My friend Elisabeth has been taking a “faith tour,” trying out different faiths to find a religious home. I tagged along with her Sunday to a Buddhist temple and went with her tonight (technically yesterday) to synagogue. Next week we plan to attend a mosque.
I’m also writing about these experiences for my freelance work with the newspaper. I’m sharing each story on this blog after it runs in the paper.
Here’s story 1 of 3: Our visit to the Buddhist temple
What does one wear to a Buddhist temple? That’s the question I faced Sunday when I decided to visit one with a friend. I thought about wearing my hippie-ish skirt, but nixed it and went for jeans. The website said to come comfortable.
I left my shoes on the porch before going in to help keep the temple clean and make it easier to sit on the floor. Circular carpets were provided to sit on, as well as sheets of thick paper to place beside us so the accordion-paged book of Buddha’s teachings never touch the floor.
The small room of the temple was pretty and cozy. It reminded me of our home when we first moved in; the previous homeowners left small Buddha statues on flat rocks in the backyard and a big orange and yellow Buddha painting in the office.
The temple was full of red, black and gold – wall hangings, candles and what I would consider trinkets, but which I’m sure had some bigger meaning. On the left was a big drum turned sideways on a wooden platform, and it was all I could do not to bang it.
My friend and I were joined by two others our age. The priest had white hair and gave a warm welcome, wearing a long gray robe with a gold-brown sash. The temple’s website says he likes to walk his dog and play the flute. He’s a hospital chaplain and supports the gay and lesbian community. I noticed tattoos peeking out from under his sleeves.
I didn’t chant since I have very different views, but I followed along in the book. I admit it sort of got on my nerves. I had the same feeling I get when I want to turn the radio station but can’t because it’s someone else’s radio.
Still, I wanted to be respectful and eventually caught myself rocking back and forth to the beat.
The priest and other participants chanted things like, “Namu myoho renge kyo,” meaning, in one translation, “I devote, honor and revere the wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra.” (I learned that dharma can have a few meanings, such as the law that orders the universe, or the teachings of Buddha.) Another translation of the chant – and the one on this particular temple’s website – is “Adoration to the Scripture of the Lotus of the Perfect Truth.” The words are a Japanese translation of classical Chinese characters.
The Lotus Sutra is regarded as one of the most influential scriptures in Buddhism. A lotus flower is typically associated with purity and spiritual awakening. While chanting the phrase above, the priest said to focus not so much on the meaning but on dispensing our positive energy into the universe. Although I didn’t chant, I tried to focus on “sending forth my energy” – my words – just to see if I felt any different. I felt like there was a force field keeping me from totally immersing myself in the service, but I did enjoy reading ahead while the others chanted – for many minutes. The others also took turns offering incense to Buddha.
My favorite part of the service came at the end when the priest read something he wrote about inner peace.
An excerpt from his writing:
“Do you want your life to be a sum of things accomplished, to-do lists completed, the time spent rushing around, or stuff accumulated? Or would you rather look back on a life of connectedness, great relationships, wonderful experiences, peace and calm?”
He went on to say that the impact of our lives is “underrated,” that our inner peace affects others around us.
The priest then spoke into a small camera at the back of the room where the service was being streamed online for people who couldn’t make it. He lifted up prayer requests – a couple of them for “a smooth transition from this life to the next.”
I appreciated that he stuck around afterwards to answer our questions. I asked why Buddhists believe in reincarnation and why they refer to Buddha as the “Eternal Buddha” if he’s dead. The priest said it’s because of Buddha’s eternal truths about suffering and because we all have a Buddha nature; that is, we all have the potential to achieve enlightenment. There was one semi-tense moment when I shared a little about my own beliefs, trying to understand his, but overall the conversation was open and friendly.
I also learned during this Q&A that there are different orders, or denominations, of Buddhism. The temple we visited was a Nichiren Shu service, founded by prophet Nichiren Shonin.
Before leaving, I thanked the priest for his time, and he offered to take a picture of me outside the temple when I asked if I could take a few shots. “Do something crazy,” he said, poised behind my Canon. I laughed.