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Dharma World Buddhist magazine

Seeing the Buddha in Our Midst

by Paula Arai


On my path of seeking, I have learned it is easy to see the Buddha in flowers. It is more difficult to find the Buddha among the weeds. . . . Where the Buddha lives is not a question of where to look but how to see.

Remnants of the injustices of the slave trade were seething and erupted onto the streets of Detroit in the summer of 1967. I was only six when I saw black plumes of smoke billowing ominously over the city where I had been born to an Anglo-American father and an especially dark-skinned Japanese mother. I was not aware of any buddhas living around there. We had, however, been blessed the year before by the presence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who addressed an overflowing throng at our Gothic-style Methodist church one Sunday. Just as its spire towered in the center of downtown Detroit, this church stood out against injustice. Holding my mom's hand that morning, I felt her excitement as I peered over the balcony to see every inch of every pew filled with people I did not recognize. I sensed that something momentous was happening. My mother walked with a proud gait I had not seen before. Hope laced with tension filled the air. I do not remember King's words that morning, but even now excerpts of his "I Have a Dream" speech evoke a visceral memory of what it felt like to have his sonorous voice reverberate in my heart. If I had been able to see then as I do now, I would have recognized him as a buddha, one who devotes his life to alleviating suffering through nonviolent protest and acts of justice.

Many white people fled to the suburbs after the army tanks stopped parking in the alley behind our homes during that summer of riots. In solidarity with those who sought racial justice, my mixed-race family remained for several years. Unfortunately, the violence around the neighborhood did not subside. I vividly remember several occasions when I was jumped on the way home from school or on the way to the public library two blocks away. I never got more than scratches and bruises and the wind kicked or pushed out of me. Since I came from a supportive family, it was easy to see that the groups of kids who would pursue an elementary school girl were not as fortunate. In 1972 we moved to a safer neighborhood with good schools. Dearborn, home to the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company, had the best public school system tax dollars could buy. Mayor Hubbard was dedicated to limiting this benefit to white people, so it was with some dismay that our new neighbors saw that we had managed to purchase a home there. My mother's dark skin was not welcomed in this town, especially by our next-door neighbors. Racial animosity infused our daily lives, giving us a chance to see the dynamics of ethnic prejudice from the other side. No matter how many cherries, apples, or ears of fresh corn my mom delivered to the neighbors' doorstep, the tension continued. Sometimes we returned home to find weeds strewn across the property line and onto our driveway. I did not see any buddhas living in that neighborhood.

It was clear that the people in both neighborhoods wanted peace, love, and justice. Yet greed, anger, and delusion reigned. These societal dynamics were echoed by dynamics in my own family and even in my own heart. Determined to make some headway with this conundrum, I spent ten years in graduate school exploring human religiosity. I started learning about the vast spectrum of idealistic aims and horrific events throughout world history. I was drawn to the Buddhist vision of interrelatedness. I studied, among other things, salient moments in Buddhist history, different styles of Buddhist art, and a range of philosophical trajectories. I became especially fond of the teachings of Dogen (1200-1253), the founder of Soto Zen. He taught: "All existents are buddha-nature." I didn't see any buddhas at Harvard either, so I began to wonder if people actualized their buddha-nature anymore.

During a stay in Bodh Gaya, India, the site of Shakyamuni Buddha's enlightenment, I met an elderly Japanese Zen nun, Kito Sensei. This momentous encounter led me to a Zen nunnery in Nagoya, Japan, where I was trained to see the buddha-nature of rags and cushions. The instructions on rags were very specific:

Use the thin, tightly woven cotton cloths to clean the altar.
Use the larger thin cloths to clean all other raised surfaces.
Use the thick terry cloth rags only on the floor.
When washing rags out in the bucket, wash the cleaning cloths for the altar first.
Always wash the rags used on the floor last.
When finished, quietly pour the water on the moss garden.

