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Religion Pluralism Project Essay

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Abstract of a research assignment performed in my Religion in Human Experience Course (Winter 2010)

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Religion Pluralism Project Essay

  1. 1. I have never been so excited to be in a spiritual center other than my own. Since about age eleven, I’ve held a particular interest in the Buddhist religion, probably because it is the exact opposite of my own religion (Christianity). Christianity preaches total immersion in the world while Buddhism teaches how to separate oneself the world completely, be free of attachments, and how attachments and desire can leave a person trapped in the endless cycle of samsara—life, death, and rebirth. The religious edifice I visited is called the First Congregational Church (founded 1869), located on 1445 Hinman Avenue, and normally thrives as a Christian Institution (Lawlor). However on Sundays, the Lakeside Buddha Sangha rents out a ‘meditation space,’ in the lower level of the back of the church (Lawlor).<br />Lakeside Buddha Sangha was formed in May 1991 under the leadership of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist master (Who We Are 1). Hanh has only appeared at the sangha about five times since its formation nearly twenty years ago; nevertheless, it is understandable since the seventy-something-year-old travels across the world in order to inspire the creation of sanghas (Lawlor). The lay leaders of the sangha are Dharma Teachers Jack and Laurie Lawlor and regularly host all of the sangha’s informal and formal rituals. Lakeside exists as a meditation center where people come together in order to study and practice Nhat’s teachings.<br />Because of the reverential nature of the sangha, this essay will analyze from Ninian Smart’s ‘Ritual Dimension.’ The first act I experienced was courtesy. Laurie spotted me as a new face as soon as I walked in, and she walked up to me and cordially asked me what my name was and where I was from. She asked me to take off my shoes and step into the rectangular-shaped space (I later learned they called it their ‘zendo’). I realized that I once I passed through the back lobby and entered the room I had entered sacred space. The removal of shoes indicates respectfulness, as well as the casting off of the daily struggles of life one walks in (Lawlor). Immediately I was reminded of my own religion since the stepping through the door that leads to the sanctuary symbolizes crossing the threshold into holy ground. To paraphrase Mircea Eliade, it highlights a transition from the profane world to the sacred world (Eliade 5). <br />Due to the unforgiving weather Sunday night, I was unable to make it on time to the pre-orientation period for those who have no previous meditation experience. Still, Jack took me aside after he finished his initial explanation and caught me up on the details. The two forms of meditation—sitting and walking—were key to achieving awareness in oneself (Lawlor). He stated that by performing the ritualized sitting meditation, one becomes aware of their attachments to the many elements in life and that once one recognizes these attachments, they can transform that fear and desire into power. The power is joy and that harnessing the joy enables a person to achieve a spiritual healing and practice love at greater and greater capacities. The walking meditation emphasizes the same concepts, but when the sangha performs it, it is more symbolic than anything. Often people do not have the chance to sit down during the incredible hustle and bustle from the day—but one always has the time to walk. The sitting meditation teaches to use an arched spine, partial lotus sitting stance, and to breathe naturally. The walking meditation Thich Nhat Hanh taught his sangha accentuates breathing in a slightly more controlled form where one inhales on one step and completely exhales on the next (Lawlor).<br />I will not lie and report that I wasn’t nervous. In fact, I was just as much scared as I was excited. Coming from a Baptist tradition, I am used to sitting through two hours of service where choirs sing as loud as a trumpet quintet, where a preacher has a daily sermon that is always given as a lecture, and follows a ritualized, well-structured protocol. The atmosphere in the meditation space was very relaxed. Candles were lit at all ends of the room, and though I might not be able to comprehend it, I felt a deep fear of the Buddha statue which rested on an altar between a glass, lotus flower candle and a vase of flowers. Although I am not Buddhist, I still felt the magnitude of a hierophany—an eruption of the sacred in the profane realm—and I found myself loosening and committing to the service.