Monday, August 8, 2016

A Celebration of Spiritual Pluralism

"In the world there are many different roads,
But the destination is the same."

-- I Ching, appended remarks

My wife joked with me recently about my "salad bar spirituality" -- a little of this, a little of that. I guess the observation is true to an extent, in that I love to study world religions, learn how other people access the Divine, and maybe end up seeing how a newly discovered spiritual tenet might mesh with my worldview. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. But at least I've learned something about my fellow human beings in the process. Maybe I've even done my part to engender a little more religious tolerance in the world.

But in the end, I always try to bear in mind a quote that's long resonated with me: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." (Frequently attributed to Aristotle, though probably in error.) The end result for me is a hodgepodge of personal views that sometimes shift with new information. But I don't know if the whole big mess looks so much like a religious salad as a kind of melting pot. Because it's not as if I feel like a Buddhist one day and a Quaker the next and a Taoist the next. I sort of feel as if all those things exist simultaneously and constantly inform each other.

Confucius, Buddha, and Lao-tzu.
Source: Tumblr.
To followers of the monotheistic traditions, this approach surely smacks of heresy. But in the East, religious views are much more fluid than they are in the West. Many Chinese are at once Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist. Many Japanese observe Shinto in tandem with the Buddha-dharma. And as someone who's been immersed in Eastern spirituality for the better part of 15 years, I see the exploration and mixing of multiple religious/spiritual paths as simply expanding my horizons. Why does religion have to be either/or? Why can't it be both/and?

That's not to say you should necessarily treat religion like a trip to the grocery store, pulling whatever looks good off the shelf and tossing it in your cart. Read the labels. Get to know what it is you're "buying." Consider how one item might mesh with the other ones you're wheeling to the checkout.

People take their religions very seriously, and I'd argue that it's disrespectful to cruise on by someone else's religion, decide a few of the views are to your liking, and adopt them for your own without any deeper reflection, while those immersed in the fullness of that religious path have probably devoted a good deal of their lives and resources to living out those beliefs that are highly sacred to them.

Read. Then read some more. Talk to people involved in that religion. Ask if you can attend a service. And keep reading. Regard the new beliefs you're interested in as a devout follower of that religion might. Meditate on them. Ask yourself why you want to blend a new belief into your personal practice. Will it benefit you? Will it benefit those around you? These are all important considerations.

The topic has been on my mind lately because I've been encountering lots of religious/spiritual paths that I've found intriguing for one reason or another. One path in particular struck me so hard that I ended up carving out an altar space in my little meditation nook that would allow me to properly observe the daily prayer rituals of the tradition. It's a highly syncretic tradition called Caodaism, named after Cao Dai, the supreme being that its founders are said to have communicated with in a seance.

Sun Yat-Sen, Victor Hugo,
and Nguyen Binh Khiem.
Source: Wikipedia.
Caodaism: Vietnam's faith of unity
Caodaism emerged in the 1920s in Vietnam, when Spiritism -- communicating with the Other Side through mediums, divination tools, and the like -- was in vogue. Through these methods, the founders of Caodaism determined that they were to establish a new religion that would usher in a wave of worldwide religious unity. Subsequent seances established a wildly diverse pantheon of Caodai saints, following communication with their spirits. Among them: Descartes, Shakespeare, Louis Pasteur, Joan of Arc, and Victor Hugo. The author of Les Miserables is held in especially high regard, depicted in a painting in the main Caodai temple in Tay Ninh along with Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen and Vietnamese sage Nguyen Binh Khiem. The trio is shown writing out the covenant of Caodaism in French: "Dieu et Humanite, Amour et Justice." God and humanity, love and justice.

If that isn't audacious enough, the statuary at the Tay Ninh temple includes everyone from the Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-tzu to Jesus, Kuan-yin, and the Hindu Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva -- visible evidence that the Caodaists are serious in their stated goal of creating a world of religious synthesis. It's their belief that the world has seen three great religious ages -- the first being the age that gave rise to some of our most ancient existing traditions, including Judaism and Hinduism; and the second being the era that saw Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Christianity take hold. We now live in the third age, Caodiasts say, an era that will usher in a unity of all religious paths and give rise to a peaceful universal brotherhood.

Jesus shares space in a Caodai temple with the likes of
Kuan-Yin and the Buddha. Source: Wikipedia.
The overarching goal, much as in Buddhism, is to free oneself from the cycle of birth and death. Getting there requires living a life imbued with love, kindness, and respect for all, helping to lay the groundwork for a harmonious world in which we view all religions as originating from the same sacred grain of truth and leading to the same ultimate destination. 

The structure of Caodaism reflects the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, complete with priests, bishops, cardinals, a pope, and even a Holy See -- located at the Tay Ninh temple. One striking difference between the Catholics and the Caodaists, however, is that women can hold all clerical positions, aside from pope. Equality is a central tenet of the faith.

High-ranking temple officials wear robes of either red, blue, or yellow -- representing the three core faiths of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, respectively -- while laypeople dress all in white. Services are held four times a day, every six hours, in an elaborate ceremony of singing and chanting. Overlooking the congregation, at the main altar, is the all-seeing eye of the supreme being, peering down from a globe that remains eternally lit.

That Caodaism took on a form resembling Catholicism was surely not by accident. The French controlled Vietnam at the time the religion took hold. Building a new religious faith that emphasized the traditional East Asian teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, along with Vietnamese folk traditions, and wrapping them all in the framework of the religion of their occupiers, was a masterful way of taking back control over something that belonged to the Vietnamese but that the French officials would at least tolerate.

To that end, the prominence of Victor Hugo in the Caodaist pantheon of saints was no doubt also a calculated move. By the time of Caodaism's founding, Hugo was regarded as a French hero, yet during his life he was highly critical of the Catholic Church, was sent into exile by Napoleon III for his political views, and was known to practice Spiritism himself. Little wonder, then, that the Caodaist founders were able to communicate with Hugo's spirit through seance! The Caodaists clearly saw Hugo as someone who would have been on their side against the French officials. His veneration among the Caodaists, then, can be viewed as a deliciously subversive move on the part of the religion's founders.

The inclusion of Joan of Arc can be seen in much the same way: A French heroine who fought with a liberation army would have been regarded as sympathetic to the cause of Vietnamese independence from its invading oppressors. Her spirit, in seance, was also said to have remarked on Caodaism's ecclesiastical equality for women.

The all-seeing eye.
Not surprisingly, Caodaism became wildly popular among the Vietnamese in short order. It counted millions of followers within a decade of its founding. But it's not had an easy history. In the 1940s, the movement had grown so large that the French had become wary of its growing power and influence. They began shutting down temples and arrested the pope. The Caodaists, in response, organized an army to stand their ground. That army ended up siding with the Japanese against the French during World War II. In the aftermath of Japan's loss, the French arrested more Caodaists, but eventually the occupiers' focus shifted to fighting the Communists, and the French ultimately offered peace to the Caodaists. 

The religion again began to grow, until the fall of Saigon. Starting in 1975, the Communists sent Caodaist dignitaries off to re-education camps and sold off temple properties. Practice of Caodaism was essentially banned throughout the country, though it continued underground. The religion was legalized again in 1997 and continues to be openly practiced, but under the watch of the Communist government, it is not the organization it once was. Divination has been banned, the papacy has remained vacant for decades, and all Caodaist beliefs and practices have to be approved by the government. 

