Cape Sangha – Buddhist: 52 Churches

As I draw close to the six-month mark of this amazing and humbling experience, I find myself not so much losing interest as losing my motivation to make a move on Sunday morning to the next church. This is understandable given last week’s stint of five churches during Holy Week, and I have to admit there was no way I was going to consider another Christian church this fine morning.

So off I turned to my local guide, a page on the Cape Cod Times website that lists, in some detail, the local worship options. Today I found, after months of wondering if I would ever succeed on the Cape, a Buddhist service, the Cape Sangha; a small gathering who follow the teachings of the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. This was my first Buddhist service, and my prior education in the faith has been limited to a reading of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and a viewing of Bernardo Bertulucci’s Little Buddha starring a trippy recreation of Buddha’s life by Keanu Reeves. I have never visited a Buddhist temple nor worshipped/meditated in any formal sense of the concept.

I emailed the organizer of the Cape Sangha, Jim, and asked for permission to visit. He replied in the affirmative and so off I went for the 4:30 pm meditation session at the Unity Church of the Light Spiritual Unity Session in Hyannis near the Cape Cod Mall and the BMW dealership. I arrived a few minutes early, saw some others in the parking lot and followed them into the nondescript building and onwards into a nave-like space with about 100 chairs and an altar at the south end. I dropped my offering into a box, signed the guest book behind a large man with a big bushy white beard and a spring jacket with an eye painted on the back.

At the front of the “pews” was a small table covered with a cloth. On it was a candle, two framed photographs (of Thich Nhat Hanh I assume) and a small statue of Buddha. Around the table/altar was a ring of pillows for sitting in the lotus position. Around that collection of floor seating was a ring of chairs. As I cannot contort myself into the Lotus position I took a chair and sat and smiled at the two men in brown robe-like jackets sitting in the positions of prominence. I assumed one of them was Jim. By 4:30 there were 19 people gathered at the front of the church. A bank of candles flickered in the apse. There were no Christian symbols such crucifixes, but some potted plants and two tapestries which expressed sentiments along the lines of “Celebrate Community.”

I shed my jacket. I was dressed in jeans, clogs, and a polo/golf shirt — correctly assuming back home that a pair of grey flannels and a blue blazer with a bowtie would not be part of the Buddhist dress code.

What is the Cape Sangha? Let the website do the talking:

“The Cape Sangha is a group of folks who meet weekly to practice mindfulness meditation in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, scholar, author, poet and peacemaker. Our members are interested in numerous types of meditation, including Vipassana, Zen, Tibetan and nonsectarian mindfulness. You don’t have to be Buddhist to practice with us.”

The Service

I hesitate in calling it a “Service” per se, as there was no liturgy or rite aside from a benediction of sorts, the ringing of a handheld bell (in the shape of a brass bowl), and the prayerful hand gesture of namaste. Jim, the leader of the Sangha, welcomed us, encouraged us to move around and be comfortable, and then explained that there would be 20 minutes of meditation, followed by introductions and discussion, then another period of meditation before finishing in 90 minutes.

Shoes were shed, people sat very upright on the floor and in their chairs. Some sat with their eyes closed and their hands resting on their knees, palms up and fingers together. Jim recommended a deep breath to empty the mind, and then to focus on breathing — “Now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out” — telling us that our “monkey-like minds” would think of the past and the future, but to focus back on the here and the now and the breathing.

I followed his advice and for 20 minutes found myself thinking about the bird outside (I believe it was a robin), the traffic driving past, and the sound of the airplanes taking off and landing at the Barnstable Municipal Airport just a mile or so away. I was conscious of random itches, and found myself speculating on the cause of a random itch, and how thinking about itching engenders further itching. A person coughed. I heard an occasional deep breath like a whale breaching. I heard people readjust themselves. My left buttock fell asleep. I fidgeted. I opened my eyes and looked around at the other people, freaked one of them would open their eyes and catch me peeping.

After 20 minutes the little bowl was tapped with a wooden rod, we opened our eyes, made the namaste sign, and then Jim asked us to introduce ourselves and give a “personal weather report” saying he himself was “partly cloudy.”

