Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


The Gift of Shame : a black armband or a white blindfold?
Talk for 2004 Obon by Rev Gregg Heathcote, 11/7/2004

In his New Year's message at the beginning of this year Go-Monshu sama called [ 1 ] for all nembutsu followers

to seriously think about our future and the world; how and what kind of world or society we are going to build, regardless of whether our own lives are good or bad,

asking all to speak up and work positively with others because

As long as the present circumstances continue, humanity may not be able to exist for much longer.

It is apt that we should carefully consider this desperately important call at Obon, since this is a time traditionally dedicated to thoughtful appreciation of ancestral heritage, and to attending in turn to what shall be passed on to our children and children's children. If the physical and spiritual survival of humanity in these dangerous times is to be secured, surely one of the most crucial and precious elements of our common human inheritance is the gift of shame.

At first this may sound strange, describing shame as a gift. But what does it mean when we describe someone as 'shameless'? Shame is shinjin's inseparable companion. Without conscience, consciousness of compassion is rendered impossible. If we would see the stars we must necessarily brave the dark depths of night, a darkest night enfolding the hearts of each and every one of us everywhere, and enfolding each and every generation of which we bombu are a part.

The gift of shame is most certainly a very hard gift to accept however, especially when it is delivered time and again so very very close to home. Self-righteous, self-serving lies are so seductive by comparison. They are false bargains on sale pretty well everywhere, plus much of their true cost is paid by others, interminably. Nevertheless there have always been an inspiring minority of people who in genuine 'moments of truth' have shown themselves prepared to reject these cheap and easy lies; acknowledge shameful realities; connect with greater values; and go on to act in conscience no matter what the consequences. These are the people we must together emulate if we are to prove true humanity fit for survival.

The present Australian Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, is on record as rejecting a 'black armband view of history'[ 2 ], a view of past events requiring us to carry forward a sense of shame and grief. Justice Marcus Einfeld, a great human rights and social justice advocate, has responded to this by saying he would 'Rather a black armband than a white blindfold to shut out the truth.'[ 3 ] And what might this confronting truth be?

Let's start with the colonial war of extermination waged against the Aboriginal inhabitants of this land we now call Australia. At a public meeting in Bathurst in the year 1824 a white landowner named William Cox stated 'The best thing that can be done is to shoot all the blacks and manure the ground with their carcasses.'[ 4 ] Cox's view was shared by many, if not most white settlers and massacres of Aboriginals took place all over this country. Some whites opposed the atrocities and tried to protect Aboriginal people as best they could. One such was Lancelot Threlkeld, a Christian missionary based at Lake Macquarie, just to the south of my own home city of Newcastle. In a letter dated November 1838, Threlkeld wrote:

The extinction of the Blacks in the interior is going on at a frightful rate - we can reckon 500 that have been slaughtered within 15 or 18 months, whilst 15 whites only have been killed in the course of six years by the blacks - This year a party of Blacks consisting of almost 26 were at work at a station, the overseer told them to go away as the stockmen were out after the Blacks to punish them, they did not go, the stockmen came, ripped open the bellies of the blacks, killed the women, took the children by the legs and dashed their brains out against the trees, They then made a triangular log fire to burn the bodies, and reserved two little girls about 7 years Old for Lascivious purposes [ie to be raped] and because they were too small for them they cut them with knives.[ 5 ]

Unusually, the white men guilty of this horrific crime were brought to trial, in part due to the fact that another white man was prepared to bear witness against them in the face of fearful public hostility towards him for doing so. Seven men were eventually hanged despite their revealing plea that 'because killing Aboriginal people was such a common frontier sport, they did not realise that it was illegal.'[ 6 ]

My own mother's father was an ANZAC, one of those much revered Australian soldiers who served during the First World War. Grandfather Foster was wounded at Gallipoli and wounded once more in France. He was a gentle man, fondly remembered by our family. He was also quite possibly a war criminal. I must concede this because Australian troops in France were notorious for murdering German prisoners, a merciless practice which historians suggest may have been rooted in the traditions of total war against Aboriginals back home.[ 7 ]

Many surviving, disillusioned German First World War soldiers later went on to become supporters of Hitler and his Nazi party. The immensity of the evils then wrought by Nazism, leading up to and during the Second World War, staggers imagination. Torture and mass murder were made vast industrial processes in which whole populations became complicit in the miserable demise of millions of their fellow human beings.

