James Pollard knows very well the value of having a Buddhist education program at a BCA temple or church. He was first drawn to the Dharma teachings through a class taught by Rev. Marvin Harada entitled “Buddhist Views of Life and Death.”
Pollard’s Nembutsu path involved “reading and listening very carefully” and he became the chairperson of the Orange County Buddhist Church’s Buddhist Education Center and OCBC’s Religious Program Vice President. He also wrote an acclaimed book on Shin Buddhism titled, “Let This Be Known: Finding the Shin Buddhist Path.”
Pollard spoke at a recent BCA Town Hall on “Membership and Messaging” at the National Council Meeting. He talked about the need to have a Buddhist education program as a way to increase membership and appreciation of the Dharma by longtime Sangha members.
The Town Hall included a variety of speakers addressing ways to grow a Sangha, including: having a strategy and vision; how to “message” Shin Buddhism; using the digital medium of a website, YouTube and social media such as Instagram; meditation and mindfulness as starting points for newcomers; forming a Dharma recovery group to deal with addictions; and cultivating a warm and welcoming Sangha.
Buddhist education’s value
Pollard emphasized two key points regarding Buddhist education:
Buddhist education, “if it is to help build membership, cannot be for newcomers only. It requires the active participation of current members.”
Publications can build awareness of Shin Buddhism beyond the current membership.
Pollard described OCBC’s Buddhist Education Center before the pandemic, saying that evening classes were successful for 15 years and inspired him and his wife, OCBC MA Janis Hirohama, to become temple members in 2006. The evening classes have since closed.
Since the pandemic’s onset in 2020, the BEC has shifted to Zoom sessions and YouTube classes, which Pollard said have attracted a greater number of participants – mainly from other BCA temples instead of newcomers.
Weekly adult studies after the Sunday service remained popular and saw continued growth right up until the pandemic. A hybrid Zoom format allowed it to continue, but now with the temple reopening, the in-person audience has grown.
“Online classes and seminars can build individual understanding, but I feel that we still need in-person Buddhist education for promoting temple membership,” Pollard said.
Before the pandemic, OCBC’s Buddhist Education Center had books on Buddhism available at Sunday adult study classes or at festivals. The BEC has shifted to making electronic versions of the books – ebooks – available for purchase as Amazon Kindle ebooks or as print on demand paperbacks.
“Mass marketed books on Buddhism, with a few notable exceptions, represent what Shinran calls ‘the various teachings of the path of sages,’” Pollard said. “Shinran’s Buddhism is seldom represented. Books describing BCA temple life are even rarer.”
Pollard said that books published by the BEC are unlikely ever to enter the mass market, but “at least we can now make them readily available for online purchase by anybody.”
DeeDee Just, a licensed marriage and family therapist who helps lead the Dharma recovery program at Vista, recently spoke at a CBE event on drug and alcohol addiction and Dharma recovery. Her presentation is available on the CBE’s YouTube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ll6T9c7tHj4
When Just was 30, and the mother of two children under the age of 4, a psychiatrist prescribed painkillers to help her deal with migraine headaches that she had suffered from since the age of 8 as a result of a concussion.
“I found that the pill seemed to help with a lot more than just headaches,” she said. “I came to believe that my entire personality and likeability depended on them. According to the prescription, I was to take two (tablets) every four hours for pain. So being a really good rule follower, I took two every four hours – every day – for the next 16 years.
“The drugs didn’t put me to sleep in the real sense, but I was sleepwalking through my life. I had no idea what mindfulness was, and had no idea that I wasn’t really awake. It never once occurred to me that I was addicted. I was a poster child for delusion and craving – and I didn’t let myself know it.”
At the age of 46, with her daughter’s intervention, Just spent five weeks at an inpatient treatment center.
“I was relieved when it was over and happy to get back to my life,” she said. “What I didn’t know was getting clean and sober is only the beginning. Recovery, staying clean and sober, is the hard part. So, for the last 33 years, I have leaned into recovery.”
Just credited much of her success of “staying clean and sober for all these years” to the recovery community, and wanted to help others in recovery. So, at the age of 60, she decided to return to school for a degree in psychology.
A few years later, Just discovered her love of taiko – which, in turn, led her to the Vista Buddhist Temple.
“And through Buddhism, I learned about a different way of life, or rather, a different way of thinking about life,” Just said.
Five years ago, Rev. Marvin Harada raised the idea of a Buddhist recovery meeting at Vista and Just became interested. She eventually became the leader of the Dharma recovery group.
In a typical recovery session, the group follows the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, discusses what they mean and how they can apply them to individual recovery. The group then meditates for five minutes, after which the leader shares their thoughts on the passage the group is studying that week. A minister, OCBC’s Resident Minister Rev. Jon Turner, is in attendance with also a Minister’s Assistant.
Everyone is invited to speak, without interruption and with full confidentiality. The minister speaks at the end of the session, helping the group see things “through a Buddhist lens,” Just said.
Since the pandemic, Vista has merged with the recovery group at OCBC and holds Zoom sessions – and has attracted people from Riverside, Sacramento, Los Angeles, as well as from the states of Colorado and Washington. When Vista resumes in-person services, the group will move to a hybrid format to keep its new participants.
“Introducing a recovery meeting into a Shin Buddhist temple is not easy,” she said. “As we know, there is still a great deal of stigma surrounding people who have been caught in addiction. And I have heard comments from Sangha members that recovery meetings are dirty and if you go to them – ‘You’re one of those.’
“I’ve also learned about the cultural tradition of not sharing one’s burdens with others. In that context, I can understand how asking for help, or even acknowledging that one needs help would be extremely difficult. I can only say that those of us who have reaped the benefits of recovery communities want anyone who’s suffering to not suffer alone. We can help and we very much want to.”
Just added: “The purpose of recovery is to learn to live life on its terms, to become comfortable with discomfort, to remember that our craving for escape for pleasure, for avoidance, keeps us from seeing ourselves as we really are. Rev. Harada tells us that Buddhism is everywhere. It is not only recognized in the source of our addictions, but in our recovery from them. That’s what trauma recovery is about. It has helped me with self-awareness and self-examination.”
Warm, inviting Sangha
“All the presentations that you’ve heard so far is how to get people to your temple,” said BCA President Terri Omori, the last of the Town Hall speakers. “Once you get people through your temple doors, you have to take that extra step in welcoming your guests and you have to make them feel comfortable. The key word is ‘comfortable.’” (See February Wheel of Dharma, “Vista Is Singled Out for Its Membership Growth.”)
She urged Sangha members to explain what the service is about to newcomers, and to explain things longtime members may take for granted – such as the white envelope for donations that included in the monthly temple and church newsletters. She also urged Sangha members to answer phone calls and emails. “When you’re answering, just take the time to welcome them and invite them to your services,” she said.
Bishop Rev. Harada concluded the Town Hall by encouraging the Sangha to be proactive in addressing the membership issue.
“We have to try something, right? …. I know we can grow our membership. I know we can do this. It’s not a steady decline that we face. Is it up to us really. It’s up to our resolve. It’s up to our commitment.
“If we feel something about the Dharma, if we feel something of deep value of the teaching, then we have a responsibility to do our part to share the teachings with others. That is our test, to truly move the Dharma forward to future generations and to those who have yet to encounter the Shin Buddhist teachings.”