The Blue Lotus Dharma Center is as an example of Mahayana Buddhism in Saint Louis. The Blue Lotus Dharma Center serves the Saint Louis Buddhist community by welcoming all Buddhist traditions. The center seeks to present its teachings in relation to American culture, while also staying true to the teachings of the Buddhist tradition. The center welcomes all to participate in its practices of the Dharma. The weekly Sunday service includes traditional Buddhist prayer, chanting, sutra reading, and silent meditation (“Mission”).
In the Blue Lotus Dharma Center, the altar stands out in the small space. When we visited, the altar was colorful and lined with offerings around the statue of the Buddha. In some temples, Buddhists present offerings like flowers, fruit, vegetables, parasols, and other gifts that could be given out of reverence. After presenting the offering, one may bow to the Buddha and pray. This was evident in the center when individuals bowed in reverence to the Buddha after using incense (Renard, 54). The incense helps to purify the space and clear one’s mind. In addition to these physical offerings, chants are used along with drums to show reverence. The practice of striking a large caste metal bowl while chanting serves to “focus on the waning hum as a reminder of impermanence” (Renard, 55). The metal bowls and bells were used at the Blue Lotus Dharma Center to practice this principle. These practices embody the Mahayana rituals and practices in which chanting and incense are used to show reverence to the Buddha.
After the chants, the leader reads a sutra reading from the binders given to guests as they came into the center. The binders included prayers, chants, and sutra readings. Sutras are Buddhist scriptures, which are the words of the Buddha. Prajnaparamita/Mahaprajnaparamita and Saddharmapundarika are the two main types of sutras. Prajnaparamita/Mahaprajnaparamita sutras tend to focus on the “doctrine of emptiness” that embodies the practice of chanting and meditation. Saddharmapundarika sutra is called the “Lotus Sutra” because it is composed of the essential teachings of the Buddha (Maguire, 38). After this reading, the center skypes their spiritual director, Lama Chokyi Lodu for the Dharma talk. The Dharma talk focused on the readings and the necessity of mindlessness (“Mission”).
Lastly, silent meditation was practiced after the Dharma talk. Meditation is the most important practice in Buddhism. Meditation is achieved in the lotus position, which is often the way the Buddha is portrayed in statues. Meditation’s ultimate goal is nirvana, a state without suffering and desire (Renard, 57).
Buddhism was founded by an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama, who questioned the privileged life he was given. One day, he took a journey outside the palace and saw four sights: a sick man, an old man, a dead man, and a monk. Seeing these sights made him realize that even a wealthy prince could not escape the trap of human suffering (Buddhism: Basic Beliefs). After talking to the monk, Siddhartha decided to become one himself in search of the answers to questions such as “Why must people suffer?” and “What is the cause of suffering?” After many years of intense meditation and fasting under a tree, he gained enlightenment and was given the title of the Buddha.
Buddhist teachings emphasize three universal truths and four noble truths. The three universal truths include knowing that everything in life is always changing and nothing is permanent, attachment to things and people lead to unhappiness, and there is no eternal soul. The four noble truths are that human life has suffering, the cause of that suffering is greed, there is an end to suffering, and the way to end suffering is to follow the Middle Path (Humphreys). The Eightfold Path is the path taught by the Buddha that is recommended to take in order to obtain a life without suffering. In addition, the Buddha taught his disciples to not worship him as a God, but as a teacher and that they are responsible for their own lives.
The specific form of Buddhism that we witnessed was Tibetan Buddhism, which is a religion that focuses on isolation. When China conquered Tibet, the Chinese officials restricted the practice of Buddhism throughout Tibet. The face of Tibetan Buddhism is the Dalai Lama, who lives in India. The Dalai Lama is a term for spiritual leaders and teachers in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes the path to an enlightened one as the ideal way to live (Religions - Buddhism: Tibetan Buddhism).
Buddhism has been a popular religion across Asia, but has made its way across the world. Buddhism has become a global religious tradition since the late 20th century, making its way to European countries first, and then the Americas more recently. It has made its way to the west via philosophers, writers, artists, etc. Conflicts, such as war, have caused the immigrants to move West, bringing Buddhism with them. In modern times, Buddhist ideas attract many people, especially in the United States.
