In our home, Angie and I have two altars. One is where I perform Buddhist services and the other is where my wife practices traditional witchcraft.
Our practices address two realities or two truths. Generally, the Buddhist altar represents the transcendent nature of spirituality while the witchcraft altar represents the relative everyday nature of spirituality. I chant the names of buddhas and bodhisattvas while Angie makes offerings to the local spirits. Both of these activities are equally important.
Kukai, on of the greatest authorities on Shingon, planned the construction of the Mount Koya complex with these two realities in mind. Danjogaran, the large pagoda of the Koyasan Shingon tradition is nestled in the mountain with Sanno-do, an assembly hall dedicated to the Shinto Kami that protect the mountains. Though steeped in what is known as Esoteric Buddhism, Kukai, in his wisdom, saw the importance of acknowledging the realities of everyday life. Not only did he respect the Kami, but he would often leave the mountain to work on civil projects, such as the repair of a local reservoir and the creation of the first free School for Arts and Sciences for boys of poor families.
Buddhism has always had a practical side as well as a transcendent side. The Buddha gave advice on basic wise acts, such as the benefits of generosity. At the same time, he could lecture on increasingly abstract psychological concepts. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha describes Quan Yin’s ability to help protect people from worldly dangers as well as protect monastics from the dangers on the Path to awakening. In the Larger Pureland Sutra, the Buddha says that Amida’s Light can be a balm in this world just as the Pureland is a gateway to Buddhahood. Some needs are concrete while others are abstract and the wise prescribe medicine for both.
No matter how other-worldly one’s practice is, one’s situation is subject to the relative world. I must eat and sleep. I am affected by worldly systems, societies, and norms. Though all phenomena are empty, my conduct is still important. Though Sukhavati is bliss, I live in this world at the moment. Just as it’s a wholesome act to make offerings to the Tathagata, so too is it wise to make offerings to earthly spirits.
I am deeply grateful for my wife’s practice. In her way, she protects us with her offerings and plants seeds of generosity into the world. All in all, her offerings are a reminder for me to dedicate my practice to the unseen in my midst.
A few weeks ago, I was in a virtual class meeting where each classmate was offering a report on the text that was currently being looked at in this section of the course. At the conclusion of the session, one of my classmates briefly mentioned that they were confused as his page numbers and content were not adding up with the other members of the class. Seeing the cover of the text that my classmate was holding, I asked if it was another text, ultimately finding that my classmate was using the incorrect text. Being a somewhat socially awkward person, my reaction to this was the same reaction I have for a number of other social situations: Laughter. It’s not that I was laughing at my classmate, its just a reaction of mine to the sort of situation I found myself in.
A few hours after the class had ended, I decided to reach out and message my classmate, feeling that I might have chuckled a bit too much and have offended them. The night went on and soon it was the next class session and I had still not received a reply form my classmate. I became concerned that I may have left my classmate highly offended and that they had chosen to completely ignore my message. A couple of weeks later, my classmate had finally seen my message and not only expressed that they did not take offence to my chuckling but were apologetic that it took them two weeks to notice and respond to the message. Finding myself suddenly presented with a feeling of relief, I again smiled and let out some additional laughter, such an ironic result!
Laughter is truly a wonderful part of our human experience. Yet, it can certainly serve as a potential conduit for trouble from time to time. Going forward, let us strive to laugh merrily and wholeheartedly, while being mindful of it in our daily lives.
This Dharma Glimpse was originally presented on 7/5/2020as part of my participation in the Lay Ministry Program of the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.
This past week, my wife and I spent a few days in our hometown and wider area of South Jersey together, visiting her parents who both had a few days off. Amanda and I both grew up in South Jersey, where we met in high school and began dating shortly thereafter. We have now been together for nearly ten years and celebrated our second wedding anniversary last month.
Whenever I find myself in my hometown, I can’t help but feel that things look extremely different from what they did when I last lived here just six-is years ago. It is certainly true that my town and home region has changed as more stores have opened, more homes continue to be built and more people begin to move in the area. Yet, this isn’t the only thing that has changed; I have changed as well.
