Nacirema Culture and Buddhism Religious Practices

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Religion is a topic that provokes or brings about different thoughts and ideas between people. We all have our own beliefs and traditions that make each one of our religions stand out. It is what makes us who we are. Myths and rituals are a key part of religion, as they have established what many religious practices are today. An often common question is: what came first: myths or rituals? It can be said that rituals came before myths, as the rituals should have occurred before myths and therefore, tribal people or believers in certain religious practices continued the ongoing tradition. They would also take those olden rituals and form them into stories to tell to many. These rituals and traditions have transcended from centuries ago to modern contemporary times today. The religious ritual event I chose for this project is the Blooming Lotus Sangha, which mediate following the practices of Buddhism. They rely on focus and healing to bring about peace and welcome all people regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or gender. The Blooming Lotus Sangha invite people to partake in meditation sessions that engage participants to meditate with full mindfulness and discover a life full of peace and nourishment.

Buddhism originated when an Indian prince seeked out the truth about life. He felt that suffering was a main problem in life and the only way to thoroughly deal with it was through enlightenment. This young man went by the name of Siddhartha Gautama, born in 563 BCE. Son of a ruler in the Shakya clan, he married Yasodhara and they had their son, Rahula. At the birth of this young prince, it was said he was destined to be a great ruler and from this, Siddhartha’s parents tried to prevent him from having any kind of contact. They would not allow that he have any type of interaction with the outside world because he would see the agony that the people in his city were going through. Once Siddhartha Gautama saw the outskirts of the city, he was “shocked to learn that everyone is liable to sickness, old age, and death, Siddhartha decided that he wanted to leave home and seek an answer to the problem of suffering” (Thomas 2017). Some key beliefs in Buddhism include that life is equal suffering and it does not bring happiness that lasts for a lifetime. As much as life can have its pleasures it can also have its pain. Life is also never accepted as such because we always crave for more. Another key belief is that there is an end to suffering and it has its own terms for ending. Some rituals in Buddhism are meditation, focusing on the mind and body, a mantra that is supposed to call forth certain deities, and mudras which use hand gestures to relay certain ideas or thoughts. Symbols in Buddhism include hand gestures, as mentioned earlier, and prayer wheels, “which are placed scrolls of mantras, that are mounted on rods and spun by Buddhists in lieu of chanting the mantras out loud” (“Buddhist Rituals”, paragraph 5).

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The ritual that I participated in was a mediation session at the Blooming Lotus Sangha. As I quietly made my way into the building, there were already other people gathered around in sitting positions. I wore a meditation-like robe to the mediation session and I noticed there were many wearing the same thing. I sat down and there was the sound of a bell, which signaled the beginning of the session. The room suddenly got quiet and Thây, the spiritual leader, was already positioned at the front of the room in a sitting position. We began what was called “Sitting Meditation”. Everyone is instructed to sit upright and breathe in and out through the nostrils. Once this is done, the whole room is in harmony with their breathing. The key takeaway of this ritual is to gather our inner thoughts and just let go. The sound of the bell, once again, signaled the end of this particular session and that we were to continue onto the “Walking Meditation”, where everyone quietly got up and we made our way outside. I got up and stood in a line with the other participants where we chant, or recite, as we breathe in and out. I felt as though the whole world were still and I occasionally stopped in my tracks to hear the world around me. At this particular moment, I solely felt peace and all my worries were gone. I heard the sound of the bell and I, along with everyone else, walked inside and sat down on the cushions placed for us. We all shared our experiences for the day, in what was called “Dharma Talk”, and took the time to listen to each other speak about our feelings on each part of the ritual. I specifically spoke about how this new religious practice made me feel very welcome and I felt like everything, but an outsider. As seen in the YouTube documentary, the spiritual leader can be seen chanting a mantra while all the participants are passing a lit candle around the crowd. They are rather silent at times and they chant the mantra along with the spiritual leader. It is noticeable that the crowd is channeling inner peace and letting their minds be free, as I had done when I attended the Blooming Lotus Sangha session. I could tell that the main purpose of Engaged Buddhism is to invoke peace of mind for ourselves and others. The use of various rituals allowed individuals, like myself, to let go and let our thoughts be stress free.

