http://www.UrbanDharma.org ...Buddhism for Urban America


The Urban Dharma Newsletter... September 9, 2003


In This Issue:

1. Conversation with a Buddhist Monk
2. New homes for shrines to Buddhist tradition Church finds families for antique altars
3. Temple/Center/Website- of the Week:
The Seattle Buddhist Temple
4. Book/Movie Review: Graceful Simplicity: The Philosophy and Politics of the Alternative American Dream
...by Jerome M. Segal


1. Conversation with a Buddhist Monk

By: Donna Parker-McNeil, Staff Reporter, Atlanta, Georgia


In an effort to provide our readers with a personal portrait of Buddhism The Message sat down with Ven. Panamwela Wajirabuddhi a.k.a. Bhante of Georgia Buddhist Vihara Inc. Bhante is a Buddhist Monk residing at Lithonia, Georgia. He is a humble man of medium stature, shaven head, and clothed in the traditional garment - an orange colored robed. On this day Bhante is willing to share his faith, beliefs, culture and customs with us and to teach us about the life and lessons of the Great Buddha.

We feel especially privileged to have access to such insightful knowledge and trust that sharing it with you, our readers will assist us in the process of building a strong, cultural bridge.

Buddhism is an ancient philosophy that dates back to 500 BCE. It is based on the teachings and thoughts of a man, born into royalty, but who left his noble lineage behind in order to attain enlightenment and became the Buddha (enlightened one). In North America there are an estimated 1.3 million Buddhists. Most Buddhists in North America are Asian immigrants. However, there are some Westerners who practice this faith in order to escape from materialism and also to seek enlightenment. 

The Message (M): Who is Buddha?

Buddhist Monk (BM): The Buddha was a normal human being, who was a prince and due to succeed his father king Suddhodana. They belonged to the Shakyan clan, a warrior group in a place close to the border of modem Nepal and India. He grew up in the luxury of the royal family, but he soon found that the  worldly comfort and security does not bring true happiness. At the age of29, he renounced the princely lifestyle and left the palace to find an answer to human pain and suffering and the cause of birth and death, all of which every human being dislikes to face. In the first part of the next six years he went to different renowned teachers without obtaining an answer. He also subjected himself to extreme modes of living, which also brought no adequate answers. Then he abandoned the extremes life styles and tried to remain in the middle (call the middle path). At the end of the period, he suddenly came across the answer to the so far unknown tragic recurrent cause of birth, suffering, pain and death of every human being on earth. This finding is called enlightenment and the person is called "Enlightened One" or "Buddha".

The ex-prince lived for another 45 years as a mendicant, begging his food, having no personal belongings. He taught his discovery of salvation, the Dhamma (doctrine) throughout northern India. Even though the Buddha was born as a normal human being, he later became an exceptional human being, because he developed his mind to the maximum level possible through meditation and self-understanding. At the age of 80, the Buddha passed away not to be reborn again call Nirvana (see below) at Kusinara (in modem Uttar Pradesh in India).

The Buddha taught all different classes of men and women, Brahmins and outcasts, wealthy and beggars, ascetics and robbers, kings and peasants, without making any distinction between them. In order to teach the Dhamma (teachings), he had

to face a big challenge to overcome the existing harmful dogmas of their society. The society was rigidly controlled according to caste, color, religion, sex, belief and hierarchical customs.

After Buddha was enlightened, he expressed the invalidity of the caste systems and other discriminatory practices against any type of human beings. Politicians, wealthy people, high rankers and others carried out these harmful practices. He treated every human being equally by using specific features, which varied in accordance with the impermanence of all living beings. Buddha's comment was, "No one becomes an outcast by birth, no one becomes a Brahmin (the higher ranking and spiritual advisers at that time) by birth, one becomes an outcast or Brahmin only by deed." If someone can maintain five precepts: abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and taking intoxicant alcohol and dangerous drugs, he is the higher-ranking person. Whosoever is not maintaining those five precepts then that person is the outcast (Vasala) and not those who are born in specific families and labeled as outcasts.

M: Why are there images of Buddha that look so differently?

BM: When different countries created images of Buddha, the basic structure was similar because it was derived from the history of Buddhism, pertaining specially to the figure of the living Buddha in different postures, such as sitting cross legged, looking down with half closed eyes with his hands resting gently on his lap. The latter is called. Samadhi Muddra (meditation posture), which is quite common and found everywhere. There are other different types of the Buddha's statues with walking posture, preaching posture and sleeping posture. Furthermore, you may have noticed also different looks in the Buddha's face. These differences are a result of the different cultural backgrounds in different countries. The images created by the artists follow the basic structure of the Buddha while the general features correspond to those of the local peoples' faces and the rest of the body. His compassionate looks tend to produce in us peace and calm within.