Recently, the Buddhist teaching of “Non-Self” came up as an article of discussion in a class I am taking as a closed-elective for my BA. In this teaching, we arrive at the understanding that as all things are impermanent, so too is there no permanent, non-changing “self”. Instead, we are also examples of results of the constantly changing causes and conditions that we interact with in our daily lives, both physically, emotionally, intellectually and so on. Bearing all of this in mind, the question comes to mind: Who am I?
Today, I am many things. I am a spouse, a college senior, a student in Bright Dawn’s LM program, among countless other roles. These positions, along with the collected amount of experiences I have had thus far in life, help guide me to be the “me” that I am right here, right now. However, this “me” is not static, as with each passing moment I am just the slightest bit different than I was in the previous one. It is even true that within the next year I expect to only continue to be in one of these aforementioned roles, that of spouse, having completed both my current degree program and our time studying together in this program.
As we go forward today, let us continue to ponder the question of “Who am I?” and relate it to the “Who am I?” of yesterday, last week, last year, and so on.
Over the past few weeks, protesters have removed several statues from their pedestals. One notable figure, Francis Scott Key, the author of the Star-Spangled Banner, was recently torn down in San Fransisco.
Francis Scott Key was a local in Fredrick, Maryland, about 25 miles from my home of Hagerstown. Many landmarks and institutions around Frederick are named after him.
Though he’s been known for what is seen as a patriotic poem, his racist crusade against the abolition movement is not often talked about in the media. His racism is also present in an often omitted stanza of his famous poem which demonstrates his hatred for the Black soldiers that fought for the British during the War of 1812. He reveled at the thought of their demise.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion A home and a country should leave us no more? Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave, From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave; And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!
For the San Fransisco protesters and many others, that statue is a particular rupa, or form. In much of the Buddhist tradition, rupas are very important phenomena. Throughout the day one encounters many rupas that bring about different states of mind. For instance, the form of a tree might bring comfort while the form of a weapon might bring about a feeling of danger. This, of course depends on context and the experience of the person beholding the rupa.
For many, the rupa of Francis Scott Key represents an idol of hatred and oppression. In San Fransisco, protesters decided that they could do something about that oppressive figure and removed it. I’m sure someone in Frederick took notice.
In much of Buddhist practice, one may adjust their environment to suit there practice of the Dharma, such as removing things that are unwholesome. One may even replace the unwholesome with something wholesome, such as a Buddha rupa. These are the little changes that can lead to the realization of a pure land.
It’s the same in social justice. Taking down the idols of oppression, and possibly replacing them with wholesome forms, can be a relatively small yet positive step. It’s one of the many ways that people can start building a more just society.
I was born into my father’s white conservative evangelical worldview. I was expected to “be a man” like so many other boys. When he was alive, he attempted to police my thoughts through word and force so that I acted like a boy. There was one time when I mentioned that I liked the color red. He said “You shouldn’t like red, it’s a girl’s color. You should like blue.” Embarrassed, I said “Okay, I like blue.”
As a role model, he demonstrated that, apparently, a man must be angry and violent and that one’s wife and child are to be at the receiving end of that anger and violence. Even after he died, his version of manhood haunted Mom and I.
Mom later found a partner in Judy, the person I would call my “Other Mother,” or, more often, a “cousin of the family” to outsiders. Up until the very last years of their lives, my parents didn’t want to openly live as a couple. Judy was so scared of the consequences of being out that she didn’t want to be listed as a partner in Mom’s obituary. She told me that she was afraid that someone might attack her.
For me, it created some special issues. I had to act as straight as possible. Mom and Judy told me that I could not attract attention to them so as to give no one an excuse to out them. In a way, it was also to prove that two women could raise a son and that would turn out “normal”. When I found that I had discovered that I came to have feelings a boy in school, I was worried that I might be gay. It was ok for Mom, Judy, to be attracted to the same sex but not me. I truly felt that I had to “be straight” and “be a man” to protect them and myself.
And so, I was always preoccupied with masculinity, which sets an unachievable standard in this society. This only helped arise within me a toxic masculinity that stoked the flames of self-hatred and, by extension, a hatred of others.
