At first glance, the Protestant and Buddhist religions do not appear to have much in common. However, some of the rituals observed in one have parallel rituals observed in the other. At the structural level, there are more comparisons than contrasts to be made. If the view is expanded to include the followers of each religion, however, many more contrasts than comparisons can be observed. It is the people, the Protestants and the Buddhists, that make the religions different, due to teachings that cannot necessarily be observed.
The customs of each religion will be detailed, and the similarities and differences made clear, in the essay that follows. This particular Sunday morning Protestant service begins at nine o’ clock, though the schedule is far from rigid. Members of the congregation are milling happily about, most wearing smiles that are wide and bright. Some of them spot me as a newcomer as soon as I step through the doorway, and they rush to shake my hand and introduce themselves. (One of these is Tobias Scouten, who agrees to be interviewed for this essay.
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) Protestants in this particular church, and this may be the same everywhere, are always welcoming new members. This is evidenced almost immediately after the service begins. The room, which Scouten calls “the sanctuary,” is dimly lit, except for the stage. Three spotlights illuminate the entire stage. There are candles burning on either side, but the dominant aromas are carpet cleaner and the various mingled odors of the people filling the room. After a few songs, which are sung with great enthusiasm by the entire congregation, the preacher takes the stage.
His smile is perhaps brightest of all, and he makes a point of welcoming any visitors who might be in the audience. (There are no pews in this sanctuary; the worshippers are seated in cushioned chairs, which are arranged in long rows. ) He then offers up the microphone to anyone who has a “testimony” to share. Testimonies, in this context, means a story in which congregation members spread the letter or the spirit of the message. Examples shared this morning include a few bags of groceries purchased for a needy family, an invitation extended to a despairing nonbeliever, and a night spent in prayer over a friend’s sick father.
The congregation encourages these stories with calls of “Amen” and “Praise Jesus. ” In this way, individual church members are rewarded, if with nothing more than the acclaim of their peers, for helping the Protestant faith as a whole to grow. The testimonies are followed by a musical performance. A young man and a young woman take the stage, the former holding a cordless microphone and the latter wearing an acoustic guitar. While they sing, the congregation sits back and listens, though a few scattered “Amen” calls can be heard at crucial moments in the lyrics. When the pastor returns to the stage, he reads from the Bible.
He pauses during this reading to clarify certain points, bringing the ancient writing into more current context. After the reading, he relates an family anecdote, which in the end returns to the theme (this week, the church is focusing on “forgiveness”) discussed in the Bible passage. This is the only time during the service that everyone in the audience is quiet. All eyes are on the pastor as he walks up and down the stage, speaking through a headset microphone. His pacing is matched to the tone of his voice; when his volume increases, so does the length of his stride.
Upon speaking the final words of his sermon, he allows full silence to descend on the congregation for a full five seconds before requesting everyone bow their heads in prayer. There is another song, again sung by the entire congregation, and the service comes to a close. No one appears to be in much of a hurry to leave the sanctuary. Many of the worshippers turn to each other and recommence the mingling in which they had been indulging before the service began. At this point, Tobias Scouten escorts me out of the sanctuary and into what he terms “the fellowship hall” for coffee and cookies.
We seat ourselves at one of the many tables, and he fills in the blanks for me. The information Mr. Scouten provides will be put to use when the Protestant practice is compared with the Buddhist practice, following the explanation of the latter. A small group of people, “fifty or so, on a good day,” according to Abbot Bai Tue, comes together at nine o’ clock on Saturday mornings for an English-language Zen service. The temple is a modest building, which consists of one large meeting room—called the “Zendo”—and a few smaller rooms.
Among these lesser chambers, the Abbot has an office, a bathroom, and a kitchenette. Upon entering the building, it is required that I remove my shoes. In a coatroom just inside the front door, every pair of shoes is stowed in a separate cubby. Not many of the cubbies are used, either because the temple does not attract a large group of regulars or because more people choose to attend the Sunday morning Japanese-language service. As it is, I am joined with less than twenty people in the temple. These people are dressed casually, in comfortable clothes, to make seated meditation more peaceful.
As I will be told later, it is requested that people wear clothes that will not make much noise when the wearer moves, as this might be distracting during the meditation period. The dominant aroma here is one of incense, though the exact scent is unknown. Behind where the Abbot sits, a display consisting of a small Boddhisatva statue, a cup of incense sticks, and several burning sticks which are poking out of the base of the statue. The Zendo itself looks to be all natural wood, without much—if any—paint on the walls or ceiling.
As the Abbot will tell me later, the sight of natural wood calms those who come to the temple to meditate; it “allows them to feel surrounded by nature,” even while they are inside the building. No one says a word while they set up for the service. Cushions are retrieved from a closet off the main room for everyone to sit on, for there are no chairs. “Silence,” the Abbot will tell me, “is required in the Zendo. ” The temple’s attendance might be small, but this matters little to those who do come regularly. They do not come to meet with the other members of the “Sangha”—meaning the group—they come to experience something within themselves.
The service begins with the ringing of a smell bell and a chanting ritual, alternating between the Abbot and the Sangha. The nature of this chanting is the offering up of the mind and the prostration of the body to something higher. This higher ideal is not a being, but rather a state of being: enlightenment. It is a myth that Buddhists worship Buddha. They look to him as a leader, more of an example than a personification of judgment and the resulting punishment or reward. Following the chants, there is a type of sermon made by the Abbot, though the Sangha are encouraged to “turn inward” while listening.
The words are not to be taken at face value, but to be seen as portals beyond which greater meaning can be found. The Sangha meditates during this time, and after a short period the Abbot falls silent. Within the Zendo, not a sound can be heard. The remote location of the temple becomes a notable positive at this point, as the only noise from outside is the rather soothing rush of the wind in the trees. The meditation lasts almost an hour and a half, after which Abbot Bai Tue invites anyone with questions related to the temple in particular or the Buddhist practice in general to stay and talk.
Though I am not the only person to remain once the meditation is over, it quickly becomes clear that I am the only visitor to the temple this morning. The Abbot is more than willing to provide answers for me, though he does not lead me in my interview at all. Even now, the search is a personal one. He speaks only when a question is posed, and his responses are concise and to-the-point. As stated in the introduction, the comparisons to be made between the religions are mostly structural. Both Protestants and Buddhists come together to practice.
They begin with acts of participation, with songs in the Protestant church and chants in the Buddhist temple. Then a leader takes control of the service and gives the congregation or the Sangha what they cannot receive anywhere else. But even in these similarities, there are intrinsic differences. Mr. Scouten tells me he sings in order to show his “gratitude and love for the Lord. ” According to Abbot Bai Tue, the chants have a different purpose; they “prepare the mind for meditation. ” It would seem that the Protestant songs are sung for God, while the Buddhist chants are done for personal preparations.
When the sermon begins, the Protestants are listening closely to each word spoken, and vocal responses are encouraged. In the Buddhist temple, the sermon is meant only to set the stage, and such responses are discouraged. These differences point to a fundamental contrast between the two religions. The Protestant faith is founded on the concept of propagation, and the practitioners of the faith take great pride in aiding that propagation. Diametrically, the Buddhist faith is about looking inward and finding peace within oneself. Bibliography Scouten, Tobias. Personal Interview. 18 February 2007. Tue, Bai. Personal Interview. 24 February 2007.
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