Nevertheless, at truly terrible risk to themselves and to their families, there were hundreds and thousands of people who did respond with kindness, and sometimes with incredibly dedicated courage and compassion to rescue potential victims of the Nazis from suffering and death. One such conscientious rescuer was the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Sempo Sugihara.[ 8 ] Repeatedly ignoring contrary orders from Tokyo, Sugihara issued transit visas at a furious pace to enable Jews to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. In so doing he may have saved up to 10,000 lives. However, recalled to Japan to face punishment for his flagrant disobedience, Sugihara and his whole family were to suffer years of social isolation and hardship as a result.

Of course the Imperial Japanese government in whose service Sugihara had been so humanely insubordinate was a military ally of Nazi Germany. The Japanese version of fascism was every bit as cruel, corrupting and coercive of collaboration from every section of society. For its part the Hongwanji shamefully gave its blessing [ 9 ]to hundreds of thousands of ordinary Japanese men, obviously thousands of whom would have been Shinshu followers, going off to render brutal military service in China where they raped, tortured, mutilated and murdered countless millions of innocent people who were compatriots of our own precious Pure Land Masters Shan-tao, Tao-ch'o, and T'an-luan. Not in the Name of the Amida but in the name of a god-emperor, so many ordinary Japanese men in uniform opened the very gates of hell and for this reason became known to the Chinese as 'Japanese soldiers of the devil'.[ 10 ]

But Sempo Sugihara had a worthy counterpart in China. John Rabe was a German businessman who had lived in China for many years representing the electrical firm Siemens. Rabe was a genuinely humane man who had nonetheless joined the Nazi party in the sincere belief that Hitler was both a good man and a good leader. When in 1937 Rabe found himself in Nanking as the Japanese army began its ruthless massacre of the city's Chinese population, this Nazi affiliation became vitally important. Brazenly flaunting his swastika armband, and forcefully claiming authority on account of Japan's pact with Germany, Rabe worked tirelessly, and at real risk of his own life, to establish and protect an 'International Safety Zone' for the refugees. Between 250,000 and 300,000 lives were saved due to John Rabe's heroic efforts and the thankful Chinese subsequently presented him with a banner hailing him as their 'Living Buddha'. Just the same, this 'Living Buddha' was arrested by the Gestapo as soon as he returned to Germany.[ 11 ]

And so, having sampled some of these relevant, interconnected instances where history has a confronting truth to teach us, we face some critical questions. Are we prepared to accept and unwrap the gift of shame, using it to scrutinize with greater realism the nature and circumstances of our own lives in community with others, or shall we discreetly discard what has been bought for us at such awful cost? Are we ready to wear black armbands, or is it still preferable to wear white blindfolds irrespective of present and future costs to humanity as a whole hidden therein? Blindly passionate bombu we all are, just as our ancestors, of whatever nation, have been before us. Yet our common heritage is also one of calling compassion being heard in the very midst of the most vile and violent self-righteousness, with conscience being courageously acted upon in consequence.

These facts must be considered as we apply ourselves, as Go-Monshu sama suggests, in aid of a better world and a less endangered human species. There are some other relevant facts and pressing issues specific to the current Australian context which I would strongly suggest we all should also investigate, reflect and act upon as conscience dictates.

