Signs and Symbols on the Upper West Side

by Michael Potemra

I have read some Buddhist scriptures over the years, but I had never attended an actual Buddhist service before today, when I had the privilege of joining the Manhattan congregation of the Pure Land Buddhist denomination at their morning devotions. I recommend this temple — the New York Buddhist Church – as a distinctly Western-friendly way to start exploring the Buddhist tradition. The name itself – Church – is a bit of a giveaway: One will see much here that has close analogues in the Western Christian churches. This temple is “Catholic” in that it has a lovely altar and statues, and a set liturgy with chants. And it’s “Protestant” in that the central theological point of the service is that human beings cannot earn their salvation in any way, but must depend on the free gift of grace: a doctrine quite similar to the “justification by faith” that used to be the most ferociously defended distinctive of Protestantism. (I say “used to be,” in the full awareness that I will get a couple of angry letters from diehards vehemently insisting that the recent convergence of Catholic and Protestant theology on the issue of justification is a heretical sellout of Protestant principle.)

In front of the temple is a statue of the Pure Land sect’s founder, Shinran (1173–1263). From the viewer’s low angle, it appears quite massive.  And it is certainly sturdy: In 1945, it was 1.5 miles away from the atomic blast in Hiroshima. (It was brought to New York in 1955.)

The temple service was elegant and brief. Afterwards, I stopped in at the nearby Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine to enjoy the marvelous stained-glass windows on a bright day – and then there happened one of those serendipities for which New York, even more than other large cities, is renowned. Between the Buddhist temple at 105th Street and the Episcopal cathedral at 112th is a bookstore that caters to Columbia University: a store for new books, but one that has a large stock of used books as well. Having almost zero self-discipline when it comes to used bookstores, I of course stepped in. One of the very first books that caught my eye was an old hardcover copy of Life of Christ by Fulton J. Sheen. I hadn’t read it in a while, and this copy was only $5.98, so I took it. I suppose the bookstore folks hadn’t paid much attention to the inscription on the first page:


John Young

God love you

+Fulton J. Sheen

Or perhaps they merely judged that whatever sentimental value a book signed by Bishop Sheen might have for someone who had grown up Catholic some four decades ago, it wouldn’t add anything to the cash value of the $6 bargain volume? In any case, I am really thrilled to have found this book.

Nor was the bookstore fun quite finished. Another book I picked up there was a used paperback copy of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. I flipped through it to assess its condition. The only mark left by the previous owner was the flagging, in bright purple highlighter, of the passage from Matthew 16, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock” etc. I naturally brought this up immediately with der Alte, in the ongoing monologue I have with Him: “See here, if you’re trying to tell me something, why don’t you just come out and say it?” To which I did not hear a response; but if I had heard one, maybe it would have gone something like this: That would rather ruin the fun, wouldn’t it? Perhaps it’s merely a case of a deceased Catholic fellow whose heirs were in an unseemly haste to get rid of his books? Or perhaps not?

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