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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Visit To A Buddhist Temple

As part of my ongoing studies of various philosophies, I have been reading up on Buddhism lately. I have been attempting to understand the many schools of Buddhism and Buddhist history, as well as core Buddhist teachings. Along the way I have been, comparing and contrasting various elements of Buddhist thought to Stoicism, Christianity, and my own Humanism.

Reading is one thing, but I was curious to experience Buddhism in practice. Unlike most schools of ancient Greek philosophy, this can be observed in community practice all around us. Houston is a large city and has many Buddhist Temples, so my wife and I took our first visit to one today.

The one we went to is called the Jade Buddha Temple, in connection with the Texas Buddhist Association (Jade Temple website).

As you can partially get some sense of in the picture, the Jade Temple was a large and beautiful collection of buildings. As one might expect, the atmosphere was very tranquil.

I had called ahead a few days earlier and a woman told me that meditation is from 9am to 10am and Dharma (Buddhist philosophy) discussion is from 10am to 11:30am. We decided to come only to the Dharma discussion the first time, since we don't know much about meditation.

When we walked up to the entryway, a nice young man at a table labeled "information" asked us if it was our first time. When we said yes, he lead us back to a building where they would be holding English Dharma discussion (Dharma discussion in what I'm guessing was Chinese was held in a larger building to accommodate what was likely the larger portion of their membership).

The man introduced me to another man named Jack. Unfortunately, the first man walked away before I could get his name and thank him. Jack was very helpful in answering our questions. We took off our shoes and went into a room with short sitting benches (about 3-4 inches off the ground), but the room also had high benches around the walls. Several others were sitting in those and that's where we sat too (thinking the lower benches, with no back rest would be uncomfortable for us).

A bald woman in a grey robe, called Ven. Shiou-chih, was also greeting and speaking with people. She was a Buddhist nun and would be giving the lecture. At first she seemed unapproachable to us, but during the lecture we saw that she was smiling, very nice, and willing to share personal anecdotes; many of them humorous.

The discussion itself was quite interesting. The general theme was on mindfulness in our thoughts and reactions. The Sister used the example of someone accusing you of being wrong or bad and how we react to that. The idea was that there is a stimulus, and our emotional response often follows automatically. But being mindful is working on building the habit of interjecting your conscious intellect between the stimulus and the response. This principle is the same for sensual stimuli of all sorts which tempts us to do things we know are bad for us.

Throughout the lecture, there were several points I noticed that overlapped with other philosophic concepts I had been thinking of recently. In one part, the Sister made some remarks that were very similar to Stoic philosophy, to which I am partial. She was answering a question about how to react and interact with difficult people. She said that we can do things which we know are right, we can examine ourselves to see if the person is right about us, and we can seek to understand them. But in the end, we can only do what we can do, and must recognize and be content that what they do is outside of our control.

The Sister also mentioned something I found similar to something in the notes I had written on the Taoist Chuang-Tzu. She said that, when attempting to help another recognize a problem you have with them, that you must be patient, compassionate, and wait for the proper time and proper manner in which they are receptive. As Chuang-Tzu says, "Talk when he is in a mood to listen, and stop when he is not... let things take their natural course." This seems to me like the Wu-Wei I had read of elsewhere.

In a humorous moment, the sister recommended that a good place to practice mindfulness is at an all-you-can-eat buffet. To hear her describe in her English how people "pile on huge amount" of things they can't even finish was funny but true. She suggested that we practice intervening in the impulses we get from the sights and sounds of the food and discipline ourselves to not get carried away.

Other interesting moments were when she suggested that we work on one sense at a time, because all five senses are difficult to be mindful of at once for a beginner. This is something I may give a try. And lastly, another man named Josten stood up at the end to close the discussion, with a parting suggestion that a New Year's resolution of smiling more when seeing other people will have both external and internal positive effects.

Throughout the presentation, I was delighted to see that there was very little talk of supernatural interpretations and the discussion stayed in very practical matters. As Jack explained before the discussion, this represents only one small part of Buddhism and Buddhism as a whole has many schools with varying approaches to these things.

