I’d honestly like to be able to say that my curiosity about Buddhism was sparked solely by a need to find a way of life I could believe in. That Christianity never really quite fit and so I needed to find another way of looking at things- and that Buddhism was calling to me. I would love to be able to say that it was a spiritual calling driving me towards this religion that could honestly be more accurately described as simply a way of living.
That would be fantastic.
Unfortunately, finding that new way of looking at things, finding that new way of life, neither of those are quite the reasons that I wanted to experience Buddhism. One of the true motivating factors of my desire to venture twenty minutes on Interstate 410 of San Antonio, Texas and turn onto Interstate 10 heading towards El Paso was because of my own fanish nature. I am a fan of an anime and manga (Japanese animation and comic books) called Saiyuki by Kazuya Minekura. One of the main characters in Saiyuki is an incredibly high ranking Buddhist priest. Genjo Sanzo is not a very good Buddhist priest, as he carries a gun, his drooping purple eyes hardened with no room for anyone’s crap, his blonde hair is full and the twenty-three-year-old’s favorite phrase alters between “Shut the fuck up or I’ll fucking kill you” and “Go to hell.”
Both of those phrases are not commonly uttered Buddhist phrases.
However, Sanzo’s philosophy on life, to “hold nothing”, is a very common Buddhist philosophy. One of the phrases Sanzo also utters in most of Saiyuki’s chapters is “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” And when I first ventured into Buddhism, I felt that Sanzo was just being Sanzo: surly, sour, not a super friendly person. But as I knelt on the second floor of my school library, searching through books about Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Buddhism in Japan, Buddhism in America, how to be a monk, theories, philosophies, and more, I pulled out a single book with a black spine and a yellow cover. In gold lettering the spine read Becoming the Buddha. The table of contents split into three parts and eight chapters, but what caught my eye was the title of the epilogue.
“If you meet the Buddha, kill him!”
Donald K. Swearer, the author if Becoming the Buddha explained that especially in today’s Thai Buddhism, there is a split between two different thoughts on Buddhism and spiritual trinkets. In one camp, spiritual importance is placed on items such as amulets and relics, these items being revered as powerful. The other camp, however, rejects this idea completely. This is where the Zen phrase (Resulting in me learning that Sanzo is a Zen Buddhist priest) “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha” comes in, stemming from the idea of rejecting material Buddhist trinkets.
In fact, as Swearer continues in the epilogue, magical practices such as these could even directly “contradict the principles of Buddhism” (240). One of these principles that would be contradicted is the one that most followed me when I went on my journey to a Buddhist service at 5:30 on a Sunday- the principle involving one’s own betterment. As Swearer says, Buddha placed importance in one maturing and bettering themselves and only putting hope in oneself.
With little more knowledge about Buddhism itself than this philosophy and what I knew from Saiyuki I google searched “Buddhist Temples in San Antonio” and found my way to the facebook page for “The Buddhist Temple of San Antonio.” Each post on the page is a different teaching from the temple and the comments full of nothing but praise and questions about the teachings.
After reading about their Instagram and making an account on meetup.com, rsvping to a service, I was ready to venture to the temple that followed the Mahayana path of Buddhism (The other path being Theravada). At the moment, I wasn’t nervous. I was excited. This would be great fun, I could be like Sanzo.
* * *
I began shaking when I closed my car door. My little Oldsmobile rumbled to a start as I turned its key. On my steering wheel was my own version of Google maps, near a small bit of gunk that never came off was a pink post-it note covering the Alero logo. The post-it note had the directions to the Buddhist Temple of San Antonio written on it in a way I could understand. I-410 W -> Exit 16 for I-10 W, US 87 N. to El Paso -> 560, Ramsgate Dr/Huebner Rd.
As each minute passed, as I took each exit, I came closer to the Buddhist temple. My mind was racing with things I would say, how I would present myself- oh no, is my skirt too short? It’s past my knees but what if it isn’t stylish enough? I flipped on my turn signal and my nerves subsided for a moment as I turned onto Research Drive.
Christian churches lined the path before I made a final turn onto Lockhill Road. At that point I noticed a small white car right behind me. I felt guilt as I realized just how slow I was going trying to find this temple. Fear struck me again, what if I was completely off-base? What if I couldn’t find it? But just as that worry was filling my mind, the white fence I had seen in the pictures came into sight. A Buddhist statue stood in a large garden. The white gate was open and I tentatively pulled into the modern parking lot.