M: Do Buddhists worship the statue of Buddha?

BM: No! In his teachings Buddha has clearly stated not to worship him. We use the statue as a symbol of virtue and morality. All religions use symbols to express various concepts. In Christianity the presence of the cross is used to symbolize his sacrifice. In Sikhism, the sword is used to symbolize spiritual struggle. We do not worship the statue of Buddha. But we admire his virtues and the associated practices may tend to look like worshipping him. There are many such virtues as loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic delight, equanimity, charity, generosity and patience. So we put Buddha's image in front of us and recall his great qualities into our mind, and also it is object of meditation.

M: Did the Buddha believe in a god or gods?

BM: Actually Buddhism does not go along with the concept of an absolute creator or god. Before Buddha's era, people used to worship many gods; people thought the natural objects such as mountain, water, sun, moon and other powerful people were taken to be gods; e.g. Indra and Prajapati were considered to be gods. Later the concept of multiple gods became part of their belief and it revised the concept of a single god. Then they began to believe that there was only one creator or god. Then the Maha Brahma concept arose. People then believed he was the only god who had executive powers. Buddha did not accept any of those concepts.

The Buddha said, "Many who are scared seek the protection of rocks, forests, trees, groves; seeking their refuge. No one can achieve liberation by beliefs only. By seeking their refuge, no one can overcome suffering" - (DP.II8). Buddha did declare the presence of the deities and other beings living at different levels of enlightenment. The deities are claimed to be some sort of living creatures operating at a higher state than humans. In his teachings the Buddha says that human beings can develop their minds to the maximum potential, because no other being can attain the higher levels of enlightenment and reach Nirvana (state of no rebirth and no suffering). Otherwise man creates heaven and hell himself through his own body and mind. The Buddha pointed out that you should be able to find your salvation by yourself.

M: What does the concept of Salvation mean in Buddhism?

BM: In Buddhism salvation means to gain one's liberation from recurring agony, disquieting mental pain, anguish, repeated rebirth, etc. Every human being is affected by these qualities and by practicing Sila (morality), Samadhi (meditation) and Pañña (the knowledge gaining insight) is only way to liberate from the sufferings. Salvation may be obtained by each individual through the practice of morality, meditation and wisdom. An outsider cannot take someone into Nirvana, where there is ultimate happiness. A teacher is able to show the path to salvation, but the individual has to follow the required path. Similarly if someone wants to swim, that individual has to train and practice in a swimming pool.

M: What does Buddhism mean to you?

BM: Buddhism is a way of life to me. It is a very simple way of living. Easily I can be satisfied with whatever I get, and I expect to do some service to others. I don't harm others intentionally, I respect  others and live very peacefully. Those are some benefits I get by practicing Buddhism.

M: Do you have dietary restrictions?

BM: Yes! I take 2 meals a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, I take only liquids such as soft drinks, milk and water in the afternoon. I depend entirely upon food offered to me by others. I am expected to take any foods offer to me; I generally get vegetables, but rarely devotees offer non-vegetarian foods. I am obligated to eat any foods given to me and should not refuse anything given to me. According to the Buddha's teaching, the only foods we can refuse are animal derivatives, where the animal has been intentionally killed to provide material specifically for our consumption.

M: Do Buddhist pay tithes?

BM: No! Buddhists are not compelled to offer any amount of money or help in other ways. All contributions towards the temple are voluntary. If there are special needs such as capital expenditure for construction and other maintenance work, then the devotees provide them voluntarily. The existence of the temple is met exclusively by voluntary

efforts of its devotees.

M: Is it difficult to practice Buddhism in America?

BM: No! Buddhism is derived from what happens in nature. The ordinary happenings and the other apparent aspect of nature have been critically analyzed to derive its conclusion. Therefore it is not difficult for anybody to practice wherever they are.

If we maintain its simplicity, then it is not a hard to practice Buddhism in America. However if we are looking for more worldly pleasure and joy, which incidentally are considered to be transient, they lead to pain and suffering. If anyone is after transient qualities, though pleasurable, such acts make it difficult to practice Buddhism anywhere. The main purpose of Buddhism has been to find out the consequences of adherent to transient and pleasurable activities.

