- Written by: Carlo Barlaan
These are exceptional times. America faces its most challenging public health crisis since 1918, its most serious economic crisis since 1929, and its most violent civil unrest since 1968. In times of political, economic, and social uncertainty, it is easy for society’s members to make sense of their situation in a black-and-white, dualistic, moralizing lens. The most common lens: that we are involved in a struggle between good and evil. How many leaders and experts have utilized the language of struggle to lead or even mislead their constituents? How many ads, press briefings, news reports, and even office memos refer to beating, fighting, war, enemies, and justice? The most expedient way for society’s leaders to mobilize public opinion and allocate resources on a grand scale is to harden people’s sense of righteous self and wrongful other. In Buddhist terms, this means to radically enhance their attachment to form.
With all the uncertainty around us, we see the consequences of attachment; we see each of the five aggregates of attachment at work. In the case of the pandemic, we have forms such as the virus itself, media images from abroad of the sick and dying, and shortages of sanitizing supplies. The other four aggregates – sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness – come into play immediately. Citizens feel threatened, assume the worst, point fingers, perceive each other as enemies, hoard supplies, price-gouge, and engage in displays of national fervor and even outright ethnic discrimination.
In the case of civil unrest, we have forms such as police, victims, and video imagery of brutality. Again, feelings of anger and the perception of threat to the individual and collective self are heightened. Demonstrators turn out on the streets and freeways. Confrontations erupt between them, the police, and passing motorists. Property is vandalized. Businesses are looted. Buildings are set on fire. People die. Retribution is rationalized. It’s good vs. evil, systemic victims vs. systemic oppressors, justice vs. injustice, absolute right vs. absolute wrong. State actors, social agents, and other participants live in the illusion of their own justification and reality, and the suffering goes on and on… How do we extricate ourselves from this seemingly unceasing cycle of suffering, from this realm of human misery?
We free ourselves by exercising wisdom and compassion – the wisdom to recognize the emptiness of the forms that surround us, and the compassion to treat all sentient beings with as they live in a state of interconnectedness. Wisdom and compassion cut through all notions of independent reality. All minds, now freed of form and illusion, settle in a land of purity.
When I see representations of Shakyamuni Buddha, Amida Buddha, and the Boddhisattvas Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara, when I hear or read the words of our teachers, I am reminded that by freeing our minds and practicing wisdom and compassion, the pure land can be here and now in our minds and hearts, in spite of all the uncertainty and passions that have arisen around us.
- Written by: Jeff-Shannon Davidson
Introduction: You probably know the story of Siddhartha who was born more than 2500 years ago in India and who grew up to become the Buddha. Now, imagine another young person following a similar path toward enlightenment but born approximately 14 years ago in Berkeley… and imagine that her name is Mika Suzuki.
Mika was sitting in the living room reading a book. She liked to read a lot, but lately, it seemed like that was all she could do. She was normally an active teen ager, a good student, a fairly good basketball player, and a total social butterfly at the ice-cream parlor where all her friends like to hang out. But since this “pandemic-thing” happened, she really couldn’t do any of that. “No wonder my butt hurts” she said to her mom. “I’ve been sitting here for six weeks.”
“So the ice-cream eating basketball player doesn’t exist anymore? Is that right?” Her mom asked. “Well who is this person sitting in my living room now?”
“I’ll have to think about that” Mika said.
“Well,” said her mom. “That’s a start… you are a person who thinks.”
“Yeah. I was thinking I’m bored and my butt hurts.”
“Ah,” said her mother. “That could be the first step toward enlightenment. You have gained some insight into your existence. What else do you think about?”
“I think you are trying to be some kind of guru… and I think I would rather be talking to some of my friends.”
“Ah,” her mother said again. “Step one, you are a thinker. Step two, friendship is important to you.”
“Mom! Stop it. I’m gonna call Naomi!”
So Mika picked up her cell phone and called Naomi. After just one ring, Naomi answered and ...reading the name on the phone.. she said “Oh wow..Hi Mika..I miss you so much..I’ve been sitting in this house so long my butt hurts.” Mika laughed.
Mika said “now I know why you are my best friend..we have something in common.”
“What’s that?” asked Naomi.
“Never mind,” said Mika. “It’s just that we are both bored and it really feels good to know that being bored is something that happens to humans. I was beginning to think I was the only one and I was going crazy. Say, do you have any ice cream in your freezer? Maybe we could both eat a bowl of ice cream together and sort of have a virtual after-school-hang-out.”
Naomi sounded excited..”What a great idea..I really miss our gossip sessions.”
Mika said “Me too. That’s another thing we have in common. Maybe that’s another thing that is just natural for us humans. I never thought about an ice cream social as being such an important activity but it really feels like it is an important part of my life and I miss it.”
