A Visit to the Buddhist Temple

One of the very best things that happened to me when I went to college decades ago was the fact I began to broaden my experience.  When you grow up on a farm in rural Indiana, as I did, your world is pretty small.  Of course, at the time I did not realize how provincial I was.  I assumed the entire world was just like my little world!
   
In that world there were a lot of Quakers around the place.  And in that tiny world there were many Quakers.  What I did not realize was that particular place in Indiana was where Quakers migrated to before the Civil War in order to avoid the slavery issues.  Fortunately, Quakers were ahead of their times on that issue.  But in college I began to get the sense Quakers were a pretty small group.  This was true.  Compared to Baptists, Catholics and a host of other Christian traditions, we were pretty small fish.
   
In college I began to get a taste of the religious world beyond Christians.  This was totally new for me.  Having Jewish friends was the first step into religious diversity.  This was good for me, although it had its theological challenges.  I was facing theological questions that were totally new to me.  I did not know how to think about the bigger picture.  But with help from other, wiser souls, I made progress and expanded my worldview and found ways to be inclusive.
   
Through graduate school and, now, decades of teaching I have continued to broaden my world.  Clearly, the world has always been very broad---diversity sometimes feeling rampant.  But I grew into the bigger world.  In graduate school I became friends with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.  I now knew the five major religious traditions in the world.  And then my world became much more complex and interesting.  I welcomed that diversity, even though I often did not know how to cope with it.  But I learned and I appreciated.  I still do.
   
And now as a professor, I try to offer this same gift to students.  Many of my students come from fairly limited perspectives.  Certainly their worlds are usually not as narrow as mine was, but they still have not experienced too much.  And they normally have not thought much about the complex, diverse world in which they live.  They don’t make friends in broad enough ways.  They often have chosen to be provincial.  I want to help them grow.
   
And so, often I pack up the van and go to a “strange” context for many of them.  Recently, we headed to the Buddhist Temple.  It is only about a ten-minute drive from campus, but almost none of the students know about its existence.  The same thing is true for two stunningly other places within the same range of my university: an Islamic mosque and a Hindu temple.  Even students who live in the area are surprised these places of religious worship are in their backyards and they did not know it!
   
The Buddhist Temple where we go is not very impressive on the outside.  But students are amazed as soon as they walk through the doors and glimpse what’s inside.  It is pretty clear we step into a different world---really, a different culture---when we are inside the Temple.  The pictures on the wall are dominated by Asian faces.  The statues portray the familiar figure of the Buddha, but there are other statues are students don’t not recognize.  Often the inscriptions and other writing on the wall are in a foreign language.  Students usually do not know about Sanskrit, Pali and the contemporary languages of Buddhism. 
   
When it comes time to meditate, students normally feel the beginner’s awkwardness.  The mat on the floor and the small pillow that is your “chair” for the duration are not much solace.  Getting comfortable in the meditating position is a big challenge for all of us not used to this position.  Not too long into the meditation, legs become uncomfortable, backs begin to ache and any meditative focus evaporates.  But students hang in there. 
   
No one becomes an expert in ten minutes.  Ten minutes seem like an hour when you first start this meditating process.  Even with instruction it is nearly impossible not to notice the crazy thoughts that go zinging through your brain.  “Breath and breath out; push your nave forward and on and on,” drones the soothing voice of the leader.  Focus comes and goes for most of us.  It is difficult not to wonder when this will end!
   
When it does end, students have an experience that I hope begins to broaden their thinking and enlarge their worlds.  In my estimation I have given them a gift.  In most cases I will never know what difference the gift of growing up, becoming more understanding and inclusive, etc. will actually mean for them.  I often tell folks it is my ministry of peacemaking.
   
If I can help folks be understanding, inclusive and loving, then maybe I have helped people be less likely to hate, be prejudiced, etc.  The world and our country needs these kinds of people.  The world needs people with a mission and a message of peace.  I remember one of the slogans from the 60s: “make love, not war.”  I think that still is a message for our day.
   
I would like to think a little visit to the Buddhist Temple was an act of “making love.”  If we can make friends of strangers, there is less likelihood they will become enemies.  Giving an evening of my life to this cause is a small price to pay for a world we all would hope someday to see: a world where everyone belongs.   

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