Now Caodaism appears to be treated as something like a religious commodity. The Tay Ninh temple is widely marketed as a tourist destination today, with Western vacationers snapping photos from the balconies during the services, treating the solemnities like an exotic spectacle. Caodaism has, in essence, become a government-controlled source of revenue, allowed to practice with restrictions so long as it can earn money for the state.      

It's difficult to say how many Vietnamese follow Caodaism today, but estimates put the number between 2 million and 6 million. It's reported to be the third largest religion in the nation, behind Buddhism and Catholicism.

But it also exists overseas, thanks to the efforts of those who fled Vietnam and began their lives anew. Estimates say there are around 30,000 practitioners outside Vietnam, from Europe to Australia to the USA and Canada. In America, there are temples in California and Texas, whose architecture mimics those of the temples in Vietnam. There are also smaller groups scattered around the country, some of which meet in what amount to converted living spaces.

Seattle has once such congregation, and after learning about Caodaism, I went to visit it one Sunday a few weeks back. One elderly lady was outside sweeping the concrete entry, and I asked her where I should enter. She said something in Vietnamese and pointed toward a pair of sliding glass doors ahead of me.

I peeked my head in and saw a group of women, all dressed in white, talking and eating. The service was obviously over. Along the far wall was a variety of food on plates, in pans and bowls, and heating in Crock-Pots. As one woman approached, I said I was looking for some information on Caodaism that I could take home with me, and I quickly realized that almost no one there spoke English. With a smile, the woman gestured for me to wait while she went, presumably, to look for someone who could help.

Meanwhile, a kindly old lady was pulling me over to the food on display, putting a plate in my hand, and offering me generous portions of everything. I thanked her as she led me to a table, where another elderly lady was busy packing a plastic bag full of mangoes for me to take home.

What a welcome! I'd read that many diasporic Caodaists viewed the arrival of non-Vietnamese at their temples as a divine sign that their religion might spread to those outside the Vietnamese community. Whether that was the reason for how everyone greeted me or they were just displaying the type of kindness their religion expected of them, I wasn't sure. But either way, it didn't really matter.

A moment later, a woman who spoke English greeted me warmly. Reaching for some books on a shelf near the door, she handed me all the information the Seattle worship group had available in English. We spoke a bit longer, talking about our lives, backgrounds, and families. When I mentioned that I'm the father of a 4-year-old, she smiled, said she was a mom, and opined that the way we feel about our children is how God feels about all of us. "He's our daddy and wants us to be happy," she said. I thought that was a pleasant way to look at it.      

She pointed me to some websites and gave me her e-mail address in case I had any questions. Thanks to her, I was able to study Caodaism much more deeply and find some prayers in English online.

The truth, though, is that not much about Caodaism has been translated out of Vietnamese, and what has been translated is not in graceful English. I've recited the daily prayers in my meditation space -- and so far I'm not connecting with the teachings as I thought I might.

I'm not giving up yet. I still want to go to a Caodai service, as I've been invited but just haven't had the time yet, although I'm afraid I'm going to feel terribly out of place. Heck, I feel out of place in the Shingon temple, even when part of the Shingon service, including the dharma talk, is in English, and the congregants are a mixture of Japanese-American and Caucasian. I'm aware that this is my hang-up. I know the Caodaists want outsiders to test and embrace their faith -- that's sort of a central point of Caodaism.

So we'll see. I doubt that I'll actually become a full-fledged Caodaist. I still feel most at home in Buddhism, and in particular in the Shingon temple. But it's nice to think I might be able to integrate something into my home practice that will allow me to pay my respects to three other spiritual paths that have had a lasting influence on me -- Taoism, Confucianism, and Christianity.

The left (meaning yang, meaning male) eye
of Caodai's supreme being.
I admit that I'm also not completely comfortable with the notion of the supreme being in Caodaism. One reason Buddhism feels comfortable to me is that it doesn't speculate on the existence of such beings -- it's irrelevant to the pursuit of enlightenment. I'm agnostic on the matter, and the Caodaists clearly are not, with their central symbol of the all-seeing eye making it quite obvious that they believe that while our "daddy" may love us and want the best for us, he's also eternally watching us.

And finally, I do have some reservations about the notion that Caodaism promotes equality yet embraces the idea of a patriarchal divinity. Caodaists do also recognize a celestial Holy Mother, but they believe that she is subordinate to Cao Dai, and that she was created out of his essence -- much as Eve was created from Adam's rib -- to rule over the yin energy of the universe while Cao Dai governed the yang. (I'll have more to say about the sacred feminine in a future post.)

In the end, maybe I'll just find a way to observe Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism without adding on a religion to do so.

Baha'i: one human family
Meanwhile, my curiosity has led me to study some other religious paths as well. I visited our local Baha'i center, and since there was no one around at the time, I later sent an e-mail requesting information. I was intrigued to find out that Baha'is, like Quakers, have no clergy -- but they also have no established worship services. I love their commitment to fostering world peace, furthering social justice, and eliminating prejudice to see humanity as a global family. Like the Caodaists, they believe in religious unity.

But also like the Caodaists, the Baha'is seem to take the existence of a male monotheistic god as a given. And they also don't appear to have the most enlightened attitudes toward the LGBT community, holding that marriage can only be between a man and a woman and that the only proper expression of sexuality is within marriage.

Source: Wikipedia.
Konkokyo: the peaceful, joyous heart
Onward, then, to Konkokyo. I came across Seattle's Konko Church completely by accident, as I was driving around to find a place to park so I could see the Bon Odori celebration at Seattle's Pure Land Buddhist temple. Konkokyo, I found, began in 19th-century Japan, after its founder, Ikigami Konko Daijin, began receiving messages from Tenchi Kane No Kami, a divine being who is said to be synonymous with the universe -- similar to how Shingon Buddhists view Dainichi Nyorai.

Since Kami is omnipresent, including within ourselves, we simply reunite with his spirit when we die -- there is no belief in reincarnation. Instead, the focus is on expressing gratitude for what we have in life, in this very moment, by cultivating a "peaceful, joyous heart," as one of the ministers expressed it at the service I attended.

All followers are also urged to pray daily to Kami. Central to the faith is a "Divine Reminder" -- a simple recitation that temples and many followers keep framed and displayed. It reads as follows:

Through Ikigami Konko Daijin,
To Tenchi Kane No Kami,
Pray with a single heart.
The divine favor depends
Upon one's own heart.
On this very day pray.

The Divine Reminder originated in the midst of the Meiji-era purge, when Konkokyo and other religions were being persecuted in Japan. The founder would write the reminder on slips of paper and hand them to his followers.

But the most striking feature of Konkokyo is surely its practice of mediation. This tradition also began with the faith's founder. In essence, practitioners come to a Konko priest with a question or concern, similar to a Catholic confessional. But instead of being given penance, the Konko priest communicates with Kami and delivers the divine message to the practitioner. 

That's quite a hotline to the divine, but if it's understood that Kami resides everywhere, even within us, then it stands to reason that followers could in theory get the same answers they do in mediation by simply listening to their own hearts. But that's just the observation of one person who's been to one service and done a little bit of reading on the faith. I have nothing against it and actually quite like its philosophy. 

