Back in the early 70s Toronto was a very different city than it is today, especially on a Sunday. The streets were empty, the stores were shuttered; there was nothing to do and nowhere to go, except church. If you ate a meal you might be able to get a drink with it. Bars had separate ladies’ entrances and at the liquor stores you ordered a bottle of wine or spirits by writing a code number on a slip and giving it to a clerk, who then picked it off a shelf, inserted it in a plain brown paper bag and handed it to you. There was none of this fondling of bottles and being enticed by reading the labels. In the same way as Prohibition ended gradually in the States earlier in the century, Toronto eased its way into more Sunday openings. The Eaton Center and Chinatown were exempted from Sunday closing because they were designated as tourist areas. Other department stores opened illegally on Sunday and just paid the fine. Then the whole thing unraveled. At the time I remember a comedian remarking that most of the people living in Toronto were agnostics or atheists, but there were six Presbyterians at City Hall who controlled everything.
But after things fell apart and the center could not hold, the feel of the city is as cosmopolitan and liberal as Toronto the Good was provincial and conservative. The population here was always diverse ― Toronto in the 70s was reminiscent of New York or Chicago in 1900 ― but now it is diverse even in its welter of religions, ancient and modern. I remember when being a member of the Orange Order was still important for those with the ambition to rise in the ranks of the police force. In fact, Nathan Philips, in office from 1955–1962, was the first non-Protestant, non-Orange mayor in the 20th century, and it wasn’t until 1985 that Bill Blair, then deputy police chief, could organize the first St Patrick’s Day parade.
Today Toronto and adjacent areas have Hindu temples, Taoist temples, mosques, Baha’i centers, a Parsee (Zoroastrian) temple, and temples representing the major schools of Buddhism:
- Theravāda (Hīnayāna) Buddhism from Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam, brought here by relatively recent immigrants from these nations;
- Zen Buddhism, introduced by the Beat Generation after the Second World War;
- Nichiren and Pure Land Buddhism from Japan; and most recently,
- Tibetan Buddhism, the most esoteric and colorful of all the schools, rich in intricate iconography and symbolism.
Buddhism is more of a philosophy, a way of getting through the suffering inherent in human existence, than a religion. One of its core teachings is that there is no individual soul in the sense of a spirit that survives the death of the body, nor is there a Cosmic or Universal Soul, such as in the Brahman of Hindu tradition.
Another important difference from the Judeo-Christian tradition is that in Buddhism the various schools or “vehicles” are a matter of emphasis, not heresy. From earliest times, for example, the two major divisions of Buddhism, Hīnayāna (Lesser Vehicle) and Mahāyāna (Greater Vehicle) have lived side by side. Today most Buddhists in Southeast Asia are Hīnayāna, but Borobudur, the massive religious monument in central Java, was built by followers of the Mahāyāna.
It is indeed one of history’s great coincidences that at about the same time, the 6th to 5th centuries B.C., in three early civilizations, Greece, India and China, and despite constant competition and warfare between city-states, kingdoms and republics, philosophy flourished, producing in the west, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato; in India the Buddha; and in China, Confucius and Lao Zi, the legendary founder of Taoism.
I have always thought of Buddhism as a rational analysis of the human condition with all its inherent and human made suffering, with the purpose of finding a moderate path to minimize our misery. Buddhism was originally a reform movement within Hinduism (based on the Vedas and the Upanishads), much in the same way as Christianity began as a reform movement within Judaism.
The Buddha’s doctrine, as stated in his Four Noble Truths, is very straightforward: Life is suffering; the root of suffering is desire (craving); there is no personal or cosmic soul; and there exists a way to eliminate suffering (following the Eightfold Path).
We who have survived the horrors of the 20th century need no convincing that life is suffering. In addition to disease, aging, and death, which are woven into the fabric of the human body, other ills are our own doing: violence and war, exploitation and slavery, theft and extortion – a tragically long list of evils.
Nor should we be surprised at the role of desire: we often crave something or someone to an irrational extent and if we attain the desired object we worry about losing it. We know desire has no end and that its satisfaction is transient.
Modern urban life is, with the exception of America, essentially secular and materialistic, thanks in great part to the advance of scientific thinking. The Buddha said that we are nothing more than five factors (dharmas): physical body; sensations and feelings; cognitions; character traits and dispositions; and consciousness. These are the result of cause and effect and there is no stable, underlying ego, no “I”. Therefore, there is no “I” to suffer.
