February 21st, 2017
The neighborhood in the vicinity of Argyle Street in Chicago is primarily Asian, mostly Vietnamese. Lots of places that sell nail supplies (nothing to do with carpentry), and a variety of restaurants with the word “pho” in the name. Scattered throughout the area are small oases where the dharma is taught. I had time to wander and explore, so I found a few of them.
Walking south on Broadway through the Uptown district, I came upon the Buddhist Temple of Chicago. It’s a small building, tucked into a tiny corner lot. I went to the front door and rang. A woman answered and asked what I wanted.
I said, “I’d like to see your temple.”
“We can’t show you that now. We are going to start a Tai Chi class. We will be done in an hour.”
“Well, can I join the class? I have done Tai Chi before, but I’m out of practice.”
“Yeah, sure, come in. Most of the people are beginners.”
A group watched me as I entered the building. They had been drinking tea, and now they were getting in line to start the Tai Chi class. Some were Asian, some were Anglos. The instructor was a short, stocky guy with a white goatee. He led everyone through the beginning moves. That felt comfortable, since I had done them in the past. The instructor had different names for the movements than I remembered, but the motions were the same. Later he took the class through the entire exercise. I couldn’t remember the whole form, so I mostly floundered along. Some of it was familiar, but not nearly enough.
Once the class was over, a petite Asian woman offered to show me their temple area. She explained that it had six sides for “symbolic reasons”, although she didn’t explain what those reasons were. It was a small temple, but two of the walls could be moved to provide more room. There was a simple shrine and many folding chairs. My guide showed me an alcove where they kept the ashes of deceased temple worshippers. The lady kept telling me to come and visit again.
Later that day, I went to the Truc Lam Buddhist Temple. It’s big white house on the corner of Wilson and Ashland, surrounded by a wrought iron fence. American and Vietnamese flags wave in front of the house. There is a statue of Kwan Yin in the yard. There are lotus blossoms displayed on most of the window shutters. A few of the shutters have the compass and the square carved into them, so I am guessing that at one time this temple had something to do with the Masons.
I went to the meditation practice at the temple in the evening. Inside I met a young woman named Jen. We were the first ones there. She took me to the sanctuary upstairs. It was a big hall with large statues of the Buddha and soft, grey carpets on the wood floor. Lots of gold paint everywhere. Jen got out some small round cushions, prayer books, and little reading stands. She clued me in that they were a Tibetan practice, who just happened to use the Vietnamese temple for their meetings. We sat and waited for the others to arrive. During that time, Jen and I talked about what the Tibetan practice does and compared it with Zen. We also talked about the Catholic practice of centering prayer, and how that compared with the Buddhist forms of meditation.
Eventually, there were seven of us. There was another young woman named Jennifer, a guy named Matt (the group leader), Tristan, Cari, and Willie. Tristan, Cari, and Willie were black. I found that interesting because I had never met any black Buddhists before. Maybe I just don’t get around much. Tristan was a young man with rimless glasses, a goatee, and shoulder-length dreadlocks. Willie sat on a chair. He was an older man, and he looked a bit rough.
Matt gave me a quick intro to the Tibetan thing. It’s almost all chanting; some in Tibetan, and some in English. There is this effort to visualize a holy image of some sort during the chanting. The focus is on imagining compassion. There is a short period of silent meditation near the end of the practice, but nothing like how it is with Zen. It seemed to me that Willie was the best at chanting. He had a deep voice, baked hard from cigarettes, and he sounded like the Tibetan monks that I have heard on recordings.
After the ritual, we talked about the practice. Tristan complained that he kept daydreaming during the meditation. I told him that is pretty normal. I talked about Zen for a while, and Tristan gave a look that said, “Who are you, and why are you still talking?” I took the hint.
The whole session took over two hours. I was surprised by how late it was. As we got ready to go, I told Tristan,
“Hey, I really like your hair.”
He laughed, and shook my hand. Then he said, “Hey man, I was going to say something about your beard, but you know…”
“Yeah, it’s okay. It just grows like this.”
He nodded. “I hear you.”
Willie went into a bathroom with a monstrous, black, plastic bag. Then it kind of clicked in my head that Willie was probably homeless. So, he was kind of street bodhisattva. That was kind of cool somehow.
A couple days later, I stumbled on the Wat Phrasriratanamahdhatu, which is the Thai Temple. It’s in an old house on Magnolia Street, south of Lawrence. It took me a while to figure out where to go. I found a guy who told me,
“Go to the back door. Open it, and ring the bell on the left side.”
That I did. Then I waited. And waited. Finally, a Thai monk came from upstairs. He had on maroon colored clothes, with a saffron cloth draped over one shoulder. He eyed me for a moment. Then he asked,
“You want something?”
“Yeah, I want to see your temple.”
“What do you want in temple?”
“I want to pray there.”
“Ahhhhhh, you want to pray in temple. Come.”
He took me into the living room. There was a small shrine, and some cushions on the floor. Overall, the place looked like a Buddhist garage sale. There statues and pictures and things scattered everywhere. I wondered if this was just a temporary worship space.
We sat in silence for a while. I prayed for my family.
The monk looked at me and asked, “You know Buddhism?”
Ahhhhh, Zen. We are Hinayana…Thervada. You know?”
“Ahhhh, my master, he is in Michigan. He speak English much better. He can explain much better. I am only seven month here.”
He paused and said, “It is so: when you walk, you do it in present time; when you sit, you do it in present time; when you lie down, you do it all in present time. Only present time. You understand?”
He rubbed the dark stubble on his head, and looked at me doubtfully. “Hmmmmm, you understand. Okay. My master, he is in Michigan. He explain it better. I learn the dharma when I nineteen year old. Now I am fifty-five.”
“Ahhhh, fifty-eight. Yes.”
We ran out things to say.
“Well, I guess I will go now.”
“Yes. You go. You come back? Maybe when my master is here, and not in Michigan?”
“No, but thank you.”
“You want water?’
“No, but thank you.”
The monk said, “Yes”, and put the palms of his hands together in front himself. (Gassho). I did the same.