Faith in America
It's as important as ever, no matter what you believe
It's the Buddha's birthday, and the Buddhist Church of Oakland is packed. Three generations of Japanese-Americans are here for a Sunday morning service that would be familiar to most Americans, right down to the organist and overflowing collection plate. The only thing setting it apart from a mainline Christian denomination, in fact, is the golden statue of Buddha and the Japanese chants punctuating the reading of the church bulletin and minister's sermon.
But across the bay, a very different Buddhist service is unfolding. Surrounded by Japanese calligraphy and carvings of Buddha (including a 2,000-year-old Afghan stone statue), practitioners at the San Francisco Zen Center meditate in ceremonial garments drawn from traditional Japanese practice. There are few Asian faces here; aging white hippies and 20-something spiritual seekers are more common.
The two churches represent dramatically different trends in American religion, as well as the power of American culture to shape the religions that take root here. Since it was founded more than a century ago, the Buddhist Church of Oakland has been the center of a gradually assimilating immigrant community and in response has "Americanized" worship while remaining dedicated to its Japanese-American congregation. On the other side of the gap lie an increasing number of Americans who find spiritual fulfillment in the rituals of this centuries-old religion.
Born in India 2,500 years ago, Buddhism has by now established itself in the American consciousness: Dharma, karma, and Zen are common vocabulary words, and books by the Dalai Lama fly off the shelves. "There's a definite acceptance of Buddhism that wasn't here 30 years ago," says San Francisco Zen Center Dean of Buddhist Studies Michael Wenger. "Now a large number of Buddhists are Buddhists by choice, not by chance of birth."
The simple, introspective spirituality of certain Buddhist traditions holds a strong appeal. Zen Buddhism has been one of the most popular. A Japanese tradition, it emphasizes ritual meditation and contemplation. "When we sit in meditation, we try to drop everything and notice what is going on inside ourselves," says Wenger. "People always say don't just sit there, do something. We like to say don't just do something, sit there."
Aimee Mangan of Scotts Valley, Calif., finds in Buddhism a spiritual direction lacking in Catholic services. Though she still attends her parish church with her husband and children, Mangan visits a meditation center regularly and has joined a Buddhist-Christian dialogue group. "I felt it was something that was more mine, rather than just sitting and being preached to," she says. "There isn't an either-or mentality, which is part of its appeal." -Andrew Curry
Who is a Jew?
When Marina Cooley married 16 years ago and agreed to raise the couple's children Jewish, she never thought she would end up converting to Judaism herself. "It was a gradual process," says the Catholic-born Cooley, 54, who grew up in Mexico. "It was like the frog in the frying pan. The heat keeps going up and then you're cooked."
What made Cooley acknowledge the heat after nearly a decade of membership at Temple Micah, a Reform synagogue in Washington, was her son and daughter's b'nai mitzvah two years ago. During preparations, the rabbi told her it was inappropriate for a non-Jew to bless the Torah from which her children were going to read, though her husband, Larry--Jewish by birth--could. Cooley was incredulous: "You mean I can hold candles, I can schlep the kids to religious school, I can take classes, but somehow you draw the line that I can't go up there?"