Sunday, March 04, 2029

What's New at The Temple Guy?

Here's a listing of new, COMPLETED posts and pages, with the most recent listed first. (There are lots more in various stages of construction, but these are DONE.)


October 2019:

Friday, September 27, 2019

Bliss, Bush, and Bullshit

[This article was originally posted Thursday, January 08, 2004, on the long-gone "Barefoot Fool" blog, which you can read a little more about here. As with so many of my old projects, there are broken promises in this piece: "Campbell's words and work will be a constant theme in this blog..." Hard to imagine when the blog itself is moribund!

[Anyway, in today's political climate, I--like others--find myself yearning for the relatively benign antics of Bush the Younger. Hell, Nixon's starting to look not-so-bad! Anyway, think of the comments at the end as a sort of time capsule, and take away whatever you can use.]

Last Sunday [Jan. 4, 2004] I attended a very L.A. event. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) had sponsored an exhibition of Buddhist art called "The Circle of Bliss." In association with that exhibition, they sponsored a group of Tibetan monks to create an 8-foot-across sand mandala. In weeks to come, I hope to present a detailed interpretation of its symbolism, on a subsidiary page. {Never did--broken promise!] In the meantime, I will briefly tell you of its importance.

The outer edge of the mandala represents this phenomenal world. As one enters more deeply into the circle, one moves through various levels of symbolism, until at last one reaches the center, which represents the union of compassion and wisdom--in other words, Nirvana or "Bliss." Thus the mandala is a model for meditational practices that lead to that result. The mandala was created in October, over a period of several weeks. As a rule, such mandalas are created and then immediately destroyed, symbolizing impermanence. The creation of the mandala itself is a meditation, and the benefits to be accrued are in the making; the image itself is but a by-product.

LACMA kept its mandala on display for over two months. The event that I attended on Sunday was the destruction and dispersal of the mandala. After a ceremony of chanting by six monks, the sand of the mandala is swept up. Small boxes of the sand were given to all of the attendees, and the remainder was taken to the Pacific to be spread upon the waters, distributing the "bliss" represented by the mandala throughout the world. (I brought my sand home and placed it on my garden shrine.)

One of the things that strikes me about this whole process is the integrated thinking it represents. On one level, a bunch of guys in robes play in the sand, then destroy their creation, like boys at the beach building a sand castle and then bombarding it. But the participants--and the remarkably large crowd attending--see in this process a prayer, a blessing, a fulfillment of human potential. Even scoffers lined up to get their little box of sand. What this tells me is that metaphors are powerful, and the ability to see beyond the literal to the transcendent is a liberating power that frees us from the mundanity of our lives and opens us out to cosmic vistas. At Wilshire and Fairfax, next to the Tar Pits.

This brings me to Bush. One of the friends I was with ran into one of his friends at the event. Dave is a freelance photographer who, probably not coincidentally, spent eight years in Hong Kong, my soon-to-be-home's next-door neighbor. We had a good chat (he's a good guy) and one of the exchanges had to do with my reasons for moving to China.
Me: ...besides, I'm achin' to get out of this country and back to Asia.
Dave: Had enough of Bush's America?
Me: Yeah...George W. has never done a thing for me.
Dave: Sure he has! He's made it extremely difficult for you to travel safely in other countries!
And on we went in that vein. Now, Bush-bashing is too easy. And as much as I love reading outrageous bashers, the truth is, I feel more comfortable with more reasoned examinations of W's shortcomings (such as Dave's observations).

So, with that in mind, I offer the first of what will probably be many looks into the deeper problems underlying the Bush agenda and, by extension, some of the ways in which clinging blindly to one's own tradition can have serious negative repercussions. Yes, it was Islamic fundamentalists that attacked American symbols on September 11, 2001, resulting in great loss of life. But it was a Christian fundamentalist who ordered the assault on Iraq, with much greater damage to the ephemeral but noble cause of "World Peace."

