The Challenges of Finding a Good Buddhist Temple

UNIX command for Life

As readers know, I’ve been looking for a new Buddhist temple for a while now, but so far, I haven’t really found what I was looking for. Some of my experiences recently with Buddhist groups remind me of a quotation from Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”:

… the post-modern, politically correct atheists were like people who had suddenly found themselves in charge of a big and unfathomably complex computer system (viz. society) with no documentation or instructions of any kind, and so whose only way to keep the thing running was to invent and enforce certain rules with a kind of neo-Puritanical rigor…. Whereas people who were wired into a church were like UNIX system administrators who, while they might not understand everything, at least had some documentation…. They were, in other words, capable of displaying adaptability.

In some of my experience, I’ve met Buddhist converts and communities that seem to fit the “post-modern, politically correct atheist” types, and I just didn’t find their view appealing to me. From my experiences in Japan and elsewhere, I just don’t find that kind of “pristine”, modern Buddhism attractive to me. It almost feels self-righteous and insulting somehow. Worse, those temples seem almost allergic to family-style Buddhism, children’s services, etc. Is it uncool to have babies or something?

Then again, I’ve been wondering if I should go back to my old temple, even though I haven’t been there in years. That temple was for a particular immigrant community, and although it was very family-friendly, every time I went I always felt like a guest in someone else’s house.

Anyhow, lately I have become worried that I won’t find the right temple around here, but then I saw a good discussion recently on the Jodo Shu Buddhist Group, and one person’s comments kind of struck me:

I’m on the mid east coast so there is no Jodo Shu temple nearby so I’m just trying to connect I suppose. I think at one point I tried to force myself to find a school that was represented in my area and get with that but, anyway I’ve come to see over the past 5 years that , that is simply not a good idea….I have learned in my little “temple hopping” (as a friend called it) that without a deep trust in the teachings/ teacher there is nothing to find in that.

It sounds like this person has had the same experience I did, but after 5 years, realized that “temple hopping” wouldn’t work. In the end, the right approach maybe is to find a Buddhist teaching/teacher you trust and just follow that, even if the community is imperfect or simply not there.

But which teaching/teacher do I trust? I am not sure.

People who read the blog years ago (2008-2009) might remember I followed Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, but then had a long period in which I kept switching between different Buddhist sects over and over again. It was like a rotating cycle between this Buddhist sect and that.

Eventually, I got tired of this and kind of settled on a general “Mahayana” Buddhist approach that kind of worked for a long time. But without some structure and sense of community, I don’t think is something I can sustain in the long-run. Plus I want to have a community for my daughter and #2 (the new baby) to grow up in. I want my children to be good little UNIX system administrators in life and have some adaptability. ;)

I still plan to visit at least one other temple, but I suspect the real solution here is to hit the books again like I used to do, search my heart and figure out the best path within Buddhism I really want to follow. That may not be an easy or quick process but may be necessary anyway.

Time will tell. :-/

P.S. Longer version of the same quote here.

P.P.S. The “two posts a week” idea was getting kind of frustrating. Meh. ;p Also today is a double-post.

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
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11 Responses to The Challenges of Finding a Good Buddhist Temple

  1. Kyoushin says:

    Hi Doug, Bet you knew I’d chip in on this one! No I’m not going to say just go back to the JSS temple :-) I just wanted to say that in this pluralistic, inter-connected age – where we can see all the myriad options out there, and can shop around – we start to extrapolate out from this diveristy and envision a perfect temple or teaching that ticks every box for us. I don’t think it exists. So the thing is to identify which things are most important to you. Also, although time is a factor, what’s to stop you going to one temple for your little girl and another for whatever else it is you are looking for? Cheers, K

  2. Hi Kyoushin,

    Yeah, I started with a checklist of things I wanted to find in a temple, and each temple in encounter has some, but missing others (each for different reasons). That’s clearly not working.

    So, as you said, it’s probably best to find what’s important and build on that.

    As for my daughter and I, time is a pretty significant factor, so we can’t visit temples too often. It’s a lot easier if we can go together.

    Thanks for the advice. :)

  3. Dear Kyoushin,

    Thank you for your wonderful blog! In your looking for a temple, I am wondering if you came across anything about the Hosso School, and whether there are any places for a westerner to practice? Good luck in your search!

    -Mako Voelkel

  4. 38 says:

    The only temples or should I say the only teachers worth learning from are those hermits, yogis, ascetics living in the asian mountains. Don’t waste your time with teachers or temples who let their energies be dissipated by mingling with the general public.

  5. 38 says:

    Most temples in asia have now degenerated into businesses seeking to leech money from their followers. The monks perform various “ceremonies” in exchange for “donations”. Religion is a big business as they say. Trust me, the only teachers worth learning from, regardless of their spiritual path, are those who shied away from the public eye. Because the more a spiritual seeker hangs around people, the more his spiritual energies, which have been refined by meditation and other spiritual practices, are stolen by those who do not cultivate i.e. the general public. My 2 cents.

