24 September 2006

While waiting for the swami....

In the Kumbha Mela program, Swami Sarvadevananda was identified as representing something called the Vedanta Society. Professor Chapple had told me this branch of Hinduism was the first to have real impact in the United States. With a call, I found out that Swami Sarvadevananda was out of town for a couple of weeks. I found my teacher – at least I hope I have – but I'm going to have to wait to actually meet him.

In the years I’d spent stewing about this project, I’d decided I should explore the faiths in related pairs, hoping that I might understand each more deeply by coming to understand both what they shared and how they differed, in theology and in practice. Given that Buddhism developed, essentially, as protestant Hinduism – so much so that academics, in fact, refer to it as non-orthodox Hinduism – I thought I should find out more about it while waiting for Swami Sarvadevananda to return.

Going into this, I had just one book on Buddhism: a bright orange book called The Teaching of the Buddha that my husband, Kevin, had found in a hotel room somewhere.

Are you supposed to take Bibles and other sacred texts left in hotel rooms? I kind of don't think so... I think stealing is another big no-no across all religions, yet another thing to feel bad about.

I figured this stolen property was as good place to begin as any and, on the very first page, I found a symbol of a wheel like the one Peter Patel was talking about when I first walked in to the Hindu mandir in Whittier, a wheel with spokes, but it was the symbol of Buddhism, not Hinduism.

It was no accident. Buddhism started near India in what is now Nepal. The original Buddha, Siddartha Gautama of the Sakyas, (563 B.C.- 483 B.C.) was actually a Hindu who began his spiritual journey by first going deeper into Hinduism just as Christianity wasn’t started by someone who declared himself a creator of a new faith but by someone wanting to deepen his own - Judaism.

I had two weeks to kill so I thought I'd use the time to check out the two Buddhist temples I knew about so that, when it came time to study Buddhism, I’d know where to go: the Wat Thai Buddhist temple in North Hollywood or the Chinese Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights.

I’d been to the Thai temple because they had an open-air food market on Sundays and I’d seen, through the wide-open doors of the tall temple, monks in orange cloth, sitting on bright cushions around the sides of the temple, available to anyone who wanted to chat. However, when I went to its website, there was very little information in English and the only classes offered were Thai language classes.

At the Hsi Lai Temple, on the other hand, where I’d been as a chaperone for one of Matt's school field trips when he was in seventh grade, they offered regular Buddhism classes as well as meditation and chanting in English, making it an easier place to get started. The one substantive difference I got from the temples’ websites, in addition to the languages of the services, was that the Wat Thai Temple practiced Theravada Buddhism, a form which has “changed no teachings laid down by Buddha.” This brand of Buddhism is primarily practiced in Thailand, Cambodia, India, Laos, Burma, Sri Lanka, etc. The Hsi Lai temple website said it followed the Rinzai Ch'an (Zen) school of Buddhism as well as the Pure Land school and its headquarters was in Taiwan. None of it meant a thing to me. But Hsi Lai had classes. On Buddhism and meditation. That Sunday. In English.

It was odd to drive up a dry hill, past houses too new to have developed character, take two quick turns off the road and find an elaborate, full-on Chinese temple and monastery, yellow roof dragons and all. Steep staircases led up to a grand entrance hall and, once I walked through it, around what looked like a devotional wall, I was outside in an upward-sloping, open courtyard. The main shrine was on the far side of the grand sqaure with well-tended gardens and covered walkways. When I got directions to the temple from the website, it said Hsi Lai literally means “Coming West.”

It was kind of great to stand in such an exotic place with little more than a half-hour drive from my house but it was kind of intimidating, too. You have to have a lot of faithful followers to build something like this.

I finally noticed a small sign taped to a wooden stand which pointed the way to another stand and then another which finally led to two classrooms - one for beginners and the other for people who knew something. You know which one I walked into.

Instead of a chalkboard up front, there was a plain altar of blond wood with a small brass Buddha statue. A United Nations of about twenty people took up most of the desks in the room while two interpreters for the deaf sat on the right side translating for a few people who needed their services.

