Author: Cole Summers
HIS 191: Ethnographic report
I chose to visit the White Lotus Buddhist Center because I have always been interested in Buddhism, mainly for its focus on the self and its lack of worshipping supernatural deities. I was intrigued most by the Center because, of my limited knowledge of Buddhism and its core philosophies, I resonated most with the ideas of self-reflection, meditation, the eight-fold path, the middle way, and its advocacy of virtues such as patience and empathy. I have always been especially attracted to the story of Prince Siddhartha and his journey toward becoming the Buddha — particularly the idea that the Buddha is human, and everyone has the potential to themselves become an “Awakened One.” Admittedly, being a huge fan of the children’s animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, I am very interested in the philosophy and mythos of the show. Several of the characters are clearly inspired by either the Buddha or Tibetan Buddhist monks, and much of the show’s philosophy seems inspired by Buddhist and Hindu teachings. It’s possible my love of the ATLA series and its content is another reason I was attracted towards visiting the White Lotus Buddhist Center.
The instant I walked in the church, a young man enthusiastically greeted me, as he was himself walking out. I am not sure if he was visiting the Center or the Immanuel Baptist Church on the first floor. When I got to the second floor, an older man sitting at a fold-up table with a clipboard asked me, “Are you the college student?” This gave me the impression that, of the people attending, there are either few newcomers or very few college-aged members. I took off my shoes, signed in as a guest, and walked into what appeared to be the main room of the center.
There were maybe four rows of maroon sitting mats with small cushions, and in front of each, a small white raised tray. Behind the rows of sitting cushions are two rows of upholstered chairs. Several fans around the room were on full blast, as it was an especially hot day. There was no air-conditioning, but plenty of windows and sunlight, with many trees and plants in view just outside. It smelled like incense, and although I couldn’t see any burning incense sticks, there were at least ten lit candles sitting at the front of the altar. I assumed these were the source of the incense scent, although, for all ten of them to be burning, the smell was not overwhelming (perhaps because of the many open windows and fans).
At the front of the room was an altar, with a large gold statue of the Buddha at its center, and many flowers and other framed pictures surrounding it. There was so much material on the altar that it was difficult to take stock of everything that was there. This was further heightened by the enormous amount of material culture all around the room. Many framed paintings, drawings, and colorful fabrics hung on every wall. All the artwork was extremely detailed and intricate. Near the entrance was a wooden table with a number of texts in medium-sized baskets.
On their website, the center members are sure to stress the importance of the teacher-disciple relationship. They note that the Dalai Lama says that the disciple should observe the teacher for thirteen years, but also that this is likely impossible in the modern Western world, with a high and immediate demand for spiritual leaders. Also, some students may come to one session and not return for another month. It is difficult, they say, for a teacher-student relationship to truly be established in today’s age. They note, “The Dalai Lama has taught that traditionally a practitioner would examine a teacher for 13 years before completely accepting the teacher. Teachers, too, need to examine the student.” They caution newcomers to not blindly attach themselves to new teachers and religious leaders on a moment’s whim, including the spiritual leaders at the Center. I find this a very healthy mindset and helpful guidance from the Center. I appreciate them taking an active interest in the role of the potential disciple’s well being (perhaps that is to be expected!).
When I visited, there were two older women, three older men, a young woman with a very young child (it seemed likely she was the mother), and of course the Tibetan monk Khenpo Monlam. Except for the monk, everyone in the room was white. When I researched their website, I came across another photo with many more members than the eight in attendance, and again, all except the monk were white. I can’t speculate as to why this is, although maybe the overwhelmingly white interest/presence at this Buddhist center (despite Rochester being a diverse city) is related to the mostly white interest in New Thought, modern spirituality, and the wellness movement. Perhaps in a mostly white country, white people are not inherently tied to any particular religion in the same way that people of color and minorities might find their religious beliefs and sites to be centers of their community and cultural identity. So, perhaps white people are more likely to seek out alternative religion when they live in a society where they don’t need to have a particular religion or center as a keystone of their identity. At least among the members in the online photograph, the trend is completely white, mostly older people, and more women than men. These demographics seem to parallel those of the modern spirituality and wellness movement.
After I sat down on the mat, I was given a guest copy of the text in use for the day. Other members entered the room, bringing several items with them including bells and hand drums, which were placed on their respective raised trays. The Tibetan monk Khenpo Monlam entered the room, and bowed many times towards the altar of the Buddha while saying something under his breath with his eyes closed, possibly some type of prayer. Several other, but not all, members also start bowing towards the Buddha altar. After a while, the service began.
The practice started immediately with singing in Tibetan. Over the course of the hour-long practice, there were two alternating musical passages for the Tibetan text. As far as I am able to remember, both were variations based on the minor pentatonic scale. What I found especially interesting was how each time there was a switch in the singing pattern, which every member knew perfectly, they switched key centers. I do not have perfect pitch, so I do not know if we returned to the same keys each time, but it certainly felt like we did.
The older man who greeted me at the sign in table seemed to lead the actual chanting, rather than the monk. I am unsure if this is true, or if he is simply louder than the monk Khenpo Monlam. At several points in the service, the man also notes when to switch from singing the scripture in Tibetan to speaking the English translation. I am unsure how much of his narration is standard or if most of it is for my benefit. I am also not sure if I am correct in this observation or if I am blind to how the practice is run.
