San Francisco, Day 6

San Francisco Zen Center, Nuova Porziuncola, Saints Peter and Paul

San Francisco Zen Center

San Francisco Zen Center

Another early day began at 8:30 in the morning, arriving at the San Francisco Zen Center. Saturdays are community days at this Sangha, one of the largest ouside of Asia. This center, in the Soto Zen tradition, was established in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and his American students. Some eighty residents live, work and practice in this place. Zazen training for beginners happens every Saturday at 8:40 and it’s taught by one of the priests. I was surprised to see such a large group gathered so early on a Saturday morning to learn the basics of sitting meditation. For over an hour we were taught several sitting postures as well as the principles of meditation. In the end, we got to sit zazen for a short period of ten minutes.

It is also on Saturdays that dharma talks are given. These talks are also available to the community as well as broadcasted via the web. Following zazen instruction, the room was rearranged for the talk. Before long, people started to arrive and the room was soon at capacity. Today’s talk was given by Kiku Christina Lehnherr, a senior dharma teacher and former abbess of the Center. I’m so grateful to have heard this teaching in person and you can watch it here (there were some technical difficulties, skip to minute 4:00 for the beginning of the talk).

The Buddha Room, where the dharma talk was given.

The Buddha Room, where the dharma talk was given.

My day at the SFZC was only halfway through and it had already been a wonderful time. There was a break of about fifteen minutes following the talk during which people mingled throughout the center with cookies and tea. This is a very vibrant community with everything from first time visitors to seasoned masters. It was lovely being in their midst. It was time for forms training and I was very eager for this particular class. My experience with zen is very limited and this class walked us through the particular forms for entering and sitting in the zendo. The zendo is the meditation hall where zen practitioners sit for extended periods of group meditation. There are specific ways of entering the room, finding your place and sitting. There are clear reasons for these prescribed behaviors in the zendo, as our teacher explained, and they all have to do with an intentional and mindful approach to the practice. There is no penalty for entering the zendo with your right foot instead of your left, as is the form. Rather, one should act accordingly as part of the practice. Every aspect of zen practice is carefully undertaken in an effort to be as present and mindful as one can possibly be.

After forms training, we were all invited to stay for lunch, and I’m so glad I did. It was during communal lunch that I got to visit with new and experience buddhists from all over the country and the world. People come to the SFZC from all over. They live and work here, and they practice together, every day from before sunrise until dark. There is plenty of work to be done, in the kitchen, around the facilities, and at Green Gulch farm which is about an hour away from the center. Some students stay for a week and others have been living there for years. Enguetsu, a practitioner from Brazil, is here for her second stay. I learn about her journey to Zen and her work at the center; and I learn the meaning of her dharma name: En (empty) Guetsu (moon). We visit for a while and then it’s time to move on. This is one of those (many) times when I wish I’d found Buddhism at an earlier age. I would have loved to have been a resident at a place like this.

photo 4

La Nuova Porziuncola

I headed for North Beach in the afternoon, where I visited the Nuova Porziuncola in the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Nuova Porziuncola is a scale replica of the Porziuncola in Assisi. This is the church Saint Francis rebuilt after hearing God’s voice before the crucifix of San Damiano. The Nuova Porziuncola is a work of art and a sacred space. Every day people visit and stay to pray and reflect. I wouldn’t have known to visit had it not been for the kind lady at the St. Mary’s Cathedral bookshop. She insisted I should visit the Porziuncola, and I’m so happy I did. The Nuova Porziuncola was built with exacting standards. The stones are from the same area in Assisi as those of the original, the marble floors are reclaimed from a church in Assisi, and the frescoes are exact replicas, too. I knelt inside the Porziuncola, admiring the simplicity and beauty of its design. I wondered, if it is possible to feel such a sense of peace and wonder in this replica, what must it be like to visit the original in Assisi?

Visitors praying at the Porziuncola.

Visitors praying at the Porziuncola.



San Francisco, Day 2

Misión San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores), Buddha’s Universal Church, Insight Meditation Center

Misión San Francisco de Asís

Misión San Francisco de Asís

Misión San Francisco de Asís was founded in 1776, five days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In 1782, a new location for the mission was selected and the a new building was dedicated in 1791. This building still stands today and is most commonly known as Mission Dolores. It is the oldest intact building in San Francisco and it is in a sense the city’s namesake.

There is something that immediately stands out to me when I visit a sacred space and it is an almost palpable sense of quiet and peace. Even in the midst of a bustling neighborhood, these places of prayer, worship, congregation and meditation are havens of peace and solace. Misión San Francisco de Asís is a popular destination for tourists. It is still used for worship on special occasions, but for the most part, those who visit do so for its historical significance.

