Thanks to @grumpyzen for again guest posting on this blog. I am honored to host her story of exploration, frustration and subtle humor. Cheers.
A picture with TNH and MLK both looking very serious about all this temple hopping.
Inspired by the comments on my previous post Why Don’t I See Ya’ll Doing Nothing and my big dharma bro Jack Daw: I’ve decided to venture out and test the Buddhist waters in Central Florida. This is something I have been threatening to do since the first time Why Don’t I See Ya’ll Doing Nothing was posted. I had lot’s of excuses but all boiled down to fear. I procrastinated until I couldn’t stand myself anymore. Then I just did it.
So where to start? I really didn’t know if there were any Buddhist Temples close to me. I started with a Google search. My search term was “Buddhist Temples Central Florida”. I found three: Wat Florida Dhammaram, Long Van Buddhist Temple, and Guang Ming Buddhist Temple. The link for the Long Van Buddhist Temple was actually a report on the Temple. I toyed with the idea of just showing up and seeing what happens. I definitely had an agenda. I wanted to see with my own eyes if this Black chick with dreadlocks and tattoos, was indeed welcome at a temple. Just showing up to the temples felt a bit like a “gotcha”. So I decided if there was no website, they really didn’t want visitors. The website would tell me when the temples had English meditation and Dharma classes. What it wouldn’t tell me was the level of diversity. I had to see that for myself. In writing this, it occurred to me that the only diversity I intended to concerned myself with, was folks of color. Folks of color, for me, being Black folks. A bit myopic, but none the less true.
[From the Wat Florida Dhammaram webpage]
On May 15, 2011 I ventured to the Wat Florida Dhammaram in Kissimmee. The Wat is a Thai Theravada Buddhist Temple established in 1993. The monastery is Dhammayut-nikaya sect. I really have no idea what all that means but folks like details. The website has a lot of information on the history and founding of the Temple.You have no idea how hard it was for me to take the first step. I have a severe social phobia and strong anti-social tendencies. Additionally, I had a lot of hangups about not being able to sit longer than fifteen minutes. I figured the Dharma talk would be a harmless place to start. And yet, I still had a hard time. Deciding what to wear ate up 20 minutes. On the way, I pulled into a gas station. I was actually chickening out. I sent out two tweets about not wanting to chicken out and needing some fearlessness. Some of my fellow tweets sent support my way. I didn’t realize they had responded to me. I sent the tweets, cursed at myself and drove off. I have lived in this town for several years and I never knew the Wat was there. It’s off of a long road that you would never drive down unless you lived or had business there. The road alternates between trailer parks, a mosque, random mobile homes, and what looks to be a mosque meeting hall or main school. Where the road bears off to the left, before a bunch of apartment complexes, sits the Wat. As I pulled in, a woman was driving out. She met my eyes and smiled. There appeared to be some sort of celebration – perhaps for Buddha’s birthday. I sat in the car fighting the urge to drive back off. Lots of Asian faces. I was hit by all those familiar feelings. “This place does not look friendly.” “I have no idea where to go. I can’t very well go wondering around can I?” (Actually I could, but I didn’t know that at the time). I sat there a moment and then I put the car in reverse. “They r probably not having their Dharma talk today. . .I’m dressed all wrong . . I am so sick of being the only black person. . . .I’m probably too fat for the seats. . . .” I have had this conversation with myself in so many unfamiliar situations. I missed more than my fair share of opportunities because of all that baggage. A prophet named Erykah Badu once said “Bag lady you gone miss your bus, you can’t hurry up, cause you got too much stuff.” So instead of missing another bus, I took a deep breathe, put the car in park and got out. I asked a random person if the Dharma talk was today. Another smile, and he told me it was in the meditation hall. The meditation hall is right up front and adjacent to the parking area. The shoes outside told me to remove mine. While I was reading the “what not to do list”, I was encouraged by more smiling folks to come in. I sat in the back. Perhaps sensing I was trying to hide, I was encouraged by a man named John to sit up front. It appeared that John’s job was to translates the Dharma talk for the Monk.
