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. 

1 comment:

  1. I now have an 11-page PDF that describes this service in more detail, describes the origins of the different chants, and includes a basic step-by-step introduction to silent meditation. If anyone would like a copy, please email me via southhoustonsangha - at - gmail. Thanks!