Sunday #5 – Rissho Kosei-Kai Buddhist Dharma Center, 6083 Babcock Rd., San Antonio
Why This Place?
After last week’s visit to Crossroads Church in San Antonio, I sought out what I thought might be a somewhat serene and peaceful service. I view Buddhists as the epitome of those two terms. Yet my only experience of Buddhism occurred years ago when I went with my daughter’s fourth grade class on a field trip to a Buddhist Temple in downtown Denver. I remember it being very quiet and also learning from the Buddhist Monk the word is not pronouced “boo-dist” but bud-ist.” I discovered my other limited knowledge of the Buddha was misplaced from the start.
Here’s where I went wrong. I did a little research before this week’s service and learned that in all this time of me rubbing Buddha’s belly for good luck at Golden City Chinese in Golden, Colorado, I’d been rubbing the belly of Budai, a 6th century Chinese Monk who was actually quite hefty. In stark contrast, the real Buddha – Siddharta Guatama (the Buddha), is reported to have lived a rather ascetic life and ate very little, even going without food for a long period of time. In researching why this Chinese restaurant Buddha is shown as obese, while all other Indian statues depict Buddha as almost skeletal, I laughed while reading one comment in Yahoo Answers. JDSpoonworthy wrote, “When [Buddha] got really famous, he let himself go…like Elvis.”
Preconceived Notions about Buddhists
Having so little Buddhist knowledge, (I hadn’t even seen the film The Little Buddha, until this morning), I was hard pressed to come up with many pre-conceived notions. I had read small snippets of what the Buddha reportedly shared about The Four Noble Truths, which are at the heart of Buddhist teaching; I found them captivating. Other than that, my thoughts included:
- Buddhists are likely peace loving individuals that simply seek enlightenment
- The Buddha offers guiding principles that are similar to all other faiths
- Even though Buddhism is the fourth largest world religion, I find it hard to believe that there would be many Buddhist in San Antonio
A statue of Buddha sits at the front of the Dharma Center (a term I later learned meant teaching center; a temple is planned in the future). The smell of incense burning at the base of the statue suddenly hit me and I worried that I’d have a hard time with the service. I just don’t like the smell and if used in the service, it may have tainted my perception. Fortunately it wasn’t used. Blonde haired Ashley greeted both myself and another first-time visitor Katelynn as we entered the door. Ashley immediately dispelled all concern about what to do. She handed us each the Kyoten – the Sutra Reading Extracts from the Threefold Lotus Sutra. (I learned “Sutra” means sacred text. Didn’t know that). She gave us the run down of the service and offered the most welcoming invitation.
Compassion is the word that I’d say most covers the Buddhist religion. The Buddhists who practice their walk and the general feeling found when entering this gathering place exudes compassion. You’ll see just how compassionate later on in the blog. Upon sitting down on one of the folding chairs near the back, I began taking off my overcoat. From one side behind me, a man grabbed and then tugged the end of my jacket arm and then someone from the other side helped me off with the other arm. That immediately impressed me.
Recorded organ music began as the Reverend stood to the right in a suit and two lay people, all holding mala beads in their hands, processed toward the altar that contained a statue of Buddha. Ashley had previously warned that many first-time visitors feel Buddhists are praying to Buddha with all the homage given to the statue during the service. “That’s not true though. We honor the oneness in everything and Buddha is simply a symbol of that oneness,” she said.
Once in front of the altar, one of the laymen hit two blocks together and all bowed toward the altar as the sound of rubbing beads reverberated through the room. Then someone struck a gong and for about 45 minutes, chanting of the Kyoten took place. The man in front of me often turned around to make sure Katelynn and I knew the page everyone was on. At one point, he went to take off his thick sweater and had difficulty getting it off around the sash. I felt like I had paid it forward as I reached from behind to help him, as the two people in back had helped me before.
As a native of Japan, the Reverend heads the church that is attended by other Japanese, but the majority of the 25 people in today’s service spanned in age from 25 to 50+ or more and were primarily white. Other than the suited Reverend, the churchgoers wore a variety of dress pants, jeans and casual wear.
After the extended chanting (wow, did that ever hurt my throat), and a reading by one of the members, church members closed the blinds and shut off all penetrating light. Next up came my favorite part of the service – meditation. The most soothing music began filling the room and I focused my attention on my breathing and becoming aware of thoughts that arose.
Then the Reverend walked to the pulpit to the right of the altar and gave a short talk. Following that, members passed out sheets of music and we sang a couple of Buddhist hymns while someone played a grand piano in the corner. After that, one of the lay people gave the details of the church business. She read the financials and I suppose what most impressed me were the liabilities – ZERO. To me, that said everything. Following that, we broke for coffee and tea and then returned to the room to sit in chairs that had been moved to a large circle. This, the Buddhists call Hoza (Circle of Compassion).
Most members say this is their favorite part of the service. I won’t go into great detail, because much of the discussion involved private sharing. People shared their thoughts about struggles in the past week and you could feel the deep compassion from those who listened to these others share their concerns.
In the end, a rather odd and unplanned thing took place at the close of the Hoza. A woman had appeared at the end of the session from off the street and asked to speak to the group. She said that while we had been in service, a portion of the Katy freeway had collapsed and her daughter and grandchild were killed and she needed help to get back to Katy to see about her other children. She asked for anything that might help. She seemed so sincere and what seemed to be genuine tears flowed as most of the members, including me, handed her money. I immediately wanted to check on my sister-in-law and friends in Katy, but put that on hold for a bit.
It wasn’t much later that I, and others realized that this person had scammed those in the audience for money with her story. Yet, instead of becoming outraged, the members of this group said to one another in quiet tones, “Well, she definitely needed help for something; it’s not for us to judge.” I only thought: That’s quite gutsy to come into a group that believes so strongly in Karma with a made up story. Hmmmm.
As people began dispersing, Ashley came up to me and said she wanted me to have her second set of Mala beads that I’d so admired in the members’ hands during the service. She said that Jerry — a former Southern Baptist Minister in their group made the beads. Jerry later told me about each set of semi-precious stones and held the beads up to reiterate what I’d been told earlier about how to hold the beads to see the representation of the Buddha, with the head, arms and legs. This gesture touched me deeply and I will continue to learn more about the beads and what they mean to the Buddhists. Thank you, Ashley!
Post Service Commentary
After the two-hour service, I thought about how all these unprompted and unexpected examples perfectly illustrated the compassion of Buddhists and the non-judgmental nature they work to hold and express. Truly, truly beautiful.
I pick these churches and services sometimes by their worship times, on a whim, or at other times in contrast to the service before. Next week will be different. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I did an Internet search of all San Antonio churches that had the word “Love” in the name. So, next week I’ll choose between Love Gospel Church and Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church. From a YouTube video, I have learned that the latter one is an African American Gospel church and I’ve always wanted to attend a church service where “congregation engagement” is at its best.