Inside the Misión Chapel

Inside the Misión Chapel

As I entered the chapel, I was taken away by the simple beauty of its design and construction. I took a few photographs, made my way through the chapel and sat down to take it all in. Before too long, the handful of visitors left and I found myself completely alone in the chapel. It was so still, so quiet and so peaceful. It was just a priceless ten or fifteen minutes in which to contemplate the importance of this place. How many people have worshipped here? How many prayers have been raised? How much history is contained within these four-foot-deep adobe walls?

Acolytes in training, in the Basilica.

Acolytes in training, in the Basilica.

The Mission Dolores Basilica stands right next to the Misión San Francisco de Asís chapel. It is a magnificent building that a vibrant congregation calls home. As I made my way through the Basilica, a group of children rehearsed for their acolyte duties. Mass is celebrated every day of the week. On Sundays, a Spanish language Mass is celebrated, too.

With only a few minutes to spare, I traveled from the Mission district to the heart of Chinatown for a meeting at Buddha’s Universal Church. A few days ago, when I got a call back confirming an appointment to visit this Church, I could barely contain my excitement. Buddha’s Universal Church is not open during the week and services are only held on the second and fourth Sunday of the month. So, I was rather thrilled to learn that Alan Chan, one of the lay teachers, would give me a private tour of the church.

Buddha’s Universal Church is a unique congregation. As Mr. Chan explained, this is a deliberately westernized Buddhist congregation. The main worship area is arranged much like a contemporary Christian church. Instead of meditation cushions on the floor, there are rows of theater-style seats. Instead of a shrine, there is a platform and even a pulpit. There is a choir that sings during Sunday services and well, most obviously, this is a church and not a temple. But there is no question about the fact that this is a Buddhist center in the Mahayana tradition. There are exquisitely designed images of the Buddha as well as other symbols of Buddhism such as lotus flowers and bamboo shoots. I ask Mr. Chan about all of this and he explains that the Church caters to second and third generation Buddhists who have been born in the U.S. and are more Western than the generations before them.

Alan Chan, my generous host and tour guide.

Alan Chan, my generous host and tour guide.

Alan Chan is an optometrist by profession, he is a very kind and enthusiastic representative for the church. Many of the founders of this church, which started as a small gathering at home, are members of his family. As we walk through the facilities, he talks about the fundraisers and all the work that went into building this magnificent church. Entire families would make and sell cookies to raise money, “We called it cookies to concrete to church,” he tells me with a smile. The church was completed and dedicated in 1964.

“Our religion is very logical,” says Mr. Chan, “Meditation is about reflecting upon our actions.” He explains how a focus of Mahayana Buddhism is to work on the inside, to endeavor to make the heart and the mouth agree. It is no good, he says, to scorn another with our thoughts while offering a kind word. Instead, the object is to make our intentions and our actions agree. This is a message and a practice that is available and relevant to most people, and that is one of the reasons the church strives to be accessible to the Western mindset. Although most of the members and congregants are American-born Asians, he tells me the church also counts a good number of non-Asian congregants in attendance. “We cater more to the English-speaking community, so our services are always bilingual,” he tells me.

I’m amazed at the beauty of this place. There is so much light, both natural and artificial, and rooms appear to materialize out of thin air. Here’s a library, there’s a class room, but how? I didn’t notice them when I came in! And then we make our way to the rooftop, where a beautiful garden provides a place of respite and a wonderful vantage point of Washington Park and the San Francisco skyline. Here Mr. Chan draws my attention to a tree, the main feature of the terrace garden. This is a sapling from the original Bodhi tree in India, under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Think about that for a minute or two. I’m still thinking about it, many hours later.

Photography was not allowed in Buddha's Universal Church. Instead here is a photo of my lovely set of The Pristine Orthodox Dharma.

Photography was not allowed in Buddha’s Universal Church. Instead here is a photo of my lovely set of The Pristine Orthodox Dharma.

