Salt Lake Buddhist Temple – more than just a building

Story and slideshow by RICH FAHEY

Visit the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple

At first sight the building looks modest with its tan, brick walls and gray, shingled roof. Nestled between the Salt Palace Convention Center and Energy Solutions Arena, it is hardly the largest structure on the block. However, upon entering it is easy to see that the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple is a very powerful and meaningful place.

The temple is designed to be the center of the Japanese-American community. Attached to the temple are classrooms, a kitchen and a gymnasium to host events. Everything from a Japanese Food Bazaar to a Holiday Boutique are held in the gym. While the temple hosts events, its main purpose is a place of worship for Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.

At the root of Buddhism is Shakyamuni Buddha, who lived more than 2,500 years ago. According to the temple Web site, he achieved perfect “human-ness” and is revered as the Buddha. Since his time, there have been others who have followed in his footsteps and achieved a similar perfect “human-ness,” thus giving way to different types of Buddhism.

Like Christianity, the Buddhist religion contains multiple sects with different beliefs. The Salt Lake Buddhist Temple practices Jodo Shinshu, or true pure land teaching, and puts Amida Buddha as the central object of reverence. Dot Richeda, president of the temple, said Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is for the layperson and open to everyone, whereas some of the other sects are specific for particular groups of people.

According to the temple Web site, “Jodo Shinshu Buddhism has much to offer in teaching us about living a spiritually awakened life, in the midst of ordinary circumstances.”

Masami Hayashi, the minister’s assistant, said Jodo Shinshu started in Utah in 1912 when Japanese immigrants came here for work. It was not until 1962 that the Salt Lake Temple was built. Before that, meetings and services were held in apartments and homes. The temple still has much of the original artwork and religious statues.

The temple features beautiful, ornate décor that is symbolic to the teachings of Jodo Shinshu. On the altar are several four-post statues. The four posts represent the Four Noble Truths or beliefs of Jodo Shinshu. The statues, all of which were crafted in Japan, are made of wood with a gold-leafed shell. They took nine months to complete and had to be specially conditioned for the arid Utah climate. Lamps hang from the ceiling and represent the lamps that Shakyamuni Buddha carried to avoid stepping on insects. Treats, candy and fruit are scattered around the altar to symbolize gratitude. Flower arrangements are a symbol of impermanence.

“Today they’re beautiful and tomorrow they’re gone,” Hayashi said.

The temple holds a meditation service each Sunday at 9 a.m., followed by a general service at 10 a.m. Most services last about 40 minutes. Like most religions, specific traditions and rituals are done before, during and after each service.

Upon entering the area of the temple where the service is held, it is customary to bow toward the altar. From there, worshippers walk to the base of the altar for oshoko, or the burning of incense. This ritual involves picking up granulated incense with one’s right hand and dropping it into the burning incense bowl. Next, visitors take a few steps back and gassho. Gassho is the act of putting one’s hands together in front of the chin and bowing toward the altar. This ritual is done to cleanse and purify oneself for the upcoming service.

Similar to many church services, a leader guides the rest of the congregation through singing, chanting and prayer. In Buddhism, the leader is known as the Sensei, and the rest of the audience is the Sangha.

The song and prayer books are written in both English and Japanese, making it easier for guests to follow along with the service. The service starts with the ringing of loud, low-pitched bells with several seconds of silence between each ring. The incense from the oshoko fills the air with a strong aroma that can be smelled from outside the temple. After the ringing of the bells, the Sangha chants an introductory sutra, followed by the Golden Chain prayer.

“I am a link in Amida Buddha’s golden chain of love that stretches around the world,” the Sangha said in unison. “In gratitude may I keep my link bright and strong.”

Following the Golden Chain prayer is another sutra. For most services the Sangha chants the Shoshinge sutra. This song only involves the Sangha and a gong, with no other musical accompaniment. After the Shoshinge, the Sensei gives a Dharma talk. This talk is similar to a sermon in other religions, generally lasting around eight minutes.

Church announcements and a final song follow the Dharma. Then the Sangha is encouraged to give offerings. According to the Web site, fundraising is one of three goals of the temple’s board of directors. Donations and contributions to the building fund will help pay for construction of a new temple to accommodate the growing membership.

The service, with its unique smells, artwork, statues, chants and songs, provides a unique opportunity for Salt Lake City residents to experience a religious ceremony they may be unfamiliar with.

“Our temple provides a viable alternative to those who may have a differing view of the world,” notes the temple Web site. “Our Temple will continue to serve the entire Salt Lake community as a hope to serve as a Religious and Cultural Bridge for understanding.”