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Race, Religion & Social Justice

Utah Buddhist Congregation Celebrates Bodhi Day

When  we say, “Happy Holidays,” Utahns typically mean Christmas and Chanuka or the winter solstice for some folks.  For Utah’s oldest Buddhist congregation, the winter holiday they’re celebrating this weekend is called Bodhi Day. 

The sound of the daikin begins the Sunday service at the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple.  Reverend Jerry Hirano leads the congregation through the chants and hymns that make up the Jodo Shinshu or Pure Land Buddhist service.

Followers of the Jodo Shinshu tradition normally mark December 8th as a holiday in honor of Buddha’s enlightenment – the moment 25-hundred years ago when the prince Siddhartha Gotama became the Enlightened One.  This year, the Buddhist temples in Salt Lake and Ogden are celebrating on the 16th, in part to accommodate a guest speaker.

In his sermon at a regular service last Sunday, Reverend Hirano reflected on the upcoming holiday and its inclusion other December celebrations.  He remembered an occasion years ago when a decorated evergreen found its way into the meeting hall.

"And I knew it was a Christmas tree," Hirano told the congregation.  "I think everybody in the room knew it was a Christmas tree.  And he says, ‘Today we have Bodhi Day.  It’s a Bodhi Tree.’   I was like 6 or 7 and I’m thinking, ‘That’s not a Bodhi Tree.  It’s a Christmas Tree.’ "

Whatever it might be called, Hirano went on to say sharing the holiday spirit is not a problem.  "To me, he says, "everyone this time of year has more of a Buddhist attitude.  They have a tendency to be a little bit kinder to one another. 

Hirano went into more detail in an interview with KUER.  "The older I get, the more I hear about Christmas, I realize that this holiday spirit is everything that we’re trying to teach in Buddhism.  So why not let the kids realize that this holiday spirit is about being a good human being.  It isn’t about being Christian, Buddhist or any other religion."

The Salt Lake Buddhist Temple was founded by immigrants from Japan more than a hundred years ago.  And it’s marking another milestone as it approaches the New Year.  For the first time, someone who’s not ethnically Japanese has been elected president of the board.  Ivan Van Laningham has been attending services here for about 16 years. 

"This is probably one of the most diverse temples in Buddhist Churches of America," Van Laningham tells KUER.  "We have African-Americans, we have Caucasians . . . and Japanese and Filipinos."

Continuing Hirano's theme, Van Laningham says he’s not confused by what sort of tree should be used to mark the day.

"Bodhi Day is the day that Buddha achieved enlightenment sitting underneath a Bodhi tree . . . it’s a fig tree of some kind, so claiming that pine tree is a Bodhi tree is quite a stretch.  But very creative.  I like that."

This Sunday, the Reverend Dennis Shinseki is coming in from the Monterey Buddhist temple in California as a special guest speaker, and Reverend Hirano expects his church to follow another tradition as well.

"For us Jodo Shinshu, I always say our practice is to chant and eat," Hirano laughs.  "And Bodhi Day is one of those times where . . . I think it’s a good holiday for Jodo Shinshu Buddhists because there’s a nice lunch that goes along with the service.

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