"People are Karma-producing machines. That is all we do and all we have ever been doing," said Jeff Goin, a resident teacher at Vajrarupini Buddhist Center. Karma is the belief that for every action there are effects that occur because of this action. Twenty-five students listened to Goin teach the introductory class, Advice for a Happy Life , based on the teachings of Atisha, a spiritual guide from India. Goin taught on contentment, the third class of a six-part series. "Contentment is happy acceptance of any circumstance we are experiencing. We all want to feel good, to have happiness and contentment. Often we think, 'I'm a good person. I don't kick puppies. Why do bad things happen to me?' It is because of Karma." Goin said once the students understand Karma, they can understand how the world works and become content. "Karma is built up over multiple lifetimes as you make decisions and later feel the effect of these previous actions. What happens to us is the result of these countless lives before us. Often thousands of years can pass before we will feel the effects of our previous actions. Here lies the key to contentment. If the things you desire do not come, it is due to Karma a long time ago. So keep a happy and relaxed mind. If we are unhappy about someone who is yelling at us, we might as well be unhappy at the tide of the ocean. If we are mad that someone swindled us, we might as well be mad at clouds that bring rain. If you experience praise or blame, if you are poor or have abundant resources, you can be content knowing, I just created the Karma to experience this."
Goin ended his instruction with four reasons to be happy. "First, we understand the laws of Karma. What we are experiencing is simply the ripening of our Karma. Second, all we can do is set our intention and do our best. Third, if we experience some suffering, we are in a large universe, a little mental pain will not kill us. Fourth, when we learn to accept difficult circumstances patiently, the real problem disappears. It is through these techniques we develop contentment."
In addition to the teaching, the class included meditation and a song of praise to Buddha Shakyamuhi. The song praised Shakyamuhi for being a guide to the liberating path and whose mind is refuge for all human beings. Goin led the meditation, "Visualize all your negative energy and thoughts as black smoke and breathe it out." After several minutes, the group was told to breathe in good energy and visualize it as white light. "Become the white light and expand into nothingness. Our true nature is Buddha nature, constantly in a state of bliss. We need to eradicate a sense of self. The mind is not obstructed by time and space."
After the class, people gathered into a room around Bit-O-Honey candies, fruit, cookies, cheese, crackers, and Trader Joe's fruit juices. "Essentially, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are the same teaching," said Sonja Hanson, a student at the center. "For any spiritual path to be valid, it must be about peace, understanding, and compassion. Often, people read the Bible to justify biases." Hanson cited intolerance toward homosexuals as an example of a bias people justify with the Bible. Hanson added that homosexuality was not always encouraged in eastern Buddhism.
"[America] is going through growing pains. Our community Karma is suffering. We need to grow out of the consumeristic materialism. These things lead to depression," said Lamchen, one of thee three nuns who live at the center. "Deep inside, each of us knows something is missing. We've looked to jobs, churches, our president, or even food. We are never satisfied. We are coming to a point of recognizing that this isn't working. What is missing culturally is looking beyond. We need to look inside our minds and recognize happiness can't be bought. [What we buy] only offers temporary happiness but lasting contentment is only found in our hearts and minds."
"The Vajrarupini Buddhist Center was founded by Geshe Kelsang. He understood that Western lifestyles and values are different than the people of the East," said Jeff Goin. "People in the West aren't as familiar with Buddhist teachings." Kelsang removed a lot of the rituals, chanted prayers, and bowing before images of Buddha. It is these changes that Goin believes makes Buddhism accessible to Americans. "I've heard from a number of people that Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in the United States and England," said Goin. "The more involved you become in Buddhism the more you get into the prostrations [bowing] and chanted prayers."
I asked Goin, what Buddhism teaches about life after death. "Karma plays a big role in everything in our life as well as our death. The last moment of thought is the substantial cause to the first thought in our next life. If our last thought was one of happiness and peace we will have a fortunate next life. If it was unhappy or disturbed, our next life will be less fortunate."
3344 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill
Founded locally: 1995
Spiritual director: Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
Center size: 150
Staff size: 3
Sunday school enrollment: N/A
Annual budget: $150,000
Weekly giving: don't know
Singles program: no
Dress: causal to robes
Weekly classes: Wednesday, 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1-1/4 hours