Author: Riley Kimball
Church of Scientology
As it is presented to prospective Church members, Scientology does not resemble a traditional religion. It lacks deities and dogma, and one can be a Christian Scientologist or a Buddhist Scientologist. Even the Church of Scientology on Sunset Boulevard looks less like a place of worship and more the ground floor of a corporate building.
My friends and I visited the Church to find out what Scientology is about beyond Tom Cruise and alien souls. Our guide described it as “a religion of religions,” but it functions more like a philosophy.
According to our guide, Scientologists propose that the mind has a great deal of untapped power, and that bad experiences are at the root of stress, fear and unhappiness. In Scientology, one learns how to cope with these memories, coming to terms with them through “processing.” After years of processing, one can fully remove the negativity of such memories to achieve a state called “clear.”
This filtered view of Scientology was interesting, but it lacked the substance of a religion, so we pressed our guide for answers. What exactly makes it a religion? How does processing differ from psychoanalysis? And where do those offbeat components like Xenu, thetans and dropping hydrogen bombs on alien-filled volcanoes, which have been made famous by media attention and South Park, come in?
The last question annoyed our host. He said that Xenu and the volcano were not a part of the religion. Thetans, he said, are the parts of one’s soul that records the troubled memories that processing clears. He took us over to an E-Meter, a device attached to two cylinders. By holding these cylinders, Scientologists can measure someone’s bad energy, the negativity of his or her thetan.
And as to processing’s similarity to psychoanalysis, Scientologists firmly repudiate such ties. They measure and correct corruption of the soul, whereas psychiatrists prescribe drugs to help these problems. Scientologists believe that no drugs should be used to help tame the mind, for it can solve its own problems through processing.
Scientology is a religion which does not exclude beliefs but rather emphasizes the importance of the mind. It teaches of humankind’s currently unused power to overcome the greatest of difficulties, to bring existence to a higher plane.
On the surface, then, Scientology seems to be an innocent, catholic philosophy focused on human progress. The secrets of the religion, however, which have been revealed by subpoena, show it to be much more than is presented.
For the curious, a bit of advice: hear them out and see what it is really about. Scientology is focused on human progress, and for anyone who considers the religion only through the lens of South Park and Tom Cruise, it may be worth a second look.
All Saints Episcopal Church
All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena is fittingly located across the street from Pasadena’s City Hall. The reason I am drawn so fiercely to All Saints is precisely for its progressive politics and preaching, and its inability to leave lawmakers alone. In fact, in 2004 the church was indicted by the IRS for allegedly breaking its status as a non-profit organization and pushing a political candidate in its sermons. Church and state should stay separate, certainly, but inside the gorgeous 150-year-old halls of All Saints, activism is almost as important as faith to the congregation.
The first statement on All Saints’ web site is this:
“Whoever you are, and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, there’s a place for you here.” This inclusive message is reiterated in every sermon I’ve been to over the last four years. All Saints is strongly in favor of gay marriage and welcomes worshippers from all backgrounds.
Stereotypes of devout Christians fly out the huge stained-glass windows, as sermons about poverty, homelessness and international human rights violations roll through the halls on Saturdays and Sundays. This is absolutely a church that likes its followers loud and active. In the last four years, I have never left All Saints uninspired. Every Sunday I re-believe I can help to bring about social justice, and I in fact have an obligation to do so.
Rector and Head Pastor Ed. Bacon was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, and he can yell. So get ready to be one of almost 1,000 people sitting in a very big sanctuary that suddenly feels very small, when he really starts preaching.
All Saints also has a very active life outside of sermon. The church regularly hosts speakers and events, like a 2005 visit from Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin I attended. Currently, the Church is sponsoring a “No on Prop 8” campaign and bringing speakers and activists together on the topic of gay marriage.
All Saints Episcopal Church: 132 N. Euclid Ave, Pasadena. http://www.allsaints-pas.org.
Los Angelinos for Rael
It’s about a quarter to five when Sage Ali arrives at the Pink Pepper in Hollywood. Dressed casually in blue jeans, a black t-shirt and a metallic pendant that resembles the Star of David, the slender, bespectacled Ali comes through the door with a beaming smile. Eschewing the formal handshake, Ali prefers to greet interviewers with a hug, and a friendly “What’s going on, brother?”
