Saturday, August 2, 2014

Life as it is

Today the Obon お盆 festival was celebrated at the Oregon Buddhist Temple, and that’s an event I like to attend, or at least visit even briefly.

The temple itself has made a complete cultural shift to American religious ways: The sanctuary is a converted Protestant church with a raised stage at the front, and pews, complete with prayer books and hymn books in racks on the back sides, a piano at the front, even a Buddhist flag on the right, and an American flag on the left. The Buddhist flag looked something like the rainbow flag of the ‘diversity’ movement, but the stripes go the other way, both ways actually. That’s really diverse!

This temple follows the largest Buddhist sect in Japan, the Jōdo Shinshū 浄土真宗, or ‘True Pure Land School.’ I started going to the Obon festival because of seeing it in a Karate Kid movie years ago, and I’ve also been attracted to East Asia for most of my life, at least from my teen years. The Obon festival is something like Memorial Day, or the Christian feast of All Souls. It’s about remembering and honoring the ancestors.

I quote from a handout I received at this festival…

The origin of Obon is traced to Buddhist legend. One of Buddha’s disciples, Mogallana, was concerned about the whereabouts of his deceased mother. With his extraordinary sensory powers, Mogallana saw that his mother was suffering in the realm of the Hungry Ghosts. In sympathy, he sent her some food, but when she tried to eat, the food burst into flames. Mogallana went to the Buddha for help. The Buddha told him to bring offerings of food to the monks who were in retreat for a period of meditation and study during the monsoon season. On the 15th day of the 7th month, Mogallana brought the offerings to the monks. Upon doing this, Mogallana saw that his mother’s sufferings were relieved. He was so happy that he danced with joy. Everyone around him joined in his dancing.

In the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, we do not believe in ghosts. We see this legend as an example of the joy one experiences in seeing life and death clearly. An important part of this joy is to remember and appreciate those who have gone before us. Obon is a time when relatives and friends visit gravesites and columbariums of loved ones. Offerings of flowers and incense are made and special temple services are conducted.

Obon is a joyous time that expresses an acceptance of life as it is.
It is a Celebration of Joy.

I can tell that this is exactly what Obon is to the Japanese, a celebration of joy, because their happiness, expressed even in comical and slapstick ways untypical of ordinary Japanese behavior, is so very obvious. Like many things in Asian culture, we sometimes come upon what we least expect. It would be like seeing someone break dancing at a funeral dinner. We are so solemn in the presence or the memory of death. For many Asians, it’s different. And that surprises me, in view of the fact that they have no certainty about the state after death, or do they?

When I read what they wrote, that “Obon is a joyous time that expresses an acceptance of life as it is,” it made me ask myself just what people think life and death are. We think we know what life is, and some of us think we know what death is as well, and in detail. I’ve always been attracted to and intrigued by what poet Walt Whitman wrote,

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash'd babe,
And am not contain'd between my hat and boots…

Two lines in particular speak to me, each in a different way, “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier,” and “[I] am not contain'd between my hat and boots.”

The first speaks with a hopeful voice, the second with defiance. I don’t know about uncle Walt, but for me it is the indefatigable, undefeatable fact of the resurrection of Christ that loads each of these lines with meaning. Reading his entire book ‘between the lines’ I hazard a guess that uncle Walt could only have written as he did, had he known the One that we confess as Jesus Christ. Perhaps he didn’t confess Him openly, simply because he was, after all, a Quaker, one of those who hold Christ too precious to try to imprint Him directly on others’ minds, being satisfied to drop hints here and there by their actions more than their words.

Back to what grabbed me in the festival handout, the phrase “an acceptance of life as it is,” and laying aside now my musings, what is the hard rock reality of this saying?

It seems to me that one word from Jesus is more than enough to cut the question to the quick. “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23 KJV).

In Greek, single is απλους (aplús), evil is πονηρός (ponirós), related to the word πόνος (pónos), pain, and therefore they are an unusual pair to be contrasted. The normal word in Greek for evil or wicked is κακός (kakós), and we note that πονηρός is Christ’s word to designate satan, ‘the evil one,’ at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, απο του πονηρου, ‘[deliver us] from the evil one.

What ‘life as it is’ can only mean is ‘what we see of it.’
Hence the word of Jesus, speaking of that eye which can be single, or can be diseased (as another translation has it). Every human soul is desperately seeking joy and is quick to fasten it onto anything that gives at least a little hope, even to nonsensical things. Whole cultures can be animated by a single thought, like that single eye, and the same is true of the diseased thought, like that diseased eye.

It’s pitiful to seek and convince oneself to find joy in pain, in what causes the ultimate pain, πονηρός, and that is, death, because you cannot see its opposite, that which is απλους, and that is life, the single life that gives true and even eternal life to the world. Yet, even in this pitiful state, people dream dreams that give waking hints of the real ‘life as it is,’ which still eludes them.
Why does it elude them? They’re afraid to really awaken.

“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Ephesians 5:14 NIV

It’s ironic how the one form of Buddhism which has become the largest in Japan so minutely mimics the truth that is in Christ. So much of true doctrine is already there in a foreign garb.

What makes it foreign? The culture?

No, not at all. It’s the substitution of a myth for the reality. It’s much the same in India, where the monotheistic but mythological religion of Lord Krishna has evolved or perhaps even received theological truth but attaches it and attributes it to a mythic god who may never have actually existed. Certainly, there was a man called Buddha in history, and so also was there a man called Shinran 親鸞, the monk of the Tendai school who founded the Jodo Shinshu sect.

This Pure Land religion of Amida Buddha, a mythic being who never existed, mimics the theology of Christianity. Other Buddhists try to attain liberation by jiriki 自力 (self-power), in Christian terms, works. The Pure Land Buddhists insist that man is too hopelessly corrupt and sinful, and must rely on tariki 他力 (other power), in Christian terms, grace.

Pure Land Buddhism is considered the ‘easy path’ because one is not compelled to perform many difficult, and often esoteric, practices in order to attain higher and higher mental states. Jesus said, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29 NIV). He really said this, because He really exists.

All the various esoteric practices of the other Buddhists are considered useless to the followers of Shinran. Only the constant remembrance of Amida Buddha, especially by repeating his name (though not as a work, only as an offering of thanks to him), will bring salvation, entrance into the Pure Land. Again, holy apostle Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). In essence, the monk Shinran had come to the very same conclusion about mankind’s sin as had the apostle Paul. His only mistake was not knowing Whose grace, Whose tariki, it was that would bring him and his followers to the Pure Land, Paradise.

This is not a condemnation of Buddhism or the Japanese culture, but a testimony that the Word of God is He who enlightens all men, as holy apostle John declares in his gospel. There is nothing in Buddhism or any other religion that is seeking joy that is inimical to the gospel. In fact, it is the gospel, the good news, and that alone, which is ‘the desire of the ages,’ of all people, in all times. All the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve cry out with the same voice, “Save us!” and all to the same Holy and Mighty and Immortal, the Being, even when they do not know Who He is. And He hears their cry, and He calls out to them, “I am coming!” and to us, “Whom shall I send?” As the Lord Jesus commands, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:38).

He is the completion and the fulfillment of every people’s ‘old testament’ and will take each one up to glory with Him on high, but only when they allow their past to die, so that He can raise it and them to Life immortal. That is when they will finally be able to really see ‘Life as He is.’

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