On the night of October 19, I pulled into the dark drive of the Pema Karpo Meditation Center. With me was Miko McDowell, who is also a part of the religion class with me. After we knocked on the door, we waited with anticipation to start the evening. This is, however, something totally new to us. We never imagined that we would be attending a Buddhism service.
The meditation center is hidden by many trees. It was very dark, but I was still able to see. There were not any decorations or statues that embellished the center. The most accurate description to fit the center would be that it looked like a house. The door opened and in front of us is stood a tall woman whose corners of her mouth stretched from ear to ear, You must be the students from Memphis. My name is Candia. Candia Ludy would be our guide for tonight. The first step I took into the Pema Karpo Meditation Center I noticed the smell. It was not a horrid smell, but it was the smell of incense that wafted through the air. Boxes and boxes of incense decorated the bookshelf, along with fifty or so books on Buddhism. I noticed there were pictures of ancient Tibetan writings decorating the walls. However, I forgot what Candia mentioned they mean.
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A few members of Pema Karpo had just gotten back from India, and they were discussing of their time in the meditation room. Therefore, Candia suggested that we just talk and start the questions while we wait for them to finish. As we learned in class, there are three teachings of Buddhism: Mahayana, Vajrayana, Theravada. Mahayana Buddhism became the largest tradition of Buddhism. This tradition goes deeper into Buddha’s teachings than Vajrayana and Theravada. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that everyone can achieve nirvana. Attaining enlightenment is not the highest goal; however, compassion for others and helping them bring about their liberation is ultimately a higher goal than enlightenment. Vajrayana Buddhism originated in India around the sixth to seventh century. Although it originated in India, it is the most prominent form of Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal, and other countries. Buddhists in the Vajrayana tradition believe their teaching can be traced directly to Buddha. Theravada Buddhists believe they represent the original teaching of Buddha. They believe nirvana should be sought out through the individual’s own efforts. The primary key in pursuing nirvana, according to the Theravada’s, is through meditation. Unlike Mahayana, Theravada believes only monks and nuns can attain nirvana. (Brodd, et al, 2016).
The members of Pema Karpo Mediation center describe their tradition as Mahayana Vajrayana, taking teachings from both sectors of Buddhism. The Pema Karpo Meditation Center is new. Candia Ludy, the director of the center, was the one who got it up and running. She had a vision to build a meditation center for people who spoke English residing in the Memphis area. This vision was brought to life in 2005.
Ms. Ludy is very passionate of her beliefs in Buddhism. Her beliefs are so strong, because she testifies that meditation and the teachings of Buddhism are what helped her in difficult times. She was at a difficult time in her life with her husband; she had already been reading many books on Buddhism, and she practiced her meditation. However, this was the time when she really tuned into the meditation. She said it is the only thing that got her through it. The ongoing debate, mainly among westerners, is whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. Candia told us that, to her, Buddhism is a philosophy of the mind. Miko and I were taking turns asking Ms. Ludy questions. I was sitting with excitement, ready to ask my question. In class we learned that Buddha teaches of no-self, anatman. In this teaching, Buddha teaches that the sense of being permanent and autonomous is merely an illusion (Reigle, 2015). I understood this concept to a degree, but I wanted to understand it on a deeper level.
What does it mean to have no-self? the first question I decided to ask Candia. She responded, Being singular and permanent is not true. What they believe in is known as multiplicity and impermanence. Everything including humans are made of many parts. These parts are always changing. Your cells are reproducing by the second. Your body is aging every day. Nothing is ever the same, Candia further explains. Our thoughts, emotions, and body are always changing; therefore, we are impermanent. This theory gives Candia a sense of ease, because she knows that no matter what she is going through, it will not last long. She knows this, because of impermanence- nothing stays the same. She goes deeper in the no-self theory by questioning What is Candia? She believes you cannot exactly pinpoint what she is. Another philosophical question that goes along with this theory is Where are you in the body? Does a person reside in the mind where the thoughts are happening, or do they stay where the heart is located?