It may seem like I'm changing the subject, but I'm not:

Monday I finally got my hands on Joseph Campbell's book Thou Art That. (Campbell's words and work will be a constant theme in this blog, as they are a constant theme in my life; in fact, I have come to think of him as "Uncle Joe," harking back to a time when it was the uncle's role to initiate the young man. It was actually Campbell's avuncular wisdom that helped make me the Barefoot Fool that I am today. Yes, it is, in part, Uncle Joe's fault.) The book is subtitled "Transforming Religious Metaphor," and it specifically tackles such Christian icons as The Virgin Birth, The Last Supper, The Cross, etc. The overall import is the plea for seeing through so-called "historical" events to their transcendent significance. But let Uncle Joe speak for himself:

"...half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contend that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies" (page 2).

This attitude is our natural inheritance from Aristotle. When the symbology of the Judeo-Christian world met the either/or logic of the Greeks, the situation that Campbell describes was bound to happen. A few pages later, Uncle Joe picks up this idea again:

"The life of a mythology springs from and depends on the metaphoric vigor of its symbols. These deliver more than just an intellectual concept, for such is their inner character that they provide a sense of actual participation in a realization of transcendence. The symbol, energized by metaphor, conveys, not just an idea of the infinite but some realization [read "actualization"] of the infinite. We must remember, however, that the metaphors of one historically conditioned period, and the symbols they innervate, may not speak to the persons who are living long after that historical moment and whose consciousness has been formed through altogether different experiences" (page 7).

And then:

"The problem, as we have noted many times, is that these metaphors, which concern that which cannot in any other [that is, non-metaphorical] way be told, are misread prosaically as referring to tangible facts and historical occurrences. The taken as the message, and the connotation, the rich aura of the metaphor in which its spiritual significance may be detected, is ignored altogether. The result is that we are left with the particular 'ethnic' inflection of the metaphor, the historical vesture, rather than the living spiritual core.

"Inevitably, therefore, the popular understanding is focused on the rituals and legends of the local system, and the sense of the symbols is reduced to the concrete goals of a particular political system of socialization [emphasis added]. When the language of metaphor is misunderstood and its surface structures become brittle, it evokes merely the current time-and-place-bound order of things and its spiritual signal, if transmitted at all, becomes even fainter" (page 7).

I don't mean to re-type the whole book. I have given you four paragraphs, and I think it's important to maintain the integrity of the writing. Uncle Joe can be pithy, though; he has elsewhere summed up the entire problem described above by decrying those who "go to a restaurant and eat the menu," failing to see that the menu points to something beyond itself--that is, it is metaphorical.

The emphasized clause in the last paragraph quoted brings us to the crux of the Bush issue: "the sense of the symbols is reduced to the concrete goals of a particular political system of socialization." GWB sees the world in terms of "good" and "evil" without nuance; he sees Saddam Hussein as "evil," as a man who "tried to kill [his] dad." I have no doubt that Bush believes he is right--in fact, righteous. That is exactly the problem. He is "doing the best he can" given his fundamentalist orientation. That is exactly the danger. He imagines himself a "warrior of light" doing battle with "the powers of darkness." That is exactly the bullshit.

His wisdom is foolish, as it fails to take into account the nature of things he cannot see.

You'll be getting a lot more of Uncle Joe. I think that as we make our way through the world, we need not only to "see through" the metaphors, we need to "see through" people like George W. Bush, to see what it is in their worldview that causes them to do what they do.

And try to teach our children to see the world differently, as full of infinite possibilities, and not limited to one narrow perspective. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," said Hamlet, and, later, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."


Posted September 30, 2019

My "Ancestral Shrine"

A Tribute to My Family, My Japanese Sojourn, and My Ancestors

[This article was originally posted in the "American Temples" section of the old Temple Guy site, probably in late 2004 or early 2005. At that time, I was publishing the "Laughing Buddha" blog; see here for more information on that and other defunct projects. Notes in square brackets were added in 2019, when the article was relocated to this site. I have also added far more photos than were in the original.]

Back in the early 50's, before this disreputable Laughing Buddha was born, my family moved to the house they still live in, in Rosemead, a suburb of Los Angeles.

