This is an account of my visit to the Buddhist temple back in February. Except for a few tweaks, everything below is recorded as it is written in my journal. The style of writing is very informal, but effectively gets my thoughts across. I also acknowledge that there is much diversity of thought within religious systems/communities. Statements made below might not reflect the practices and beliefs of all adherents.
“First off, the temple was way off the road. Almost in the back woods. But I guess having 16 acres off to the side adds to the serenity of the place.
When I first entered the campus, there was a sign. Above the sign was the Texas flag, the US flag, and what I later found out is the Buddhist flag (a more recent addition to Buddhism made by what might be the first white convert to Buddhism). The campus had a very calm vibe to it and was very open. Wildlife (coyotes, roosters, etc.) and pets (dogs, cats, etc.) can walk in and out of the buildings as well as on and off campus. I thought that was different from all other places of worship (which is cool).
I got out of my car, walked past the Burmese style pagoda (Buddhist temple), and eventually found the library. The monk (who was an American monk) came and met me there. We went inside the library, sat down, and talked. The library is open to the public so that anyone can actually check out books. In that library, there are Buddhist texts, books about Buddhism (which the monk gave me his own book he had written), and books that had nothing to do with Buddhism. In the middle of the room was a replica of the pagoda outside. On the bookshelves were trinkets of Mahayana Bodhisattvas, bells, a Russian doll, etc. But anyways. Back to the convo. I guess I’ll write it in Q&A format on the next few pages.
Fact: It is pronounced “Teravada” not “Theravada”. The “h” is silent.
Q: Do Teravada monks and nuns study the original scriptures?
A: Yes. They study the Pali Canon (which is in Pali). They also have books that expand on the rules and regulations of monastic life set forth by the Buddha. The earliest texts can be studied at suttacentral.net.
Fact: Theravada is orthodox
Q: Do Theravada Buddhists believe in Bodhisattvas?
[Jumping in here. For those who don’t know what a bodhisattva is, it’s a person who has become enlightened, and has decided to dedicate their life to helping others become enlightened. A good example of one is the Dalai Lama]
A: Bodhisattvas are a Mahayana Buddhist concept BUT Theravada Buddhist do agree that some people can be described as bodhisattvas.
Q: Did the Buddha say to “spread the Dharma”?
A: Yes. Buddhists do not proselytize and they are tolerant of other religions. The way they spread the Dharma is through being an example for others and being available to teach those who want to learn.
One thing I found similar to the Gurdwara and mosque is that shoes are taken off. I was also surprised to discover that this temple in particular was founded by Sitau Sayadaw (who has met people like the Dalai Lama, Pope Benedict, Obama, etc.). He sent a lot of money for the land to be bought and for a community center to grow there. He also is one of the Buddhist monks (along with Wirathu) who are justifying the killings of Muslims in Myanmar. I can imagine this has put a huge mark on the Teravada Buddhist community. Anyways, we went into the golden pagoda where there were 4 medium sized Buddha statues and one large Buddha statue. 2 on the left of the large one and 2 on the right. They were imported into America from elsewhere. There was a scarf on the hand of the main, big Buddha statue that was not supposed to be there. But they don’t care because the statues themselves do not contain anything mystical, magical, or divine. It is not unusual for Burmese Buddhist adherents however to think that something mystical or divine resides within the Buddha statues.
In front of the Buddha statues is a table with fruits, flowers, etc. They offer these things to the statues to generate generosity within themselves. That’s it. There’s no worship going on (or at least, that’s not what they’re supposed to be doing).
Around the room in each cubby hole sat Buddha statues. Not only were these Buddha statues handmade locally, they were supposed to be replicas of historical ones you can find in India, Myanmar, Burma, etc. I thought that was cool. I also learned that Burmese people are huge believers in numerology. So the priest was telling me how because of this, he had to place the first Buddha within the dome of the pagoda at a certain time because he was born on a Tuesday.
Also, there are meditation mats on the floor and 3 openings into the temple (with no doors). Seems very welcoming and at one with nature. When the weather permits, they have chanting in the Pagoda. And when the weather doesn’t permit, they have chanting in the dhamma (dharma) hall (which is where we went next).
The dhamma hall had a Buddha statue with offering set out in front of it (like the pagoda). There were mats on the floor, and a bell (which is hit to signify the beginning and ending of a chanting/meditation session). I actually got to hit four bells that were bigger and on the outside. The sound they each made reminded me of a Tibetan singing bowl.
If you look around some more inside the hall, you’ll notice that there’s wallpaper on the walls. And the wallpaper was supposed to be a replica of some historical Buddhist artistry (forgot in which country). It depicts stories of the Buddha’s life. The lotus symbolizes his birth, the bodhi tree his enlightenment, the wheel of Dharma his first sermon, and the stupa his death. You could also find these depictions around the pagoda.
The last place we visited was the dining hall. Inside the dining hall are portraits of monks, a table designated for the monks, a table for lay people, and a kitchen. Surprisingly, animals are allowed to come as well. Food is first offered to the monks (since they live off of alms), then given to the lay people, and lastly, sent to a local church. They do this because they always have more food than they can eat leftover. The monk even said I could bring food to offer (but I don’t think they want to eat my cooking LOL).
And that was the end of the trip. We also talked about additional things afterwards (such as the role of nuns in Theravada Buddhism, Buddhism being distinct from Hinduism and Brahmanism, etc.). Overall, I felt very happy to be there and glad that I had decided to visit.
Additional Note: I also attended a meditation service a few days after this. My favorite aspect of the service was the loving kindness meditation. I think it’s crazy how almost all the religious communities pray for the goodness of mankind (even though they don’t realize it). Which is a good start. But the humanist in me also knows that it’s action that brings about needed change, not prayer.