Even in the USA we wear our regular robes and go from place to place and state to state as part of our services. Incidentally, passers-by look at us as being strange and sometimes ask questions. I have had some funny experiences though. Once when I was living in Los Angeles, I was walking down the street and a Mexican gentleman asked me, "Hey man! Why are you wearing a blanket?" I laughed and briefly explained to him that this blanket was my robe. Usually when people ask questions like that I don't go into detail about who I am and what I practice.

M: What is the significance of the color of your robe?

BM: We actually wear brown, orange or yellow. The color helps us to remember the season of autumn. The falling down of leaves and changing color of the leaves in Autumn indicate the impermanence of life and all other things, living and non living, which we naturally assumed to be permanent. Similarly, a beautiful red flower one day becomes brown or exhibits other fading shades and then becomes a dying object. No one is able to prevent these changes by any means. Similarly and also shown scientifically day after day all things are changing and nobody can stop such change, which is a good indication of impermanence.

Buddha said there are three characteristics of the life. The first is 'Anicca,' meaning impermanence; everything on this earth is changing continuously. The second is 'Dukkha,' meaning suffering such as birth of a child, getting old, becoming sick, etc. The third is 'Anatta,' meaning no-self or absence of a true self entity. The conditions in life are always changing and are in a transitory state. Therefore neither living beings nor physical objects can be considered to be permanent.

M: What Does Buddhism offer to the world?

BM: Buddhism offers much to the world: peace, happiness, living without fear and worry, being compassionate to every living beings, not harming any living things including plants (e.g. unnecessarily cutting down and destroying plants are also unwholesome acts), expression of love and kindness to every individual; also encouraging people to abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicant alcohol. If the people were to observe the previous five precepts, most of the unwholesome acts or evil behavior will disappear. For a start, we can gain peace and happiness by practicing the five precepts.

Only through special type of meditation discovered by the Buddha can Buddhism offer

solutions to human problems. It can help to eliminate greed, hatred and delusions (misinterpretation of things and of acts presumed to be wholesome at the common level of the mind's operations). By practicing meditation one can gain peace, calmness, happiness, humbleness, selflessness and elimination of egotism.

During the early stage of meditation one must set aside a certain specific time so as to calm one's mind. During this special time once must look into one's mind and notice what comes and goes into and out of it. Then one can critically analyze the subject matter. Over a period of many sessions, one discards harmful unwholesome thoughts, retains and fosters good wholesome thoughts and ignores those which have neither of the other two qualities. Through this demanding process of training of the mind and gradually improving it in stages, one will be able to extend the practice of meditation to all times, even while having a conversation, washing dishes, etc.

However when one is doing risky acts like driving or using tools one should be mindful only on the subject concerned and nothing else. This is referred to as full awareness or mindfulness, which was introduced by the Buddha. The development of mindfulness is the ability to focus on what one is doing. If one has no training in concentration to be mindful, as explained above, then it is difficult to pay attention to what is really happening at that specific moment. We start the meditation process using the breath as the tool to stay with the present moment. At our Vihara we have meditation practice for beginners and advanced meditation every Saturday afternoon. 

M: Are there different Sects of Buddhism'?

BM: Partly yes, partly no, because there are some differences in the modes of practice to suite various cultures and localities. We of course meet and mix very well and support each other. Similarly, the following analogy illustrates the point.

There are many different rivers, some famous and others not so famous, some wide and

some narrow, some beautiful with huge waterfalls and others without. But the water of all rivers flows to end in the Ocean. Then the river waters mix with the salt water to give the single taste of salt.

Similarly, in Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, Vajrayana, etc., are sects of Buddhism, but all of them abide by the same primary fundamentally Buddhist way of life. As the taste of the multiple river-water in the ocean became the single salty taste, the fundamental practice of Buddhism in the various sects is similar. Thus the fruits of the Buddhism from different sects impart the same expression of calmness, of loving kindness, of joy and of peacefulness and ultimately lead to the same attainment of Nibbbana  (the ultimate eternal happiness).

Published in the March and November 2002 issues of ‘The Message – North America’s only Multi Faith Newspaper.’ P.O. Box 1322, Powder Springs, Atlanta, GA 30127 – Tel: (678) 363 6190

2. New homes for shrines to Buddhist tradition Church finds families for antique altars ...By VANESSA HO ...SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER


As the manager of the anesthesia department at Swedish Medical Center, Mitchell Ishikawa spends long, hectic hours attending to patients, surgeons and anesthesiologists.

