temple tour: boston ‘burbs & beyond

by vanessagobes

Aside from the occasional Jew, or more likely half-Jew, you could consider most of New England downright religiously homogenous.  Unless lucky enough to belong to a diverse group of friends, in order to experience any other religious or cultural traditions, one would have to consciously seek out opportunities.  Put it this way, until this summer, Madame Tussaud’s was the closest I’d ever gotten to a Buddhist monk.  And here I am a budding Buddhist.

And it is here in homogenous white bread suburban Boston where I begin my search for a Buddhist community.  Oy vey.

For the past months, I’ve been interviewing monks and nuns, visiting temples and Zendos, trying to find a good fit for my family and me.  There are challenges involved, but I’m feeling confident that I’ll find a match…  pretty much.

First challenge:  geography.

It’s hard to find a family-friendly Buddhist center in the ‘burbs.  I have tracked down a Korean Zen center in the People’s Republic of Cambridge (surprise, surprise, what can’t one find in Cambridge), but the commute on Mass Ave is a friggin bear, even at 7am on Sunday morning.  There is a Japanese Zen center in Brookline, which would be a total pain in the ass to get to from metro north.  There’s actually a very conveniently located Buddhist temple in Lexington but Mandarin is mandatory in order to join, so screw that.  A Tibetan center is down the street in Arlington, on the near side of Mass Ave for me, a place which I’ll expand upon later in this post.  And Worcester boasts a Buddhist center… way out in Worcester…  west…  really west…  ummmmm…  yah, no.  Besides those mentioned, we have a few yoga studios that offer occasional guided medies and Buddha-y yoga sessions, but as far as I know, no lamas or masters on site.  So I’m hoping I’ll find a home with one of these temples and feel an energy match to one of these strands of Buddhism.

Second challenge: scheduling.

Temples are not like churches where the majority of worshippers gather on Sunday mornings and, for the most part, disappear for the rest of the week.  Buddhist centers offer daily meditation hours and dharma talks for adults.  (No kids, please.)  Sessions are typically offered in the evening, witching hours to be exact.  Not ideal for house frau with tiny faces to feed, scrub and send to bed.  But even thought it’s not ideal, I’m happy to make it happen.  I make time to do plenty of other things, and I will just need to tweak my schedie to work in this commitment – for me, the utmost commitment.

Third challenge:  language.

Part of Buddhist practice is chanting.  Depending on which style of Buddhism one choses, the chants can be in Japanese or Mandarin or Indian or Chinese…  pretty much any Asian language.  So when I am chanting, I am chanting in a language that sounds, to me, like this:  as;dfja@*isejfa#liaj sdfjasdiv!$mafjiodcfjds klc&^#mlskdan(vfa.  But that’s only a moderate setback, after all, like Woody Hochswender says in his book The Buddha in Your Mirror, “We do not need to know how an automobile works in order to use it to get somewhere.”  So I chant and I receive, knowing that the Universe understands everything, even if I don’t.

Challenges in mind, I set out on my mission to find a Buddhist center that will be a nice fit for my family.

The first center I visited isn’t actually a temple.  Cambridge Insight Meditation Center is just that – a meditation center, not to far from Harvard Square.  They practice Vinyasa meditation, which is rooted in stillness.  You got an itch?  Fuh-gettaboutit.  You can scratch that bad boy after the bell.  No, really, they’re not that strict at CIMC.  It’s actually a great place to meditate.  I visited a few times and enjoyed every experience.  The meditation room is simple and clean, located on the top floor of an old house.  A  trained teacher offers insight on one topic or another then guides the group through walking and sitting meditations.  Afterwards s/he takes questions.  The room has a beautiful energy and the experience is wonderful.  But it is not the complete temple experience that I’m seeking.

The second center I visited was the geographically desirable one in Arlington.  Drikung Meditation Center, just off Mass Ave near the library, is funky and warm feeling.  The practice is a Tibetan strand of Buddhism, the same dharma practiced by fan-favorite His Holiness The Dalai Lama.  On the day of my visit early this summer, I joined their practitioners on a peace walk.  During this walk, participants carried Buddhist scrolls to spread peaceful energy and bless the sick and suffering.  I was a late arrival so I wasn’t able to grab a scroll, but I yielded with the group and started chatting up a nun with a loosely shaved head and flowing crimson robe.   I’d tell you her name but I can’t remember it – I think it was something she made up when she became a nun.  I must have asked her a hundred questions, the first of which was, “Are we supposed to be quiet during this walk?”  Thankfully, the answer was no.

So I told her briefly about my homespun mini-Bu practice and she told me at length all of the things that I can still do while being a Buddhist.  The two most important of which were 1) eat meat, and 2) let my kids celebrate Christmas.  She actually giggled at the second question and said, “Who doesn’t love Buddha Claus?”  Very cute.  The stickiest thing that she shared with me is that Buddhism is a practice that can be layered on top of every other spiritual experience that I have had.  The journey is about me.  So there’s plenty of wiggle room while I explore.

