Sunday, May 27, 2012

Vietnamese Buddhist Pagoda (Chua Phat-Quang)

This is one in a series of "Profile" posts in which different local Buddhist groups and Temples will be described so that seekers will understand fully in advance what to expect should they decide to visit.  LAST UPDATE:  July 6, 2013; still no web presence found for this temple. 

Vietnamese Buddhist Pagoda (Phat-Quang) is located within the City of South Houston, roughly sandwiched between Houston and Pasadena (or between IH-610 and Clear Lake, depending on how you look at it).
701 Arizona Street, South Houston, TX  77587
Screengrab from Googlemaps.
Notice that "South Houston" is given in caps in the address above.  South Houston is an incorporated city of about 16,000 people, and it has a name that triggers the need for a lot of local context-parsing: when the title of a news article or other published content says "South Houston", do they mean "south Houston" or do they really mean "South Houston"?   The city is so small that many Houstonians (including south Houstonians) aren't even aware that it is a separate incorporated entity.  The "South" in "South Houston Sangha News" is a general geographic descriptor, not a reference to this city. 
Googlemaps suggests that the Pagoda is an extensively-developed site:
Most of what you see in the center of this Googlemaps image grab, from red-roofed building to red-roofed building, appears to be within the Temple complex.  The entrance appears to be on State Street rather than Arizona Avenue.
Ground grab showing the "frontispiece" on Arizona Ave.
Most internet references to this Temple use the English name preferentially, for reasons that are not apparent.  If the Vietnamese name is used, the references tend to drop the "Chua".
Including this one above from this University of Houston website which appears geared toward international students and faculty.
Despite the prevalence of the English name for the facility in "yellow page" type directories, in the first ten pages of Google entries, I was unable to find a website for this Temple in either English or Vietnamese.  The Temple does have a Facebook page, but no content has been incorporated into it and no external website is referenced. 
Facebook grab May 27, 2012.
This is the extent of the information I have found on this facility as of today.  Thus far, I have found nothing to suggest that any English Sangha is associated with it.  If you have additional information about this Temple, please contact me via southhoustonsangha - at - It would be useful if I could post details about the programs this facility offers.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

COURSE REVIEW: Vipassana Fellowship's 12-week meditation course

Moderator's viewpoint:  In April, I published this post announcing the Vipassana Fellowship's 12-week meditation course, in which I'm one of the enrolled participants. 
Logo grab from
I had nothing substantial to say about the course at the time of that April post, however, given that I had no experience with it.  But the internet being the dynamic machine that it is, what's happening now is that searchers looking for independent reviews of this course are accessing that original post I published (I can detect things like that from the blog statistics), which is not at all helpful to them due to the post's non-substantive nature. 

For this reason, even though we are only on "Day 25" of what will ultimately be approximately an 84-day course, I'm offering my viewpoints now regarding it.


(1) It can help supply a meditation framework.  Despite being a remotely-administered, non-classroom, non-retreat-based resource, the course actually can provide an additional dimension to personal meditation practice.  If you are a novice meditator (or more advanced) and are sitting on the cushion every day anyway, layering in an additional resource like this can impose a framework of discipline that may be challenging to achieve purely by solo effort.   A big percentage of Western convert Buddhists learn much of their practice by reading books, and in fact, there are some excellent purely-Vipassana (insight meditation) resources out there for this purpose, especially "Mindfulness In Plain English" which is available commercially in hard copy and for free PDF download at sites such as this one.
Photo of Bhante G., author of "Mindfulness In Plain English" from the Bhavana Society webpages.  Reportedly, "Mindfulness" has sold over a quarter million copies.  Well-known American Buddhist author and clinician Jon Kabat-Zinn called it "a masterpiece". 
However, natural limitations may arise with respect to a meditation learning trajectory that relies largely on the literature.  Let me explain using analogies.  Do you remember taking science courses in high school and how they were divided between lecture time and lab time?  Procedures may have seemed very clear to you when explained in the classroom lectures, but when it came time to actually place your hands on the laboratory apparatus and start manipulating it as instructed, did you hesitate unexpectedly and say to yourself, "Wait a minute - I'm supposed to do what, now?  I'm not as clear about this as I thought I was."  Suddenly the theoretical concepts that seemed so self-evident to you in the lecture were a bit more difficult to tackle once you had to deal with them on a purely-practical level. 

