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.

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