Many people in America did not know of the existence of Buddhism until the 20th century. The first people to learn about Buddhism were scholars in some of the oldest universities. During the first half of the 20th century, immigrants from Asia moved to areas of Hawaii and California, bringing Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is an overarching form of Buddhism that includes Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is a devotional form that recognizes Bodhisattvas, divine beings who are able to reach nirvana but do not always do so for the sake of helping suffering beings, which we observed at the Blue Lotus Dharma Center. This idea means one seeks to become Buddha, and is a base that anyone can be “awaken” (understanding reality). Mahayana Buddhists also believe that in order to understand this reality, there must be wisdom and compassion. They see equalness among all things. In the later half of the 20th century, immigrants brought Buddhism with them to America, and during the 1960s it finally became popular. With these immigrants brought the versions of Nichiren Shoshu and Zen Buddhism. Nichiren Buddhists follow orthodox Buddhism, which is known as true Buddhism. Nichiren Buddhists teach enlightenment and hope for a peaceful world. But America is only one of the few places Buddhism traveled to.
Buddhism first arrived in Europe via texts. These texts were translated and studied by scholars, but this gave limited access to Buddhism. To gain more access to Buddhism, people traveled to Asia to learn more about Buddhism and brought back the teachings with them. Some even became monks. Buddhist societies were created in many major cities in Europe, the Buddhist Society of London (1924) being the oldest. The forms of Buddhism that exist in Europe are: Theravada, Pure Land, Zen, Vajrayana and Nichiren Shoshu. Theravada Buddhism is taught by the elder monks, and the goal (common among all versions) is to attain self-liberation-enlightenment. This is done by meditation and concentration via oneself. They believe heavily in the Five Precepts. A common belief among all western Buddhist societies is the idea of meditation.
Buddhism began first in India, and today exists all over the world in a variety of versions. The beliefs have become popular among all Western civilizations, who all believe meditation is a key piece in Buddhist practice. Those part of the Buddhist societies believe in peace, self-liberation, and enlightenment. They live according to the Buddha’s teachings. These ideas were seen heavily at the Blue Lotus Dharma Center in St. Louis, MO.
The Blue Lotus Dharma Center is one of many centers for Buddhist worship in the Saint Louis area. Although Buddhism may seem like merely a small part of religious life, only making up less than one percent of religious faiths in the Saint Louis metro area, its overall impact is profound (Wormald). Numerous temples, festivals, and associations within the city influence the community. A few of the temples include the Blue Lotus Dharma Center, Cherokee Buddhist Temple, Bo Kwang Zen Center, and the Dao Trang Vo Luong Quang Buddhist Temple. These temples offer a variety of classes, worship, and community gatherings for its members. In particular, the Blue Lotus Dharma Center offers classes for beginners. It is an inclusive community, welcoming all those from St. Louis to learn about Buddhism.
In addition to various temples in the area, the Wat Phrasriratanaram Buddhist Temple & Meditation Center hosts an annual festival with food, dance, music, and worship each year. It is called the Songkran Festival Thai New Year Celebration. This festival marks a very important day on the Buddhist calendar. This water festival is widely celebrated by many people, and is such a large event that the streets are often closed in some places to allow room for the celebration around the world.
The Mid-America Buddhist Association also has a large influence on Buddhist life in St. Louis, Missouri. This non-profit organization officially began in 1994 in Augusta, MO. Two Chinese monks took leadership of the Chinese Buddhist Retreat Center. One of these monks moved to a different monastery, but the other remained with the MABA. Under his direction, the association has greatly increased, including a need for dormitories and space for more visitors. This organization offers service, classes, and retreats for people new and experienced to Buddhism alike. Additionally, its goals include promotion of Buddhism, serving the community, providing educational programs, offers a peaceful environment for meditation, and supports the Buddhist community in its commitment to the Dharma, which is the Buddhist teaching (Mid-America Buddhist Association).
