Creating a Potluck Buddhist Community

Speaker: Venerable Jue Ji

Director of Xiang Yun Temple, Austin, Texas, U.S.A

I. Introduction

Have you ever attended a potluck party?  Most of us have.  Do you like it?  Like it or not, it is the culture here in the States, and popular among the religious communities.  Before I arrived at this country, I heard that the United States is sometimes described as a “melting pot.”  It means that different cultures have contributed their own distinct “flavors” to American culture.

And when I google “melting pot” in Wikipedia, it reads:

The melting pot is a monocultural metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements “melting together” with a common culture; an alternative being a homogeneous society becoming more heterogeneous through the influx of foreign elements with different cultural backgrounds, possessing the potential to create disharmony within the previous culture. It can also create a harmonious hybridized society known as cultural amalgamation. Historically, it is often used to describe the cultural integration of immigrants to the United States.

The melting-together metaphor was in use by the 1780s. The exact term “melting pot” came into general usage in the United States after it was used as a metaphor describing a fusion of nationalities, cultures and ethnicities in 1908.

The melting pot model has been rejected by proponents of multiculturalism, who have suggested alternative metaphors to describe the current American society, such as a salad bowl or kaleidoscope, in which different cultures mix, but remain distinct in some aspects.

II. America, the People’s Potluck

In a recent interfaith event that I attended here in Austin, a guess speaker, Dr. Eboo Patel, suggested that America, the People’s Potluck.  Here is the definition of potluck that I googled:   

A potluck meal is very popular in a communal gathering where each guest/group contributes a different, often homemade, dish of food to be shared.  Potluck dinners are often organized by religious or community groups, since they simplify the meal planning and distribute the costs among the participants. 

As a Buddhist in the United States, and based on what I have experienced in this country since 2008, I would say that potluck America is more appropriate to describe the religious faith communities.  In Austin, Texas where I live now, different religious faiths co-exist harmoniously.  At my temple, Fo Guang Shan Xiang Yun Temple, I welcome visitors coming from various ethnic and religious backgrounds every day.  Even visitors of the same family, they tell me that they have different religious faiths and they still live harmoniously under the same roof.  Most visitors, and they are very new to Buddhism, show their interest in learning and understanding Buddhist faith and practice. 

Here are some examples:

Indian visitors would worship the Buddha immediately entering the main shrine and they would tell me, that the Buddha was born in India.  Even though they believe in Hinduism, still they respect the Buddha and feel at home by sitting on the kneeler and meditating with cross legs.

Another example is a Catholic lady who has been volunteering at the temple on weekly basis for years.  She says Buddhist teaching is very good and she finds no conflict in following the teachings in these two religions. 

At the temple, there is weekly English Dharma Service which attracts about 25-30 participants every week.  These people are mostly new to Buddhism and are eager to learn Buddhism.  Of course, many of them come from Christian backgrounds and tend to find equivalent interpretations between Christian teachings and that of Buddhism.   It is through comparison that these newbies find access to a scavenge of the Buddha Dharma.   

Starting from this year, I serve on the Board of Directors of Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT).  Religious leaders of various faiths are working together to serve the local community, disregarding our religious or ethnic backgrounds.  In the hope of working together for the benefit of all people, we religious leaders make efforts to work on projects to extend our hands for the wellbeing of others.  We help refuges to build houses, learn English, merge into this new homeland.  We facilitate people to visit various religious sites in hope to establishing mutual respect of other religions.  As a Fo Guang Buddhist, I am very proud to claim that Venerable Master Hsing Yun is indeed a master of vision.  He has pointed out that we should coexist and work together in oneness.  In working together with other religious leaders, I feel that establishing a pure land right here-and-now is possible by outreaching to people selflessly with like-minded people.  And this iACT BOD is really, a “potluck” team!  There are people of various religious backgrounds, yet we share and contribute our unique attributes to enrich the content of this think tank, in order to present a strong cohesion of a team work. 

The beauty of this “potluck America” can be found in the Buddhist circle.     

I have invited Buddhist monastic from different Buddhist traditions of various countries to pray for the wellbeing of the people at my temple.  We exchange opinions about the Buddha’s teaching and share experiences of administrating our own Buddhist communities.  I found oneness and coexistence in our sharing.  And that sharing enables us to outreach a greater community that we have never expected before!

III. Oneness and Coexistence

In an article that Venerable Master Hsing Yun wrote about Dharma Gate of Non-duality, he says that:

“…the minds of ordinary beings often discriminate, but the minds of Chan practitioners do not differentiate between what is pure and filthy.  The minds of truly awakened Chan masters, who are certain about their realization of the path, do not discriminate between dualities—such as, right and wrong, existence and nonexistence, or good and evil.  To them, everything is one.  Such people have truly realized the non-duality of the Dharma.  By applying the philosophy of non-duality in life, interpersonal unity and non-dualism can be achieved.”

In non-duality, everything is one.  This is the principle.  But in phenomena, there are people of various characteristics.  The diverse phenomena make this world colorful, full of energy and possibilities.  People of different religious and ethnic backgrounds gather together can generate a stream of new energy and may create some unprecedented mode of living in this hi-tech 21st century society. 

I see that energy burgeoning in my temple, among my Buddhist community, with my outreach connections, etc.  Suddenly I have a new level of realizing what Venerable Master Hsing Yun says, Oneness and Coexistence.  I think that in principle there is the oneness of all human beings.  However, all human beings have their own attributes which are the uniqueness of the representation of their cultures, religions, faiths, etc.  All of us have contributed to this diversity of energy flow, more or less.  We adjust ourselves to integrate ourselves into this stream of energy flow. Yet, we value our contribution to this kaleidoscope of human world.  We practice to co-exist with one another.  That coexistence attests the reality of our everyday life experience. 

If you bring a potluck dish to my temple, my community members would start a conversation with you, “What is this dish called?”, “How do you make it?”, “Where do you come from?”, “How do you get to our temple?”, “Would you join our study group?”, etc.  A potluck dish brings in people to join us, co-exist with us, and become ONE with us.   In fact, each and every one of our temple community is like a potluck dish.  The more variety of the potluck dish there are, the more people can choose and enjoy their favorite dishes.  How disappointed it would be when you attend a potluck party and find that everyone brings the same food to the party!  That may kill your appetite before you try any dish at all! 

In a potluck party, we enjoy variety of dishes.  That variety of potluck dishes in return unites us as one.   Applying this to our religious community, the diverse people attend our Dharma Service, that diverse participants would gradually agglomerate and strengthen this community.  So, we should be open minded in welcome people to our temple, attend our services, join our activities, etc.  The temple is a school for learning and growing together in spirituality.  Wouldn’t it be nice to welcome a flexible proceeding of Dharma Service, encourage variety of formats in Dharma teaching, invite diverse Dharma speakers to present different perspectives in understanding the Buddha’s teaching?  A potluck spirit is sharing.  The spirit of sharing comes from our Sakymuni Buddha.  Without the spirit of sharing, we won’t be able to know the truth that he has discovered and shared with us 2500 years ago.