<br />Once orientation was over at 7:15pm, we lined up in front of the laid out zabutons and zafus. Those are the rectangular and circular, respectively, cushions (Lawlor). A harmonic bell was rung and we were instructed to bow with our hands clasped as if in prayer in order to signify the mutual reverence and respect of one another as well as the ritual (meditation) we are about to perform (Lawlor). The second ringing of the bell signifies everyone to sit on the cushions and arrange an appropriate meditation position (it is also a period where you can get one final stretch of any body part). The third bell signifies the commencement of meditation and the ‘eruption of disorientation’ (Lawlor). Before we commenced meditation, the final elements of the ritual were to turn off the lights and the lighting of the lotus flower candle. The eruption of disorientation is the sangha’s informal name for the period during meditation in which we search for awareness of why we were feeling a particular negative emotion at some point in our day or in our lives (Lawlor). In doing so, we are able to achieve awareness of our detrimental attachments and sever them, in order to grasp them and change them into foundation for our oneness for self (Lawlor).<br />The fourth bell rings and signifies all to come back into profane orientation and stretch whatever body parts we need. The fifth bell calls us to stand up and form in moderately organized lines. The sixth bell commences the walking meditation, where we walk around in a circular direction (Lawlor). We repeated this cycle twice and meditated for a total of an hour. After ritual meditation we engaged in a new ritual—social period. This is a grace period between meditation and the dharma lesson where everyone meets and greets each other, catch up on daily events, delivery of announcements to the sangha and eat. I got to know a lot of people. We were served a type of sweet snack, a dough snack that tasted similar to a doughnut, cinnamon bons, and herbal tea. Jack and Laurie informed me that everything was carefully chosen so that they did have products that did not abide by vegetarian standards or by Buddha’s teachings for food of the body (Lawlor).<br />The dharma lesson was not so different from the meditation. Casey, a regular member of the sangha, gave a lesson that encouraged using fear to one’s advantage. Before he began, the bell was rung again as a symbol that we were transitioning once again into spiritual presence. As aforementioned, I am unaccustomed to having discussion and teaching when in a spiritual service; therefore, I shunned away from participating in the lesson. However, I was very attentive in the actions. I noticed that before anyone spoke or indicated they wanted to speak, they would slightly bow with their hands clasped. As the food was passed around, each person would bow with hands clasped in thanks. Furthermore, when one was done speaking, everyone bowed with hands clasped. It appeared that everyone acknowledged each other for their contribution to the lesson since it enhanced everyone’s overall withdrawal of the lesson’s message.<br />After the dharma lesson was finished, Casey rang the bell and Jack greeted everyone goodbye. I took this opportunity to interview Laurie and Jack about a host of things. They revealed to me that in actuality, the bowing with clasped hands is a common ritual for an unspoken prayer. Dubbed the “Breath Prayer,” it reads, “A Lotus for you, A Buddha to be” (Lawlor). A creation of Thich Nhat Hanh, it symbolizes how to act righteous towards all people since all Buddhists emulate the lifestyle of Buddha and will escape the cycle of rebirth (Lawlor). What is also interesting is that in my research I discovered that when two hands clasp together, it resembles a lotus bud! Of all the things I learned that night (which I couldn’t fit into a four-paged paper), the most important things include how Buddhists learn in a relaxed atmosphere, everyone is treated equally and respectfully, how breath can regulate and stabilize the chemistry of the mind and body, and that the sangha—which in totality houses over one hundred members—contains members of all races, cultures, ages, and people who have different faiths! Jack and Laurie were kind enough to lend me a ride home to my dorm, and inform me about programming they have coming up, so I made two friends who I just might visit in the near future!<br />Works Cited<br />Lawlor, Jack and Laurie. Personal Interview. 21 Feb. 2010.<br />“Who We Are.” LakesideBuddha. Lakeside Buddha Sangha. 20 Feb 2010 <http://www.lakesidebuddha.org/index1.html>.<br />Eliade, Mircea. “The Prestige of the Cosmogonic Myth.” Sage Journals Online 6.1 (1958). <https://courses.northwestern.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_id=_2_1&url=%2fwebapps%2fblackboard%2fexecute%2flauncher%3ftype%3dCourse%26id%3d_246355_1%26url%3d>.<br />

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