Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Day 66 - Visiting a Buddhist Temple


I have never been to a Buddhist temple. While I have maintained a curiosity about the practice of Buddhism for some time, experiencing the faith has escaped me up to this point in my life. This has remained the case despite the fact a large Buddhist complex rests just miles outside of Madison and despite the relatively frequent opportunities to see the Dali Lama when he visits the city.  Even with access to such opportunities, my inquiring mind has simply never been enough to place learning more about Buddhism on my to-do list. However, like many things as of late, my “I have never...” idea has caused me to rethink many of my priorities in an effort to take on new experiences I have put off for far too long. Like my recent visit to a Hindu temple, a part of this reprioritization has included a direct effort to experience all of the major faiths I never experienced before. As a result, I contacted the local Deer Park Buddhist temple and made plans to attend a ceremony at the first opportunity I had to spend a day at the complex. That day happened to be today, and the experience I would encounter would prove to expose me to a degree of insight and enlightenment I have never experienced before.

Approaching the temple
My first experience with Buddhism started with a brief drive to the Deer Park Buddhist complex just south of Madison. I made short work of the trip given the center’s close proximity to the city and surprisingly convenient location near some familiar landmarks. Arriving at the temple grounds I was greeted by the sight of a massive temple perched atop a small hill. My eyes fixed on the building, I pulled my car slowly into a small parking area and exited my vehicle. The finer details of the temple came into view as I approached via a walkway leading from the parking lot. Bright reds and gold colors sprang from the face of the building and massive gilded statues rested on the outcrops and peaks of the building’s roofs and canopies. The whole building was covered in uniform designs that made its very presence a powerful experience, and I had not yet entered the building.

A Tibetan mural depicting the circle of life in the lobby
Still taking in the details of the structure, I slowly worked my way toward the temple doors. Entering through a small door at the temple’s base, I heard the constant sound of chanting emanating from the floor above me. I followed the sound up a small flight of stairs that led to a grand entrance to the temple’s inner chambers. Approaching the doors, I noticed a small sign requesting shoes be removed before entering the temple. Heeding the sign, I quietly removed my shoes and placed them near others I saw under a seating area just inside the temple’s main doors. With my shoes removed, I returned to the path I was walking in an effort to follow the chanting, which led me through a small door near the outer edge of the temple’s inner chamber. As I walked through the door I encountered a massive room with several dozen people sitting on the floor. The people faced a series of Buddhist monks and the temple’s spiritual leader Geshe Sopa who sat directly in front of towering golden Buddha statues. All of the people harmonically chanted words from a foreign tongue in unison as they sat, following the lead of a monk at the front of the chamber. In awe of the sight before me I slowly walked across the back of the temple and found a chair near the left wall. I sat down and watched on as the chanting continued, still stunned by the happenings around me.

The temple interior

After several more minutes of chanting the group became quiet. Uncertain as to what to expect next, I scanned the crowd looking for some indication the ceremony would continue. Suddenly, Geshe Sopa broke the silence with a long statement in Mandarin. After some time a man to Geshe Sopa’s right began translating his statements, which gave me some relief given I would be able to follow his remarks. The first translation provided a series of remarks on the concept of reality, the identification of the independence of physical characteristics, and the relationship these elements have with the true person. The weight of the words rested heavy on my ears. The concepts were deep, and while they made sense on the surface, putting them together made me feel as though I was going through a series of mental gymnastics. Once the translation was complete, Geshe Sopa continued with another statement in Mandarin, which was promptly translated for the audience. Building on the first statement, Geshe Sopa directed the crowd to consider the body of the previous statements and the idea that these elements were not one body and were not mutually exclusive. He stated understanding that idea helps one identify barriers in ignorance and become connected to “the eye”, or a person’s true self.

My seat during the class
Still struggling to grasp the depth of the teachings I was hearing, the process of Geshe Sopa words being translated continued for another 90 minutes. Through his translator Geshe Sopa led the group through the perceptions of reality, the limitations of external forces on these perceptions, and the effects of perceived realities on the balance of karma. By the end of the session, I was retracing our steps over the various topics and heavily questioning the influence of my own perceptions and own reality on my ability to deflect ignorance and identify myself. I was baffled by many of the concepts, but what I had experienced exposed me to a powerful and previously undiscovered perspective on my life and my thinking. In a little less than two hours, Geshe Sopa made me rethink what I have always understood as “truth” in reality. From that, I felt as though new doors in thinking had opened and revealed to me a new approach in understanding in defining the meaning and importance of things in my life.

The temple exterior
Humbled by the experience, I rose from my chair at the end of the session and walked to the back of the temple. Moments later I was greeted by an older man named Rodney who had been in attendance. His kindness and warmth were immediately apparent in his words. He spoke to me about the class from Geshe Sopa, asked about the reasons for my visit, and explained his 30-year background practicing Buddhism at the Deer Park Complex. While he was not a monk, he was well versed in the ways of Buddhism, which clearly guided him in his actions. After a brief conversation, Rodney invited me down to the temple’s first level to eat lunch with the rest of the group. I gladly accepted the invite and spent the next 30 minutes talking with Rodney and several of the other Buddhists that attended the session. Their giving nature, openness, and welcoming spirit was unlike anything I have encountered in my life. They cared only about helping me understand Geshe Sopa’s words, making sure I was well taken care of, and making me feel welcome. It was unfamiliar, but amazing to receive that kind of treatment. I knew then I was among special people in an amazing place, and I felt lucky to be there.

The Stupa
With lunch wrapping up I spent several minutes thanking all of the people I had met for their kindness and hospitality. Doing my best to offer them my most sincere thanks, they all graciously accepted my remarks but reminded me this is simply what they do. With my thanks expressed I excused myself from the dining area and made my way out to the temple grounds. For the next hour I wondered through the quiet green space surrounding the temple. Various buildings speckled the property, but, for the most part, the land was grassy and forested areas divided by small walking paths. As I walked I encountered strings of prayer flags stretched between old trees and finely manicured gardens of native plant species. Eventually, my path took me to the back of the property, where a Buddhist monument, known as a Stupa, rested atop the highest point of the property. A plaque on the monument indicated it was intended to commemorate the Dali Lama’s completion of the Kalachakra Initiation in 1981, which sought to bless the ground and serve as a source of peace for the world.  I stood before the monument for some time, taking in the beauty of its decorative white surface and thinking about the intent behind its presence. Again, I felt humbled by the intent in the practice, which brought forth an intense feeling of appreciation for my experience and the Buddhist faith.

Prayer flags

After taking in the monument Stupa, I walked back across the temple grounds and made my way toward the parking lot where I had begun my journey. As I approached the parking lot I stopped and turned to the temple to take in its beauty one more time. With the sun beating against its face, I looked over the intricate work and reflect on my experience at the Deer Park Buddhist center. I knew the only way I could accurately describe the experience was unlike anything I have ever encountered in my life, but that description seemed to take away from the depth of emotion, contemplation, and heart that I felt while spending time among the Buddhists. After today’s experience I can only say Buddhism is a very special practice and the Deer Park Buddhist center is a very unique place. Needless to say, I will be spending more time at the temple in the future... and I know I will be a better person for it.

One last look...

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