Saturdays in Kuan Yin Hall

Over the past year,  I’ve been driving up to Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York, many Saturday mornings, to meditate and take instruction in some of the suttas (or sutras in Sanskrit) of the Pali Canon from the American-born Buddhist scholar monk Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi .  The crowd is delightfully diverse.  I’ve met there an osteopath, a professor at a Connecticut college, a mid-wife,  shaven-headed Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns, and a woman who likes to knit during the talks and who told me at lunch last week that she won a $100 prize for doing the best Sarah Palin imitation in the last annual Cold Spring Halloween Parade.   I’m drawn to these talks and the suttas because after decades of practicing meditation and going on retreats and reading books by all kinds of Western teachers, I finally had an overwhelming interest in finding out what the man they called the Awakened One had to say for himself.

Ven. Bodhi’s classes are held in Kuan Yin Hall, which like the rest of the monastery (which means “solemn monastery”) is built in the style of the Tang Dynasty.   Front and center behind an altar sits a gorgeous wooden Kuan Yin Bodhisattva from the actual Tang Dynasty (about a 1000 years old).  Kuan Yin is  a bit like the Virgin Mary, a great loving and merciful saint of compassion, and this particular Kuan Yin sits with such grace and wears an expression of such beautiful self-contained tranquility that without knowing the tiniest thing about Buddhism or the suttas an observer gets the impression from looking at her that it is that it has to do with being easeful and kind with the world and with yourself, with being open yet self-contained no matter confronts you,  which means in this Kuan Yin’s case facing a lot of people taking notes and sometimes knitting.

As the weeks go by, I have learned that there really is no getting back to the exact words of Siddhattha (or Siddhartha) Gotama, the historical Buddha.  Pali , by the way, is a vernacular form of classical Sanskrit, which originated in the North Indian dialects that Gotama himself would have spoken.  What has come to be the Pali Canon was perseved as an oral tradition for hundreds of years before it was written down in Sri Lanka in the first century B.C.E. (other versions of the suttas, verification of this oral transmission, popped up in China and elsewhere).  What we have, according to Ven. Bodhi, who translated the Pali Canon into English and continues to debate and refine word choices even as he speaks to us,  are spare and sometimes very ambiguous notes from a journey that untold numbers of human beings have taken towards freedom for about 2500 years.  Freedom from what?  What is captured in the posture and carved with such exquisite care on face of that Tang Dynasty Kuan Yin is a state of gracefulness that can come to us when we have freed ourselves from the cage of ego, shed blinders of our value judgements and favorite thoughts.  Some days it seems impossible to ever bridge the gap between us, Kuan Yin  and I.   Other days it is clear that what others have done, we can do. ..and what better use for my time?

The key is remembering that this map, these suttas, are really meant to be used, worked with, even, dare I say it, played and experimented with.   So much religious intolerance, hatred, and violence in the world could come to an end if more people could spend even a couple of minutes a day actually trying to see how we cling to our thoughts and experiences and how just plain seeing that fact lets us let go and open up to the world around us.  The paradox is that the more I learn about the Buddha’s path, the closer I come to understanding the real scale and majesty of Golden Rule, which means living outside your own self interest, living in the light of the Whole.

21 thoughts on “Saturdays in Kuan Yin Hall

  1. Tracy,

    As a poet and Christian Contemplative, I too have found myself increasingly drawn towards understanding more about the Buddhist path. Perhaps this is a paradox, but perhaps it is a natural next step on our spiritual journey. I like to think so at least.

    Ron Starbuck
    Houston, Texas

  2. Tracy said: “….hatred, and violence in the world could come to an end if more people could spend even a couple of minutes a day actually trying to see how we cling to our thoughts and experiences and how just plain seeing that fact lets us let go and open up to the world around us.”

    I think the word “could” above is significant. To experience this requires that efforts be made and guidance given by those who, themselves, have made efforts and been guided. Without this special knowledge and help one would be working in the dark. What would be the practice, the effort? One cannot just sit down and think one’s way into seeing our thoughts and experiences. Another Attention entirely is required and no amount of thinking will produce that Attention.

    1. Thinking is not the same as Attention, and we do need guidance to find it. But there is that phrase “Whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name….” We can help each other–and “we” can include all those who have the same desire to wake up. Help is available, and the desire to wake up, to open up, can make something in us magnetic.

      1. Ah yes, of course you are talking about Wish? Indeed we are told it is ‘the most powerful thing’, yet again, how do we contact this Gem?

  3. In his newest book, “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian”, Prof. Paul F. Knitter, who holds the Paul Tillich chair at Union Theological Seminary, NYC, speaks of God as being a verb instead of a noun or an adjective.

    As a Christian, who has also studied Buddhism and who has many Buddhist friends, I’ve found this book to be both courageous and enlightening. You may as well. Christianity teaches us that where two or more are gathered in his name, God is present. I believe that whenever we come to together in an interfaith dialog, to share our experiences of God, then we are also coming together as a “People of God,” regardless of our different cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds.

