Friday, August 31, 2012

New Buddha statue is rock solid

Our main local commercial newspaper Houston Chronicle featured the story of the new Chua Phap Nguyen (Dharma Spring Temple) Buddha statue yesterday.  That wonderful piece of news reporting focused on the development and positioning of the statue from existential and cultural perspectives.

The series of photographs accompanying the Chron article hinted at the extraordinary amount of work involved just in the delivery of the statue to this Pearland temple (never mind its initial skilled production and pending assembly).  This statue is fundamentally different from most western Buddha statues (and most religious statues in general) in one key respect: it was carved from solid granite.  Many modern-day American statues are instead fabricated from fiberglass (examples here and here) and thus are much easier to create, and far less costly to transport and erect because of the resulting lower weights and reduced labor requirements. 

This series of photographs below shows in additional detail just how much manpower and equipment were required simply to unload the statue segments from the intermodal containers in which they were shipped from Asia (all photos courtesy of Chua Phap Nguyen/A. Dunn). 
Initial staging of the delivery containers on the Chua Phap Nguyen property.
Close-up of a few "boxes".  When dealing with dense substances such as granite and other stone materials, the transportation-limiting factor becomes the mass of the resulting pieces rather than their volumes.  These half-empty-appearing boxes could not have been packed with additional materials because they would have become too heavy to be hauled over public roads. 
The general procedure for larger pieces was to align a flat-bed truck with the opening of each container and first pull the statue sections onto the flatbed using heavy equipment.
Some sections of the statue could then be craned directly off the flatbed and placed on the ground.
Other sections proved to be just too heavy for the crane...
...and instead had to be coaxed onto the ground using the assistance of gravity.
Even many of the smallest peripheral pieces required heavy equipment to move.
We look forward to the final assembly and unveiling of this extraordinary one-of-a-kind statue on the Phap Nguyen site.  The installation of the statue is expected to be complete within the next few months. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Buddhism and meditation outreach

The purpose of this post is to leave a "scent marker" that will be of use to anyone considering the creation of a Buddhism and/or meditation outreach site in their own geographic area.  South Houston Sangha News is only a few months old now, but I've learned a few important and surprising lessons about running this kind of blogsite, and those lessons are worth sharing at this point.
Blogs are inherently non-local phenomena.  Even though South Houston Sangha News targets the upper Texas coast and, with its newness, has not yet established a robust traffic pattern, it receives visitors from all over the world.  This is a partial list of countries with visitors arriving within the past several weeks.
Surprising Lesson #1Almost nobody else is creating this kind of outreach resource at the present time.  I've already talked about the lack of a comparable resource in the greater Houston area, which probably has one of the largest established Buddhist populations in the United States.  But the same has proven to be true all over.  In order to research this issue, I've relied on open internet searches and also on the meta-site called Blogisattva, which developed a highly-respected award system for excellence in Buddhist blogging a few years ago.  Unfortunately, I can't supply a reference URL for Blogisattva because, for unknown reasons, the entire site was pulled down just a few weeks after I retrieved their site database (if anyone wants a copy of that, please email me).  To date, I've reviewed 315 of the 458 Buddhist blogs and websites listed in their database, and I've identified only two (!!) that supply any discernable geographic outreach benefit, as follows:
  • Michigan Buddhist.  This is a true "one-stop" outreach meta-site, and is fabulously constructed both in terms of esthetic design and technical sophistication.  As the "About" section conveys succinctly, "Michigan Buddhist collects and distributes Dharma-related information of particular interest to Michigan practitioners. We publicize speakers, retreats and happenings, and maintain a listing of temples, sangha, meditation centers, and discussion groups throughout Michigan. We provide a list of relevant links for those looking to learn about Buddhism and inform their practice, and a calendar of upcoming events."
  • The Sumeru Guide to Canadian Buddhism.  This site does not investigate the groups and Temples that it tabulates, nor does it appear to track and publicize events or collate news content, but it is a very thorough, well-designed, and frequently-updated directory of basic resources.
Why are there so few true Buddhist outreach sites?  I don't want to get too deeply into speculation, but I suspect that it's because this kind of "grunt work" is less attractive to people as a blogging focus.  It's exciting and sexy to publish personal reflections that others actually read, and it's exciting and sexy "be a benefit" to Tibetans, to homeless people, to displaced peoples, and to incarcerated people.  Believe me, it's not very exciting and sexy to slog through hundreds and hundreds of narrowly-focused "personal reflection" blogs searching for those rare gems that might actually be a benefit to ordinary middle-class non-newsmaking American people who are facing monumental challenges in their lives.  Which brings me to my second point -

Non-Surprising Lesson #2:  Geographically-based Buddhism and meditation outreach is sorely needed.  There seems to be a tacit assumption that those ordinary middle-class non-newsmaking American people are not high priorities for outreach.  After all, do most of them not have comfortable lifestyles, especially compared to most of the world's peoples?  Don't most of them have gainful employment?  Access to education?  Why should they be a focus?  By the very fact that they are lucky enough to be in America, are they not already equipped to identify and procure spiritual resources under their own power?