An hour or so later, our visit comes to an end. Mr. Chan, my gracious host, sends me on my way with a full heart and a heavy back pack. His generosity has extended to a precious gift of an eight volume set of Buddhist texts, The Pristine Orthodox Dharma, written by leaders of the Church.

photo 4My day ended at the Insight Meditation Center of Redwood City, where I attended meditation and Dharma talk, ¡EN ESPAÑOL! Although I’ve been studying and practicing Buddhism, this is the first time I’ve heard teachings in Spanish, and what a precious gift it was. Andrea Castillo, a Stanford PhD and long-time practitioner under the teaching of Gil Fronsdal, has been leading a Spanish-language group at IMC for about three years now. After a thirty minute period of silent meditation, Castillo gave a Dharma talk on the subject of “ecuanimidad.” I listened with excitement as the Dharma came alive in the language of my childhood. I’m excited to finally learn the Spanish word for mindfulness, which is actually two words: “atención plena.” Our session ends and Dr. Castillo takes time to visit with me. I have so many questions and she is so kind with her time. We exchange contact information and she sends me home with the Spanish translation of Gil Fronsdal’s “The Issue at Hand,” which in Spanish is titled, “Viviendo en el Presente.”

PEOPLE: It just works

“I started having anxiety problems as a teenager. I tried medication and it made me a crazy person, so I got off the medication. I was looking for ways to deal with my anxiety. It was crippling, I couldn’t be around people at all. And then I learned about meditation,” replied Daniel Scharpenburg when I asked how he found Buddhism.

Daniel speaks deliberately. As I listen back to the recording of our interview, I’m surprised to find it’s only a little over thirty minutes and about a third of it is silence. There are long pauses between my questions and his answers, they are intentional and verging on awkward. And yet, they speak volumes.

He grew up with Christian parents, but he admits they weren’t particularly devout. He left the faith purely out of boredom and he wasn’t religious at all when he found meditation at the age of 22. “I started trying it, and I didn’t really know anything about it, but I found that it was working. So, I started reading numerous books about meditation and trying to learn more about it. Ultimately I learned about Buddhism and I’ve never looked back, I guess.”

"Meditation is not easy, everybody has trouble and trying counts as meditating," says Daniel Scharpenburg

“Meditation is not easy, everybody has trouble and trying counts as meditating,” says Daniel Scharpenburg

I’m curious, was it not enough to meditate? Why bring Buddhism into it? He pauses for what seems like an eternity. “I guess I wanted context. I wanted history and stories about meditation,” he says. He tells me his practice is not based on ritual and it’s not particularly devotional. He explains that while he can learn a lot by sitting on the cushion, there is so much to learn off it, too.

The image of a person sitting alone on a mountain top or sandy beach, cross-legged, hands resting on knees and eyes closed; that’s what we tend to associate with meditation. But for Daniel, having a meditation community was essential. “I was the only Buddhist I knew and I was alone and I wanted to meet great people,” he tells me. He wasn’t sure at first that the Rime Center would be the place for him, being that it is a Vajrayana center which to him meant chanting, bowing and praying, and he wasn’t interested in that.

Once he started attending, he realized it was not as ritualistic as he had thought and he stuck around. “We have lots of good visiting teachers that come through and I really value that because they come from all sorts of Buddhist traditions. I’ve met all sorts of people that I could never have met on my own,” he says.

But he didn’t just stick around, he soon became an essential part of the Rime Center’s community. For a few years now, Daniel has been in charge of the center’s Dharma School. Children ages four and up gather in the upper room of the Center every Sunday morning while their parents congregate in the shrine room below. This is where our conversation is taking place, a large, sun-bathed room with exposed brick walls and hardwood floors. In just under an hour, children (including his daughter and son) will start filing in.

Daniel never set out to work with children. “It kind of happened to me,” he explains. He became interested in the program only after his kids had been participating in it. Soon enough, the person in charge moved on and a friend of Daniel’s assumed responsibility of the program. That’s when he started helping out and eventually that friend moved on as well. “Why do I still do it? I guess I could just quit,” he says. And then, after a pause, he continues, “As I said, I suffer from anxiety and I see some of those tendencies in my daughter so I want her to have a meditation practice if she wants to use it…I want her to have better tools than I had.”

Personally, I can’t imagine anything more anxiety-inducing than being responsible for a group of children. You’d have to pay me a lot of money to do this and he does it as a volunteer, week after week. He laughs when I ask how he does it.

“I have to be really patient. I tell them not to run and they run. I have to exercise patience and it’s good for me. It is at times overwhelming,” he says, as calmly as a sleeping child. His children enjoy it, and that’s his main reward. He admits that sometimes he enjoys it, too. “It’s a good feeling to know I’m doing something that benefits the community. Lots of volunteers at the Rime Center do harder things than this.”

When Daniel mentions that bringing his children to Dharma School gives his spouse a morning off, I ask whether she herself attends. I learn she’s not a Buddhist. “She knows Buddhism helps me, and she is supportive,” he says. I press a bit further, I want to hear something about the trials and tribulations of a mixed-faith family; surely there are many, I think. Another long pause, and then he says, “The thing about Buddhist values is that there’s not a lot to complain about. It’s compassion, concentration, being kind to others and loving each other. So, she’s pretty comfortable. Ultimately if the children want to be Buddhists when they grow up, that’ll be up to them.”

