Friday, August 7, 2009

Chaps' Dharma Talk: Buddhists Coming Home

As a chaplain, I often field inquiries about Buddhism, which range from basic general questions ("what do Buddhists believe?") to more specific ones about how Buddhists put their beliefs into a physical practice, what's needed in a Buddhist ritual or worship service, or even just basic sitting meditation. These questions come from all types of individuals: other chaplains, RPs (Navy enlisted personnel who work with the chaplains) who are required as part of their job to know about different religions, persons curious about Buddhism and what it is, and also from Buddhists themselves. A number Buddhists in uniform that I've met come from recently immigrated families, so are about 2nd to 3rd-generation US Citizens. This has led me to think about my own family experience in being Buddhist.

Imagine as a child you arrive in America or are born here the US as part of an ethnic Asian family: Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, or such. From an early age your parents begin to bring you (or make you go!) to a place with statues, strange-smelling smoke, and the sounds of monks or nuns chanting in a language unfamiliar to you. Also at certain times of the year there are colorful fairs and festivals with familiar foods, music, games and kids your own age. This is all great fun, even if you may not really understand what it's all for, or why this place, called a wat or a temple or a church, is there in the first place. As you grow older, you start drifting away, as it no longer seems interesting or relevant to your more busy and complicated life and you can't understand what is being said or taught, and anyway there's more fun things to do! Not to mention there's school and extracurricular activities and sports, and then college, and then jobs, or you join the armed forces and you move out of the area. You don't think too much about "religion." However, something happens once you get a little older and settled, or get married and have kids yourself: you remember that old temple and the people there, the friendly fellowship, the familiar smells and sights and sounds. You would like your kids to have this same good experience, and develop those kinds of memories for themselves, and maybe their kids in the future. But what was it all about really? What was, and is, this Buddhism religion?

This is a phenomenon familiar to many 2nd or 3rd-generation Asian-Americans. They know they were "born Buddhist" that is, born to a family that is traditionally Buddhist, and that their families identified themselves as Buddhist, visited Buddhist places of worship and did things that were "Buddhist", but as they grew older or assimilated to American lifestyles and culture, drifted away from regular temple attendence or the religion itself. Sometimes they experimented with being Christian or another faith, or dropped any religious identity altogether. Sometimes it is also an issue of language, if the monastics or priests did not speak English fluently, which of course is not the older generation's first language. Even if the younger generations do speak the mother tongue, the doctrine of Buddha-dharma may not have been clearly presented, or even comprehensible in any language! They may have only been taught a child's understanding of Dharma: "Be good. Obey your parents. Do not steal, kill, or lie." (Teachings familiar to people everywhere!) But everything else can be confusing. Why all the statues, why the incense and offerings, and is there anything else to it? What else does Buddhism teach?

Coming home to Buddhism is a journey that can be both joyful and confusing, even scary, for the Buddhist who has been away for a long time. You want to go back for various personal reasons as well as religious reasons. Maybe Christianity or agnosticism didn't work out, but you're not exactly sure what it is you're going back to or whether it would be worth it. Can it just be for the social atmosphere? Like that well-worn saying, "you can't go home again," you're bound to be disappointed if you expect things to be exactly the same when you left. New faces and new furniture, maybe even white and black faces! They weren't there before! So it can't just be about re-affirming an "ethnic identity." So, would it all be worth going back to and getting involved in temple life again when so much may have changed? However, does not mean that things are changed beyond recognition, only that some things in the interval. Even that can be a lesson in Buddha-dharma itself, the proof of truth of Buddha-dharma, that all things are impermanent and changing. Coming home is not just returning to revive pleasant the childhood and teenage years, but also to hear the Buddha-dharma afresh, with the experience of adulthood, to test the Buddha-dharma itself to see if it gives you what you need to grow and develop as a mature adult, in adult situations. What does Buddhism offer you at different stages in your life? It's currently a trend to have Buddha-statues in your home or garden - you can even find them at Target! But Buddhism is not a static set-piece, it is a living tradition followed by real people - there is something that Buddhism offers people more than a transient "identity." Buddha-dharma speaks to people in all situations; it is the task of those who are knowledgeable in the Dharma to bring the teachings to life in ways applicable for people living today! The one who wants to know what Buddhism is also has the task to seriously explore what it is, what do the teachings say, and would it help you and your family not just to be calm and contented in the good times, but in bad times as well - when there is a crisis in the family, when someone dies or is terminally ill. It's not necessary to have an advanced degree or know about abhidhamma or madhyamaka theory, just to know...that Buddha is there for you, and that his Great Compassion embraces all. It has never really left you and is there for you at the good and bad times of your life.

Although I have described this as an Asian-American and Buddhist experience, it is very likely that in the future non ethnic-Asian Buddhists will have this experience too (if not already!) having had one or more parents practicing Buddha-dharma of various traditions, and who now want to pick it up for themselves. Also others of different faith-traditions can also experience absence from their faith, and later on return to being Catholic or Jewish or such. Children should experience the religious life, as children; it does not mean to force "dogma" on them or give them Dharma teachings even adults find complicated. Temple life can be very enriching for children, and it is a place to learn good values and social values. Whether or not they will continue on to be Buddhists in adulthood is certainly up to them - some move away permanently, but many others return because of what they experienced as kids. Temples and their sanghas should welcome back these former members with open arms, just as they would welcome newcomers to the Dharma.

In The Lotus Sutra, the Buddha told the parable of the good friend who sewed a jewel into the lining of his friend's clothes. The friend, unknowing of the treasure he held, went out into the world encountering all manners of hardship and working hard for a living. Later, he encountered his good friend again, who told him of what he had within him all this time. We can make a comparison between the jewel, the real jewel hidden within us, the seed of Buddha-dharma planted within us by our parents and teachers, but like the unaware person we go out into the world forgetful of what we had and never thinking about it. Only later, we realize we had something with us all along, the guidance of Dharma which we can still access and pass on to the future generations. Let's make use of this gift!

Welcome Home.

Namo Amida Butsu


Christopher Mohr said...

Ch. Shin - for your military training, did they have you do a Sacred Communication (Dharma Talk)? If so how did you handle it? We did and both Somya and I were put in a difficult spot since our traditions don't particularly do much with that side of things.

Mine went pretty well, and I got good feedback, but I wanted to open up a question for discussion: how does one craft and present a "good" Dharma Talk and what elements should it include, especially in a military setting?

Jeanette Yuinen Shin said...

Speaking from the Jodo Shinshu tradition, yes, we are trained in giving howa or "Dharma Talk" which essentially is a sermon. As a chaplain, this is a must, along with "prayer." This is something you will be called upon to do for different events, like memorial service, funeral, retirements, etc. Although this is probably unfamiliar in different traditions of Buddhism, I don't think it has to be a major difficulty. It's really a matter of understanding who your audience is, and how you can communicate to them some basic elements of Buddha-dharma without having to be "preachy!" ;)

The traditional Jodo Shinshu howa format is actually fairly strict, and I won't get into it here, but in US temples, the minister usually gives a Dharma Talk of 15-20 minutes. Use an element or story from your Buddhist tradition, and weave into it something that is relevant to the occasion, and which the audience can relate to. Christian chaplains have tons of books on the subject of crafting a good "sermon" which unfortunately I don't think we as Buddhists have, but this is definitely related to bringing the Dharma across to the West.

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