By Ed Oasa
I struggle with my illness and wonder, “Why is this happening to me?”
In Shinran Shonin’s text, Kyogyoshinsho, he wrote about the difficulties of accepting the Dharma through one’s efforts. I’m experiencing this firsthand as I face my doctor’s most recent and bleak medical diagnosis. I feel Shinran’s writings are true and real.
A year ago, I wrote an essay titled “Facing Humility,” about my embrace of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Before, I wasn’t very religious, but soon looked forward to embarking on the Buddhist path.
Four years ago, I began treatment for blood cancer. Two years later, I suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia, After recovering, I began studying Jodo Shinshu.
My illness happened over a short period and left me disabled and dependent on supplemental oxygen. It forced me to retire from my profession as a private investigator, which I enjoyed for more than 20 years.
How does this happen, I asked, and in such a short time… to me? I was in total awe of change, wondering how these events came out of nowhere. This awe I felt was humbling, and in my down moments, humiliating.
Jodo Shinshu teachings of humility and selflessness, challenging my delusional, ego-based self, helped me come to terms with my illness and disability.
I wouldn’t come to this acceptance without listening to the Shin teachings. These teachings manifest the great Dharma truth of impermanence. As Rev. Ken Yamada said in his Buddhism class, Dharma truth is spelled with a “big T.”
In the book, River of Fire, River of Water, the late Shin scholar Taitetsu Unno shared a popular Shin saying: “Illness, too, is my good friend.” Dr. Unno understood there’s something liberating about humiliation.
Earlier this year, I felt pretty good about life. I was less dependent on my portable oxygen and my pulmonary function readings improved. Doctors told me I probably don’t have to worry about cancer returning. I was in remission nearly three years.
In June, another diagnosis came as a shock. Cancer had returned with a vengeance. It wasn’t merely a relapse, but a progression of my first disease. It’s probably the disease that blood cancer patients fear most.
I was told there’s no cure. But if I didn’t receive treatment, I’d only live another eight to twelve weeks. With chemotherapy and maybe with new drugs in clinical trials, I could prolong my life. I know chemotherapy’s efficacy declines over time. Surviving another three years, as a doctor said, is “rare.”
You can imagine, those same ego-driven questions as before filled my head with a vengeance, like a cancer. How could this happen again? I could hardly believe it. I was deflated. I felt robbed of life. I felt the same in 2016 when first diagnosed with cancer, but back then, doctors talked about a potential cure.
Nowadays, fear and deep sadness ebb and flow throughout my house. For the past four years, my wife has been my caregiver. I feel guilty about the burden I’ve been to her, and now also, about the pain of eventually leaving her behind.
I feel this is classic dukkha. It’s the friction between my desires and the Truth of impermanence. As Dr. Nobuo Haneda of the Maida Center of Buddhism in Berkeley poignantly wrote, suffering is the struggle between the self and Dharma.
Whatever it’s called – friction, suffering, conflict – it doesn’t disappear. Ego drives people to be easily offended, hurt, envious, jealous, and angry. Knowing this truth provides little relief.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve stepped up my Jodo Shinshu studies. I’ve no choice but to deepen my understanding of Dharma through teachers I’ve met along the way. Why? Because Jodo Shinshu is about liberation from my ego and delusional thinking. Facing my illness ultimately means facing Truth by challenging and examining this self to see how temporary and impermanent it is—just like life.
Alone, I read Shin writings and Shinran’s Kyogyoshinsho. I attend virtual Sunday services and listen to Dharma talks by Rev. Ryoko Osa of Berkeley Higashi Honganji Temple. I participate in her weekly Shoshinge study class. For over a year, I’ve absorbed Haneda-sensei’s weekly lectures at the Maida Center on Shinran’s writings and the Larger Sutra of Infinite Life. I also view talks about Buddhism on the Buddhist Churches of America Youtube channel.
I learned Buddhism is not an easy religion. Rev. Osa’s words forced me to reflect on the self. Haneda-sensei stresses Buddhism is “hard on you,” demanding we realize and face Truth. The Buddhist teachings truly are humbling.
Haneda-sensei says of the Three Treasures, Sangha is most important. It’s impossible to arrive at Truth by oneself. Life is full of temptations and distractions filling the mind of the ego self.
The Sangha has been invaluable to me. I’m grateful to everyone I’ve met. Reciting the Nenbutsu, “Namu Amida Butsu,” represents to me, hearing the Buddha’s call to abandon my ego self.
My time is limited. Shin teachings are really about having a reverence for the Truth. I find solace in what Buddhist teacher Manshi Kiyozawa calls “religious conviction,” which means entrusting to Truth. Belief in the Tathagata, he said, means “truth to be believed.” I’ll continue on this path towards accepting Dharma Truth.