The nonexistence of an ego or “I” is also a surprising discovery of modern brain science. We are only self-aware when we think about it; otherwise, we are usually on “automatic pilot”, going about our daily activities much as do other animals.
Last, if we eliminate entirely from our lives hatred, greed and delusion, we can attain nirvana, a state of bliss that somehow exists outside the universe and is not subject to the constant change of our world. This can be attained while alive or after several rebirths. This looks suspiciously like a mystical union with the Brahman (Cosmos) of Hinduism, but without the Cosmic Soul. In nirvana we are in a mystical union with the universe, but at the same time beyond impermanence, which brings suffering. A serious difficulty for the theory of reincarnation in Buddhism is the question of what gets reborn, since there is no soul, no underlying, stable “I”.
The oldest surviving school of Buddhism, Theravada (School of the Elders), is not much represented in Toronto, except among immigrant communities from nations where it is the majority religion: Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.
The emphasis is on personal salvation, the so-called arhat (saint) ideal, that is, the lone monk in the forest meditating and studying, with minimal contact with the outside world. Monks are fed daily and supported by the community, whose members thereby gain merit that will increase their chances of a rebirth favorable to attaining nirvana. The monks, in return, officiate at various ceremonies such as weddings and funerals and provide basic education. It is not uncommon for most boys and young men to spend some time in a monastery as novices before returning to ordinary life.
The Toronto Maha Vihara (Great Monastery) Buddhist Meditation Center (above), 4698 Kingston Road, Scarborough, is a Theravada temple offering meditation sessions, discussion of sutras, and even a course in Pali, the language of the Theravada canon, the most ancient written texts of Buddhism, which contain many of the Buddha’s sermons and teachings. Pali is related to Sanskrit, in much the same way as Italian is related to Latin. The textbook can be downloaded here. Vihara is the same word that appears in the name of the northeastern Indian state of Bihar, part of the old Magadha Kingdom where the Buddha was born.
The Toronto Theravada Buddhist Community, 316 Dupont St. is a meditation center open to all. Another Theravada center offering meditations sessions and talks is the Satipaňňa Insight Meditation Toronto (SIMT), located at the Society of Friends (Quakers) House, 60 Lowther Avenue. It is characteristic that the Buddhist organizations are housed, quite naturally, in buildings that were originally dedicated to some other use. For example, the older site of the Maha Vihara (above) was a converted Dairy Queen on Kingston Rd., while the SIMT uses a Quaker meetinghouse.
This is most appropriate, because Quakerism is a close analogue to Buddhism in the west, in the sense that meetings are sitting in silence, waiting for the “inner light” of God to communicate with the person, just as a Buddhist would meditate in silence, waiting for an insight (but not from any supernatural being). Another similarity is that both religions are pacifist.
Zen is undoubtedly the most familiar and longest established school of Buddhism in North America, dating to the immediate post-World War II period when soldiers returning from Japan brought back with them knowledge of this sect and many other aspects of Japanese culture, such as Zen gardens. Zen is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China. Zen, or zen-na, derives from Chinese chán-na, from Sanskrit dhyānna ‘deep meditation’. A friend of mine once described its origin: “The Chinese said all this abstruse Indian philosophizing is wonderful, but how do you make it work in real life?” The Chinese, being eminently practical folks, invented a form of Buddhism that concentrates on the essentials and is very direct. One method many of us are familiar with is the koan (from Chinese gōng-àn ‘public matter’), an aid to gaining insight by meditating on a paradoxical riddle, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The purpose is to rise above our ordinary way of thinking, which is based on making distinctions. Koans are not “solved” by working out a problem logically; rather, the exercise aims at going beyond reasoning, thus beyond language. The answer may be a smile or a look in the student’s eyes, or doing something unexpected, like turning your hat inside out.
The Beat generation of poets and writers, however, should be given credit for popularizing Zen in the west, along with the writings of D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts. Watts also appeared on western television, explaining very well the mysterious doctrines of Hinduism, Taoism and Zen.
Gary Snyder, the Beat poet, was a serious student of Zen, having spent periods in Japanese Zen monasteries. He is portrayed as Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958, a year after On the Road), in which all the key teachings of Zen, along with their names in Japanese and Sanskrit, appear from almost the first page. Other North American writers, most notably Alan Ginsberg, lived their lives according to the teachings of Zen and Hinduism.
