I attended the morning service on March 18, 2007, which started at 10am. The national background of the temple is Japanese, and is affiliated with the, “True Pure Land” school of Buddhist thought.
I parked my car on the street next to the temple because the parking lot was very small and looked like it was already full. There used to be more space to park, but they had recently turned the lot into a small middle school. I walked up to the temple, and noticed how the roof resembled somewhat of a Japanese pagoda. At the top of the roof was the icon symbolizing the Wheel of Law. The Wheel of Law could also be known as the Wheel of Life or Wheel of Dharma, and symbolizes the Buddhist idea of the Noble Eightfold path.
When I first entered the Buddhist temple, a monk was at the door and greeted me by placing his hands together and bowing. I gave a little bow and asked him if it was okay if I took pictures inside the temple. He made it very clear that flash photography was not allowed so I thanked him and walked in. I saw that next to the doors were a bunch of shoes, so I took mine off before continuing any further into the temple. I was familiar with this form of etiquette, since I’m Japanese and have taken my shoes off before entering my Japanese friends or family’s houses.
Past the door was the main hall, where the service took place. I was told the hall was called a, “hondo” and I needed to enter quietly and with reverence. The place had a feeling of reverence and seriousness just in itself. There was almost complete silence, with a couple people whispering hellos to each other, and the artificial lights have been turned off. Instead, there were candles lit around the room, which were the only sources of light for those in the hall. I thought it was appropriate to ban cameras, because the lighting was so dim, a camera flash would have been extremely distracting. I looked around and saw a couple rows of chairs in the back, where I seated myself. Later, I learned that the chairs were for visitors who weren’t comfortable sitting on the floor near the altar, and the elderly, who couldn’t physically sit on the floor. In the front of the hondo I saw a Buddhist shrine with a golden Buddha statue. It was adorned with flowers and candles. I discovered that the flowers were real, because the Buddhists wanted to emphasize the idea of impermanence, because the flowers will eventually wilt. It was the same with the candles, in that they will eventually burn out.
Someone hit a bell (kansho) which was the cue for the service to begin. A man, who was one of the leaders at the temple, stood up, greeted everyone with a bow, then encouraged everyone to spend a couple moments in silent meditation. I noticed a couple people crossed their legs and sat up straight. I assumed they were meditating, but because of the light I couldn’t really see their exact body position.
A little bit later, another bell sounded, which meant meditation time was over. Everyone looked up, and the same man who welcomed us encouraged everyone to join him as he chanted one of the Buddha’s teachings, or sutras. A couple people were passing out the books that they would be chanting from. I was too busy looking around at the people chanting that I didn’t get to open the book that was passed out to me, but after they chanted, they said in unison, “Namo Amida Butsu,” which means, “I take refuge in Buddha Amida.”
My friend explained to me that sometimes in service they sing a gatha, which is basically a teaching of the Buddha which has been written in verse form so it’s easy to sing. However, the day I went they didn’t, for whatever reason. Instead, they recited something called, “The Three Treasures,” which I compared to my Protestant church’s idea of a Doxology. After this, the man again stood and talked for a little bit about the community of Buddhism and how even though the way to enlightenment is hard, and the path isn’t very clear, Buddhists should always take comfort in knowing they are surrounded by other Buddhists and can come to temples to meet and talk with them.
At the end of the service, the man invited anyone who wanted to, to come up and give an offering of incense, money, or whatever anyone had brought. I didn’t go up, but many people stood to light the incense that was near the Buddha’s altar. Others brought small boxes and placed it in front of the statue, and I was later told they contained either money or food. A couple people even laid some flowers in front of the statue. When everyone was done, there was one more reading, and the bell was rung three times. The man invited people to stay and eat light refreshments that were provided outside the hondo. I left, bowed to the man at the door, found my shoes, and exited.
Reflecting on this experience, I began to realize that the Hongwanji Buddist Temple’s focus of teaching is on the seriousness of the religion, and how even if it may seem hard to be a Buddhist, they must still remain thankful for the teachings given to them from the Buddha. If I had to sum up the service in one word, I would say, “perseverance.” The road to Buddhist enlightenment seems very long, and the weekly services seem to function to help the Buddhists persevere in their faith, and to remind them that nirvana is worth the time and energy they expend.
From a practical standpoint, the basic nature of their worship seems to be very similar to a Protestant’s. There is a lot of emphasis on reading the Buddha’s sutras, and learning to apply his ideas in your personal life. In Protestantism, we strive to read the Bible and apply what we read into our lives. Then if we can live a God-pleasing life, then that should be our main form of worship to God. Both religions also take offerings, though the Buddhists seem to use more variation in what they offer, such as flowers and food. At most Protestant churches, I’ve only seen money being offered. The Buddhist service also seems to be very structured, something I would expect from any organized Japanese religion, only because I know that Japanese people are usually very structured, and not spontaneous at all.
Sociologically, the group seemed kind of diffused. This could be because there was no talking going on during the service, or greeting, because the temple was a place to be revered and respected. In my opinion, there might be too much of the opposite going on at my church. I know that sometimes there is so much greeting and socializing going on that we might forget the church is a place of worship, not a place to see our friends. So maybe it’s not a bad thing that the Buddhists weren’t very close. Though on the other hand, I don’t know how they are towards each other during refreshments after, outside of the revered hondo. Maybe they have struck a good balance of socializing and respectable silence that other religions should try to find.