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An interview with Reverend Patricia Kanaya Usuki
What role did women play in founding Shin Buddhism? Women played a significant role in Shinran’s awakening to the reality of his own truth-reality as a man and as a human being. This awareness is pivotal in the development of Shinran’s thought. After spending 20 years seriously pursuing enlightenment through devout practices as a Tendai monk, he left the monastery at age 29 in frustration and despair. It is said that during a retreat at Rokkakudo [a temple in Kyoto], Shinran had a dream that completely changed his life. In it, Shinran received a verse that included a declaration from the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara that she would be his wife and guide him, so that he would lead an exemplary life and at death enter the Pure Land. Some time later, having been defrocked as a monk, Shinran married Eshinni, an educated and cultured woman of some means. A number of children were born to them, the youngest of whom was a daughter named Kakushinni. It was she who looked after Shinran until his death, and she was instrumental in establishing a memorial place to not only preserve his memory but also serve as a rallying point to maintain his teachings. Her grandson, Kakunyo, became the head of the Hongwanji lineage that grew from that chapel. Thus, this hereditary lineage of the largest Buddhist denomination in Japan is traced through Shinran’s daughter.
Shin Buddhism promises a spiritual liberation to women. Has the history of institutionalized Buddhism in Japan provided a similar secular equality? I think the key is that all beings are guaranteed equal spiritual liberation through the teaching of Jodo Shinshu. In my research, I found that there was never any doubt about this among either laymen and laywomen or clergy. People are very clear on the distinction between the teaching and the institution. Especially here in America, they are quick to point out that Japanese and Asian culture and social norms have had a lot to do with the way women are viewed by the institution.
On the spiritual side, there are actually accounts and records that go back over the centuries showing that female lay followers were able to be as active and accomplished as men in their spiritual development. This is one of the advantages of a school of Buddhism that is not monastic in nature. The clerical institution exists as a structure to continue the Jodo Shin teaching, but in essence everyone lives a secular life and practices in everyday life. So while religious institutions have a tendency to become calcified in their doctrinal interpretations and hierarchies, people in secular life get to test the dharma in fertile ground replete with variety and change. Today it’s exciting to be living in a place and time when epic change has been happening for women in society. What better conditions to experience the organic nature of spiritual development in Buddhism than when we are forced to examine our beliefs about ourselves and others against the backdrop of such rapid social transformation?
Converts and newcomers to Buddhism outside of Asia sometimes have a tendency to dismiss Asian-Americans as “ethnic Buddhists” or “baggage Buddhists”—as people who do not seriously practice Buddhism. However, we have much to learn from many of these women who still reflect a generations- long internalization of the buddhadharma through their thoughts, words, and deeds. They themselves are often the first to humbly profess that they know nothing about the dharma, and yet many of them display an innate understanding of such tenets as dana [the practice of cultivating generosity] and interdependence in all that they do—and many show, through their outlook, a profound grasp of the spirit of the nembutsu. They have often made huge sacrifices so that the temples will prosper, enabling others to experience the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And yet they have embraced change without stridency. We have to remember that through their life experiences—such as racial and religious discrimination and being put into internment camps during World War II—they understand suffering and impermanence, and they know the value of finding joy in whatever life dishes out. They keep moving forward, and their positive perspectives alone are a lesson to us all. Certainly, they know what it is to be marginalized by those with dualistic minds, but they know that the light of immeasurable wisdom and compassion shines on all without discrimination.
We have to remember that society affected the interpretation of Buddhism just as much as Buddhism affected society. The purveyors of Buddhism are, after all, people. Much of what we know from the past about women in Buddhism was written by monks—celibate monks who had left home, at that. They certainly had their own unique concept of the nature of women. All of this is learned. Actually, the first ordained Buddhists in Japan happened to be women, and for a time women were on an equal level with men in the temples. Buddhism was not available to the secular masses until Shinran’s era.
What about today? What about female clergy in the institution? My own experience has been very positive. Perhaps when you start from the understanding that the Primal Vow is meant for all people without discrimination, and that it works in your life regardless of distinctions that include such dichotomies as good and evil or priest and lay practitioner, then how could the question of gender possibly be a consideration? This should be empowering to anyone. As a consequence, when social stumbling blocks occur— and sometimes they do—it’s easier to realize that the institution is made up of human beings, and human beings are imperfect. That’s why an individual like Shinran or me or you cannot hope to realize the mind of nirvana through our self-power alone.
Sometimes change is resisted by some women, just as some men are the greatest proponents of inclusiveness. There are women, especially in Japan, who prefer their traditional roles and do not want to do the same thing as men, and this needs to be respected as well. The term bomori (literally “defender of the monk”) used to refer to the wife of the resident minister. A few years ago, the definition was officially changed to be any person appointed by the resident minister, in recognition that this function was not necessarily fulfilled by a wife. By the same token, the wife of the head abbot is called ourakata-sama. The word means “the person behind the scenes.” As you can see, these examples in no way detract from the importance of those roles, and many women must be happy to fulfill them, just as many of us are happy to be ministers. But these are just labels. I would be happiest if, at the end of the day, each of us were simply seen as we are.
Do you feel as though women in general may have had a particular spin on Shin Buddhism or a particular approach? Women seem to take a very practical and experiential approach to their practice. Men may do this as well, but I can only relate what I’ve observed about women. It may relate to the times, which provide plenty of fodder for confusion and reflection with regard to the question of self. Women look at the big picture reality of their lives, which include husbands, kids, parents, jobs, volunteer work, and so on. With all this juggling to try and keep the various elements happy and harmonious, they are constantly facing their own struggling ego. At the same time, though, they get to see so many instances of the compassion and joy that comes into their lives, often when they catch themselves at their worst. If they’re listening, they are buoyed up by the feeling of great gratitude for the Infinite Wisdom and Compassion that is always available to us. This is what propels us forward.
The questions women ask often have to do with issues in their everyday lives as members of our sometimes dysfunctional society. They want to know how we would approach all of this from a Buddhist point of view. The kind of dharma talks or seminars that they respond to are very much those that relate to their lives, as opposed to perhaps a more textbook- academic point of view. It’s a more organic approach, in which they start from what’s going on in their hearts and minds, and see how the dharma responds and guides them. So what they’re doing every day is also a way of coming to understand the teaching.
Could you say more about what you mean when you say that Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is something people practice in their daily lives? Being self-aware in the midst of our daily lives provides us with so much material with which to notice the reality of our imperfect selves but, at the same time, to be brought to realize how we are embraced by Ultimate Wisdom and Compassion at all times. There’s no practice a person can specifically do to attain perfect awakening, whether it’s meditation or trying to follow precepts. Of course these are good practices, but we can never totally free ourselves of our blind passions. If we believe we can do it this way, the calculation is a reflection of our ego-selves. Instead, we can be mindful of the dharma as we go about our lives. Then we notice our imperfections, but rather than becoming frustrated by our inability to rid ourselves of these shortcomings, we notice that our interdependence with all life also brings us kindness and joy, unconditionally. “Namu Amida Butsu”—I am one with Infinite Light and Life (Wisdom and Compassion) right here, right now. In our gratitude, we live the life of nembutsu and grow spiritually.
Jeff Wilson is a Tricycle contributing editor and the author of Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness (Wisdom Publications).
Photographs by Koury Angelo