At several points during the practice, the monk Khenpo Monlam raises his two hand cymbals and motions for everyone to start playing their musical instruments. I do not know if the instruments are divided among the members differently depending on who is present on any given day, or if they are individually rented or owned. On the day I visited, there was an interesting diversity of instruments. One man sounded a conch shell, one woman struck a bass drum in the back slowly, and the others all had a variety of instruments (as well as other items of material culture) placed on their raised tray tables. Several members used hand drums, with attached strings and beads that, when the drum was rotated quickly, struck the two surfaces of the drum. Other instruments present included bells and more cymbals. I do not know the significance of the music or how it relates to the White Tara practice, but it appeared to be a type of inspired group improvisation. After an indeterminable amount of time (perhaps three to five minutes in each case), the monk raised his cymbals again and slowly put them back together, gradually ending the music. This cycle of singing Tibetan, chanting English, and group instrumental improvisation occurred several times over the course of the practice. After the singing and chanting finished, the monk Khenpo Monlam offered a very brief coda to the session. My head was spinning so much that I could barely hear him, but I heard him mention nirvana, the individual journey of the self towards becoming a Bodhisattva, and the two noble truths of Buddhism. He and the older man to his left conversed briefly on the subject before the practice officially ended, and the members started to leave the room.
I felt overwhelmed by the time the practice was over. I walked to the baskets at the room’s entrance and picked up a tiny blue book: “Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas” by Ngülchu Thogmay Zangpo. The man who welcomed me earlier described the small pocketbook as the ultimate “crystallization” of the teachings of Buddhism and the path towards becoming a Bodhisattva. He noted that the 37 teachings contain both surface level truths and a great number of deeper meanings. He implied that within every “crystal” of teaching, one could go almost infinitely deep into its meaning. He urged me to not read and instantly make one judgment, but rather that the teachings were meant to be intensively pondered, perhaps for years or over an entire lifetime. The small book is free, and offered to every new attendee of the Center.
After the service, the man (my biggest regret from the visit is not remembering or even writing down his name) talked with me for a while. He himself had been practicing variations of Buddhism in Rochester for the past twenty years. He practiced Zen Buddhism for seventeen years, and decided to switch to the Tibetan Buddhist teachings at the White Lotus Center. He stressed that within Buddhism, unlike some other religions, the variations and different branches do not hold the same significance as branches of Christianity, for example. He said that, basically, as long as it centers on the teachings of the Buddha, it is Buddhism.
The man also briefly described the life of the monk in attendance, Khenpo Monlam. He was recognized at a very young age to be a great spiritual (specifically Buddhist) prodigy. However, he was sent away to a Chinese labor camp for twenty years. The man said, however, that is was not a great obstacle for Khenpo Monlam, as he was able to continue his personal path as a Bodhisattva completely within his own mind for the entire twenty years. He noted that while his body was hard at work doing physical labor, his mind was also working, studying, and pondering the practices of Bodhisattvas and the truths of Buddhism.
Everyone at the service seemed to know everyone else there. There was relatively limited social interaction, but it seemed mostly due to the intense and sincere focus on the activity/purpose at hand. As written on their website, the center is “dedicated to the transmission of Buddha’s teachings and realization to America.”
Before visiting, I assumed the center would be in a huge, Victorian-style church, with very dark lighting and a great number of people. I also did not know (and still do not) a great deal about Tibetan Buddhism, so I was primarily expecting some variation of Zen Buddhism with an emphasis on meditation. One thing I did predict beforehand and was not surprised of upon arrival was the lack of diversity and the presence of only white people.
However, I was very wrong in my assumptions in setting, as the church had its door propped wide open, several rainbow pride flags were hanging on the outside, and the room where the White Tara practice was held was completely filled with sunlight. There were fewer people than I expected, but I believe this is mostly due to the day that I visited, which was described to me by at least three of the senior members as “jumping in the deep end.” The service on Sunday seems to be more suited for new members.
The White Lotus Buddhist Center and its members are part of a larger trend of increased interest and participation in non-Abrahamic religions and New Religious Movements in the United States, particularly among white Americans. The Center seems mostly sustained through the time, money, efforts, and membership of mostly white citizens of Rochester. The members who were present when I visited were serious, sincere, and kind, clearly dedicated to their beliefs and practices (maybe with the exception of the guy on the phone at the beginning). I was especially surprised at how kindly I was treated and how quickly I was accepted into their community.
* I acknowledge the following holes in my report: my lack of knowledge on both White Tara practice, and Tibetan Buddhism in general. This report is based on only one visit, and after writing this, I should have visited at least two more times for a more complete picture of the Center. I also wish I had interviewed or at least talked to the leaders and members of the Center more extensively. I am especially saddened I was not able to learn more about the life of Khenpo Monlam. I would love to learn what his daily practices are.
“About White Lotus.” White Lotus Buddhist Center, 2002. https://www.whitelotusdharma.org/about/.
Teachers.” White Lotus Buddhist Center, 2002. https://www.whitelotusdharma.org/teachers/.