But when he gets home, he performs a simple ritual that helps ease the strain of the day. A Buddhist, he lights incense, says a silent prayer and bows before a relatively new addition in his house: a butsudan, or home shrine.  

"To me, I feel like I have a place that has meaning. It's a feeling of solace, when I pay my respect in front of the obutsudan," said Ishikawa, 47, using the honorific for the shrine.

Many Japanese American Buddhists buy or inherit a butsudan, a boxlike, wooden altar used for daily offerings to Buddha and family ancestors. But Ishikawa received his for free and never knew the family that owned it.

That's because he adopted it through a new program at the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Church, which encourages people to donate butsudans that are no longer being used, then recycles them to other families.

Several years ago, temple leaders noticed butsudans showing up at thrift stores and rummage sales. A few times, they heard of someone tossing a shrine in the garbage. They discovered that as the Nisei -- the first generation of Japanese Americans born in this country -- began to pass away, their antique butsudans sometimes became orphans.

"Nowadays, family members are all scattered in this country," said the Rev. Doei Fujii of the temple, which practices the Japanese Jodo Shinshu tradition of Buddhism. "That's why family traditions are getting weaker."

In some cases, Sansei families -- the children of the Nisei -- weren't Buddhists or weren't as traditional. Other times, they didn't have room in their condo for a 7-foot-high shrine. And sometimes, elderly Nisei moved into an assisted-living facility but couldn't bring their beloved butsudans with them.

"Mostly, they were from children of parents who had passed away, or who had gone into a retirement home. And they really didn't know what do with them," said Dennis Yamashita, chairman of the temple's religious department.

"I thought, 'What a waste to put it into the trash,' " he said.

At the same time, temple leaders noticed that some worshippers, such as Ishikawa, were becoming more interested in owning a butsudan. But the shrines, often made in Japan, can be expensive. One top-of-the-line model, carved from teak, costs $28,000.

Yamashita helped start the butsudan adoption program in January as an "information and referral service" for both donor and recipient families. Sometimes, people struggle with guilt over what to do with a butsudan, and the program helps ease their mind, he said. So far, about eight have been donated.

Many are well-tended antiques, with two sets of double doors, delicate gold pillars, chandeliers and carved panels. Some have come with scrolls and a portrait of Buddha. Others include religious accessories such as a vase, incense holder and gong, and still others have been stripped bare.

"Each one has its own personality, and I wish it could talk," said Sadie Yamasaki, chairwoman of the temple's archive committee.

She didn't know what year the shrines were made but noticed they seemed to have come from the same era. And she often found it difficult to get much historical information from the donors. 

The shrines she cherishes the most are ones made by Japanese Americans interned during World War II. She brought out one of her favorites, which she hopes to display in a historical exhibit some day. It was small, made of rough scrap wood, painted black on the outside and a rich red on the inside.

All she knew was that it was from a woman who said her father had built it while interned in Minidoka, Idaho.

"It tells such a story of that time and how hard life was," she said. "It's interesting how the tradition was maintained. That's the legacy they left for us."

For Ishikawa, knowing that another family once owned his butsudan was significant. He had adopted the shrine after his brother died earlier this year. A few months later, his father died. The shrine's spiritual presence helped him cope with his loss.

"I feel like it had more significance that it had a purpose for a family," said Ishikawa, who donated money to the temple after he received the shrine.

Every day, he pays his respect to his loved ones and chants "Namo Amida Butsu," which roughly translates as "I take refuge in the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable Life."

"It actually makes me feel whole," he said.

He had grown up watching his parents make daily offerings to Buddha. His mother, who grew up on Vashon Island, had watched her parents do the same. When her husband of 53 years diedlast month, Haru Ishikawa found great comfort in chanting a daily sutra before her shrine.

"It really teaches me that life is impermanent, and you have to appreciate each day as it comes," she said. "As my son said, 'If tomorrow never comes, you have today.' "

3. The Seattle Buddhist Temple


A little history

The Seattle Buddhist Temple is in the Jodo Shinshu tradition under the mother temple of the Nishi Hongwanji in Japan and is affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). The history of the Seattle Betsuin officially began on November 15, 1901 when Rev. Kakuryo Nishijima performed the first Jodo Shinshu Buddhist service in the Pacific Northwest. Since that time the temple has grown through many changes. The current temple complex, dedicated on October 4, 1941, became, for example, the US Maritime Commission Office from May 3, 1942 until August 4, 1946. Following this brief period in the history of the temple, the temple was able to grow again dedicating an auditorium in October, 1945, starting a Day Nursery Program and a Boy Scout Troop in 1948, and founding the Research Department headed by Grace McLeod and Yukiko Miyake in 1949. These and other activities of the temple were recognized by the mother temple in Kyoto, Japan--known as the Hongwanji or "temple of the Primal Vow"--and on March 11, 1954 the Seattle temple was elevated to Betsuin status. More locally, the activities of the Betsuin and its historical impact in the Seattle area was recognized in 1986 when the Betsuin was included as part of the China town historic district which is registered in the national register of historic places.

