Seeking enlightenment in Reno
A look inside the Reno Buddhist Church
Christmas and Hanukkah aren’t the only major religious holidays in December. Millions of Buddhists around the world celebrate Enlightenment Day, too. That’s the day, Dec. 8, that Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, beginning 2,500 years of evolution in Buddhism.
In Sanskrit, Buddha means “to wake up.”
“Anyone who wishes to find answers to the questions about our pain-filled life may be awakened by the wisdom of Buddhism,” says Rev. Dr. Daigan Lee Matsunaga.
With his wife, Rev. Dr. Alicia Matsunaga, he founded the Reno Buddhist Church (RBC), 13 years ago. The Reno church practices Pure Land Buddhism, the largest denomination in the world. The first service had three people and two dogs in attendance. These days, an average Sunday service hosts 75 people,
Through the wooden doors
Three older gentlemen in long black robes, the assistant priests, greet folks walking through the wooden doors at RBC. Nobody enters without notice. Warm smiles and pats on the back are distributed graciously.
Inside the church are views familiar to church-goers—rows of wooden pews and an old piano. The big-screen TV sitting up front on the right side of the aisle stands out. Candles and incense burn, a painting of Buddha and a portrait photograph of Rev. Alicia Matsunaga, who died of cancer in 1998, hang on the eastern wall.
Service begins with three homages: one each to Buddha (Enlightened One), Dharma (Teaching) and Sangha (Community). These are the three treasures of Pure Land Buddhism.
Voices blend as people read chant books from back to front in classical Chinese, mindful that each syllable conveys great meaning as they follow along.
“Chanting melody composed and preserved for centuries has special spiritual power,” says Rev. Matsunaga.
The assistant priests continue chanting while those in attendance offer incense, a communal ritual dating back 2,000 years. Two lines form down the center aisle. In turn, each person offers two pinches of incense. First-timers get assistance to offer incense.
A member of the congregation reads from the Dhammapada, or Buddhist Canon, which contains 423 verses written by Buddha. This is followed by a few moments of meditation, while soothing music by Kitaro plays.
RBC is an all-volunteer church, from helping with incense offerings to telling stories to children during tea and sweets after services to gathering warm clothes for the homeless. Community and service mean practicing compassion and giving generously, but collection plates are never passed during services.
Although he travels between the United States and Japan several times a year, Rev. Matsunaga’s sermons are always in person, thanks to modern technology. Closed-circuit TV and satellite feeds allow both sides to see and hear one another. The Internet ensures he’s “only a click away” from people in Reno or Tokyo. At the RBC Web site, people can click-a-sermon anytime.
Matsunaga keeps folks on the verge of laughter. During a sermon, with a broad smile and arms raised, he enthusiastically says of happiness, “This is it!” Having been born and raised in Japan, he maintains a bit of his Japanese accent. He’s a temple master and director of the International Study Center in Tokyo, where English Buddhist books are translated and published.
Rev. Bill Bartlett, an assistant priest and education coordinator at RBC, describes Matsunaga as “a wonderful working of karma.”
Bartlett’s been practicing Buddhism for 20 years. In 1996, while teaching a course at Western Nevada Community College, he called RBC to ask a reverend to speak to his class. He spoke with Alicia Matsunaga. She told him of her teachings of Buddhism and Oriental Culture at UCLA, theological training in Japan and the seed of Pure Land Buddhism she planted with her husband in Reno. Then she asked, “Will I do?”
Bartlett liked her so much that he reciprocated by attending services regularly.
“You can never predict where you’ll be in 20 years,” Bartlett says, reflecting on his move from practicing a do-it-yourself Buddhist path, which once included 16 hours of meditation for 10 consecutive days, to Pure Land Buddhism. During those years, his dark hair turned salt and pepper, and he “recognized we don’t see all, so we must be more compassionate.”
He says selecting Buddhism doesn’t mean giving up previous religious teachings “if those teachings reveal the true self.” Bartlett says Pure Land Buddhism moves along a middle path “with recognition of obligation toward others,” where all people are part of nature.
“Buddha’s as much Western as Eastern,” says Bartlett. This sense of interdependence led him to Tokyo in 2003 for priest ordination.
Many who became members of RBC stumbled upon it while driving down Plumas Street. Two of its assistant priests found it in a similar manner.
Rev. Phil Bryan, another assistant priest, has been practicing Buddhism for most of his adult life, moving from Zen practices to Pure Land.
“Buddhism made sense to me,” he says.
Bryan was driving by the church one day and stopped to check it out. Assistant priests Bartlett and Phil Hurd welcomed him at the door.
“I found them so cordial and nice that I returned again and again,” says Bryan, who, at one point, left his position as general manager of the Peppermill Hotel Casino to enter a monastery. Eighteen months ago, Bryan traveled to Japan, returning as RBC’s third assistant priest and the meditation coordinator.
“Meditation is for enjoyment, respite and to develop the true self through the factors of awaking,” Bryan says. “The purpose of meditation is to achieve a self-defined sense of calmness in an ever increasingly turbulent and stressful world.” Meditation is an essential practice for all those seeking enlightenment, known as Bodhisattvas.
“No Buddhist would claim to be enlightened,” says Bryan. Enlightenment is a journey; Buddhism is a path. He describes enlightenment as “falling in love for the first time,” an understanding that’s difficult to maintain but worth striving toward.
Rev. Hurd is more than 6 feet tall, but his gentle nature stands out. Driving down Plumas Street 12 years ago, he saw a sign and walked inside RBC. He was looking for a sense of community, and, although raised Catholic, he discovered he was a Buddhist. He says he found RBC full of enthusiasm but also humility.
“The whole thing with Buddhism is not to isolate,” Hurd says in a soft voice full of conviction. “We need to serve.”
Hurd says he’s “reaching out to others, not to convert but to make life sweet and easier.” He also repairs doors, changes light bulbs and fixes whatever needs fixing as the church manager. Hurd became a priest three years ago at Rev. Matsunaga’s suggestion.
“My goal is to welcome Buddhism to the country,” Hurd says. “Dr. Matsunaga makes an effort to not go for the exotic or foreignness of rituals. It’s an American Buddhist Church.”
Concluding each service, everybody sings along with a Debbie Reynolds recording of “Home in the Meadow” from the 1962 movie How the West was Won. It seems an odd selection for a Buddhist church.
“RBC is in the American West with a pioneer legacy,” Rev. Matsunaga says of the church theme song. It matches the pioneering spirits bringing Buddhism to the West.