And I need not use a scientific analogy for this - while in school I often experienced the same phenomenon in art classes:  "OK, we've studied the Impressionists, and now it's time for me to take my place in the studio and actually produce a work that is consistent with Impressionistic techniques."  Despite having sat through a clear lecture, I would proceed to stare at a blank canvas, unsure of how to actually get the effort underway.

The Vipassana 12-week course can effectively turn your cushion time into that laboratory or that art studio.  It breaks the exercises down into manageable bites that can be successively tackled, in the style of: "First you pick up the paintbrush, and then you dip it in the paint..."
V is for Vipassana meditation??
Microsoft royalty-free clip-art.
(2) It's "do-able" by participants with "real lives".  Following the daily directions and readings does not take an inordinate amount of time each day (30 to 45 minutes minimum, including and assuming you are meditating for at least 20 minutes each day).  People with jobs and families can manage it.  At one point, I fell behind a few days due to personal commitments interfering with my time.  I felt I was able to add extra meditation sessions and re-read the daily material and cover my gap sufficiently well. 

(3) It's extremely helpful to hear the instructor's description of personal hurdles.  It turns out that the instructor has faced one of the same personal obstacles to practice as I myself have found.  Reading his logical descriptions of how he dealt with that provided me with a perspective that I have not yet encountered in any book.


(1) Participants must be highly self-motivated.  This is true of every on-line learning venue, whether its a meditation course or a Defensive Driving course - you have to step up to the plate and discipline yourself to actually follow through with the exercises.  Otherwise you'll just be receiving lecture material without the added dimension of practical training.  If you don't perceive yourself as having sufficient self-motivation at this point, it may be wise to avoid potential discouragement and instead seek a more directly-guided, in-person instructional venue. 

(2) Those who are completely new to meditation may wish to first investigate some of the literature.  If you don't have existing familiarity with basic meditation concepts and theory, you may wish to review a bit of the literature prior to enrolling, or else you may feel a bit intimidated by the new information being supplied at a rapid daily pace.  The Bhante G. book referenced above is a good foundational resource, and it's potentially available for your immediate use via the free PDF download (if the link above expires, simply Google for it and find another active PDF source).

I hope these viewpoints help you understand this online course!  Thanks for reading, and please contact me via southhoustonsangha - at - gmail if you have any questions.
Question grab from the homepage.  Additional answers to common questions are published at this URL:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The judgmentalism trap

Do you ever have the peculiar experience of receiving the same emails from totally different personalities on opposite sides of the country on the same day?

Such was the case a couple of days ago when I received from friends in both Texas and California copies of an article titled "Does organic food turn people into jerks?"  (Both senders posted this link to me because they know that one of my focus issues is mindful eating and drinking, a topic about which I will blog more later.) 

In its proverbial warning that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, this article philosophically re-caps the iconic Southpark "Smug Alert!" TV episode of 2006.
Screengrab from Wikipedia.
Plot summary excerpted from the same Wiki entry:  "Kyle's father Gerald buys a new "Toyonda Pious" hybrid car (based on the Toyota Prius) and drives it all over town to show it off and gain attention. He soon decides that his commitment is not enough and starts an unwelcome campaign to convert the other townspeople to environmentally friendly vehicles. After alienating all of his friends with his preachy attitude, Randy tells Gerald that he has become so smug that he loves the smell of his own farts. After deciding he cannot live among such "backward and unsophisticated" people, Gerald decides to move his family to San Francisco."
"After deciding he cannot live among such "backward and unsophisticated" people" ?  The MSNBC article about organic food buyers makes a corroborating statement regarding the sociological research about which it is reporting:  "We found that the organic people judged much harder... the organic people also proved to be more selfish..." (underline emphasis mine)

You may be wondering what the heck this has to do with Buddhism, and with local Buddhism in particular, which is the subject matter of this blog. 

The answer is, more than I wish were the case (if I were given to wishing), and my purpose here is to encourage folks to be mindful of the potential for the arising of this kind of judgmentalism both locally and generally. 

In my explorations of local Buddhist centers, I haven't encountered too many venues where judgmentalism has not reared its ugly head (and yes I do realize that the term "ugly" is, in itself, a judgmental term, but I'm intentionally applying a familiar cultural metaphor here for communicative purposes). 