As an outsider looking in, I believed that I would have been stared down for entering a place that I had never been to. But, all the members of the mediation session welcomed me, regardless of my belonging to a different religion. I also learned that no matter how strange a certain religion is, you should always respect their beliefs. The Nacirema tribe, for example, was looked at strangely due to the “odd” behavior, as described by many anthropologists, that they exhibited within their tribe. “The magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go” (Miner, page.503). The Nacirema were judged for their religious practices but, anthropologists opted for a cultural relativist approach. I approached Engaged Buddhism with the same perspective.

This particular type of ritual in Buddhism is very common and does not require any rite of passage. The practices are regularly scheduled for the first, third, and fifth Sunday of every month from 6:00-8:00pm. All people are welcome to participate in this mindful activity. The spiritual leader or teacher, in this religious practice, is named Thây (pronounced as “Tie”).“For most of his life, Thây aspired to bring mindfulness into the world in order to help relieve suffering. Amidst the devastation of the Vietnam War, Thây and his colleagues actively helped those in need while remaining grounded in their own mindfulness practice. From this work, Engaged Buddhism was born—a new kind of Buddhism that is fully present with the challenges of our time, and where spiritual growth and service to society go hand in hand” (“Blooming Lotus Sangha”). Thây’s main goal in this meditation practice is to introduce peace of mind and healing to all those who attend. He wants one to not dwell in the past, but rather stick with the present moment. The significance of this ritual is very important to those who regularly partake in the practice as it brings about inner peace in oneself and others. This mindful meditation opens our mind to wisdom and compassion that can transform our everyday lives for the better. Engaged Buddhism, the name of this ritual, is based on Thây’s concept of Interbeing and teaches that the practice of mindfulness meditation and the development of wisdom and compassion at the personal level can help us discover lasting happiness and peace in our hearts…” (“Blooming Lotus Sangha”).

According to Malinowski’s article, he describes myth as a big cultural force (Malinowski, page.29). This is very true as Engaged Buddhism, in this case, became a cultural force so powerful many years ago, that it is still present today. Engaged Buddhism, at first, seemed like a new concept to me when I first arrived to the place where the ritual took place. But, I was wrong because Engaged Buddhism actually dates back to 1954 when the Vietnam War was taking place and Buddhism ideologies were fairly different between various young people. Upon further investigation, I found an article that described just how this religious practice came to be what it is today. Thich Nhat Hanh, also known as Thây, gave readers a glimpse into his career on a seven day retreat back in the year 2008. Hanh is a big advocate of Engaged Buddhism and describes it as 'the first meaning of Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that is present in every moment of our daily life. While you brush your teeth, Buddhism should be there. While you drive your car, Buddhism should be there. While you are walking in the supermarket, Buddhism should be there--so that you know what to buy and what not to buy!” (Hanh 2008). Thây coins Engaged Buddhism as a particular type of wisdom that we must carry every single day. In 1954, there was great confusion in Vietnam as to what ideologies should have been adopted, so the North had a Marxist-Leinst ideology and the South had a “personalism” ideology. A reporter by the name of Vu Ngoc Cac asked Thây to write about Buddhism, so that the people of Vietnam could take on the same spiritual direction to handle the ideological war that was happening in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh continued to write about Buddhism and eventually lectured about it at various universities. His ideologies continued into modern times and Engaged Buddhism is still practiced today.

In summation, this cultural project allowed me to expand my horizons and take on a different perspective in a religion or religious practice that I was not familiar with before. I definitely enjoyed participating in the meditation session at the Blooming Lotus Sangha. I was able to educate myself on Buddhism in general and learned new things. I am hopeful that classroom projects like these are given to other students, even those not taking a class similar to anthropology, because we can fully educate ourselves on religions that we might define as “strange” or “unusual”. It is very necessary to adopt a cultural relativism approach towards religions as they differ from our own and we have to simply learn how to respect them and their beliefs. We are a world filled with different people of different races, ethnicities, religions, & genders. We need to learn how to accept one another for what we believe in. This cultural project allowed me to approach Buddhism with an open mind and I enjoyed the experience far more than I had intended to. It is a wonderful opportunity to engage in something that I, for example, was a bit scared to do because I did not expect how the participants in the religious practice would treat me. I was definitely not treated like an outsider and was welcomed with open arms, per se. This is an experience that I would surely not mind doing again. 

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