Playing Twelve Questions: Part 2

by Rev. Jon Turner.

As I mentioned earlier in Part 1, many college students come to OCBC with a list of questions that were given to them by their World Religions instructor. Some are looking for answers while others just want to finish their assignment. But in either case, this is often their first exposure to Buddhism and the impetus for their practice of Buddhism later in life. Our answers to their questions often resonate more deeply with them as they grow older and live their lives. It is a seed that never dies.

It is also important that we are able to answer these questions for ourselves. If we can do that then we will acquire a solid Buddhist footing that can also help others understand and appreciate our tradition. America is curious about Buddhism and wishes to engage in a dialog.

Several weeks ago, I received an email with such a set of questions. They were from a seminary student. There were twelve of them. Here is my response to that student and her second set of six questions:

The following questions are commonly asked by the three Abrahamic Monotheistic religions. Buddhism is not one of those. But I will do my best to answer them.

7. What challenges does the pastor/leader or church face at this time? How do they anticipate overcoming those?

The most difficult aspect is trying to explain an eastern religious tradition to a western audience. There are difficulties in concepts and translations. There is not yet an American Buddhism but it is slowing arising organically over time.

8. What is the makeup of the congregation in age and ethnicity?

Out temple practices a form of Japanese Buddhism so mainly Japanese attend – but we are quickly becoming diverse. Many new members are joining and we have many who come that are Buddhist-curious or Buddhist- sympathizers.

9. What is the basic theology of this church/temple?

Buddhism is much more like learning to dance or swim – it is a process or a path towards transformation. So pursuing this analogy further, you would not ask a dancer or a swimmer what their beliefs are or what is their doctrine. The only theology is that if one is one the path and sincere then one will gain insight and meaning from everything in their lives. This takes faith.

10. Are the people that go there seeking God or is it strictly for meditation?

God for a Buddhist is Ultimate Reality itself. It is the ocean and we are the waves. The wave is seeking the ocean but then realizes that its very essence is the ocean. So this is an epistemological problem not an ontological problem. We do not change in anyway other than realizing what has always been so.

11. How can one practice mindfulness and still be at peace in a busy chaotic world?

In Buddhism, many of the practices are forcing us to make deliberate, conscious actions – to stop being reactive or on auto-pilot. As one continues to practice, it begins to become second nature and bleeds out into your everyday life. This is mindfulness. A Buddhist would argue that it is not the world that is chaotic but it is our minds that are chaotic. The problem is inside not outside. We have to change, not the world.

12. Do you have to be a Buddhist to attend? Is this an ecumenical place of worship?

Again, do you have to be a dancer to dance or a swimmer to swim? One is a Buddhist through self- identification. You may not call yourself a dancer but when you dance you are a dancer. The Buddha would say “no” just practice but of course that what makes you a Buddhist; very sneaky.

In his book What the Buddha Thought, Dr. Richard Gombrich wrote “One of my teachers, the Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula (who wrote the book What the Buddha Taught), was given to saying that one could teach Buddhism to a non-Buddhist audience in their own language without using any foreign words at all. I agree.”

I too agree. We live in a Judeo-Christian culture that uses the type of language found within these twelve questions. This is the religious vernacular. It is important that we can articulate our understanding within this context. It is the coin of the realm and we must be able to spend it wisely and judiciously.

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner