san francisco

San Francisco, Day 7

Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church

This morning’s worship experience was truly something else. I’ve observed and participated in my fair share of religious services, but none quite like the “A Love Supreme Meditation” and “Coltrane Liturgy” at Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. Both are held every Sunday morning and early afternoon at the Church, which is located in a store front in the Fillmore area of San Francisco. I decided to attend both the meditation and the service.

With Pastor Stephens and Saint John Coltrane in background.

With Pastor Stephens and Saint John Coltrane in background.

The meditation began at 10:30 with the recitation of John Coltrane’s testimony, as it appears in the liner notes of his 1964 masterpiece, A Love Supreme. We were then guided in a group meditation by Deacon Marlee-I Mystic. For me, this was unlike any meditation I’d ever practiced. When I meditate, it is almost always in silence. This meditation, however, consisted of focusing our attention on the music of A Love Supreme. The Coltrane classic is a suite in four parts: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm. In between parts, the meditation leader delivered recitation that focused our attention on certain spiritual themes. The meditation concluded with us singing the words of the poem, Psalm, set to the tune played on saxophone by Coltrane. Following the meditation, we were invited to share any thoughts, feelings or reactions to the meditation. It seemed everyone had something to share, including myself.

I’ve been listening to music much more intentionally for the past few years, but today was a completely different experience. When I think of jazz music, I think of smoke-filled, dimly-lit night clubs. A Love Supreme, however, is a different kind of work. Coltrane wrote it as a spiritual offering and today, along with a number of the Coltrane-devotees, I listened to it as such. It was transformational, not in that I experienced some sort of supernatural thing, but in the way that for thirty some minutes I was so present in the moment and with the music. I shared how greateful I was to have had such a new and special experience.

With Deacon Haqq and Archbishop King.

With Deacon Haqq and Archbishop King.

The Coltrane Liturgy begins at 11:45. By this time, the congregation has doubled, perhaps tripled. By my count there are nine instrumentalists, the Ministers of Sound; four vocalists, the Voices of Compassion; and a tap dancer. The service consists of a series of free-form jazz compositions with occasional sung parts. For approximately an hour and a half, the Church is stirred into a worshipful trance as one piece of music leads into another. Archbishop Franzo King, D.D. on tenor saxophone walks around, functioning as band director, trading solos with a baritone saxophonist. Rev. Wanika King Stephens plays bass and Deacon Max Haqq goes back from alto sax to drums. There is a conga player, a drummer, a djembe player, a keyboardist, and a harmonica player. But this is only today, I learn later that there are times when there are even more musicians. The procession, opening prayer, confession, introit, and Lord’s prayer are all interpreted musically. And then before Psalm 23, there is a tap dance solo, accompanied by bass. This is something I’ve never seen in church, and it is both impressive and moving.

Then comes the collect and the scripture readings, which don’t have musical accompaniment. For the first time all morning, this begins to resemble the kind of mass to which I’m accustomed. After the offering, Pastor Stephens takes the pulpit and preaches an inspirational sermon on the nature of God-given creativity. She quotes Saint John Coltrane throughout, reminding us how he said, “All great artistic expression is truth.” And she also quotes from “Psalm” in a Love Supreme, “God breathes through us so completely…so gently, we hardly feel it. Yet, it is our everything.” It’s approximately 2:30 when the service comes to an end. I have an opportunity to speak with several of the church members. Their warm welcome and genuine interest make me feel at home, as though I’m visiting with old friends. I was nervous and a little uneasy at the beginning of the service, and as I left, I felt so happy. I don’t know how else to explain it. Just happy.

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I found out about this church when someone at St. Mary's Cathedral said I should go for "last chance mass."

I found out about this church when someone at St. Mary’s Cathedral said I should go for “last chance mass.”