Such a perspective is not a very compassionate view.  American residency is no guarantee that life will be even remotely free of suffering.  Even in my very limited spiritual travels, I've met people who have debilitating health problems that inflict chronic pain upon them, who have experienced the tragic deaths of their closest loved ones, who have been the victims of violent crime, whose families have abandoned them, who are ensnared in addiction, and who have been systematically violated by institutional Christianity.  Very often when people are actively searching for new spiritual resources such as meditation groups, it is in response to some acute crisis unfolding in their lives.  I've heard stories of pure despair from people trying to cope with a complete lack of informational resources and outreach as they conduct their searches, an unfortunate reality that imparts unnecessary insult to their existing life injuries.  Rest assured, if you decide to initiate a true meditation and Buddhism outreach site in your geographic area, you will be supplying an immediate benefit to people who warrant compassion.

Surprising Lesson #3:  Many "Buddhism outreach" search engine hits actually refer to missionary sites that seek to convert Buddhists to Christianity, rather than to sites that supply meditation and associated resource information.  Examples here ("ministering to people influenced by Buddhist worldviews") and here ("Christ's Great Commission gives Christians a mandate to take the gospel to every person, including the large number of Buddhist peoples. Since we understand that Buddhists are seeking truth, and because Jesus Christ is "the Truth," we are doubly bound to declare the gospel to them").  These sites are not helpful to people who are searching for true Buddhism and meditation outreach, and thus it is useful to counterbalance those viewpoints by supplying actual resources.  It's important to recognize that I'm not talking about prosetylizing here.  I'm just talking about making specific information readily available to those people who are actively searching for it. 

I've added a link category called "OTHER REGIONAL OUTREACH SITES" in the left-hand column of this blog layout where I will list any additional useful resources that I encounter in my web travels.  If you are considering the creation of a Buddhism and/or meditation outreach site in your local area, please refer to that section for additional good examples and ideas, and feel free to contact me via southhoustonsangha - gmail if you need advice or assistance.  Thanks!! 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Dharma dahlia?

The lotus is the flower most closely associated with Buddhism, but I couldn't help but notice the symbolic consistencies captured within this Dahlia, a cultivar named 'Marie Schnugg'.

Photographed in the Halifax Public Gardens.
I saw this quite by accident, and my involuntary response was,
"Oh my gosh, Tibet has been captured in a flower." 

The colors are those of monks' robes.
Screengrab coutesy of the Buddha Dharma Education Association and Buddhanet.
The same colors and pattern are echoed in meditation cushions: round yellow center and bright red perimeter.
Screengrabbed from the Samadhi Cushions homepage.
Dahlia 'Marie Schnugg' has exactly eight petals, resembling the spokes of a Dharma wheel, which represent the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Wikipedia motif as it marks all pages in the Buddhism series.
And last but not least, the highly unusual individual rolled petals of this cultivar remind me of prayer flags curling and cupping in the wind.
Screengrab courtesy of The Peace Flag Project.
I can find no evidence on the internet that this flower was developed for, or was ever intended to be associated with, any facet or lineage of Buddhism.  It appears to be coincidental that it echoes so closely all of the characteristics that I've enumerated above.  Tradition notwithstanding, if I had to vote for a flower to stand beside the lotus in representing the next phase of Buddhism's worldwide evolution, this would definitely be the one. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

EXCURSIONS: Gampo Abbey, Part 2

“Excursions” is a blog post category presenting content that is peripherally connected to the Houston, Texas area in either the thematic and/or the geographic senses. 


In Part 1 of this discourse, a general photo tour of Gampo Abbey and its grounds was presented.  This present post was reserved for a description of the Abbey’s Stupa of Enlightenment, which is so rich in content that it warrants a standalone presentation.
View of the stupa from the adjacent roadway.
A "stupa" is a mound-like devotional monument containing relics and other symbolic and historical items.  Many stupas throughout the Buddhist world have been erected without interpretive guidance, but the Stupa of Enlightenment is surrounded by a series of granite plaques upon which words of wisdom (called the "Lojong slogans" or "Atisha slogans") have been inscribed in plain English.  They are presented below without comment and within the order of their clockwise appearance along the stupa perimeter, so that each can be contemplated on its own merits.  Even those blog readers who are unfamiliar with Buddhist terminology and concepts will recognize abundant universal wisdom within this series. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

EXCURSIONS: Gampo Abbey, Part 1

“Excursions” is a blog post category presenting content that is peripherally connected to the Houston, Texas area in either the thematic and/or the geographic senses. 