The white car pulled in just a few spots down from me and I realized how awkward this was. I held my small bag close, leaving my car and trying to look as unsuspicious as possible. Then I got another terrifying thought, “What if this is the wrong place?” I glance around; the garden looks Buddhist… sort of. But the building itself looks as though it were just a normal house save for the slight red accents that reminded me of the East. I knew there was a sign on the fence that said what place this was, though it was facing out. I started to inch towards the plaque when I overheard two women addressing the one that had gotten out of the white car.
“Excuse me, but this is our first time here and we’re not sure where to go,” Ah. Other lost people. I then had to choose: be awkward looking at the sign outside of the gate for the potentially Buddhist temple or awkwardly follow the group to the party. I decided upon being the awkward duckling following the older duckies, just hoping I was right. My mind raced through creating an escape plan.
If this wasn’t the correct place, what would I do? Would I just smile and stick around and leave? Or would I just leave? How long would it take them to figure out that one here does not belong? As I followed behind them on an asphalt path the lady mentioned the dogs being friendly, and for the first time since getting there I heard what sounded like two dogs barking in a closed off area of the temple. The barking wasn’t mean, it sounded excited- like they wanted to meet the new people. And I wanted to meet them. However, I had no time to think about them or even ask as I followed behind the other two, removing my shoes along with them.
“Do we need to wear socks inside?” One woman asked as she placed her shoes on one of the wooden shelves off to the side of the door.
“Oh no, don’t worry about it here,” the older woman replied.
“Okay, just wanted to make sure,” I placed my shoes on the second to top shelf. I had read about not being completely barefoot inside temples. Usually they required you to remove your shoes but keep your feet covered according to the small word document that those new to Buddhism could find on the meet up page for the San Antonio Buddhist community, “I was at a temple in California and they were very….”
“Was it Zen?”
“Yeah,” And thus marked my distance from the people I had been trailing along with. They knew what they were doing. Even here at a new place there was some experience. I felt myself shrink back as I followed them into the temple.
It was warm inside. The light red wooden flooring stretched through the small room. The walls were white and there was a brown wooden bench with black cushions lining the back. It was small; it appeared to normally have been a home had it not been the location of the Buddhist temple. There were three rows on the ground and four columns- each space had one greenish, large cushion and a small wooden stand with a spiral-bound book on it full of the chants that were translated into English. Behind the cushions on the ground was a fourth row, small wooden chairs created it and there were taller stands.
“You can sit on the ground if your knees can take it for that long,” the woman instructed as she moved to a closet built into the wall. We weren’t the first ones: the front row was almost entirely filled and the back row had a couple of seats occupied. There was a monk at the front in his own section that was separated by what appeared to be four open window-like frames. It created a stage for him, behind him an explosion of color. A Buddhist statue, that of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (the Merciful Bodhisattva) faced everyone who entered and sat before her.
There was a ring throughout the building as the monk instructed one of the men sitting in the front how to use one of the instruments. A black bowl on a red cushion. In the man’s hand was a cylindrical black tube that struck the side of the bowl gently yet created a deep, rich bell sound. The man himself was wearing a light green robe, and I realized in a moment that he wasn’t the only one wearing one. Everyone was wearing a similar robe. The woman approached us and had robes in her hands for all of us, I realized.
“There are no sizes on them so it’s really just a guess and check,” she said as she handed them to the girls she had brought in. When the woman closest to me received hers, she turned and offered it to me. I was surprised- I thought I had done such a great job at being stealthy here that no one would notice me. I took the representation of my failure at being a spy and put it on- the robe fitting amazingly well. I was at a loss though on how to button it. Clearly there were buttons… but where did they fasten? I looked at the other women, one who seemed as confused as I.
“There’s one that goes right under here,” she pointed under her armpit, the button would go right into the bit just on the other side of my armpit- near my back. Well. As if things couldn’t get more awkward. Now I was struggling to look under my arm for a place to put a button so I could awkwardly sit in the middle of a bunch of people who not only knew Buddhism, but also had preferences as to the type of Buddhism they practiced.
After just a few more seconds and a couple of awkward glances from the head monk, I had managed to button my robe. I stood there awkwardly for a beat as I heard the other two women contemplating where to sit. But I had no one to contemplate with and decided to dive in fully. I quickly made my way to the second row middle cushion and sat down cross-legged as everyone else on the floor was doing. I stood up straight, hands together in my lap.