When it comes to Buddhism, there are those who assert that it is a religion and those who contend it is not. Daniel isn’t sure either way, “I’m not sure what a religion is. I’m not concerned with God and I’m not concerned with my life after death. So, for those reasons a lot of people don’t think it’s a religion. Sometimes I think it is, though because it does inform a lot of my life. I write about it a lot, I meditate every day, I talk about it a lot. So, I don’t know if that’s a religion or not, but it’s something I’m really devoted to.”

Daniel teaches meditation outside of the Rime Center as well. He has led a weekly group at the Evolving Center for some time now. I ask why he does this and he tells me, “because you get something from meditating in a group, different than meditating alone. And you definitely get something out of meditating with adults rather than children because children can only do about six minutes. So when you meditate in a group it inspires you to be better at focusing. If I’m meditating at home, by myself, I can stop and watch Netflix and nobody will know. But if I’m meditating in a group and I stop, everyone will know.”

I realize I heard nothing after the part when he said children can only meditate about six minutes. WHAT?! It took me forever to get to five minutes, is he serious?

I ask to clarify: did he mean to imply he can get children to sit still for six minutes? In true zen fashion, he replies, “I can.”

Okay, I’m going to need a bit more than that. He obliges, “Part of it is when kids see other kids do it, they’re more inclined to do it themselves. My four year old son doesn’t do it. He meditates for three minutes with me before bed, but he can’t do six minutes. Most kids can, though, if they see other kids doing it.”

When I ask how Buddhism brings meaning into his life, he takes a little longer to answer. He tells me about compassion, and he tells me how because of his practice he’s better equipped to not say hurtful things when an argument arises, and he concludes that Buddhism has helped him make better decisions. He pauses and then says, “Meaning, though…well, we’re all suffering and we’re all dying, right? Buddhism doesn’t promise me heaven or an afterlife, but it does remind me that we’re all in it together. So, that’s the meaning it brings to me.”

One of the reasons some consider Buddhism a philosophy rather than a religion is that there is no deity. I ask what this means to him. “The importance of Buddha is that he was a person, and so we can do this, because we’re people, too. And in fact we have a lot of resources he didn’t have. Well, he didn’t have as many distractions as we have, but we can look up any sutra in history because of the Internet and we have meditation timers. We can do many things he couldn’t do, so the path is available to us. I think of Buddhism as very positive because a human being did it, so we can do it.” When I ask about the notion of God, he says, “Some people see the interconnectedness of all things and they call that God. I think that’s fine and it’s very profound. But, I don’t know. If I’m supposed to know, I think I’ll find out. But I’m not looking for God.”

The interview will end soon; children will start walking in any minute now, so I ask my last question, “What are you grateful for?” He jokes that he’s grateful for hot showers and soap. And then he says, “I feel like the world is only getting better. Sometimes we think it’s not because we see the news or we hear things from people. But I think the world is only getting better, even if it may not be getting better as fast as we want. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I think that’s true.”

At the time of our interview, that was exactly what I needed to hear. Now, a few weeks later, I find I needed to hear that even more.

 One more thing… Be sure to check out Daniel’s blog here and learn more about his meditation group here.

New York, Day 2

Mahayana Buddhist Temple, The Village Zendo, The Wall Street Synagogue, Prayer Space NYC, 9/11 Memorial, St. Joseph House Catholic Worker, Maryhouse Catholic Worker, Bhakti Center.

The Buddha in the main shrine room of the Mahayana Temple.

The Buddha in the main shrine room of the Mahayana Temple.

There was a woman standing in front of the massive statue of the Buddha at the Mahayana Temple. She made a short bow and started to walk out. We made eye contact and I quietly asked if she was a Buddhist. “No, I’m a Catholic, but I can certainly see the similarities,” she said. I asked if she could explain. She pointed at the panels along the sidewalls depicting the life of the Buddha and continued, “I see the Buddha’s birth and it reminds me of Christ’s birth. Buddha’s temptation, Christ’s temptation, fasting and teaching, and so on.” She asked if I was a Buddhist, I said yes but not in the Mahayana tradition. With a puzzled look she said, “There are different kinds?” “Yes,” I replied, “another similarity! Just as there are different denominations in Christianity, there are different schools of Buddhism.” She smiled, started to leave and said, “You know, I think we all got the same message and we’re just doing different things with it.” I didn’t catch her name and she didn’t care to be filmed, but I immediately wrote everything down.

