Ceremonies: On Buddhism

In Portland, Erin Carver finds a Buddhist temple that adheres to the teachings of the The Ladies’ Home Journal.

Photo by the Oregon Buddhist Temple

I don’t like Buddhism.

I’ll be more specific. I don’t like stereotypical, be-dreadlocked, two-generations-too-late hippies who extol Buddhism’s tenets of peace and tolerance and Zen while they take hits from a water bong… man. And I don’t like their much more clean-cut but equally white and middle-class counterparts who have co-opted Buddhism for use in self-indulgent day spas and to repeat “live in the now” while trying to juggle piano lessons, soccer games, and beach vacations. I don’t like how Western culture has turned Buddhism into meaningless buzzwords and shallow concepts, making a millennia-old religion and philosophy into something charmingly “Eastern” — and so calming and peaceful!

So it was with equal parts eagerness and trepidation that I began looking for Buddhist temples in Portland. I was worried that I was going to look completely foolish, like a soccer mom or a wannabe hippie amongst legitimate adherents to the faith — or worse, that I would find myself in a sea of those poseurs I so disparage. But I was excited, too, to get a better grasp on Buddhism as it is actually practiced, to see more than just the aspects of it that our culture has appropriated.

A quick Google search led me to the Oregon Buddhist Temple, a Jodo Shinshu temple located a mere twenty blocks from my house. Excellent! Their website has an entire section for first-time visitors, detailing everything from respectful conventions to an outline of a typical service. Jodo Shinshu, I learned from a highly intellectual read-through of the temple’s website and the school’s Wikipedia page, is considered “blue collar” Buddhism for adherents to Buddhism who may not have the time or resources for highly ritualized religious practices. Where other sects of Buddhism require donations to monasteries or time-consuming, ritualistic offerings, the main form of worship in Jodo Shinshu is nembutsu, the mindful repetition of the Amitabha Buddha’s name

One sunny Sunday morning, I donned my bike helmet and zipped the few blocks north and west to the temple. It was not a particularly decorative building, although its slightly flattened pyramidal roof and symmetrical shape leant it a vaguely Eastern feel. The temple’s first-time visitor guide had informed me that “flow of the service will feel familiar to people from a Western tradition, whereas the content of the service will be familiar with those from an Eastern tradition,” so I wasn’t totally shocked when the foyer of the building looked shockingly similar to that of the Catholic cathedral or the Jewish temple. Several greeters sat at a table with pamphlets about the temple and upcoming events in the Portland Buddhist community. I signed in to their first-time visitor book (they are really fond of newcomers) and walked in to the Hondo, the main hall of the temple.

Immediately, I forgot the crowded street outside, and at the same time, forgot how I wasn’t putting so much stock in aesthetics. The Hondo — or, at least, the o-naijin, the altar — was absolutely gorgeous. Everything was gold plated or a rich, dark hue. There were paintings, statues, lamps, beads. It smelled faintly of incense, a scent that came from the small table at the front. Most attendees approached and bowed to the table, and I knew (again, from the temple’s website) that they were practicing o-shoko, the ritualistic offering of incense. I was far too self-conscious to approach the front, so I missed out on that “encouraged but not required” activity. In retrospect, I should have, if only to get a closer look at the statues and scrolls that adorn the altar.

I sat where I always sit at these religious services: on the left side, about halfway to the front, near but not in the aisle. Before the service began, I had just enough time to glance around at the other pews before and judgmentally categorize the worshippers to be about half “legitimate” older and family-oriented people of Asian descent and half yuppie or hippie “pretenders” like myself. There were a lot more women than men.

The service began with bells and incense, followed by a lot of chanting, led by a few women in simple, dark tunics and loose pants. The chants were highly repetitive monosyllables; their English translations were simple praises of the teachers and teachings of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. It was soothing, although I kept glancing down at the English translations to try to find meaning in what I was saying, which was probably not the point, as this was clearly an exercise in meditative repetitiveness rather than an expository expression of worship.

An older woman came to the altar to speak: the Dharma Talk, the Jodo Shinshu equivalent of a sermon. The woman speaking was the “reverend’s assistant,” as Reverend Gregory Gibbs was out of town. (I didn’t know if I was more taken aback by the fact that the religious leader was clearly not from a long cultural Buddhist tradition, or if he was known by a very distinctly Christian title.)

She opened her talk with the line, “I was in California last week, and I experienced Zen and saw the Buddha.” She was talking about a spa and a statue in an art gallery. The congregation laughed. She continued with a discussion of a “Buddhistic” article she read about “living in the now” and being present in one’s life at the time one was living it. It was from The Ladies’ Home Journal.

I was horrified. This woman was giving voice — a sanctioned voice — to my least favorite aspect of Buddhism. Is there anything in the world more white-collar, upper-middle-class than The Ladies’ Home Journal? I imagined the article, sandwiched between ads for the Pier 1 Imports and Skinny Cow ice cream bars, and this woman was talking about it as religion. I sat in dismay as she gave a rundown of the article and how it really encompassed Buddhism’s ideals of mindful living and Zen. I kept waiting for her talk to become more introspective, but it never did. Maybe it was because the reverend himself wasn’t there, but even so, this was a leader of the church parroting an absurdly shallow interpretation of Buddhism.

She ended her talk by reading a story about mangrove trees to the children in the congregation — it was endearing to see children engrossed in a story, but frankly boring to me. Then there were a few more chants, which I participated in only half-heartedly, and then the service ended, barely 45 minutes after it began. I left unhappily, rode home dispirited, even a little bitter, and still had time when I got home to hit up the neighborhood farmers’ market. The two pints of berries I bought brought me more sustainable joy than the Buddhist service.

I could have learned more about Buddhism — or at least Jodo Shinshu — from just reading the Oregon Buddhist Temple’s exhaustive website and Wikipedia. In the past, I’ve referred briefly to a religion’s Wikipedia article while writing in order to clear up a term or get a fact in place. But writing this, I had to stop myself from just giving a brief history of Jodo Shinshu, its founder, and its Buddha of choice, because that’s really all I got out of my visit to the Oregon Buddhist Temple — and that was mostly before and after the visit. It’s an interesting story of the birth of a religious sect, and I’m glad I know it, but it’s not really useful to write about it here, and it’s not really what I want to get out of my religious experiences. I’m interested in the intellectual and historical background of religions, but I don’t need to attend a service to get that.

I am aware that I do not understand a religion as a whole when I wander into a church or a temple on a weekend, sitting awkwardly on the edge of tradition while taking mental notes. In some ways, it’s silly to intellectualize religion, because it’s not about hard facts or historical context. It’s about what emotions and impulses that religion inspires in its adherents, and the faith born form those emotions. “Shopping” for religion is a really difficult experience. It’s not like being born into a faith, where you’re taught a truth from birth. I’m trying to unlearn a truth, which is that religion is interesting and possibly meaningful, but never accurate or factual.

After all, I’m checking major world religions off a checklist and calling it experimentation. I’m not going in to these visits to houses of worship with the expectation of having an epiphany. So feeling — sometimes narrow-minded, always incomplete — is all I have, and I can’t apologize for my impulse to say, even after my visit to the Oregon Buddhist Temple, that I am not taken with Buddhism. But I am inspired to try to find it elsewhere, perhaps in the meditation of another temple.


Photo by the Oregon Buddhist Temple

Erin Carver knows every line of dialogue from When Harry Met Sally and makes a quiche so good it can bring a grown man to tears. She has an English degree from Lewis & Clark College and lives in Portland, where she spends most of her time taste-testing pad kee mao.