Monday, February 5, 2018

Gateway to the Maze of Buddhisms

Our temple has long been a referral service for people seeking information and personnel related to Buddhism. Hospitals and funeral homes call us wanting a “Buddhist monk.” The first question I ask is “What is the ethnicity of the family?” and from there I can refer them to temples in the area that cater to one Asian group or another – Thai, Vietnamese, Korean etc. Only once recently when a hospital nurse told me the patient was white and had no connections to a Buddhist group did I go to meet with the family. Per what the family said was the patient’s request before she lost consciousness, I did the “pillow service” (makura-gyo) which I prefer to do while the person is alive. Even if they can’t move or speak, they can still hear the chanting and bell. A couple weeks later I ended up doing the funeral for the family and it was good to see them later that year participating in our temple’s Obon service.

We get calls from high school and college students who want to visit a Buddhist temple and interview people there. If they are from the west or south suburbs, I refer them to the Midwest Buddhist Temple which is easy to get to by the freeways. For those living west of Chicago, I tell them to look up the various small Buddhist groups in Oak Park and for those in the northern suburbs, I tell them there’s dozens of Zen meditation groups in Evanston. For the northwest suburbs, I suggest Rissho Kosei Kai in Mount Prospect and for those near downtown, I give them the contact information for Shambhala and Soka Gakkai International (SGI).

A lot of people call wanting information about Tibetan beliefs and customs so I send them to Tibet Gift in Evanston. I mention Shambhala and some of the small Vajrayana groups in the area but let them know those places have members who are not ethnic Tibetan.


[chart I came up with that we include in our information to visitors]
Even for those who come to visit our temple, we are just a stop along their journey. I really don't expect many visitors to become regular attendees so I try to make them aware of the various kinds of Buddhism they can find in the Chicago area (the main purpose of the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” classes I was conducting until I got sick). The Buddha knew that different people require different approaches at different stages of their life, so I know what our temple does is not going to be suitable for the great majority of people just starting out to explore Buddhism. For one thing, we don’t offer much upaya (expedient means) – tricks and gimmicks to grab people’s attention, such as pandering to their preconceived ideas of Buddhism as some mystical secretive society where you can become a revered master with special powers over others. Some people do need that stuff (I know from the phone calls we get) and the successful Buddhist groups skillfully play on the newcomers’ expectations to eventually bring them to the more solid teachings of Buddhism. Maybe the closest thing we have to “bait and switch” is our meditation sessions, what I call our “gateway drug.” Curious people come to get some kind of high for themselves and end up hearing about and hopefully experiencing the open-hearted oneness that the nembutsu expresses.

I feel that for the spirituality of the Chicago-area, our temple serves an important role as a referral source, sending people to places that may be most compatible with their mindset. I know it won’t please our membership promoters, but it’s been good to hear feedback from the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” class students that I presented the various types of Buddhism in a fair way and didn’t try to sell them on our temple’s brand. If anything, in Buddhism there is a mutual respect between the different sects that you don’t find in other major religions. “What they do works for them,” is what I tell the intro class students. It’s nice when people from other Buddhist traditions visit our temple to get a taste of the Pure Land teachings and I’ve always found it stimulating to visit other Buddhist groups to see their rituals and hear how they speak to their members. I wish someone would carry on with Aaron Lee’s blog where he asked young adults from the various Asian Buddhist groups to describe what they do at their temples.

Sometimes I feel let down when I hear of former temple members who joined other Buddhist groups – I can’t help feeling it’s my fault that I didn’t speak more to their concerns. But then I’m happy for them if they found places that made them feel more welcome and the Buddhism presentations make more sense to them than what they heard at our temple. All I can do is talk about what works for me and why other presentations don’t – but each of you have to figure out your own path and not think that my promotion of Jodo Shinshu is the only guidepost.


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