Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Blasting in the New Year–and Ringing it in at the Buddhist Church–and with Sacred Fire Dance

It’s 9 PM in California on New Year’s Eve.  Not sure why fireworks are going off all around my apartment building, and people are cheering them.  I can’t see them out of any window, but it sounds as if they are being fired a block away.  Just heard the finale.  These must be New York-ophiles, since it’s midnight there.  [P.S.  Sunday in church, a kid mentioned having seen the fireworks in Old Sac, so they just sounded close to me, but were not.]

At 7 PM I went with a friend to the Sacramento Buddhist Church (also known as Betsuin) for their New Year’s Eve service.  Founded in 1899 and in this Midtown/Land Park location since 1959, it’s a Japanese Buddhist congregation.    One of the oldest, and maybe the largest, of all the 55 Betsuins in the country.

My pal had read that the colors are red and white, so she wore a red top and black jacket.  I wore a white shirt and red tie.  Nearly everyone there had on black.  Or other dark colors, and leather jackets.  Mixed ages, and a diversity of ethnicities, not only Japanese Americans.  The congregation sits in wooden pews of the kind you’d find in any church built in the 50s or 60s, with padding.   We face an altar area, raised a bit like a stage, with a large golden structure in the middle, sort of like an ornate temple on poles with a a relief of the Buddha on the back wall.  A couple of smaller altars to the sides.  We listen to electric organ music from just below the stage area, on the left.   But the crowd is talkative, so I can barely make out the music.

Ministers, assistants and lay leaders come in from the sides, bow at the altar, and take seats along he side.  The chairperson of the service comes to the podium near the organ to welcome us to the service.  From the other end of the stage, an up on the stage or platform, is a pulpit.  From this, a number of people speak, alternating with a series of chants and hymns from the Service Book.  Some chants in Japanese musical notations, others with western notations.   One man leads a responsive reading, giving thanks for the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  After every speaker people are invited to [word I can’t make out or remember], and everyone clasps their hands in a prayer pose, many with a string of beads around both hands.  I also can’t quite make out the phrase uttered by a leader and repeated by the crowd, but it happens frequently.

Rev. Bob, the lead minister, gives a short sermon, recalling the year past.  He recalls an official honoring of a Nisei regiment of service men from WWII, and nods to one veteran in the congregation.    He calls to mind the devastation of last March’s tsunami in Japan, and the Betsuin’s response, under the leadership of its president (who is a doctor I met at the end).  They sent over several tons of food and raised $230,000 in relief aid.  They have a “sister Betsuin” in the affected area.

About 35 minutes into the service, they invite us all to rise and come down the center aisle to the front, and then exit the side door to see the bell.  Barely audible over the conversation is the organ again, softly playing “Auld Lang Syne.”

The line doesn’t move much, as there is a receiving line of all the clergy, youth and lay leaders on the way out the door.   My friend had read that they ring the bell 108 times to let go of all the distractions of the past year.  If they are waiting for all of us to get outside for that, it will be a long wait, and those at the front of the line will be cold waiting in the courtyard.

We approach the center altar, and in front of the platform are a few large incense vessels, with bowls of crushed incense in front.  Each person pinches some incense, sprinkles into the gently smoking vessel, and bows–toward the smoke?  Maybe toward the Buddha.  We shake hands with several people in the receiving line.  I introduce myself to the president and then to the lead minister, who has preached in our church a few times.

We walk out the side door, into the hallway, and then out into a small courtyard, delicately manicured with gravel, trees, grass, and larger rocks.  Hanging in the corner is a large gray bell.  We’re in line. A robed Caucasian leader is handing a wooden mallet to everyone.  Each of us approaches, one at a time, and strikes the bell.  My friend hits it loudly, so I do too. There are more than 108 people there, to be sure, so the bell was struck more than 108 times.   Apparently, this ceremony is different, less regimented, than what my friend read about. Well, it is a Buddhist “church” in America.  No tradition is totally pure anyway, no matter what purists of any kind would say.

We watch others do it, and then wander into another room.  it’s the columbarium, where ashes are kept.  It’s a lovely, chapel like square room of wooden cabinets, each with glass about 1 foot high and 30″ long.  People are walking around the sides of the room to pay respects to their ancestors and friends, but they’re also visiting, and quite jovial with one another.  We both walk around and read the names and dates of birth and death.  Some of the boxes are of a lovely etched metal, looking almost like thick books in a library; other boxes are of wood, some smooth, others with etchings.  Often there is a small framed picture of a person or a couple, and sometimes a bracelet of meditation beads.  Many folks were born in the 1910s and 1920s, but some later.  One baby girl, born in 1974, died on the same day.

It’s both a celebratory night and one for reflection on one’s past, and on the transience of life.

At 10 PM, I go over to 23rd and B, near the levee, where a friend and other students of her fire-dancing teacher are doing “sacred fire dance” also known as poi.  To see what it looks like in the dark, see this link from Obsidian Butterfly.  They swirl chains, ropes, and long sticks with alcohol-soaked pads on them, creating fire designs in the sky.  Four of them are doing this at the end of a street by the levee, blocked off a bit by a large van.  A small crowd watches.

From another vehicle a mix of music plays as they go through their numbers:  some solo, with the next performer getting fire from the one about to finish; several are in pairs or threes, but at least one is at the ready to put out the others’ fire when the act is done (or should there be a mishap).  As the chains and “light saber” fly through the chilly night, close by, I can hear that the fire makes a lot of noise–a low, deep swoosh.

After an hour I can’t handle the chill (the fire is still not close enough to warm me), so I say goodbye and head a block away to my car.  A cop in a car pulls up beside me:  “What’s going on over there?”  I explain a few artists are doing fire dancing.

He asks:  “Are you involved with it?”  No, I tell him, I’m a friend of one of the students.

He asks if they have a permit.  “I think so.  She usually does.  She runs a studio.”    He heads over in his car; I see her (the teacher) walking toward him, to answer his questions.  I’ll find out if things turned out okay.

I read a David Sedaris story from Holidays on Ice, while drinking a glass of cheap red wine I  heated up in the microwave, and start to doze at 11:30.  I turned in before midnight, with earplugs so any local revelers could do so loudly with my blessing, rather than my curses.

Happy New Year.


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I raised my kids in Shin Buddhism at Placer Buddhist Church in Penryn; I call it Practical Buddhism, Reverends have Significant Others, generally wear street clothes, live in homes, and are flexible about traditions. Rev. Oshita is very popular when he visits UU-it’s the humor. What they were chanting is “Namo Amida Butsu” (3x) which sounds like Namo Ami Da But su. My kids have shrines in their homes and we have 2 Buddhas and on New Years we place mochi (coarsely ground flat rice balls) and tangerines (and pine bough if we have it) in front of Buddha for gratitude. BEFORE that the hardest part, the house must be clean and bills paid up to date!.

Comment by Glory Wicklund

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