  6. Hello 38 and welcome,

    Do you speak from experience there, are you making a conjecture? How does this differ from Western institution (Christian and New Age) which often have the same issues?

  7. Pork Chop says:

    Sorry if I’m a bit late on this one. Just stumbled across your blog the other day and thought I’d comment.

    Have gone through very similar issues the last year or so. Got introduced to Buddhism in high school on a military base in Japan almost 20 years ago, didn’t start getting into it seriously until recently. Friend brought me to a local temple (Vietnamese Tian Tai) and it really turned me off at first. Tried out a bunch of different groups and encountered a lot of the same types of people you seem to have encountered. Tried out a bunch of different practices as well, to see what fit best.

    What I’ve settled into is also what I’d consider “General East Asian Mahayana”, possibly similar to your own leanings. Initially I had some reservations about the Vietnamese monk at the temple, but the more I interacted with other groups, the more I’ve come to appreciate him. So for me, the Tiantai temple actually has come to fit my situation perfectly: Tiantai, as well as most Chinese-influenced Buddhism, is pretty syncretic in approach to practices & sutras, it mostly provides a bit of hierarchy for understanding how things fit together. Thus, there’s no conflict in reading the Agamas/Pali Suttas as well as the Avatamsaka; doing seated meditation as well as nembutsu. In fact, all major schools of Chinese Buddhism & most of the major schools of Vietnamese Buddhism advocate Pure Land practice as well as other practices – so if you lean that way, the world is wide open.

    I have a feeling Japanese Tendai is similar in the sense of syncretism or inclusiveness and from what you described of Honen’s inclusiveness, it sounds like Jodo Shu would fit the bill as well. You also may want to consider other Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean traditions, even if the temples themselves seem geared towards a specific immigrant community.

    Like your situation, the temple I go to is for a specific immigrant community. In our case however, we have a bilingual monk and separate English services for westerners. If you’re in Seattle, I imagine Amitabha Buddhist Society & Dharma Drum would have some English resources and a familiar doctrine. Otherwise, if you want something with more of a Japanese feel, there’s Koyasan the Shingon temple and a couple legit Zen spots? Incidentally, I also saw online that Seattle has a bunch of Nichiren spots, but I wouldn’t say anything about Pure Land or Amitabha/Amida walking in there – they’re liable to start frothing out the mouth. Nichiren was vehemently opposed to Pure Land practice, even though Amitabha makes an appearance in his precious Lotus Sutra.

    My wife’s Japanese as well (plus we just had our second child Mar 20), so it would be nice if there were more Japanese Buddhist resources in my town (especially Jodo, JSS, or Tendai). It would be nice to get the kids involved somewhat. I actually envy the Japanese resources you’ve got out that way.

  8. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Pork Chop and thanks for chiming. It’s good to hear from people with the same experience. I haven’t resolved the issue yet, so like you’ve kind of defaulted to “general East Asian Mahayana”. :) Funny how similar our conclusions are.

    I’ve been thinking about Tendai or Shingon Buddhism, oddly enough. For the sake of my family, I’d like to stay within Japanese Buddhism if possible, and both communities are pretty eclectic. For Tendai, I’m a little leery of its controversial origins, but to be fair that was literally over a 1,000 years ago. And maybe, I’m just being too picky. ;p Also, there are no Tendai temples around here anyway.

    We are lucky to have two Shingon temples in the area, and I’ve been to both, but both are small and far away. They’re probably my best bet though.

    I’ve been to the JSS temple for years and have decided not to return. Nichiren is just out for me.

    I haven’t really checked out Zen temples here, and I am seriously thinking about doing that, but they’re not very family-friend, so I am not sure this will work. Plus Zen temples in the US try hard to “eschew cultural accretions”, which also means they’re not very friendly for Japanese people ironically enough. Still, I will visit anyway.

    So, ironically, having a lot of temples in the area doens’t necessarily equate to healthy, functional communities. I can either learn to live with it, or just give up. Lately, I am somewhat inclined toward the latter.

    Speaking of Vietnamese temples though, there is a very nice one not too far from here, which I might visit again. I posted about my recent visit there. Sadly, they’re only open for certain holidays and occasions and that’s about it. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People shouldn’t have to go to temple every Sunday. ;)

    By the way, if you need Japanese Buddhist resources, let me know. I have a few items I can spare.

  9. Pork Chop says:

    I originally got into Buddhism due to martial arts (kung fu) – so it has always been Chinese-flavored Buddhism that makes the most sense to me (Vietnamese Buddhism carrying a heavy Chinese-influence). When I see Japanese Buddhism, most of it seems pretty “foreign” to me. It’s weird, I feel much more at home with Okinawans than just about anybody else on the planet, but the Buddhism of my in-laws (Nichiren/SGI) is one of the schools that specifically doesn’t do much for me and the Buddhism of Japan in general is very hard for me to approach.