It is my last night in San Francisco and I find it fitting to conclude my visit with the 9:00 pm Candlelight Mass at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church. This Church, a beautiful example of neo-gothic architecture, is a sight to behold when lit by candles on a dark Sunday night. I was surprised to see so many people in attendance, there must’ve been a couple hundred. And then, when the service began, I realized this was a very special and beautiful mass. It’s no wonder attendance is so high! I can’t think of a better way to have brought my visit in this wonderful city to a close. I have so enjoyed getting to know this city, its people and its sacred spaces. I go home with a full heart, with unforgettable experiences and with a few new friendships formed. And I hope to come back soon.

This photo was taken about ten minutes before mass began. By the time it had started there were at least a couple hundred parishioners in attendance.

This photo was taken about ten minutes before mass began. By the time it had started there were at least a couple hundred parishioners in attendance.

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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.

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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 5

 Swedenborgian Church, Darussalam Mosque, Congregation Beth Sholom, Vedanta Society

The very modest outside appearance of the Swedenborgian Church can be deceiving. Once inside,  one is taken aback by the architecture and design of this sacred space.

The very modest outside appearance of the Swedenborgian Church can be deceiving. Once inside, one is taken aback by the architecture and design of this sacred space.

Friday morning came early. By 8:00 am I was arriving at Swedenborgian Church, a historical landmark church just on the outskirts of the Presidio. As I walk in through the garden, I find myself in a modestly sized, yet beautifully appointed garden. Later I will learn that the man who envisioned this church intended us to walk through the garden in order to enter the nave. That is because he considered the garden to be part of the church, he wanted us to walk through the wonder of creation as part of the worship experience.

I’m admiring an apple tree with fruit that seems ready to be plucked and eaten, and that’s when Rev. Junchol Lee walks out the parish house door. “You must be Sergio,” he says as he begins to show me around the garden. I remark on the apple tree and he tells me he’s been eating from it in the past few days. And then we go inside the church. I’ve seen this place in pictures and I’ve been very eager to see it in person, it is unlike any other church I’ve ever seen. And the pictures simply do not do it justice. The Rev. Thomas Worcester founded the first Swedenborgian Church in America in 1795, in Boston. In 1867, his son, Rev. Joseph Worcester, started two Swedenborgian Churches in San Francisco, which no longer exist. Rev. Joseph Worcester was deeply involved in the planning of the present church and it was finished in 1895.

Inside the church. Notice the natural arch beams and the iconic chairs, one of which was given to the Smithsonian Institute for its design and historic significance.

Inside the church. Notice the natural arch beams and the iconic chairs, one of which was given to the Smithsonian Institute for its design and historic significance.

This is a small church, there are approximately 80 chairs in the nave. Everything inside this Arts & Crafts style building has a purpose and a meaning. The chairs, for instance, were chosen instead of pews to make this space more versatile. Rev. Lee tells me that after service in the early days, congregants would move the chairs to gather around the fireplace in the back of the church and eat together. The fireplace is off center in relation to the altar and the axis of the church. I haven’t noticed this apparent anomaly until Rev. Lee points it out. “It would’ve made more sense to center it, but they intentionally made it asymmetrical,” he tells me. “Why on earth would they have done that?” I wonder. “Nature is not symmetrical and yet we feel most comfortable in nature,” he explains. Everything about this space attempts to bring nature inside as a reminder that God is in nature, that we experience God in creation. The arches that hold up the ceiling are raw logs, they look like they were cut yesterday, and the curves are organic, not symmetrical. There are branches and other preserved greens and shrubbery inside. The baptismal shell is an actual conch shell, and it happens to have been used to baptize Robert Frost in 1881, in one of the original Swedenborgian churches before this one was built. This church is an architectural representation of Emanuel Swedenborg’s theology. And it is magnificent, in an understated, humble sort of way.