And the people I met at the church could not have been nicer -- they certainly were living out their faith on the day I was there, approaching me with a joyous, peaceful heart. They knew I was coming because of some e-mail communication I'd had before the day of the service, and you'd think they'd never greeted a visitor before. People were shaking my hand, asking about my life, what interested me in Konkokyo, making sure I took home plenty of reading materials, and on and on. I happened to show up on the day of the church's annual barbecue, and I had a chance to speak with one of the ministers while we ate. He was very kind and informative and hoped to see me again. 

My encounter with the head priest was brief. He's been a Konko minister for well over half a century, as I understand it, and is now in his 90s and very frail. The day I attended, he was present for the ceremony, but his three assistants -- two Caucasians and one fellow who I'm guessing was Japanese-American -- carried out most of the proceedings. The head priest did ask for my name and the names of my family members after the service. I wrote them down for him and thanked him, assuming he was going to pray for us. His English was quite limited, so communication wasn't easy. If I'd wanted a mediation, I'm guessing I would have needed a translator.

Shinto, Theosophy, and pagan ponderings
Going from one Kami to many kami, I recently decided to visit the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, about an hour north of Seattle. It's one of only two Shinto shrines on the American mainland, and it's a beautiful place, nestled in the woods along a winding, rocky river. Shinto, of course, is the native Japanese religion, and the Shinto notion of the supernatural is much different from how we're conditioned to think of it in the West. In essence, there is no separation between our world and the world of the kami, as their spirits can imbue anything, from rivers to trees to rocks. But some kami are also personified, including Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess, who is one of six kami enshrined at Tsubaki. 

Thinking about Amaterasu and her role as the "head" kami (more or less) got me thinking even more about the role of the female in divine mythologies, and how modern religious/spiritual society seems to have shunned the female in favor of the male. That thought in turn got me reading about paganism and Wicca, which both have a strong veneration of the female -- but that's something I'm still in the early stages of exploring. 

Symbol of the Theosophical Society.
A trip to Quest Books, a Theosophical bookstore in Seattle, led me to some good resources on paganism, and it also sort of brought my recent spiritual excursions full circle, as the Spiritist influence on Caodaism owed much to the esoteric realms of spirituality that the Theosophists were exploring at the time. The Theosophical Society once groomed Jiddu Krishnamurti to be a World Teacher, and it never fully recovered when Krishnamurti broke away and distanced himself from the group. But its teachings live on -- and as reflected in the tenets of the Caodiasts and the Baha'is alike, the Theosophists believe strongly in a universal brotherhood that transcends race, sex, religion, or social standing.  

For now, I can say I've taken a liking to Amaterasu, and I purchased an Amaterasu ofuda at the Shinto shrine to place in my meditation nook. An ofuda is a symbol of a particular kami, blessed by a Shinto priest and intended to be a focal point for prayers in the home. By its side is a little statue of Benzaiten, one of the Japanese Seven Lucky Gods, and the goddess of all that flows -- water, music, speech, writing, eloquence in general. She's not part of the Shinto pantheon, but for now she takes her spot among the growing influence of the divine feminine on my meditation refuge. 

I'm also interested to see where my interest in Shinto will go, if anywhere. I get the sense that it's hard for non-Japanese to relate fully to the Shinto experience, though its focus on the natural world puts me in the mind of Taoism. Both are nature-based -- as are the pagan traditions that are based more on the ancient religions of Northern and Western Europe.

Could I build a pagan-ish practice around Eastern nature-based religions like Shinto? At this point I have no idea. But as always, I'm looking forward to learning more -- and I won't hesitate to entertain a thought without accepting it, if that's what my heart calls me to do. I love studying world religions, but that doesn't mean I'm going to find a way to fit in every single one that I examine. 

Sometimes the personal enrichment that comes from the process of examining is enough in itself. I heartily recommend this approach for anyone looking to expand his or her horizons on the world. Having a deeper understanding of how our neighbors access the Divine can only create a more tolerant world. And that is a good thing indeed.

Source: Pinterest.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

One Step Back Too Many

Inspired by last week's visit to the Ananda temple, I decided to revisit some of my old spiritual stomping grounds today.
First was a visit to the University Friends Meeting in Seattle. This is the largest Quaker meetinghouse in the Puget Sound area, with two meetings every Sunday. I used to attend both meetings when I was serious about the Quakers, because they're markedly different from each other. The 9:30 group is smaller, with around 15 to 20 in attendance, and the meetings almost always pass in complete silence. At the end of the service, we shake hands -- as Quakers customarily do -- and then we join hands in a standing circle. The leader of the meeting introduces herself, and we go around the circle doing the same, adding any other thoughts we have that we may have felt didn't rise to the level of vocal ministry.

Then there's the 11:00 group. It consists of around 40 people or so, and almost always there are multiple people who rise to address the congregation.

Today I only had time for the 9:30 meeting, and as usual, it passed in total silence. I made an effort to still my body and mind, close my eyes, and focus on the moment -- something I tend to have trouble with. I've never been a good meditator, but at least in Quaker meeting there's no expectation of assuming a proper posture, twisting yourself into a pretzel, focusing on your breaths, or anything of that sort. In fact, Quaker silence really isn't a whole lot like Buddhist meditation at all. It's more of an active experience, because the purpose of the silence is to allow yourself to hear the Spirit speak to you, if said Spirit chooses to do so. It's never happened to me yet, and in fact I doubt that I'd ever be able to tell whether what I had in mind to say was divinely inspired or just something I wanted to get off my chest.

I've never been sure how those who do rise to speak make that determination. Some of what's spoken at the meetings I've been to consists of light anecdotes or perhaps an observation on a current event -- and though it's not for me to decide, it seems as if some of these messages have less to do with divine inspiration and more to do with the ego's desire to have something to say. Indeed, the less inspiring messages that come across in meeting tend to be filled with first-person pronouns -- I, me, my, mine.
Yet there are other messages that resonate deeply with me, even if at first it doesn't seem as if the message had any relevance to me. That's the beauty of sitting in Quaker silence -- when someone stops speaking, you get a chance to absorb the message, cutting off the urge to have an instantaneous reaction and allowing yourself to see more deeply into the words. When you do, you often find there was something buried in the message that unexpectedly speaks to you. At least that's been my experience.

Those are the things I enjoy from the 11:00 service. I like the calm silence of the 9:30 group, and when I used to attend both meetings, I found that they enriched me in different ways. But if I had to pick just one to go to, I'd choose the 11:00 for those occasional tidbits of wisdom. However, the Shingon temple's service starts at noon, and there's not enough time for me to get from the meetinghouse to the temple without leaving the Quaker meeting early.

So I don't know if I'll be back for a while. I enjoy sitting in the silence, and I still deeply admire the Quakers' testimonies on peace and equality and their tireless work and advocacy for the poor, marginalized, and forgotten -- the "least of these." But is that enough to sustain a spiritual practice? And do I really have the time to commit to the Quakers, when I'm already moving toward membership at the Shingon temple? I have no problem with being a spiritual dual citizen, but I also have a full-time job and a wife and kid. I'm lucky I can carve out enough time to get to the temple once a week.

When I started this blog, I was on the verge of joining the Quakers. But then I went to the Seattle Insight Meditation Society's refuge and precepts ceremony, and I realized that I needed to explore Buddhism one more time to make sure that wasn't the path I wanted to take. In the meantime, I kept meeting with the Quakers, and I was looking forward to that month's meeting for business. That's when the Quakers get all their work done. It takes place in the meetinghouse, as the clerk reads off the items for consideration on that month's agenda. Members can rise and speak their minds, and if there's a sense of the meeting that the congregation is being called to act on a matter, it can do so accordingly.