In L.A.'s highly mobile society, fifty years [now over 65] is a long time for anyone to stay in one place, but the Buckets have done just that. All of us--my two older brothers, my younger sister, and I--went to the same elementary, junior high, and high schools. We had many of the same teachers, and friends of mine were often siblings of my sibling's friends.

What I'm getting at is: the Buckets of Rosemead have established the closest thing to an "ancestral home" as you'll find on the Left Coast.

At the age of 41--no "spring chicken"--I found myself rather far away from that home. I had applied for my first-ever passport and moved to Japan.

My company assigned me an apartment that was five minutes away from the Hiyoshi (Kanagawa) train station. First up a long narrow road, past a small cemetery; then up some stairs, and across part of the campus of Keio University; and down a broad, tree-lined avenue to the station.

Between the cemetery and the university stairs, I daily passed the little character above. As you can see, he was the subject of active veneration: fresh flowers, fruit, and, often, cups of sake. I had seen some of the older ladies of the neighborhood tending this curbside-shrine-on-a-cinder-block, and vaguely wondered what it was all about.

As my year in Japan lengthened into five, I learned more of Japanese religion, and discovered that this fellow was named "Jizo." He was a sort of patron of travelers--a friend, I realized, as I was sojourning away from my "ancestral home." [He is called in Chinese "Dizang," and in Sanskrit "Kshitigarbha."]

And then one day a gong was struck: this unassuming little man was also the patron of dead children. Learning this, I began to feel a stronger attraction toward him.

You see, I myself had not been the healthiest of children. In fact, they tell me that for a time there, I was not expected to live. Most of my earliest memories are of doctors and hospitals, or of illness. I caught every little disease that came through the neighborhood, and yet built up no immunities. Finally, when I was in Kindergarten, the doctors discovered a small tumor on my neck. Benign, they said, but nonetheless physically weakening. (I still don't know what that means: benign or not?)

Anyway, they removed it. The skinny little Boo Radley look-alike with the bags under his eyes that you see here: that was me.

It wasn't until puberty--and another brush with death after having had my tonsils out--that I learned that, as sick I had been as a child, I was the lucky one. During her pregnancy, my mom had had a miscarriage. (And yet, you're thinking, you're still here.)

That's right, I am. In her fifth month, after the misfortune, Mom went in for a "final check-up," game over. And the doctor, checking her out, said: "There's still one in there."

That was me.

My mom had miscarried my twin (kind of like Elvis). The doctor called it "one-in-a-million." I don't know if he was being hyperbolic or statistical. Either way, learning this--especially on the heels of having "swallowed my tongue" in recovery after the tonsillectomy--gave me a sense of being somehow... I don't know... special. We are all dangling between the cradle and the grave, and life is to be lived, by golly.

Anyway, when I heard that this Jizo was a patron of those like my "brother," who hadn't made it, I began to focus on him a bit more. As I visited more and more temples, and watched out for this little fellow, he took on new dimensions.

For one thing, I learned his last name.

He is technically "Jizo Bosatsu." It turns out that he is a bodhisattva, "bosatsu" being the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit.

Another thing I learned is that he is not only the "patron of dead babies," but that he advocates in the court of Emma-O, King of Hell, on behalf of all the dead. Much later, I learned that he is Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (Ch. Ti Tsang, or Dizang), who vows to work for the release of all from Hell, and won't accept Enlightenment until the six levels of Hell are empty. (At many crossroads--he is patron of those, too--you will find "Roku Jizo," six statues of Jizo standing in a row, as above: one for each level of hell.)

But perhaps most disturbing of all, I learned one of the sources of his "popularity."

I had been to many temples where entire hillsides were covered with small statues of this bosatsu. Although I thought the number was rather large, it never occurred to me that there was anything ... sinister... about it.

And then, visiting a temple with a friend one day, I was told the awful truth: every one of those statues represented an abortion. The lost children were known as mizuko--literally, "water babies." And the statues on the hillsides represented an industry based on guilt.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm no raving anti-abortionist ("pro-life" is such a misnomer). I believe in a woman's right to choose.