The picture they give of Zen is, however, a romantic version that leaves out the disciplined study of sutras and learning from teachers. Zen is austere, hard work with endless hours of meditation, work in gardens and cleaning, and a monkish diet. What appealed to the Beats was Zen’s rebellious spirit against tradition and its embrace of the absurd and mystical. “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” I think this means jettison old ideas of Buddhism and philosophy, and concentrate on direct enlightenment through your own efforts in meditation. This rebellion against tradition and conformism deeply appealed to the Beats. Very likely the notion of sudden enlightenment, satori, was attractive to the Beats because of its similarity to the flash of inspiration seen in the romantic poets. The Beats’ romantic view of Zen is only part of the picture; translations of Buddhist documents into Chinese and Tibetan complete the lacunae of Sanskrit texts and give a clearer, more detailed description of Zen. Zen has been established in Toronto for quite a long time. In fact, The Toronto Zen Center (above), now at 33 High Park Gardens, is the oldest Zen group in Canada, having been founded in 1967 by Philip Kapleau, the roshi (Chinese lãoshī ‘teacher’) from the Zen Center in Rochester, New York.
The Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom (formerly The Zen Lotus Society), 86 Vaughan Road (left, below), was also founded in 1967, but in Manhattan, by the Korean monk Samu Sunim. The Awakened Meditation Center, (right, below) 134 Sixth Street (north of Lakeshore Blvd. West and one block east of Islington Ave.) is another Zen center headed by a Korean abbot, the Venerable Hwasun Yangil.
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Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhism
Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes compassion and this is represented in the bodhisattva ideal. A bodhisattva is a person who has dedicated his life to becoming enlightened and has achieved a point at which he could enter nirvana, but has instead taken a vow to delay his entry into bliss until he has helped every sentient being to join him. A bodhisattva was seen as a very powerful being who, especially in popular Buddhism, could be entreated to grant favors such as the cure of diseases, fertile crops and wives (sons being preferred), and a high birth in the next reincarnation. Thus Buddhism had made a major shift away from the founder’s original teaching, delivered as he was dying, that salvation was the responsibility of the individual and that it was something each person had to work out on his own. In addition, these powerful, magical beings were placed in a number of splendid paradises. The line between a buddha and a bodhisattva became less distinct, and it was thought that one of these buddhas, Amitābha (Infinite Light; Japanese Amida), lived in the Pure Land (or Sukhāvatī – Blessed with Happiness). Amitābha had taken a vow that anyone who invoked him with sincere faith would, through his help, attain rebirth in the Pure Land. This is an early development in Mahayana, beginning in the first centuries A.D. in northern India, and became a popular cult in China and Japan. Here Buddhism approaches true religion: the bodhisattvas and buddhas had become a virtual pantheon that could intercede on our behalf, and the emphasis of original Buddhism on meditation and study moved toward salvation by faith while repeating the mantra “Homage to the Buddha Amitābha”.
The reformer and Japanese monk, Nichiren (1222-1282) criticized the Pure Land sect for having become too comfortable and even complacent about salvation. His solution was to emphasize the Lotus Sutra and its recitation, and to chant Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō “Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra”. Since everyone has the Buddha nature, he reasoned, we can all potentially achieve enlightenment in our lifetime. Both Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhism, it seems to me, have shifted away from minimizing desire to praying to virtual deities who can benefit us materially and spiritually.
Both Pure Land and Nichiren are popular in Japan and have made inroads in the west. In Toronto there is the Soka Gakkai International Association of Canada (right), 2050 Dufferin Street (just north of Rogers Rd), a sect that broke away from Nichiren and has been successful in its missionary activities.
The Nichiren Buddhist Church (or Temple) is located in an ordinary house at 20 Caithness Ave., near Danforth Rd., and Donlands Ave.
The history of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (True Pure Land Teaching) is bound up with the Japanese immigrants and their internment during World War II, and their expulsion from British Columbia after the War. When the Japanese immigrated to North America in the 20th century they wanted their religion to blend in with the mainstream Christian religions. Therefore, temples were called churches, and their architecture no longer reflected traditional Japanese temples, but became indistinguishable from churches: there were pews, an altar and a pulpit, and instead of hymn books there were sutras. The terms “father” and “reverend” were used for the Buddhist priest. One of these Buddhist churches (above) existed for many years, 1955 – 2005, just across the street from the Bathurst subway station. I suspect that many people mistook it for a Christian church. The new home, since 2005, of the Toronto Buddhist Church is at 1011 Sheppard Ave., W., just east of the Downsview subway station. Inside the temple is the Hondo Hall or Worship Hall, with a beautiful statue of the Amida Buddha.