The chatter in the other room was dying down, an invitation to come in and join the others. Before we entered the meditation room, Candia asked that we take our shoes off. The taking of one’s shoes off shoes respect, just as many of us would take off our hats before entering a building. Another reason that they take their shoes off is because we were going to meditate. A person can relax easier without wearing their shoes. We followed Candia into the meditation room. The floors were covered in crimson carpet, with scarlet red cushions covering the floor in a three-by-three grid. The demographics of the members did not favor a population. They ranged from old to young, men and women, etc. Thangkas lined the walls leading up to a gorgeous mandala. Ms. Ludy explained that Thangkas were Tibetan Buddhist painting. These paintings are usually done on cotton or silk. The paintings themselves were of Buddha. This mandala was hand painted by Candia. It was the view of the top of the palace, as if you were a bird looking down.
Miko and I were asked to join them in five minutes of meditation. We obliged and followed what everyone else was doing. We took a place on a red cushion, crossed our legs, and sat with good posture. Candia struck the gong with a striker, signaling the start of meditation. Earlier Ms. Ludy explained to us the purpose of meditation. It is a process that relaxes the mind. She told us that during meditation you want to keep your body still, comfortable, and upright. Absolute silence is the best setting in which to perform meditation. One of the most important things Candia iterates is you must keep your mind present. Do not allow your mind to wander. If it does use your breath to draw your mind back to the present moment. I kept this in mind while performing meditation. I noticed my mind often did wander. Using the information Candia gave me, I focused on my breath, bringing me to the now. When I was not letting my mind wander I found that meditation is very calming and relaxing.
Once the five minutes were over, Candia, again, struck the gong with the striker. This was the que to let everyone know the service is over. After the meditation, Miko and I were given permission to take pictures of the art displayed around the room. We engaged in conversation with a couple of the members. We got to hear a little bit about their time in India. The members were starting to file out one by one. At this point, we decided it was time to leave. We were walked to the door, so we could put our shoes on before we left. Once we stepped outside, we were greeted by the wet October weather. Goodbyes were told, and Ms. Ludy made sure we knew their door is always opened for us.
The next service I attended was not much different than the first. I visited the Quan Am Monastery on the 26th of October. It was six o’clock on a Friday evening. As I am driving down the road trying to find my destination I see it. This place was something you could not miss. It was beautiful. The monastery itself was huge. In front of the monastery was a torana. According to our book, a torana is an arched entrance seen in many Buddhist buildings. Under the torana was a burnt orange gate and on each side of the torana was a foo dog statue. I did not have as much time to ask as many questions as I wanted, so I did not get to ask about the statues. However, upon further research foo dog statues are meant for guardianship. When placed inside or outside of any building, they will protect that building from anything negative (Tchi, 2018). The monastery and torana had a sandy color with rustic orange roof tops. The front had mini potted trees. When you walk up the steps in the front of the monastery there are shrines to the right and to the left. There are no doors that lead to the shrines. There is just an opened archway. I later found out that these shrines served to honor monks who had passed away. On the side of the monastery, as I was going around back, I came upon huge statues. One statue was of a standing Buddha. Around the back of the monastery I noticed there were people carrying heads of lettuce and other vegetables. Once I got closer I realized they have their own garden. I later find out why.
My guide was a girl who was not much older than me. Her name was Katie, and she was very helpful in showing me what to do and explaining what they were doing and why they were doing it. The inside of the monastery was very ornate. Which was different from Pema Karpo. I believe the lack of funding has a lot to do with this. There were many statues of Buddha with plants placed throughout the building. Before entering the room in which we would be participating in meditation and Dharma Talk, I again was asked to take off my shoes. At Quan Am Monastery they also believe taking your shoes off symbolizes respect. Unlike Pema Karpo, the room was bigger. The floors were beige tile instead of carpet. The walls were a light gold with three windows on each side. The windows had gold curtains hung over them, but they were parted as to let the sunlight shine through. Quan Am did not have the cushions already placed on the floor. Upon entering, we were asked to grab a cushion and join the rest of the members. There was not a real reason for this; it was just a preference of the Monastery.
