International Association of Religious Freedom: US Chapter


Celebrating Together

Doris Hunter April 2, 2006

The precious incense burns in the Jeweled Censer permeating the ten directions.
It is a sincere offering to the King of the Dharma.
Single-mindedly we pray for world peace.
That it may last forever. Single-mindedly we pray for world peace.
That it may last forever.
Let’s take refuge with the Bodhisattvas in the incense-clouds.
Take refuge with our Original Teacher Sakyamuni Buddha.

At 5:30am one morning last week at the monastery I joined the monks and nuns for morning meditation. Going into the great hall I looked up at the three gigantic golden Buddhas looming over me. I stood in the line with other visitors and I heard over 500 voices chanting the sutra, words that I have just shared with you. The devotion and serenity of those voices overwhelmed me. Here were the words coming from one of the Buddhist scriptures celebrating the Mahayana tradition. Its emphasis is on the compassion of the Buddha and the way for spiritual happiness for both laity and monks. This was the setting for the 32nd Congress of the International Association for Religious Freedom.

The monastery offers opportunities for spiritual retreats at various levels of Buddhist devotion and discipline. The Venerable Master Hsing Yun established it forty years ago. Born in China in 1927, he entered a monastery at the age of 12 and was ordained into the Buddhist monastic life. In 1949 he fled China and came to Taiwan in order to fulfil his vow to promote Humanistic Buddhism…yes, Humanistic Buddhism! Its ideal is to take to heart spiritual practice as daily life with its emphasis on not needing to “go some place else to find enlightenment. We can realize our true nature in the here and now…within this precious human birth and in this world. When we actualize selflessness, altruism, joyfulness and universality, we are practicing the fundamental concepts of Humanistic Buddhism. When we give faith, hope, joy and service, we are helping all beings, including ourselves.”
Out of a forest of bamboo, the Venerable Master Hsing Yun realized his vow creating the vast campus of Fo Guang Shan International Buddhist Order. With its headquarters in Taiwan it now supports temples worldwide including one in California and one in New York. The Order emphasizes educational service and maintains public colleges and universities such as the one on the campus of the monastery. It has a publishing house, museums, libraries, medical clinics, children’s home, retirement home, high school and a television station. Venerable Master Hsing Yun is an outspoken proponent of equality among all people and religious traditions and the Order is now a member of the International Association for Religious Freedom. He is an advocate for women’s rights and the Order has the largest number of female monasteries of any Buddhist Order. He ordains women from all the traditions of Buddhism; Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana. One parishioner from the Reading Unitarian Universalist Church was ordained at the monastery by Master Hsing Yun. What common ideals the Order shares with the IARF!

Our group heard him address us the first evening we were there asking us to work for world peace and understanding. Unfortunately being the first evening, many of us had a difficult time staying awake. Graciously he mentioned that his speech was so comforting that he must have put many to sleep. Many ministers have the same experience but sometimes are not so gracious in their response to sleeping parishioners! The speech emphasized the need to transform our world by being actively engaged in it. Humanistic Buddhism believes that “community transcends the individual and in doing so fulfills the individual.” Being a “Western” and an individualist, I find this belief difficult to experience and as I look at our Unitarian Universalist Congregations, I can see that community is not the center of our community but as we say so often, the individual search for the truth. Our numbers indicate the reality of this fact, don’t they!

Every day as I walked to morning devotions, to my circle group of Japanese, Indians and one Australian, to the business meetings, panel discussions, workshops and evening programs, I experienced this overwhelming devotion of a community, and to a community. Feelings of reservation would come to me as I witnessed a thousand monks and nuns walking in perfect order, eating in silence using chop sticks to indicate a desire for “seconds”, meditating in perfect harmony, chanting the sutra of devotion and compassion. What is community? What do we mean as we celebrate our togetherness this morning? When I was part of that monastic life last week I sensed a different meaning of “being together in community” from that sense of community at Fo Guang Shan. The closest we come to chanting together is the common aspects repeated each Sunday in our Order of Worship. That aspect, however, is a moment compared to the length of time spent chanting the sutras in that great meditation hall half way around the world. Here we sit, a few gathered in this Church, while across the world thousands chant together for peace. I could not help but think of the contrast and wondered what my companions from Massachusetts were thinking so I asked them to write a paragraph that I could share with you.

Here are the Rev. Polly Guild’s words. “Is Shangri La a real place? I think I’ve just been there in south Asia. Can you imagine a beautiful friendly Monastery with exquisite orchards profusely blooming everywhere, lots of youthful looking head shaved brown robed monks and nuns smiling and welcoming visitors from around the world? Such was the setting at the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery in Taiwan for the 32nd IARF Congress. The tallest golden Buddha in all Asia reigns over a huge hilly campus with magnificent buildings and lovely gardens with touches of humor that present a joyous and yet profoundly peaceful feeling to guests and residents alike. In this setting 400 IARF delegates from around the world gathered to renew old acquaintances make new friends, discuss world peace and the future of the Organization. Cultural differences melted away as we ate and worshipped together. Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Unitarians, Jews, exchanged ideas and shared personal stories. While world peace seems like a distant dream, duplicating more such gatherings might do much to pave the way.

Here are the words of Gale Maynard, member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Melrose. “The Night That Never Ends.” The journey to the 32nd Congress of the IARF began with a flight through what seemed like endless darkness and opened to a world of color and light. From different faiths, from Japan, Nepal, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Europe, the Middle East and North America we came to the Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Taiwan. Buddhists, Shintos, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Zoroastrians and Unitarian Universalists came together to learn from each other and share a dream for peace and harmony in our world of divisions. A spirit of generosity permeated the entire Congress in prayers, mealtimes, plenary meetings, workshops and especially in our circle groups.

The graciousness of the nuns and monks of Fo Guang Shan giving freely of their time and assistance and sharing parts of their monastic life with us was the epitome of that spirit. A lasting image for me is of a monk who taught some of us Tai Chi. Our group, a rainbow of color and cultures, consisted of young and old, men and women eager and open to learning. Together we “Spread Arms to Push Waves,” “Raised Mountains with a Majestic Roar” and “Return to Oneness.” When I close my eyes, I see our teacher in his robes, eyes closed doing “Happy Spring Breeze Gently Blowing on the Beautiful Face.” The joy, peace and hope of the Congress are embodied in his expression as his hands bring the mild and cleansing caress of springtime breeze to his face.
And the words of Nyla McCulloch, Member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Melrose, “So Happy Together.” What is the incentive of a few hundred individuals to fly half way around the world to spend four days together? The desire to leave the comforts of home, to look into the eyes of the other, to intentionally consider questions of meaning with each other. To risk hope. To have faith that the very act of coming together may make a difference in some small way. To practice being in the larger world. To breathe in some common “spiritual universe.”

Indeed, we did breathe in some common “spiritual universe” during those days together and we hope that somehow this will make a difference to this world of misunderstanding and hatred. We hope in the words of the Venerable Master Hsing Yun that “May I (we) possess: a body like a clear crystal, and a heart like the bright moon in water, a wise mind like the full moon and a vow as strong as Diamond, words of kindness and acts of benefit. A generous mind like water and cloud, one that cares for and benefits all living beings.” Ah, how I wish that for all of us!

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