Ali, a writer, producer, and musician is also a member of the Raelian movement, and a Raelian regional guide for the Los Angeles area. Raelism is an atheistic philosophical movement that is founded upon the belief that humans were placed on Earth by means of intelligent design by an alien race called the Elohim. The movement was founded by Claude Vorilhon (aka Rael), a self-pronounced prophet of the Elohim who claims to have first been contacted by the aliens in 1973 to spread the word of their existence and their impending arrival on Earth.
Ali was quick to acknowledge that although he was intrigued when he first heard of Rael’s message, his belief wasn’t immediate. “I wasn’t about to just jump into something I knew nothing about and blindly follow,” Ali said. He stated that he spent two years researching and reading about Rael’s message before he decided to become involved.
Although Raelism is centered around the concept that mankind was designed by aliens who observe human growth, it serves just as much as a philosophy for open-mindedness, tolerance, and individuality.
“We’re all about embracing differences,” says Ali. “We have a saying in the movement: ‘tolerance is not enough.’ We have to take it beyond that. We have to not just accept, but welcome the differences between people with open arms.”
This tolerance and embracing of differences shows not only through the Raelians’ interpersonal relations and attitudes, but also in their respect for other faiths and religions. Rather than denying the validity of other religions and attacking their credibility, Raelians actually hold the claim that religious figures such as Christ, Muhammad, Moses, and others were in fact prophets instructed by the Elohim to bring messages of peace.
Raelians even marched for the rights of Scientologists in a demonstration of religious freedom, a group with whom they may not agree, but whose rights they respect and seek to protect nonetheless.
Ali also clears up any misconceptions that people may have about Raelians being tinfoil hat-wearing UFO recluses. “We go to dinners, movies, we hook up musically… if you go to a Raelian meet-up you’ll see comedians, dancers, band performances … as well as some of the silliest, most fun, and most intelligent people you’ll ever meet.”
Perhaps most emphasized in Raelian philosophy is the notion that life is to be enjoyed to the fullest, albeit with a consciousness for others.
“We don’t want to just be alive,” Ali said. “We want a great quality of life, and everyone deserves that.”
“Rael has a saying that goes, ‘If you are at the top of a tall building and someone pushes you off, your first reaction would be to scream in terror
as you plummet down.’ But Rael says, ‘Why not enjoy the fall?'”
Hazy Moon Zen Center
I was not quite sure what to expect when I rang the doorbell of Hazy Moon Zen Center’s unassuming house, located just off the Santa Monica freeway in a quiet, residential neighborhood west of downtown. I was there to attend a Dharma Talk, or the spoken word that leads listeners on the virtuous path toward enlightenment.
Shindo, a practicing Zen priest who has been at the Center for five years, was going to lead the discussion. Having only the Religious Studies class Introduction to Buddhist Thought under my belt, I was slightly uncomfortable entering such unfamiliar territory. Soon, though, I felt more at ease as one of the students answered the door with a smile, dressed in a black robe. I removed my shoes before he politely led me up the stairs where I joined a circle of several other students seated on mats and cushions.
At Hazy Moon, all students practice under the direction of the Center’s Roshi, or teacher. This particular center has developed its meditation practices following the original teachings of Taizan Maezumi, who moved from Japan to Los Angeles in 1956 to begin working as a priest at the Soto Headquarters Zenshuji in Little Tokyo. Soto Zen, the largest Zen sect in Japan, developed under the Zenshuji Soto Mission in 1922 in Los Angeles as one of the first Soto Zen Buddhist establishments in North America. By the time Maezumi began working there as a priest in 1956, the practice of Zen Buddhism had grown to be very popular.
11 years later, Maezumi established the Zen Center of Los Angeles, located north of Hazy Moon in Koreatown. Over the next 28 years, Maezumi trained twelve successors in Dharma teachings, leaving them to continue to teach his practices.
William Nyogen Yeo, the last of his successors, founded the Hazy Moon Zen Center in 1996. Today as the Center’s Roshi, he continues to teach the same practices of Maezumi focusing on posture and breathing techniques while meditating to achieve a deep reflection upon the self, and upon greater meaning in the world around us. Meditation releases the practitioner from anxieties and thoughts that normally cloud and distract our mind.