In the book "Dixie Dharma", which explores Buddhism trends in the American South, researcher Jeff Wilson recapped interviews with Buddhist members of the primary Temple he researched, quoting such fixed, judgmental and downright extreme views as "Several people commented that Christians are too close-minded and act in hateful ways." (p. 167-168 in the 2012 hardcover edition).   Dr. Wilson further observed, "These sentiments intentionally place Buddhists in Richmond outside of a mainstream that they view as decadent, wrong-headed, selfish, destructive, allowing the Buddhists to position themselves as a vanguard of affirmative, forward-thinking values living in resistance to the failures of the non-Buddhist culture." (op. cit., p. 168). 

Could any sentiment possibly be generated to achieve a greater degree of judgmentalism and rigidly fixed world view than that right there?! My imagination fails me; this stuff gives the attitudes expressed in "Smug" a real run for their money.

Wilson also noted in several locations a cementing association between Buddhism and American liberalism.  "I have never heard conservative political opinions voiced... it is taken for granted by most... members that Buddhism is an inherently politically liberal religion..."  (op. cit., p. 171).

A widespread recent strong visible association between American political liberalism and Buddhist religion was demonstrated by the "Occupy" movement, where logo graphics and mainstream media photo ops frequently depicted "Occupiers" engaging in Buddhist-style meditation.
Screengrabbed from
The mantra "Dig deep.  Power up." reminds me of the "lock and load" armament mentality. 
Is Buddhism about armament?
Downsampled group meditation screengrab from
In case your mind was disturbed by these depictions and associations (mine certainly was), there's hope.  Zen Master Bernie Glassman (official page here) brought some sanity to the dialog with his HuffPost editorial short-titled "A Buddhist perspective on the Occupy movement".  In it, he eludes to a non-Dharmic characteristic of Occupy as follows:  "...whenever the language of the arising labels someone as Other -- whenever it is against someone -- it leads to more violence. ... I heal the system as healing myself, not fixing someone else who is to blame for all the problems." 
Downsampled screengrab from the slideshow presented at:
"Us" (the 99%) and "Them" (the 1%). 

Does anyone really believe that our shared existence and constantly-evolving society can be productively reduced to such simplistic terms?

Is there a benefit to this kind of blame,
or does it simply stimulate additional hatred toward the target group?
Much closer to home, I was struck by the dialog I found embedded in a thread hosted on the Houston Architecture blog site, of all the unexpected places!
Source URL:
This thread began in 2006 and was last extended in 2008.  I screengrab entries like this for posterity because they tend to expire and disappear when servers get cleaned.
The original poster was inquiring as to whether anyone knew of a suitable Buddhist practice site in greater Houston.  He (or she) had visited one location upon moving to Houston, and described that experience as follows:

Without mentioning where I attended, this center was the exact opposite [of the positive and accepting atmosphere experienced at a California location]. The instructor came off as very rigid, was openly (rolled eyes, etc.) annoyed by my questions (especially when asked if the Zendo could be used at off times, since I work odd hours), clearly even mocked me at one point, and the other visitors that evening seemed a little intimidated, most of which I attribute to the teacher. I've been to several centers outside TX and never encountered such an atmosphere. Despite practicing for several years, it was off-putting enough for me to lessen my practice for quite a while, which is a shame. (Western) Buddhism is not about being rigid and stuck in the past. it was an enormously dissapointing (sic) visit.

What all of these examples in this rambling blog post have in common is that the thread of judgmentalism runs through them.  

My point is not to suggest that I'm an expert on this topic or immune to it - not at all.  But like this blogger quoted above, I, too, have witnessed prejudice and dismissive behavior in local Buddhist circles, and I share Glassman's suggestion that this kind of fixation falls short of what we need to access if we are to realize the Dharma and Right View.

Institutional judgmentalism also does a tremendous wider disservice to Buddhism in America, especially nascent convert Buddhism in the American South, which has long been dominated by Christian Protestantism

Want to do your part to help sound the death knell for southern Buddhism?   Go ahead and fix in your mind the stereotypical social constructs described above and start confusing Buddhism with American liberalism - that'll quickly strip away any potential perception of religious or social legitimacy from at least 50% of our local highly-conservative population. 

