This is the story about a lady who I met when I used to help at a temple in Chiba prefecture, Japan. The lady was originally from Tokyo, but she moved to Chiba to live with her daughter’s family because she was getting older.
Walking around her neighborhood, she happened to pass by the temple on her walk and we got to know each other when I was sweeping the garden of the temple. She would visit the temple and we enjoyed chatting.
One day, I asked her why she started visiting the temple. And she said, “I thought here was a safe place to allow me to waste my time. So that’s why I like it here and it’s a very relaxing place.”
The word ”waste” normally gives us some negative image, but I was happy to hear her honest feelings because I thought that the time at the temple might have energized her and given her peace of mind.
Have you heard of “the third place theory” by Ray Oldenburg, who is an American urban sociologist?
What Oldenburg showed is that “the third place” is the social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home (“the first place”) and the workplace (“the second place”). Examples of “the third place” would be environments such as cafes, clubs, public libraries, bookstores, parks and churches.
Both “first and second” places are where we put ourselves in with a certain purpose, and people are required to have a "role." At home, the roles are "husband/wife" and "parent/child." At work and school, the roles are "professionals" and "students." The role stabilizes the person. But on the other hand, the “role” sometimes limits and binds people.
As many of us might have experienced for the past few years because of the pandemic, what happened was that the workplace, “the second place,” came into the home, “the first place,” because of the shelter-in-place order. Many public places such as schools, restaurants and cafés were closed, and many of our churches remain closed.
This was really tough for everybody, but we couldn’t help doing this to protect ourselves from the invisible virus. Those many places are gradually opening.
Up until now, many people used to work from home, take care of their children at home and everyone was at home. The border line of “the first place” and “the second place” was disappearing in our daily lives because we always had to stay at home. I believe that this might have made people feel more stressful after the short time of this pandemic.
Oldenburg showed us that especially modern people need “the third place,” which frees us from the fatigue which we confront and the roles which we play at home or in society. It is “a place where you can be yourself.”
According to Oldenburg, “the third place” is an unpretentious place where economic and social status does not matter, and there are no prerequisites for participation. Without a social hierarchy, a sense of commonality thrives among its people.
I think this is exactly "a safe place to allow us to waste our time" that the lady talked about.
I believe that our churches can be our firm “third place” in our lives because we are hearing Amida’s Wisdom and compassion of always “come just as you are” in them.
We constantly pose the questions to ourselves like “What do I do this for?” “What is the point in doing that at work?” and “What’s in it for me?”
So, it’s become a habit to seek the meaning about anything in our daily lives. In our world, we would rather tend to value “doing” something than “being” there because we all live in the world of comparison and efficiency.
We human beings want to have the value of our existence acknowledged by others through our jobs, our responsibilities, and our positions which we have. Hearing Buddhism is to have “the third place” in our lives as we are and also to have the different perspectives, which leads us to awaken from our limited perspectives.
Whoever you are, whatever your position is, and no matter how old you are, the essence of Buddhism opens our hearts to the equality of the quality of each life and allows us to be ourselves here and now. Churches and Buddhism give us the sense of “the third place” in our lives.
Although we can’t get together in our church physically because of this pandemic, we can share the sense of “the third place” through the services and hearing the Buddha-Dharma with everyone even if it is virtually.
It is not only limited to a certain place, but wherever we recite and hear Nembutsu NamoAmidaButsu, our reassuring place or our “third place” as it is here and now.