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Bang the dharma drum slowly

Island Buddhists follow myriad paths to enlightenment and ‘liberation of the heart.’

Mark Joslyn strikes the rim of the pot-shaped brass bell and the sound fills the small zendo, or meditation building, the Rinzai Zen Buddhist built on his Bainbridge property.

The 12-by-20 room is lined with mats and pillows for the fellow islanders who join Joslyn to share his spiritual practice three times a week.

“This is kind of like a drone, not a chant,” Joslyn said, trading the large bell for a smaller one. “Then to punctuate – like your periods and commas and so forth – we have a little bell.”

Joslyn makes the small chime ring, then clacks the hardwood blocks that signal to the meditators when to sit, when to rise, when to file into the forest single-file along the narrow path.

Meditating in a zendo is just one way island Buddhists practice the Asian spirituality founded by India’s Siddhartha Gautama in the fourth century B.C.E.

Buddhism expanded throughout Asia, developing into numerous off-shoots as it spread (see sidebar). The different branches exist side by side on Bainbridge, a diversity of expression with a common denominator.

“There are a multitude of practices but they have the same goal, so, in a sense, the practice is simple,” Elizabeth Turner, who organizes weekly Monday night meditations at Island Center Hall and in private homes, said. “The basic purpose is the liberation of the heart.”

To that end, a Buddhist might meditate, chant and make devotions at a personal shrine. They might say aspirational prayers for their own awakening and for the peace of the world.

As much a philosophy of life as a religious practice, Buddhism is distinguished by not specifying a supreme deity.

“For me, one of the cool things about Buddhism is that it’s non-theistic, it’s more of a psychological practice,” Turner said. “You find lots of Christians and Jews practising Buddhism because you can find ‘awakening’ without rejecting the God you grew up with.”

Islanders have often explored Buddhist tenets by inviting teachers to Bainbridge. Turner brings senior teacher Rodney Smith from the Seattle Insight Meditation Society Vipassana group here four times a year for day-long workshops.

Participants learn Vipassana, a Burmese/Thai Buddhism that strikes a middle road between austere Japanese Zen, with its meditations on emptiness, and the visualization of complex deities that Tibetan Buddhism espouses.

Other teachers have come to Bainbridge from Tibet and India. Bob Ruch and Suzy Peters have sponsored several visits by Tibetan monks, including a week-long stint in 2001 by mandala master Lobsang Wangchuck from India’s Gaden Shartse Monastic College. Wangchuck created, with his students, a mandala drawing in sand at the Bainbridge Library.

Other islanders bring their practice to a sect’s country-of-origin.

Islander Tammy Deets has visited Tibet three times in three years; her husband, Joe, has gone twice. The Deets’ Buddhist compassion takes an active form as they help build a school for nomad children.

They developed an interest in Buddhism while working high-powered jobs in Hong Kong through the 1990s, but finding the right expression for a Western couple took some trial and error.

It was after the Deets returned to the states in 2000 that they met Kilung Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk visiting Bainbridge to teach and to raise funds for projects in his native Kham, located in China’s Sichuan Province near the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

But after following Kilung Rinpoche for about a year and a half, they found they were unable to visualize the Tibetan Buddhist deities, a central practice of that mediation.

“It just didn’t work for us,” Joe Deets said, “because we weren’t brought up with these deities.”

What did work was hands-on involvement helping build Rinpoche’s school near the order’s monastery, on a mountain above the treeline at 14,000 feet. The couple help organize fund-raising efforts in the United States, and have traveled to Kham several times, returning from the most recent trip earlier this month.

“I have to say (our) Buddhism is a fairly loose one,” Deets said. “We do not go to temples and pray. What has developed over time is more of a practice. Our practice is doing some charity work.”

Buddhism encourages new groups to form around teachers, rather than ostracizing variations as heretical. In that tradition, there is cooperation, rather than competition, among island Buddhists.