At University Friends, the meeting for business includes introducing new membership requests, by way of reading the applicant's letter asking to join. A committee takes the request under advisement, meets with the applicant, and reports back to the meeting, usually in a month or two, to recommend either for or against letting the new person become a member.

Well, my letter to the clerk requesting membership had been in his hands for a couple of weeks, so I was expecting my letter to be read. But the committee responsible for doing so gave its monthly report on some other membership matters, and then the meeting moved on to the next agenda item.

I was a bit dismayed. Thinking I wasn't going to be considered for membership, without even so much as a hearing, I got up and left, determined to commit myself to exploring the Buddhist path.

The following month, I received an e-mail from someone on the membership committee, saying my letter was going to be read at that month's meeting for business. So apparently I hadn't been snubbed after all; the notoriously slow Quaker process was simply acting as it usually does. My fault for jumping to conclusions. But by that time I'd thrown myself pretty deeply into my Buddhist explorations and wasn't sure I wanted to look back. So I wrote back to the committee member, explaining that I had to make sure Buddhism wasn't for me before I made a commitment to the Quakers.

And that's where things were left. I'd moved on, getting involved more deeply in Buddhism than I ever have before, thanks to the Shingon path. But after visiting the Ananda temple last week and getting a taste of a different spiritual path, I decided I might pay the Quakers another visit, just to test how I felt there after all this time had passed.

And I have to admit I felt a little alien in the Quaker setting. Odd, since I was so close to becoming a member just a few short months ago. Maybe I just can't identify with Christianity anymore, even in its most liberal form. Or maybe I'd settle back in if I kept going back every Sunday. I just don't know at this point -- but I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep over it.

Lord, have mercy
My second stop of the day was inspired by a Facebook friend of mine, who quite a while back mentioned something about a Latin Mass. Did those still exist somewhere in the world? Curious, I did some research and found that there were Latin Masses being said right here in Seattle.

I was raised Catholic, but I was born nearly a decade after Vatican II, so the Masses I attended had all been in English. I was always curious what the "old" service was like. I enjoy the Shingon Buddhist service, most of which is in Sanskrit and Japanese -- so maybe I'd find something intriguing and mystical about hearing a Catholic Mass being done in Latin. It would be the kind of service the church offered when my parents discovered Catholicism, so I'd be seeing the church as they originally knew it. Would I get some insight into what it was that attracted them in the first place? I knew there was no chance the Mass would interest me in coming back to the faith of my youth, but still, maybe I could learn something, or at least gain an appreciation for something I'd never had the chance to experience.

Memories came flooding into my head as I sat down in a pew near the back and looked up at the huge crucifix at the opposite end. Memories of weekly Masses with my parents -- those were there for sure. But there were also memories of all the questions I had that never got satisfactory answers, of all the months and years I sat in a pew out of deference to my parents and my own guilt and fear. Every time I questioned anything about what I was supposed to believe in, my mom guilt-tripped me when the church didn't. And all these beliefs had been hammered into my head from such an early age that I was afraid of eternal damnation if I ever chose to leave. In a lot of ways, the faith of my upbringing felt like a spiritual prison.

And here I was again. What was I thinking?
Well, the organ music was nice. I've always loved pipe organs. The colorful and dramatic Stations of the Cross that circled the room were pleasant to look at. And just like in the Catholic church I grew up in, flanking the crucifix were statues of Joseph and Mary. I thought back to how my Protestant friends and relatives always freaked out about Catholic statuary, claiming we prayed to the statues as idols. Me, I always took comfort in them, as an object to focus on during the Mass. Looking at them now, so many years removed and with so many other spiritual avenues traversed in the intervening years, they reminded me of nothing so much as all the Buddhist statuary I've seen over the years that serves the same purpose -- to give us something reverent to focus on as we try to still our minds.

I watched other churchgoers filing in -- all the women having their heads covered with scarves or veils, in accordance with pre-Vatican II rules. People kept coming and coming. By the time the service began, there must have been 100 people there -- for an alternative Mass in a foreign language. Apparently there's a hunger for this kind of service. I could only imagine how many more people must attend the regular English-language Mass.

Then, finally, the Mass started -- and I couldn't hear a thing. The priest, with his back to the congregation, was unmiked. All I could hear was a faint rush of foreign words that echoed around the cavernous church. I tried to follow along in the missal, but I just couldn't make heads or tails of anything being said.

I was getting nothing out of this. On top of it all, we were sitting, standing, and kneeling at intervals I wasn't familiar with -- and we seemed to be jumping from one to the other without time to settle in at any of them. I finally gave up and left, concluding that I was just wasting my time.

Perhaps my mood had already been soured by the bulletin I'd been reading before the Mass began. It seems that the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the group that puts on these Latin Masses, issues a bulletin called "Memento." And on the front page of "Memento" was a message from a Father Gerard Saguto -- a message I found deeply disturbing.

The first thing he wrote that rubbed me the wrong way had to do with people who approach him concerned for his salvation: "It can be both very interesting to hear the reasons and an opportunity to instruct the ignorant, depending on how docile the person is; sometimes all we can do is patiently suffer and absorb the challenge, confident that God will use it for His greater glory."

Wow, really? Instructing the "ignorant" as long as they're docile enough to listen, but suffering through what they have to say if not? Seems a bit harsh, and certainly not very loving.

But it got worse. Speaking of the slayings of Catholic missionaries in Yemen, he said their attackers "reveal the diabolical hatred of Jesus Christ and His Church."

He goes on: "And yet these events should prompt us to consider Christ saying ..."

I'm going to pause there for a moment to let you guess what he thinks Jesus should say in a situation like this. Maybe "Love your enemies"? "Turn the other cheek"? "Do unto others"?

Nope. The words of Jesus he cited were "My words shall not pass away."

In other words, these killers can suck it, because we're not backing down and we're not meeting your hate with love. We're doubling down, getting up in your faces with our beliefs.

This is getting really divisive and combative, and it just gets worse:

"Christ commanded the Apostles to teach all nations and baptize them. ... He wants converts made to His Church. ... Failure to make efforts to evangelize the Faith -- either by example or by word -- compromises the divinely mandated mission of the Church in her unique work for the salvation of souls." Driving the point home, he goes on to mention the parable of the marriage feast, wherein the king commands his servants to go out and force people to come to the wedding.

So, basically, we're going to convert these heathens, whether they like it or not, and we'll do it by force if necessary. If this isn't the kind of talk that triggered the Crusades, I don't know what is. The arrogance, condescension, and self-righteousness are breathtaking. As is the stunning lack of empathy.


"[W]hen Catholics have grown unconcerned about evangelization and fail to live in a habitual state of grace, or have settled into a comfortable life thinking that religion is a private matter and that we can all just get along and hold hands, all this serves to promote the very force that is terrorizing the world."

Wow. So seeking love and harmony will divide us, while seeking to divide by putting ourselves above others will be a victory for our side. So much for William Penn's "Let us then try what love will do."

