Monday, June 5, 2017
There's an old hymn, "The Holy Spirit," that some Christian Protestants sing on Pentecost Sunday. That day this year, in 2017, was just a little earlier this month, on June 3rd. My wife and I were in the audience that morning at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, CA. The hymn is not great music, but it has some powerful lyrics. For example: "[The Holy Spirit will remain with us] ... till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes ... and far surpasses the power of human telling." Old-fashioned English. But it's message is about true transcendence of death, and way beyond that.
The word "Pentecost" is derived from the Greek word for "fifty". As a kid growing up in a Christian family, I understood that the first Pentecost Sunday marked the very moment, some two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, fifty days after Easter (i.e., after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus), that Christianity as a religion was born. Pentecost is all about the Holy Spirit showing itself as "flames of fire" and "roaring wind" to Jesus' mother and brothers, his twelve apostles, and to a motley crew of about a hundred Jews and non-Jews. The New Testament says this frightening form of the Holy Spirit actually sat on the heads of this group of first Christians around 9 o'clock that morning, and made them seem like they were crazy drunk. (It apparently created more chaos than Trump's first fifty days.)
In any case, the old "Holy Spirit" hymn is about the Holy Spirit that is still alive today. Christians who sing it believe that despite how illogical any description of the Holy Spirit may be, its power will benefit them even after death. They feel sure they will be transformed after they die into something better than they were when they were alive. Now, I don't know about you, but this sounds similar to the recitation of Amida's name in Pure Land Buddhism. Jodo Shu Nembutsu seems to work in ways similar to the Christian Holy Spirit. I believe they both promise a true transcendence of death.
At St. Margaret's on Pentecost, earlier this month, the hymn was sung at the close of the service. Before that, scriptures were read and other hymns were sung, the celebration of Christ's body and blood was shared, and the Rector offered a short sermon about how the Holy Spirit works. He said something to the effect that "the Holy Spirit can only blow into us if we open the window of our hearts." That sounded good. Everyone agreed. But then he said, "However, another window has to be open in order for the roaring wind to blow out of us." You could almost hear the audience muttering, "What the hell is he talking about?" He went on to explain that people at Pentecost became caretakers of the miraculous power that Jesus gave to human beings. We have been in charge of how we live our lives ever since. We have the power to do good things with that power. The spirit of Christ will enter us if we let it. But we have to let it go to others if we expect it to be of any use at all. Letting it out helps us truly respect our families and others as the precious beings they are. We then see clearly that we are them.
I was born in 1935, one year before Rev. Reikai Nozaki started the Jodo Shu ministry in America. My life took a direction that most Americans did not take. It wasn't planned, but I turned out to be a specialist in East Asian cultural history. Japan, especially, has been a great teacher for the Webb family. The Christian narrative of our childhoods, with its long history of great music and art, is still very much part of who we are. But my study in college of the art and religions of the world, and especially my study of Japanese history and art, brought Buddhism very close and made it personal.
My three major professors at Kyoto University insisted that I train in Zen temples while continuing my studies. (Ironically, those great teachers all came from Pure Land backgrounds.) The practice of zazen for fifty years has opened my window to a slightly different window. But it, too, has an adjoining window to the world. Rev. Atone and Rev. Tanaka have helped me keep that window open. There's still plenty of wind blowing through my windows before that final transcendent death. Let's make sure all of us have our windows open, and show our children the value of keeping theirs open, too.
(Transcript of lecture prepared for the 80th Anniversary Celebration of the Jodo Shu Ministry in North America, Los Angeles, CA, in June 2017.)
Saturday, March 25, 2017
The Will of God and the Peace of Christ
From my vantage point at age 80 it seems I have spent every waking moment of my life trying to (in the words of the Oxford Dictionary) “analyze [the Laws of God] into workable parts and describe their syntactic roles.” “Parse” is the word usually linked to that definition (rather than “God”) and it usually is limited to looking carefully at a sentence or a text (often but not always a religious text.) I know I am not the only person in history who has been so obsessed, and I also know that most people find such an obsession strange.
Very early in my life I became so confused by the contradictions and anomalies of Biblical texts that I was ready to kill myself. It is then that I started parsing, or if you will, finessing the Will of God. I knew very well the warning that Paul gave the Colossians, namely, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy … according to the elemental spirits of the universe … [rather than the teachings of] Christ” (Col. II, 2:10-12.) In other words, human reason, including the latest findings of scientific exploration, does not help anyone (or at least any Christian) know God.
To the point, I wanted to know what happens after we die. I learned that every monotheistic form of religion (i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam) said we would spend eternity in heaven or hell after death. But to this day I do not know if that is true, or even if heaven and hell exist. Nor do I know anyone who does. And yet all wars and acts of terrorism, in the past and now, are fought over that unanswered question. Who is right? Who is to say if it matters? I adore religions for their narratives, which teach us about the human condition. I also love the gigantic body of music and art that has come out of the Christian Church for over 2000 years.
If I ever see him I will be the first person to tell the Apostle Paul that I have not heeded his warning. For sixty-three years I have been thoroughly captivated by Buddhist teachings regarding intensive meditation, leading to a perception of myself as not separated by anything on earth (or in heaven, for that matter.) However, I cannot say that the Hindu/Buddhist notion of reincarnation is true, either. I can say, as a Zen priest (and on a good day, when I’m not ranting at people for not going my way), that with my last breath I will extol the Peace of Christ.
For this reason, I am sympathetic to the Democratic nominee for Vice President, Tim Kaine, who has also parsed his childhood Catholic faith. He clearly is a man of very good will. He is a Roman Catholic educated by Jesuits. Sen. Kaine can waffle on the Church’s teachings on adultery, abortion and homosexuality because he also favors following laws that promote human rights. At the same time he uses his faith to fight against killing and racism. He seems to have been born with a heart that wants justice and liberty for all. He has fought and won cases against corruption wherever he sees it. He will not fight Dear Bernie’s revolution, but that, I believe is a good thing. Even the word “revolution” would put Mr. Trump in the Whitehouse for sure.