What We Offer

Please use the following links to get a brief description of the affiliated organizations and programs offered by the Seattle Betsuin. Also included on this page is a description of some of the services the Betsuin and its ministerial staff can provide.

Betsuin Organizations:

Adult Buddhist Association, Buddhist Women's Association, Dharma School, Archives, Young Buddhist Association, Boy Scout Troop 252, Campfire, Cub Pack 252, Dana-kai

Betsuin Programs:

Weekly Sunday English Services, Weekly Sunday Japanese Service/Program, Dharma Exchange, Spring Retreat, Obon Festival, Japanese Hou-za, English Study Classes, Japanese Spring & Fall Seminar, Shakyo, Keiro Home Monthly Service, Wisteria Manor Monthly Service, Health Clinic, Crafts,

Betsuin Services

Funeral and Funeral Planning; Wedding, Wedding Planning and Consultation; Memorial Services; Buddhist Book Store; Temple Library; In-home Visitation; Hospital Visitation

Some Definitions of terms used

Dana-kai Dana is the Buddhist term for selfless giving. Kai is the Japanese word for gathering. The Dana-kai is a Betsuin sponsored affiliate organization that is organized around the spirit of selfless giving.

Dharma One of the Three Treasures of Buddhism, it is a term that refers to the body of truth that a Buddha becomes awakened to. The Buddhist doctrine.

Hou-za Hou is the Chinese/Japanese term for Dharma (the Buddhist Truth/Doctrine). Za is the term for "seat." Hou-za, literally, means "Dharma seat" and refers to a gathering where people come to hear the Dharma.

Shakyo (lit. to trace the Sutras). Japanese Buddhist custom of copying the Buddhist scriptures (sutra) using Japanese brush calligraphy.

4. Graceful Simplicity: The Philosophy and Politics of the Alternative American Dream ...by Jerome M. Segal


Amazon.com Reviewer: A reader from California ...Graceful Simplicity asks and attempts to answer the very big questions--why are we here? What's important? And how can we get more of it?

After taking the reader on a tour of the meaning of "the good life" through the ages, philosophy prof/Hill staffer Segal offers a definition of real progress for us today, and bravely outlines concrete prescriptions to get us there.

Others advocate downshifting and opting out. Segal resolutely and compellingly argues that's not enough. Millions can't reasonably afford it, and alienated pockets of downshifters do not a civil society make.

Instead, he advocates, why not build a politics that enables a good life for pretty much anybody? Sure, his policy prescriptions aren't as detailed and polished as the Contract for America(see Publishers Weekly review above), but who would disagree that looming college costs for our children jam millions of us into high stress, low quality-of-life careers? And who else out there has worked this hard through the details of moving equitably from more to better; from growth to real progress?

Jerome Segal's writing is as graceful as the book's cover. His analysis is borne out of his years as a philosophy professor, combined with a decade on Capitol Hill. Graceful Simplicity is at once provocative, pragmatic, insightful and enduring. Take it on vacation, demand it as next month's book group title, give it to your best friends (you'll rise three notches overnight).

Amazon.com- Reviewer: from Greensboro, North Carolina ...Jerry Segal has written an important book for those interested in creating greater meaning and enjoyment in their lives -- that is, for everyone.

Jerry Segal has developed deep ideas about the meaning of a good life, ideas that have many parallels in religious thought, but which are not a part of any one religious tradition.

His exposition is highly practical, while seeking to change one's thoughts about what is a good life, and how to pursue it.

Many parts of the book speak to professionals in philosophy and public policy, which is appropriate for a philospher with deep interests in public affairs, and long experience in Washington D.C.

The best parts of the book speak to all of us who want to become more creative, feel more in control of our lives, and have a greater sense of self-worth through contributions to our community.

It's a rigorous analysis of the excesses of consumption in our society, along with the poverty of our collective spirit. But it is also an optimistic book, in that fairly simple steps can improve our experience of living.

Read the book. Be a better person.


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