A small, well, nun, I guess she'd be called, came to the front and took the microphone. The schedule said she was the Venerable Jue Qian. I don’t know what surprised me more – the fact that she thought she needed a microphone in a room this size or her appearance. She was young. Very young. She could have been thirty but maybe not. Her head was shaved, her clothing and glasses, basic. And, she was quirky. She began the class in an oddly intimate way. “Good morning. It’s a very nice day today. Still a little bit cold for me. Ever since I moved from Singapore, lips is dry, skin is dry, nose is dry and I realize that my body has not gotten used to being here. Does anybody have any suggestions about this?”

What followed was a sweet interchange of suggestions about how to adjust to the dry desert air and about how much water was, indeed, “enough.”

“Okay, before we start, any questions?”

A square-faced white man raised his hand. “I was with some people who said they were Buddhists who told me of a ceremony where you scrape out the insides of a wooden Buddha, consecrate it with fire, and then fill the insides with gems and money. I’ve never heard about anything like this before. Do you know what they were talking about?”

The nun paused for a moment, then brought the microphone back up to her mouth. “I have heard of some people who say they are followers of certain sects who say that they are the ‘reincarnation of such-and-such- a thing.’ Or, ‘I have a special achievement of such-and-such-a thing and now I have special ritual ceremony’ or ‘I am able to see your past and future’ and a lot of people believe in them. And they ask, ‘In order to have a special Buddha statue to have supernatural power, I need diamond, I need gold in order to make it very grand and, please, give me money, give me diamond.’ You have to decide whether this is okay for you or not. We never ask devotees for money. We never ask for anything. It must come from the heart of the giver. So what I’m trying to say is: in Buddhism we always talk about simplicity, how to make things as simple as possible.”

She continued, “People say you shouldn’t judge your teacher. No. This is wrong. You have to judge your teacher, whether (you think) your teacher is telling you this thing for her, for this teacher’s benefit, or for the benefit of the students. Some teachers just teach for the benefit of themselves or their temple.”

I don’t know why but every time someone in robes says it’s up to me to choose what to think I breathe easier.

The square-faced man had another question. “What’s the difference between a lama and a rinpoche?”

“A lama can’t marry, like the Dalai Lama. But say you want to have relations with another person. Then you are rinpoche, you can marry. However, we follow the practice like in India. In India they have a concept: as a human being there are four stages of life. And the last stage you live apart, apart from the family members to practice as lay people. So this is the practice in India and it is brought into some of the practice of Buddhism. We have Mahayana, we have Theravada, we have Chinese, we have Thailand, Korea, Japan, la-da-da-da. Mahayana, Theravada is the earliest. And the Tibetan Buddhism is the latest and it is a mixture of religions in Tibet. Lots of rituals. Lots of dancing, lots of offerings. When Buddhism go into certain countries it will change. It will change according to the culture, according to the people of that country. I am not surprised that in a hundred years, if I haven’t died yet, I will see that in American there will be a Western Buddhism. Right now, Buddhism in the United States, in Europe, in England, is still not considered western Buddhism. It’s very, very strong influence of Chinese or Tibetan or Thai.”

But the Venerable Jue wanted to be very sure we got the message. “You have to judge. I even tell the devotees here not to do whatever we say. Even they need to judge us. Even monastics, we have our bad habit. We are still human. We still have emotion. We still get sick. I still dislike about the weather. If I’d already achieved, I wouldn’t feel anything about the weather.”

The group laughed and the small nun smiled, pleased. “Only difference, I just have the courage to shave off my hair, to live a simple life.”

No one else has raised their hand so the same man asked yet another question. “When the Dalai Lama says he’s going to reincarnate as the Dalai Lama isn’t that really the ultimate attachment?”

Like Hinduism, Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Attachment to things, to others, to life itself, was considered the main source of suffering and the principal goal of Buddhism was to relieve suffering, your own and others.

The nun scanned the room, looking from face to face. “Anyone have any idea, anything to say to this before I answer?”

One student answered, “The Dalai Lama is coming back to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings.”

The nun’s face didn’t let on what she thought of that answer. She said, “Everybody heard of Bodhisatva before? Bodhisatvas in the Lotus Sutra mention about one thing: the beings refused to achieve Buddhahood. You know why?”

A dark-haired woman in the back volunteered, “They keep coming back until every sentient being is saved.”