Overall, the impact of Buddhism in Saint Louis can be seen in all of the temples, festivals, and organizations throughout the area. This lively community is welcoming to both beginners and experienced Buddhists. The Blue Lotus Dharma Center in particular represents the energy from this growing religion in Saint Louis. Buddhism is relatively new to Saint Louis, but its community is growing rapidly with its welcoming members and various organizations.
Researched and written by Grace Herr, Jenna Callahan, Nivedita Biju, and Samantha Kang
"Buddhism: Basic Beliefs." URI. Accessed March 28, 2018. https://uri.org/kids/world-religions/buddhist-beliefs.
“Buddhism in the West.” The Buddhist World: Spread of Buddhism to the West, Buddha Dharma Education Association, LLC, 2008, www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/to-west.htm.
Humphreys, Christmas. Buddhism. Penguin Books, 1990.
Maguire, Jack. Essential Buddhism: a Complete Guide to Beliefs and Practices. Pocket, 2001.
“Mid-America Buddhist Association.” MABA, 2018, www.maba-usa.org/.
“Mission.” BLUE LOTUS DHARMA CENTER, www.bluelotusdharmacenter.org/mission.html.
“Religions - Buddhism: Tibetan Buddhism.” BBC, BBC, 14 Jan. 2004, www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/subdivisions/tibetan_1.shtml.
Renard, John. 101 Questions and Answers on Buddhism. Paulist Press, 1999.
Wormald, Benjamin. “Religious Landscape Study.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, 11 May 2015, www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/metro-area/st-louis-metro-area/.
According to the most recent Pew data, a majority of Americans identify as Christian. Most Americans also believe in God or a god. Because of this majority, some religions, particularly Buddhism, are overlooked. Although it is quite uncommon to hear to hear about Buddhists in the United States compared to Christians, Buddhism is very much alive. Buddhism had a late start in America, not arriving in large numbers until the late 1800s. More than 150 years later, however, many Americans have adopted this religion and even transformed it into their own. Local temples have arisen throughout the states, and the Blue Lotus Dharma Center is one such one in St. Louis.
Buddhism is a religion focused on the transforming of the entire person. Rather than focusing on God or on a higher being, Buddhism often emphasizes self-betterment. This is not to say that Buddhists do not believe in gods and goddesses, as many forms of Buddhism do emphasize devotions to deities. Rather, many forms of Buddhism also place a higher emphasis on the teachings of the Buddha than on worship. One of Buddhism main teachings is that of reincarnation, which is the idea that one will continue to experience rebirth until reaching the point of enlightenment (Williams).
Briefly, in order to reach enlightenment, one must obey the Four Noble Truths. The first Noble Truth is that suffering exists. This means humans will experience rebirth as long as they are seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The second Noble Truth locates the origin of suffering in desire. Suffering is inevitable, in other words, because humans are constantly trying to seek satisfaction through worldly desires. The third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering; this is the process of letting go of those worldly desires, which will lead to spiritual liberation. The fourth, and final, Noble Truth is the path to the cessation of suffering; this explains that one will be able to let go of worldly desires through wisdom, ethical conduct, and meditation (“The Four Noble Truths”).
Buddhism first arrived in the United States in the mid-1800s. The first Buddhist settlers came in from Asia for the gold rush, and it slowly grew from there. It took about a hundred years for the religion to start spreading across the country, but it was definitely still most prominent among the West Coast (“Buddhism in America Timeline”). Around 1965, with the changes in immigration laws, many more people of Asian descent started coming to America, and with these people, the Buddhist population grew (Williams). This population experienced another increase after the Vietnam War, just a few years later. By the mid-1980s, Buddhism in the United States grew by several hundred thousand (“Buddhism in America Timeline”). It has continued to grow into what it is today: a religion well-known across the entire country.