Nyogen also believes in the use of the koan, a story or question that typically is inaccessible to the rational mind. A koan helps a person to break free of the analytic thoughts of the mind. Ultimately, the outcome of practicing meditation and koans is the enlightenment that we already have everything we need, and consequently have nothing to worry about. This is a central belief in Zen Buddhism; we have to overcome our busy mind in order to better appreciate our lives and the surrounding world we live in.
Before the talk, the group began by chanting affirmations about overcoming desire and opening their minds to the dharma. Shindo then began his discussion by greeting me saying that Oxy students are always welcome. Opening his talk, he said to me, grinning, “I’m sorry,” because the Nyogen Roshi and many of the students normally at Hazy Moon were away on a spiritual retreat in New Mexico. However, Shindo had nothing to be sorry about, since he presented a deeply moving discussion about reasons for meditation.
Using his personal experience as the basis of his discussion, Shindo said that fear and anxiety frequently control his thoughts and his actions. Having left a life full of anxiety and unhappiness five years ago, Shindo came to Hazy Moon to find structure, and to rid himself of unhealthy habits. He said that although meditation is often frustratingly hard work, the frustration is accompanied by moments of sudden, piercing joy. As he says, “It is like sunlight piercing through the clouds.”
After the discussion, I asked the group a few questions. I wondered whether individual students had their own meditation techniques that helped to clear their mind. Shindo answered that “our Roshi” is the most important factor in practicing Zen Buddhism. “A teacher,” agreed a senior student in the circle, “is the only way into meditation.” Other students expressed their deep faith in the wisdom of their Roshi, and their inability to meditate on their own; this week they were happy about the fact that the Hazy Moon was open over the retreat period since they would be lost meditating alone.
Wanting to know more about Zen enlightenment, I asked whether experiencing the present moment or attaining deep self-reflection was more important. Shindo answered, “They are one and the same.” This is a point that Shindo emphasized during his discussion. Although meditation leads to deep self-reflection, the ultimate goal is not to eradicate our natural thoughts or feelings, but to accept them as a part of living. As he said, “Meditating does not mean that I analyze my thoughts.” Instead, meditation allows you to concentrate on something else, completely emptying your mind. Living in the present moment happens once you realize that there is nothing that you desire, nothing that you want to change about yourself.
The discussion ended with the group laughing about the irony of the Oxy course name, Buddhist Thought, since the whole point of Buddhist meditation is to stop thinking.
Later, I spoke with other Hazy Moon students. One student spoke to me about the value of meditation. He said, “People rely on habits. At AA meetings, many alcoholics turn to smoking to replace their other bad habits. Smokers turn to nicotine. Meditation helps to replace bad habits with another habit too.” He said that coming to Hazy Moon has helped him to deal with his own attitude, and the attitudes of other people. Even though he still has trouble not getting angry with confrontational people, he realizes that staying calm changes the atmosphere of the situation. Ultimately, meditation is not only good for him, but for everyone around him.
If you are a beginner interested in meditation, Hazy Moon offers a two-hour Zen Meditation Instruction class on Saturday mornings. Hazy Moon’s weekly schedule and upcoming events can be found on their web site: www.hazymoon.com
Holy Family Church
Holy Family Church situates itself in South Pasadena, on 1527 Fremont Drive. From the exterior, it doesn’t look different from any other small town Catholic Church, but what struck me was how inclusive its services were. I originally had a preconception of Roman-Catholicism as being exclusive due to the lengthy classes that adherents have to go through prior to confirmation.
This isn’t the case at Holy Family. During their instruction on accepting communion, they didn’t explicitly deny communion to non-believers, but directed them to cross their arms for a blessing if it wasn’t a part of their conviction. I learned that some Buddhists even occasionally worship at Holy Family, and a Mormon helps perform the music for the church.
I’ve attended Catholic Mass before, but because I wasn’t raised a Catholic, I stumbled over some of the responses that I was unfamiliar with, and found myself repeating words out of sync with the rest of the church.
The priest didn’t openly condemn “deviant sexual behavior” so much as he issued the importance of breaking bread with other people despite their lifestyles. Maybe it’s because the media tends to paint Catholicism in a negative light around sexuality that I expected a more homophobic sermon, but I was impressed with how relatively accepting the service was. Their Web site even reads, “Holy Family is a welcoming community … We respect all other beliefs and are comfortable with varied life orientations.”
The priest instructed the attendants to “leave in peace” at the service’s conclusion. At his behest, I did just that. I departed with the same pervading inner calm that I receive from meditation.
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