Religion is religion, whether it's a religion of faith like Christianity or a religion of experience like Buddhism.  It's not politics, and it should be kept as far away from politics as possible, especially American liberal politics.  Dr. Wilson politely emphasized a similar view by noting that such associations are not even historically consistent:  "That this agenda [explicit association of Buddhism with liberalism] does not necessarily match the actual manifestations of political Buddhism in Asian history is a dramatic understatement."  (op. cit., p. 171).

We are all human and we will all succumb to the folly of judgmentalism on a regular basis - that tendency is exactly what Buddhist practice is designed to help modulate in us.  May we be mindful of this.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Texas Guandi Temple

This is one in a series of "Profile" posts in which different local Buddhist groups and Temples will be described so that seekers will understand fully in advance what to expect should they decide to visit.


Texas Guandi Temple is located in EaDo near IH-45, in an area referred to as "Old Chinatown" (which is not to be confused with "Chinatown"). 
Screengrab from Googlemaps.  The address of the facility is alternatively given as a Milby address (above) or as a Gulf Freeway address (see homepage screengrab below). 
Guandi is listed and briefly described in this directory of spiritual centers in EaDo.
Street view screengrabbed from Wikimedia Commons.  It appears to be intended to some degree as multi-cultural, as its sign identifies it in three languages. 
Guandi Temple's current website does not provide any English context or information regarding this facility.
Screengrab of the homepage at in May of 2012.
Segment of the homepage above after running internet translation.
I have been largely unsuccessful in locating third-party descriptions of this Temple and what it potentially offers to English practitioners.  There's this Houston Chronicle article from 2003 which provides a general description of the Temple's development, intent, and a New Year celebration.  There are also scattered photographs of the facility available on Flickr and other sharing sites.
Screengrabbed from
I also found reference Guandi on a commercial tour website:
Screengrab from the Houston Historical Tours commercial website.  No further information was available, but the fact that the Temple is open to commercial tours suggests that it is fairly accessible and informal.
I contacted a Chinese friend to get a "feel" for this facility, and she described it as "more like a worshipping place" than a Temple.  She noted that the figure for whom the Temple is named is a military figure from Chinese folklore.  Wikipedia reveals that Guan Yu (also called Guan Di) "is a figure in Chinese folk religion, popular Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Buddhism, and small shrines to Guan are almost ubiquitous in traditional Chinese shops and restaurants".   In Chinese Buddhism, Guandi is worshipped as Sangharama Bodhisattva.   A bodhisattva is defined as an enlightened person who wishes for all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood.

As always, if you have additional information about this Temple, please contact me via southhoustonsangha - at -  It would be useful if I could post details about what (if any) programs this facility offers in English. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Jade Buddha Temple events

A couple of items of note regarding Jade Buddha Temple.  It's not exactly located within spittin' distance of Houston's south side, but both of these events described below will be held on the weekend, so they would be logistically attainable by folks in our neck of the woods.
Location of Jade Buddha Temple,
6969 Westbranch Drive, Houston TX
Yikes, it's in Chinatown, darned near all the way to the Energy Ghetto.  (BTW, unrelated Houstoniana factoid here: there are almost no references to the local term-of-endearment "Energy Ghetto" on the internet, but upon Googling the term, Wiki diverts immediately to the more politically-correct term "Energy Corridor").
In her blog "Believe It Or Not", which is part of the "Believe Out Loud" religion series, Houston Chronicle reporter Kate Shellnutt gives a good description of this coming Saturday's concert (i.e., it'll be held at 7 p.m. tomorrow!).  The Temple's link to their concert announcement is located here.  There is no charge to attend. 

I also noticed that this Temple's English Dharma Group posted an announcement about a one-day retreat to be held on June 23.  This is one of the very few embedded English Sanghas in our area that maintains its own blog, although it doesn't seem to be updated very often. 

There are additional announcements in the Temple's main English pages.  I haven't been able to visit this facility yet, but it seems like a very active and diversified facility. 
Downsampled screengrab of a scene from Jade Buddha Temple, courtesy of a Flickr user formerly-known-as-something-other-than-a-stream-of-periods-and-carets.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Status of source investigations

I want to extend a big THANK YOU! to the readers and friends who have brought local Buddhist and meditation organizations to my attention.  This blog has only been "live" for less than a month now, but as of today, I have probably close to a dozen different Houston resources about which I've received tips via emails or face-to-face conversations, but I haven't had time to research and profile most of them yet because of time constraints and other responsibilities in my life (job, family; you know how it is...).