Rev. Junchol Lee

Rev. Junchol Lee

Rev. Lee is just as fascinating as this church. “I wanted to be a Buddhist monk,” he tells me. Having been born and raised into a devoutly Presbyterian Korean home, he realized that leaving the faith to follow his desire of a monastic life of Buddhism would have been devastating to his family. He abandoned that dream, but as life would have it, a few years later he ended up in New York living with relatives who happened to be fervent Swedenborgians. As we’re standing near the altar, I point to a large bell; it looks quite Buddhist and a little out of place here. He tells me it was a gift to the church and he often uses it to lead Taoist meditation. Wait, what? “A good thing is this congregation doesn’t mind having a half-Taoist, half-Swedenborgian minister,” he says, just like that, like it’s no small thing. I tell him I’ve been looking for a Taoist Center to visit and he tells me it would be very non-Taoist to have a Taoist Center. I should’ve known this. Rev. Lee is a practicing Taoist and he has only started leading meditation groups because people have asked him to. But he is also a fully trained, seminary-graduate, Swedenborgian minister.

San Francisco Swedenborgians have kept handwritten records since before this church was built. Here, Rev. Lee points to the name of Robert Frost, whose mother was a devout Swedenborgian.

San Francisco Swedenborgians have kept handwritten records since before this church was built. Here, Rev. Lee points to the name of Robert Frost, whose mother was a devout Swedenborgian.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering what Swedenborgianism is. I didn’t even know I was pronouncing it wrong: it’s Swedenborg (hard G) and Swedenborgian (soft g). Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1688. He was a respected scientist and inventor who later had a spritual awakening that led to him devoting the rest of his life to theological work and inquiry. While he didn’t intend to establish a new church, his followers did so years after his death.

Swedenborg’s views were very much out of line with mainline Christianity and therefore, as Rev. Lee says, “They never liked us.” I ask what are some main differences. “We deny the existence of original sin, therefore we don’t believe in instant salvation and we don’t believe in predestination,” he says, adding that one does not become saved by simply uttering some “magical words.” Another point of difference between Swedenborg and mainline Christianity is the understanding of heaven and hell. “Hell is not a place of punishment but a place of choice. We don’t belive that God created hell in the beginning. Evil was simply a choice made by humans. So, heaven and hell are different and how you get there is different as well,” he tells me. But perhaps one of the most controversial views of Swedenborg’s is that of the second coming of Christ. Rev. Lee tells me that, “In Swedenborg’s mind, Christ came to earth once physically, why does he need to come back physically again? He insisted that the second coming would be spiritual in nature.” This was a big problem for mainline Christianity, if they give up the second coming of Christ, Rev. Lee says, “They have to give up half of the power they have over their congregations. There’s no last judgment anymore? Woohoo, we’re free! Swedenborg nurtured a real freedom of choice for the congregation,” says Rev. Lee. “In a way that’s why we are small, we’ve been small and I don’t think we’ll be really huge in years to come,” he tells me.

The Baptismal Shell, which was used of Robert Frost's baptism.

The Baptismal Shell, which was used of Robert Frost’s baptism.

There is another reason why Swedenborgianism has not taken over the world, and it’s a delicate one. In its heyday, the church counted among its ranks some 10,000 members. But these were people, as Rev. Lee explains, who were literate and intellectually-driven. “To be a Swedenborgian, you need to be able to read and write,” he tells me, remarking on the significance of such a high number of educated members in the 1800’s. “In a way, we have been a very elite-oriented, intellectual practice,” he admits. “The mission statement of the first Swedenborgian gathering, which happened in England, was to translate and publish the writings of Swedenborg,” says Lee. This emphasis on intellectual development set the tone for the church and unintentionally crippled its growth because, there wasn’t much of an emphasis in fellowship. “This was our strength and our limitation, and it still is today,” says Rev. Lee.

Facing the back from the altar area, one can see the intentional asymmetry of the design. The fireplace, the aisle and the altar are all out of alignment, to evoke the asymmetry of nature.

