“Certain topics were potentially explosive,
such as women and power, discrimination against nuns in
Thailand, and Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s talk, “What Does
Buddhism Have to Do with Black Women?” From the midst
of the audience, calls for clearly naming the problems grew
louder and louder.” ( quote from a reporter of the 9th Annual Sakyadhita Conference)
CHANTING JAPANESE IN MALAYSIA
by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
Printed in the Sakyadhita Newsletter, Winter 2006.
The traffic is heavy on our way from the airport to the five-day 9th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women being held at Sau Seng Lum Temple in Selangor, Puchong, just outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There are hundreds of palm trees, tall and squatting ones, lush green bushes, small cars, and small SUVs.
Inside the cars, Asian Muslim women are wrapped in cloth, some from crown to chin, some from crown to toe. As we ride along, our host tells us housing is built so not to take up space, to preserve open land. She tells us that, when she was in America she was shocked to see one house taking up large spaces of land, that one family could have so much to themselves. I looked out the window knowing that I wanted that kind of house, with a lot of land, not like the ones I saw out the window that reminded me of urban subsidized housing, people stacked upon each other. It was clear that on this journey in Malaysia, I would be studying this individualistic self, understanding this “self,” and practicing to let go of it.
When I sit quietly enough, images of the Sakyadhita conference grace my heart. Three days after being back in Oakland, California, I still heard the voices of the Tibetan
nuns singing “We Shall Overcome,” singing deep in their hearts, that they do believe that liberation is possible today, not someday. I listened to the song from the other side of one of the curtains that divided a dormitory of hundreds of lay and ordained women. I sang “We Shall Overcome,” too, but it is a silent rendition. Tears well up in my eyes. What brings such a song of freedom to the hearts of an African American woman over 50 years old, such as myself, and Tibetan nuns in their youth? Perhaps it is that they long to be in Tibet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, sharing the Dharma. I long to know what African country I came from and what language my ancestors spoke. Yet, despite our displacement we arrive together at the same home of Sakyadhita, having been taught Buddha’s teachings, celebrating life with five hundred other devoted Buddhist women, lay and ordained, from 45 countries, including Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Australia, Sweden, India, United States, Canada, and, of course, Malaysia.
At the opening ceremony, Theravadan, Mahayana, and Vajrayana nuns were invited to chant from their respective traditions. San Francisco Zen Center’s Kyoshin Wendy Lewis, an ordained Zen priest, and myself, having taken lay initiation vows, are waiting to chant the Heart Sutra as translated for the American Japanese Soto Zen tradition.
Only thing folks can’t quite figure out is why we are on
the program to chant in Japanese. The program coordinator asks, “Are you Japanese?” There’s a sign on the back of Kyoshin’s chair that says “Japanese,” designating the row. The row in front of us is designated “Theravada,” with nuns from Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia.
“No, we say, “We’re not Japanese, we’re American.”
“Then why are you chanting in Japanese?”
“Because we were asked to represent Japan for the ceremony?” We cringe, knowing it is not literally possible to represent Japan.
“You speak Japanese?” they ask, looking at my black African face and Wendy’s European one.
“No, but we do chant the Heart Sutra in Japanese at our
“So, you’re Japanese?”
“No, were Americans.”
Sitting in a room filled with photographers and reporters from Malaysian newspapers and TV, they snap pictures because they see an African dressed in a lay robe in the
Japanese Zen tradition. As they snap I wonder where are the Japanese anyway? The questions continue with another set of inquirers who are coordinating the ceremony.
“There are only two of you?”
“Where are the rest of the Japanese?”
“Are you nuns?” They glance at our short-cropped hair standing out among the shaved heads of our Dharma sisters. The nuns representing China are chanting. After them, it is time for us to head for the elevated stage and stand in front of a six-foot high Buddha statue, before at least 300 people, including dignitaries, politicians, and abbots of the largest Buddhist organizations in the country.
The conference is an important event, given the country is predominantly Islamic. But one more question. A young Malaysian woman from the back taps me on the shoulder.
“Are you from Africa?”
“Are you Japanese?”
“No, I’m from America and I practice Zen in the Japa-
nese tradition.” She smiles, still a bit confused, probably not so much
about my being American or African as much as trying to
understand Buddhism outside of an Asian country.
When our turn comes to chant, there is only one thing to do: chant the Heart Sutra (Maka Hannya Haramitta Shin Gyo) as Japanese as possible. Even though I did not have this particular chant memorized, I heard our voices echoing out across the silent auditorium as I read and Kyoshin stood steadfast facing the audience. Only two of us on that elevated stage, as if we were standing on a mountain. The sound of our voices seemed to reach the lake 100 yards away from the open 20-foot-square doorway of the temple. I thought a breeze came to the stage, but it was the air from the cooling system.
After chanting, we bowed to the Buddha, then to the audience and walked off the stage. Back at my seat, I sat listening to the Korean nuns whose Heart Sutra chant sounded most similar to ours. I felt honored that Kyoshin had invited me to join her, because even though it seemed we were in over our heads, we managed to extend our chant of compassion.
Later, we were congratulated on how beautifully we chanted and how the voices of two sounded as voluminous as an entire group of nuns. Perhaps it was pure Buddha nature and our planting our feet firmly, despite and because of the confusion we brought to the ceremony, that helped our voices to sing. Perhaps the chant reminded us of being in the Buddha Hall at the San Francisco Zen Center, being joined
by the sangha back home. Whatever the reason for our success, Kyoshin and I turned to each other and acknowledged that next time we’ll bring more of the sangha. I thought, yes, so that they will know there are more than two of us that chant the Buddha’s sutras in Japanese in America.
After the talk I presented on Black women and Buddhism, it was clear to more of the women and men in the room that I was American. There was a genuine interest from the nuns and laywomen from all over the world about the human condition of African Americans in the United States, especially black youth. They wanted to know about
the possibilities of Buddha’s teachings affecting the despair among African Americans. They wanted to know about Buddhism in ancient and contemporary Africa.
Presenting the paper turned their focus from discerning my nationality or the origin of my Zen robe to a collective inquiry of oppression in the light of the Buddha’s teachings and more questions about Soto Zen. Then, I felt they could understand my presence at the gathering and I became more of a Dharma sister.
Three days after that presentation, on an early morning in the humidity of a granite sky and the prized Malaysian bougainvillea bouncing lightly, the Muslim prayer called
out over Puchong, surrounding the temple and my head. Outside, barefoot, in my light cotton kimono, normally worn under a black Zen practice robe, I hung up wet clothes
to dry. A private joy brought a smile to my face, because I was suddenly not from anywhere else in the world other than where I stood, feet to the one earth beneath a sliver of a familiar moon. There was no longing for Africa in the moment, having found a global sangha speaking a language that inspires a life of Dharma.
As I explore full ordination in the Zen tradition, I contemplate wanting to be a nun and not a priest, as we call our ordained. And this may be because I walked away from
the conference feeling a part of the global Buddhist world, feeling the honor of being a nun, a “venerable” as they are called. I trust that the merit of the Sakyadhita gathering will be transmitted to all sentient beings.