So please don't be discouraged if you email me a tip and don't get an answer right away.  Rest assured, I'm working on it!  I will investigate all of them eventually. 

I got a detailed email from a reader this morning, an email that included the following statement:

"I had intended to visit the Vihara in South Houston until seeing your post outlining their lack of English language programs."

If South Houston Sangha News can be a benefit to people in this way, then all of the time and effort it's taking me to build it is more than worthwhile!

Speaking of the Vihara again and the apparent dissolution of its English Sangha, I thought I'd share this little tidbit with you: forensic evidence that there really was an English speaking group there at some point in the past.  The image below is a print that I liberated from a yard sale about six months ago for the princely sum of two dollars.  The sellers were offering it for the frame; often times, yard salers buy unwanted framed items not for the artworks they contain, but so that they can strip out and discard the contents and recycle the wooden frames for their own purposes.  But this piece happened by strange chance to fall into my hands where it will instead be appreciated and preserved. 

It's a beautiful poem, reportedly a reproduction of a hymn in English (see the home-made YouTube clip embedded below) reflecting a strong conservative Theravadin ethic (the Vihara is Sri Lankan, and Sri Lanka is the oldest continously-Buddhist country on Earth, and a Theravada stronghold).  For those of you who are not familiar with Buddhist lineages, Theravada is the oldest tradition and it places a greater importance on Buddhist teachings rather than Buddhist teachers.  This is in sharp contrast to later lineages of Buddhism, such as the Vajrayana schools, which tend to place stronger emphasis on Tantric practices and master-protege lineages.  You can see the Theravadin influence in this piece, where personal responsibility is expressed as paramount, and the Buddha himself is relegated to a "merely" status.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Houston Buddhism databases

In this post, I'm going to describe two local and one national Buddhism information resources.  As of today, all of these sources are incomplete, such that if a seeker uses them to gauge either the breadth or depth of Houston's Buddhist community, an inaccurate picture will result.  However, all have the potential for independent updates and may further develop to become valuable comprehensive information resources, so they are noted here for possible future reference as well as perspective.

In researching these sources, I contacted members of Houston's academic community for input, and I thank them for their attention and replies.

(1) The Harvard Pluralism ProjectDr. Michele Verma, Lecturer in the University of Houston Religious Studies Program, was unaware of any viable compilations describing local Buddhism, but suggested I investigate the Harvard Pluralism Project.
The website allows searching by tradition, and searching geographically.
Map resources were also provided, but it's immediately apparent that portions of the database have not been updated in eight years.
As well as the general searchable database resources given above, the Harvard group has examined religious diversity in more detail within a subset of major American cities.  Unfortunately for us, as of this writing, greater Houston is not yet among those profiled online.
An effort has been made to profile different Buddhist organizations in Austin, Texas.  Each listed center has been evaluated in a manner analogous to those being added to the "Temple Profiles" section of South Houston Sangha News.
(2) The local "Buddhism in Houston" list.  Dr. Anne C. Klein, published author on Buddhism, one of the founders of Houston's Dawn Mountain Temple, and Professor in the Rice University Religious Studies Department (Wiki profile here), had previously been maintaining a linked list of local Buddhist groups.  Responsibility for the list was later assumed by another individual who noted on the webpage that maintenance of the list was "OBE" - overcome by events - such that updates could not be continued.
This is what the page banner looked like as of this blog post.  This resource list has not been updated since 2002.
These were the listed facilities as of 2002.  In an email, Dr. Klein noted that the list had never been complete with respect to ethnic Buddhist Temples, especially Vietnamese.
(3) Texas Buddhist Council (TBC).  A perusal of the list above reveals the existence of an entity called the Texas Buddhist Council.  In fact, the type of databasing, profiling, and communication being attempted by South Houston Sangha News is more typically undertaken by centralized nonprofits such as this entity appears to be.  Running down its identity revealed this de facto homepage, which appears not to have been updated since 1998. 
Texas Buddhist Council mission statement from the webpage cited above. 
The TBC appears to have been initiated as a true inter-congregational, inter-Temple effort (some "Councils" and "Associations" are really vehicles designed to promote a particular group or lineage rather than Buddhism as a whole).  However, TBC does not appear to be active at this time.  The webpage is associated with Houston Buddhist Vihara which, as described in this previous "Temple profile", currently does not have any English-speaking Venerables in residence.  Furthermore, the TBC website references information contributions coordinated by a John RB Whittlesey.  Unrelated internet resources suggest that Mr. Whittlesey may have since passed away (not confirmed!). 

