Friday, February 13, 2015

Searchers and Researchers

Yesterday I had to deal with two PO’ed people. One was a Dharma School parent (thankfully it was the superintendent Diana talking and e-mailing with her and not me directly) and the other was a community college student e-mailing about her class assignment.

Our outgoing temple president wrote an article in the February bulletin about how the number of first-time visitors had doubled from 2011 (253 people) to 2014 (496 people). He noted that our temple has become the “go-to place in Chicago for those exploring Buddhism.” But from the two people I had to deal with yesterday, I see it’s not such a good thing that our temple comes up on top in anyone’s Google search.

[photo shows form given to first-time visitors against background of the fabric patch cushion we use for our metal folding-chairs]
The great majority of first-time (and only-time) visitors are college and high-school students who had an assignment “to visit a house of worship of a religion outside of your own.” For the most part these kids (and the parents who have to chauffeur them) stay in the background and don’t bother anyone much except to ask a couple questions and take a photo proving they were there. But it becomes a problem for our members when the students start to get too intrusive – such as one group showed up with elaborate film equipment, sticking their camera in each person’s face as they went up to offer incense. We’ve since then asked people not to photograph during service and to ask for our members’ permission before filming them.

We’ve had dozens of graduate students doing studies of our temple which involved observing various activities over several weeks and doing extensive interviews of a sample group of members. So I didn’t think anything different about the Northwestern University student who came saying her study is about children and religion. I directed her to Diana, the superintendent, and thought it would be no big deal for the student to observe the Dharma School classes.

After the student’s second visit and a request to have families go through an interview process, we heard from the upset parent. She said it was very disconcerting for grade-school children to be asked, “How does it feel to be part of a minority religion?” She said it was careless of us to allow an outside party to be in the Dharma School classrooms without any checking of their credentials. These days it’s imaginable that someone with criminal intent could claim they are just a student doing research. So now at least when it involves contact with children, our temple will have to insist on references and a background check of anyone visiting us for the supposed purpose of academic research.

The e-mail exchange I had with the student from Harold Washington College shows that even academic research isn’t such a great thing for our temple to be participating in. The student felt that as someone taking a “Philosophy of Religion” course, we should be pleased that she chose our group to visit and myself as the minister and the whole temple leadership should be willing to drop everything to answer the boatload of questions she has about Buddhism. She felt by praising Buddhism as the religion she’s most excited to explore, that we should be welcoming her as our potential next leader (i.e. savior). We get a lot e-mails like that and it makes me feel like we’re the apes and the students all think they are Dian Fossey saving us from extinction because of their willingness to study us. Most of the time someone more diplomatic than me will respond to the student inviting them to attend our Sunday service, but yesterday and a few times in the past, I responded as someone in a real bad mood (essentially telling her to get in line and take a number with all the other students coming on Sundays wanting interviews for their class papers) and so the student wrote back accusing me of making her feel “inferior.”

I think I better prepare a stock response – telling the students to go visit the Midwest Buddhist Temple (I already did that with the second Northwestern student also researching “children and religion”). At Midwest, the office manager Jesse is there most of the week and on Sundays, willing and able to answer all kinds of questions people have about Buddhism. Midwest also has a whole cadre of “minister assistants” (including Jesse) certified by the Buddhist Churches of America – so I’ve also started referring churches and schools to Midwest who want a speaker to travel hours to their location.

I’ve heard Dr. Mark Unno say he did his research on the Shingon sect because he didn’t want to subject his own beliefs in Jodo Shinshu to the rigors of American academic analysis. I’m grateful that in Japan at places such as Otani University it’s okay to be a searcher and researcher at the same time and almost all the professors are deeply committed to Buddhism as the basis for their own lives. But in the West, academics feel it’s a liability to be emotionally attached to their object of study (one University of Wisconsin professor told me Dr. Haneda would’ve made a good scholar if he wasn’t such a gudosha, “seeker of the Way”). So for all you scholars and would-be scholars, if you want to study Buddhists in the same way you observe lab rats, please stay away from me and our temple’s members. But if you are sincere about exploring Buddhism as a possible basis for your own life, our doors are wide open for you.

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