But I was reminded in this instance of something I read in A History of the World's Religions by David S. Noss. It concerned Gautama's (the Buddha's) rejection of speculative philosophy as a way of liberation...

"Purely metaphysical issues were to him of little moment. He had an intensely practical outlook, and issues unrelated to the human situation offended his common sense."
The author goes on to quote the Majjhima Nikaya 63 (Buddhist scripture) where Buddha notes that he has not elucidated on many things, such as if the world is eternal or finite, whether the soul and body are identical, whether we exist after death. Then Buddha says...

"And why have I not elucidated this? Because it profits not, nor has to do with the fundamentals of religion; therefore I have not elucidated this."
Spurious though it may be, Albert Einstein is rumored to have said of Buddhism,

"The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism."
As I pondered the above quotes I was moved by the simple pragmatism of the Dharma discussion. Truly, this is what religion is meant to be.

A free lunch was served afterwards but we didn't stay for that. All in all, it was a nice experience, and the discussion was relevant, pragmatic, and interesting. The Sister noted that her English was not good, but I thought it was good that people like her were willing to speak with English speakers because her English was way better than my speaking of her first language (which is non-existant). Besides that, it seems to me that her accent may actually help, as it forced us to pay close attention to what she was saying.

I wouldn't say we are considering becoming 'officially' or 'solely' Buddhist, but there are many Buddhist concepts I find interesting, enlightening, and true, so we do plan to attend again to learn more. In time, I will likely be paying equal attention to many other philosophies and traditions. As I told some of my nontheist friends, I'm still every bit a Humanist, nontheist, empiricist, and a naturalist, but I'm mainly a Philosopher seeking to learn what it means to live 'the good life' (as we should all be to some extent). Many of these things overlap. Therefore, I'll just continue to learn all I can, wherever I can, taking the good where I find it, and let other people worry about what to call me.

(note: I sent a link to this page to the Temple, along with our thanks and Josten replied kindly, giving me his name and the name of the nun Ven. Shiou-chih who gave the Dharma talk. I have edited the above to include these names. Many thanks to Josten for this information.)


  1. Fascinating story. Could you share the Buddhist "school" or vehicle they embraced? My nearest Buddhist temples are 90 minutes away - one way. However, if they followed the dialogue agenda you experienced, it would be worth the commute.

  2. Thanks for your comment Father Time :)

    I can't say for certain, but here are some bits of information that may form an impression...

    1) Their name "Texas Buddhist Association" might suggest a general (non-denominational?) approach.

    2) I asked over the phone before attending if they practiced the Theravada or Mahayana schools and the woman said something like 'we teach a variety'.

    3) Jack emphasized to us that what we saw there on that day was only one small part of Buddhism and that it has many aspects.

    4) The talk itself seemed to me to focus on central core Buddhist ideas, and I didn't see many things which were highly specific to any one school.

    Note too that this was only one attendance at one particular temple, so I can't really judge on just that one day's presentation (other than to say that I enjoyed it on that day).

    If I were you, and interested in Buddhist activities that were fairly broad and basic (again, non-denominational if that's a term that works here), then I would suggest looking into temples that seem "general" in their name or on their websites, and perhaps call to ask questions.

    My goal as a learner was not to confuse one specific school's teachings with core universal Buddhist beliefs, and this can be quite complicated.

  3. As you know from my earlier comments, the ongoing (re)search for the earliest accounts of the principles and tenants espoused by Siddartha is an activity that has been near the top of my "to do" list for almost four years.

    Your insight and willingness to share experiences and resources has been refreshing and sincerely appreciated by yours truly. Again, thanks!

  4. Hi Daniel!

    I added your blog link to my blog.

    Thus you are forewarned. ;)

  5. No, thank you Father Time for reading and sharing! :)

    Also, thanks much for the link Gail - I have added your site to my Links page, which is on my Philosophy Site.