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Worship and the Interreligious Family

By Margaret Ellsworth


About a month ago, just like every Sunday, I slipped into the worship space just before 10 am, bowed before the altar, and found a seat in the back row. I leafed through the service bulletin to take a look at what songs we’d be singing that morning. And after a few brief announcements, I joined in singing the morning’s first song.

I’m no stranger to “church-hopping.”  This was in many ways a familiar process for me. But on this particular Sunday, things were a bit different than I was used to. When I bowed to the altar, I faced not a cross but a golden statue of the Buddha. The song we sang was not a Christian hymn, but a chant.  This was my first visit to a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple, alongside my Buddhist/Christian husband, trying to make sense of our family’s interreligious identity.

* * *

Rembrandt’s Head of Christ – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rembrandt’s Head of Christ – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There was a time when the phrase “multiple religious belonging” had no meaning to me. That was before I met Drew, the man who became my husband, who identifies as both Buddhist and Christian. Drew taught me to meditate and engaged in many conversations with me about religion. We attended Christian churches together and researched Buddhist wedding practices when we got married. But we’d never worshiped together in a Buddhist context. Until recently, when Drew wanted to start exploring his roots in this community again.

Meanwhile, I’d just begun myfirst year at seminary, studying worship and the arts among people of other religions. So when Drew suggested the temple visit, I was curious, and a little bit nervous too.  What is the proper response to worshiping in a context not your own? Where is the line between respectful participation and disrespectful appropriation? I’ve never doubted that our two religions could coexist, but at the same time I see the world through Christian eyes; that remains my primary identity. As a guest in a new community, I did not want to misrepresent myself.

Seated Buddha, British Museum – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Seated Buddha, British Museum – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

My visit to the temple wasn’t my first experience with Buddhist practice. In religion classes, I read Buddhist texts and studied the texts and culture. As a writer, I shadowed a Buddhist community to learn and tell their story. But my participation in these communities was limited to the occasional meditation session. In meditating, I never felt like I was crossing a line. Perhaps that was because it was presented as more a solitary practice, just me and my own monkey mind, regardless of how many other people werein the room.

At the temple, though, I was acutely aware of the community around me, and how I was not part of it, not yet. Not understanding the words of the chant, I wasn’t sure whether it was something I could affirm or not. But on the other hand, it seemed just as disrespectful to sit at the back of the room in silence.

In the end, it was the song that got to me. Music has always been my first and strongest avenue into worship. The chant melody repeated over and over, becoming more and more familiar, and I found that I wanted to sing along.

* * *

Seven pages into the chant, I’d almost gotten the hang of it – the Japanese musical notation, at first completely illegible to me, started to make more sense. When we reached the end of the chant, though, the rest of the group moved straight into another song.

I quickly flipped to the next page and was excited to see Western-style music notes – this meant I could now read the music, if not the lyrics, which were written in Sanskrit this time:

Buddham śaranam gacchāmi      (In the Buddha I take refuge)
Dharmam śaranam gacchāmi     (In the Dharma I take refuge)
Samgham śaranam gacchāmi      (In the Sangha I take refuge)

Midway through the song, I realized exactly what I was singing: the Three Refuges. These words are traditionally spoken to mark one’s acceptance of Buddhist teachings. In short, my husband would laughingly tell me in the car on the way home, I had just become a Buddhist. Had I just stepped over a line?

* * *

One reason Drew had suggested visiting the temple in the first place was as a kind of practice, working out what it means to be Buddhist/Christian “before we have a family,” since we are committed to raising our future children within both faiths.

But in this context, what does the word “family” even mean? Drew and I already are a family—and have been ever since we committed to spend our lives together. Our two-person family is already dealing with issues of interreligious conversation.

And I too am dealing with the complexity of religious identity. I don’t identify as dual-religious like my husband does, but in the most basic sense of the term, the term “multiple religious belonging” does apply to me: I belong (or will belong in the future) to multiple religious communities. And I don’t know how that works just yet. On my next visit to the temple, will I stand silent during the singing of the Refuges? Or will I participate alongside this community that I seek to join? I’m not sure yet. As I worship, I will keep looking for a balance of respect for this new tradition and authenticity to my own roots and beliefs.

One thing’s for sure. Whatever that balance looks like, I’m sure it will still involve quite a bit of singing.

This article was originally published in State of Formation, March 1, 2013.