Manjushri, The Village Zendo

Manjushri, The Village Zendo

Yu Jin Steele is a long time practitioner in the Zen Buddhist tradition. I ran into her outside the elevator, on our way to The Village Zendo, which is housed in a suite on the 11th floor of a Soho building. I learned all about her teachers and their lineage, and I learned that her husband and her children practice as well. At some point she mentioned that many of the day time practitioners at Village Zendo are not as interested in the religious aspects of Zen and prefer to focus on meditation only. Whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion depends on whom you ask. So I asked her.

The Village Zendo

The Zendo

“It is a religion because it involves faith. You may not believe in God, but you have to believe that sitting on your ass is going to do something. And well, sitting doesn’t really do anything, but the point is you have to believe,” she said. I asked if her practice ever took her into a different plane, perhaps something mystical or otherworldly, as many religions do. “I’m always on a different plane,” she replied, as if to imply that that’s the problem. “What I need to do is be here, awake,” she continued. And that’s what the practice does, it grounds you. It is not an escape or a withdrawal to another state of mind, it is working toward being fully present here and now. “It’s an inside job,” she said smiling.

This is the only photo I took.

This is the only photo I took.

My experience at the Wall Street Synagogue was a bit of a wake-up call. But the truth is I needed one. I needed to be reminded that I can’t just walk into any house of worship I fancy and expect to be welcomed with fanfare. Nothing bad happened, really. It’s just that I felt terribly out of place. The moment I walked in, I could tell that the twenty or so men gathered for Mincha knew I didn’t belong there. I was the only one there without a yarmulke, which made me feel like I stood out, like I was being disrespectful and like I was naked. A very kind man discretely offered me a yarmulke from a basket, “Would you like this?” he said. “Yes, thank you,” I replied and put it on. Mincha is meant to be “an oasis of spiritual time in a tough workday, a moment of calming nerves and focusing on priorities.” I was mortified I might be ruining it for the others. But as we walked out, I briefly spoke with the cantor and that made me feel much better. He pointed me to the office where all my questions would be asked, and all was well in the end. The good news is that I’ve actually been invited to the next synagogue I will visit.

The Survivor Tree

The Survivor Tree

Visiting the September 11 Memorial is a very powerful and moving experience. The truth is I can’t find the words to express what I felt, and I don’t really want to try. Some things are better left unspoken. What I can say is that I was struck by the imposing size of the voids in the ground, the photographs don’t do it justice. One thing that caught my attention and that I could have easily missed was the Survivor Tree. This is a tree that, although severely injured, survived and recovered from the attacks at the World Trade Center. It has become a sort of relic; people leave flowers at its foot and others touch its limbs in a reverential manner. I’m grateful to have had an opportunity to visit this important and most definitely sacred site.

I’m embarrassed to admit that until today my knowledge of the Catholic Worker movement was little to none. A few weeks ago I asked my friend Lance if he knew of any churches or religious organizations in New York that were in line with his philosophy of ministry. Without hesitating, he told me to go to St. Joseph House Catholic Worker. So I did. A man named Matt opened the door and let me in. The dining hall was empty and clean, ready for the next meal. He was busy chopping lettuce and preparing other dishes. He told me all about the Catholic Worker philosophy, about the notion of instilling in individuals a sense of working and thinking. He talked to me about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, about their view that one should follow works of mercy. The people that live and work in this house, as in many other Catholic Worker houses, feed the hungry and clothe the needy in their communities. They also offer showers and other help. Matt gave me a quick crash course as he wiped down the counters and tidied the kitchen. He suggested I visit the Maryhouse, which is located a couple blocks away. He called to let them know I was coming.

Jane Sammon shows me the very first volume of The Catholic Worker.

Jane Sammon shows me the very first volume of The Catholic Worker. Photo of Dorothy Day in the background.

Dorothy Day was a cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement. On May 1st, 1933, she and Peter Maurin published the very first Catholic Worker newspaper. The Maryhouse has been a house of hospitality for many years. As you walk through the main door there are stairs that lead down to the dining hall and stairs that lead up to an auditorium, an office and a small chapel. The floors above are living quarters. Dorothy Day lived and worked in this very house until her passing in 1980. I sat in the small chapel, no bigger than the average dining room, and made a mental picture since I wasn’t allowed to take photographs. There were about fifteen chairs, a crucifix, a few icons (one depicting Dorothy Day), and a couple of armoires along the back wall. At the front of the chapel there was an altar table, the very table upon which Dorothy Day was placed for her wake. I sat there quietly for a while, taking it in. And then a woman popped her head in and introduced herself. She pronounced my name in very good Spanish and mentioned she had spent some time in Mexico. Her name is Jane Sammon; she lives and works in the Maryhouse and is one of the associate editors of The Catholic Worker. She showed me into the office and into the archives for the paper, which just celebrated its 81st anniversary.

