Episode 22

San Mateo Buddhist Temple

Mar 26, 2020


Judy takes a virtual peek inside the San Mateo Buddhist Temple and gains some insight into our new normal of sheltering-in-place against COVID-19.


I’m Judy Gordon, and this is San Mateo Focus.

Little did I know when I reached out to Reverend Henry Adams at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple a few months ago, that I would be speaking to him over the phone because we were in the middle of a worldwide viral pandemic or that I’d attend his remote Sunday service as a Zoom participant, and that I’d be pondering the deeper questions of our local spiritual leaders as they comfort their communities during this surreal time.

In January, I was just curious about the temple, and had seen the Taiko drummers at a few community events over the years, so I asked if I could meet Reverend Adams. I had sort of a general understanding of Buddhism, mostly as it pertains to different meditation techniques. Reverend Adams patiently answered my questions, and our discussion involved topics like the former common city boundary practice of redlining, and the formal apology recently issued by the State of California for Japanese Americans who were interned during World War Two. If you’d like to know more about either of those topics, please look at the links on the episode page at sanmateofocus.com.

All Buddhists look back to the historical Buddha as the founder. He was a charismatic enlightened teacher, born in Nepal, who spent most of his life in Northern India. He encouraged his disciples to share the teachings widely with people of all different backgrounds and customs. In that sense it is a world religion and allows the teachings to thrive across countries and boundaries. After his death there was a northern transmission to Japan and China and Korea, and southern transmission that went to Southeast Asia. The main difference between Buddhist traditions is how they are practiced in people’s lives. In Japanese Buddhism there is Zen Buddhism that emphasizes seated meditation practices.

Many Buddhists do practice quiet sitting. However, the San Mateo Buddhist Temple’s approach is to live with awareness of the Buddah’s compassion and wisdom in their lives. If you come to the San Mateo Temple, you’ll see lots of kids running around, and people from all different age groups. The approach is “Buddhism in everyday life.” For them, rather than setting aside 30 minutes or an hour for quiet, they endeavor to make all of their daily activities the opportunity to incorporate the Buddhist teaching into their lives: mindfulness and awareness, and how they might be more compassionate to others.

The San Mateo Buddhist Temple was founded in 1910 and is celebrating their 110th anniversary in October. The Temple members are predominantly Japanese American, so it includes many of the traditional Japanese cultural values, while accommodating local customs and perspectives. That way, people who didn’t grow up with the Japanese language or the teachings can relate to it. The Buddhist Temple warmly welcomes people who are new. Members will invite them to come in and try to make their experience comfortable. The Buddha encouraged that his teachings be shared in a way that the people who are hearing them in the present can understand them. In the United States, much of the organization language has been adopted from American religions. Some temples are called churches, and the Bishop is the head of the national organization.

Reverend Adams is the first non-Japanese American minister at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple and is a proficient Japanese speaker through time spent in Japan. He has been at the Temple since 2013. Raised as a Lutheran, he grew up in a small farming and bedroom community town outside Minneapolis. In high school he participated in an exchange program and lived in India for one year. While there he was confronted by a different cultural perspective, plus real extreme disparities of wealth and poverty. In that context he started to have questions. Why do people suffer? Why do some live in poverty and others in extreme wealth? Why is the world like this? The most satisfying answers were in the teachings of the Buddha. The teachings focus with laser precision on suffering. Buddhism is not a philosophical exercise but really a teaching to guide you in your daily life.

I asked Reverend Adams if he had a message to give to our listeners. His response was:

“At this time, while we are having to practice physical isolation to prevent the spread of this virus, I think it’s important that we have a feeling in our hearts of togetherness as a community. In Buddhism we look at these challenges and these crisis moments to look within and return to the most essential values of our lives. The Buddha teaches us that all of the division that we tend to put between ourselves and others is our own creation of our own minds and our own preconceptions, and as much as possible we try to let those drop away and really see the common humanity that we share and to care for one another. That is what we really need to be doing as a community and as a nation.”

The Japanese Buddhist Temple is live-streaming services on Sundays, followed by a Zoom social meeting afterwards.

So many people are doing good things for the San Mateo community right now. On Nextdoor, a local physician, Dr. Anthony Kaveh, created a post about 10 days ago to help give out accurate information to our local community. As of today, there are 334 responses to it. Dr. Kavah is now answering more in depth on his website, and a link to that is on our episode notes at sanmateofocus.com. I asked Dr. Kaveh if he had a message for listeners and I told him I would share it. So, Here’s the Deal: this is Dr. Kaveh’s response:

“The key concept remains to encourage people to follow ‘shelter-in-place.’ The better we can all comply, the more lives we save and the sooner we can return back to normal life to protect our economy. We want to avoid our tremendous economic sacrifice from being in vain. Let us be inspired by the rush of altruism to help the elderly and high-risk, and ensure that to volunteer safely, we have no risk factors for spreading the virus accidentally to those we are trying to help. If we feel sick, we must assume it is COVID-19 and self-isolate from all others. We must avoid the hospital unless we experience emergency symptoms, as going there puts us and the community at risk. We must also take care of our mental well-being, recognizing how critical this is to our immune system. Exercising and fresh air are so important, and we can go outside safely (unless we are sick) by following social distancing. We remain hopeful for treatments on the horizon and recognize that if we protect our healthcare workers today by sheltering in place, we will allow our healthcare workers to protect us.”

Okay, that’s all the time we have for this episode. Have a great week. Thanks to Jack Radsliff for the original music to this podcast. If you’d like more information about our sponsor or the topics in today’s episode, go to sanmateofocus.com.