  1. A process of reconciliation with the Aboriginal peoples of this country is a national necessity, but under the present Howard government this process has been deliberately and callously obstructed [ 12 ] in a way which is intensely objectionable to all those Australians interested in achieving a just society. Mr. Howard's comments rejecting a 'black armband view of history' are more or less indicative of his attitudes in this respect.
  2. John Valder, the former president of John Howard's own Liberal Party, has called for Prime Minister Howard (and other Coalition leaders) to stand trial for war crimes over the illegal invasion and unjust occupation of Iraq.[ 13 ] In view of the evident widespread human rights abuses, escalating suffering, and mutual hatred being fuelled by terror met blindly with yet greater terror, this call for a reckoning concerning political responsibility carries significant moral weight.
  3. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has described conditions in the detention centres where the Australian government indefinitely imprisons asylum seekers of all ages as 'offensive to human dignity'.[ 14 ] Due to the appalling suffering they inflict upon highly vulnerable people these grossly offensive centres have been condemned by every major human rights organization in the world. The eminent lawyer Julian Burnside QC furthermore argues [ 15 ] that there would be a strong ethical and legal case, under both international and Australian law, for John Howard and his responsible ministers to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity arising from their policy of mandatory detention. The refugee rights movement seeking to compensate for the government's calculating, deceitful, indecent and possibly criminal actions in this regard is in size and scope unprecedented in Australian history.[ 16 ]
  4. The Kyoto Protocol is considered by many to be the last best hope for concerted international action to help avert catastrophic climate change. The fact that the present Australian government has obstinately refused to ratify this international agreement is ecological folly and downright selfish short-sightedness. It actively undermines global sustainability and makes Australia an environmental pariah.[ 17 ]

Before the U.S. military launched its fateful attack upon Iraq last year, Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate, prophetically warned 'We are sleepwalking through history'.[ 18 ] Thinking on Go-Monshu sama's words and looking about me I can only wonder how many more bloody nightmares must we bombu generation after generation stumble into. Now most especially we Shin Buddhists need be stung into wakefulness by the gift of shame, sufficient so that we can rouse others with a clear and consistent call in keeping with the faith we profess, and the dangers we must together face.

Namo Amida Butsu.