The service was starting. The head monk had his hand on a black microphone as he sat in front of us. We were going to start by meditating- I had read on the meet-up webpage that all services begin with half an hour of meditation, and I felt an anxiety fill me. What would I do if I got bored? How would I pass the time? The clock was behind me, how on Earth was I supposed to spend half an hour doing literally nothing?
A man shuffled in through the door with a plate covered in tinfoil as he made a stop into what I could only guess was the kitchen before shuffling back. The monk continued to speak, instructing on the proper procedure if there were disturbances, “If a phone goes off, accept it, and let it go. If someone comes in, accept it, and let it go. Count your breathing, one, two, three four,” the man who had brought the tinfoil-covered plate had put on a robe and had taken a seat in the front row.
The bell shifted ownership, and a different person in the front row had it as everyone rose to their feet. With three rings of the bell, everyone bowed three times- getting to their knees, their forehead touching the ground before standing straight once more to repeat. On the last bow everyone sat on their cushion and began to meditate.
Meditation is directly related to the Eightfold path, which is only one of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. Richard Seager, in his book Buddhism in America notes that the last three steps of the Eightfold path are “right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration” (16). When trying to foster “right effort” one is trying to put themselves into a good mental state. When striving for “right mindfulness” one is concentrating fully on their body and on the task at hand, not letting their mind wander. When one is trying to reach “right concentration” one is striving to reach the enlightenment through thought that Buddha reached.
The people all settled for the meditation, straightening their backs to ease tension as the room grew silent. The people in the rows at the service were all positioned with slight variety. Some had their hands at their side, some had their hands on their knees, index finger and thumb touching, some had their hands casually in their laps, I had one hand holding a fist in my lap. The monk said that eyes if open or half open should be looking at a 45 degree angle in front of you, leaving me to stare at the spiral binding on the Temple’s book of chants, but they could be closed as well. I caught myself wandering and quickly brought my eyes back to the black spiral binding and tried to focus.
I followed the advice of the head monk and concentrated on my breathing, which also has a name in Buddhism: Anapanasati. Or, mindfulness of breathing. The blog kept by the man with the tinfoiled plate who would later request to be referred to by his Buddhist name, Quang Tri, suggests ways to practice anapanasati. I began first with some breathing practices a therapist I went to years ago yet still keep in touch with today suggested. I sat there, breathing in for counts of four, holding for counts of four, exhaling for counts of four and then resting for counts of four before repeating the pattern. In his blog posting about anapanasati, Quang Tri suggests fully feeling the breathing. Feel the air come in through your nose, feel it at the back of your throat, feel it at the back of your tongue, feel it fill your lungs. Be mindful of the air.
It didn’t seem like too long had passed, but I heard the microphone pop to life and people around me began to shift in their seat, moving just a bit. I blinked, breaking my gaze from the spiral bound book and felt a clarity in my mind that I had never felt before. Was this what a computer felt when you refreshed it? It felt fresh, like I had a clean mental slate.
The monk took up the microphone, “I see a lot of new people,” he peered over us, his audience. He began to speak to us about Buddhism, it’s a way of life more so than a religion. Humans start as good, they learn to hate, if you see children playing they don’t care what color someone’s skin is. They just want to play.
“Someone with a Ph.D is very smart. But may not be very wise,” he lectured “Someone with no Ph.D might not be very smart. But they can be very wise.” His words are full of encouragement, “You are good. Do not forget that,” some words are even strange to hear out of a Buddhist monk’s mouth, “In order to get to Dallas from here, it is five hours, four if you are fast. But one might drive through Waco and stay a week with family before. It does not matter how long it takes, both end in Dallas,” he says. He reminded us that by being mindful, we won’t make mistakes in cooking or driving because we will be completely focused on every step.
While he was lecturing my eyes were focused on the back of the robe of the guy in front of me, and at some point during the lecture my eyes landed on a small little spider trying desperately to figure out where the heck it was. It wasn’t a moment for me to make any big movements like the one it would take for me to swipe this spider off of this man’s back, but then I thought about that movement in context of a Buddhist temple. In The Discipline of The Novice Monk published by Sakya College, a translated handbook, the killing of an animal will cause a monk to fall into undesirable states. I had to wonder, does that apply to spiders? Little tiny ones like that? I thought that somewhere else in the book it mentioned capturing such creatures and placing them elsewhere if they were in the way.