John and the Monk who’s name I couldn’t pronounce or remember, sat in two chairs facing the rest of us who sat in chairs. They were discussing The 38 Blessings. It became obvious, very quickly, that John wasn’t giving a direct translation. More of a parallel talk with some translation of the monks conversations with the Thai speakers and when the Monk wanted to make sure John told us all what he was saying. The Monk moved between English and Thai. The atmosphere was very casual. Sometimes distractingly so. The girl next to me was eating. . . perhaps something from the celebration. Folks were talking to the monk while he was talking to us. A very active back and forth. People came in and out, some loudly some quietly. It took me back a few steps.During the break, I was escorted to the bathroom by the only other Black person there. I didn’t know she was there until a smiling lady asked her to escort me to the bathroom. Her name was Charla. She just returned from a retreat in Ormond beach and before that she spent 2 weeks in Thailand with the Monk and two others in the Wat. After the talk, the Monk spoke to me and asked my name. I was so awestruck that I told him my name and smiled silently like an idiot. Charla and I took a stroll and talked. She had been coming to the Wat for 7 yrs. She also attends other meditation groups. She said she doesn’t identify with a religion but she loved the Wat. She was turned off at first by the talking, but “they love up on you. ” Charla hadn’t noticed much diversity. She attributed much of it to Florida being in the bible belt. We discussed Black folks, fear and their attachment to church. It was a great conversation. She agreed to meet me at a meditation group in Orlando next Thursday. As I left, John told me “The Wat is your new family. Don’t forget that” Later, I found out from the Wat’s website, that the Monk was properly referred to as an Abbot. And his name is Venerable Chaokun Phra Vijitrdhammapani. When folks were speaking to him or of him, they weren’t saying all that. It took a minute, and I could be wrong, but I think every one calls him by Chaokun. It sounds something like Ton-jaan-koon.
In between my temple visits, I decided to attended a center, a circle, and a meditation group. My first visit was to the Thursday Night Meditation Group with my friend Charla. If not for Charla, I wouldn’t have found this group and I would be the only Black person. The group meets at the First Unitarian Church of Orlando. The secular meditation group meets on Thursdays from 7:00-8:30pm for Vipassana Meditation. On the first Thursday of the month the group has two twenty minute sits with 10 minutes of walking meditation in between. The group leaders, at least on the night I attended, were Ross and Bob. No inquiry was made as to anyone’s belief system. There were a lot of new people in the session I attended. For the benefit of all us new folks, Ross gave a brief introduction to the group and insight meditation. The instruction was followed by a period of check-in. The group went around in a circle and folks could say how they were, say their name, or pass. Followed by 25 minutes of meditation. This was my first twenty-five minute sit. What stuck with me was that twenty five minutes didn’t seem as long as it does when I am at home. Meditation was followed by a discussion. The discussion was not earth shattering. But it did serve as an opportunity to share experiences /lessons related to the teaching. Finally, there is a brief closing meditation. In terms of make-up, there a large age span, a mix of professions, and at least on this day, more females than males. Most folks sat in chairs and some on cushions. Everyone in the group was warm and welcoming.
[From the Vajrapani Kadampa Buddhist Center Picasa account]
My next visit was to the Vajrapani Kadampa Buddhist Center, also in Orlando. The Vajrapani Buddhist Center holds a meditation session every Friday at 6:00p.m. As you enter, there is a kitchen to the left and meditation hall straight ahead. I didn’t feel particularly welcome as I had in my previous encounters. No one really looked at or acknowledged me. Richard did introduce himself to another newbie who had arrived before I did but nothing for me. Did I look like I belonged there? Maybe. No one even bothered to tell me to take my shoes off in the hall. I sat. I immediately wanted to leave. I didn’t.
Instead, I had to check my own motivations and expectations. Perhaps my past experiences made me into a bit of a brat. No one really went out of their way to make me feel welcome or unwelcome. Maybe folks just wanted to sit and not be concerned with the folks around them. I took some breaths and readied myself. Richard started talking and never really stopped. Now the website clearly says guided meditation. I clearly missed that. It was a nice instruction on breathe meditation. I just didn’t like the talking while I was meditating. Again. I didn’t really notice the length of time we sat. During the break, I again fought the urge to leave. Richard came over and introduced himself. It didn’t really help. I wasn’t very receptive at that point. There were about 7 folks there. No color that I noticed. A small group of three who knew each other, chatted each other up during the entire break. Just as the break ended, a girl who came in after I arrived, gave me a very warm hello.During the second session, Richard read a brief passage on kindness. Meditation and talking started, again. He reminded us of the kindness of others that we take for granted. Difficult people are a kindness. They are an opportunity to apply our practice. It was a nice talk. I just really don’t like the talking while I’m meditating. I find it distracting.
