When I visited the Phat Da Buddhist Congregation in San Diego, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in San Diego, I was taken by surprise that the service was given in Vietnamese. The decorations on the wall, the sacred images displayed at the altar, and the vibrant color of the monk’s robe were still familiar, but what was being said was (very) foreign to me. I quickly became impatient and preoccupied with the question on why I was there in the first place. What would I write about for my final Buddhism assignment if I could not understand what was being said? One thing was clear, the day I visited, they were celebrating Buddha’s birthday with huge display of rituals and ceremony, and a big birthday cake at the end.
Although some aspects of the service still felt very Buddhist and looked familiar, others did not. I noted the familiarity of the incense burning, the décor outside the temple, the chanting, the shoes outside of the door, and the cushions on the carpet we sat on. However the service was long and followed by a celebration, both lasting for almost three hours; when I left the Vietnamese service I had more questions then answers. Following the service, both children and adults began a rehearsed ceremony, which was elaborate and complex at times. I could not help but wonder about the meaning behind it; I had many questions. Who came up with such rituals? What does it all mean? Why are these ceremonies important and how is it relevant to the Buddha’s Birthday? Eventually, I began reflecting on topics associated with the service and Buddhist tradition and realized that I was feeling like an outsider to it all. The service was comprised of chanting, ceremonial rituals, and a message on Engaged Buddhism (which I received a small translation of); not the quiet meditation I had expected. Then it occurred to me, were people like me misinterpreting Buddhism in America?
After I came across David Knitter, a former ordained Christian priest and the author of “Without Buddha I could not be a Christian”, I began to realize that I had taken a western approach to Buddhism and had misconstrued some of Buddhism’s core teachings in my mind according to what I thought it should be. Knitter argued that the meaning behind religious teachings can become distorted upon translation and interpretation (92). This is why he had personal issues with his own religion before he turned to Buddhism to look for answers. He stated that, “the bond between language and the truth is so tight, when we change the language, the truth can and feel very, very different” (94). He also argued that how we use language to interpret the teachings of religious texts changes over time because we become culturally conditioned (93).
David Loy’s book “The Great Awakening” made a similar argument while trying to present the challenges that Buddhism and other religions face in our world today, however he argued that religions themselves has been purposefully domesticated to fit in the...