesitant to speak than anyone, instead of answering our question, got up and slowly walked over to the blackboard and wrote two Sino-Japanese characters (Kanji) to express what she wanted her host-parents to know about Buddhism. She wrote 利他 (altruism, benefitting others) - I was speechless.