Sunday, February 23, 2014

Namu Amida Butsu, Hail to the Infinite Light, the Amida Buddha!

This week I went to the Japanese Buddhist Church here in Ogden. Was it the peace inducing experience I thought it would be?


The temple is technically not in Ogden, but in Harrisville a little city just North-West of Ogden. The area isn't particularly a pretty area of town. It's most noted for it's Walmart and the adjoining strip mall. So, when you come upon this rather eastern style building, you take notice immediately. Around the perimeter of the property is a wrought iron gate The gardens are beautiful surrounding the building, I can only imagine what they look like in Spring and Summer.

When you walk in through the main door, there is an image of the Wheel of Dharma, an eight-spoke wheel that represents the Eightfold Path to Nirvana, hanging over the doorway.

There's nothing really remarkable about the building when you first walk in. the walls are white and fairly plain. There are a few offices. The only thing that would really give you any indication of being in a Buddhist temple are displays like this one:

However, the atmosphere changes entirely when you enter the sanctuary. The room looks much more Eastern in design, there are windows covered in red curtains, pews (really Western actually), the room is filled with the perfume of spicy incense, and then you see the altar.

The altar is very traditional looking and set upon a stage. There is a main altar piece and two smaller altars on either side of it.

The one to the right of the altar is of the monk who founded this sect of Buddhism. His name was Shinran and he took a form of Buddhism inherited by the Japanese from the Chinese and brought it to the lay folk, at the time, Buddhism was something for the upper crest of society, not something for the common lower casts.

If you'll notice in the foreground, there is a singing bowl, which they did use in this service. If you want to know a little more about those, check out my Unitarian Universalist blog. The image of Shinran is in the background with the lamps and flowers surrounding him.

On the other side is another important figure of this tradition. For the life of me, I cannot remember his name, but he was explained to me as a man who took the highly learned teachings of Shinran and simplified them so that the laity could follow his teachings more easily, therefore bringing Buddhism even more to the masses.

The high altar is dedicated to the Amida Buddha I mentioned in my pre-service blog. This was explained to me as not a historical person, but as the teachings of the Buddha made manifest. In traditional depictions, it was a scroll in the center of the altar, but over time, with the Western influence of seeing God as a man, the image has taken the form of a man. This image is in the center of this altar, and is hidden by golden medallions. If you look closely, you can see the image of the man standing, though not really clearly in this picture.

On the altar are candles (fake ones), which symbolize eternal light, an offering of rice and fruit, flowers which represent impermanence as flowers begin to die as they start to bloom, and in front is a temporary altar set up with pictures of the pets of loved ones. (More on that in the service section.)

On the ground level directly in front of the altar was a lovely incense burner. The burner had a dragon on either side, one with an opened mouth and one with a closed mouth. The opened mouthed one represented life and the closed mouth one represented death. Our birth has already happened to us, and our death is guaranteed to us. Between the two is a bowl that you place the incense in and the incense waft between the two with highs and lows symbolizing our life, the only thing we have to worry about as our birth and death are already given.

The atmosphere here was spectacular. I felt immediately like I was in a space that was other to my day to day life, and I really love when that happens.

The People:

The people were wonderful. When we first arrived, somebody asked if we were visitors. They found a lovely woman who gave us a rundown of what would happen during the service and then gave us a tour of the sanctuary and explained everything in it.

After the service, they had a reception for the new associate ministers. Everyone was very kind and warm at the reception. The congregation was a mix of many types of people, Japanese, American, a few others as well. We shared what we were doing with a few of them and they were all very intrigued by the idea. I even gave the blog address to the nice lady who gave us the tour of the sanctuary. If you're reading this, for the life of me I cannot remember your name, but I want to say thank you for everything today. One man I met told me that he and his wife had been following my blog and knew we were coming. That was kind of surreal to me knowing that others knew we were coming to their church.

The reception had a lot of traditional Western foods like meatballs, cheese and crackers, lemon bars, etc. but also a few Japanese pastries. One was a pancake sort of turnover stuffed with a sweet black bean paste. There was also a tea that was traditional green tea mixed with brown rice. I have to say that both the pancake with the bean paste and the tea are two things that I feel have been missing from my life way too long and I feel cheated not having had these before.

The Service:

The service was short and sweet. It started with someone chiming a gong to summon everyone to worship, much like church bells in the West. The service began with those who had lost a loved one in the month of February getting up and offering incense in the bowl shown earlier.

Next there was a chant done in Japanese. I understood nothing of this chant, but it really calmed me and did bring a sense of peace. The chant was led by the minister and punctuated periodically by chiming the singing bowl.

After the chant, there was a recitation of a verse called The Golden Chain which talked about having an attitude filled with pure and lovely thoughts and pure and lovely actions. Then we sang a Japanese hymn, which again, was lovely but I didn't understand any of it.

The minister then got up and gave his sermon. See the "Message" portion below for that.

Afterward, everybody got up and offered some incense (myself included) in the incense burner and then the service was over. The whole thing took about a half hour to forty minutes to complete. It was quite lovely and I have nothing negative to say about it at all.

The Message:

The sermon was about loss and death. He explained that today was Nirvana Day and that it celebrated the death of Buddha, but Buddha died 2600 years ago and that his death doesn't have much impact on us today. But today they were memorializing our pets which had passed away. And we are often devastated by the loss of our pets. Indeed our pets are usually the first experience we have with death and loss as a child.

He then played a gorgeous piece of music called Galloping Horses. He then related it to a Mongolian legend of a young man who had a white horse which he loved and shared a close bond. One day, a town governor, took the horse from the boy and kicked the boy out of town. The horse would not behave with the governor, so the horse was ordered to be killed. But the horse ran away and arrows were shot into it as it ran away. Somehow the horse made it back to the boy's home. The boy and his mother tried to save the horse, but his wounds were too great and he died. The boy was devastated and mourned his horse.

That night, the horse appeared in the boy's dream and told him not to grieve him, for all things are impermanent. Instead, the boy should take his body and make use of it. So the boy crafted a fiddle from the horse and the fiddle was topped with the carving of a horse head. That day forward the boy went along the countryside playing upon this fiddle. For though the horse had tragically been taken from him, he would live on through the music that touched those who heard it. And to this day, the horse-head fiddle is the national instrument of Mongolia.

The minister then said that when a loved one dies, our relationship with them does not die, it is only transformed. We still hear them in our head talking to us, we still feel their love in our hearts. Death is a part of life and a lesson we must learn, for all things are impermanent.

I loved this message, and no matter what your beliefs or where you are in life, this is a very true message. I feel that we often try to ignore death in our culture, but that does nothing to help us. Instead, we must confront it, better yet, we should embrace it. Our deaths are inevitable as are the deaths of all our family and friends.

Overall Experience:

This was an amazing service and an amazing community. I loved this experience so much. It filled me with peace and a sense of belonging I haven't felt many other places. I will definitely be back sometime soon to this place, though I'm not sure when because of this blog.

Additional Comments:

I am having so much fun doing this. Also, my friend Austin has been accompanying me to all but one of these. He's also blogging about the experiences he's having. There's overlap in our posts, but he does have a slightly different approach to things. You can check out his blog here:

I know I said I might be making a video blog last week, but I never got around to it. I will definitely be making one this week, it might even be up tonight. I have many things to talk about, so tune in for that.

Join me next week as I return to where it all began for me: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church).

Until I speak with you next, peace be with you.

1 comment:

  1. Fab blog on this topic, this one sounds lovely to attend; interesting!