Treating the cleaning cloths so mindfully, I began to feel intimate with the rags that I wrung out every morning and afternoon while living in the nunnery. Gradually I saw that these rags were buddhas and they manifested their compassion by making the temple clean. The instructions on airing the meditation cushions in the sun were less detailed but easy to remember: "Take all the meditation cushions and place them on the tarp laid out in the front garden." Aiming to be efficient, I stacked five cushions and carried them out of the meditation hall. I slipped into my hall slippers, walked to the front door, and slid my feet out of the slippers while stepping down a level into outside sandals, all the while taking care to keep the cushions balanced. I made it to the tarp with the cushions and stepped out of the sandals before moving onto the tarp. When I bent down to begin placing the cushions in a row, however, one rolled off the pile and was about to hit the ground. Instinctively, I used my bare foot to break the fall and push it so it would fall on the tarp instead of the ground. A sharp "Ouch!" cut through the sun-drenched air, uttered by the nun supervising the sunning of the cushions. I was confused. I thought preventing the cushion from landing in dirt was surely worth a little clean-foot save. How could I have done any better? Besides, why was it so important? The expression on my face revealed that I was more perturbed than perplexed. The supervising nun spelled it out for me: "The cushion is a buddha, so treat it with respect." I had to figure out the rest for myself. I realized that I should carry only four cushions at a time, because that was the maximum number I could balance while bending down. It dawned on me that the meditation-cushion buddhas actualized their compassion by giving their support without complaint, no matter who sat on them or for how long.

Kito Sensei invited me along with two other senior Zen nuns on a one-day pilgrimage to Buddha relics enshrined on the peak of a mountain outside Nagoya. Of these three nuns, two were tea-ceremony teachers and one was a teacher of ikebana (flower arranging). It was a rare privilege and a high point of my life to spend the day with these highly cultured and spiritually advanced women. They remain the wisest and kindest women I have ever met. Spring was blooming along the trail, and a large swath of light-purple wildflowers captured our attention, providing levity as we climbed steadily upward. On reaching the site where the relics of the Buddha were consecrated, we brought incense and flowers out of our bags. We bowed with our hands together in gassho as we made the offerings. While we were chanting the Heart Sutra in practiced rhythm, my mind wandered. I suspended my suspicion about whether they were really relics of Shakyamuni Buddha, who walked the earth in the fifth century BCE. I relished the thought that by standing in front of these relics, I just might possibly be as close to a real human buddha as I would ever be. My ponderings continued with the thought that if rags and cushions could be buddhas, then perhaps a few people, even today, could be enlightened too.

Completing the chant, we bowed and walked toward the trees surrounding the mountain peak. They beckoned us to take refuge under their limbs, extending their embrace with their new spring-colored leaves. Kito Sensei led us to a low weathered "picnic" table that had a lean-to shed nearby where previous pilgrims had left a blackened teakettle, some newspapers and matches, a few roughly thrown tea bowls, an old bamboo tea whisk, and a stick crudely carved into a shallow spoon for scooping matcha tea powder into the bowls. Kito Sensei knew to bring our own water, tea, and sweets. As we brought the rudimentary tea implements out and made a small fire, no one needed to interrupt the silence to remind us about the phrase often carved into stone basins where one purifies one's hands before entering a tea hut that embodies the refined aesthetics of wabi culture: "I only know satisfaction." Sublime fulfillment permeated the fresh air as we finally sat down from the strenuous morning hike. After the water boiled, Kuriki Sensei, one of the tea-ceremony teachers, delighted in the naturalness of the spoon. She commented on how it was more true to the spirit of tea than spoons that garner extraordinary sums. Kito Sensei enriched the calm with a quiet exhalation: "Ichi go ichi e" (One time, one meeting). We all felt the preciousness of the present moment. Though a native of Nagoya in her eighties with ever-weakening knees, Kuriki Sensei had never climbed this peak. Being atop this Japanese mountain that hallows the Buddha relics from India had all the gravity and thrill of being a once-in-this-lifetime event. The earth steadfastly supported from below while birds sang tribute from above. I thought, So this is how it feels to know only contentment, no desires pulling or aversions pushing, no complaints or disappointments. Stress melting off, I felt peace, inside and out. I started seeing these nuns for who they really were: buddhas.

