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(4 pages total)

Page 2 - Buddhism in the West


More than simply a place of worship, Hsi Lai Temple is the cultural focal point for thousands of Chinese-Americans who come to Hsi Lai not only to practice their Buddhist faith, but to provide their children with an education of their Chinese heritage. To serve the community, the temple provides lessons in Chinese and Buddhist culture to elementary students and adults alike. Parents may enroll their children in after-school studies at the temple and then, if they wish, earn a bachelor's degree in Buddhism or a master's in religious studies for themselves at Hsi Lai University. Hsi Lai even offers courses in English as a second language (ESL).

According to Man-ho Shih, assistant to the abbess at Hsi Lai Temple, Master Hsing Yun wanted to promote "Humanistic Buddhism," which applies the Buddha's teachings to daily life.

"The Buddha taught us to have compassion, to obey the law, not to kill, steal, lie, or engage in sexual misconduct, and not to take intoxicants," she says. In this way, we don't have to wait until we die to reach the Pure Land. We have a Pure Land on Earth."

For devotees of the Pure Land school, such as those who practice at Hsi Lai, Pure Land refers to one of many transcendent paradises ruled by a buddha. Adherents believe the Pure Land is the stage just before reaching nirvana, and one gains access through rebirth and devotion to a specific buddha, such as Maitreya.

So why wouldn't a Buddhist want to reach nirvana, that supreme spiritual bliss, right away, since it's the ultimate goal of Buddhists? The desire to reach Pure Land has its origin in the early Buddhist cosmology, when it was proposed that the ability to achieve enlightenment by one's own efforts would degenerate within a few hundred years after the Buddha's death (483 B.C.E.); consequently, one was dependent upon the graces of buddha to gain access to the Pure Land, which has thus become an alternate route to reaching nirvana.

The devotion to this concept of a Pure Land is especially evident in the main shrine, across the courtyard and up another flight of marble steps. Here, in a richly decorated room, the faithful gather on rows of red cushions to participate in religious services. They are guided through the service by several orange-robed monks, who lead everyone in chanting. The voices have a haunting, chanting rhythm, and they are interrupted only by the occasional sound of a drum or bell, rung by a monk to indicate when in the service devotees should stand or prostrate themselves before the three monumental statues in the shrine.

These enormous images dominate the scene with a golden glow. To the left is Amitabha Buddha, symbolic of mercy and wisdom. Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Perpetual Life, is the ruler of the Pure Land known as Western Paradise, or "Sukhavati." He created this Pure Land through his karmic merit, and Buddhists in the shrine recite Amitabha's name in the hope of being reborn into this land of bliss.


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