“You miss the ice cream that badly?” teased Naomi.
“No, I think I miss people that badly. I never thought about it exactly like this before. I don’t think I was meant to be alone for so long. I think having friends really is an important element in my life.”
“You are good with words, Mika. I mean, I think you are right and I never thought about that before either.”
“So Naomi,” Mika asked, “do you have an email list for all of our friends? I was just thinking we could have a Zoom ice cream virtual hang out with the gang. It would be so cool to see everyone and talk to everyone about everything we are doing….and not doing.”
Naomi said she had a pretty complete list and she would be able to arrange the Zoom meeting.
Mika thought for a moment and said “you know, Naomi, I think we just uncovered an important truth. Humans need other humans in order to feel human. I think we all have that in common, and I think we just learned something about ourselves, didn’t we.”
Naomi said “Mika, you are starting to talk like some kind of a guru.”
- Written by: Nina Rizzo
Over President’s Day weekend, I attended the family retreat in San Luis Obispo hosted by West Covina for the first time. It is a charming little getaway in the quiet hills, and we awoke to the sound of the temple bell.
Reverend Ken Yamada was the guest speaker and he covered the meaning of Namu Amida Butsu and non-dualism. I’m a forgetful person so it’s helpful to be reminded that it means “I take refuge in Amida Buddha,” the infinite wisdom that awakens the mind, the Light. Someone from West Covina suggested to think of a glass of water on our heads that dumps out when we bow our heads—that represents our ignorance pouring out and the glass becomes empty to receive the teachings. This imagery helps me mentally link the feeling have when I gassho and bow—it feels like surrender.
Rev. Ken lectured that Buddhism is a teaching about non-dualism, which is another way to think of oneness. There is no being and non-being, no birth and death. He reminded us that in everyday life, we often judge our lives with duality: good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, success vs. failure. He said we live in a bubble limited by our ignorance and bombu nature, which is not the whole Truth of the universe—which is oneness, interconnectedness, nirvana.
I can relate to non-dualism in my everyday life, and it reminds me to be open-minded and withhold judgment. My experience with queer people and allies is that we often have to explain that the world is not so binary. (FYI the label “queer” has been largely reclaimed as a term of empowerment by groups such as Queer Nation during the early 1990s). A lot of people’s bubbles have categories of female vs. male, woman vs. man, straight vs. gay, etc. Those are socially constructed identity boxes for sex, gender and sexual orientation that are not representative of everyone’s experiences. I think the truth is that sex, gender and sexuality are all fluid and a spectrum, and the possibilities are endless. I know and love many people who consider themselves gender non-binary, transgender and queer (there are more terms not mentioned here), and chances are you know them too whether you realize it or not. You know me, right? I’m a little queer and sometimes gender-expression non-conforming. Confused? The only boxes are in our heads.
Buddhist non-dualistic thinking can help us better understand non-binary identities, and with our growing understanding we can offer compassion to the best of our bombu abilities.
May we aspire to deeply sense Amida Buddha’s “great compassion”—that we are all in this together.
- Written by: Ed Oasa
In the July 2019 edition of Bombu Bombu, Reverend Osa said her dharma talks are like a confession. She encouraged her readers to share their stories and confessions about discovering Buddhist teachings in their lives. This inspired me to write about my experience with Buddhism.
As a youngster born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i in the 1950s, I accompanied my parents and grandparents to religious events like weddings and funerals at the various local Honpa Honganji temples. I distinctly remember my elders and the priest saying the Nembutsu. While aware that I was in a Buddhist place of worship, my understanding of it was nil. I don’t know how much the elders knew about Buddhism and what the Nembutsu meant. No one in the family talked about the religion or its particular practices.
My life took the conventional route of education, marriage, and career. In 2016, illnesses changed my life in ways I had thought unimaginable. A two-year stretch began with a cancer diagnosis and over a year of treatment, followed by a near fatal bout with a cancer-related illness in 2018. The latter illness landed me in the hospital for 60 days – one week in an induced coma with intubation, two more weeks in an intensive care unit, and five more in intermediate care. I returned home with permanently damaged lungs. I was in less than poor physical condition. I relied on supplemental oxygen 24/7 and looked forward to three months of visiting caregivers and physical therapists. I was forced into retirement, shutting down a career as a self-employed private investigator. Talk about impermanence!
The realization of impermanence was humbling. I was humbled by basic activities that I could no longer do alone like sitting, standing, walking, and basic cleanliness without an oxygen tank nearby and the compassionate help from nurses, physicians and their assistants, physical and occupational therapists, and hospital spiritual advisers. An attempt to describe the love, daily support and attention from my wife, my sister and brother, and other family and friends would be futile. They watched me sink into a state of demise. My doctors, and they were many, were vague about the extent and duration of recovery, which could last, they said, months, even years. I learned later that they did not expect me to leave the hospital.
