Monday, June 5, 2017
Pentecost, Nembutsu & Zen
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.)