Jodo Shinshu Buddhism: A Christian Encounter

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Buddhist Temple
Buddhist Temple

The Comforts of Home ~ Entering the Temple

Driving over to the Calgary Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple[1] I wasn’t quite sure what I would encounter. I knew that Buddhism has many different expressions and I wasn’t sure whether this community would be a full cultural emersion into eastern practices or if it would be a blend of eastern and western philosophies.

Arriving, I quickly noticed that it had recently been renovated and was very architecturally appealing. Later I would get to speak with one of the elder members of the temple who explained that the house was actually 100 years old and had only recently been renovated into the temple that it now is. There was a ramp that allowed access as I wheeled up to a wooden covered front entrance way and a wide front door which a kind lady greeted me at and held open for me to enter.

With a small front foyer entrance, there was a place to hang our coats with a staircase off to the right. It was explained to me that they often host lunches and community events in the lower basement. They had an elevator off to the other side but, I didn’t go down as the service was about to begin.

Inside the worship area at the back was a partitioned area where you could place your shoes and grab a “liturgical” book with chants and teachings. At the center of the patrician was about a 3’ high statue of Buddha wearing a rather bowl shaped hat that covered his eyes. While access was challenging due to the restrictions of my chair, I began to clearly recognize the Japanese influences on the interior decorations. Having spent many years training in a Japanese Aikido Dojo, it was an environment very familiar to me and I felt comfortable knowing my way around.

Ken, the assistant sensei, greeted me and guided my way around to a side entrance while he pulled a chair away to make space for me to sit in the main worship area. Looking to the front I could see an altar with another standing gold Buddha that had its hand extended out. Above it was hanging a golden chandelier of sorts that later was explained to me to be symbolic of a “heaven” of sorts or “nirvana” to which Buddha resides just beneath. Before the Buddha on the altar were two candles and a red apple that was placed on a gold stand (later I’ll share more on the apple). There were then two chairs and knee high Japanese tables in front of them to which the sensei’s James and Ken would sit following their entrance.

It was a cozy space and with about 20 of us in the hall, we could easily see and hear everything that was going on and enter the discussions during Ken’s teaching time. Without the formalities and pomp, you might say it was a Buddhist House Church!

Meditation, Chanting, and Teachings ~ The Harmonization of Communal Homage

Buddhist Altar
Buddhist Altar

With the ringing of a bell, the two sensei’s (James and Ken) entered from behind the altar and briefly bowed towards the east side of the altar. Sitting down facing each other from either side of the altar they had us sit in silence for a few minutes for meditative reflection and then clasped their hands together in a prayerful manner and bowed again to the Buddha on the altar reciting a liturgy of respect along with the same actions by the rest of the congregation.

Ken stood up and introduced himself as James’s assistant and welcomed everyone. To be honest, I found it hard to find the authenticity in some of this experience as in my past practices of the Aikido Hombu Dojo, I was used to being around Japanese senseis that also spoke in Japanese as well. As James and Ken were not ethnically from Japan and were white westerners, it felt odd to me. In any case, Ken then had us turn the liturgy book to the homage for the ‘Three Treasure’.[2] It was all written in English and the congregation read the homage aloud.

Following the first homage, the congregation then read through the ‘Noble Eight-fold Path’ together.[3] These were predominantly a set of living principles one is committed to in remaining noble and virtuous to themselves and others. Comparatively I thought of them as being simpler forms of the virtues in Budo[4] or the Ten Commandments[5] in Judaism and the Beatitudes[6] in Jesus’ teachings on the Mount of Olives.

Over the next half hour the congregation followed several chants[7] much like the singing of hymns in the church. While Ken and James would lead the congregation into the chant, the rest would join in further into the practice. Notes and the pronunciations were in the liturgy book and once you settled into it, it was easy to follow along. At first it seemed to be rather broken in rhythm and synchronization but the further into the chanting, it seemed to begin to harmonize amidst all the congregations’ vocalizations. There seemed to be much like a unification that took place between each of the practitioners that eventually felt rather calming to me as an observer.

