Lately, while visiting the Rissho Kosei Kai temple here in Seattle, I’ve been getting some good sources of inspiration for my Buddhist shrine at home. As mentioned before, the services at that temple are usually divided between English service, and Japanese service. The English service was led by an elderly American fellow and the chapel room was very nice and Japanese-style: a large altar with an image of the “Eternal Buddha” from the Lotus Sutra, lacquer chairs, Buddhist bells, etc. But then I noticed that the food offering (fuse 布施 in Japanese) before the Buddha looked a little strange. I thought they were potato chips, but it turns out that the offering was breakfast cereal (specifically Special K).
I thought this was kind of clever. In traditional Asian Buddhist altars, people offer rice, because it’s an important staple food. People express gratitude, offer food for their ancestors, and also offer it to the Buddha which is a wholesome act. It’s an expression of giving. Since we eat rice at home too, we offer rice sometimes, but it’s not always practical to do this. So, for Westerners, including Asian immigrants who grew up in the West, it makes to offer a more “local” staple food like bread, oatmeal or breakfast cereal. It’s the same thing: an important staple food, and still express gratitude and generosity. So, it’s a perfectly valid Buddhist offering.
Also, I noticed that the English service at RKK is entirely in English, not mixed. At first, this felt a bit weird because I’m used to chanting in Sino-Japanese, but actually it’s perfectly sensible to chant Buddhist sutras in one’s own native language, at least for home services. Liturgical languages are very useful in religion because they provide a sense of consistency and anyone, anywhere can recite it. But for practical purposes, it’s perfectly fine to read a sutra out loud in English at home, or whatever your native language is.
So, lately, I’ve been adopting this approach. Using a cheap, saké-dish (the kind used to sip saké from), I started offering Honey Nut Cheerios to my Buddhist altar instead of rice.1 Why Cheerios? Because they’re good!2
Plus, I’ve stopped reciting Buddhist sutras in old Sino-Japanese. Instead I read them out loud in English. English sounds kind of stupid when you chant it (in my opinion), but I try to read it aloud in a nice, clear voice. The last time I visited the local RKK temple, I purchased a copy of their English service book:
This mostly contains English-translated excerpts of the Lotus Sutra, and other things you’d expected in a typical Buddhist service: praise to the Three Treasures, dedication of merit, etc. I’ve been using this a lot, though sometimes, I use my own little sutra book instead. I don’t recite mantras in English though, because they’re supposed to be recited in the original language.
Anyhow, the point is: For Buddhists (or any religion), it’s good to adapt traditions from other cultures, but it’s also good to adapt your local traditions too. Exotic isn’t always better. :)
P.S. More advice on making a Buddhist altar, but a great Buddhist teacher.
1 I also started doing this for the little Shinto shrine we have too. Same logic. Shinto is about expressing gratitude and humility, so why not do it using something important in my culture?
2 My ancestors are probably not on a diet anyway. Hopefully they’re not diabetic either. ;)