Fo Guang Shan Temple (above), another Pure Land temple, is in Mississauga at 6525 Mill Creek Dr and is one of the few Buddhist temples to use some of the traditional architecture of the Far East, with a façade of rooves with curled eaves over the entrance and the first floor. But like other Buddhist temples in Toronto, there is no clue on the outside to the rich interior of lavish, exotic decoration. There is a large main shrine with gold and red and several statues of the Buddha; a memorial hall, where prayers and offering are made to the deceased; and a library of 14,000 books and other materials in Chinese, and another 3000 in English.
The Cham Shan Temple at 7254 Bayview Ave., Thornhill, is also a Pure Land temple, serving the Chinese community. Inside is a statue of the great bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara (The Lord Who Looks Down, Guanyin in Chinese), the embodiment of compassion. The thousand arms symbolize the bodhisattva’s myriad ways of helping humanity. Avalokiteshvara in India and Tibet was considered a male, but since compassion and mercy are seen as feminine virtues, he became a female in Far Eastern iconography. The Dalai Lamas of Tibet are said to be incarnations of Avalokiteshvara.
A very interesting Pure Land temple is Chua Linh-Son (below) at 100 Rivalda Rd., north of Sheppard, between Weston Rd. and the 400. It is a small old house, very colorfully painted and decorated with flags and Buddhist statues in the front garden, set off with a red and yellow fence. An attempt has been made to suggest a Vietnamese pagoda roof by adding some curved wood to the sides of the porch roof. In this drabbest of industrial areas, with its ugly low buildings and trucks, Vietnamese Buddhists are chanting the Amitābha mantra, Nam mô A Di Đà Phật, in the fervent hope that they will be reborn in the paradise of the Pure Land, and that their prayers for the health and well-being of their loved ones will be answered. Such a scene is the quintessence of Toronto, this great catch basin of languages, ethnic groups and religions from every corner of the globe.
This humble temple in the summer of 2014 was the venue for a rare event: the visit of a large jade Buddha, The Buddha for Universal Peace. There is a Canadian connection: the 18-ton boulder of nephrite was discovered in 2000 in northwestern British Columbia, just below the Yukon border. Jade is a glacial deposit, and this may be one of the largest ever discovered. The boulder was bought and transported to Thailand, where it was carved over a five-year period (2003-2008) into a 4-ton statue of the Buddha, on an alabaster throne. The statue is 2.5m (8ft) tall. It has been touring the world since it was created. Its final home is a giant stupa in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia, about 150km northwest of Melbourne. It is estimated that about 40,000 people came to see the jade Buddha when it was at the temple on Rivalda Road.
At 300 Bathurst St, south of Dundas West, is Tai Bay (Ching Kwok) Buddhist Temple of Toronto (below), a Vietnamese Pure Land temple that, with its bright red and Chinese architecture, shouts its presence, flanked as it is by ordinary houses. Inside is the main hall with its bright golden statues and red pillars swirling with gold clouds, a scene utterly exotic and the polar opposite of the rather dreary neighborhood of old houses, bicycles and parked cars. It is extraordinary that such a scene of oriental splendor should be tucked away in this inner city neighborhood.
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The Fu Sien Tong Buddhist Temple (below), 185 Niagara Street, between King St. W. and Wellington, is yet another exotic Vietnamese Pure Land temple in a neighborhood of apartment buildings and some remaining private homes. The contrast is striking. No one would ever imagine that across the street from a row of typical Toronto apartment buildings such an interior of complex symbols in gold and red could exist.
Buddhism came relatively late to Tibet because of its geographical isolation on a high, frozen plateau behind the highest mountains on Earth. Consequently, none of the major trade routes passed through Tibet.
The form of Buddhism that did penetrate the Land of Snows was the Vajrayana sect, or the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt. The vajra (Tibetan dorje) was the thunderbolt wielded by the ancient warrior god, Indra (whose Indo-European congeners are Zeus, Jupiter and Thor). The vajra symbolizes the secret teaching that destroys ignorance and brings enlightenment like a flash of lightning. This school is sometimes called the Vajrayana (Vehicle of the Thunderbolt) or the Tantrayana (Vehicle of the Trantras), named for the esoteric treatises that are incomprehensible to outsiders. Unlike other schools of Buddhism, a guru is required to explain the meaning of texts. The guru imparts secret teachings, techniques of meditation and mind training, and an impressively rich set of symbols and hand gestures (mudras). The relationship between guru and student is especially close in the Vajrayana.
Another characteristic of Tantrism is the use of the energy of human passions, including sex, to achieve breakthroughs into higher stages of enlightenment.