[From the Orlando Zen Circle Facebook account]
Finally, I attended the Orlando Zen Circle. The Orlando Zen Circle is affiliated with the Kwan Um School of Zen. They meet at Shine On Yoga on Sunday Evening at 7:00p.m. I met @iDharma there. This was the most diverse group that I have experienced thus far. There were four folks of color including myself. I believe there were also at least two Hispanic people. It was the first time I have experienced chanting, two sessions of 25 minute sitting and walking meditation in between. Meditation was blissfully silent. Definitely the most formal sitting I’ve had. Oddly enough, I found myself using the breath counting technique I learned at the Vajrapani Buddhist Center during my second 25 minute sit. Claudia and Ron were very friendly. They spent time speaking with @iDharma and myself in the parking lot after the session.I’m a bit on the fence about it. I didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. I really liked it. I’m just not the formal type and I missed having the Dharma talk. I didn’t prefer the chanting but I didn’t hate it. I don’t really have a connection to what I’m saying, so I find myself just waiting for it to be over. The date and time are also an issue form me. I have a one way 40 minute drive from my home at a time I am usually winding down for the night. My first meditation at the Wat came nearly two weeks later. The Venerable Chaokun was out of the country. Visiting temples that had been established through out Europe. He told me that he enjoyed his trip very much. You got that part right? He told me. As in, he was talking to me. It still makes me chuckle. Any who, the actual meditation was a mix between formal and informal. No prearranged sitting spaces. Most folks sat on folded blankets or mats. I again, used the chair. The meditation starts with three bows to the Buddha and three bows to the Abbot. The bows are followed by chanting, a Dharma talk and 15-20 minutes of meditation. I like to meditate with my eyes slighty open. I let them rest on some point on the floor but I don’t stare. At my first official Wat meditation, I learned that I could fall asleep with my eyes slightly open. After that sad bit of business, I really needed the walking meditation. After a bit of instruction, I found it very relaxing. Walking meditation was followed by a short chant and another set of bows to the Buddha and the Abbot. I’m just not too sure of the point when it comes to chanting. I don’t know if the Abbot is a mind reader but he told me to take a chanting book home so I can learn the chants and their meanings. I really adore that little guy.
[From the Guang Ming Buddhist Temple, Orlando Facebook page]
Approximately, two weeks after my first meditation at the Wat, I visited the Guang Ming Buddhist Temple in Orlando. Guang Ming is a branch temple of the Fo Guang Shan monestary founded by Venerable Master Hsing Yun. Again, not sure what all of that means. I know it is a Chinese temple founded in 1992. The Temple practices what is called Humanistic Buddhism. A twitter friend, who is known in the verse as @mindonly , practices at a similar temple under Master Hsing Yun. He describes Humanistic Buddhism as mix of Cha’n and Pureland Buddhism. He told me there was an emphasis on making the Temple, and I would say Buddhism, accessible to Westerners. He was absolutely right.The Temple is very active and very “social media” aware. They have videos on You Tube, reviews on Yelp, an old Facebook page, a Meetup page organized by the teachers, and an informative article from Asian Trend Magazine. Their website has an educational page that includes martial arts class, yoga, and Indian Dance. I could be wrong, but I don’t think there is a lot of Indian dance in China. Obviously, the Temple is trying to making itself accessible to Westerners. The Temple has English Buddhism studies every Sunday and Thursday. I attended the Thursday evening Buddhism studies class. There is a thirty minute sitting meditation period, followed by a basic Buddhism course. As with the Wat, this Temple was right on the street. Except Guang Ming is in a business area. As you enter the Temple, what I thought was the meditation hall, is straight ahead. According to the magazine article, I was in the main shrine. There is a desk, possibly an information desk, to right. The bathrooms and second floor classrooms on your right. I was late on this day, and I am pretty sure I whizzed past Howard, the Buddhism teacher ( he doesn’t say Dharma), on my way to the Temple. Can you imagine? Any who, the main shrine looks exactly the way you would expect a meditation hall in a Temple to look if you didn’t know any better. I