Fortunately, in my mid twenties, I got into a relationship with Angie, my high school friend who would later become my partner and wife. She didn’t hold me to an unachievable standard. She just loved me (and still does). It was the first time that I felt truly accepted by someone.
Late into my twenties, I started exploring Buddhism, having decided that, if, in my view, Christianity didn’t accept my parents, I wasn’t going to accept it.* I then read an article that the Buddhist Church of San Fransisco had been performing same-sex marriages since the 1970s. Though I was interested in Zen at the time, I remembered that and decided that Buddhism, as I saw it, was much more welcoming. **
Eventually, as I’ve said in previous stories, I found Pureland. Then Mom and Judy died and I became more interested in the tradition.
The significance of Pureland to me lies in the idea that everyone is accepted by the Buddha. Most importantly, however, is that I am accepted and I am loved by the Buddha. And I don’t need to reform in some way or be endowed with inherent goodness to receive that love. I am just loved.
Over time, that love worked on me and helped soften my heart. By moving to Baltimore, I was taken out of the conservative culture back home. I also felt that I no longer had to protect anything as Mom and Judy were gone. I came to accept my attraction to more than one gender and found that the word bisexual was a good approximation of how I viewed myself.
Then came the gender issue. For most of my life, I’ve walked on eggshells around it, carefully monitoring how I acted so that I fulfill my so-callled duty to “be a man”. However, I found that, no matter what, that descriptor never suited me. It blocked out a femininity that rarely got to arise. Furthermore, the word “man” became empty in the Light of Amida. And so, with great relief, I discarded it. The closest terms that could describe me at this point is are masculine-presenting, genderqueer, and non-binary. Between these realities of sexuality and gender, I tend to just call myself queer for brevity.
How does this help me? I’ve come to accept myself more easily. I can be me. Now I wear red nearly every day for both religious and personal reasons as a reminder of that fact.
Other than Angela and Amida, there are other beings who have helped me accept myself. There are the friends I’ve made in Unitarian Universalism, Amida Shu, the bi community, and the non-binary community. I’m so very grateful for knowing them.
Accepting myself as I am, my foolishness included, I’ve also been able to reflect on my relationships with homophobia, transphobia, and racism as all of these are upheld by the Mara of white supremacy and patriarchy. Just to be clear, it doesn’t mean that life is suddenly easier as I still have a ways to go and hatred is still thick in the air of society. But, by having a better understanding of my queer nature, I’ve come a little closer to the ideal of wei wu wei, acting without acting.
Namo Amida Bu
*I would later realize that there are some wonderful lgbt+ Christians that have developed ministries that truly are inclusive.
** Again, I would later find that not all Buddhists welcomed lgbt+ people. Often they bypass the realities of bigotry through the teachings of non-duality and transcendence.
Often it’s said that the Amida is the Buddha of All Acceptance. The land of Sukhavati, where the Buddha abides, is open to every being. However, though the Buddha accepts and loves all, their ministry focuses on those who need them the most.
Amidism is an recognition that not everyone is born into the perfect spiritual circumstances that bring one to the entrance of a wealthy monastery or the feet of a rock star teacher. Many are pushed off to the margins of society. This marginalization can often result in a spiritual inequality as well as a societal inequality. Amida responded to this through the grace.
That’s why one need only to think of the Buddha, the act otherwise known as nembutsu. If one thinks of the Buddha one realizes the Light. There is no need for extensive wisdom or difficult practices. Amida makes themselves accessible in the most simple way, so that marginalized can enter the Path. By focusing on them, everyone can enter the Pure Land. This is Amida’s grace.
To realize the pure land here, we need to do the same. We need to turn our attention to black, indigenous, and trans lives and help dismantle the system that oppresses them. We need to listen to them as Amida does. With body, speech, and mind we must say that they matter.
The Buddha came from the oligarchic republic of the Sakyan people. This state was actually the vassal of the larger and more powerful Kingdom of Kosala. Though subjugated under Kosala, the Sakyans proudly enjoyed the honor and privileges of being of a higher caste than the Kosala King Pasenadi.