Finally, the clincher. I'll just give you the whole paragraph:

"It has become evident that we cannot all just get along -- and maybe that is a good thing -- but how we don't get along is very important. We do not go lopping off heads; rather, with firmness of Faith, we go to the Cross and profess unashamedly the divine identity of the Crucified, ready to absorb what comes in a charitable effort to evangelize those steeped in the darkness of Islam and every other false religion. Always remember: the weapons of Christianity -- devout prayer, penance, the Rosary, and (most especially) the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass -- wage more terror in hell than a bomb does in an airport."

It's a "good thing" that we can't all get along. Islam is "darkness" and other religions are "false." The "weapons" of Christianity "wage more terror" than a "bomb."
Are you kidding me? This kind of talk from a representative of the Prince of Peace does nothing but stoke hatred and anger, contributing to the atmosphere in which people resort to violence in the first place. If this is what a moderate denomination like Catholicism has become, I don't even want to think of how radicalized truly evangelical Christianity is these days.

Maybe I'm just more attuned to the tone of words, having been involved in a Buddhist tradition that puts such a heavy emphasis on the impact of our words and the need to choose them carefully -- but it baffles me how the writer could not see that his words engender the kind of anger that he condemns in other people. The lack of self-reflection is stunningly disturbing, as is the entire attitude of this supposed emissary of Jesus.

The whole thing really took my breath away. I originally left the Catholic church over things I couldn't bring myself to believe, but in all my years as a Catholic I never encountered this kind of open hostility from a member of the clergy. Well, at least I know I made the right decision to walk away. If I remain Christian in any capacity, I'll stick with the Quakers, thanks.

Having left the Catholic service early, I ended up having enough time to get to the Shingon temple to enjoy the monthly Goma fire ritual. And I found that I really felt at home there, more confident than ever that I'd made the right choice for my spiritual path.

Sometimes you have to see the bad before you can fully appreciate the good.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

East Meets West Under One Roof

Last week, with the Shingon temple’s priest away on business, I went to visit the Ananda Temple in Bothell, north of Seattle.

The temple (which, as the video shows, is a gorgeous building) bases its philosophy on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, a yogi whose mission was to bring a greater knowledge of Eastern spirituality to the West.

I learned about Yogananda years ago through my favorite music: Singer Jon Anderson said the kernel of the idea for the Yes album Tales From Topographic Oceans came from a footnote in Yogananda’s book Autobiography of a Yogi. Jon Anderson’s spirituality draws from various sources, and so does Yogananda’s – and I owe my interest in religious syncretism to both of them. 

Yogananda’s belief was, essentially, that there were many spiritual paths leading to the same destination, and I believe that myself. Accordingly, the Ananda temple during my visit mixed teachings from the Bhagavad-Gita and the New Testament (as I imagine happens every weekend), and the pictures above the altar include Jesus at the top of an arc, with Yogananda and other teachers of Kriya yoga -- the spiritual practice central to Yogananda's teachings and, therefore, the Ananda temple -- descending in either direction, implying a direct link of transmission from Jesus, who stands at the top. 

And indeed, that is what Yogananda and the Ananda temple teach. Yogananda claimed to have met Babaji, an ancient Indian saint, who in turn was said to have been met by Jesus himself. In their meeting, Jesus told Babaji to send someone to the Western world, to tell people how they could more deeply commune with him through meditation. Babaji chose Yogananda for the task and is said to have told him so as Yogananda sat in meditation, seeking assurance in regard to his guru's request that Yogananda travel to America.

Take all of that with whatever size of grain of salt you like, but I found Yogananda's autobiography an inspiration when I read it. It gave me another vantage point on spirituality as I was attempting to step away from the religion of my upbringing. It came into my life at a time when I needed something else to grasp onto. I ultimately wouldn't leave my Catholic faith for many more years, but when I did, I looked back on Yogananda's writings -- his autobiography, along with the books The Science of Religion and The Second Coming of Christ -- as helping to bridge the gap between traditions and to allow me to see that religion and spirituality didn't need to be the limiting and restrictive experience I'd grown up with. 

There were other influences by that time -- notably Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, the Transcendentalists, Jon Anderson himself, and Sri Chinmoy, by way of yet another musical discovery: Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by English guitarist John McLaughlin, who was a Chinmoy devotee. But Yogananda, being one of the first spiritual masters I'd studied outside the Christian tradition, helped make me more receptive to all the other influences that flowed my way in the years to come. 

And it was he, perhaps more than anyone else, who helped me frame my Christian views in a new way -- in essence, making them more personal and accessible. "The Kingdom of God is within you" took on a much more personal meaning, for example, changing my frame of reference from religious experience as something cold and distant, with an object of worship to be feared, to one that could be personal and intimate, seeing us all as pieces of a fragmented but divine Whole, like cosmic puzzle pieces that only needed to learn how to put themselves back together again.

In any event, the temple was a lovely place to visit. Equally enjoyable was the temple's East West Bookshop in Seattle. Not surprisingly, it’s a wonderfully eclectic mix of spiritual resources. You can buy gongs and meditation cushions, pick up some Hindu or Christian statuary, take your pick of pagan and native paraphernalia (tarot, crystals, dream catchers, you name it), get an I Ching complete with a set of yarrow stalks, or immerse yourself in any number of books, from alternative medicine and vegetarian cookbooks to Buddhist bedtime stories for children. It's quickly become a favorite destination for me.

The Ananda temple is also affiliated with the Living Wisdom School -- a private school I recently visited to see if it might be a good fit for my 4-year-old. In addition to academics, the kids learn the importance of empathy and kindness and even learn some basic yoga moves, in an environment that fosters non-sectarian spirituality. I'm not sure yet whether we'll send her there, but I certainly don't think a parent could go wrong enrolling a child at Living Wisdom.

In all, the temple visit was an enriching experience that took me back to the years when I was just starting to explore other religious paths. It was a pleasant reminder of how far I've come, and how many enriching teachings I've encountered along the way.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

In Search of the Buddha

I'm fortunate to live in Seattle, a coastal city with strong ties to the Far East. Seattle has a large East Asian population, and with that population comes its cultural traditions -- including strands of Buddhism that most people never talk about in the West.

Americans -- and, to be blunt about it, mostly white, urban, liberal, middle-class Americans -- have embraced the meditative practices of Buddhism while holding some of the Buddhist teachings and Eastern cultural trappings at bay. The result has been a sort of agnostic Buddhism -- what author Stephen Batchelor calls "Buddhism Without Beliefs" -- that approaches the tradition more as a psychology, a self-help program, or a secular philosophy of life.

That's all well and good, and surely the Buddha would not begrudge those who found his teachings useful, even if they didn't adopt the teachings in their totality. But a practice that has silent meditation at its core has never held much appeal to me. As Rodney Smith's class at the start of January showed me, I enjoy hearing dharma talks as much as I enjoy the refreshing silence of meditation, if not more.

With that in mind, I set out this year to sample as many different "styles" of Buddhism as would fit around my schedule. Some of them were still meditation-focused, but others either downplayed meditation or approached it from a different perspective. Those that downplayed meditation tended to be those that remain heavily weighted toward East Asian culture. And that wasn't really a surprise to me, because Asian Buddhists don't put as much emphasis on meditation as Western Buddhists do. Whereas often meditation is the most important, or even only, practice Westerners focus on, many Eastern Buddhists meditate very little or not at all. That's something the monks do, but not so much the lay people.

So with that in mind, these are the groups I visited, along with my impressions of each.

