Singing the Refuges: Worship and the Interreligious Family

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Posted on March 1st, 2013 | Filed under Community, Interfaith
Tagged with , , , , , , ,

 

Amida Buddha

Source: Thoradin (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

About a month ago, just like every Sunday, I slipped into the worship space just before 10am, bowed before the altar, and found a seat in the back row. I leafed through the service bulletin to take a look at what songs we’d be singing that morning. And after a few brief announcements, I joined in singing the morning’s first song.

I’m no stranger to “church-hopping.”  This was in many ways a familiar process for me. But on this particular Sunday, things were a bit different than I was used to. When I bowed to the altar, I faced not a cross but a golden statue of the Buddha. The song we sang was not a Christian hymn, but a chant.  This was my first visit to a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple, alongside my Buddhist/Christian husband, trying to make sense of our family’s interreligious identity.

***

There was a time when the phrase “multiple religious belonging” had no meaning to me. That was before I met Drew, the man who became my husband, who identifies as both Buddhist and Christian. Drew taught me to meditate and engaged in many conversations with me about religion. We attended Christian churches together and researched Buddhist wedding practices when we got married. But we’d never worshiped together in a Buddhist context. Until recently, when Drew wanted to start exploring his roots in this community again.

Meanwhile, I’d just begun my first year at seminary, studying worship & the arts among people of other religions. And so when Drew suggested the temple visit, I was curious, and a little bit nervous too.  What is the proper response to worshiping in a context not your own? Where is the line between respectful participation and disrespectful appropriation? I’ve never doubted that our two religions could coexist, but at the same time I see the world through Christian eyes; that remains my primary identity. As a guest in a new community, I did not want to misrepresent myself.

My visit to the temple wasn’t my first experience with Buddhist practice. In religion classes, I read Buddhist texts and studied the texts and culture. As a writer, I shadowed a Buddhist community to learn and tell their story. But my participation in these communities was limited to the occasional meditation session. In meditating, I never felt like I was crossing a line. Perhaps that was because it was presented as more a solitary practice, just me and my own monkey mind, regardless of how many other people were in the room.

At the temple, though, I was acutely aware of the community around me, and how I was not part of it, not yet. Not understanding the words of the chant, I wasn’t sure whether it was something I could affirm or not. But on the other hand, it seemed just as disrespectful to sit at the back of the room in silence.

In the end, it was the song that got to me. Music has always been my first and strongest avenue into worship. The chant melody repeated over and over, becoming more and more familiar, and I found that I wanted to sing along.

***

Seven pages into the chant, I’d almost gotten the hang of it—the Japanese musical notation, at first completely illegible to me, was starting to make more sense. When we reached the end of the chant, though, the rest of the group moved straight into another song. I quickly flipped to the next page and was excited to see Western-style music notes—this meant I could now read the music, if not the lyrics, which were written in Sanskrit this time:

Buddham śaranam gacchāmi
Dharmam śaranam gacchāmi
Samgham śaranam gacchāmi

Midway through the song, I realized exactly what I was singing: the Three Refuges. These words are traditionally spoken to mark one’s acceptance of Buddhist teachings. In short, my husband would laughingly tell me in the car on the way home, I had just become a Buddhist. Had I just stepped over a line?

***

One reason Drew had suggested visiting the temple in the first place was as a kind of practice, working out what it means to be Buddhist/Christian “before we have a family,” since we are committed to raising our future children within both faiths.

But in this context, what does the word “family” even mean? Drew and I already are a family—and have been ever since we committed to spend our lives together. Our two-person family is already dealing with issues of interreligious conversation.

And I too am dealing with the complexity of religious identity. I don’t identify as dual-religious like my husband does, but in the most basic sense of the term, the term “multiple religious belonging” does apply to me: I belong (or will belong in the future) to multiple religious communities. And I don’t know how that works just yet. On my next visit to the temple, will I stand silent during the singing of the Refuges? Or will I participate alongside this community that I seek to join? I’m not sure yet. As I worship, I will keep looking for a balance of respect for this new tradition and authenticity to my own roots and beliefs.

One thing’s for sure. Whatever that balance looks like, I’m sure it will still involve quite a bit of singing.

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3 Responses to “Singing the Refuges: Worship and the Interreligious Family”

  1. Ariel Evan Mayse says:

    Dear Margaret,

    Thanks for posting! What an interesting reflection on the transformative power of song, something I’ve found to be central in my spiritual practice as well.

    I’m wondering, did you learn any new techniques or specific practices from this encounter that you think might enrich your own devotional life? Did anything about the Buddhist ritual or liturgy (in addition to the particular songs) seem like it could be adopted as a part of your own practice of prayer? I’ve been training in Japanese martial arts since the age of eleven, and I’m certain that I first learned the meaning of prayer in the dojo (karate school) many years before embarking on a spiritual journey that led me to Orthodox Judaism. In the dojo I learned the power of breath and how to remain intensely focused, but I also found an almost liturgical appreciation for practicing the same katas (sets of moves) over and over again every day. Each time was a different, because no two moments are identical. So it is with prayer. I take up my prayer-book thrice daily and recite those same words, but my inner space (and inner challenges!) are different each and every time.

    Sincerely,
    Ariel

    • Margaret says:

      Hi Ariel,

      Thanks for your comment – glad you liked the piece! The biggest element that has made its way from Buddhism into my own practice is silent meditation (which we didn’t really do in the temple setting). The art of “not-thinking,” of just focusing on the breath and letting everything else fall away, often helps me enter into a state of prayer.

      I love what you have to say about the rhythms of practice in the dojo. It reminds me of my own experiences practicing music – that constant repetition can open up a space for new insights and feelings, precisely because its familiarity helps me cut past the self-talk and wandering distractions. It’s funny how we can learn to pray from things that at first glance don’t look anything like prayer :)

  2. Dear Margaret,

    Indeed, the lesson of the power of silence resonates with me as well. Perhaps I’ll explore the ideas of song and silence in Jewish mysticism in one of my posts in the near future.

    I think we might even say that the connection between prayer and the rest of our life has vectors of influence that point in both direction. In some sense, all aspects of our day should shape, inform and prepare us for prayer. All activities, whether something like art, writing, exercise, social activism, etc., hold something for our life of prayer. But from the opposite perspective, we should be transformed by the act of prayer in such a way that affects the way we move in the world even after we leave our place of worship.

    This is another lesson I learned in the dojo. Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Okinawan karate, was once asked if his martial art had ever saved his life. “Yes,” he said. “Once I was stepping into a boat, and it began to drift away from the dock. So I planted one foot firmly in the dinghy and one on the dock, stabilizing myself by sinking into a low Horse Stance. Then I was able to throw all my weight in one direction and get into the boat safely. It was a good thing, too, because I don’t know how to swim.” The lesson: when taken seriously, martial arts (or perhaps we should say, divine service) can positively change all aspects of our lives.

    Warmest wishes,
    Ariel

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Margaret Ellsworth is an MA student at Claremont School of Theology, studying worship, spirituality, and the arts. Her passion is telling stories of redemption—both inside the church, through creative, interactive worship, and outside the church, through literature and music. Margaret is an Episcopalian with a deep love for the Lutheran tradition, married to a Buddhist. She tweets @ResoluteMag and blogs at scribbleoutloud.blogspot.com.


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