Facing the back from the altar area, one can see the intentional asymmetry of the design. The fireplace, the aisle and the altar are all out of alignment, to evoke the asymmetry of nature.

With its focus on individual spiritual and intellectual development, it only makes sense that this is the kind of Christian church which would be prefectly at peace with having a half-Taoist minister to lead them. Rev. Lee explains how Swedenborgianism is compatible in this way with Eastern philosophies and religion, “Buddhism and Taoism say you can’t help others achieve enlightenment, you can only do that for yourself.” He explains you must help others in life, but ultimately the individual is responsible for his own achievement. He tells me one of the biggest criticisms of Swedenborgianism today is the question of serving the community. “We ask that of ourselves, too, what are we doing for the community?” says Rev. Lee. They do seem out of trend in this regard. Every single church, temple, mosque, synagogue and religious organization I’ve come in contact with seems to have as its highest priority to be a service to the community. This is a wonderful thing, of course, but I wonder if the balance is a little off. What are religious institutions sacrificing in exchange for this overwhelming emphasis on serving the community?

“A lot of times, we do these things (serving the community) to make ourselves feel better,” says, Rev. Lee, and he adds, “To me, religious, spiritual or even philosophical practice is not to make you feel better. It is an expression of your inner desire or belief, and it is something you do regardless of reward, compliments or acknowledgment.” These are difficult ideas to grasp, and as I mentioned before, it is delicate territory we’re treading on. But he helps me bring it all around and it all begins to make more sense to me. Rev. Lee wonders, “If churches encouraged their members to serve their communities without any recognition, without any reward, would they do it? If they were to say, ‘You know what? Jesus will be indifferent (whether you serve or not).’ I don’t know if they would do it!” So, it comes down to motivation. Do we do these good deeds because we think it’ll give us good karma, merit, favor? “Even Jesus spoke to this; he criticized the hypocrites, he said ‘If you do a good work, do it in such a way that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.'” This reminds me of Jesus’s exhortation to pray in private and not in public like those who do so to draw attention.

A view of the garden, with the apple tree in the foreground.

A view of the garden, with the apple tree in the foreground.

But Swedenborgian thought does not advocate for individualism or isolation. In Swedenborg’s mind, Rev. Lee tells me, “God is pure love and love requres mutual relationship. A relationship with God and a relationship with others. In Swedenborg’s mind, the world was created in a process of pure love.” And in Rev. Lee’s mind, God is very much present in his life. God is not the product of some intellectual endeavor. He recounts for me a couple of separate instances in which he has experienced in very real and amazing ways the voice of God. At crucial times in his life, when Rev. Lee faced uncertainty or adversity, he has felt and heard God’s direction in very real ways. “The way I experience God is to me a very interesting thing,” he tells me, “He’s wiser than any human being could ever be, truly loving, never insulting or overwhelming, always embracing and nurturing and caring. That’s the way I experience it. To me, if that’s the divine, I love to embrace it. There’s nothing to resist about!” he says.

And what about Taoism, I ask. “Taoism is very flexible and free. We don’t have too many dos and don’ts. Human beings cannot talk about absolute truth, and limiting yourself with only one philosophy leads to becoming judgmental,” he says, explaining how compatible Taoism is with Swedenborgian Christianity. “The Swedenborgian Church allows me to be who I am.”

 

After my visit at Swedenborgian Church, I headed over to Darussalam Mosque for Jumu’ah (Friday prayer and sermon). The Imam delivered a sermon expounding the virtues of kindness to others and right living according to the Holy Quran. He exhorted congregants to do good unto others, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, saying, “We are not meant to ask, ‘Hello, are you a muslim so that I may be kind to you?’ but rather be kind to all, regardless.” He insisted rather passionately that the horrors taking place in the name of Islam have nothing to do with the teachings of the Prophet or the Quran, and that the calling was to be righteous and compassionate. The mosque was full, shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall. It was a wonderful experience for me.