“Correct. The Bodhisatva have great compassion because they are doing something that is very difficult to achieve.” Meaning, liberating every last sentient being. And that liberation comes, in part, from getting rid of the attachments that cause suffering. “You can test whether you have achieved the concept of emptiness, of non-attachment. Somebody scolds you. Criticize you. If you have no mind of angry, not even a single thought. Not even ‘I forgive him,’ that sentence never arise. It’s just like words coming in and words coming out. It’s the time that we let go on the spot. We heard it, we feel it, but we let go immediately.”

Okay, so attachment leads to suffering. The goal is to give up all attachments so there will be no more suffering. Does that mean I'm not supposed to feel attachment to Kevin? To my children? You bet my attachment to them causes me to suffer. When Matt or Luke scrape their knees, my knees hurt; my knees actually hurt right now just remembering them scraping their knees. I don't think I want to give up that kind of suffering but I guess there are other kinds I could definitely live without if I could just figure out how, like how attached and worried I am about what other people think of me. That suffering I could do without. I mean, it's the reason it's taken me two years to actually put this stuff up on a blog. Every time I thought about doing it I imagined one person's and then another's reaction - all hideously and personally critical, or course.

And what's this “no mind of angry?” I’ve been married more than two decades. I’ve worked in an office. I have teenage children. Let’s just say: I “suffer” from anger. And, yes, I have to admit: I am attached to my idea of what I want to happen. Well, plans require goals, don't they?

“When even a single thought arises that ‘I forgive him,’ that is still an attachment. This is the most highest stage of practice. Very, very difficult.” You bet. I still consider it a major triumph when I can have that "I forgive him" thought arising.

In the class, people started asking all those questions that, for some reason drive me nuts, questions like where, specifically, souls are when they were between incarnations. How can anyone, even someone wearing robes, talk with great specificity about the unknowable? The specific location or state of souls between lives: there are no end of essays, theories, films, novels and plays that could be spun off those words in the effort to come to grips with that question. And every one of them would be about as real to me as a white bearded guy on a cloud. I imagined standing up, shouting: “Why ask such questions? Why put a monastic into a corner demanding the details, the description of a photograph that doesn’t exist?” How could that question have any meaning anyway, stuck as it is in our limited concept of space and time and concrete, physical reality? Emerging from the struggle to move beyond the senses, I can accept that I don't know everything or even very much so that it's entirely possible that there's more to existence than what I can touch, taste, see, hear and feel. I might even be able to go as far as entertaining the idea that this “something” is, in part or in its entirety, related to each of us in some way. But the idea of asking for a description of where that “it” is when we aren't alive feels like asking if fish could wear plaid pants.

Well, they could, couldn’t they? In theory.

But I suppose I have to accept that my conviction that there might be some underlying unseen force – or Force - could be just as absurd to someone else as questions like these felt to me.
Most Hindus would probably argue that there was no difference between a bearded guy in long white robes and a detailed theory of multiple lives or even Swami Sarvadevananda’s ocean metaphor, so long as it helps you feel connected to the Divine. So, what possible difference should it make to me if it works for someone else?

Aren’t we’re all just slogging around in a black bag, trying to feel around, feel shapes, smell through the fabric to get something our brains, our hearts can hang onto that might give us some faith that there’s a good reason we’re in this bag in the first place? For me, I want to know how to live a happier life in the bag and, perhaps, if there’s something I might be able to do for others nestled around me in the bag that might be of some help. Even more, I want to find out if it’s possible to shred the bag to see what’s out “there.” What I can't get is: why ask for promises and concrete descriptions about what’s outside of the bag from someone else who’s in it, too?
And what on earth do rituals have to do with any of it?

As I type this I hear that Gilda Radner character on Saturday Night Live, Roseanne Rosannadanna saying, “Mrs KD from Fort Lee, New Jersey, you ask alotta stupid questchuns!”
If this is how I feel, then how on earth am I ever going to find any answers, any peace in ritual? How did these things come to be related to the quest for meaning? Until now, I’ve led a pretty ritual-free existence. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Big life events like weddings and funerals.

I guess I actually do have some everyday rituals but they don’t involve bowing down to or before or even near any specific icon. I light a candle in my office when I start work and blow it out when I finish. I don’t know why I do it or how it got started but I do it. I clean my small rented workspace myself, waving off the cleaning crew that was offered when I moved in. I get some peace in supporting my work this way. And I never start to write without reading some of the sacred literature that's flooding into my office. I read until that small inner bell chimes with recognition at some passage and then I sit, as empty as I can, meditating for a while. Those are my rituals. More than that feels false. Will I ever feel differently?

