This month at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, we wish to celebrate gay pride by highlighting the scholarship of our LGBTQ+ students and faculty, as well as queer theory and queer theology in the wider Buddhist world. We are celebrating both “queerness” in its most basic definition, that is, as a descriptor of people whose sexual orientation or gender identity fall outside of societal norms, but we are also celebrating the act of queering itself. Many of the essays published this month hope to queer Buddhism, by using Buddhist doctrine, iconography, and community in creative ways, in ways that subvert or overturn longstanding patterns in Buddhist ways of thinking. Read our introduction to this special collection here.
In this installation, we interview Jōdō Shin minister Rev. Blayne Higa about pastoral care, making the dharma relevant, and social justice activism within the Japanese American Buddhist community.
Gesshin: Thanks so much for participating in this “Pride Issue” of the Ten Thousand Things. Can you tell us about yourself, your interests and your education?
Blayne: I was born and raised in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. I went to school on the mainland, to Willamette University to do my undergraduate, and then I came back to Hawaii and I began working. I worked in government, in politics, which eventually led to me getting my first master’s in public administration. Then I worked for many years, but was always involved in a temple community in Honolulu. I really fell into the life of a temple community and was drawn to Shin Buddhist teachings. So eventually I became a lay leader at a temple, and began exploring the ministry and ordination. I became ordained and received Tokudo with the Jōdo Shinshū Hongwanji-ha in Kyoto in 2012 and I continued working full time, doing part time ministry. In 2016 I began my studies at IBS because I wanted to go into ministry full time. In order to pursue that path, and I needed to do graduate level work to pursue Kyoshi certification. I graduated in 2019, and then I was assigned here at the Kona Hongwanji Buddhist Temple as the resident minister, and I’ve been here ever since.
Gesshin: What was your thesis about?
Blayne: My thesis explored Shin Buddhist spirituality and the art of pastoral care. I firmly believe in the integration of dharma into practice, into pastoral care, as a primary way to share the dharma and care for community. I think in America we need to be able to broaden the scope of ministry and enhance ministerial training and education to include pastoral care, to be able to include spiritual care, to be able to serve or members in a more holistic fashion. My M.Div degree was the dual track of Shin Buddhist Ministry and Chaplaincy. So I worked with Daijaku a lot, she was my thesis advisor and chair. In the program I also did one unit of CPE through the Pacific Health Ministry on Oahu. That was an amazing complement to my academic learning at IBS, to do be able to do that kind of practical training in a hospital, and to be able to integrate dharma learning with dharma practice.
Gesshin: Seems like you’re really interested in integrating pastoral care and ministry. How does that show up in your daily life and work with your sangha?
Blayne: It influences everything, enhances everything that I do. The training of pastoral care enhances our ability to work with community in every aspect. Not just in a spiritual care setting, but in every interaction. How do I listen? What is the quality of my listening? Pastoral care and my own dharma tradition helps me to focus on this idea of deep listening. And this is also a very important Shin Buddhist concept. This integrates nicely with being able to work with sangha members on their spiritual needs, during their times of spiritual crisis. Also just being able to relate to people, to be able to care for community not only in an acute way, but in a holistic way. It also helps at the administrative level: working with staff, volunteers, and the board. To be able to listen to what’s going on and deepen my understanding. To be able to deepen a conversation and better understand where people are coming from and what they are feeling is the most important thing.
Gesshin: It reminds me of when I was training in Japan, how much of our temple activity was “just” having tea. Parishioners would come and have tea, maybe they would talk about something that was bothering them, and we would listen. Of course there were ceremonies and things, but having tea was a large portion of what we did.
Blayne: I think that’s what people forget sometimes, that dharma happens in every aspect of our lives, in our everyday lives. Every moment is an opportunity to learn and deepen our understanding, and share the dharma, through or normal interactions. Our thoughts, words and deeds are the way we communicate dharma. I think in especially Shin Communities, dharma is grounded in community, in the flow of community life. Of course services but also when you’re working at the temple fundraiser together, that’s where dharma happens, when you’re working in the kitchen together. There’s a natural flow of living dharma. Pastoral care enhances my ability to work with people and to be able to support and care for community.
Gesshin: Could you talk a little bit about your involvement with the Social Concerns Committee, and your LGBTQ activism, especially regarding gay marriage?
Blayne: The Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii has a Committee on Social Concerns, which advises our bishop on social issues. The committee’s role is advisory but it also manages a fund for community giving. We donate to local non-profits, and are able to aid in times of disaster. So the committee is a nexus of discussion, comprised of both lay members and ministers. We’re able to have a rich discussion about contemporary issues and how Buddhist teaching guide us and offer wisdom for acting compassionately.
I was chair of the committee back in 2010 when the issue of gay marriage was on the national radar. It really was an opportunity for us to offer a Buddhist perspective with the larger community. The debate was happening within our community already; there was legislation being proposed at the legislature. Part of our role as faith leaders is to offer guidance and wisdom for living, and to be able to bring the dharma to bear on every aspect of our lives, and in particular issues that people are concerned about in the community. That’s how we make the dharma relevant.