The entrance to the Mosque.

The entrance to the Mosque.

 

 

 

 

The Imam preaches.

The Imam preaches

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the sacred spaces toward the top of my list was Congregation Beth Sholom. While I was unable to attend services, I was kindly allowed to visit the Synagogue and spend some quiet time there. Here are a few photos of this wonderful place.

Congregation Beth Sholom

Congregation Beth Sholom

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A view from the top. The Yahrzeit Wall can be seen in the back.

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A view of the other side, with the ark in view.

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This lovely chapel is used every day of the week for prayers and services.

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A detail view of the outside of the synagogue. When seen in full, the shape is evocative of a menorah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last stop for the day was the Vedanta Society of San Francisco. Vedantas break for the summer, so there were no services being held during my visit. I was, however, able to explore the temple and sit for meditation in the main shrine room.

The Old Temple of the Vedanta Society, built in 1905, was the first Hindu Temple to be built in the west. It is currently undergoing renovations.

The Old Temple of the Vedanta Society, built in 1905, was the first Hindu Temple to be built in the west. It is currently undergoing renovations.

The entrance to the new temple.

The entrance to the new temple.

The main shrine room.

The main shrine room.

 

 

 

San Francisco, Day 4

Grace Cathedral

The past few days I’ve been going at a very heavy pace, visiting as many places and meeting as many people as I possibly can. I’m only here for a week, so I feel compelled to make the most out of every minute. Today, however, I decided to slow down a bit. I’ve also decided to give myself and you, dear reader, a break. This won’t be an endless blog post, instead I’ll leave you with a few photographs of my visit to Grace Cathedral.

I chose Grace Cathedral for my day of rest because of its labyrinths. Those of you who have followed my journey might remember my first experience walking a labyrinth. I knew that walking a labyrinth, particularly one in such a magnificent sacred space as Grace Cathedral, would be just the thing to do for my teeming spirit and my tired body.

Thank you for reading along, and thank you for your kind comments, which I find both encouraging and thought-provoking.

NOTE: If you are on Instagram, be sure to follow me @storiesofdevotion for real-time updates and more pictures.

My view of the back of the cathedral as I approached from Jones Street. I walked some four of five of the steepest blocks I've ever known, only to be greeted by the Cathedral's backside!

My view of the back of the cathedral as I approached from Jones Street. I walked some four of five of the steepest blocks I’ve ever known, only to be greeted by the Cathedral’s backside!

The sanctuary.

A view of the sanctuary.

The rose window through the Ribbons of Light, a temporary art installation.

The rose window through the Ribbons of Light, a temporary art installation.

The labyrinth toward the entrance to the nave.  The photo doesn't do a good job of showing the size of this beautiful labyrinth.

The labyrinth toward the entrance to the nave. The photo doesn’t do a good job of showing the size of this beautiful labyrinth.

At the entrance to the AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel.

At the entrance to the AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel.

The labyrinth outside, with beautiful views of the city.

The labyrinth outside, with beautiful views of the city.

A magnificent cathedral and a respite for the spirit.

A magnificent cathedral and a respite for the spirit.

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.”

San Francisco, Day 1

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

A few weeks ago I was talking to someone about this work that I’m doing, visiting sacred spaces, interviewing clergy and lay people across the faith spectrum, and gathering stories. I gave her my elevator speech, which I’ve got down, having been at it for three months. But then she asked me a question that caught me a bit off guard. “So, how long have you been on this spiritual journey?” I mumbled a bit and replied, “Well, I guess I haven’t really thought of myself as being on a spiritual journey. But, now that you mention it…”

Inside the temple.

Inside the temple.