Gampo Abbey is home to the sole monastic community associated with Shambhala, a prominent international network of lay Buddhist practice centers based on the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, as expounded by the teachings of its provocative founder, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
Photo from Wikipedia.
The current principal teacher of Gampo Abbey is Trungpa Rinpoche’s understudy Pema Chodron, who is probably the most well-known and most enthusiastically received western Buddhist nun in the world at this time.
Screengrabbed photo courtesy of Gampo Abbey / Shambhala.
Without question, she is one of the most gifted monastics ever to offer teachings to the English-speaking world, and is often cited as having been the catalyst of comprehension by many newcomers to meditation and Buddhism.  “I didn’t understand any of that stuff until I heard it from Pema,” is a declaration frequently issued by her devoted fans (see interesting news media articles here and here).

A Shambhala lay group has been established within the greater Houston area.  You can read about their local background and programs on their website.  Should you happen to choose Houston Shambhala as your practice center, and you one day find yourself pursuing their programs in depth, your eventual retreat destination will likely be Gampo Abbey in the remote Cape Breton Highlands area of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. 

Getting away from it all, literally and figuratively: about 2,600 miles from Houston. Googlemaps plots it about 60 miles south of its actual location.
My family “did the tourist thing” at Gampo Abbey, which is open to the public during limited intervals in the summer months.  

If you make the long journey to this area, check with the Abbey’s website to verify that tour times have not changed.
In other words, I did not visit the Abbey in any “official capacity” or formal sense of attending training, services, or a retreat.  If you’d like to learn more about the Abbey in terms of its history, philosophy, and programs offered, their web page descriptions are very thorough.  Rather than repeating any of that carefully-crafted content, I thought I’d instead bring you on a two-part photo tour!    

The Abbey is perched on a coastal promontory hundreds of feet above the sea.  Standing here, one gets a visceral sense of the impermanence of all created phenomena (one day, the ground upon which the Abbey sits will return to the sea as the high cliffs continue their erosional retreat)…
…and the immediate clear space of mind. 
View looking northwest across the Gulf of St. Lawrence.   
The main meditation hall overlooks the vastness of the Gulf.  The uniquely-designed hall fuses diverse Buddhist lineage influences, including Tibetan and Zen.  

  I extend my thanks to Megan for a wonderful guided tour, and for making the core concepts of Buddhism clear and accessible to my family in a way that I myself hadn’t been able to achieve.
The Gampo Buddha, flanked by photos representing teachers from its twin lineages (Karma Kagyu on the right, and Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala on the left).    
There can never be too many garden Buddhas and Bodhisattvas...
…and there’s always room for local symbolic enhancement, including a moose antler backdrop.  The Cape Breton Highlands teem with moose, and mature males shed a set of their massive but impermanent antlers annually.   
A beautiful lily graces the Gampo gardens.    
 The Abbey and its associated support buildings and retreat cabins are situated within a short walk of each other, but a Guan Yin memorial has been situated on a nearby high mountain peak (the entire property is reported to encompass about 230 acres of land).    

A portion of the rugged footpath up the peak to Guan Yin.
Cairns have been mindfully staged along the path.  
Upon encountering this impossibly-balanced little stone, my immediate thought was, “One-pointedness.”   
The spectacular view looking back down the path toward the main Abbey grounds.  Unfortunately, there’s little visible evidence of scale in this photo.  For reference, these coastal mountains in this area are approximately 1,150 feet high.    

The Guan Yin statue, in profound forest solitude.   
Close-up of Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this touristy trip, in which the Abbey’s Stupa of Enlightenment will be presented.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Dhammapada Houstoniana: VERSE 34

The Dhammapada Houstoniana is an image macro project in which excerpts from the classic Buddhist scripture are contemplated within the context of life on the upper Texas coast. Individual verses will be published from time to time in blog entries, and if you would like a complete PDF copy of the project, please email me. For a more complete explanation of The Dhammapada, please see this introductory post. Click on each verse JPG below to enlarge and improve image resolution.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dharma training flyer

This recent post explained the upcoming Dharma classes to be held at Chua Phap Nguyen.

This eye-catching flyer is also being distributed in hard copy to local area business and service venues to spread awareness of the course.  If you happen to catch a glimpse of it with your "good eye", yes, it's the same course as was described here.  Click on this JPG to expand to a larger, more readable view.

Courtesy of Chua Phap Nguyen.