    If you want to read a little more about the book, go the website link included above. Even better yet, you could take time to read Professor Knitter’s new book. It is certainly worth the effort. Maybe even life changing, it certianly has been for him.

    Ron Starbuck

    Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian, Paul F. Knitter, Chapter 1, Nirvana and God the Transcendent Other, Pages 14-23. Paperback: 336 pages
    Publisher: Oneworld Publications (July 25, 2009)
    Language: English
    ISBN-10: 1851686738
    ISBN-13: 978-1851686735

    1. Thanks for the tip. Someone else in this blog space recommended that I read this book and possibly interview Prof. Knitter. I’ll check it out.

      Finding a way to have a real interfaith dialogue, without papering over differences is one of THE burning issues on the planet.

      1. Thank you for mentioning this again. It ain’t easy. I am a Gurdjieffien and even though I was raised in the bible belt in a large extended family/community of Southern Babtists I no longer follow that tradition. I understand that beneath all the beliefs and lingo of various traditions; all are intended to help people go in the direction of unity.

        Nonetheless I see in myself that when I hear others speaking about their way, their path I am tempted to do the same; because what is dear to me is ‘The Work’, as what Gurdjieff and his direct students have brought, has come to be called.

        I wish to remember that finding a way to a real interfaith dialogue is very needed but it ain’t easy.

      2. It ain’t easy. But it’s also liberating, turning towards others, wishing to open up, to find common ground.

  4. It’s a great book and I’m sure he would be happy to do an interview. He is also a well known pluralist, and has written several books on that as well. Good Luck! I’ll look forward to seeing that happen. ;-)

    There are many important differences of course between all the spiritual traditions, but I think the really hard work is in finding a common language. This is where art and poetry come in, we get to create a new language. If that makes sense. The older I get, the less those differences matter.

    Laurence Freeman is someone else to consider interviewing, since he is also deeply involved in interfaith dialog.

    1. Thanks again. I think you are very right about the need for a new language, and the role of art and poetry.

  5. Well, as they say, there is no such a thing as coincidence, Tracy!
    I hope you do read Paul’s book. He is a very humble, but extremely brilliant man. Also, he was the first Roman Catholic priest to get two degrees in theology. the other one was at a Lutheran University in Germany.
    I think it is so enlightening and refreshing to read other books on spirituality besides Christian ones.
    I started on my quest when I was taking that there are many course on World Religions. I could see then that as, St. Paul stated that there are “many gifts but one Spirit“. I think that my professor used that very terminology to explain how he felt.
    So, I see other Religions as different beams from the same Light, and each “beam” helps me to see a little bit more clearly, or adds to dimension of the picture.
    Thank you for another very interesting and stimulating dialogue!

  6. Another thing that I forgot to mention to you is that I was attending a workshop once on Storytelling as a way of teaching religion that was facilitated by John Shea. At that workshop one of the sources that he recommended for relevant stories was the periodical, Parabola! :~)
    I have been reading it since then.

    1. I’m glad you read Parabola, Elizabeth. We so appreciate the support. Interestingly, I once heard Buddhism–which in one sense aims to break people free of their habitual stories–called a “religion of stories.” And Jesus taught in stories.

  7. An interview with a group of ‘ordinary’ folks trying to find thier way to real exchanges (interfaith dialogue) is far more interesting to me than interviews with well known people.

  8. Tracy,

    I do like the ordinary folk exchanges on interfaith dialog, after all, I’m one of them. ;-)

    But, I also like the idea of an interview with Prof. Paul F. Knitter, because I think he is a treasure trove of ideas we need to hear that enable such an interfaith dialog to take place. He’s one of a few theologians who had a direct experience of Vatican II, he was there. And he has known and worked with some of the great thinkers of our time. He is also one of the key academic voices in moving towards a Pluralistic Theology of Religions.

    So, I’m hoping I’ve planted a seed here. Because it would be good for Parabola, good for Prof. Knitter, and even good for the world.

    Ron Starbuck

  9. Tracy,

    I promise, this will be the last thing I’ll post on this whole thread. ;-)

    Here is a link to the Amazing Faiths Project, that has been very successful in Houston and other cities across the country as well.

    This is your ordinary folks dialog in action, people of different faiths breaking bread together in someone’s home. It may give you some ideas about interviewing or engaging us regular folks. Of course we really aren’t that ordinary, we’re actually extra-ordinary by looking for new connections.

    This program was originally started by the Boniuk Center at Rice University, and has take on a life of its own.

    NY Times link:


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  11. I love these posts too!
    Always so many good comments from good people, and I enjoy hearing from other “ordinary folks” too.
    I think that the Holy Spirit, or whatever defining word one wishes to use is speaks through us too!
    So, I hope to see more and more.
    However, I can’t always get on line as much as I’d like to while I’m on vacation.
    But that is a good thing too…helps me to “let go”!
    I’m happy to see that you ordered the book, Tracy.

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