So there you have the best current information that I've been able to find on local inter-group Buddhist associations and database resources.  As always, if you have additional information, please email me via southhoustonsangha -at- gmail.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dharma Spring meditation group (Chua Phap Nguyen)

This is one in a series of "Profile" posts in which different local Buddhist groups and Temples will be described so that seekers will understand fully in advance what to expect should they decide to visit.


The Dharma Spring English meditation group is part of the Chua Phap Nguyen Temple in the northeast corner of Pearland, Texas (closer to Friendswood and Clear Lake proper than to the core of Pearland). 
Attempts to Googlemap either the search string "Chua Phap Nguyen, Pearland, TX" or "Dharma Spring, Pearland, TX" will not spot the location.  As of May 2012, it was necessary to enter the actual address of 1838 County Road 129, Pearland TX 77581 in order to pull a map. 
The English services are mentioned on the Temple's website, but without description or elaboration.  However, the English Sangha has produced several outreach resources in order to inform the public of its activities within the Temple.  Those resources include (but are not limited to) the following:
Appearance of the Meetup mainpage as of May 2012.
Example photograph from the Meetup group photo section.
  • A "Frequently Asked Questions" (FAQ) document was developed and approved for distribution by the Temple's Abbot Thich Tri Hoang.  The FAQ is intended to provide newcomers with a complete basis of information for understanding both the logistical procedures followed during the English meditation sessions, as well as providing introductory denominational and philosophical "position statements" that characterize both the English group and the Temple itself.  A text-based copy of the FAQ is available on the Meetup site, and for ease of printing, images of this document are also provided below (click images to increase size but note that blog hosting here might result in unintentionally-degraded print quality).
This Temple is affiliated with Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York, and the Abbot has been instrumental in developing a three-year Dharma Training Program which will be offered in English for the first time in Houston starting in September 2012. 
The Dharma Training Program may be accessed via the "Links" title on the Chua Phap Nguyen website or by following the URLs given here. 
Moderator's viewpoint.  This Temple offers several distinct advantages for English-speaking meditators, as follows:
  1. The presence of an accomplished monastically-trained, English-speaking but native Asian teacher-in-residence is rare in our area and offers the potential for learning opportunities that arguably exceed those typically found within leaderless lay groups.
  2. The Temple is explicitly and intentionally inclusive, stating on its website "Phap Nguyen Buddhist Congregation is a non-denominational community that follows various Buddhist traditions and is open to people from all walks of life and faith. We find inspiration in any sutra or scripture and hold none above any other since truth can only be experienced in our hearts and not in the letter."   In recent Dharma talks, the Abbot has stressed that the meditation sessions are offered equally to all persons without regard to their existing religious affiliations, and that there is no intention to "replace" any person's existing faith with Buddhism.  Therefore the group is suitable for local Christians and persons of other denominations who may wish to explore meditation as an adjunct to their own faith practices.
  3. The Abbot has studied under a variety of teachers including Thich Nhat Hanh who, in terms of "recognizeability" as a global Buddhist leader, is arguably second only to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.  This previous association tends to resonate with English seekers who are already familiar with Nhat Hanh's remarkable collection of published writings.    
  4. The English Sangha is particularly welcoming, as evidenced by the outreach efforts described above.
As with any institution, this Temple also has characteristics that could be viewed by some seekers as being limitations, some of which are as follows:
  1. Because this Temple formed only recently (2009), both the staff and the English Sangha itself are still small, and there are presently no participation programs for English-speaking minor children. 
  2. Thus far, Sunday services are presented in the Vietnamese language only. 
  3. A Master Plan for the property has been developed and both a small Sanctuary and dining hall are present, but the main Temple has not yet been constructed, which results in some space limitations. 
Future South Houston Sangha News posts will provide additional information regarding both this English meditation group and its outreach efforts, as well as the Dharma Training Program to be offered by this Temple.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A birth and a death

Today marks the first full moon in the month of May and, as SciGuy noted from an astronomical perspective, this is also an unusually large moon which is referred to as a "Super Moon". 
Screengrabbed from
Most notably to Buddhists, this is the time during which many adherents observe the Buddha's birthdayHuffPost has a nice article and photo spread showcasing various celebrations around the world. 