The Venerable Jue was looking through her thick glasses from one side of the room to the other. “Ever think about if the Buddha was so powerful, why couldn’t he make himself live forever? Why couldn’t he stay in this world forever so he could keep on teaching? Any comments on that?” The original Buddha was an actual historical figure who lived in India around the fifth century BCE.

The square-faced man stepped in to the vacuum again. “My understanding is that his Buddhahood goes on but it needs to be directed to another body because bodies wear out.”

The middle-aged woman next to him added, “I agree with what Dave said but is it also that, since he is only here with us for a lifetime, for so many years, people will listen. It’s not going to last forever, so listen up?”

The nun then launched into the story of Buddha’s death. “We have many precepts as monastics. One of them is: anybody offer something to us, we have to take it. That’s why even the monks in Thailand, you offer them meat (even though they’re vegetarian), they will take it. This is the true practice of the Buddhist monk.

“So, someone offered a mushroom to Buddha when he was eighty years old and, because of some poison in the mushroom, he got sick. His body was getting weaker and weaker. He knew it’s time for him to say goodbye. A disciple said to him: ‘Can’t you just live on?’ Buddha said one thing: ‘In my teachings, I teach about suffering and I mention about birth and death, that this is the truth of this universe. Nobody can change it. Nobody can escape it. Not even me.’”

But, Venerable Jue said, the Buddha was never really dead because we all remember him, his words and his spirit. “There is no come and there is no go. We’re all very attached to come and go, that something come here and something go there. But to Buddha, there is no come and no go. There’s no yes and there’s no no.”

There's just nothing for me to do with that statement, at the moment, except to report it. Even just typing it, I feel ahort-circuit coming on.

The Venerable Jue Qian spent a lot of time talking about “cause” and “condition.” She said, “This is very important in Buddhism. Even in a temple, no one will stand up and teach without first being asked a question. In Buddhism we always say: ‘cause and condition’, there must be a cause for this condition to arise. This is very important in Buddhism. Everything leads to another thing. It’s a circle. No action, no being can come from nothing and it takes the right condition for it to happen. This means we are all connected and there is no way we can take an action without affecting others or others affecting us. But there must be cause and condition. If plant seeds when no water, the condition of the soil wasn’t right to grow a plant. If soil fertile and ready to grow a plant but no cause, no seed - no plant. Need both things. Need a willing student before anything can be taught.”

Other than the interpreters for the deaf who took over for each other from time to time, the students were still, listening.

“There are so many temples, so many churches around here. How come you are here today, at this one? Why are you here and yet there are so many people haven’t even thought of coming in here? That’s not my answer. I can’t answer for you. That’s your answer.”

My answer is simple, isn’t it? Mark's class trip came here so it was a place I knew and there were classes in English. Okay, maybe it was a bit more complicated since, without the determination to find out more about faith, about different faiths, it wouldn’t have mattered where Matt’s class trip went or in what language Hsi Lai’s Buddhism classes were taught. I guess my "cause" was my desire to understand Buddhism and the "condition" that allowed it were the classes the Hsi Lai temple offered in English – without either I wouldn’t have been in that classroom.

Wrapping up the class with a few announcements, Venerable Jue held up a few flyers. The first was for a Thanksgiving potluck lunch. Both concepts – what a “potluck” was and Thanksgiving - were new to her. “I don’t know what’s this, this ‘potluck’," she said. “I just know Thanksgiving and I never have a chance to see this Thanksgiving. This will be my first time.”

A woman in the class said, “A pot luck is where people bring food and you eat whatever you bring.”

“So we will share the food together? Oh!”

The woman also tried to explain Thanksgiving. “Do you know what the origination of Thanksgiving is?”

“No. Can I get it on the internet?”

Many people pitched in to explain the history and purpose of Thanksgiving to her, stumbling to the realization that, in a strictly vegetarian temple, there could be no actual turkey.

The Venerable Jue was surprised to hear there could be a substitute. “Tofu turkey? Really? They have that here? I never saw before. I will be very, very interested to see it! I saw a picture on the internet when I was in Taiwan of tofu turkey.”

