A story about visiting the White Lotus Buddhist Center in Rochester, New York
by Chris Clemens
At 815 Park Ave in Rochester the Immanuel Baptist Church blends itself into the residential historic neighborhood. The towering Tudor Revival style church earned a spot on the national registry in 2002. When you first step into the church, you see signs of different groups that use the space. There are groups like AA meetings and self-help groups. You also find the White Lotus Center, a Buddhist group following the traditions of the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Tibet.
As I’ve stated many times, this blog is mostly an introduction to places we visit. We try to include a bit of history about the particular belief system to provide some background. There is no possible way I could do justise the story of Buddhism’s origins in this post. It’s one of the largest religions in the world, with different lineages, and different depictions of the Buddha. Complicating the story, is the history of Tibet and the turmoil it has undergone with the Chinese government.
Many origins of the different lineages are confusing to me, so I shouldn’t be the one to tell you about them anyway. Don’t let this post be the only story of Buddhism you ever read, since I’ll be glossing over a lot. In addition, I’ll start right off by apologizing for the length of this entry. Extra points for you if you read all the way to the end.
Siddhārtha Gautama was born and later died in ancient India, somewhere in the 400s BCE–though the exact time of his birth and death are something that historians don’t agree on. He was born into a royal Hindu family, which provided every luxury he could have ever dreamed of.
Gautama knew he couldn’t be happy with luxuries while outside his palace walls people were sick, dying, and poor. He fled in the middle of the night (actually, this is another detail that historians don’t 100% agree on) and began his spiritual search for fulfillment.
While enduring hunger days on end and the discomfort that comes with living a life of a mendicant, he engaged in nonstop meditation vowing not to stop until he reached the realization of true enlightenment.
Experts also can’t agree on exactly how long it took (Remember: Gautama spent a lot of time alone, so there were no followers at this point to be writing things down) but he eventually came to the understanding of what caused pain and suffering. He discovered the Four Noble Truths that living beings can maintain to diminish suffering. He believed while accepting these truths, humans could attain nirvana–the highest form of Englightenment.
Siddhārtha Gautama himself attained Enlightenment while meditating under what is now known as the Bodhi Tree. Now a Buddha himself, he set out to teach the world how they too could attain Enlightenment.
All Buddhists believe the same fundamental Dhamma (truth). But from country to country, many of the customs and practices will vary based on the emphasis on cultural customs.
The White Lotus Center of Rochester practices within the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. That lineage is made up of the teachings of the three vehicles of Buddhism: the Foundational Vehicle, the Mahāyāna and the Vajrayana. All three engage the follower in a path of altruistic servitude to sentient beings here on Earth. Through various lecture series and meditation practices, members of the White Lotus Center strive to follow in the footsteps of Buddha.
One time a year, a visiting Lama from Tibet plans an appearance at White Lotus Center. On Saturday, May 12, His Eminence Garchen Rinpoche, a reincarnation of a heart disciple of the founder of the Drikung Kagyu lineage, was at White Lotus. He came to oversee the refuge vows of anyone who wanted to take them.
Visiting White Lotus
Everyone slowly filled the room that is the temple for White Lotus Center and soon the room was packed. About half sat up near the shrine near H.E. Garchen Rinpoche on pillows, and the rest of us were seated in the back on chairs. Like always, we went straight to the back–it’s always easier to watch the entire room from that spot. I counted around 100, in a room not quite meant for 100 people.
As he spoke, someone from White Lotus was translating. The first awe-inspiring moment of the morning was considering the talent of the young woman translating on the spot. She would transcribe his words and immediately read it back to the room. The mood was quiet and low, and she seemed nervous. His Eminence interrupted her as she was reading and gestured as if he was punching the air. She looked back at the group and said “he has told me to not be stingy with my voice” and the group laughed.
At that point, the mood changed from “we are in the presence of greatness” to, “we are all one and it’s ok to relax”. He explained a bit about the purpose of refuge vows, and that someone who is taking refuge is someone who is committing to seek the safety of the Three Jewels of Buddhism. Mentioned in discussing the process, was that it was more important for someone to take vows and break them, rather than to never the vows at all.
We are all human, and are bound to not be perfect–in fact, nearly all religions agree on this. Staying the course of seeking Enlightenment seemed to be about intention. Seeking to do as rightly as we can to other living things, and ensuring our karma is in balance was the goal.
Taking Refuge Vows
The group read aloud together some prayers, many of which were a few pages long, so I won’t include them here.
After about an hour, it was time for those who chose to take refuge, to go to the front of the shrine. A monk placed the traditional offering of a white silk scarf around their necks, and as they bowed, H.E. Garchen Rinpoche would snip a bit of hair from the head and place it in a basket with everyone else’s hair that had been snipped. Unfortunately, I have no idea where the collection of hair went, I’d love to know! He tapped their head with his finger, and then with a small statue of a Tibetan-style Buddha.
Afterward, the entire room engaged in three long prayers, and at this time, after completing the ceremony, those who chose were ‘officially’ a Buddhist.
Though many had tears, the emotion in the room was strongly positive. Many looked as though they had finally ‘arrived’ in life and some smiled quietly to themselves. Others engaged in stolid chanting, seemingly the continuation of cementing their intention and path toward ultimate truth.
At the close of the ceremony, H.E. Garchen Rinpoche stood, as did everyone else, and he began to make his way out of the room. He was stopped by a few and accepted hugs. This was a time when many began to tear up as they knew they were witnessing the close of an incredibly rare opportunity. They were processing the chance to be blessed by the presence of one of the leading teachers of Buddhism in the world.
As he stopped again, just a few feet from me, he was introduced to the former pastor of the church where White Lotus exists. He looked very happy and said something which was interpreted to be, “OH! I love any faith that believes in love!” He seemed almost energized to be in the presence of other people who had committed themselves to a life of spiritual exploration. It didn’t seem to matter that they had chosen Christianity, Judaism or anything other than his beliefs. It seemed that as long as they were dedicated to the service of loving mankind then he was cool with it.
Everyone followed him outside and passed the people standing on the sidewalk waiting for the AA meeting to begin, and gathered outside as His Eminence climbed in his escort vehicle. We all stood in the yard of the church and watched him pull off. The people surrounding us were in total awe of having had the opportunity to have been in the presence of such an individual.
The experience was moving, if for no other than reason than to see how deeply changed others seem to feel.
We were able to talk with a few people, including Eileen [sp?] from Buffalo who came in for the ceremony, but things were so hectic that we didn’t get an opportunity to meet with anyone from White Lotus. I think another visit to the Sunday morning meditation practice is probably in order. And, ‘practice’ is a perfect word for what I’ll be doing, since sitting still any length of time and focusing is not something that comes natural to me. Speaking of sitting still and focusing–thanks for reading all the way through!!!
Are you someone who is familiar with the intricacies of the different lineages of Buddhism? Feel free to offer any details you think I have glossed over too quickly!
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens