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My best friend in Singapore, Jingwen, was a Buddhist. I still remember the three incense sticks sticking out of a red altar by the door to her apartment. Sometimes, I would catch Jingwen’s grandmother step out of the house carrying fresh incense sticks, the tips glowing coal-red and unfurling a pungent, woody odor. She would hold the incense sticks up to her chest with both hands and bow before the altar several times, praying for luck and health.
Jingwen’s grandmother was a devout Buddhist, but the rest of the family were nominal Buddhists who seemed to perform the motions because surely it wouldn’t hurt the chances of attaining good karma. Jingwen’s grandmother would drag her to the temple and force her to kneel and pray before a statue, but Jingwen always fell asleep the moment she rested her head to the floor. At age 12, after Jingwen professed faith in Christ, she continued going to the temple with her grandmother, but felt less guilty about dozing off before the gods she no longer believed in.
For some reason, I thought about Jingwen and her grandmother when I visited Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin, a Japanese Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. There, I had an interview with Rev. Ryuzen Hayashi who, as the sole English-speaking priest of the temple, bore the burden of answering all my questions about Buddhism. Even though I had grown up with many Buddhist friends, I knew little about the religion, and all of its various sects and syncretic beliefs confused me (I suppose that’s how non-Christians feel about our countless denominations and theological tiffs as well).
The first thing Hayashi told me was that Buddhism is flexible, which is why it’s attractive to so many modern people in America: You can hold other religious beliefs, or reject organized religion, and still practice the core principles of Buddhism. His form of Buddhism, which is part of the Shingon Sect, emphasizes discipline over the mind, body, and mouth until they reflect Buddha’s—no longer enslaved to human fears, greed, and suffering, a constant maintenance of “the perfectly flat mind.” Only then, Rev. Hayashi said, do you “awaken” to become a Buddha. The good news is, “anyone can become a Buddha,” he said. They just have to practice really hard.
I asked, “Well, then, are you a Buddha?”
Hayashi smiled: “I’m ... sometimes a Buddha.” Then he added, “Human beings are very, very weak. You might be fine, and then all of a sudden, bad memories and thoughts disrupt you. That’s why we have to keep practicing.”
I asked him what things keep him from being a 24/7 Buddha. He thought about it for a few seconds and answered, “Traffic. You know, L.A. has a lot of bad drivers.” I instantly liked him.
Good religious discipline is not enough—they still feel the need to beg their gods for help.
Hayashi was born to a family of Buddhist priests at a temple in Kyushu, Japan, which meant he grew up to the chants of sutras and the dongs of bells and the glow of incense. He used to think the temple life was “so boring, not cool”—but one day realized that just like how the son of a professional baseball player would be batting balls since young, he had been developing the skills for priesthood early in his life: “So why not use this benefit and do bigger things as a priest?”
After graduating college, Hayashi attended the Koyasan Shingon school in Mount Koya, a UNESCO-designated mountain where his sect’s world headquarters reside, and where Buddhist activities date way back to AD 819. Now 33 years old, Hayashi helps perform rituals and ceremonies, preaches sermons, and prays blessings for his congregation here in L.A. Whenever he’s stressed or mad or anxious, he straightens his posture, practices deep breathing, meditates on some mantras, and tries to will away the negativities inside him. When parishioners come to him with troubles, that’s what Hayashi coaches them to do as well, and some come back and tell him they feel better.
Most nominal Buddhists fail to keep up with that kind of devotion, so they create shortcuts to blessings: Some temples hold large, wooden prayer wheels that contain Buddhist scriptures (sutra), and when parishioners turn the device, the belief is that they earn the same merit as having read all the sutras in the wheel. While visiting a temple in Kamakura, Japan, I watched streams of people turn that prayer wheel as they passed by, some turning it twice for good measure. Yet even that is not enough to reassure believers, it seems: At every temple, people purchase incense and candles and amulets that promise all sorts of blessings: perfect health, good pregnancy, family happiness, success in ambition, good luck. Good religious discipline is not enough—they still feel the need to beg their gods for help.
From all my interactions with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews, I see a common thread between these religions and Christianity: We all acknowledge that the world is broken, full of suffering and sins and injustice. We also believe in the possibility of goodness, justice, salvation—but we diverge on how to get there. For Hayashi, the more he embraced his religion, the harder he tries to liberate himself from the toils of the world through works and willpower.
As a 30-year-old, I am close to Hayashi’s age and like him, I grew up in a clergy home and spent most of childhood years in church services, youth retreats, and prayer groups. I too thought this life was “so boring, not cool,” and resented having to spend so many weekends and weekday evenings in church when I’d rather be playing Power Rangers with my friends. But unlike Hayashi, the more I mature in my faith, the more profoundly I understand the truth of Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
I thought of my Singaporean best friend Jingwen and her grandmother again. When her grandmother died a few years back, Jingwen mourned harder than the rest of her family, because she doesn’t know if her grandmother ever professed faith in Christ, doesn’t know where her soul is now. Jingwen is still currently the only Christian in her family, and as she prays for her family’s salvation, she wonders: “Why me? Why did God pick me out from a family of Buddhists?” Yet because the reason for that gift is still a great mystery, she cannot ever boast of her salvation.