Monday, November 27, 2006

Interfaith Blog Event #3: Religious Traditions and Community

Welcome to the third Interfaith Blog Event! In each installment of this series, which we're hoping to do on a monthly basis, we'll explore a single topic across three different religious traditions. I am, obviously, writing from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective, and Sojourner from A Pagan Sojourn, will be writing from a Pagan perspective.

The topic we'll be discussing today is the following:
Within your religious traditions, what rituals and/or traditions give you a sense of connection to your fellow congregants, beliefs, and communities? What actions do you take to ensure the stability of those connections? Do you feel that the connections that have been made are sufficient for your spiritual and/or religious needs?

[Jon's Essay] [Sojourner's Essay]

In the 4th century CE, Buddhism was introduced to Korea by a Chinese monk. Buddhism quickly flourished in Korea, and traditions quickly developed, some dating back to the inception of Buddhism in the 5th century BCE. These traditions still live in our temples today, thanks to the line of teachers that has ensured their continuity.

Every Sunday, my temple hosts two services, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. During our standard Sunday morning service, we sit in seated meditation, followed by a short session of chanting and recitation in which we mindfully take refuge in the Three Jewels of the Buddha (our perfect inner nature), the Dharma (the teaching and path to recognizing our true nature), and the Sangha (the community of beings with whom we live). The recitation is followed by another seated meditation, after which we listen to a Dharma talk by one of our priests.

Our Sunday afternoon service is different. It begins with a seated meditation, followed by a recitation in which we take refuge in the Three Jewels. We then mindfully chant & sing a very simple verse, "Ma-Um," which means, "My mind is Buddha." Singing is followed by a question and answer session.

While these two services have very different atmospheres, two commonalities emerge--the taking of refuge in the Three Jewels, and meditation. I believe these two "rituals" give the primary sense of connection among our congregants.

Meditation has many different flavors. Some methods focus on concentration through counting the breath. Other methods are more analytical, examining such topics as emptiness, impermanence, or any number of other areas. Still other methods are based on generating and sustaining loving-kindness and compassion. Meditation is a very personal endeavor, with each person working on the aspect of the path that he or she needs to at that time. How, then, can the practice of meditation function as the primary means of community and connectedness?

The answer lies in the depth of wisdom contained in the seemingly simple formula of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. We say, "I go for refuge to the Buddha. I go for refuge to the Dharma. I go for refuge to the Sangha." Each of the refuges is simultaneously operative on several levels. When I take refuge in the Sangha, at the most basic level I acknowledge the shelter and protective value of community. Slightly deeper, I remind myself that my temple's community is there for me. Deeper still, I recognize that the entire world of beings is my protector because each plays a vital role in my life--family and friends nurture, protect, and love me; strangers and other "neutral" beings serve to educate me and provide me with opportunities to meet new people and act compassionately, lovingly, and mindfully; enemies challenge me to overcome my anger, greed, and hatred, giving me the opportunity to learn patience, love, and compassion for all. Thus all beings deserve my utmost respect, compassion, thanks, and blessing.

At the deepest level, that simple sentence, "I take refuge in the Sangha," represents the truth that my community is not different from me--I am not fundamentally different, or separate, from other beings, sentient or insentient, in the world. We are all of the same basic nature, Buddha-nature. One person may understand this truth intellectually. Another person may argue against it ontologically. But once a person personally experiences this truth, it is clear and authentic. The experience is intimate, immediate, spontaneous, and obvious, like feeling a sneeze coming on--you just KNOW when you're going to have to sneeze, there is no doubt about it, and nobody can really explain to you the feeling of having to sneeze. You have to experience it for yourself to know it.

This truth of inter-being, expressed in the third refuge, is the reason why group meditation is such a powerful communal practice. In row upon row of cushions, we sit, meditating on the aspect of the path that is right for us at that very moment, and the energy of the community truly unites us into a congregation, as we all share a common goal: to develop altruism and wisdom to the utmost degree.

The truest experience and development of community paradoxically occurs on retreat. I say paradoxically because our Buddhist retreats are marked by silence. Shorter retreats are comprised of intensive, repeated meditation sittings and walking meditation, interspersed with silent meal preparation and mindful eating. Longer retreats include silent work practice, such as mindful cleaning, gardening, and sewing, and interviews with the head priest. (Yes, you do get to speak during interviews. :) ) Retreats provide the ideal mixture of solitary and communal meditation--you sit in communal meditation like during services, but the intensive repeated sessions and silence often lead you toward much-improved mindfulness and invaluable insight. And the feeling of unity, of inner connection, of true inter-being, of the congregants is unmistakable.

In order to ensure the stability of these connections, we need only to practice in a group setting. Group meditation can never, and is not meant to, replace solitary practice. However, when performed in conjunction with a regular solitary meditation practice, group services and retreats not only develop our capacity for altruism and insight, but also foster the deepest levels of community and oneness among the congregants. The connections I have established in this way are more than sufficient for my spiritual needs, and in speaking to my fellow temple members, that feeling is nearly universal. I have heard story after story at my temple from members who had struggled spiritually, physically, and emotionally under other religions, who have since found in Buddhism the spiritual connectedness of community, discipline, happiness, and emotional and physical health that they could not find anywhere else. Therefore, it is my fervent wish that more people begin Buddhist practice and personally experience the truths that become self-evident in such practice, bringing a level of true happiness, mindfulness, and peace to this country that has been eroding for years.


Pastor Jon said...


Thanks for the very detailed discussion of the rituals you practice in your faith system. It makes sense that both individual and group practice are helpful, in Christianity we view that as combination of individual and group as the actual concept of "person" (which I will try to discuss on my blog sometime).

I am curious how much the practices of your group have been molded to accommodate western culture, and how much they remain authentic to their Korean tradition. For example, is it normative for groups like yours to meet on Sunday?

Have a great month! I'm looking forward to what you will ask for our next question.

Mike said...


Because your question re: cultural adaptation was so good, I felt I needed to address it in its own post. Thanks for commenting!