In case you’re wondering how I celebrated Memorial Day, I can tell you, unlikely as it may seem, that I tied it in with Buddha’s birthday.
Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on different days of the lunar calendar, depending on country and culture, but the Chinese Buddhists who have set up shop in Amsterdam celebrated it yesterday, the eighth day of the fifth lunar month, which just happened to coincide with our Memorial Day, and they graciously invited me to join them. I figured I couldn’t very well refuse, seeing how hospitable they have been to me in the past.
The festivities were held in their Five Buddhas Temple, formerly St. Casimir’s Church, a Lithuanian Catholic redoubt on East Main Street, and it was great fun for an ecumenist like me to see how the two great traditions have blended, specifically to see a statue of the infant Buddha getting a ceremonial sousing of flower-petal-water under a stained-glass window depicting Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior.
I took photographs of this ritual, which you can view by clicking on the photo at left.
Besides that ritual, there was a brief sermon from Holy Ziguang Shang Shi, known to his followers as Holy Master and to secularists as Lucas Wang, and he managed to sound impish as he always does even as he propounded his own ecumenical philosophy, in which “all religions are helping people, are bringing peace and unification.”
He made the connection with Memorial Day, saying (through an interpreter) of those veterans who have managed to come home, “We wish them a good retirement for their service to their country,” and of those who did not make it back, “To release their souls, we’ll pray for them. Hopefully they will go to another life and come back to the human world,” whereupon his followers chanted a prayer.
The rest of the celebration consisted of well-practiced songs and dances and Tai Chi demonstrations, done in colorful costumes, up in the main sanctuary, again under the gaze of stained-glass saints and Jesuses.
I estimated maybe 60 people in attendance, of whom perhaps 15 or 20 were non-Chinese.
One of these was Ken Dingee, age 59, of Esperance, a self-employed carpenter and contractor, who accepted an invitation to come up front and “share,” which was extended in the spirit of intercultural appreciation: We’ll show you our stuff, you show us yours.
Ken, who told me later he was “sort of a Tea Party Buddhist,” sang a wildly out-of-tune version of “You Are My Sunshine” and got a nice round of applause for it.
Another was Joshua Rosenstein, age 25, of Clifton Park, who did not sing but rather gave a talk about the strength and confidence he has gained from Buddhism and ended with a deep bow to “the Buddha’s representative here today, Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi,” who seemed to take the tribute as nothing more than his due.
Joshua told me later that before connecting with the Buddhists two years ago he spent much of his time playing military video games and since connecting with them, and even living in their Auriesville retreat with them, he has joined the Marine Reserves.
I said I thought that was an odd combination. He said other people say the same, but in fact, “The military is the foundation for Buddhism. You can’t meditate if people are destroying your country.”
He said the military provides the peace, self-confidence and discipline necessary for the practice of Buddhism, and since combining the two he has “more energy, more strength.”
He is now in training to be a monk.
Jennie Wong, who serves as spokeswoman for the Buddhists and with whom I share a Hong Kong connection, demonstrated her own versatility by dancing a Western ballet pas de deux with a shaved-headed nun, and I don’t think you can get more intercultural than that, especially when you factor in the golden Buddha statues for backdrop and the Jesus-windows for oversight.
The Chinese Buddhist presence in Amsterdam remains something of an enigma to me. They came about six years ago, bought the former Jesuit retreat house in Auriesville for a residence and bought other properties ranging from tax-delinquent houses to a former elementary school to the 200-acre former Adirondack Center in Ephratah.
They, or at least the Holy Master, talked of developing a “World City of Health and Peace” and showed drawings of it done in classical Chinese style, and nobody knew why or how or where the money for these undertakings came from.
Holy Master spoke only of “investors,” with no details. He said he had been guided to Amsterdam by Jesus, who spoke to him in a dream about a snow-covered mountain.
It’s not my business, I’m just mildly puzzled. The members of the group that I have met are uniformly friendly and polite. They offer meditation classes and other introductions to their variety of Buddhism, and these seem to appeal to a certain number of natives, who, I note, are not your garden-variety, hip California Buddhists but rather ordinary workaday folks, and sometimes not quite workaday, who have certain deficiencies in their lives that they have told me about and who find new meaning or strength in the practice of meditation at the feet of this Holy Master, a Holy Master who is not without his charm.
I don’t necessarily understand, but I enjoy the pageantry of their ceremonies, I enjoy their friendliness, and I wish them all the best. I especially enjoyed this out-of-the-ordinary way to spend Memorial Day.