Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Buddhism
A growing number of Coastal Virginia residents are seeking spiritual nourishment from Buddhism. Here’s why.
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The lack of judgement was a common theme in the conversations I had in preparation for this article. One of the people I met during the day-long retreat is Shannon Bjoraker, a nurse who lives in Virginia Beach.
Bjoraker’s father was in the Air Force, so the family moved a lot while she was growing up but eventually settled in Wisconsin, where she stayed through college and nursing school. She moved here recently to be closer to her sister and niece.
As a child, her mother took her to a Baptist church, but her father had no interest, and when she was 12, they stopped going for the most part. In college, however, she became interested in religion again while attending a Catholic university.
“I tried the Catholic thing for a while,” she said, “but it didn’t really fit. I didn’t find much joy in it. That, and I had an encounter with a priest who was kind of inappropriate with me.”
Bjoraker had also read about Buddhism, among other world religions, and was drawn to it. Then, five years ago, when a friend began meditating regularly, she joined her. Motivated to go deeper, she attended a Shambhala Center in Wisconsin. (Shambhala is based on Buddhism but tailored for Americans.)
Finally, three years ago, she took her Buddhist vows. (That doesn’t mean she became a nun—only that she committed herself to the Buddhist way.)
“Everything about it just resonated with me,” she said. “I like that it involves a practice—a method—and that it doesn’t cling so much to things that you have to have a lot of faith in. I think there’s a lot of beauty in Christianity, but as a kid I was raised to believe in heaven and hell. I couldn’t understand a god who would create people so as to put them to these weird tests. It just didn’t make sense to me.
“Buddhism seems logical to me—and it’s effective. I used to have a lot of anger issues. That was one of my reactive states: to get mad at people and to burn bridges. I still get angry, but it tends to pass more quickly.”
Bjoraker said that recently she has also felt a lot of sadness, probably because of a sense of loneliness.
“I’ve been crying a lot—but that’s OK. It’s a process of unfolding. I’m starting to see it as a spiral; you come around again to where you were but in a different way.”
Her comment reminded me of something I had just read in a new book called Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright.
“When I’m feeling very sad,” he writes, “I sit down, close my eyes and study the sadness: accept its presence and just observe how it actually makes me feel.… This careful observation of sadness, combined with a kind of acceptance of it, does, in my experience, make it less unpleasant.”
Wright’s comment echoes not only Bjoraker’s, but Chuc Thanh’s observation about “welcoming” anger when it arises as a way of depleting its power.
Bjoraker told me that her practice varies. Sometimes she’ll just sit and breathe; sometimes she’ll recite a chant. But there are intervals where she won’t do it at all.
“These past few days I haven’t wanted to meditate; sometimes it hurts just to sit still. We live in an age of distraction, and for the last few days I’ve been distracting myself and not really being mindful in certain ways. Sometimes I get annoyed with myself because when you take time off it’s harder to return to it.”
This is a common experience for a lot of people. Unlike some breezy New Age approaches to meditation, serious Buddhist meditation can lead to unsettling realizations, bubbling up from our unconscious minds. For those who are serious about it, though, this is all part of the process. Nothing worth doing, after all, is easy at first.
Bjoraker started going to the Dong Hung Temple just six weeks ago, either on Sundays or Wednesdays for services.
“The rituals are different from those at the Shambhala Center,” she said. “But I like that there are monks here. I figured, they probably know their Buddhism,” she added with a smile. “They live this every day and do this as brothers, while also trying to learn English. That suggests to me a deep seriousness of purpose.”
Like Curry, she’s drawn to Buddhism because it’s not about “sinners and saints.”
“Sin in Buddhism, as I understand it, is translated as confusion: we act in hurtful ways because our minds are not clear.”
On the other hand, like me, she’s struck by the common values underlying many religions—principally, kindness and loving thy neighbor as thyself.
Like most serious Buddhists, Bjoraker is a vegetarian, although she has been since she was 13. “I just felt wrong eating meat,” she said. “It felt weird to have this piece of animal flesh on my plate. My practice of Buddhism has just reinforced that.”
She also rarely drinks alcohol anymore and is trying to do without caffeine as well.