Seattle Insight Meditation Society
This, of course, is where I started the year. Rodney Smith's group is one of several Insight Meditation organizations across the country. I used to occasionally attend the D.C.-area group headed by Tara Brach, so I wasn't unfamiliar with the Seattle group's approach to Buddhism. Essentially, it's a very secular-oriented group that focuses on vipassana, or insight, meditation based on the Theravada school of Buddhism. Theravada is the oldest existing line of Buddhism, and in the places where it's practiced in the East, it tends to be a heavily monastic tradition. Western teachers have taken the meditation practices out of the forest monasteries in Southeast Asia and offered them as a practice for lay people in the West to benefit from. The meditations are usually followed by dharma talks, which tend to take Buddhist principles and apply them to the ordinary modern world. The Insight Meditation groups also usually offer extended meditation retreats.

I like what Insight Meditation has done to bring some of the Theravada traditions to light in the West. I admit to some bias toward Theravada Buddhism, as I've found many of the teachings to offer the most direct glimpses into the actual words of the Buddha and his original core teachings. I also appreciate its emphasis on cultivating one's own mind. The Theravada tradition is sometimes criticized for being selfish in its approach to the dharma, but the way I see it, you have to work on yourself before you can hope to help others in a constructive way. The Theravadins would be the ones to say, when the plane is going down, that you need to secure your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else. As someone who needs some serious work on himself, I totally get it.

Overall, I like the Insight Meditation group. I enjoyed Rodney Smith's talk, just as I used to enjoy Tara Brach's talks. I think the Buddhism is at risk of getting lost at times, but then the point of Buddhism isn't to be a Buddhist, but to benefit from the teachings. So maybe that's not such a terrible thing, even though, as with many modern Western Buddhist traditions, there comes a point where everything starts to feel more like a secular self-help group -- in which case, should the practice even be called Buddhist at all? Why not just call it a secular self-help group to begin with?

Shambhala Meditation Center of Seattle
Shambhala Buddhism is rooted in the Tibetan tradition. I started my Buddhist studies with Tibetan Buddhism, which, like the Catholicism of my upbringing, is rich in pageantry, ritual, ceremony, and a pantheon of saints -- or, in this case, bodhisattvas, including Avalokiteshvara, or Kwan-yin, the bodhishattva of compassion. Kwan-yin has long been an important figure in my Buddhist path. The Dalai Lama is, of course, a Tibetan Buddhist, and I still love listening to the elaborate and often haunting meditative chants of the Tibetan monks. 

The Shambhala tradition, though rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, is open to people of all spiritual persuasions and uses Buddhist tools to influence the secular world. It embraces a meditation practice whose focus is to cultivate mindfulness, and its emphasis is on helping people break through the limitations of their ego, to embrace their inner goodness -- what Buddhists like to call one's Buddha-nature -- so as to approach the modern world with a combination of fearlessness and deep compassion for all beings, the ultimate goal being to create an enlightened society through secular means.

That mission statement was on full display in the meeting I attended. A guest speaker named Dan (I forget his last name) talked about his own training and experience, and his calm, happy, gentle demeanor left a lasting influence on me. I was fresh off Rodney Smith's invigorating talk when Dan spoke to some simple truths about Buddhism I already knew but that I hadn't encountered in a long time, and they helped bring back into focus that maybe this was the path I really belong on.

The first thing he said that has stuck with me was, in essence, that our suffering ends the day we move past the conceit of the separation between self and other. When we see ourselves in others, whom can we harm?

The second thing he said was to always bear in mind, in our dealings with others, that each and every one of us has a kernel of goodness within us -- and without missing a beat, he added, "Adolf Hitler." We all like having villains, and we all have a tendency to want to judge others, in the process setting ourselves above and apart from them -- which goes back to Dan's first point about the lack of separation between all of us. So how do we find pity, or even love, for unpleasant people? That's the challenge, isn't it? Dan pointed out that those who are unpleasant are already living in their own hell. When you look at it from that perspective, and bearing in mind our interconnectedness, it becomes easier to want to find pity for the unpleasant people of the world.

That's how Dan approached George W. Bush, using an anecdote about a speech Bush gave at a military base in which Bush was so tongue-tied that he couldn't complete a coherent sentence, and he was gently pulled off the stage. Forgetting our potential dislike for the former president, how would we feel in that position? I know I'd feel embarrassed. Seeing ourselves in that same spotlight, we can find a place within ourselves to have pity. But lest things get too serious, when someone earnestly asked, "Can we still laugh at them?" Dan, again, not missing a beat, said, "Sure. They laugh at us." So we have permission to laugh at Donald Trump, even if, in the end, we're only laughing at ourselves.

The last thing Dan said that remained with me was when he was answering a question about how people in other religions deal with the idea of God, and how that translates to the non-theistic tradition of Buddhism. When the questioner said a Muslim friend of his described his experience of "surrendering" to God, Dan said that in Buddhism, you surrender your ego -- and that when people stop surrendering to something external of themselves, that's when they become Buddhists. Plain and simple, but it sure did drive the point home.

Ultimately, I don't find much difference between the Shambhala group and the Insight Meditation group. The groups are rooted in different Buddhist traditions, but their practices and approaches are very much the same. I think the Shambhala group embraces its Buddhism a little more fully, but the silent meditations and dharma talks were very similar.

The Shambhala people were overall very friendly, too. I got a warm welcome when I walked in the door, and a feeling of calmness and kindness prevailed throughout the evening. It was a much smaller group than the Insight Meditation gathering -- maybe 20 people at the most, compared with probably 200 at Rodney Smith's talk.

I've never been enamored with the Shambhala group's founder, Chogyam Trungpa. Some called his spiritual approach "crazy wisdom," but that term has always felt to me to be something of a cover for his unethical behavior, including substance abuse and his sexual exploits with numerous women. His actions to me seemed highly unbecoming for a monk. But to Shambhala's credit, Trungpa's foibles don't seem to have affected the teachings that have carried on after his death.

Seattle Buddhist Center
The Seattle Buddhist Center is part of an international group called the Triratna Buddhist Community. Formerly called Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, the group was founded by an English-born monk who wanted to combine the core teachings of Buddhism from all of its lineages and present them in a Western context. The ecumenical approach sets it apart from the Theravada-based Insight Meditation Society or the Tibetan-based Shambhala Meditation Center, and placing the teachings in the context of Western culture and art reinterprets Buddhist traditions rather than abandoning them, as some other meditation-focused groups seem to have done.

It's a novel approach, but at the one meeting I went to, there seemed to be a lot of meta-discourse about what goals the group wanted to achieve in the larger community. There was a silent meditation, but the rest of the meeting consisted of drinking tea and chatting around a table. It was very informal, which in itself was fine, but there wasn't any kind of real dharma talk from which I could draw lessons or inspiration to send me on my way. I also have to admit that, as pleasant as the small group was, it felt cliquish. I felt invisible for long stretches as the others around me, clearly familiar with each other, engaged in casual chat with each other. One fellow sitting next to me talked to me for a bit, but that was the extent of my interaction. I felt out of place.

Kadampa Meditation Center
Kadampa Buddhism, without getting too much into specifics, is a breakaway tradition with its roots in Tibetan Buddhism. Seattle's Kadampa center is in what appears to be an old church building, which makes for quite the impression when you go upstairs to the meditation room. There you're greeted by a gigantic golden 8-foot Buddha, situated in front of a large stained-glass window that encircles the statue's head like a halo.