Some local Temples will be holding birthday services tomorrow (Sunday).  As of last week, the Chua Phap Nguyen Sangha was hoping that some of its lotus buds would be open in time for their planned events.
This is what the Chua Phap Nguyen lotus pond looked like as of April 28, 2012.  Fantastic growth, but no lotuses in full flower as of that date.
The lotus is a powerful image in Buddhism, with its growth, in effect, symbolically recapitulating the spiritual journey from the mud of materialism up through the waters of experience and into the full flowering of enlightenment.

Being powerfully connected to my adopted Texas homeland, I choose not to grow any distinctly Asian lotus plants such as those shown above, but I do grow a very similar species which you'll recognize from the photo below as a water lily.  But not just any water lily - this is a particular local cultivar known as Nymphaea 'Lindsey Woods', so named by its developers, the proprietors of Nelson's Water Gardens in Katy, to commemorate the untimely cancer death of their 14-year-old neighbor.  According to both local reports and the Nelson's website linked above, sales of this lily have thus far raised over $90,000 for Texas Children's Hospital.  And may that institution put it to good research use in the fight against cancer.

And guess what?  At 10:00 a.m. today, May 5, on the full "Supermoon" which many Mahayana Buddhists will celebrate as the Buddha's birthday, without any manipulation or prompting, my 'Lindsey Woods' opened its very first bloom of the year.
A great teacher's birth.
A little girl's death.
The endless arising and ceasing.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Meditation group at Bay Area UU Church

This is one in a series of "Profile" posts in which different local Buddhist groups and Temples will be described so that seekers will understand fully in advance what to expect should they decide to visit.

(updated 20121112 to repair links) The Buddhist Meditation group at Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church (BAUUC) does not currently have its own informational website either as a sub-page hosted by the church or as a standalone presence on the internet.  The group is mentioned briefly on the church website under the "ongoing groups" heading, but simultaneously does not operate exactly as a true Covenant Group either in procedure or in membership.  (Covenant Groups are called Chalice Circles by some churches, and are a type of targeted small-group ministry created within individual UU congregations). 
The beautiful window in the Sanctuary at BAUUC. 
This group is open to all meditation practitioners irrespective of religious denomination (if any), and church membership is not a prerequisite to participating either casually or regularly (and in true UU fashion, no pressure of any kind will be exerted upon attendees to join, donate, or participate more fully than desired).  As of May 2012, each meeting tended to include between two and six attendees, although membership has recently been as high as about fifteen regular participants. 

One curious characteristic of the BAUUC group is that none of the current members have any knowledge of who created this meditation program, when it was created, what reasoning went into its specific structure, or what the original wisdom sources were for the specific assemblage of chants and procedures.  All that is known is that the original maker (believed to be a previous Minister) desired to create a full-fledged “Buddhist service” that could be enacted by lay members.  It’s a testimony to the appeal of Buddhism and meditation in general that the participants have continued to hold services for many years with absolutely no external oversight, prompting, or guidance. 

Another curious feature of this group is that several of the key regular and casual members self-identify as Christians first, and appreciative of the Buddha’s teachings second.  This despite the fact that, with its abundance of traditional chants (to be described below), this is actually one of the most intensely-Buddhist groups in the south Houston region. 

Services are generally formatted as follows:

The group assembles in the BAUUC Sanctuary at 7:00 p.m. each Sunday evening. 
BAUUC is located in the heart of Clear Lake, at 17503 El Camino Real within the Houston city limits, near the distinctive bright blue Clear Lake City water tower.
Neither the group nor BAUUC itself are in possession of meditation cushions or benches, so while some individual members bring their own cushions or mats, most attendees sit in chairs that are arranged in a semi-circle facing a Buddha statue that is brought into the Sanctuary for the service and illuminated by a candle. 
The Buddha shows evidence of being well-used over the years.  During church renovations a few years ago, he reportedly was temporarily stored in a childrens' classroom where perhaps curious manipulation by young hands resulted in a bit of accidental damage.  This inadvertent manifestation of the impermanence of all phenomena, including statuary, necessitated the loving re-attachment of his head to his body.
The first 20 to 30 minutes of the meeting are spent engaged in informal group conversations that often run the gamut from personal anecdotes to current affairs.  Buddhist and Christian history, literature, and principles are frequently compared and discussed. 