But the unassuaged pain represented in the offering of toys and clothing to five-foot-tall Jizo statues; the dressing up of smaller statues, as seen here; the sheer volume of little figures, each one representing a life taken by choice, in a surgical procedure: it was much too much.

And on another level, I couldn't help but think of the social factors behind those "choices": the economic pressures, the lifestyle preferences. Japan is facing a severe labor shortage in the future, and she needed all those babies. But the die is cast, and the population is shrinking.

Another disturbing realization was: there was a whole industry playing on this guilt, building bigger-and-better temples with the blood money paid for those statues.

The Jizos in this picture--from an earlier time than the "mizuko"
statues--more likely represent pleas for  adults to "rest in peace."

All of this is on a grand scale. But on the human scale: every one of those statues represented a grieving mother.

Yes, I'm still somewhat conflicted about the role this bodhisattva has taken on in Japan.

But when I returned to the U.S. in December of 2001, I had just come off of a ten-week pilgrimage. My mind had become, uh, tender. I did not want to let go of Japan; in fact, I was constitutionally unable to do so.

So, wondering what to buy my parents for my first Christmas home in five years, I hit on an idea: I bought a small statue of Jizo from San Gabriel Nursery, long the premier "Japanese nursery" in the area. I brought it home, put it in the garden, and that was that.

It was two years before I did what I had been planning to do all along: I built a hut for the Jizo, a proper shrine.

This was completed around Christmas of 2003, only six weeks or so before my departure for China. And here [in China--not anymore!] I have learned that families have shrines where their ancestors are remembered.

So, my sisters and brothers, I give you My Ancestral Shrine.

There are several "holy souvenirs" hanging on the shrine: a bell bought at a Japanese temple; sand from the Ganges given to me by a Chinese nun; little shoes, also given by a Chinese nun; sand from the Tibetan ceremony I attended in January of 2004 (see this post); and another bell. In his hands, he holds beads I got from my first trip to China. I'm sure more will be added in the future.

So that is the story of my shrine. I packed away the statues in my room when I left, of Kuan Yin [pinyin Guanyin, Jp. Kannon, Skt. Avalokiteshvara] and Mi-le-fo [Jp. Miroku, Skt. Maitreya]. I brought along my small, elegant Tibetan-style Shakyamuni (a gift from my dear friend, the Venerable Yin Gen), and my incense burner; they are in my room as I write.

But my Ancestral Shrine stands on the suburban tract grounds of my Ancestral Home, awaiting my return and the offering of thanks I will surely make when this leg of my pilgrimage brings me home again.

IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT: In June 2008 there was a fire in my family's home. No one was hurt, and all is repaired or replaced. But during the reconstruction, for some reason, my "shrine"--which was well away from the activity--was removed and it and the statue relegated to a garden shed.

It occurred to me that the statue mightn't be as important to my family as it was to me. (Duh.) So when I left China in 2015 and moved to the Philippines, shipping tons of books and whatnot from the 'States, I shipped my Jizo, too. He now stands in a tiny bamboo grove in our yard.


Here are a few more pictures of unusual Jizos, singly and in groups, photographed in Japan. (Do forgive the poor-quality scans, here and above; I did my best!)

See the little fellows at the bottom of this Jizo statue?

Here they are closer up. Surrounding him, they total six.

Here's another statue with the same motif.

Here, the number is more obvious. (That one little adult face is disturbing, yo!)

The Mickey offering is devastating.

This one is clearly quite old.
Six more, to end on a happy note!

Posted September 27, 2019

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Pindangan Ruins, San Fernando,
La Union, The Philippines

On our way to see the Ma-Cho Temple in San Fernando, La Union, we made a quick stop at a site I'd read about, just four kilometers or so south of the turnoff to the Temple.