It’s the truth. This whole time I’ve been operating as an observer, an attentive student, a respectful admirer, and an intentional listener. But it’s not the whole truth. At some level, whether I’ve been aware of it or not, I myself have ventured into a journey of personal reflection and discovery. Is it any surprise? Julia Alvarez said something along the lines of “we’re all writing each other’s stories,” and I’m finding this to be a reality. The more stories I hear, the more my own story makes sense. The more I learn about the faith and practices of others, the more I learn about my own. And, well, that was the whole point of this project. I set out with the idea that faith is narrative, that narrative gives life meaning, and that understanding what gives meaning to other peoples’ lives creates a more emotionally connected world. I’m happy to report all of that still holds. And I say that as both an observer and a test subject.

People love using the metaphor of “journey” when talking about faith and spirituality. It’s rather overused, if we’re being honest, and it’s become a bit cliché. But we use it because it works. We talk about faith as a journey and not a destination. We talk about growing spiritually with every step, about meeting spiritual friends and teachers along the way. We talk about our paths crossing. We talk about seeking truth, about being in it for the long run. It just works. And in the case of this project, I knew from the start that I would have to take that metaphor and make it a reality, that I would have to actually travel outside of Kansas City if I was to get a bigger picture of our spiritual and religious landscape today.

"In the joy of others lies our own." - HDH Pramukh Swami Maharaj

“In the joy of others lies our own.” – HDH Pramukh Swami Maharaj

So, this week, my journey has brought me to San Francisco. I arrived late afternoon and I headed right over to my first destination, trying to make the most of my first day. The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a Swaminarayan Hindu Temple, is located at the very top of one of San Francisco’s countless hills. From the outside the building doesn’t look like much. I called last week and was told to just show up any time between 4:00 and 8:00, when the temple is open for Darshan services. I walked in, left my shoes in the rack by the door, and was warmly greeted by a devotee. After a few pleasantries and the necessary explanations, he gave me a ten minute BAPS crash course. BAPS stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha and it is a modern sect (think denomination) of Hinduism. It was founded some 250 years ago by Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who was known for his many contributions toward the improvement of societal standards. But for devotees, Swaminarayan is so much more than a mere social worker, he is in fact God incarnate and is worshipped as such.

“You are very lucky to be here today,” said my gracious host as he introduced me to the visiting Swami and Sadhu. As it turned out, I was there at the same time as these two holy men, who had just arrived from India. I didn’t have an opportunity to speak with the Swami, but his traveling companion, Sadhu Vedanta Priya, took the time to answer some of my questions. Swamis (teachers) and sadhus (monks) lead austere and disciplined lives. They take vows of poverty and celibacy, which means they can’t own anything or even handle money and they are not allowed to interact with women. At the temple, men and women sit separately. “Of course women are allowed to worship and hear the teachings,” Sadhu Priya tells me. He explains it is simply a matter of respect and propriety.

A row of flowers divides the temple down the middle. Women sit on the left, men on the right.

A row of flowers divides the temple down the middle. Women sit on the left, men on the right.

I’m allowed to take a few pictures, given that Mondays are slow and no devotees have shown up for prayer. Because Buddhism was born out of the context of Hinduism, there is so much about this place that feels like home. Along the walls I see words and images I recognize, “vajra,” “padma.” The men I’ve just spoken with all have malas (prayer beads) around their necks, and they look exactly like mine. “Yes, we also call it a mala,” says Sadhu Priya. A devotee has approached me and explained that the mantra one repeats in temple is “Swaminarayan,” the name of God. Swami and Sadhu take their leave and I find myself all alone in this sacred space. It feels very familiar and I am completely at peace in this quiet, impressively quiet, space. I sit down to meditate, I take my mala and do a round, “Swaminarayan, Swaminarayan, Swaminarayan…”

Teachers and monastics in this order are itinerant. They are constantly traveling, visiting temples and communities. Traditionally they never stay more than two days in one location. So, it really does seem auspicious that our journeys, mine of learning and theirs of teaching, should coincide. And it makes me wonder…what is it about traveling, about being constantly on the move, physically and spiritually?

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