We put a resolution together, and fortunately we were able to pass the resolution in favor of gay unions and rights. It was quite an amazing process to take it from the committee level all the way to our legislative level. We held several workshops on LGBTQ issues, partnering with the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii and other community groups, and we were able to bring down George Takei to speak at a seminar. It was an opportunity for us to deepen our community member’s understanding of the dharma and how you apply it to a social issue, to explore how the dharma works in our lives. What does it mean when we say Amida Buddha’s compassion is universal and all-embracing, and accepts everyone as they are? It was an exploration of what that really means, and how we understand it as Shin Buddhists.
It’s bringing the doctrine to bear on life, bringing doctrine to life. That’s our task as faith leaders and ministers.
Gesshin: There’s a really a felt difference to me between when you’re engaging with doctrine on a mostly intellectual level, and when you’re “bringing it to bear,” as you say. There’s an aliveness and immediacy, but also, I imagine, a potential for conflict. I imagine there was conflict and challenges when you were doing this work in community.
Blayne: There were a lot of concerns that people had, because in 2010 the same sex marriage issue was just building. For the time period, it was a challenging conversation to have. But it also was a relatively easy conversation to have as well. Just because many of our members, some of the older members especially, remember WWII, remember discrimination faced by Japanese Americans. For them it was a no brainer. A group of people were being oppressed and targeted for being who they are. For them it equated to “Why would we want to discriminate against somebody else?”
In our larger discussion, when the resolution did come to the floor of our assembly, the issue did come up, “Do we want to say ‘marriage’ or take the word ‘marriage’ out?” At that time in Hawaii we were really only talking about civil unions. And of course, at the time we thought, we can work with people’s discomfort. We recrafted some of the language to make it softer, to take out the word “marriage.” This led eventually to us later being able to support same sex “marriage” and marriage equality several years later, because we had this basis already in this resolution as a faith community supporting rights for same sex couples. So it was an incremental way of thinking, “How can we broaden our perspective? How can we guide people and move them along towards a deeper understanding of the teachings?”
Being able to offer a Buddhist voice at that time was powerful, especially because Buddhists are the third largest religious group in Hawaii. And the Honpa Hongwanji is the largest group of Japanese Buddhists locally here. Being able to offer a position, and a dharmic centered reasoning for our support was very powerful and important. Before that time, the community discussion was very one-sided.
It was important but also challenging, to take a stand. Because traditionally we’ve never taken stands like that before. But that opened the door to be able to be comfortable with taking on additional positions. Since that time our bishop has been asked for his thoughts on various issues. As a committee we’ve worked with him to advise, and our past work allows us to talk about more current issues like gun violence; we put out a statement about that. We also recently spoke out about anti-Asian hate.
Gesshin: When you said “we’ve never taken stands like that before,” I was struck by how that’s really true. I don’t know if it’s Buddhist culture or Japanese culture or the intersection of them, but it’s quite hard to find space to speak out about things sometimes. There can be a real culture of allowing.
Blayne: I think for a lot of Japanese immigrants that came to America, there really was a sense of not making waves. You don’t rock the boat. And there’s the idea of harmony, in both Japanese and Buddhist culture. I think it’s both good and bad. On the one hand, looking at group harmony and community, this allows us to think beyond ourselves. But taking that to an extreme allows for inaction, allows for injustice to fester. It’s a balance.
I think as Japanese Americans it was important for us to speak to our history. Especially for our elders in our community who remember a time of discrimination. Their worldview was formed by their experiences. Bishop Yoshiaki Fujitani, the 11th bishop of our Hawaii mission, he was very much an advocate for interfaith dialogue and harmony, but also for social justice.
Gesshin: We started out talking about spiritual care and we’ve arrived at activism. So I’m wondering how you view spiritual care for the LGBTQ+ community today.
Blayne: I think caring for sangha is my primary role, to be able to share the dharma through caring for community. The way I view caring for community is that everyone is accepted. My work is cultivating a culture and offering a safe place for people to come as they are to my temple, so that they can experience the living dharma. Being sensitive to diversity and inclusivity, being able to try.
We’re not going to be able to get it perfect all the time. But we can have an open heart and open mind, and be willing to say “I don’t know. Can you share, can you teach me?” This is the basis for expanding our culture and building community.
Gesshin: In the therapy world we call that “cultural humility.”
Blayne: Right. Knowing our own limitations. That’s what Shinran highlights— our own human limitations, our own humanness. Which allows us the opportunity to be compassionate for ourselves and others. Once we can see ourselves and our limitations, hopefully that cultivates some humility and compassion for ourselves, which extends to compassion for others. For me I really take to heart this understanding of being a “fellow traveler.” As we journey together, we are here to support each other in our practice. Viewing the world through this lens of “fellow traveler” helps break down some of the separateness we often feel, this idea of “other.” A lot of discrimination and hatred is cultivated by this projection of otherness. When we can see ourselves walking along side by side together, that is a way to help break down barriers and develop a sense of interconnectedness. This is at the heart of Buddhism.