Namu Amida Butsu
A Buddha In My Junior High School
You probably have heard the story of Prince Siddhartha who grew up to become the Buddha. He was raised in a royal mansion in India. As he grew and experienced life, he gained great wisdom and followed a path toward enlightenment. But I was wondering what his life would have been like if he grew up here in Berkeley. What would his life have been like if he was just “Michael Johnson” or maybe “He” was a “She” named “Mika Suzuki” in my 8th grade class. (Get ready… I have a vivid imagination).
Just the other day, Mika was chatting with a group of her friends on Zoom. She and her friends also chat by group-texting and they sometimes meet on Netflix-party sites where they can watch movies together. Since the shelter-in-place restrictions started many months ago, they have not seen each other in person so these online-chat programs have become their primary form of social interaction. They all seem to agree that this is not as much fun as meeting at the ice-cream parlor after school but it is still fun and enjoyable to talk to friends. They even note that the video program allows them to see smiles and facial expressions that they cannot see if they were forced to wear masks like they do when they go to the store with their parents.
This chat session seemed to start like all the ones that preceded it…. Complaining about the lack of activities and travels caused by this awful virus. Perhaps “complaining” is not the right word because they all seemed to understand that voicing their displeasure and laying blame on some other country or the government of our country or any other person was not going to make it get better any faster. Still, they clearly felt the situation was beyond their control and they expressed their unhappiness with the situation.
Vivianna was the first to talk about a semi-positive experience. “Last weekend,” she said, “my whole family got into the car and we just went for a long drive around the park. We just got in the car and drove even though we had nowhere to go but it felt good to be out of the house. I mean, we weren’t exactly outside…we were still four people inside a car with the doors closed but we enjoyed the change of scenery.”
Michelle said “That would have made me get car-sick.”
“Great, Michelle. Thanks for the bright and cheerful review,” laughed Parker…and others laughed with him. Someone said “at least we can still laugh together.”
“Right,” said Mika. “Being together…even just together on Zoom, feels good to me.”
“Yeah, said Vivianna. “And it was interesting because when we are at home, everything is so routine and boring that we really don’t talk much but riding in the car seemed to change our focus and we talked about all the stuff that is happening now…stuff outside of our home…kind of outside of our little bubble.”
“Like what?” Someone asked.
“Well, like all the stuff in the news about police shooting Black people.”
“Yeah, that sucks” said Miguel. “But it’s a lot more complicated than that. I mean, my family is Mexican and I have friends who are Chinese and Vietnamese and Japanese and they all say that the police sometimes look at them like they did something wrong when they were just walking down the street doing nothing… but when was the last time you saw a bunch of Vietnamese people organizing a protest march?”
Michelle spoke next. “There is really a lot to talk about now that we have all day to sit and think about what is going on. I mean the stuff you’re talking about includes White Privilege and how about Money Privilege? How about those people that bribed their kids into fancy colleges even though their kids don’t get grades as good as mine?”
“That’s sort of funny” laughed Debbie. “I mean they made big-money illegal payments and then got fined lot’s more money and now their kids can’t even go to college because all the colleges are closed just like our high-school.”
“Maybe ironic would be a better word than funny” Leslie quipped. “Like now all those rich kids are sitting at home doing their school work on their computers just like us. There’s not much difference between being rich-and-bored than being just-us-and-bored.”
“That’s an important observation” said Mika. “The pandemic has made us all a little more aware that we are all just humans with a lot more qualities in common than different.”
“Wishful thinking” shouted Armanmdo. “All the BLM protests are about how extremely different some of us feel.”
“Wow! Thanks for the insightful critique” Mika replied. “I was focused on how the COVID Virus treats us all as equals but I guess I overlooked how the current political situation is making some differences worse instead of better. And the pandemic and the political stress are definitely connected. Armando, your comment is really thought provoking. You made me think more broadly and now I am more aware of the world around me.”
“Thanks…didn’t mean to be a downer. Let’s get this conversation back on a happy path.” Armando almost sounded apologetic. He really wanted a more cheerful and fun sort of Zoom-group. “Hey. What do you guys think about online school, anyway?”
“I thought you wanted to talk about something that is fun” came the group-response.
“Well, we do some small-group discussions in some of our classes and I really enjoy working with my friends” said Denise.
“OK… online school has some good points but overall, I find it’s a little bit like a prison cell inside my computer. I’m still sitting here alone listening to a teacher who doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself or himself much either.”
“Michelle here” said Michelle.. using the proper Zoom rules for announcing herself before speaking. “I guess the online school system is OK for teaching subject matter but we all seem to agree that the human contact part is totally lost.”
“Fun Loving Human Being here” Armando announced using the proper Zoom-intro and still trying to get the conversation back onto a positive track. “Has anybody here seen the new Disney remake of Mulan?”
There was a chorus of replies with everyone talking at the same time. Though a little chaotic, it seemed like everyone enjoyed talking about the movie.
Mika interjected “It seems like everyone enjoyed the movie but we seem to enjoy talking to each other about the movie even more than watching it.”
