Friday, February 28, 2014

The Middle Way

On snowy wintery days when the storm clouds hung heavy overhead, my Mother would at times open her great well travelled steam-ship trunk.  The smell inside was an exotic blend of sandalwood and camphor, or incense and tea. She would take out the objects and tell us again about the markets and temples of Fukien China where she was stationed as a Methodist educational missionary.  In those days it was quite unusual for a woman to travel such distances and take on such work.  This was long before the era of the Peace Corp - but her work was similar in many ways.  

South China village family 

Once she leaned to speak the local dialect she travelled out to help set up and supervise village schools.  These were schools established to train students in basic skills - reading, writing, and arithmetic. She came to love the Chinese people with whom she worked at a time when many of even her colleagues felt an ethnic superiority.  Unfortunately after a few years of working in the tropics she became ill and had to return to the US to recover- fortunately soon after that she married my father and I was one of the results.

A child singing to a ban hu instrument

I suspect that the seed for traveling to new and interesting places was planted as a result of those visits to my mothers travel trunk. The objects in that trunk also developed a fascination in me for different religious beliefs. She would take out and unfold paper wood cut engravings of the folk gods common in S. China - these were not Buddhist or Taoist - but the traditional gods thought to oversee all aspects of life. There was a kitchen god, a god to watch over growing boys, a god for protection when traveling... a myriad of gods for all occasions.  One by one she took them out and explained their stories to my sister and I, and other interested visitors. 

The king of all lesser Gods riding a unicorn

Images of some of the lesser gods - From a San Francisco temple

I learned that there were also Buddhist temples in the region where she lived

.  And now I am living in a community in Northern California where I have numerous Buddhist students and friends who have occasionally shared Buddhist ideas with me. (Interesting,  that in Buddhism there is no sense of proselytization.)  Also we have a major Thai Buddhist temple just a few blocks from our home - and we have attended events there.

Buddha  figure in the San Francisco Asian Art Museum

Many Buddhists that I encounter see their beliefs more as a philosophy or 'way of life', than as a formal religion.   It would be OK to a Buddhist to be a practicing Christian and still follow Buddhist beliefs.  Buddhists seek to lead a moral life, 
 to grow in awareness of thoughts and actions, and to grow in understanding of their practice.  There are a growing number of Caucasians drawn to Buddhism.  Buddhists sometimes pay respect to images of the Buddha, not in worship but to be reminded of the life they are seeking to follow. 

An image of the Buddha
Buddhist feel that the first step toward developing wholeness in life is to be realistic about our "human condition”; i.e.; life includes pain, getting old, disease, and ultimately death.  The solution to this recognition is to understand that much of our suffering is brought on by our cravings and aversions. Getting what you want does not guarantee happiness. Seeking to get more of everything actually deprives us of contentment and happiness. The solution to all this is to learn to give up useless craving and learn to live each day at a time (not dwelling in the past or the imagined future). As we learn to live this way we can become happy and free. These are skills that can be learned with practice.

A figure like this reminds us that we can live in a way to take on the peaceful qualities of this figure
Meditation is a practice that helps to train the mind to see beyond the clutter and noise of every day.  Meditation is not about forcing the mind to be empty - but it is a conscious awareness - a being present - to what thoughts are present in the mind in the moment.  Buddhists speak of the process like observing the sky and watching clouds - they come into  view - pass over head - then drift away ... meditation is about  being aware of the thoughts that drift through our mind... as the person sits quietly there are fewer thoughts to observe- and after some minutes the mind is quite a peace.
...or we can sink into exhibiting anger and revenge like this figure 

In Buddhist thought learning to focus the mind on being fully aware of our thoughts and actions and choosing to live a moral, responsible life can lead to the end of suffering. Buddhists speak of seeking to follow the "middle way" avoiding a life of self-denial and asceticism and also to avoid the way of " anything goes".
A different cultural Buddha image 
From a Buddhist point of view, our "self" is influenced and shaped by our thoughts and actions. Some things are harmful to our peace and 'wholeness' - cruel or harmful actions have effects that come back to affect us in other ways. This is the Buddhist concept of 'karma'.  Helping those in need, creating a more positive life for others, even being kind to animals will result in positive results in our life.  Buddhist doctrine sees the 'self' as reborn in another body when we die - and the quality of the next life depends on the Karma that we acquire in this life.

The Fremont Thai Buddhist temple
To Buddhists there is no concept as a God or Holy Spirit in this world.  Buddha is not considered a God or spiritual figure - only a man with understanding and wisdom.  Many practice Buddhism as a secular religion.  There are both Protestant and Catholic clergy and lay people who participate in Buddhist meditation training with the intention of taking what they learn back to share in their own faith community.

The spring Thai Cultural night

The Buddhists in my community generally bring with them the 'flavor' of the Buddhist practices in their home country or 'denomination' of Buddhism.  We have Cambodian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai Buddhists that show as much difference in their practice as is found between Quakers, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Baptists. Some have traditions of plainness, other very ornate trappings.  All of them are based on the recorded sayings if the Buddha, much as all Christians base their belief on the Bible.  Modern 'secular' Buddhists in America may follow one of the national forms or may try to attune only to the wisdom of the Buddha and develop their own communities. If a distinctly America form of Buddhism develops it will be interesting to see what a non-Asian form is like.
All young men are encouraged to spend a part of their life as monks... it may be only a few months up to several years.  Out local temple has 6-8 monks and a regional abbot in residence.

In case you wonder, I am not becoming a Buddhist.  I continue to be dedicated to my Christian beliefs- and appreciate the values and beliefs of my faith community.  However I see value in aspects of Buddhist approach that I can include in my life to enrich my sense of peace and wholeness and my religious practice.  They need not be exclusive.