“I feel like that also affects my thinking. I used to think I didn’t have the strength to do things if I didn’t have caffeine. I felt dependent on it. Now I drink low-caffeine tea. There’s a nice ritual to it—it’s another way to practice.”
People are drawn to Buddhism for a variety of reasons. Mark Palamara, coordinator of the temple’s English language programs and services, joined primarily because he wanted to quit drinking.
Palamara told me he was raised in “a solid and loving, American, middle-class family” in Pennsylvania and that both his mother and father were “devout Catholics.” Prior to entering fifth grade, the family moved to South Carolina, and his parents enrolled him in a small Catholic school.
“That’s where the questioning of the faith actually started for me,” he recalled. “I remember one time a young priest came to visit us. He must have been some kind of a renegade or something because he said, “You don’t have to go to confession; you can talk to God yourself. I took him up on that!”
By the time he got to college, he said, he “had pretty much lost faith in any kind of religious practice.” When he got married right out of college to a woman who was not Catholic, he drifted even further from it. At the same time, he respected his family’s wishes that his children would be raised as Catholics, and when his only son was born he made a “half-hearted attempt” to return to the church.
Palamara and his wife both worked in the insurance industry and moved here for new job opportunities in 1989. A few years later, his son decided he didn’t want to go to church anymore. “I pretty much agreed with him and stopped going myself.”
Palamara finally retired in 2009 and soon entered into a period of intense introspection.
“Frankly didn’t like what I saw in the mirror,” he said. “One of the biggest issues was that I was consuming way too much alcohol. I was coming to the conclusion pretty quickly that that was not the path to go down in retirement.”
Before long he entered Alcoholics Anonymous but couldn’t wrap his mind around a central tenet of the program: that you must “surrender” to a higher power.
“That just didn’t fit me,” he said. “I couldn’t come to grips that there was a deity and that I had to rely on that deity to help me get through this.”
At a loss, he began doing his own research and started reading about Buddhism. He was drawn to the fact that one of the five “precepts” or vows is a promise not to consume alcohol.
Soon he had found the Dong Hung Temple online, called and made an appointment to meet with Chuc Thanh.
“To be honest, I think I was buzzed at the time,” Palamara said. “But I told him exactly what I needed. He agreed with me that meditation could help, and I launched into a period of study with him.”
Initially he didn’t think meditation would be enough, so he briefly joined AA again. He wanted to be among like-minded people with similar struggles. But after getting his one-year chip, he stopped going.
“That was 2011. I transferred all of my discipline to my Buddhist practice, and I haven’t had a drink since.”
One of the things that helped him stay sober was spending a lot of time at the temple assisting the monks with a variety of chores. Recently, though, he cut back on that to spend more time with his wife. He now does a lot of work for the temple from home, corresponding with people who send inquiries and planning English-language events like the one I attended.
As for his practice, Palamara told me he tries to “keep it simple.” He meditates at least twice a day and finds it especially beneficial to do so right before going to bed.
Palamara said he’s drawn, especially, to the idea of karma
“What I’ve learned is that karma is actually an action word,” he said. “Those actions produce energy, either positive, neutral or negative. I try to make sure I generate that positive energy through the day so I have something to share.”
That was the common thread I discovered throughout my research: Americans who grew up in other faiths are drawn to Buddhism because they find in it a path to inner peace and unconditional love.
There are two other Temples in the area: another Vietnamese temple, Chua Giac Hoa Temple in Chesapeake, and Wat Pasantidhamma, a Thai temple in Carrollton. Chuc Thanh also coordinates a group at ODU for students who are interested in learning about Buddhism. Finally, there are numerous “mindfulness” groups in the area—laypeople who lead in their homes meditation sessions that are based on Buddhist disciplines without the religious elements. But for Palamara and many others, the Dong Hung Temple is a unique gem in our region.
After a lifetime of searching, Palamara has found a spiritual path that seems to dovetail with his reading of science—especially quantum physics.
“I honestly think we’re all just energy and we are all one, and we’re just in this continuum. While this body is temporary, the energy will continue, either positively or negatively. I’m just here to put the best spin on it that I can in this particular lifetime.