Looking toward the altar end, where the statue is located under the tree

There's not much to see at the ruins of Pindangan Church, just a lot of lonely walls. But the story of the place is worth telling, and the loving care shown by the Carmelite Sisters next door (who own the property)--and who have kept it in what preservationists call "a state of arrested decay"--makes it that much more special.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The 18 Arhats at Ma-Cho Temple,
San Fernando, La Union

[These photos were taken on a trip my family and I made to the Ma-Cho (Mazu) Temple in San Fernando, La Union, The Philippines. You can read more about that visit. here.]

The Ma-Cho Temple in San Fernando, La Union, is famous for many things: for its "majestic" five-portal gate, its Kwan Yin Terrace and Eight-Sided Pavilion, its quaint matching Bell and Drum Tower, and of course its tiny, gorgeous main statue of Ma-Cho (Mazu), the Sea Goddess.

Interestingly, though, it is also noted for its mistakenly-named "Eighteen Chinese Saints." These are actually the Eighteen Arhats (also called, in Chinese, 十八羅漢 Shiba Luohan, as a sign near them says). They're ranged along the retaining wall for the Kwan Yin Terrace, between its stone buttresses.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Ma-Cho Temple, San Fernando,
La Union, The Philippines

[Don't miss our stop at the Pindangan Ruins on the way to this temple.]

Main Hall of the Ma-Cho Temple, note Drum (L) and Bell (R) Towers

On July 20, 2019, in celebration of my 64th birthday, Lila and I hired a car and driver to take us (with the boy) 3-1/2 hours north, to the capital city of San Fernando Province, La Union. There we visited two sites: First, the ancient ruins of the Pindangan Church (to be posted later), and then the main focus of the trip: the immense and beautiful Ma-Cho Temple on a hill overlooking the West Philippine Sea.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

"My Lady's Parlour"

I recently ran across a book of short pieces about China, On a Chinese Screen, by the English playwright, novelist, and short story writer W. Somerset Maugham, best known for Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, Cakes and Ale, and The Razor's Edge. (Links lead to online texts.) He wrote the sketches based on a 1919-1920 trip along the Yangtze River; it was published in 1922.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Me and the Abbot: Venerable Hui Chuan of Hsi Lai Temple

The YUGE Main Hall at Hsi Lai Temple, Hacienda Heights, CA

For a half a year (roughly November 2002 to April 2003) I had the privilege of working at Hsi Lai Temple (Wiki) in southeastern L.A. County, which used to bill itself as "the largest Buddhist temple in North America." I'm not sure how that's measured, as there are certainly temples with more land, and possibly more floor space. It may be the largest Main Hall, as I can't recall seeing any bigger. (Now it's advertised as "one of the largest Buddhist temples in the Western Hemisphere.")

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

It's Here: The New and
Improved Temple Guy!

Since July of 2004, my old site ( has been serving pilgrims, researchers, and temple geeks the world over, covering my experiences in Japan and, less so, China.

A January, 2019, web search reveals that the site's name appears in at least two print books--a travel guide and a book on geopolitics--as well as on numerous homepages--and even on Wikipedia!

Alas, I lost control of that site (built on a clunky old platform using FrontPage, a software program that's not even available any more). It hasn't been updated in dog's years--in fact, for a full decade now. However, due to the large number of incoming links, I will keep the site online as long as I can.

A screen shot of the original homepage

Meanwhile, this new site (note the "dot-org" extension) will share with you some of the many places I've been fortunate to visit--temples and shrines in East and Southeast Asia, as well as old mission churches and ruins in the American southwest (and churches in the Philippines, too, where I now live).

As I start to crank up my online presence again, this the new and improved version of that venerable-if-clunky labor of love.

Please follow me for more!

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Friday, October 22, 1999

In which the Temple Guy "Meets" the Emperor and Empress of Japan

It's ironic that my first official post on the new The Temple Guy blog is not about temples at all (although a Shinto shrine does make an appearance).

My excuse, though, is a good one: I am writing this post on May 1, 2019, as Japan enters a new era. Emperor Akihito abdicated yesterday and the Heisei Era came to an end; he and the lovely missus are now His Imperial Majesty The Emperor Emeritus and Her Imperial Majesty The Empress Emerita.