The next flyer was for a class the temple was just starting and the nun made a strong pitch for it. It seemed the temple administration had noticed that there was considerable confusion on the part of Americans about some of the rituals and the temple decided to try to help. “Why do we have to chant the sutra so many times. The sutra is like the teachings of the Bible. Like in the Bible it says that ‘Jesus say da-da-da-da-da-da.’ The sutra is like that. Chanting is the time when peace really come to our mind and to really have a time when we ourselves touch the Buddha, when we communicate with the Buddha. I encourage all of you to take this class. We never ask the devotees to be very diligent with memorizing the sutra. So that’s the reason why for the dharma function. Reverend will introduce the dharma function and why there are so many dharma function and why do we need to make prostration. I realize something about why people here don’t like making prostration. Indians are very small and tiny. Chinese are also small and tiny. Prostration is more easy for us. I realized that most of our western friends are very huge. So, it’s not because of our practice but because of our mat. Our mat is so small!”

The class couldn’t believe what she was saying. The laughter was nervous. Could we have misunderstood her accented English?

We hadn’t. “So,” Venerable Jue concluded, “that’s the reason if I have chance to become an abbess here I will make a bigger mat. That is my vow!”

A middle-aged woman with dark hair in the back said she did prostration by herself in the temple when people weren’t so close to her but then square-faced Dave-of-a-thousand-questions chimed in again. “I don’t know when to do the prostrations. Everybody’s down and I’m up and I’m down when they’re up.”

What an absurd set of reactions I’d had to poor “Dave,” a man I’d never seen before that class. At first, there was gratitude that at least someone was asking questions when I didn’t know what to ask followed, in a trice, by frustration that he was asking so many questions, so many questions that irritated me and now this: I could kiss him. “Everybody’s down and I’m up and I’m down when they’re up.”

Me, too, Dave. Those of us who didn’t know what to do find it easier just to sit and watch rather than get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or worry that we might. And it was pretty clear Dave and I weren’t the only ones in the room who felt that way.

With that, the Buddhism class was over, I grabbed one of every flyer at the back of the room – including one about something called an 8 Precept Retreat – and then walked up the hill with most of the others to a building behind the temple for the meditation class.

The meditation room had a gray marble floor and a wide wood bench built-in against all the walls with individual seats marked by wood strips. At each, there was already a stack of two flat cushions, one square, the other a narrow rectangle and, beside the pillows, a tightly rolled towel. A statue of Buddha was in the center of the room, lit only by the shaded light that came in through the wide open doors.

A squat, no nonsense elderly nun herded every new person into a corner to give us a few tips before the meditation began. She told us how to sit: on top of the narrow rectangular pillow with one foot up over the other knee or both, if possible. “Protects the back.” After you sit, “rotate around in both directions” to get the most comfortable place to sit and put a towel over your legs. You “get cold when you meditate.” Let your arms fall into your lap, both palms up, one hand resting in the other palm, thumbs together. Sit. “Concentrate on breath.”

Men were on one side of room, women on other so “nothing interferes with empty mind.” Seems to me if your mind was going to get disturbed by members of the opposite sex, it would be far less disturbing to have them right next to you rather than across the room where you can easily see them. Or in another room. And isn't the point to get to a place where it wouldn’t matter if there were other people around you at all?

We then sat for twenty minutes in complete silence, followed by a short break and then another twenty minutes. It was really hard. I could sit for twenty minutes alone in my room but something about being in a new place or maybe it was I'd just come from a class where my mind was filled with new thoughts and ideas but I couldn't quiet my mind in any way.

When it ended, the elderly nun unfolded herself, rotating her ankles, rubbing the blood back into her legs and then, after asking if we found it hard, she squinched her glasses back up her nose a bit and said, “Man was digging a hole in the road. He said, ‘Life is hard.’ Another man, digging a hole in the road, said, ‘This is hard but I do it for a pay check.’ Another man digging a hole in the road is smiling. ‘I’m thinking about all the people who will arrive safely home because of the work I am doing.’ Meditation is like that. It may hurt. You may be doing it just to get something. Only you truly know what you experience. But you get out what you contribute to meditation. There is no substitute for experiencing it yourself.”

Now, that, I know is true. There is no substitute for experiencing any of this for myself.

(24 September 2006)

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