I disliked being humbled because it meant a new life. I confused humility with humiliation because a life of accomplishments, self-definition, and independence had gone and been replaced by a life of their opposites. I felt naked and vulnerable because of my dependency on others and inability to control my future.
But in this confusion, I kept flashing on a translation from Sanskrit I had come across in a cancer support publication in 2017 that read: “Suffering is holding on to something that has already changed.” I didn’t know what to make of this, but during those months before I nearly crossed the “Rainbow Bridge,” I occasionally recited the advice to myself again and again.
I now thought of this Sanskrit advice while in the depths of humility. My response was to do the opposite. Mired in negativity and a sense of physical decline, utterly humbled, I thought it best to respond to the Sanskrit adage by doing something I considered to be “positive” and use this new life to “grow” both mentally and intellectually. I launched into reading history, philosophy and politics, my favorite topics, and classical Russian and American literature, which I had read at a minimum in high school.
Though jazzed at first about “growing”, I couldn’t shake the constancy of humility. It was not going away. As I grew tired of reading, I asked myself questions like, “For what, who was I doing this for, am I trying to impress someone, what’s the point in being cultivated and learned?” Trying to get me to go easy on myself, my wife reminded me that “growing” was a “natural human” response.
Humility and the Sanskrit adage dogged me. It was clear that humility and “something that has already changed” were inextricably tied, so I decided to look into Buddhism, considering it a mere inquiry at the time. Early in 2019, I enrolled in an introductory class on Buddhism taught by Rev. Ken Yamada of Higashi Honganji Temple at a local adult education campus. I managed to attend only three sessions because illness struck again, hospitalizing me for two stays.
I learned that Buddhism is about suffering and how to address it. One source stated that Buddhism is about humility and nothing more. I also learned that the cessation of suffering is found in suffering itself. How profound it was to consider that humility was the source of its own resolution!
When I regained some strength, I began attending a weekly Shin Buddhist study session led by Dr. Nobuo Haneda of the Maida Center of Buddhism. I learned that humility was critical to self-understanding and that ultimately, we aspire to shed our ego. I also learned that humans, without really knowing it, long to discover their True Self, a self that is not based on ego and selfishness.
I connected with these basic tenets and realized that humility remained constant because it lay at the foundation of human existence and life. The notion of a True Self, then, reflected the wisdom that comes from humility. I sometimes feel that it’s a privilege to have been humbled by impermanence in this life.
Studying Shin Buddhism has become an intellectual and spiritual pursuit. Now, there is no reason for reading and studying. It is just happening.
There is one crucial lesson in my experience, and that is, I could not have done it alone. I could not have questioned and negated my dislike of humbleness without the teachings of Shin Buddhism. I am grateful for this.
- Written by: Jeff-Shannon Davidson
For about a year now, Mika had been keeping a journal. Not a diary… she didn’t write about boy-friends or bad grades or the teacher with the voice that sounded like chalk on a blackboard… she just wrote a page of notes every week that described what seemed to be going on in the world around her. And she enjoyed going back a few pages every once in a while to read about what was happening a month or so ago.
When she was scanning the old pages, she noticed that she often wrote about her favorite “momiji”… the maple tree her dad planted in the front yard. In the winter, the branches were almost completely bare. It almost looked dead. But a few weeks later, she saw some tiny buds beginning to grow. And shortly after that, there were these tiny little green leaves. Mika thought they were cute. She thought, “They are just like puppies or kittens…little babies.”
By springtime, the leaves were bright yellow and green. In the morning sun, they virtually lit up like Christmas tree lights. And as the weather got warmer and warmer, they developed reddish colors around the edges. Mika thought “Mother Nature is really an artist.”
But then, the reds began to cover the entire leaves and they changed from red to brown and they began to look very dry. Soon after, the first leaves began to fall to the ground and Mika was saddened to realize that the leaves were dying. She closed her journal and set it down. She felt like her puppies…her kittens…her leaves were dying and she almost cried.
It took a few days before Mika had the strength to open her journal again. She was going to write her next weekly entry but she decided to review a few old pages before she started writing. She was reminded that the tree had been dormant, looking almost dead, but then it started to grow new leaves. The thought of the new leaves cheered her. On another page, she noted that her grandfather was bright and alert but living in a retirement home because he was getting old and needed assistance. And she found a page that focused on her new baby nephew who was celebrating his very first birthday. She put the journal down again and began to think. And then she looked into the mirror and thought some more.