I grew up in New York City. A city with a lot of character. And characters. People come here from all over the world for opportunities—to make money, to leave a mark, to introduce bold new thinking. It is this amazing city that has given rise to Jane Jacobs, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Langston Hughes; to hip hop, Broadway, and the best lox bagel in the world. But it is also a city that was founded on the blood of the Lenape, Rockaway, and Canarsie Native Americans, a city that’s endured two terrorist attacks, and a city with one of the greatest wealth disparities in America.
Spiritually, you can say that New York City is a very challenging training ground for your buddha nature. Many people have suffered from violence and human inequity here. Many still suffer: from failure to fulfill their human-centered ambitions for fame and wealth, from generations of institutional inequity, from senseless violence and others’ karmic burdens. I have heard people say that, in a spiritual sense, this city feels “heavier” than many other cities. Perhaps it is the weight of people and spirits seeking some form of spiritual relief. Returning from a visit to the head temple (Oyasono) in Japan, where the grounds are sacred, people are kinder, the air purer, it’s sometimes difficult for me to feel positive about this city that can be so harsh and unforgiving.
I grew up here, but my parents didn’t. They emigrated to New York right before I was born, from Japan, about 30 years ago. They weren’t confident in their English-speaking, so growing up, I often acted as their translator. When we went to restaurants, I’d order for all of us, or if there was a scary-looking bill in the mail, I would read it, look up words I didn’t know, and try to explain the contents to them in Japanese.
It was in college, in a public policy class, where I learned that my parents, who for various reasons never became fluent in English and worked long, hard hours, were considered part of a “vulnerable population.” “Vulnerable populations” in the United States include people of color, immigrants, the uninsured, and low-income folks who tend to face more institutional barriers to success—from falling victim to predatory lending, lacking access to adequate health care, and facing discriminatory housing policies, among other insidious daily and systemic injustices still within American society.
Spiritually, you can say that New York City is a very challenging training ground for your buddha nature.
And so I became defensive. I vowed to protect my parents; to never let them fall victim or prey to the “system” that feeds on the disadvantaged. I vowed to use my education as a weapon, to face anyone that might try to take advantage of them in any way with facts, arguments, and aggressive negotiation. By trying to do this to protect my parents from what I believed was the unfairness of the world, I drove myself (and probably them) crazy. I insisted every letter from the bank or utility or hospital I read, to make sure there weren’t any suspicious charges or any attempts at fraud. In doing so, and trying to juggle my own personal and professional life, I grew stressed and agitated. I lost any semblance of joy in being able to be so close to my parents, in having such loving parents in the first place. I grew distrustful of systems in America, of rude, and at times, prejudiced and ruthless people in New York City who I thought were trying to take advantage of us.
One time I recall going to a used car dealership with my parents to help them buy a car. I was nervous. I believed in the stereotype that used-car dealers resorted to sly business tactics to squeeze more money from their customers. So, I researched for days beforehand to be prepared for all of the tactics they might try; to know financing inside and out and to know how they might try to take advantage of us. When we went to the car dealership, all I kept thinking about was which tactic was this salesperson going to try? How can I outsmart them? I was so obsessed about this that I barely spoke to the car salesman like a person. I was there to negotiate and that was it. Me against him. Us against the world. At the end of it, we had gotten a reasonable deal on the car, and on the way home, I broke down and cried. I was so tired, and so stressed with having to have my guard up the entire time. Seeing this, I recall my father saying, “It’s ok, you don’t have to be so hard on yourself; at the end of the day, I’d rather be the one duped than the one doing the duping. So iijanaika (Isn’t it ok?) if someone might try to take advantage of us.”
I was so obsessed about this that I barely spoke to the car salesman like a person. I was there to negotiate and that was it. Me against him. Us against the world. At the end of it, we had gotten a reasonable deal on the car, and on the way home, I broke down and cried.
Longtime New Yorkers will tell you that the city hardens you. It teaches you to keep your guard up, and to not let others take advantage of you. However, I think of Shinnyo‑en’s founder, Shinjo Ito. Master Shinjo experienced betrayal by his most trusted disciples. Yet, he still took it as a reflection of himself from the buddhas, and it did not harden him as a person. He was still incredibly open-hearted; welcoming all, trusting all, again and again.
So I realized that real New Yorkers aren’t the ones that are hardened. The real New Yorkers come out at the 34th street subway station when a band of musicians are playing an ensemble to a dancing crowd. When a giant, tattooed man gently smiles, and says, “Here, hun, take my seat.” It’s when you go into your same bagel store, see your same coffee cart guy, and they know your order, and greet you warmly. It’s when you walk down the street and you hear three different languages being spoken, loudly, and no one on the street even blinks an eye or thinks it strange. It’s the thousands of people that volunteer their time at our city’s homeless shelters and food pantries. It’s in the parades and marches and the millions of people in this city who get through each day with humor and unapologetic directness and genuine kindness and creativity.
Like Master Shinjo, a real New Yorker doesn’t let the city harden them.
The current head of our spiritual tradition, Her Holiness Shinso, wishes for Shinnyo‑en to be a global path; she continues to encourage us to “ganbaru,” to not give up despite challenges, and to know that she and the Shinnyo founders are always supporting us. They are with us always, in the sanctified air of Oyasono, and in the subways of NYC. They are here with us encouraging us to support others and help them awaken their buddha nature, because no matter how “hard” people might seem, they all have the capacity to be buddhas.
So, NYC is a city filled with potential buddhas.
I grew distrustful of systems in America, of rude, and at times, prejudiced and ruthless people in New York City who I thought were trying to take advantage of us.
So, each and every day, whether we are at work, home, school, or in transit, we have an opportunity to endeavor in shinnyo acts for others; connecting our intentions with the Shinnyo founders and trying our best to serve others, to make one more person’s day better.
I am grateful that we have the opportunity at Shinnyo‑en to offer prayers to transfer merit to unconsoled spirits, that amidst all of the suffering and secular politics in the world, as Shinnyo practitioners, our prayers and efforts are like acts of spiritual activism, consoling spirits and all beings equally and without distinction, for the peace of the city and the world.
Even in circumstances where Buddhist precepts appear not to be relevant—like in a business negotiation—I chant “Namu Shinnyo” and align my intentions with the Shinnyo founders. I hope to work on building positive karma by going beyond attachments to money and other material goals. And I negotiate like a Shinnyo New Yorker, with confidence, advocating for what I believe is fair and with an honest intention of acting for the sake of others.
Our path to shinnyo is universal. It is timeless. It is progressive. It trains you how to be the best of you for the sake of others. I vow to be a foundation here, for the city and the sangha that bore and raised me, to express the heartfelt wish of the Shinnyo founders and to nurture even one more Shinnyo New Yorker.
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