Buddhist communities increasing across Iowa

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The vibrant inside of the Pure Land Temple in Clive has walls that display portraits of the different Buddhas, leading up to the altar. This area hosts various teachings written by the Buddha along with portraits and offerings. (Silvia Oakland / IowaWatch)

Iowa’s Buddhist population grew in the last several decades with new places to practice — Cedar Rapids, Clive, Decorah. Now Indianola. 

The latest is in Warren County’s county seat of Indianola, where the former Saint Thomas Aquinas Church, built in 1958, will become a Buddhist temple. The Board of Adjustment approved a special work permit at a November meeting.

“Mostly, this would be a place of peaceful contemplation,” the Karen Buddhist Association wrote in its application to the city.

The Karen Buddhist Association of Iowa is made up of about 50 families. The goal is for the Indianola temple to serve as a place of worship and as a home for their monk.

No other Buddhist place of worship is in the area, said Charlie Dissell, the city’s community and economic development director

These temples have become more common in Iowa in the last few decades as populations numbers have changed. In Iowa the Asian American Pacific Islander population has grown 134%, an increase of 49,073 people over the last two decades, according to the State Data Center of Iowa.

Globally, there are 500 million Buddhists population. About 1% live in North America, according to the Pew Research Center in 2019. 

There are approximately 20 Buddhist temples and zen centers in the state, along with one Buddhist monastery in the northeast corner near the Minnesota border, a three-month IowaWatch project on Buddhism found. Many start small and grow into larger centers.

By Silvia Oakland

Cedar Rapids Zen Center starts

For more than 18 years Zuiko Redding, an ordained Soto Zen tradition Buddhist teacher, led services in a two-story house known to members as the Cedar Rapids Zen Center. Through morning meditations and evening Dharma talks, Zuiko taught the way of the Buddha. The Sangha, a group similar to a Christian congregation, attended the center to listen to Zuiko and learn from other members. 

But before this following of nearly 70 members, the Sangha was small and new to Cedar Rapids.

“We started out with about four or five people in a little two-bedroom apartment,” Zuiko of Cedar Rapids said. “I lived there and one bedroom was our Zendo [meditation space] and the living room was the office.”

After a year in the apartment and an increase from five people to about 10 members, Zuiko got the opportunity to purchase the two story-house for a new location in 2001.

The mortgage of the house was paid off a decade later through donations from the Sangha. The upstairs served as an office space and downstairs as a Zendo, the parlor as a library and the kitchen and dining room as a place of hospitality.

The layout of the Ryumonji Zen Monastery near Decorah is similar to the traditional Japanese layout for monasteries. Using local, recycled wood and other building materials donated, the monastery uses no nails in the support beams. Instead the pieces interlock together to create a support system. (Photo by Silvia Oakland)

Clive center blossoms

Those at the Pure Land Temple in Clive, Iowa, had a similar story to the Cedar Rapids Zen Center.

They started in 2005 in a small apartment with few members. Helen Liu and Evelina Chen, both Pure Land practitioners, are sisters who saw the need for a larger temple after an increase in their membership from five or six to 20.

Liu’s home originally served as the first temple with meditations held on Sundays. In 2016, Chen was able to purchase the current building that features three different areas for worship that they have named Wisdom Hall, Pureland Hall and Earth Treasury Home, a hall for children to sit and learn when their parents attend their teachings. 

Liu and Chen had been practicing Buddhism for 20 years, and their main teacher Khenpo Paljor Gyatso began his life in the monastery when he was 9. Khenpo is the highest level in Buddhist learning that one can obtain and also serves as the title members use to refer to Paljor. 

Gyatso had been traveling through North America and was lecturing in California where a member of Pure Land was also present. After a conversation with the member, Gyatso visited Iowa and knew he was meant to stay to teach. 

Gyatso is from Tibet where the Pure Land lineage is popular and other parts of eastern Asia such as China and Japan. However, the population of the Pure Land Temple in Clive is diverse, consisting of Asian-Americans and Caucasians. 

“We’re mostly a white temple. We do have a Burmese family who are members, we’ve had Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese, but we have about 70 members and they’re predominantly white American converts, and they’re raising their children as well. I think across the country we’re getting a second generation who are reared as Buddhists,” Zuiko said. 

The layout of the Ryumonji Zen Monastery near Decorah is similar to the traditional Japanese layout for monasteries. Using local, recycled wood and other building materials donated, the monastery uses no nails in the support beams. Instead the pieces interlock together to create a support system. (Photo by Silvia Oakland)

Monastery runs near Decorah

The Ryumonji Zen Monastery, located in Dorchester, Iowa, is the only Buddhist monastery in the state. With 40 acres of land, the monastery has rooms for practicing and training monks, living quarters, a kitchen, dining room and small office space. 