“That’s kind of what I was trying to say” said Armando. “We can make ourselves feel depressed if we talk about some of the problems with the COVID restrictions and the world problems or we can make ourselves feel happy if we talk about fun topics.”
“Yeah.. sort of,” agreed Mika. “I mean, we really don’t need to feel depressed about the world situation. We just need to observe it and understand it and talk to each other about it. We need to be self-aware. Then we can do the same with happy subjects like the movie and we can all share the happiness with each other. Being human, as Armando calls it, and being self-aware and connecting with each other is what really matters.”
“I think that is what was so nice about riding in the car with my family,” said Vivianna. “We don’t talk that much at home but I really enjoyed talking with my parents in the car.”
“And that’s why I like the group discussions in our online class-time” said Denise. “It’s not that the subject matter is so much better in group discussions. It’s that I like talking to my friends about the subject matter better than I like just listening to the teacher lecture about it.”
“So human contact and sharing ideas is a theme here,” said Mika. “That’s why these video chats are so fun.”
“Parker here,” said Parker. “Just want to thank Mika for turning our fun-session into a therapy-session.” Parker laughed at his own witticism and others laughed too.
“Well, Parker,” replied Michelle, “maybe we all need a little therapy. I mean we have been talking about the BLM protests, the lack of person to person contact, the frustration with online school, White privilege, and our sense of boredom due to the pandemic. Honestly, I am feeling a little depressed.”
“Mika here… I think it’s actually good that we are all a little upset but I wouldn’t exactly call it depressed. There are a lot of troubling things going on around us and it is good that we are in touch with our world and our surroundings and our feelings. But that is actually an appropriate and healthy reaction to the situation and not a symptom of depression. If we were all happy about these things I would say we were out-of-touch-with-reality. The trick is to understand what is real without losing control of our own emotions. We can still find things, like talking to each other, that bring joy and a sense of security to all of us. That is what this conversation is supposed to do for everyone.
“Parker here. OK Mika. This time it is my turn to thank you for the positive critique like you thanked Armando earlier for his comments. This time, you made me think about my silly remark about your therapy session but now I see that you really do see the world through clear eyes. Thanks for your reply and please forgive my light-hearted but shallow remark about therapy.
“Apology accepted” she replied.
“Hey guys it’s getting late, said Armando. I gotta zoom… I mean I gotta leave this chat.”
“OK” said Mika. “Next time we will talk about music, movies, sports, and learning how to cook.
“Michelle here saying bye for now and thanks for chatting.”
“Mika here saying bye for now and thanks for listening and thinking.”
Shannon Davidson: Author
Tomoko Davidson, Co-Author and Editor
Recognizing and Remedying the Aggregates of Attachment in a Time of Uncertainty
By Carlo Barlaan
June 9, 2020
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.
Life is impermanence since shelter in place took place. My everyday living has changed from going to event to event, to relaxing at home. Fear for my life scares me, with the virus spreading from people to people. So far I have made the best of my life with a new life style.
I took a week off from work when the shelter in place first took place. From communicating with my coworkers, they have been working since our company is considered essential business. It took me about a few weeks to straighten out books from taking one week off. My work condition is not bad since I am the only one in the office. Once in a while my boss shows up. My other coworker works in Sacramento.
On the weekends I stay home, working on cleaning my house, making kimekomi dolls, and go for walks. Since I cannot go to the gym, I tag along with Dick and our two dogs for a walk. It amazes me how Miso knows their route. The walk makes me feel good and gives a chance to see who lives in our neighborhood. Miso's favorite walk is to go see the squirrels by the creek. I have accomplished finishing my doll that I have been working on since last year. Maybe I will complete more of my dolls by the next class which will be sometime next year.
I used to be almost updated, communicating with others with emails, excel spreadsheet, and Microsoft word. Now with zoom, I found out that I am not up to date. I do not have an iphone, tablet, or notebook. So I am limited to the zoom meetings. At first I can see and hear the meeting. Dick bought a microphone for me. Now I can talk. This is the first time I am not able to participate in communicating with others because of my computer. Well, I decided I am not going to change just to use zoom.
Almost every Sunday I participate with church service. It is nice to see Takumu and Rinako participate in chanting. Sensei's dharma message is comforting to hear during this pandemic. This gives me a great opportunity to practice chanting with sensei. The video conference makes it easy to listen at my convenience.
Driving to and from work is less stress with less traffic. It used to take me 40 to 50 minutes to come home from work. Now it is 25 minutes. I will enjoy this moment while it lasts.
Dick and I cook our own meals. Purchasing from restaurants is not in our lifestyle. Sorry restaurant owners. Dick goes to the grocery stores during senior hours. He says it is great with fewer customers.
My doctor, dentist, optometrist, hair stylist, vet, and DMV will all have to wait until next year.
I am hoping to continue some of my new lifestyle changes when the shelter in place is over.
By Jeff-Shannon Davidson
A Buddha In My Junior High School
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.”
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