This move to the United States resulted in assimilation so that a lot of the original Buddhist traditions and beliefs have been transformed in the American context. In the early twenty-first century, there are two main types of Buddhism, one that consists of immigrant Asian traditions and one that is more Euro-American based. The former, which is more similar to the religion’s original practices, includes rituals such as dance, music, language, food, and often devotion to bodhisattvas. This "immigrant Buddhism" often focuses on issues of assimilation and diaspora, recruitment of monks, and establishing centers for community purposes. The latter is much more concerned with notions of self. There is an emphasis on meditation and zen, and it mostly involves solitary practice, often making it more difficult to form communities. This form of Buddhism is much more popular in the United States, although it departs from what is often considered "religious" Buddhist culture.
Since coming the United States, an assimilation of American culture has occurred in Buddhism. Rather than maintaining all of the traditions of Buddhism of Southeast Asia, American Buddhists have, over time, assimilated to American culture. This includes ridding of stricter, less convenient practices and enhancing the more appealing cultural aspects of Buddhism (Wilson). Although it is unfortunate that some of the foundations of this religion have been lost while coming to America, it is interesting to see the ways in which American culture continues to shape global religious traditions in new contexts.
Interview with Jesse Berg, a sermon assistant at Blue Lotus, a non-sectarian Buddhist temple, about the center's history and teachings. For the full interview, click here.
Q: How did your center get its start in St. Louis?
A: I’ve only been a member here for maybe three or four years, [but] it was started a long time ago. [About] fifteen or twenty years ago. Lama Chökyi Lodü was invited here from a group of students who were just practicing meditation, and they really wanted a teacher. So, they requested a teacher through Fo Guang Shan, a Buddhist organization. They sent Lama Chökyi here (at the time known as Sha'ul, his first name). He became a teacher to train them, and then stuck around after they wanted him to stay. He never really intended to come here, but he [ended up] here, and he stayed here for more than ten years. And then, a little over a year ago, he had to leave, for a lot of different reasons. My partner, Emily, and I along with a lot of other Sangha members took it upon ourselves to move our center to somewhere that was more affordable, because we could no longer pay rent. [Lama Chökyi’s] most ardent supporters and disciples moved with him to Minnesota, and we were kind of feeling left. [However], we made it work. We moved to a cheaper space, [the space we are at right now]. I love this space, and it’s a great little neighborhood right near my house. We set everything up ourselves and invited him to help us with that project, and now he is still our spiritual director but he [sic] Skypes in [every Sunday]. So now it’s actually a lot more community run since he’s not here as much. It’s kind of neat!
A SLU student's first visit to Blue Lotus.
On the days leading up to the Buddhist service at the Blue Lotus Dharma Center, my mind was constantly wondering what the service and even the service site would be like. Upon arriving, I immediately realized that the service was going to be something that I had never experienced before. Everyone attending the service removed their shoes at the door and then proceeded to take a seat. The seating itself was even unique; individuals sat on cushions that were scattered around the floor. In front of each cushion was a “little desk” and or a small table to keep your service sheet on throughout the service. The hour and a half service included prayers, chants, and a sermon from their leader who Skypes in every week to be with them in prayer. Instruments were given out to anyone that wanted one and each instrument made a special and specific noise. The instruments consisted of bells, shells, and even small drums. Throughout the service, whenever chants were being sung, instruments were being played in unison. The experience of attending a Buddhist service was a new one for me. It really opened my eyes to the other religious denominations of the world which is why from this point forward, I will always encourage anyone and everyone to attend a service that they are not used to. Being introduced to things, like the practice of Buddhism, that we aren’t used to in life is how we as individuals are able to broaden our knowledge within society today.
Researched and written by Anna Hackett, Aidan Latham, and Andrew Rettig
"Blue Lotus Dharma Center." Blue Lotus Dharma Center. Accessed October 17, 2017. http://www.bluelotusdharmacenter.org/.
Eck, Diana L. A New Religious America. HarperCollins World, 2002.
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. S.l.: Motilal Banarsidass, 2017.
Jesse Berg, interviewed by Aidan Latham, Blue Lotus Dharma Center, November 5th 2017, quotes and transcripts.
Williams, Peter W. America's Religions : From Their Origins to the Twenty-first Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Wilson, Jeff. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 2012.