“Ora et labora” is a Benedictine motto by which the Catholic Worker lives. Pray and work. People in these house communities work together and live together; there are shifts and duties to be shared and plenty of work to be done. And it is an ideological movement as well, “We are a pacifist movement,” she tells me, “the left leaning side of Catholicism.” She is on her way out and she has already given me so much of her time, so I ask one last question, “How is the work you do informed or influenced by your faith?” She tells me that many of the workers, although not all, are Catholic. “In this house we have prayer every single night. We say the hourse, which are part of the Benedictine tradition,” she tells me. “Do we force people to go to mass? No! We’re a freedom-loving community. But the work cannot continue without a life of prayer and I think there are still many of us who believe that.”

Adigopi Priya Dasi

Adigopi Priya Dasi

I had not intended to visit the Bhakti Center. Upon leaving the Maryhouse, I decided to stop for a bit of nourishment at a juice bar on my way back to the hotel. It was late and I hadn’t eaten all day. While I waited for my juice, I spotted a business card for the Bhakti Center. I picked it up and read the Hare Krishna chant on the back. The server at the juice bar told me the Center was only a couple blocks away, so I decided to check it out. Over the past couple of months I have experienced some rather serendipitous things and this was certainly one of them. The Bhakti Center’s ground level is a store front stocked with books, instructional materials, clothing and other artifacts. At the back is a vegetarian restaurant and tables. There are many programs offered at the Center; yoga, meditation, teaching, festivals and Kirtan. A woman managing the storefront asked if I needed any help. I told her I knew nothing about Bhakti and was eager to learn. She was most gracious and eventually introduced me to her friend and fellow devotee, Adigopi Priya Dasi. We chatted for a good long while.

I learned that Bhakti is the natural condition of the soul, which is pure, continuous love of God. Bhakti arises from India, from the study of the Gitas and the practices of chanting mantras and devotional yoga. Adigopi’s first experience with Bhakti came at the age 18 in Hollywood, California where she witnessed a group of Bhakti devotees (you know them as Hare Krishnas) chanting and dancing along Hollywood Boulevard. She bought a magazine from them and was deeply inspired by what she read in it. Eventually she became a devotee herself and was initiated. She was so generous with her time and her explanation of Bhakti, but she hoped her teacher, Radhanath Swami would come down so she could introduce me. “You really should meet him,” she said.


Radhanath Swami

Soon enough Radhanath Swami entered the room and Adigopi took me up to meet him. With a very warm and peaceful smile he reached out and hugged me. He then held my hands and said it was very good to meet me. I knew I was in the presence of a holy man and I felt humbled. We sat down and had a brief, but very rich, visit. I learned that he was only in New York for a brief visit as he lives and works in Mumbai, India where he has established a number of Ashrams (centers for spiritual teaching) where around 10,000 people study and practice. He also oversees environmentally-conscious water harvesting operations as well as other initiatives as part of an eco-village. He tells me that the leading cause of illiteracy in India is hunger, so his organization feeds over 300,000 children a day. I find this beyond amazing.

I tell him I want to know more about Bhakti, could he tell me what the essence of this faith is? “Everyone is looking for happiness. Happiness is within ourselves,” he says measuredly. “Religion is a word that means ‘to bind back,'” he continues. “And, yoga means ‘to reconnect’ with our true essence, to love God.” I ask him how one expresses a love of God, what does that look like in practice? “One way is chanting the names of God. That helps us reconnect with God and we live our life in that connection.” When I have an opportunity to meet with clergy, I like to inquire about their views on interfaith work. “There are different aspects of God, but there is only one God,” he says. “Sun, Sol, Surya; they are different languages but they all mean Sun. Different religions are the manifestation of one truth, of harmony with God.” As our time together draws to a close, he pauses for a moment and says, “What Jesus taught was Bhakti. The prayers of St. Francis, that’s Bhakti. Bhakti is to serve with devotion.”

You know, I think we all got the same message and we’re just doing different things with it.