However, before I could dwell on the thought surrounding this little spider much longer, we all were standing once more. It was time to chant and the little black bell bowl was being utilized once again. We opened with a chant titled “Inviting the Bell”, everyone in a monotone chant saying the words: “Body, speech, and mind in perfect oneness,/I send my heart along with the sound of the bell./May the hearers awaken from forgetfulness/And transcend all anxiety and sorrow./Listen, listen./This wonderful sound/Brings me back to my true home.”
The bell rang out, sharp and clear in the otherwise silent room. The dogs had long since ceased barking and my eyes ran over the words again. I was struck by them. By the last line, the last three words “my true home.” At another discussion with Quang Tri I had asked him how long he had been into Buddhism. The HEB employee told me that he had been meditating for twelve years, and Buddhist for seven, and attending this temple for two years. In his blog he had noted how many don’t realize what Buddhism requires. It requires study, patience, meditation. Reading the sutras and then meditating on them to find what they truly mean. Maybe through meditation I could pull apart the deeper meaning of that last line, “Brings me back to my true home.” We continued our chants, after each section the bell rang. The offering of the incense (“May it be fragrant as Earth herself”), the opening verse (“in every place auspicious clouds appearing, our sincere intention thus fulfilling”), and then we reached “The Great Compassion Mantra”. Eighty four lines of short phrases untranslated spanned across the next few pages all chants for protection and purification dedicated to the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the Merciful Goddess again.
It wasn’t until we were chanting the section titled “Invoking the Bodhisattva’s name” that my rhythm was interrupted by something even more strange than I ever thought possible. As we chanted the words in the section, my mind picking out phrases to think about later such as “We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid” and “We will look without judging or reacting” a music began to fill the room. It was a strange music, one I would associate with the Buddhist religion and culture anyway. It filled the room, hollow but clear. I was surprised, trying to find the source of it. The microphone was lying on the ground, the monk in front of the statue before him, head bowed as he lead the chants. No one else noticed anything strange and then I thought that it must be a cellphone. What if it was my cellphone? I felt a panic, I would need to get to it to turn it off- but then there was a break in the chanting, and the music stopped. The bell rang and we moved to the next part.
I then realized that the “music” wasn’t being played by anything or anyone. The “music” was the resonance of all of our voices in the room as we chanted clearly and loudly. Different pitches and tones melted together to create a music that accompanied the rest of the chanting, creating a unity among everyone in the room.
After an hour and a half the service had come to a close. Regulars began to put away the cushions and the books and the robes were hung up once more. Some people left, but I stayed for the dinner which consisted of an asparagus soup, a delicious teriyaki vegetable dish, and rice. The monk lectured over the differences between good sex (An act done with complete respect and love for the other person) and bad sex (An act with no respect or care), where Buddhism stood on homosexuality (“I am not one to say about someone else’s life, I can only focus on my own life”), and about the number of rebirths one has (a person may be reborn seven times, karma in this world effects where you are reborn in the next).
Later, after bowing farewell to the head monk and having him bow back to me (“We are equal.”) I spoke with two older men about their reasons for coming to the temple, for practicing Buddhism. As we all put our shoes back on and I pet the friendly fat orange cat I named Garfield, Dean spoke about how he had lost his way for a while and only just recently found his way back. Herb said he had been there for nine years and was coming from a Christian background, though he still identified as Christian. He had been there for nine months, “I had a problem with the whole ‘eternal damnation’ thing,” he then brought up, “Some say that Jesus was actually Buddhist and probably lived more in India.”
As we parted ways and I sat in my car, reflecting over the experience and wondering when I could return again, I thought to my favorite series again. Sanzo wasn’t a great Buddhist monk, but from my experience he hadn’t strayed completely from the teachings. In a strange, twisted way, the visit to the temple had reaffirmed this fictional character’s religious standing. There was a loud pop and crack and I jumped in my car, looking at my rearview mirror as I realized it was just Herb starting his motorcycle. Taking his lead I started up my car, and leaving with a clear mind through the white metal gate I had been terrified to enter through before.
Seager, Richard Hughes. Buddhism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Print.
Swearer, Donald K.. Becoming the Buddha: the ritual of image consecration in Thailand. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. Print.
The discipline of the novice monk: including Ācārya Nāgārjuna’s the (Discipline) of the novice monk of the Āryamūlasarvāstivādin in verse and Vajradhara Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo’s Word explanation of the abridged ten vows, the concise novice monk’s training. Mussoorie: Sakya College, 1975. Print.
Tri, Quang. “Buddha Journey.” Buddha Journey. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. <http://buddhajourney.net/>.