In a city like Asheville, with a diverse population and a lot of hippies, it’s not uncommon to walk into store after store filled with statues of the Buddha, prayer flags, and books about Buddhism. But somewhere along the way, some people got the bright idea of putting an actual Buddhist temple in the back of a downtown store full of Buddhist stuff, and Urban Dharma was born.

I first heard of the place from a customer and decided to check it out on my lunch break one day. Somehow the woman convinced me to sign up for their mailing list, and not long ago I got an email about an upcoming event. My friend was supposed to be getting married today, but she called off the wedding, and since I already had the day off and now had no plans, I figured I’d go check it out.

The email described a program based around an American monk talking about what it’s like to be a Buddhist in the Southeastern US. It said that after his presentation there would be the first weekly prayer service and an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism for those unfamiliar with it. Well this isn’t exactly what I got, but it was still a pretty interesting service. They started with some prayers and a (very) long mantra chant, which lasted around half an hour. Then there was a short break, and the speaker began his presentation. He talked at length about his monastery and what it was like being an American convert living in Kathmandu. He showed a bunch of photos of his monastery and the monks there and beautiful views of the Kathmandu valley. As he was still talking, they started to pass out the prayer books again. By this time we had been there almost three hours and I could feel my blood sugar starting to drop rapidly from not eating anything all day, so I decided to skip the next prayer and what I assume was to be the second portion of his presentation, wherein he actually talked about being a Buddhist in the American South. Even though I didn’t stay the whole time, and even though it wasn’t exactly what was described in the email, it was still a pretty fascinating experience.

I was continuously struck by the beauty of Tibetan Buddhism. There is so much symbolism, so much poetry about it. The iconography is gorgeous and even though the repeated chanting of the mantra was a little out of the ordinary for me, it was very calming. In the prayer books I saw a lot of similarities with the eastern branches of Christianity, and a lot of parallels with the teachings of Christ. In the prayers and prostrations I was reminded very much of Sufi mysticism and the simple repetitions of my Muslim brothers back in Morocco. In his slide show I couldn’t help but think of my experiences in a poor developing country very much dominated by religious faith. But perhaps the biggest impact was that all of this made me turn my focus inward. I kept thinking about my own journey, and my newfound determination to change a lot of things in my life. The prayers taught compassion for all, and especially for those who hate you, for they only treat you that way because they are suffering. That’s a truth deeper than anything I’ve ever heard in a Sunday sermon, and it fits in so well with the teachings of Jesus that I can’t help but wonder if that theory of his “missing” years having been spent in India and Tibet studying Buddhism has some merit after all.

The service wasn’t without its drawbacks, and I noticed that almost all of the people there were white. A good number of them appeared to be hipsters and well-off middle-aged couples. Not an Asian in the place except for one of the founders of the temple. I can’t help but wonder if, in a religion that is so steeped in tradition, the people who are raised Buddhist see a makeshift temple in the back of a store downtown as somehow cheapening their faith. I also have some problems with the speaker’s description of Buddhist thought. He focused so much on the memorization and repetition of it, and then spoke as though it was obvious from that that Buddhist thought was deeper and more meaningful than Western thought. He said in the West we are taught to think critically and question things, and learning is all about opening new doors and experiencing new things, which we think will lead us to enlightenment. Western teaching is “a mile wide but an inch deep.” Buddhist thought on the other hand is not about critical thinking or learning, but about listening to those who have achieved enlightenment and repeating their truths until those truths become our own. Buddhist teaching is “an inch wide but a mile deep.” I scratch my head as to how this is so. I’m a big fan of critical thinking, and I don’t think our elders have all the answers. I don’t think simply listening to them and repeating what they have said will make us realize those truths for ourselves. We have to experience and learn on our own, and there is always something new to be discovered. There might truly be “nothing new under the sun,” but until we learn it for ourselves, everything is new.

All in all it was a great experience. I have a lot of new things to think about, and a new desire to live in the peace that comes with thinking but not worrying. I have the utmost respect for Buddhism and its teachings. But if the way he presented Buddhist thought is accurate, it is simply just another religion as far as I’m concerned. There are many new things out there to be learned and discovered, and many answers we have yet to find. But as long as we are taught to not think for ourselves and that others have the answers already, we can never truly reach enlightenment.