PEOPLE: Seekers

“I wasn’t raised Buddhist, and I don’t think any of our members at the Rime Center were either,” says Lama Chuck Stanford. The fact that so many Buddhists in the United States are converts is something that has fascinated me for the past few years. When I ask him what he thinks Americans find so appealing about Buddhism, why it is that every Sunday there are so many first time visitors at the Rime Center, he doesn’t hesitate to answer. “My theory is that they’re spiritual seekers. If you’re Christian and you’re looking for a church, it’s not a matter of Christianity or not. You’re Christian, so it’s just a matter of which church you’re going to go to. But if you don’t know what you are and you’re looking for something, you come to a Buddhist center to try it out and see if it’s the right fit or not. Most people visiting the Rime Center are probably not Buddhists, they’re what I call spiritual seekers, trying something out to see if it resonates with them.”

Like so many of the people at the Rime Center, Lama Chuck came to Buddhism as a seeker. He tells me a story so many others have shared with me, about growing up with parents who weren’t particularly religious but were consistent about Church attendance. He tells me about how when he was a teenager, the faith he’d been brought up in no longer spoke to him, about how he lost interest and stopped going. And then he tells me about this spiritual void he felt after a few years and how he began seeking ways to satisfy that yearning. “I tried different faiths. I remember going to a Quaker meeting and I kind of liked that, because they just sit in silence and if someone feels like speaking they stand up and speak.” I begin to wonder if stillness and quietude are part of the draw of Buddhism. We’re all well-aware of the ever-growing demands for our attention and the overstimulation that engulf our day-to-day lives. And, while most religious traditions have a strong contemplative element, the trend for Christian churches in America has been to emphasize the use of technology, multimedia and high energy music in services. This is not a bad thing at all, unless what you’re desperate for is a bit of peace and quiet.

Lama Chuck Stanford

Lama Chuck Stanford

Some time after that Quaker meeting, Lama Chuck and his wife Mary started practicing yoga. He tells me that one day after yoga, he went up to a different room in the building to have a look, “and they had what we would call a shrine room, all these meditation cushions and a shrine set up. I asked what was going on there, and I was told that was where these Buddhists met. We had been meditating since the 70s, that was something I was really familiar with, I knew meditation. And, because I felt a spiritual void, I thought I’d start attending and finding out more about this. And so the more I studied, and the more I learned, the more I found the Buddhist worldview really fit with my worldview and I just continued down that path.”

Lama Chuck and Mary started practicing with this Buddhist group, but soon enough it became evident that the group’s views were a bit more sectarian than he would’ve liked. “So I thought, you know, there’s probably room for a non-sectarian group,” he tells me. And that’s how in 1985, he and his wife leased a class room from the Roeland Park Community Center and the Rime Center was born. Week after week, he would load up his car with some extra cushions they owned, they would set up a portable shrine and the group had a small but steady attendance for a couple of years. As the group grew, they went through a few facilities. They started inviting visiting teachers and offering educational programs. And then, in 1997, Kusum Lingpa, one of Lama Chuck’s Tibetan teachers told him he wanted to ordain him a Lama. “It was totally out of the blue. I hadn’t ever considered that as a possibility and I told him I would need to think about it. He said, ‘I’ll be back in one year and I’ll want your answer.'” At the end of that year, having thought about it and feeling prepared, he was ordained a Lama.

The way one officially becomes a Buddhist is by taking Refuge Vows. One of the things that happens as a result of taking vows is that practitioners are given a Dharma name. I remember the first time I met Lama Chuck, and I remember finding the juxtaposition of an eastern title and a (very) western name a little jarring. And then I learned that his actual Dharma name is Lama Changchup Kunchok Dorje and it all made sense. Most of us would probably rather say Lama Chuck than attemp (and fail) to say his Tibetan name. So he encourages people to simply call him Lama Chuck, and this is so characteristic of his vision for the Rime Center, which he strives to make as welcoming and accessible a place as possible. Sunday Services are unlike any other Buddhist experience you will find. He tells me that the order of service is very carefully designed to feel familiar and comfortable to newcomers. While most Buddhist groups simply sit and meditate in silence for extended periods of time, at the Rime Center there is a liturgy of sorts. Mantras are set to music so congregants can sing along, meditation is broken up into three ten minute sessions, and toward the end of the service there is always a Dharma talk. He tells me that the service is arbitrarily put together and that it includes Western elements, but that it remains faithful to Tibetan Buddhist practice.

I press Lama Chuck a bit further; I want to know why there are always new visitors at the Rime Center. I want to know how a non-dualistic, Eastern religion can be so appealing to our Western, materialistic and dualistic sensibilities. He pauses for a moment and says, “A lot of people are wounded, perhaps as the result of a divorce or any other painful experience. They’re suffering because of a break up, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, there is pain. They come seeking solace, and Buddhism is relatively free of dogma.”