    The video clips I’ve seen on Tendai look pretty different from the Tiantai I see weekly at the Vietnamese temple (and the Chinese Buddhism I’ve seen in the past for that matter). I don’t know if it’s due to the influence of Japanese culture, the influence of Shinto, or the esoteric practices added by Saicho and Ennin but I notice a lot of ritual I’m not used to.

    While I’m a huge fan of Chinese Ch’an, most of Japanese Zen’s apparent disregard for sutras & other practices (especially in the West) doesn’t do much for me either. The Obaku Zen school looks very interesting however, would love to visit their temple(s) one day.

    Rissho Kosei Kai has a local presence, but as a Nichiren-influenced school, they drop all sutras but the Lotus and most practices save the Daimoku. Not really what I’m looking for.

    I can see the possibility for similar issues with Japanese Pure Land that you may have, ie that the approach of some schools may be somewhat restrictive. Chinese Pure Land typically recommends 5 sutras vs 3, with one of those being a section of the Avatamsaka that gets referenced in the Lotus Sutra, and they would never tell you not to read anything else. In fact that section (10 vows of Samantabhadra) and the Avatamsaka on the whole really put Pure Land practice into the context of the overall scheme of Mahayana practice (thus, why I don’t agree with Nichiren’s stance on Pure Land). Chinese Pure Land is also big on meditation, ethics, vows, and merit-making – opting for a balanced approach to self-power/other-power as opposed to sole reliance on one or the other.

    All that being said, the main forms of Japanese Buddhism that have interested me the most are Tendai and the Pure Land schools. I suppose Shingon would be interesting as well – especially given that I’ve seen them equate Vairocana with Amitabha and the Eternal Buddha. It’s just after dabbling in a little bit of Tibetan Buddhism, tantra & empowerments are not things I’m keen on. Oh, don’t let me forget Kegon or Hosso either! The Avatamsaka is like the big brother of the Infinite Life Sutra and Mind Only really brings it all together.

    With Tendai, while I think they may have a checkered past and Saicho’s dropping of the traditional Vinaya is somewhat questionable, I believe a lot of their doctrine comes from Zhiyi, the founder of TianTai in China, and Zhanran – who’ve both got some brilliant writings. The inclusive nature of Tendai makes it flexible for whatever practices you’re interested in. For you, the issue may be a local community. They have some good info at tendai.org and they also offer online training classes, but I think the closest temple to you is probably NorCal. That’s a lot still closer than I am to any Japanese Tendai unless I move back to Japan or DC. hehe

    Like you, I study Japanese language (passed JLPT 3kyu in 2008, been slackin lately). Trying to re-start my language study is a big driver for me trying to find a form of Japanese Buddhism I can click with, especially given that one day I would love to move back to Japan. My current plan is really to study Japanese Buddhism & language on my own, while practicing locally with the Vietnamese Tiantai group – so I do kinda lean towards Tendai. As far as Japanese Buddhist resources, any pointing in the right direction would be greatly appreciated! In fact, I found your blog when searching for bilingual Japanese Buddhist-related blogs.

    Shame the Vietnamese temple’s not more available.
    How about any of the Chinese temples?
    http://www.buddhanet.info/wbd/province.php?province_id=68

    (sorry for writing so much)

  10. Pork Chop says:

    PS – totally forgot about our earlier correspondence about Medicine Buddha. After reading the MB sutra a few times, I switched my practice to Amitabha.

  11. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hey Pork Chop,

    Sorry for the late reply. Work, etc.

    Anyhow, if I had to compare Japanese Buddhism to say, Chinese Buddhism, it’s a difference between “specialization” vs. “syncretism”. Both are venerable traditions, but due to complex historical, cultural reasons, they used the same basic fundamental tools and came up with somewhat different approaches.

    By “specialization” I’d argue that much of Japanese Buddhism tends to focus around a certain practice (meditation, Lotus Sutra, Amitabha) and build a school or sect around it. As part of this, the founder of that approach gets revered a lot, and relevant sutras become the main corpus used by that group.

    Chinese Buddhism, similar to Korean and Vietnamese Buddhism, is more syncretic in nature as you pointed out.

    To be fair, Japanese Buddhism has plenty of syncretism (i.e. Tendai, Shingon), and “mainland” Buddhism has aspects of specialization too. It’s just relative.

    Anyhow, my first experiences were overwhelmingly with Japanese Buddhism, so I tend to feel most “at home” with that. Years of hanging out in temples there, having friends who can guide me and so on have probably colored my experiences.

    In any case though, it’s sort of my “home base” with which I practice Buddhism as much as I can, even though I do like to learn a lot from non-Japanese sources (one friend is a Theravadin monk who provides very helpful advice).

    Anyhow, I think you had a lot of helpful advice and ideas with regard to Tendai, so I think I just might take you up on it. Thanks much! :)

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