A few years later, I was again in Asia, for the 1993-94 academic year. During that time, my parents cared for my golden retriever, Kin-chan. I know everybody thinks his or her dog is the best, but Kin-chan was indeed a rare dog among dogs. Upon meeting him, a Zen adept would surely be persuaded to answer the Zen koan riddle "Does a dog have buddha-nature?" with an enthusiastic "Yes!" This dog was born to please. And true to his breed, he loved to retrieve. He would chase tennis balls for as long as someone would throw them. However, if one of his cherished tennis balls went beside a sheet of newspaper lying on the living room floor, he would not pick it up if it required stepping on the paper. He would silently wait until his predicament was noticed. Although taught only once as a pup, Kin-chan sat at each and every curb without prompting. He could even stop himself from a full bolt after a tennis ball if it rolled beyond the curb. I never did inform him that some "curbs" were really driveways.

When I was in the final stretch of twelve months of preparation for my General Exams for the PhD, I contracted an intense flu. You know, the kind where your raging fever makes you feel so cold nothing will make you feel warm? I went to bed one evening with that feeling and was unable to rise out of bed for close to thirty-six hours. I was too sick even to think about taking some fever-reducing pill. Kin-chan - a dog who would humor me by jumping on the bed only when called and would always retire to his dog bed after I fell asleep - not only came onto my bed unbeckoned but also got under the covers and pressed his silky-soft furry body against mine for the duration. I finally felt some warmth while weathering out the fever. When the fever eventually broke, I realized that I had not let Kin-chan out the entire time. It had been more than a day! He never even whimpered. He just stayed with me, alleviating my suffering in the best way he could, quietly warming my sick body with his. How did he know I felt cold when I had piled up so many blankets? Somehow he knew, too, that it would be a hardship on me to get out of bed and pad to the door to let him out into the backyard. I reflected that if the situation were reversed, I would not have been so patient and kind.

So it was with peace of mind that for a year I left my well-trained and kindhearted dog with my aging parents, who still lived in the home we had moved to twenty-one years before. Kin-chan, of course, did not know the history we had with the neighbors. Trained not to cross streets and, by default, driveways, he would often sit on my parents' front lawn unattended. Apparently he noticed the elderly woman next door looking sad. Had he sensed her husband had just passed away? He boldly crossed the driveway to lick her hand gently and nudge her to pet his soft fur while he wagged his silky tail. Over the next several months, he crossed the border into her yard with regularity. Kin-chan's ministrations thawed the ice that had built up for decades. It was not just my inflated imagination after all. Dogs do have buddha-nature.

A little more than a year later, I gave birth to my son. My mother came to Nashville to share this idyllic time, treasĀ­uring the special joys of three generations under one roof. After three months, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She had five more sublime months with her beloved grandson. She lived to see him sit up on her bed. On her death, in keeping with Japanese Buddhist tradition, she became my "personal buddha." With her I feel an intimacy I do not feel with more-famous buddhas, such as Shakyamuni or Amida. I feel her presence with me when I light incense and offer flowers to her on my home altar. She continues to guide me in the ever-changing needs of her growing grandson.

Back in Dearborn, my father struggled as a new widower. Familiar with the rhythms of grief, the next-door neighbor recurrently brought over cooked food and kindly offered a listening ear. Kin-chan had generated a bridge of friendship in time for her to cross the driveway and be there for my father in his time of acute mourning. Indeed, death sometimes makes it easier to see the Buddha in our midst.

On my path of seeking, I have learned it is easy to see the Buddha in flowers. It is more difficult to find the Buddha among the weeds. With concentrated practice, one can cultivate the refined art of seeing the Buddha in a thorn that has drawn blood.

Where the Buddha lives is not a question of where to look but how to see.

Paula Arai obtained her PhD in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University in 1993. Currently on the faculty at Louisiana State University, she has also taught at Brown University, Vanderbilt University, and Carleton College. She authored Women Living Zen (Oxford University Press) and Bringing Zen Home: The Healing Heart of Japanese Women's Rituals (University of Hawaii Press). Her research has received the support of two Fulbrights and several grants, including from the Reischauer Institute. Arai also does public presentations and workshops on Buddhist women, healing, and rituals.

This article was originally published in the July-September 2013 issue of Dharma World.

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