The congregation was not as diverse in ethnicity as Pema Karpo; however, Quan Am was more diverse with age groups. It ranged from teenagers to middle aged adults. Although, the youth did make up most the people. There were only nine members, including me and Miko, at Pema Karpo, but there were about twenty members at Quan Am. Upon talking to Katie, I discover that Quan Am is a Mahayana Buddhist Monastery, which is the largest sector of Buddhism. Ven. Thich Nguyen Tanh is a monk of the monastery that leads the services. Ven the Western abbreviation for the title Venerable which is given to ordained monks and nuns (Tan, 2012). Instead of sitting in front on us, like Candia did, Ven. Tanh sat off to the side, facing the wall to our right. At the beginning of the service, we started by reading from sutras and various other Buddha teachings. It was very easy to follow along because everything was written and spoken in English. Each member had a chant book and a stand where we placed our books. The stands main purpose was so the books did not touch the ground. The stand also made it easier for everyone to relax, because they aren’t focused on constantly holding their book. The Eight Realizations Sutra was a sutra that we spoke. The realization that connected the most with the Dharma Talk of that evening was the First Realization. The First Realization spoke about how Earth is impermanent and so is everything else. Following the readings was a time for meditation. At Pema Karpo, we meditated for five minutes, but at Quan Am we meditated for fifteen minutes. The way in which we meditated was the same. Ven. Tanh struck a gong with a striker which signaled the start of the meditation. Before I closed my eyes to meditate, I scanned the room to record how the members were meditating. I found that it was the same at Pema Karpo. Everyone was cross legged and had great posture. All eyes were closed, and everyone was still. After the fifteen minutes, Ven. Tanh struck the gong again. Now, was time for the Dharma Talk given by Ven. Tanh. That Friday night’s talk was about impermanence. Ven. Tanh taught that impermanence applies to earth and every living and nonliving thing, idea, and place on Earth. He related us to the seasons. He explained the seasons are always changing. Every minute the weather is changing, and each year the season are never the same. One year the summer may be brutal and the next it is not so bad. He even related it to one season alone. Every three months there is a new season. Everything is always changing, even us.
After the service everyone stayed and talked to one another. They even invited me to stay and enjoy a vegan snack. We all enjoyed the lasagna, stuffed with vegan cheese, and banana bread that was available to everyone. While eating the snack provided they explained to me that they do not believe in harming animals. Once they told me I remembered learning about this in class. The food was delicious. After we got done eating, I asked Ven. Tanh questions about the statues I noticed that were decorating the interior. They were all statues of Buddha; however, I noticed that they were not all the same, and this intrigued me. He told me that there are many different statues of Buddha, and they all symbolize something different (depending on how he is situated). The statue that shows Buddha with his legs crossed, eyes closed, and hands in lap is known as the calming Buddha. This statue was in the room where we did meditation. This statue symbolizes serenity, and it is known to have a calming effect on people. After hearing what this Buddha symbolized, I understood why it was placed in the meditation room. Another statue showed Buddha holding up his hand in an okay sign. Ven. Than told me this represents The Wheel of the Dharma. It represents teaching. Lastly, and my favorite statue, is the Laughing Buddha. This statue depicts Buddha as happy and it symbolizes luck and prosperity.
After learning about the statues, I knew it was time for me to leave. I did not want to leave the people at the service because they created an environment of peace and welcoming. They were all friendly people. Before I left, I received many hugs and thoughts of wanting me to prosper in school.
The Pemo Karpo Meditation Center and the Quan Am Monastery gave me a wonderful experience. Both groups believe the same in impermanence. Both leaders went into great explanations of what impermanence means and how we can find it all around us. Everybody believed in peace and the way to find that is to let go of our desires and selfish tendencies. The Meditation Center focused more on meditation; whereas, the Monastery spent a lot of time on sutras and Dharma talks. They focused and teaching Buddhas teachings. The members were the same in both services. Everyone was kind and welcoming. I enjoyed my time at both services and learned a lot about the religion. Meditation was my favorite thing to experience. I found that it does help the soul and eases your mind. If the opportunity ever arises, I would go back and pay everyone a visit. I learned that there are two views of Buddhism: peace and kindness, and I will take these with me wherever I go.
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