Buddhism is an ancient religion founded in India in the sixth century A.D. It has since spread worldwide and numbers close to 500 million adherents — about 7 percent of the world’s population. About 4 million Buddhists live in the U.S. and according to the World Buddhist Directory, Alaska is home to 15 groups statewide. Eight are in Anchorage. Fairbanks and Juneau have three each, and there’s one in Valdez.
There are three major Buddhist traditions: Theravada Buddhism, which traces its roots back to the very beginning of the faith; Mahayana Buddhism, which started in the first century A.D.; and Vajrayana Buddhism — closely linked with Tibetan Buddhism. Mahayana is considered to be the largest branch, followed by Theravada and then Vajrayana. There are differences in belief between these three, but those are beyond the scope of this column.
Three Buddhist groups in the Theravada tradition have temples in Anchorage: Wat Alaska Yanna Vararam (Dhammayutti Nikaya in Midtown), Wat Dhamma Bhavana Buddhist Center (Maha Nikaya on O’Malley Road), and Wat Lao of Anchorage (Maha Nikaya in Mountain View).
Temple members meet weekly, usually on Sundays, and for special Buddhist events. Membership in each temple numbers 150 or more. The first two mentioned temples consist of Thai members, while Wat Lao is primarily Lao membership.
I was invited to attend the consecration of Wat Alaska Yanna Vararam held in mid-June. A preliminary event was a dhamma talk on June 15. Dhamma talks, a feature of Buddhism, are where Buddhist teacher give talks on various aspects of Buddhism. They are often connected with weekly meetings at Theravada temples locally.
This particular dhamma talk (known as dharma to other Buddhist groups) was given by Ajaan Geoff of the San Diego area. I was astounded by the number of Westerners in attendance along with many monks.
Geoff Galik of Yanna Vararam told me the “talk on the Wednesday night before the ceremonies was actually intended to be a night for Westerners. Our team put up advertisements online as well as in coffee shops around town.
Ajaan Geoff has a reputation in Buddhist circles as a notable modern Buddhist writer, of the Thai Forest Tradition, and is well known, which may have generated interest.” (Metta Forest Monastery, which Ajaan Geoff directs, is a meditation monastery in the lineage of the Thai Forest Tradition. Its dhamma teachings and more information about Buddhism, meditation and the Thai Forest Tradition can be found at dhammatalks.org.)
The talk began with attendees being brought into a relaxed meditative frame of mind by Ajaan Geoff. After about 20 minutes of this progressive relaxation routine, he spoke about the subject of happiness, concluding with audience questions and answers. Ajaan Geoff’s entire presentation that night, which I found useful for a general audience, is on YouTube.
The consecration of Wat Alaska Yanna Vararam was on Sunday afternoon, June 19. The temple was tightly packed with members, their friends, and many monks, a number of whom had traveled from the Lower 48 and abroad to attend.
A major event that afternoon was the placement of nine immense stone balls (loknimit), a practice going back to the time of the Buddha. Two stones were to be placed on each of the four sides of the temple, and one was to be placed in the center of temple. When I arrived each stone was suspended from a scaffolding over the holes, suspended by strong vines.
At the appropriate time during the consecration ceremony, sponsors of each stone used huge knives to cut the vines, releasing the stones into the holes. Each of the exterior stones were marked by a gravestone-like monument. It was an unusual spectacle, and marked the first Buddhist temple to be consecrated in Alaska.
With the temple now consecrated, monks could finally be ordained there. Seven candidates were presented and given the 227 rules which govern their lives as monks. After their acceptance of the rules, each left the room to be garbed with their saffron robes, returning to be presented.
Monks live very simple lives, eating only twice a day, and focus primarily on spirituality.
I discovered one can be a monk for a lifetime, or a portion of one’s life. During my visit I talked to an engaging older monk, Phra Pradit Abhijato from Wat Santi in Landers, California. Speaking earnestly about the importance of having meaning and purpose in one’s life, he shared he’d been a career radiologist, becoming a monk at a later age.
A married teacher friend, Naruepone Paul Maleehuan, startled me by sharing he’d become a monk at age 14, continuing for the next 18 years. “I grew up in Buddhist lands,” he said. “I didn’t know what Buddhism meant. One of my family took me to the temple to show me how to do this if I had a question. I had lots of questions. I had no idea. I just followed them. Soon I went to monastic life, became a novice, and finally a monk. I found out, oh, that’s the way. I could see the world more, what’s the suffering, what’s the happiness. I could pick out my own way in this life. Buddhism helps me every day, every single minute. If I get confused or anxious, mindfulness comes, and I think before I do something.”
Theravada Buddhist services are difficult for me to follow, as they are chanted mostly in Thai or Pali. English/Pali texts were provided, but I find it easy to lose my place.
J. Philip Wogaman, in “What Christians Can Learn from Other Religions” writes of Buddhism, “Some Christians have found it possible to combine aspects of Buddhist teachings with their own faith traditions, without abandoning Christianity as their primary religious home.”
Wogaman points to Buddhist views on tolerance, religious authority, the illusion of permanence, suffering and compassion, as being worthy of consideration. So far, my visits to Buddhist gatherings have impressed me with their sincerity, and I’ve always been treated kindly, with great hospitality and respect at their temples, uncommon for me in my church visits.