Throughout a six-week training period, people from various parts of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin have visited the monastery to become a monk, according to Shoken Winecoff, founder of the Ryumonji Zen Monastery.

“The number of students increases pretty steadily,” Winecoff said. “For this particular ango, which means dwelling together in peace and harmony, we have eight people.”

Winecoff helped establish and build the monastery, beginning construction on donated land in 2000 and ending in 2013. At Ryumonji, Winecoff has ordained at least 15 monks who have gone on to Dharma transmission, a high ability to carry on the Zen lineage. The monks serve in states across the Midwest, including Iowa. 

With Ryumonji being near the borders of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Winecoff interacts with people from multiple states who may be both a practicing Christian and Buddhist hoping to become monks.

“If you have a Christian background, Jewish background, Hindu, you’re welcome to come in,” Winecoff said.

A statue of the Buddha (iStock images)

Religion or philosophy, or both?

“This is a path that really will help you function in the world. And you will be in the midst of a support group that will honor you and help you do whatever you want to do in your life,” Zuiko said.

Growing up, Zuiko had an interesting relationship with religion. Both her parents encouraged her to explore her faith and find which path aligned best with what Zuiko wanted. Her mother had worked as a nurse in World War II in a Jewish hospital where she took care of people who had survived concentration camps, living in the forest or those who were ill and near death.

“She had this notion of a God who sees me and takes care of me, and if there was a God who could let these people die like that, she didn’t want to have anything to do with him,” Zuiko said. “My father had felt that the priests, and not so much about the nuns, but he felt that the priests, really did not practice their religion, and they were really rigid and cruel.”

RELATED STORY: BUDDHIST MONASTERY FINDS HOME NEAR DECORAH

After this discussion with her parents, she began exploring religion and found herself being pulled toward Buddhism. The Buddhist community allowed her to combine religion, philosophy and science together to create a holistic experience.

“There are a lot of things that we study. We understand a little bit of basic science concepts and philosophy, and then also some way there is prayer devotion to the Buddha,” Zuiko said.

Similar to Christianity, there are different paths of Buddhism people choose to follow. The Cedar Rapids Zen Center focuses on zen Buddhism and the art of meditation whereas the Pure Land Temple of Iowa follows the Pure Land path, allowing teachings of the Buddha and meditation to be held.

“I think Buddhism is a kind of a teaching to teach us how to find how to avoid suffering and how to find what happens to the better life to benefit ourselves and other other sentient beings. I think it’s, for me it’s a kind of education,” Liu said.

A building that once housed Indianola’s St.Thomas Catholic Church and is currently owned by Simpson College will soon become a Buddhist temple. (Courtesy of the Indianola Indepdent Advocate)

COVID-19 hinders worship

Much like other religious organizations, the Buddhist community has also felt the impact of COVID-19 in similar and different ways. 

“We are, of course, number one, always concerned for the safety of people. We decided to reopen after May 26, if really people wanted a vaccine, and they got it. We wanted to wait because we didn’t want people to say ‘the temple is open too early and we got the virus from there,’” Kenpo said.

At Pure Land of Iowa and the Cedar Rapids Zen Center meditation sessions and classes have both been held via Zoom. Zuiko said the method of online and in-person has been popular and has allowed people to adjust their schedules to practice.

“I’m trying to figure out how we can integrate the whole thing together. We now have noon zazen rather than early morning, which has proved to be popular, especially on Zoom because people can Zoom in. Sometimes a person or two will come to the center with their vaccine cards and we all sit together and then on Sundays we use Zoom to have Zen, Dharma talk and discussion,” Zuiko said.

Indianola another sign of growth

Back in Indianola, the hope is for the Buddhist temple there to open before the end of the year.

Most Karen refugees arrived in the U.S. in 2006 and 2007. Those in Iowa often work at meat packing plants.

The application to Indianola leader promises the new temple will change the neighborhood little. “The Karen people have an affinity with nature and treasure the land,” their application to the adjustment board said.

Silvia Oakland is a 2021 Wartburg College graduate and a summer 2021 reporting intern for IowaWatch – the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism. While at Wartburg, Oakland served as editor of the Wartburg Trumpet for two years and is the 2021 Pat Pisarik Journalist of the Year. She is currently on a year of service in Washington, D.C.

Encountering Asian harassment

The Pure Land Temple and Cedar Rapids Zen Center have been cautious because of harassment known as Asian hate movements. Both said they had not experienced any harassment, but are still vigilant.

“It doesn’t mean that you know we’re not being careful, because in addition to the, the people who hate Asians, they’re the people who just hate anybody different. We have some plans already in place, we have barriers you can hide behind and if somebody comes in the door with a gun, you can easily get through and these doors. But it’s on our minds, all of us around the country,” Zuiko Redding said.