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My Visit to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple

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Jasmine Ben Rached

Dr. Delaporte

Religions of the World

Religious Service Report

My Visit to the San Mateo Buddhist Temple

It was a mostly clear, windy, Sunday Morning on February 9th- I had a warm cup of coffee in hand as I drove to The San Mateo Buddhist Temple. I typed in 2 South Claremont Street, San Mateo CA 94401 into google maps on my phone, and then proceeded to drive a little over the speed limit. Running a bit late for the 9:30 am Sunday Morning Service, I was a bit puzzled why on the website they would call it “Sunday Morning Service” that rang a little too familiar with my catholic/Muslim upbringing. What I later found out was this temple was a Dharma School targeted to young students and children that held Dharma talks on Sundays.  However there were also adults at the service as well.  I went in with an open mind anyway, I wasn’t intimated by the fact I might not be able to understand everything. I was used to going to the mosque with my father as a kid, trying hard to participate but feeling completely lost by the Arabic around me.

Pulling up to the center I was unexpectedly surprised at the exterior of the center. It was a plain and ordinary hall. I’m not exactly sure what I was even expecting really, but for some reason I just didn’t picture a house like structure that I saw. If anything, being the sheltered 19 years old that I am, I was thinking it would be a big temple like structure.  However when I walked up to the temple, I noticed how the roof resembled somewhat of a Japanese pagoda. At the top of the roof was the icon symbolizing the Wheel of Law. The Wheel of Law could also be known as the Wheel of Life or Wheel of Dharma, and symbolizes the Buddhist idea of the Noble Eightfold path, along with a large statue of Buddhist monk Shinrad Shonin. When I first entered the Buddhist temple, I was greeted at the door by Rev Victor Iwamura, I expected him to place his hands together and bow, but he shook my hand firmly and asked what brought me here today. I explained to him I was here for a class assignment and asked him if it was okay if I took pictures inside the temple. He apologized and said that flash photography was not allowed, but he was eager to answer any questions I may have had since he was familiar with my assignment before. He also made it clear that this was a Buddhist Temple despite them not emphasizing traditional mediation as much, in order to not alienate the Buddhist community of San Mateo.  I thought that was really cool that he was honoring the diversity of the bay area, so I thanked him and walked in. I was surprised that no one took off their shoes, since I assumed that this temple would follow Japanese eddicute seriously but did not. Past the door was the main hall, where the service took place. I was told the hall was called a, "hondo". The place had a feeling of reverence and seriousness just in itself, but also a since of light heartedness. There was almost complete silence, but a couple people were whispering hellos to each other, asking one another about their day and most of the artificial lights have been turned off. Instead, there were candles lit around the room, which were the only sources of light for those in the hall. I thought it was appropriate to ban cameras, because the lighting was so dim, a camera flash would have been extremely distracting. I looked around and saw a couple rows of pews in the back, where I seated myself. In the front of the hondo, I saw a Buddhist shrine with a golden Buddha statue. It was adorned with flowers and candles. I discovered that the flowers were real, because the Buddhists wanted to emphasize the idea of impermanence, because the flowers will eventually wilt. It was the same with the candles, in that they will eventually burn out.

There were a few senior members who wore a colorful sash around their neck.  One thing that all the members in attendance had on was this beaded bracelet that I have seen other Buddhists wear before in San Fransico. Other than that, the primarily Japanese audience (with a few Caucasian members) wore regular western clothing that I’ve seen other people wear at mass before. Generally, the audience consisted of parents and their children of middle to high middle class.

        Someone hit a bell (kansho) which was the cue for the service to begin. A man, who was one of the leaders at the temple, stood up, greeted everyone with a bow, then encouraged everyone to spend a couple moments in silent meditation. I noticed a couple people crossed their legs and sat up straight. I assumed they were meditating, but because of the light I couldn't really see their exact body position.

        A little bit later, another bell sounded, which meant meditation time was over. Everyone looked up, and the same man who welcomed us encouraged everyone to join him as he chanted one of the Buddha's teachings, or sutras. A couple people were passing out the books that they would be chanting from. I was too busy looking around at the people chanting that I didn't get to open the book that was passed out to me, but after they chanted, they said in unison, "Namo Amida Butsu," which means, "I take refuge in Buddha Amida."

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