Perhaps the most recognizable characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism is its mandalas, circular diagrams that represent the Buddhist cosmos, meant to be used as an aid to meditation. Most are on silk, paper or other materials, such this one from late 19th-century Tibet. The Buddhist stupa in Java, Borobudur, is a giant mandala in stone. Other mandalas are painstakingly made with tubes of colored sand over a period of weeks. When the mandala is finished it is deliberately obliterated, to emphasize the transitoriness of the material world, its quality of “emptiness”, that is, its constituents are subject to cause and effect, and therefore, to constant change. (A YouTube video of the construction of a sand mandala here in Toronto, at Harbourfront, July 2014 can be viewed here.
Another spectacular aspect of Tibetan Buddhism is its performances of myths and stories told through masked dancers to the accompaniment of drums, cymbals and horns. A video of some of these dances can be seen here.
The masks and costumes vividly portray the battle between demons and good spirits, and between knowledge and ignorance, wisdom and delusion. These demons and demonesses can be compelled through the use of magical techniques to bestow their supernormal powers on humans. The Tantras describe the methods for using magic circles (mandalas), mantras (magical spells) and rituals to coerce these spirits for good ends, and never for the personal ego of the practitioner. The mantra most repeated daily in the world is Om mani padme hum (Oh, the jewel [is in the] lotus), which dates from about the first century A.D. and whose original meaning may have been sexual, referring to the union of a buddha or bodhisattva and his Tārā (Savior, female counterpart or consort).
The Tibetan Canadian Cultural Center at 40 Titan Road at the corner of Titan Road and Islington in Etobicoke, offers courses in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and language, and is the venue for performers of Tibetan dance, music and arts. There is a Tibetan temple, the Manjushri Buddhist Center, 1926 Burnamthorpe Rd. East in Mississauga, with Tibetan monks, but the temple also uses Vietnamese. The Vajrayana Buddhism Association teaches Buddhism and holds meditation sessions (rNying-ma or Red Hat Sect, who claim descent from Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century). The Riwoche Tibetan Buddhist Temple at 28 Heintzman St. (Keele and Dundas West area) provides teaching and meditation practice. The temple has a statue of the Green Tara.
Karma Sonam Dargye Ling (KSDL) Tibetan Buddhist Temple (above left), is at 7 Laxton Avenue, Toronto (Queen West and Lansdowne area). The Shambhala Meditation Centre of Toronto (above right) at 670 Bloor Street West, near Christie St, offers meditation instruction and the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, as does the Diamond Way Buddhism, on Yonge St. in Toronto. The Vajrayana is sometimes referred to as the Diamond Vehicle or the Adamantine Vehicle, because the vajra is made of an indestructible substance compared to the hardness of diamonds. Nalandabodhi Toronto Study Group, 506 – 174 Spadina Avenue, provides Buddhist teachings, retreats and meditation practice. Nalanda was a large, ancient monastery in the Buddha’s home kingdom of Magadha (modern Bihar State in India). The Tibetan Buddhist meditation centre of the Karma Kagyu lineage is located in a large old house in the Beaches at 200 Balsam Ave. It was founded in 1973.
And finally, there is, at 637 Christie St, south of St. Clair West, the Gaden Choling Mahayana Buddhist Meditation Centre (below), following the Gelugs-pa sect (Yellow Hat sect), which is the school of the Dalai Lama. The Center offers classes on meditation, Tibetan Buddhism, initiations, weekend retreats and group meditation practice. Guest speakers regularly come to deliver lectures on various Buddhist topics.
Because of the repression of Buddhism in Tibet and because of the charisma of the Dalai Lama and the prominence given to Tibet and its culture by his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, this form of Buddhism, esoteric and mystical, has become well rooted in the west, as can be seen from the long list of Tibetan Buddhist temples and meditation centers in Toronto.
It is a great irony that violence ― the Second World War and the Chinese invasion of Tibet ― have brought to our shores a religion so devoted to peace. Here Buddhism thrives behind mundane facades and in the unlikeliest neighborhoods, where are hidden golden buddhas and the profoundest examination of human existence.
– Robert L. Fisher
Photos by Schuster Gindin, Elizabeth Cinello, and from Wikicommons
This is such an interesting article, and wonderful photos too! I have forwarded this to my Grandson who is studying religion at High School.
Susan O’Neill, Toronto
Great Article….never knew there were so many Buddhist temples in Toronto…. Great photos as well.
Marina DeBona, Woodbridge