had an odd time with the tilted benches. Some of them were pointed toward the back of the hall. I appreciated not having to sit on the floor or seek a chair. However, my feet and ankles went numb. That was the worst part. The best part? I hear music when I meditate. I don’t know why, I just do. Well, I heard the most beautiful chanting I have ever heard in my life. It was almost like a song. Unfortunately it didn’t last the entire session. When the chanting stopped, every cough and fidget was amplified by the acoustics of the shrine. The Buddhism class that followed was full. The class was filled with Westerners. I only noticed one other person of color. Which, as I have already confessed, means Black folks to me. There were two folks of Asian descent. The ages ranged from seniors to a toddler. Howard was obviously a lay person and obviously very passionate about his teaching. I learned a lot in Howard’s class. Including some patience for the toddler who couldn’t be quiet or sit still. I’ll admit, I was annoyed with the toddler. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was soon to channel that toddler during my meditation. But that is a story for another day. The only disappointment I had was that I didn’t get to meet a Venerable. I guess I just expected to meet one after my trip to the Wat. As if he heard my thoughts, Howard assured the group that we were all welcome to come to the Temple any day it is open. And we could speak with a Venerable whenever they are available. I would like to say I just may take him up on that. But I don’t think I am ready to hold a conversations with a Venerable. I really enjoyed my visits to both temples. Each has their own charm and appeal. The Wat was definitely a more intimate group. Venerable Chaokun Phra Vijitrdhammapani goes out of his way to make everyone feel welcome. The Guang Ming Temple has a sort of community center feel. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gaung Ming soon had “an app for that.” Can you imagine, being able to access and participate in Temple activity on your smart phone? I think Guang Ming could pull it off.
[an artists portrayal of what diversity may look like – ed.]
So, what did I learn? I learned that I don’t know half as much I thought I knew. I was without a doubt very welcome at both temples. I never felt anything less from the moment I stepped out of my car. The buildings may look intimidating but the folks definitely are not. Neither temple was hidden away. Based on the fact that there are multiple buildings involved, I think the temples are as visible as they can be in their respective neighborhoods. However, there isn’t a lot of diversity in terms of folks of color. The Wat is by no means in the “hood” but isn’t on the “shire” either. It’s right in the middle of apartment buildings and trailer parks. There tends to be some diversity in those areas. It’s just not reflected in the Wat. Guang Ming “reaches out” via social media. Yet, I didn’t notice any real diversity in terms of color. Two of the three “intimidating temple alternatives” weren’t any more diverse than the temples. Perhaps they were even less so because I didn’t notice any Asian folks. The only “group” that didn’t seem to suffer from a lack of diversity was the Zen Circle. I’ve made return visits to all but two groups. I haven’t seen anything to change my conclusions.Recently, my car broke down. The bus system in central Florida is a joke. I can’t get to any of the places I’ve visited. I have to focus all my efforts on getting to work. Save the Wat, they are all in the next town and all in nice, $150/mo yoga studio type neighborhoods. I have no doubt that we are all welcome. At least in my little corner of the world. I love that I can speak from experience not assumptions and jaded speculation. But, and this is a big but, I had to seek them out. I then had to travel a good distance to get to them. Without transportation, they are completely inaccessible to me. So I ask again: how exactly are my fellow sufferers with no money, nothing but problems and no inkling of the world outside of their own neighborhood going to discover this trans formative shit called Zen? It doesn’t even have to be Zen. It could be the basic tenants of Buddhism or simple insight meditation. If I am living hand to mouth and constantly on the brink of another disaster, how do I discover what some people die never knowing – that you have to save yourself. How does that shit even get to make sense if you grow up in a culture of fear, violence, envy, and dependency? How do we as Buddhists, get to folks who really need this shit before they go to prison and we can brag about our prison programs?