The Buddha’s first teaching, the Four Noble Truths, begins with an acknowledgment of suffering. It is a truth as old as time. I’m finally beginning to get it. Yes, people are seeking quiet and solace, but what we are seeking the most is to be happy and free from suffering. And so, Lama Chuck tells me, “We believe that it’s through meditation that we cut the clinging and grasping that are the source of our suffering.”

PLACES: Rime Buddhist Center


The entrance to the Rime Center

This past Sunday morning I attended the service at the Rime Buddhist Center (Rime is pronounced ree-may). I should say, however, that this was not my first visit. In fact, the Rime Center has been my spiritual home for nearly three years. Over the next few months I will visit a great number of houses of worship and prayer, sacred spaces and places from a wide array of religious traditions. It seemed fitting that my journey should begin from home.

Nestled in the shade of the elevated section of I-35, in the western edge of the Crossroads Arts District, the Rime Center finds its home in a hundred-year-old church. On any given Sunday morning, you will find people of all ages walking up the steep stairs for the 10:30 service. The Rime Center offers a full schedule of classes, noontime meditation, and other practices throughout the week; but Sunday mornings draw the biggest attendance.

Upon walking through the main doors, an altar with dozens of votive candles, incense and a photograph of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama welcomes attendees. The Rime Center is a non-sectarian Buddhist community in the Tibetan tradition, of which the Dalai Lama is the highest-ranking teacher and spiritual leader. As you make your way down the foyer, you will see shoes neatly shelved and arranged off to the side on the floor. This will be your cue to remove your own shoes and add them to the collection. Don’t worry, you’ll get them back!

As you come into what would’ve been the nave of the church, you will find yourself in the main shrine room. This is a big, open space with rows of cushions tidily arranged on the floor. There are also chairs lined along the sides and the back for those who prefer them for comfort or health reasons. The shrine is at the front. It houses photographs of His Holiness as well as other prominent teachers; there are sacred texts, offerings of water, rice, flowers and incense. The centerpiece is a gilded statue of the Buddha. A few feet below and in front of the Buddha is the teacher’s seat, slightly elevated off the floor.

At the sound of drums and horns, the congregation stands. Lama Chuck Stanford (the center’s spiritual director), followed by two preceptors, walks in from the back of the room toward the shrine. Following prostrations and lighting of incense, he sits and then everyone else sits. The service begins with a few minutes of silent, centering meditation. For the next forty minutes or so, the Sangha (the Buddhist term for community) recite prayers, chant mantras and sit three separate ten-minute periods of meditation. The service concludes with a Dharma talk, and a few closing prayers. At the sound of drums and horns, the preceptors make their exiting procession and the service concludes.


A view of the main shrine room.

What you find in the Rime Center is a unique Buddhist experience. The entire order of service is provided in a bulletin, making it easy for seasoned practitioners and newcomers to follow along. Explanations and translations (some of the prayers and mantras are spoken in Tibetan) for every aspect of the service are found in the sidebars, one need not feel lost or confused. Toward the end of the service, announcements for upcoming classes and programs are made. During this time, the center preceptor will welcome visitors and invite them to introduce themselves. Lama Chuck makes a point to say it is his goal for the Rime Center to be the most welcoming spiritual community in Kansas City, and you certainly feel that this is a genuine sentiment. Congregants mingle and linger following the service, some visit the bookstore, while others have tea.

If you’ve ever wondered about Buddhism or meditation, the Rime Center is a great place to learn. For those of us raised in a Western religion, experiencing Eastern practices can be a little intimidating at first. But the Rime Center’s service includes enough familiar elements that one shouldn’t feel like a complete stranger in a foreign land (children have Dharma School during the service, and it’s okay if you slip up and call it Sunday School, I often do). The people are warm and friendly. For those with a bit more experience, it is a wonderful place to deepen your practice attending retreats and teachings by many of the visiting teachers.

So, there you have it, my first installment in this PLACES section of the blog. Questions? Feedback? Let me know in the comments section.


Planning a visit? Here are few things you might find helpful:

DRESS: Dress is modest but casual. Bear in mind you will most likely sit cross-legged on the floor; you’ll want to dress comfortably as most congregants do. Remember you’ll be leaving your shoes in the foyer.

CHILDCARE: The Rime Center has childcare for infants and toddlers as well as Dharma School for children ages 4 and up.

ADDRESS: 700 West Pennway, Kansas City, Missouri 64108

PARKING: There is ample parking on the street.

TIME: Sunday services begin promptly at 10:30, you will want to arrive at least five to ten minutes early (earlier if bringing children) and find a cushion. Service is usually over a little bit before noon.

WEBSITE: http://www.rimecenter.org/


The shrine.