Before I regale you with wild tales of my exciting adventures in temples in Japan, China, the Philippines and beyond, and before I share with you my personal understanding of the Buddha's teachings...
I'd like to answer the musical question, "Who the <BLEEP> is the Temple Guy?" (Spoiler alert: It's me!)
I'll also tell you how I came to be the Temple Guy, and why three or maybe even four people worldwide recognize me as such!
So read on for all the gory details in this prequel episode of TEMPLE TALES!
I WAS BORN...
Now, you may have heard people say, "I was born a Methodist," or "I was born a Southun Baptist," or "I was born a Zoroastrian."
Well, unlike those good folks, I was born a baby!
It's true! We're all born as blank slates, religion-wise. It's only after someone teaches us something that we become a Methodist, a Baptist, or a Zoroastrian.
In my case, I became an Episcopalian. I was baptized, confirmed, and married (the first time) Episcopalian. I went to Episcopal seminary, was principal of an Episcopal elementary school, and taught in an Episcopal prep school. I was on staff at three different Episcopal churches, preached monthly on Sunday mornings for a year, and taught the Lenten series. As a boy, I was an acolyte (altar boy) and as a man, I was a lay reader and took communion to shut-ins. I also conducted services like Morning and Evening Prayer.
In short, I went about as far in the Episcopal Church as one can go without being ordained.
James: The Episcopal Years
Then, the <BLEEP> hit the fan (such language!). I got divorced. I was not re-hired to teach at my last school. I left the church, and I went on:
With friends in Taos Pueblo
Off I went--physically, at first, to the Great American Southwest. I looked into Native American spirituality, and the syncretic Catholic practices common there, like the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Non-Anglo Catholicism brought me to Islam.
(Did you know? After nearly eight centuries, the Moors--that is, Muslims who had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from Mauritania in north Africa--were kicked out of Spain IN? 1492. The year Columbus crossed the ocean.)
So, I got interested in Islam. This led me east all the way to India (in my reading and studying, not physically), where I got interested in Hinduism. That led to Buddhism, which took me to China and Confucianism and the philosophical form of Daoism (eventually, in person). But then--perhaps inexplicably--I backed up, to Buddhism. After all, there's not much to study and do in the latter two; they're barely "religions" at all. But Buddhism? HOO BOY! List after list to memorize!
So I landed on Buddhism.
Let me clear one thing up: I am not a Buddhist. WHAT?! Nope. That would involve joining an organization, which I have never done. As you'll see, my Buddhist Bona Fides are pretty good, but still, I'm no Buddhist. Though I do have a card that says I'm one... a story for another time…
MY BUDDHIST BONA FIDES
Starting out on my Japan Pilgrimage
After several years of studying Buddhism on my own, I moved to Japan in 1997, ostensibly to teach English. But while I was there, I dug deeper into the country's Buddhist culture. From 1999 to 2001, on holidays and long weekends, I visited 66 temples that made up two pilgrimages: 33 in the west, and 33 in the east. These were dedicated to Kannon, in Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Then, in late July of 2001, over two weekends totaling five days, I walked the 60 miles of the Chichibu Kannon 34 temple circuit.
Okay, you mathematicians, check my work: 33 + 33 + 34 equals 100, right? So this was the Nihon Hyakku Kannon, the one hundred Avalokiteshvara temples of Japan.
A few weeks after that, in September of 2001, I set off down a 400-year-old highway that once connected the Shogun in Edo (now Tokyo) to the Emperor in Kyoto (now… Kyoto). That walk, about 320 miles entirely on foot, took me around 35 days. After hanging out for a few days in the oldest settled part of Japan--Nara and Asuka--I took a boat over to Shikoku Island, where on foot and by public transport, I visited 88 temples dedicated to Kukai, also called Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism. This took exactly a month.
IT'S CHINA, JIM
Me 'n' My Monks
After that, my wanderlust satiated for the time being, I returned to the states, where I completed the coursework for a PhD in Buddhism (but not the dissertation).
Then off to China, again to teach.
Alas, China has no handy-dandy ready-made pilgrimage routes to follow--so I thought I would have to make my own.
But I read a book, Sun Shuyun's Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud, that made casual mention of a list created by the Chinese government in 1983. The list named 142 temples that were to be restored and promoted after the devastation wrought by the decade-long Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
At the time I found this list--in 2009--there was no information about it available in English.
All over China
Anyway, over the next 3 years, until 2012, I visited 132 of the 142 temples on the list, and over a hundred other sites as well. I have traveled a LOT in China.
While there, I also:
led lots of discussions and presented classes;
lived in a temple where I taught monks for a year;
wrote volumes, especially for the travel pages of the "local paper," the Shenzhen Daily (for which I still write three times a week--but not about temples)
contributed to a few magazines, and published tons of tempular stuff online.
So that's it. That's what gives me the nerve to call myself the Temple Guy.
What do YOU think?
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In the next episode: Learn all about (well, not ALL about) Chinese New Year and its customs.