In order to increase his prestige, the king sent emissaries to the Sakyans, requesting a woman to wed so that his heir would be of nobler blood. The Sakyans, proud of their position and caste, were not willing to let him marry into the Sakyan fold. However, they knew he was quick tempered, his kingdom was powerful, and they were a mere province under his rule.
It was then that one of the Sakyans, Mahanama, offered the he could pass off a slave girl by the name of Vasabha as his Sakyan daughter and have her marry Pasenadi. Having accepted Vasabha, King Pasenadi had a son with her, known as Vidudabha.
After some time, Vidubabha visited the capital of the Sakyan republic, Kapilavatthu. Though he was warmly met, the Sakyans sent away their younger princes so that the younger generation would not salute the prince Vidudabha. Upon the conclusion of the visit, a servant was told to clean with milk the seat where the prince had sat because he was the son of a slave. While the servant was cleaning the seat, a member of the prince’s envoy heard her remark that the son of a slave had sat there. It was not long before the member of the envoy took the news to Vidudabha. Feeling humiliated and enraged, the prince vowed to destroy the Sakyan people.
Vidudabha’s anger festered over time and, after usurping the throne from his father, he decided to set his sights on the Sakyans. Not even the counsel of the Buddha would stop him. He and his army slaughtered almost all of the Sakyan people. When he left with Mahanama and his family, the rains came and the river Acirawati flooded, taking the prince and his army with it. Apparently Mahanama’s family escaped. Mahanama himself disappeared.
When hearing the news of this tragedy, the Buddha recounted that in past lives, the Sakyan princes poisoned that river long go, killing it’s fish, and that was the karmic reason for their demise. Regarding the prince and his army, the Buddha said that their unawakened states prevented them from seeing that their actions would also have consequences.
Though it would seem a little odd that the Buddha would attribute something other than the more recent act of racism to the downfall of the Sakyans, it may point to something quite relevant today. Maybe the story of the poisoning of the river points to a collective karma that has been perpetuated over centuries. Perhaps Vidudaha’s actions were the result of a long tradition of exceptionalism upheld by the Sakyan nobility. In the end, that racism and sense of exceptionalism swallowed the nation.
Considering the cyclic functions of samsara, is history repeating itself?
Karma (intentional action) is not always easy to write about. I, as an ordinary person, don’t know the full extent of the result of karma. However, there are very concrete examples being demonstrated in the consequences of state violence.
On Monday, George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer for the city. Chauvin knelt onto Floyd’s neck until he stopped pleaing that he was in pain and couldn’t breath. Floyd died.
Since his death there has been a protests across the country. In Minneapolis, the station for the 3rd precinct was set on fire and looting had been reported at a local Target and other stores.
I’m not going into the morality of looting and setting property on fire. I will discuss that there is a consequence to to the immoral decisions of state actors.
State actors have a lot of power to act in a moral fashion. Time and again we find that they choose not to. In this particular situation, the response was protests which have included property damage. That’s the consequence. That’s karma.
It’s not that those in power don’t realize this. They know. But they have the weapons and a need to exert their power. Unfortunately, the result of unrest tends to be further state action. Such action, however, will further show the illusion of the state and it’s need to prop itself up with violence.
Some people have condemned the protesters who have looted and damaged property. Instead of condemning them, it’s more useful to work toward dismantling white supremacy. It’s more useful to work toward dismantling the capitalist system that encourages disparity and the looting that is it’s result.
We can do this by building a pure land. How do you do that? We start by making sure everyone has access to healthcare, food, and shelter. We end the conflict for resources. We distribute power equitably. We stop encouraging racism, misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia. We can stop destroying the environment. Seems simple right?
We know these things but just as the Pure Land is not far, it is also an unfathomable distance from us. Just as creating a just society seems simple, there is a vast political machine with self-interested Maras bent on keeping it from happening.
I don’t know how to actually go about dismantling this system. I can do what I can personally in everyday life and that may be all I can do. A pure land seems to be something of an impossibility. However, it’s better to turn toward it and progress toward it than settle for what we have now.
Buddhism is about getting to the heart of the matter rather than just focusing on symptoms. As we do that socially we can see that the power of the state and the power of capitalism is as illusory as the power of samsara. And maybe, just maybe, we take the long road toward improving our conditions.