Once we arrived at the center, it was very…  ummm…  homey.  It’s set up in a house, I don’t know whose, but someone must live there because just beyond the reception room there was a twin bed with rumpled sheets which had obviously been slept in the night before.  On the left as I entered I saw a gift shop slash Dalai Lama shrine.  The overall feeling of this small room was orange.  And rainbow.  And sparkly.  And Lama-y.  There were framed photographs of other lamas, too, but I didn’t know who they were.

Once I got past my initial assessment of the space, I took a few steps in where the resident lama (lama means teacher of dharma), was sprinkling blessed water into people’s hands.  I cupped my hand for my dose of holy water and searched out my nun buddy’s eyes for direction.  She discreetly told me that I should sip a little then pat my crown with my wet hand.  Unfortunately, by the time I received the instruction, there was only a little sweat left on my palm to drink (it was a hot day, ok?) so I licked my hand and patted my head with a grateful smile.

Another super friendly Buddha lady, whom I’d met on the road, invited me to join her in the library where food was being served: Ruffles (with ridges), bagels and some rainbow-colored wet-looking things.  The room was quiet and small.  The people standing around were physically very diverse.  Lots of different languages being spoken in hushed voices.  I stayed and pummeled the friendly Buddha lady with questions for a few minutes, mostly about what I do with my kids while we discuss dharma.  The answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear:  “Oh, they can color in the library, I guess, but we’re not really set up for kids.”  Eek.  I finally decided it was time to make an incredibly awkward exit.  “Wait, have something to eat before you go,” the friendly Buddha lady said.  I pinched a ridged chip and excused myself, weaving my way out of the temple, holding the chip between my index finger and thumb, professing my thanks to everyone I passed with a little lift of my Ruffle and bow of my head.

I left thinking, What the hell am I doing????

The next place I visited is a Zendo in White River Junction, Vermont.  Close to our family’s mountain retreat, I figured I might as well try a taste of Vermont’s Buddhist menu while I was vacationing up north this summer.  I made an appointment with a nice Zen teacher (almost master, long story) named Allyn at a Japanese Zendo situated in a basement office space beside the White River.  I arrived with my 3 year old son XG (the realities of motherhood), and was greeted with a warm handshake and welcoming smile.  Allyn was barefoot, dressed in a simple black robe.  This guy has the a great face.  Tightly cropped hair with bushy bushy eyebrows and deep, bright eyes.  His energy was that of chilllllllllllllll.  So we entered this space, a room equipped with two long benches topped with black cushions and a simple altar at center.  We settled in opposite each other while XG got cozy with a messy tube of strawberry yogurt on a pristine purple floor pillow.  Allyn’s fuzzy brows lifted high and he quickly wedged a napkin between XG and the pillow.   Did I mention how grateful I was that Allyn is so chillllllllllllllll?

We sat and talked for 90 minutes, discussing basics of Zen and some deeper ideas, too.  I asked a gazillion questions:  “When we walked into the Zendo, you bowed.  Who did you bow to?  [No one, really.]  How do you enter the space?  [Straight lines and right angles.]  How do you sit on these benches?  [Cross-legged, knees rooted toward the earth, neck long, crown to sky, hands on lap, palms up, gaze down.]  Where are the chanting books?  [Under the pillows.]  How do I drink Japanese tea?  [It’s complicated.  Better teach you that next time.]   To become Buddhist, do I have to be invited?  Do I go through a baptism of some sort?  [You should have a teacher.  But there’s no ceremony, you just are.  I don’t even know if I am.]”  He sort of chuckled and said I have a beginner’s mind.  I actually think he enjoyed my questions.  So basic.  Probably things he takes for granted now.  What I was really excited about was the fact that Allyn was interested in creating a children’s Zen program and open to accepting my brood.  Amen!  I mean, Om?  Okay, I’ve gotta work on that.

After many more questions and slightly embarrassing disciplinary dealings with XG, I thanked Allyn and he sent me off with the book Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind.  He had a feeling I’d be back to return it.  I have a feeling I’ll be back, too.  I really like Allyn and his Zendo.  I like the simplicity of Zen, the near absence of statues and photos.  I like the cleanness of it.  There are more centers to visit still, but I can already tell this one is vibing with me.

Since steering my covered wagon away from Christianity, I must say, I’ve felt like a feather in the wind.  I don’t belong anywhere and I don’t know where I’ll end up.  But feathers in the wind are alluring.  They’re free.  They’re full of potential.  And when you find them, you say, “Oh, look!  A feather!”  So I’m confident that I will find a place where I can learn to fly.  Come to think of it, floating in the wind already feels a lot like flying.

From mine to yours,

Vanessa

p.s.  Please share this blog with other Bostonian Bu-curious.