The center offers many meditation classes, programs, and dharma talks throughout the week. Downstairs is a bookstore and gift shop with many great spiritual resources to choose from. I went for a Thursday night meditation and dharma talk, and although I enjoyed myself well enough, I didn't take away anything strongly enough to make me want to go back -- especially since you have to stop at a register and pay before you can even go up to the meditation room. All temples rely on donations, and most put a donation box in a conspicuous place, but none that I'd been to before actually required payment up front before you could even participate. I have to admit, that kind of rubbed me the wrong way.

Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism
Where some other Seattle-based Buddhist groups based their teachings on the Tibetan tradition, Sakya Monastery really is genuine Tibetan Buddhism, complete with a lama and teachers who either hail from Tibet or can trace their lineage there. Although I was taken in by the ornate look of the temple and I still appreciate the depth and breadth of the Tibetan teachings, the service I took part in -- a meditation on Chenrezi, or Kwan-yin -- felt distant somehow. It was all very elaborate and structured, and we were told how to place our books to follow along, how to greet and address the teacher, and so on -- and maybe that was part of the problem for me. It almost felt as if the importance of carrying out the ritual itself, and making sure it was all done in a proper manner, was more important than gaining any spiritual insight from the service.

I say that as someone whose Buddhist path began with Tibetan Buddhism. I still have the deepest respect for the Dalai Lama and the teachings themselves. And, granted, I went to only one service -- perhaps I would have warmed up to it over time. But much like with the Kadampa center, I felt no compelling urge to go back once I'd visited. I have to admit that there was also something about the veneration given to the teacher that seemed somehow a bit too reverent. I bristle against hierarchy in the first place, so to have a teacher perched over us in an elevated seat, and to have to do things like not get up from your seat at the end of the service until the teacher has left his seat, crossed the room, and exited just seemed to be laying on the reverence a bit too thick.

Atammayatarama Buddhist Monastery       
Going to this monastery transported me back to when I first began reading about Theravada Buddhism and immersing myself in the Pali canon. The Seattle Insight Meditation Society based its teachings on the Theravada school, but this was the real deal -- a monastery tucked away on several wooded acres outside Woodinville, north of Seattle.

The temple itself is beautiful, including a massive meditation hall where weekly meditation services were open to the public. The monastery is home to five monks -- four Thai, and one American -- and I arrived one rainy night with no one to be found for that evening's scheduled service.

Soon two other women showed up, and we were all about to leave when the temple's caretaker noticed us and came in to say hello. He explained that the abbot was away and unable to give the service that night. But he did give us a tour of the temple, told us of its history, and led us in a short session of silent and chanted meditation.

I meant to go back after the abbot returned, but I never made the time to do it. One of these days I'll probably head out that way to check it out again.

Seattle Buddhist Church
That really is what it calls itself -- a Buddhist church. As I would learn, there's a historical significance to that designation.

Going to Seattle Buddhist Church marked my first experience with both a Japanese-majority temple and the Pure Land tradition. Pure Land is one of the most widely practiced sects of Buddhism in East Asia, yet most Westerners don't know much about it. Most of our flavors of Buddhism in the West either emphasize meditation or have been distilled down to a practice of meditation and philosophical talk. But Pure Land retains its Eastern approach to Buddhism, which is actually quite religious -- to an extent that would probably surprise many Westerners who think of Buddhism as purely rational and philosophical. In fact, the Pure Land service itself is nearly indistinguishable from a Protestant church service, complete with hymns and a sermon. Everyone sits in a pew, and no one meditates.

The central figure in Pure Land Buddhism is not the historical Buddha, but rather another buddha called Amithaba -- or Amida in Japanese. This buddha was said to have established a heavenly pure land, and the only thing practitioners must do is call his name with sincerity, reciting the mantra Namu Amida Butsu. If they do, they'll be reborn into his pure land after this life, where they can work unimpeded toward enlightenment.

In a sense, then, Pure Land Buddhism is for those who follow Buddhism but don't believe they'll find enlightenment in this lifetime. They may try to live by the precepts and the Eightfold Path, but ultimately they put their faith in Amida to help them sort it all out.

This is an idea Pure Land Buddhists are quite serious about. They emphasize the importance of "other-power" over "self-power" -- since most of us are helpless to be lamps unto ourselves and work out our salvation with diligence, as the historical Buddha called on us to do, we put our faith in Amida's power to help us do what we can't. If this sounds to you like the salvation teachings of Christianity, you would not be mistaken.

Pure Land took hold among the poor and rural folks of East Asia, along with others who for various reasons could not devote themselves to deeper Buddhist practice. Some critics refer to Pure Land as a sort of "stop-trying Buddhism," where people give up and hand over all their troubles to Amida. But it can also be understood more metaphorically -- if "self-power" is our ego, then "other-power" is our realization that we won't find enlightenment until we let go of the illusion of self and give ourselves over to the teachings of the Buddha.

That was an interpretation that worked fairly well for me, and I spent quite a bit of time researching Pure Land, thinking this might be the place where I become a member. I sought out Pure Land teachers. I read books. When I went to the temple, a woman who greeted me at the door was extremely friendly and wanted to get all the information she could from me. To my surprise, at the end of the service, she called out my name, along with the name of one other visitor, and both of us were asked to stand. The congregation -- and it was a large one of probably 200 people -- all applauded us.

I attended one other Japanese Pure Land temple in the area -- the White River Buddhist Temple in Auburn -- and I visited a Taiwanese temple in Renton, the town I live in. I thought having a temple so close to home would be nice, but as it turned out, although their services were open to the public, they were all carried out in Chinese. In fact, on the day I visited, a caretaker had to translate between me and the Chinese-speaking priest. So that wouldn't have worked out too well. 

So why is Seattle's Pure Land group called a church and not a temple? In the World War II era, Japanese-American Buddhists went out of their way to try to assimilate into American culture -- and among the steps they took was to Westernize their temples and religious practices.

Seattle has a fairly large Japanese-American population, and as I continued to attend some different temples, I got the sense that some of the older generations treated their temples as a cultural center as much as a place or worship. That sense was confirmed to me upon talking to a few American converts. They'd managed to fit in, but they acknowledged that doing to wasn't always easy.

That made me a little hesitant to deepen my involvement with the Pure Land temple. So before I committed to giving it a try, I decided to test out a few other temples in the area first.

Seattle Choeizan Enjyoji Nichiren Buddhist Temple
Nichiren Buddhists are sometimes called the "noisy Buddhists," and for good reason. They do a lot of chanting, and they use a lot of drums and bells during their service. As someone who struggles with silent meditation, I thought the Nichiren service might be a good one for me to try.

At first I tried to get some information on the Seattle Nichiren Buddhist Church. I noticed that their website hadn't been updated since 2011. I sent an e-mail, and it bounced back to me. So I took a drive past the temple, only to find it closed off with a chain-link fence.

Doing some more research, I found that the priest mentioned on the website was now leading a new Nichiren congregation in Seattle. Curious, I went to a service, located on the second floor of an old building in Chinatown. After being buzzed in, I was greeted by an assistant to the priest, who, when I mentioned I'd been planning on attending the other Nichiren temple in town, offered a reply that made me think there had been some tension between this temple and that one, possibly leading to a split. I know the priest had been the first non-Asian appointed to the old temple. Was there a cultural divide? I didn't feel comfortable asking.

