I have admittedly led a pretty sheltered life in terms of interactions with people from other cultures. I am not a Buddhist and so I do not have any first-hand experiences with the religious practices associated with Buddhism. Before this course, and before my experience, I knew some things about Buddhism, but only as much as most people know. For example, I knew that Buddhism is primarily associated with Asian culture, that Buddhists tend towards nonviolence and that they hope to achieve inner peace by positive actions. Buddhists are stereotyped as the idea of the monk in robes with shaved heads, but that is only a very small faction of the people who believe in Buddhism. Also, I knew beforehand that Buddhists were associated with nature and that they had many specific customs which were specialized to their own religion. Now that I have attended this religious event and had an experience, I understand far more about Buddhism and actually intend to incorporate some of what I learned in my own life.
For my religious event, I went to a meditation class at a Buddhist temple, Buddha Gate Monastery in Lafayette, California, which is approximately a 45 minute drive from my home. From doing a bit of research, I learned that this temple offers weekly classes to people which focus on teaching them to relax and to meditate. People are allowed to go to the temple even if they are not Buddhists themselves. All people are welcome to the temple so long as they come eager to learn, to participate, and to respect the practices and cultures of those at the temple. Buddhists have many different traditions and I was exposed to some when I went to the temple to meditate. What I learned was that Buddhists take meditation very seriously; it is not just about relaxing and stretching which many people associate with yoga. Rather it is about using that silence, peace, and relaxation to understand something more about yourself and the larger world around you.
At the temple, I immediately noticed the difference between my daily routine and the traditions and customs of the Buddhists. There were many rules such as the fact that I was not allowed to wear shoes. This, I know, is common in Asian cultures and Buddhism is practiced in great numbers in Asian countries. I do not know which culture took up the shedding of shoes first or if their connection is even related in any way. Taking off the shoes is a sign of respect, so I happily did that. There were other rules that I had to follow in the temple as well. I was not allowed to have a drink with me, not even water. This was very different because now most people are allowed to have water with them even if they are in a school classroom, but such a thing is not allowed in the temple.
Also, no paper or pens were permitted to be used which made it difficult for me to remember the details of my experience. I would have liked to have been able to take notes and am used to doing this on paper or on my cellular phone, but those were also not allowed in the temple. Phones had to be silenced or turned off completely out of respect for the Buddhist monks and their practices. One person in the class failed to do so and his phone started ringing. The monk was not angry but told the gentleman that since he did not wish to obey the monk's request would he please leave to allow the rest of the group to meditate in silence. His attitude impressed me greatly. I have been in churches and classrooms where people's phones have gone off and the person in charge got angry even though silence was not required. In the temple though where silence was asked for, the man was not at all angry; he just asked the phone ringer to leave the rest of us in peace.
There was one negative part to my experience in the temple, but that was because of a personal reaction. During the meditation class, the monks lit incense and the scents were wafted throughout the room. This incense was particularly powerful and it was a bit overpowering for me. I tend to be sensitive to scents, such as candles and perfume, and the incense made my eyes water. This made me feel uncomfortable, as did the position we were told to sit in. Each of the chairs used in the class was a steel, portable chair and it was evident that the chairs were quite old and very uncomfortable. There were more comfortable seats available on the floor with blankets and pillows which looked very nice, but unfortunately they were reserved for people who had called the temple ahead of time. Everyone else had to sit on the steel chairs like me. In the room, it was hot and sweaty because it was a warm day and there was no air conditioning in the temple. Also, the class was rather large; the monks themselves said there were more participants than usual. This also made me feel discomfort which took away from the positives of my experience. Due to the heat and perhaps the peacefulness of meditation, I actually wound up falling asleep in the class and very nearly fell out of my chair which I am glad I did not because that would not only have been highly embarrassing, but would have disrupted the rest of the class.
It was interesting nearly falling asleep actually because it showed me that I was very relaxed because of the meditation. Although I felt bad at first, I realized that it meant I had gotten into the meditation very earnestly. I felt no stress and was really able to think and reflect on myself. Usually I am a fairly stressed person and tend to react strongly to stressors. For the first time in a long time I felt completely relaxed and free of stress. Obviously, the experience did me a great deal of good and I believe I will consider incorporating meditation in my regular, everyday life.
Part 2: Theme -- Meditation and Right Action in the Buddhist Religion
There are many religions throughout the world and each of the religions has its own meaning and history of how it was made up. Each one has unique beliefs and practices which characterize the religion as well as those who believe in that religion. Buddhism is a religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about 25 centuries ago in what are now the country of Nepal and parts of northeastern India (Gethin 1998,-page 73). Originally, Siddhartha was a prince who gave up his title, his wealth, and his position to go out and find himself and to seek truth. During his quest he came upon a tree and sat under it, thinking until he eventually found inner peace, or nirvana as it is called by the Buddhists (Dhammananda 2002). A wealthy prince went on a journey for several years in search of truth and discovered it while sitting beneath a bodhi tree. He came to be called "the Buddha," which means awakened one after establishing the religion, which many argue is more of a philosophy of life than an established religious order. The person now known as Buddha is the one who created this religion but intended it to be more a path to personal enlightenment. During his lifetime, he gave up all of his possessions and wealth and traveled around the eastern continent to help people in need. Buddha showed that everything that exists physically is unimportant; material goods are fleeting and people should not focus their lives on how to get these things. He had the power to encourage people to overcome their feelings of sadness and pain. Also, he made people's lives full of meaning by allowing them to understand the deeper meanings of existence and by empowering them to determine their own path.
Buddhism is very popular in the modern society and is one of the most practiced religions in the world. Unlike most religions which expect acceptance of dogma without question, practitioners of Buddhism are encouraged to "think freely and wisely and work out their own salvation" (Dhammananda 2002,-page 36). Today, Buddhism is spread out through the propagation from an initially very small group to large populations because Buddhism's followers continue to spread it out by building temples and schools to teach Buddha's lessons to others. Buddhism is one of the most popular religions in the world, practiced mostly in Asia but found in almost all nations to some degree. Buddhism has spread out vastly; it currently has over 36 million followers and these members continue to spread their beliefs further. As religious scholar Gary Gach (2010) put it, "Millions today are learning Buddhist practice without reference to any religious tradition. We hear,…