Ken also took a short amount of time to give a sort of conversational lesson. It wasn’t so much a sermon as it was an exploration of questions to the congregation into the proposed subject of “self” and how we find meaning in it. It felt a little disjointed as though he was having troubles articulating what he wanted to share but, in essence, Ken was addressing issues of understanding the self through levels of confidence, values for ourselves and others opinions, and the implications of having to much self which then becomes selfishness.

Remaining quiet out of respect, I felt the gospel leading my thoughts into the social understanding that we are known to ourselves only because we are first known by another. Particularly, it felt as though it would have been easy to enter the conversation with a question of “who first knew us?”

There were so many great conversations I remember having in my Aikido dojo in similar fashions; still, I remained quiet and following his teaching, Ken had everyone crowd together for a communal selfie picture before dismissing them.

Beautiful People and the Intertwining of the Communal Self

Rolling Pin
Rolling Pin

After the service, an older gentleman who was extremely friendly greeted me. We had a fantastic conversation as he shared a bit about the history of the temple and that the Buddhist community had been meeting in this house since 1980. He also shared a bit about the history of Buddhism here in Calgary as there has been a community of practitioners here since 1905. He stated that it was the first organized religion in the area although I found that hard to believe. I will most definitely need to look into this however as a narrative to YYC!

James and I also spoke for a while as he shared about the significance of the apple in front of the Buddha. He shared how it was customary to have an offering before the Buddha and traditionally it was a bowl of cooked rice. However, being that he didn’t cook rice all the time, he chose to westernize the expression with an apple. James also rationalized the gesture as that Buddha was a sensei (teacher) and as such, you bring an apple to your teacher in the hopes of good grades. All I could hear in the back of my mind was the irony of the image of the “forbidden fruit” being used as an offering and Paul’s words in Acts 17:25 that God does not need the service of human hands.

Leaving the temple everyone seemed enthusiastic for me to return. Although carefully making sure to have accessibility in their new building, it seems I was the first person in a wheelchair to come there. I was very grateful for their well wishes and while exiting was greeted by a young man named Chris.

Chris overheard me talking with James about my past in the martial arts and was intrigued. We spent the next 20 minutes on the way to the parking lot chatting and it turned out he knew an old friend from my Aikido dojo. We shared our experiences in the arts and said our good bye’s.

There was much I felt lacking spiritually in the morning’s events but there was also something about the thematic understandings of being known and the intertwining of both relationships and common desires for purpose, significance, virtue, and respect. I can’t say that I feel compelled to return to the temple for the reasons that I feel it wrong to have an image of creation before me in worship and I found myself restrained to bow to an idol.

Still, I feel compelled to bring the gospel and the conversation of the Kingdom into the realities of the virtues spoken of and I know that it is only going to happen through relational presence and the practice of proximity. As I have written and shared before, “How close or how far we find ourselves from any one person, place, or time is not as important as how we engage the possibility of movement towards or further away from them.[8] If it is not noticed yet, let me be open in saying, I have a heart for this culture and a love for these beautiful people. I do not yet know how God may bring this to be but, this experience has reminded me that I must seek and find a way to reengage with this community. To not do so would mean to have too much focus on my… self!

[1]http://calgary-buddhist.ab.ca/?doing_wp_cron=1456346280.3109951019287109375000

[2]http://www.bcc.ca/readings/three_treasures.html

[3]http://www.bcc.ca/buddhism/fournobletruthsandeightfoldpath.html

[4]http://www.mainlinebudo.com/?p=180

[5]http://lifehopeandtruth.com/bible/10-commandments/the-ten-commandments/10-commandments-list/

[6]http://www.loyolapress.com/the-beatitudes.htm

[7]http://www.bcc.ca/jodoshinshu/chanting.html

[8]https://iamjustwondering.net/2008/02/03/in-proximity-to-spirituality-where-do-you-find-yourself-gravitating-too/