What I did find was a small group of people who sort of felt like an endearing collection of misfits and oddballs, all of whom were extremely friendly and welcoming, and at least one of whom had a rather earthy sense of humor. Some were white; some were Asian; some were, I think, Hispanic. Not that I cared anything about that, but I couldn't help wondering: Did the original temple want to preserve its cultural purity? Was this Asian/American cultural divide I'd heard about a real thing, and did it drive a wedge between the people at this temple and the old one? Again, I didn't feel right coming out and asking.

Maybe that colored my perceptions, but I couldn't shake the feeling. I happened to attend one week when the temple was holding its annual meeting, and when one of the members rose to give a report, he mentioned the temple's decline in membership over the past year and talked about his concern regarding a former member and how that person was speaking out against the temple publicly. And this was after the priest mentioned that he'd recently had to take up a day job, presumably because there weren't enough funds to go around to support him as a full-time priest anymore.

After taking all this in, I felt as if I'd walked in on the middle of a family argument, and the family seemed to be struggling and may well have been a bit dysfunctional. I don't know the whole story, but I didn't want to be party to it. So I stopped going.

I'm not sure Nichiren was the right place for me, anyway. Nichiren Buddhists venerate the Lotus Sutra, to the point of chanting to the Lotus Sutra at every service -- their central mantra is Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, which roughly translates as "glory to the Lotus Sutra." I understand favoring one teaching or sutra over another, but to glorify one over all others, and then to chant its praises, seemed a little odd to me.

Nichiren himself, from what I've learned, was a rather unlikable character, driving wedges between his views and those of other Japanese Buddhist schools of his time. Maybe he was also a little too full of his own ego, with his sect of Buddhism literally named after him. In the end, too much emphasis on Nichiren and the Lotus Sutra, and not enough on the Buddha himself.

Soka Gakkai Seattle Buddhist Center
Soka Gakkai is an offshoot of Nichiren Buddhism. I had a lengthy talk with a director of the Seattle SGI center, who told me a little bit about SGI, how it broke off from Nichiren, and how it placed a great emphasis on the mantra to the Lotus Sutra.

I never even went to one of the meetings. I'll just say from what I learned on my own that SGI comes of a little bit too much like a prosperity cult. I'm not even sure it's really Buddhism at all.

Seattle Koyasan Buddhist Temple
This is a Shingon Buddhist temple, just one block over from the Seattle Buddhist Church, the Pure Land folks. It was the last on my list of places to visit. It also is largely Japanese-American, led by a priest from Japan.

Shingon is an old Japanese lineage, founded around 1,200 years ago by the monk Kukai, who studied in China and brought back the esoteric teachings he'd learned to Japan. However, it's virtually unknown here in the West. The Seattle temple is one of less than half a dozen on the American mainland, and all of those are on the West Coast.

I attended for the first time during the temple's monthly Goma fire ritual -- a ceremony dating back to Hinduism in which our defilements are ceremonially burned up, as the congregation chants to Fudo Myo-o, a wrathful deity. I was entranced by the fire, the chanting, and the accompanying drumming, enough so that I wanted to come back.

This is what the fire ritual looks like, although this one is not from the Seattle temple:

The next week, I attended a regular service and was both fascinated and mystified. The priest, with his back to the congregation, recited prayers and offerings for the first half of the service, before leading the congregation in a series of chants. We chanted the Heart Sutra, we chanted to the 13 buddhas central to Shingon, and we recited the refuge and precepts. Now that was fascinating to me -- what the Seattle Insight Meditation Society did as an annual service, the Shingon Buddhists did every week, as an ongoing public commitment to the faith. I liked that a lot. I could see how it would keep me grounded in the teachings.

I also liked the symbolism and the ritual -- they both helped bring the dharma alive for me. There are some surface similarities to Tibetan Buddhism, but although we certainly respect the priest, there's no sense of veneration or rigid hierarchy. He's kind and very human and approachable.

That said, I had some trouble fitting in at first. I was trying to get the priest's attention to ask him some questions about Shingon Buddhism, as there isn't an abundance of information on it in the West, but I had a hard time pinning him down. Others at the temple encouraged me to keep trying and promised me the lack of communication was nothing personal. Thinking back to all I'd heard about the cultural divide between white Western Buddhists and East Asian Buddhists, I ended up leaving in frustration for a while. I took that time to seek out answers to some of my Shingon questions on my own.

The time away was good, because it made me realize that of all the Buddhist temples and meditation groups I'd attended, this one felt most like home. Shingon, as I mentioned, is an esoteric tradition, which means many of the teachings are secret and have to be passed down from teacher to student. But the lay service is perfectly understandable (once you get used to chanting in Sanskrit and Japanese) and in itself brings me closer to the teachings of the Buddha. I also finally managed to find some time to talk to the priest, and I was surprised and relieved to find that he wants to build an "international" temple -- one that reaches out to all people who come there to seek out the dharma.

One of many things that endears me to Shingon is that, in a way, it touches on several of the stops I've made along my journey and blends them into a seamless whole. Among the 13 buddhas Shingon venerates are Amida Buddha, central to the Pure Land sect, and Kuan-yin, for whom I've had great admiration since I discovered her during my studies of Taoism. She figures in Chinese spirituality just as strongly as in Japan.

Another popular figure among the 13 buddhas is Jizo, popular in Japan as the guardian of children. The Medicine Buddha is there, too -- and I became fond of him when my body began malfunctioning. Fudo Myo-o, meanwhile, is an impressive figure, as he symbolically frightens us out of our bad habits and with his sword cuts through our defilements.

And then there's the central figure in Shingon Buddhism. It's not the historical Buddha, although he's one of the 13. It's Dainichi Nyorai, known in India as Mahavairocana. He's the universal buddha, from whom all other buddhas come. Essentially, he's en embodiment of the universe himself -- which makes him a rough equivalent to the notion of the Tao.

And that's another thing that helps me connect with Shingon teachings. In a lot of ways, I feel like I've come full circle. I began my Buddhist studies long ago with Tibetan Buddhism, and Shingon, like the Tibetan school, is an esoteric, tantric tradition full of symbolism and rich with rituals. And there are also things that make Shingon feel not so removed from Taoism, of which I've always been fond.

There are weekly meditation sessions for those interested. They take place in a beautiful meditation hall attached to the temple. Although meditation is not a large part of most Asian Buddhism, Shingon teaches the importance of harmonizing body, speech, and mind, and meditation is a part of that process.

There's much more I could say, but I'll wait until I learn more and immerse myself more deeply. For now, suffice it to say I'm in the process of becoming a member.

Where things stand for now
I feel pretty fortunate to live where I do, given that this temple is one of a tiny handful on the U.S. mainland. Had I lived almost anywhere else, I probably never would have found Shingon Buddhism. The priest says he wants to build an international temple, which I took as a way of welcoming non-Japanese to the services, and now he seems eager to get me involved in temple life in whatever way he can. The temple is fairly small, with maybe 10 to 15 people at any given service, so it almost feels like a family.

Will this be the last stop on my spiritual journey? We'll see. But at least for now, I'm pretty pleased with where I've landed. The hard work I put into finding my current temple feels as if it's been worth it.