The group then moves into formal chanting and meditation that comprises the following sequence (participation in the recitations is optional; some attendees sit silently while senior members of the group chant).
  • The Anusara Yoga Opening Invocation is recited three times.  Once again, nobody knows why this was included in the service structure, given that its origins appear to be more Hindu (hatha) than Buddhist, but it is retained for continuity.
  • Master Hakuin’s Chant in Praise of Zazen (also known as Zazen Wasan, with “Zazen” meaning “sitting meditation”) is then chanted one time.  A perusal of internet resources reveals that this translation is close to that used by the Vermont Zen Center.  The video embedded below shows an unidentified lay person informally reciting a version similar to this.
The church's well-worn singing bowl is used to punctuate the service.  UU congregations are truly interfaith, and mainstream Sunday services and church philosophy are heavily influenced by Buddhism.  Other than the distinctive UU-style stained-glass window, the only ouvertly-religious symbol or object in the BAUUC Sanctuary is this singing bowl, which has a permanent place on the pulpit.
Moderator’s viewpoint: 
While this is strictly a lay group, the service appears generally true to Buddhist (especially Zen) traditions despite the lack of formal leadership.  The most obvious “value-added” participatory advantage derives from the fact that this group is embedded within the institutional context of a fully-functional interfaith congregation (BAUUC has approximately 350 pledged members and friends; more about Unitarian Universalism can be found at this URL). 

For this reason, Buddhist lay converts, Christians, non-sectarian meditators, and meditators from other faiths can find a stable community and a wealth of additional programs and involvement opportunities within the immediately-accessible wider congregation, should they decide to avail themselves of those resources (e.g., Sunday services conducted by a Minister, religious education classes for both adults and children, well-established social justice programs, extensive community, and a great diversity of additional focus groups). 

Most Western convert Buddhists are householders, with many having entered an interfaith marriage covenant (your blog Moderator is married to a conservative Christian).  Many also have minor children with their own distinct spiritual needs that must be met via the family’s chosen lifestyle.  In most instances, local Buddhist Temples designed originally to serve immigrant populations and lay-led non-institutional meditation groups will have few, if any, meaningful participation opportunities for Western English-speaking children – that is by far the greatest limitation of those groups.  At an interfaith church such as BAUUC, the needs of both the Buddhist or non-sectarian meditator and other members of the meditator’s family can potentially be met under one roof, within a single cohesive community. 
When young children are dismissed from UU Sunday services in order to proceed to their religious education classes, this phrase is often recited by the congregation.  "We pass this flame of religious freedom from generation to generation" is an affirmative statement that all Buddhist converts in America can appreciate. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Moderator's Viewpoints

Category Explanatory Post:  I will flag certain posts with this "viewpoint advisory" in cases where I have inserted distillations that I have researched as objectively as possible, but which could rightfully be argued as being incomplete or somewhat subjective by virtue of the complex and constantly-evolving nature of our world. 

That's a fancy way of saying that it's my intention to draw a very precise line between facts and interpretations, a practice that is all-too-often missing from American journalism these days. 

Particularly with respect to local Temples and meditation groups, I want to be absolutely clear that the descriptions of their practices are as close to objective reality as I can muster, with no judgment inserted on my part.  Occasionally I may profile a group or a Temple that is perceived by others as controversial relative to mainstream practices.  It doesn't matter; in those cases as with any other, my job is to present the information on its face as I discover that information, and leave the task of evaluation to individuals who have greater experience with those groups, or who may wish to further investigate those groups for themselves. 

The Buddha said, "Place no head above your own."  I second the motion.
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With respect to viewpoint-flagged material, the usual disclaimers apply.  I am not an expert on Buddhism, meditation, or any other topic presented in this blog.  However I usually spend several hours each day studying the topics about which I write and applying personal evaluations and decisions using the best conscience that I can muster.  If you feel that the resulting interpretations are incomplete or just plain ignorant, please use the Comment sections to respond with your valuable input, or email me at 

Thank you in advance!