The others did the same — all saying their first names and hometowns (which were nearby: Mashpee, Centerville, Osterville, Cotuit, West Dennis), and delivering a little weather statement. There were a few “sunnies” and “clearings.” I introduced myself as “Dave, also from Cotuit. Visiting 52 churches and temples this year and today marks the exact half-way point.” Which I now realize was a statement in error, I am not at 26 yet. Today was 25 — but wait, actually, I haven’t written up second Orthodox church in Istanbul, and nor do I count St. Mary’s in Fall River ……

Then there was discussion of a recent PBS broadcast of a special about Buddha and Jim — who does not own a television — asked those who had watched the show to talk about it. This sparked an interesting discussion about Buddhism, historical evidence, the concept of the “middle-way” and the ecumenical nature of Buddhism which does not pray to a higher power, nor which makes any ecclesiastical demands on its practitioners to do anything or eschew anything in order to be saved or part of the program. I enjoyed that discussion very much. I thought about the surge in interest in Buddhism in the west, and remember my old mentor Bill Ziff scoffing at it. One of my favorite novelists is a Buddhist — Peter Matthiessen — as is Leonard Cohen.

A good number of people spoke — more than half of those in the room — and then we meditated again. This time I realized that like the Quakers I visited last fall, Buddhists put great stock in meditative prayer or silence and that the one thing that really appeals to me in the church/temple experience is the few moments of silence and reflection that worshiping affords.  At the end of the second mediation I definitely felt a little more relaxed and “emptied” than when I arrived, and I think I might try some meditation in the future to cut back on work stress and other psychic baggage.

At the conclusion I thanked Jim, put on my shoes and coat, and made the usual early exit. Before I could leave a lady stopped to ask me about the project, expressing her enthusiasm and encouragement.

Random observations:

  • Women slightly outnumbered men.
  • The Sangha is 14 years old.
  • The group was mostly over 50 years old.
  • It was a very refreshing experience after last week’s solemnity.
  • The parking lot demographic showed a lot of foreign imports and some liberal bumper sticker sentiments.

Next week: I fly to Beijing on Sunday, so I may seek a Brazilian evangelical service some night this week, or a Jewish service on Saturday. I may try to get in a visit to the Lama Temple in Beijing, though I understand from my step-sister that it is more of a tourist thing than a religious experience.

The Walled Garden that trumps the Gospel of Open

There is likely to be a great deal of comment,  disagreeing and agreeing, with Steven Johnson’s opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times. This piece argues that the Apple App Store and its integration with the iPad/iPhone experience, calls into question the old article of faith that closed, proprietary systems were doomed and the path forward for capitalist innovation was open systems.

Most of that gospel was formed in the early 90s when closed online platforms such as CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy were overwhelmed and eventually annihilated by the open forces of HTML and TCP/IP. Lo and behold, that same openness, which drove a 15 year revolution in content creation and management that has utterly gutted the traditional mass media, has also highlighted consumer discomfort with buggy PC platforms, confusing software architectures, and a rapid return of the cycle of discordant, proprietary platforms ranging from smartphones (iPhone, BlackBerry, Android) to new PC/netbooks running proprietary (or at least non Windows/Intel) environments from re-skinned Linux distributions (JoliCloud, Joo-Joo) to browser-based stripped operating systems like Google Chromium. Factor in an incompatible slew of e-readers ranging from Kindle to Sony, Barnes & Noble to iPad and the world is setting itself up for a period of non-conformity and consumer confusion not seen since the pre-PC era when there were at least half a dozen pre-PC operating systems to choose from.

Johnson believes the consumer — who seeks simplicity, not noble principles of “openness” — is embracing the Apple-walled garden, where Flash video doesn’t run, and developers must pass through the Apple approval process, in order to get an elegant design and a controlled integration with assurances of no-viruses or malware and a single unified payment system.

Ok. I buy it.  Same held true for AOL when ti came to the pre-Internet online experience. Single sign-on, unified, consistent experience, ubiquity in terms of access and usage and then what? But it was unsustainable, as all technical platform are inevitably replaced by the next better thing, all pushed aside by something less restrictive, more open, and more flexible. So I don’t buy Johnson’s statement that the Gospel of  Open is being shaken or questioned by a lot of acolytes singing the praises of the iPad. I think it’s a dangerous closed system that is appealing to scared publishers and the most affluent but technically challenged segment of the population. It will not make a difference in the lives of the next billion users, most of whom are rushing, in torrents to open handset platforms like Android.

I give Apple a couple more years of relevance, until the next big thing makes it a memory like AOL and CompuServe. Closed always fades.

“But whatever Apple chooses to do with its platform in the coming years, it has made one thing clear: sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”

via Everybody’s Business – How Apple Has Rethought a Gospel of the Web – NYTimes.com.