1. This message of New Year's greetings from Go-Monshu sama was reproduced in print in the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia Bulletin (Vol. 5, No. 1) dated January 26, 2004. It is also reproduced online at the Calgary Temple web site.
2. The currency of this phrase in modern Australian social and political life I believe originates with the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture delivered by Prime Minister Howard in 1996. The text of this lecture may be perused at Address by the Prime Minister the Rt. Hon. John Howard M.P.
3. This statement appears on page 6 of the transcript of Justice Einfeld's speech, entitled 'The Great Australian Brain Robbery : The Hijacking of the Australian Conscience', which was delivered at the University of Newcastle on September 19, 2002, as that university's Annual Human Rights and Social Justice Lecture. The highly instructive and deeply disturbing transcript document, plus background information concerning Justice Einfeld himself, is available online from the web-site of the University of Newcastle.
4. Elder, Bruce 'Blood on the wattle: massacres and maltreatment of Aboriginal Australians since 1788'. French's Forest, NSW: New Holland, 1998. (p.58)
5. 'Australian Reminiscences & Papers of L.E. Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, 1824-1859' edited by Niel Gunson. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1974. (p.274)
6. Elder, op. cit. (p.94). The crime referred to is known as the Myall Creek Massacre.
7. It is a dangerous and habitually egotistical distortion of the world where we are ever ready to take a decidedly dim view of the actions of supposed strangers and enemies while we demonstrate intense reluctance to see the actions of people supposed to be 'our own' through anything other than rose-coloured glasses. Our so very selective, easily manipulated, and blindly passionate demonizing of such projected shadows is indeed a direct function of the distorted perceptions we entertain of their relative distance from ourselves. The murder of an Anzac prisoner-of-war by his captors would be readily decried by Australians as a war crime, but is a double standard applicable if the situation is reversed and the murderers are fellow Australians? The all-powerful national mythology of the Anzac seductively supposes that these men were somehow supreme exemplars of the ideal, iconic Australian character. One of the greatest architects of this legend was the war correspondent and historian C.E.W. Bean, of whom it has been said "...Bean tailored his account of the Australian soldier to fit his preconceived notions about the Australian character.. His official history excluded 'the real and ugly face of battle', omitting some of the less savoury aspects of Australians in conflict, such as the killing of prisoners of war and self-inflicted wounds, even though Bean had himself recorded examples of these practices in the diary he kept in the trenches." (from 'Australia's War, 1914-18' edited by Joan Beaumont. St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1995. p.157). Truthfully entertaining the darker complexities of being bombu one and all is never an easy matter.
8. See - Fogelman, Eva 'Conscience & Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust'. London: Cassell, 1995. Sempo Sugihara's story is recounted in this wonderful book along with the diverse stories of many other rescuers. Dr. Fogelman is a practicing psychotherapist and is herself the daughter of a rescued Jew. Her incisive study of the actions and motivations of rescuers makes utterly fascinating reading.
9. On page 36 of his artlcle, 'Towards a Shin Buddhist Social Ethics', published in The Eastern Buddhist, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2 (2001), Professor Ama Toshimaro writes concerning this matter: "..the Shin Buddhist institutions actively supported the modern imperial nation. Not only did Higashi and Nishi Honganji provide financial assistance when the Meiji government was established, but they also sought to create, up to the time of Japan's defeat in 1945, "loyal subjects" needed by the imperial government. Particularly during times of war, they took the lead in preaching that the duty of a Shin Buddhist was to die gloriously on the battlefield, and therefore urged the simple believers to march off to combat. Furthermore, the abbots of both Honganjis took imperial princesses as their wives and thus established close ties with the imperial family, which further served to provide an important emotional support for the imperial system, especially as these abbots were regarded as living buddhas. Of course, in that age, Japan needed nationalism if she was to remain an independent country. During the early Meiji period (1868-1912), the Shin Buddhist institutions had suffered a severe blow from the anti-Buddhist persecution and therefore, it may be understandable that they became entangled with nationalism in order to re-establish themselves. However, the path they took led them far away from the Buddhist teachings, as in glorifying war to such an extent, they justified the slaughter of humanity in the name of compassion, the fundamental teaching of Buddhism."
10. In February of this year the Australian SBS Television network screened a highly educational and extremely confronting two-part Japanese documentary series with this very title, ie 'Japanese Soldiers of the Devil'.
11. John Rabe's story is told in 'The Good German of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe' edited by Erwin Wickert. London: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.
12. I would call attention to the fact that the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was a statutory body composed of various distinguished Australians, a body designed to be representative of both the indigenous and wider communities, and charged with the nation-building task of consulting widely, deliberating deeply, and establishing creatively the practicable ways by which reconciliation might progressively be achieved. After nearly a decade of work, in the year 2000 this august Council presented its final, formal recommendations to the Howard government, which has effectively disregarded them. In the vital interest of Australians together moving the reconciliation process forward it would be tragically unwise to now waste the spirit and substance of what has been so patiently and carefully distilled on our behalf. The value of the Council's recommendations must eventually secure official acceptance, and inform action in good faith at the national level. Amidst the online archive of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, what these recommendations entail may be examined at Final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.
13. Transcript and an audio file of the radio broadcast in which John Valder made this call for war crimes prosecutions over the Iraq debacle.
14. See the BBC World News coverage concerning this damning assessment by Justice Bhagwati, the Special Envoy of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner.
15. Julian Burnside's arguments supporting the accusation of crimes against humanity may be examined at Australia's Treatment of Asylum Seekers: The View From Outside and Julian Burnside vs Amanda Vanstone.
16. See 'Australians Welcome Refugees: The Untold Story - A report to the 60th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights - April 2004'. This report was prepared by Margaret Reynolds, National President of the United Nations Association of Australia, and it makes very heartening reading.
17. It is for instance notable that the 2002 Social Justice Statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference argued that there were compelling ethical and spiritual reasons why ratification of the Kyoto Protocol was the right thing to do, and called upon the Australian government to act accordingly. A similar position could be argued from a Buddhist standpoint. Coverage of the story can be found at the Wilderness Society and the actual statement document released by the bishops can be accessed at the website of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference.
18. The full text of Senator Byrd's momentous speech is available at the website of the US Senate.

Return to the main page of Speaking Personally.