Temple Hopping: A Religious Journey Through First and Second Life
I was raised non-denominational Christian, in Houston, Texas. I attended Lakewood Church, the undisputed largest church in the country. And yet, through my entire life, due to various reasons ranging from my desire to study Paleontology through various paranormal experiences and finally my realization of my Therianthropy, that religious path never seemed quite right to me. Now, I consider myself primarily shamanistic, though I still hold true to Christian beliefs for the most part.
I live in a Jewish household, so I knew I’d be using the experience of visiting a Jewish Temple as one of my two experiences. I’ve spent most of these past six weeks embroiled in a plan to visit Black Star Canyon with my sister, brother, and another classmate. Unfortunately, due to the many rains we had early in the semester and the issues of all of our schedules not meeting up, that plan fell through. With time running out, I had to find another experience for the project. I wound up logging on to Second Life©, a virtual reality game I play fairly regularly and searched for religious areas (called “Islands”) there. It didn’t take long for me to discover a beautiful Buddhist temple complex, and find out that they held actual services. That would be my second religious experience. But first, I attended the Jewish Temple, Beth Shalom.
Judaism is an ancient religion and culture. Their mythology stretches back to the beginning of time. Their creation myth shares quite a lot with the Christian creation myth, from the iconic “Let there be light!” declaration to the story of the first man and woman. One of the major things I noticed in the service is the constant use of the Hebrew language – and while a lot of things were repeated in English afterward, some things weren’t. Part of the Jewish mythology is that they are the “Chosen People of God.” This belief is at the core of their teachings and is one of many beautiful sentiments. I listened to the congregation sing in Hebrew, and I felt a strange warmth come over me, even though I didn’t understand any of what was being said. I knew they were speaking to their God, and that made it very spiritual.
The holy book of Judaism is the Torah. This contains all of what the Christians think of as the Old Testament, and more. Instead of the classic 10 commandments of the Christian tradition, Judaism has six hundred and thirteen commandments. Laid out in the Torah, these commandments are explained in the Tenakh, the Jewish book of law, and then further examined in the Kabballah, with a more mystic slant.
The Torah is more than just a holy book, it is symbolic of touching the very word of God, and therefore is treated very carefully. During the service, the ark at the front of the temple is opened and a Torah scroll is removed for that service’s reading. The scroll is treated incredibly reverently and respectfully. I felt as if I should bow to it or something similar, and as if the entire congregation was holding it’s breath as the paper was unrolled.
Another important symbol in the Jewish tradition is the Menorah. A seven-branched candelabrum, the Menorah has been a symbol of the Jewish people for over three thousand years, and is the emblem of Israel. Also, it was used in the original Temple, and a nine-branched version is used during the celebration of the Jewish winter holiday, Hanukkah.
Besides the Torah and the prominent presence of a large Menorah on the wall of the temple, another important symbol are the Yarmulkes worn by the male members of the congregation, though I did see some women wearing one as well (including our Rabbi!). This is to be expected in conservative or reform temples, though it did surprise me when I saw it. The Yarmulke or Kippah, can have many meanings besides simply identifying the wearer as a devout Jewish person. In some traditions, the colors used in it’s creation have special meanings, but ultimately the wearing of the Yarmulke is a symbol of respect to God.
The wearing of the Yarmulke is also a ritual, the donning of it part of the preparation for attending the service. There are many rituals in the Jewish tradition, but I would like to focus on the one ritual during the service that had the biggest impact on me. This occurred at the end of the actual service – the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Kaddish itself simply means “holy,” and is a word used fairly interchangeably with “prayer” in the Jewish religion. Despite the fact that it’s traditionally said at all prayer services whether or not someone has recently died, and also despite that it is a prayer praising God rather than a prayer for the deceased, this particular version is still known as the Mourner’s Kaddish, and is used to end most services.
In our temple, the Rabbi read off a list of all former congregants who’s Yahrzeit (death anniversary) had occurred in the previous week, then asked the congregation if there was anyone who hadn’t been named that they wished to be included. It was about this time that the date we were attending the temple suddenly came to the forefront of my mind and I had the shocked revelation that I was attending this religious service on my recently deceased Aunt’s birthday. Suddenly I knew I needed to speak her name. I waited until the Rabbi motioned to me, spoke her name, my voice suddenly thick with emotion, and then sat down until the actual Kaddish was recited. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much of the rest of the service because I wound up caught up in my own mourning at that point, but it was still the part of the service that left the biggest impression on me.
My second experience I didn’t really have high hopes for, being that it was essentially based on a decision made on the spur of the moment while I was logged into Second Life doing my customer service job for an avatar designer. I searched for “Buddhist Temple,” and visited the top rated search result. I suppose, given it’s ratings and how detailed other places I’ve seen in SL are, I shouldn’t have been shocked by it’s beauty, but I was. It was also easily laid out, and I quickly found a service schedule. There was a service the next day at 11am. I would be home that day, so it seemed perfect. I added myself to the group so I would get a reminder notification, and decided to make the Second Life Buddhist Temple my second experience.
When I arrived for the service the next morning, I was one of the first people there. I found a comfortable spot before the large Buddha statue and had my avatar sit down to wait. The other people slowly trickled in. I couldn’t help but notice that though I was the only non-human avatar in the room (I’m a dire wolf, and the avatar I wear reflects that – a fully quadrupedal over-large white/silver wolf with blue eyes), I wasn’t looked down on for it, nor did anyone even comment on it. I was welcomed into the group and allowed to participate in the service.
In the mean time, the research I did into Buddhism showed that their mythology, while not as ancient as Judaism, is just as powerful and intense. However, unlike Judaism, Buddhist mythology has been adapted and changed by many cultures – meaning that depending on where you attend a Buddhist service, it may be completely different.
In our particular service, the leader would give us something profound to meditate on, ring the Kansho Bell (a clear chime used to frighten away evil spirits and to ritualistically mark time within the service), and then light another of the incense bowls that were places around the meditation area. We sat and meditated on the opening meditation for about fifteen minutes. Then the leader offered each person (via Second Life’s inventory offer function) a small bowl of rice and explained that it was an offering to be placed at the foot of the Buddha statue. Those of us who had voice chat activated were given a Notecard with this prayer on it to be said as the rice was placed, “With humble awareness we offer this gift of life. May each precious grain come to nourish body, mind and spirit in the Way of Oneness.”
The leader continued the ritual with another symbolic offering of incense smoke as if it were water to go with the rice. Then he rang the bell again before leading us in another meditation, this time simply on what it meant to all be gathered here together, despite the fact that our physical bodies were possibly entire continents apart. I found this very profound, and have found myself thinking about it many times since the service.
Two bells and two more meditations later, we finally reached the end of the service – and here is where I found the biggest similarity between the two services. The Jewish service closed with the Mourner’s Kaddish – and the Buddhist service closed with this closing meditation (also a wish for peace to the dying, the dead, and those in mourning): “We surround all people and all forms of life with Infinite Love and Compassion. Particularly do we send forth loving thoughts to those in suffering and sorrow; to all those in doubt and ignorance, to all who are striving to attain Truth; and to those whose feet are standing close to the great change called death, we send forth oceans of Wisdom and Love.”
These two experiences were life changing in many ways. I have continued to attend the temple in Second Life whenever I can, as I find their meditations stimulating and enlightening. I continue to practice my Shamanistic Paganism, but I find more emphasis on meditation lately. It’s as if that was the gift that these experiences gave back to me for taking the time to visit these places and be in the presence of God and the Universe. I feel that I’m on the right path for me, and I will continue to travel on and learn from as many religions as I can.