Ethnic enclaves embracing Buddhism in Hayward

Oakland Tribune, May 13, 2003
By Julissa McKinnon, Staff Writer

David Garcia barely made it to the temple on time. His four meditation students were about to leave when the Buddhist mentor roared up the gravel driveway and jumped out of his pickup. “I had to cook dinner for the kids,” Garcia called apologetically as he ran to unlock the two-story cottage on the hill in Hayward known as the Boyunsah Buddhist Temple.

The father, community center director, and dharma minister of Castro Valley often finds himself hurrying. It’s one of the reasons Garcia, 59, makes time every morning and evening to sit as still as possible.

After throwing a robe over his sweats and lighting the altar candles, Garcia asked his students: “Any questions before we begin?”

The irony is that Garcia has more questions than answers when it comes to Buddhism. Every day, after meditating for 30 minutes, he starts to ponder the unanswerable. “Who am I? Que pasa? Why here? Why now?” are just a few, Garcia said. As a kid, he didn’t wonder much about God or the universe. Every Sunday, his mother sent him and his brothers to church with a quarter. Religion was simply one of many chores, he said.

Not until he entered drug rehabilitation at 23 did Garcia begin pondering the possibility of a spiritual power. “I was searching for something that made sense,” Garcia recalled of his restless 20s. Years later, the former Catholic would find refuge in the Pentecostal Church.

The spirited revivals suited his personality, he said. “Being Puerto Rican, I like to party and dance and mambo and carry on,” he said. But after 11 years, Garcia grew weary of the “theatrics and church politics.” He was also tired of waiting to be saved.

Spiritual, not religious

In many ways, Garcia exhibits some of the trademarks of the new American Buddhist converts. He describes himself as “tool for enhancing his 20-year-long Christian faith.

Every Sunday, before attending morning Mass at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Castro Valley, Davison sits down to meditate for a half-hour.

“It’s very peaceful to lose self-identity — the ego goes away, and then you no longer have to constantly defend what you believe and who you are,” said the machine-testing specialist.

For years, Davison had problems controlling his anger and said he consequently developed high blood pressure 15 years ago. In hindsight, he believes his fiery temper grew out of an obsession with always proving his point, he said.

Buddhism deflated this impulse because it allows for truths, instead of just one truth, he said.

“The Buddha said there are 84,000 dharma doors to Nirvana,” he said. Today, Davison equates Buddha’s Nirvana, (a state of liberation from all suffering) with Jesus’ concept of “the kingdom.” He believes both spiritual sages demonstrated that heaven is a state of beauty and peace to be attained on earth, he said.

“Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ and the Buddha taught compassion for all living beings,” Davison explained.

But sometimes, Davison said, the conflicts between Christian and Buddhist thinking are tough to reconcile. Christianity focuses on individual salvation, while Buddhism calls for abandonment of self. Nonetheless, Davison tailors his own distinct truth from the two philosophies.

I pick out the things I want to see,” he said.

Many other people are wooed to Buddhism by arguably the most effective and ancient method of conversion — a deeply religious spouse.

If not for her husband, David, Amparo Garcia, 40, of Castro Valley, may have surrendered her lifelong pursuit to help others.

After years of her doing social work and counseling, none of it seemed to heal people’s pain, she said. But after David encouraged her to read the writing of Japanese Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki, Amparo found new hope that a solution for suffering exists.

Searching for suffering’s end

As a young girl growing up in a poor village in Jalisco, Mexico, Amparo Garcia often pondered death. Every month or so, she walked in village funeral processions, pensively trailing the wailing trumpets and crying women to the graveyard.

But it was the suffering of the living that troubled the young Garcia most.

Her uncles cheated on their wives. Children were sick or dizzy from malnutrition. Her father was an alcoholic. Two of her cousins died in their early 20s, one shot in a robbery, the other gunned down in a neighborhood brawl.

As a teenager, Garcia wrote countless poems about the suffering she saw, vowing to help someday. At age 18, she joined a convent only to leave two years later to pursue social work.

“I guess I found the idea of individual salvation so difficult to understand,” said Garcia of her brief stint as a Christian nun. “How could God protect me and not other people?”

After spending time as a social worker, she went on to counsel mentally ill Cuban refugees. “That’s the place I experienced the most horrible suffering of people,” she said. “But I had no answers for them.”

Then Garcia’s husband introduced her to the writings of Suzuki. The Zen scholar’s teachings challenged all of her psychological training about the benefits of a strong and stable ego. Instead, Suzuki prescribed throwing away the ego to move toward unity with the universe. Ever curious, Garcia tried Zen meditation and found that the sitting practice calmed her storm of anxieties and emotions.

“At first, it was very frightening and lonely to let go of the idea of God,” she said. “To really open up to universality is very frightening. There’s no separation between you and somebody else, no more dualities, no more good and evil.”

The most convincing proof that Zen works, she said, came last year when David suffered a stroke. Though David fully recovered, the experience helped Amparo realize she doesn’t have to cling to her husband to love him, she said.

“You do not need to be destroyed by the death of a person when you feel invested in everything around you,” she said. “I’m starting to understand that my children and my husband don’t belong to me. We’re just

Common spiritual void

While people come to Buddhism from innumerable backgrounds and walks of life, some monks believe American Buddhist converts are trying to fill a common spiritual void.

Consumer culture teaches people to desire things that are out of reach, thereby fueling dissatisfaction, said Richard Payne, dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, which is affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Buddhism helps break the self-perpetuating cycle of desire and dissatisfaction, he said.

A monk from a Thai temple in Fremont by the name of Chao Khun Vedesdhammakari explained the surge of American Buddhists quite simply:

“The stomach is full but the mind is hungry for something,” said the slight monk with a knowing grin.

But Hyun Mook Sunim, the head monk of Hayward’s Boyunsah temple, said even Buddhists cannot cling to Buddhism as the only correct spiritual path. Just as Buddhism is spreading in America, Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in his native Korea, he said.

It’s the same phenomenon, Mook said.

As a religion enters a new land, it provides people with new ideas that intrigue and challenge. Converts embrace the insights with zeal and gratitude, he said.

“Many American monks, they practice very sincerely, even more so than me,” Mook said. “They’ve just started, they’re just new, and they work very hard, just like the Puritans did when they were starting a new, alternative religion on this continent.”

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