“When people come to me to meditate, I tell them about the zendo, about Senji Kanaeda and about the Tibetans,” Turner said, “because one of those will resonate for each person.”

Local lore

Buddhism was first brought to the island by Japanese who worked at the Port Blakely Mill in the 1880s. They built a temple in Yama, their community adjacent to the mill.

By the time the mill closed for good in 1925, Buddhists were meeting in private homes, led by a minister who came from Seattle every other month. After World War II, the Harui family’s former home, a building across from today’s Bainbridge Gardens, was converted to a Shinsu – or Pure Land Sect – Buddhist church.

Fusako Horishige, born on Bainbridge in 1919, recalls how her mother used to clean the building and grounds every day. The number of practicing Buddhists – largely first-generation Japanese – was dwindling, however.

“There were very few of us, just a handful,” she said. “Just my mother and one other family.”

Around 1958, the building was declared a fire hazard and was razed by the fire department.

Local interest in the faith waned. But over the years, new residents reinvigorated Buddhism here and even acquired a temple.

Bainbridge’s Nipponzan Myohoji temple was built in 1982 to support Japanese monks of the Nipponzan Myohoji order founded by Fujii Guruji, who had come to build a Peace Pagoda next to the Trident subbase in Bangor.

Island architect Ron Konzak remembers his first encounter with , the Japanese monk in charge of building the pagoda.

“I was talking to someone on the telephone and looking out the window, and a Buddhist monk appeared chanting and beating a drum,” Konzak said. “I said, ‘there’s a Buddhist monk in my yard,’ and hung up the phone.”

While the pagoda project was abandoned after four years of wrangling over building permits, a temple to support the monks who would have cared for the pagoda was built on land near Lynwood Center, on acreage donated to the order by Karen Helmuth.

The dojo and grounds were cared for by Helmuth, who lives next door, along with Konzak and his wife, Mickey Molnaire.

“My wife and I made the commitment to go down here every Sunday morning and chant,” he said. “For 10 years we did this, all through the 1990s.”

After Helmuth appealed to the order to send a monk-in-residence, the temple was visited for a month once a year by Gyotoku Shonin, a monk sent from Japan, starting in the 1990s.

Two years ago, schoolteacher-turned-monk Senji Kanaeda came from Japan to live at the temple. He was joined last year by a Cuban monk-in-training, Gilberto Perez.

They are repairing the facility, doing the walking, chanting and drumming meditation the order is noted for, and holding morning and evening services.

“The temple is a focal point,” Kanaeda said, “a place where people who are interested in Buddhism can come, where we are chanting and praying, also sometimes fasting. Also sometimes doing ceremony.

“But to build a temple, to construct a temple is not our purpose,” he said. “We call it a refuge for those who want peace. Because the most important teaching of Buddha is peace.”

The two believe that service, not solitude, is the essence of their practice.

There may be a certain shipwrecked quality to the two, in residence in a temple built for another purpose. Still, embracing questions with elusive answers may itself be a Buddhist practice.

Perez relates a recent exchange with Kanaeda. “I said, ‘Do you know anything? Where are we going?’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t know anything.’”

This way to Zen

Buddhism began with Siddhartha Gautama, born in 563 B.C.E. to a wealthy Indian family.

The tradition holds that Siddhartha’s observation of illness, poverty and death made him look beyond physical realities for the meaning of life.

After trying to find enlightenment through a regimen of asceticism, but Siddhartha rejected those means for a “middle path” of moderation.

Until his death in 483 B.C.E., he prescribed moderation as a way to distinguish the physical world from spiritual existence and wisdom, or dharma.

All Buddhism sects share features in common, including the “Three Jewels”: the Buddha; the Dharma, or teachings and practice; and the Sangha, one’s spiritual friends on that path.

Another common thread is belief in the “Four Noble Truths: Life is difficult; one suffers in this difficulty because one becomes attached to wanting things to be other than they are; one can be liberated from this suffering; and the way to liberation is to lead a compassionate, ethical life through wisdom and meditation.

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