Friday, August 19, 2011

seventy-sixth visit: Aug 17th 2011 Theravada Buddhism

7:00pm wednesday
Pittsburgh Buddhist Center
111, Route 908, Natrona Heights PA 15065
natrona heights

Theravada Buddhism is the "oldest of the surviving Buddhist traditions." The two resident monks (or Bhantes) at PBC are from Sri Lanka.

This is a story I will tell through snapshots of the people I meet.

Before the meditation, I meet:
Ven. Soorakkulame Pemaratana ("Bhante P")
I phoned him last week. He has offered to coach me a bit on meditation before the session actually begins, as long as I come early. I do. My lesson: sit on a pillow (zafu), cross-legged (lotus-style for the more advanced), back straight, but shoulders relaxed, openness in heart, chin parallel to floor, tips of thumbs touch each other and hands rest at calves, or palms down and hands rest on thighs. That is the physical part. The rest is mental. Two kinds of meditation will occur today: Loving kindness and Breath.

He asks me a few questions about gatherings. Before I get very far, Bhante P interjects: "Art and drawing is a form of meditation." I stop explaining.

I meet Odessa. She says she knows she's seen me here before. (Not possible.) Ends up that she remembers me from a conversation we shared at the Nuin Center, my 12th visit, last paragraph. And I remember her, too.

In the next minute, I meet Joshua, who serves a leadership role in the meditation sessions here and knows a lot about the different forms of Buddhism. He is a former photographer (journalism) and to that end has traveled the world. He says my dress looks steampunk. I can sit with that. Seconds before the session starts, he puts a vase of flowers in my hands saying, "We'll give you the full experience here tonight. Let everyone touch these." (I am to carry the vase past every participant, offering each an opportunity to touch the bottom of the vase, before I ceremoniously place it on the front alter.) He has noticed my camera and also calls on me to photograph the first few minutes of the evening—a short ceremonial acknowledgement of three regulars at PBC who are celebrating birthdays this week.

We chant. Prayers are chanted in the Pali language. Phonetic prayer books are provided to each, with English translations on facing pages. We meditate. Afterwards, we are given an opportunity to talk about our meditation experiences. Two do. One is the youngest in the room, a boy probably ten years old or so. He says this: "Usually, when I meditate, I am a horse at the derby, but this time I was a dog in a meadow. It was really good."

We talk about a principal of Buddhism. Characteristics of the human mind: it wanders, does so alone, dwells in a cave (our body), it is formless. A simple summary: If we learn how to subdue our minds (with awareness), a freedom is achieved. ...basically, how to chill out when we are stressed or worried about things that probably will never happen. Pretty useful skill, I think.

In the end: a blessing ritual involving a string that unites the room. It reminds me of the blessing of the challah, during Sukkot (5th visit, 6th pgh). From one of the Bhantes, each of us receives a sprinkle of blessed water and a yellow string tied around our wrist, similar to the Hindu Diwali observance (14th visit, 5th pgh).

After the meditation, I meet:
A young ceramicist, also a first-timer. She comments that she feels Buddhism is so applicable to current life situations. So far, I cannot argue. I also feel that, in my gatherings experience to date, Buddhism is the strongest example of religion existing as a philosophy.

I also meet Keith, the owner of a new restaurant in the Regent Square neighborhood: Root 174. (If plans hold, Arohan and I will go there in two days.)

And I meet a quiet, gentle man who asks if I've been to Rodef Shalom and Poale Zedeck (yes, both)—where his family once worshiped; experiences there played a huge role in his childhood. He thanks each person for something specific as he leaves; he turns to me and mentions my project.

I had been saving this visit, thinking that (according to my web research) it would be my only Buddhist gathering experience, located 20 miles outside Pittsburgh proper. However, I left today with a list of other meeting groups, including some within Pgh city borders. I am already booked full as far as the remaining 24 visits in this project, but I'll have to adjust and make room.

Interestingly, at the end of this and my last visit, both religious leaders asked if I had been to a mosque yet. They asked in a way to make sure that I don't forget. Refreshing. I have been to one, 7th visit. Been trying since last week to contact another. As 9/11 nears: not forgetting, not forgetting, thank you.

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