Buddhism in Victoria (Video)
Jennifer Lee Preyss
March 15, 2013 at midnight
Updated March 14, 2013 at 10:15 p.m.
In silence, Wade Cleveland and John Schlembach sat on two flat pillows and prepared for communal meditation.
With their eyes shut, the men folded their legs beneath them and rested one hand on each knee.
Police sirens and the occasional car stereo vibrated and wailed outside the windows of the church, but the clamor did not break their concentration.
After years of studying and practicing Buddhism, they've learned to focus during meditation, allowing their minds to center on peaceful thoughts apart from the chaos around them.
A humble altar at the front of the church's lectern displayed incense and candle offerings, filling the room with their perfume as the men slowly breathed in and exhaled.
On Sundays, the men gather with a small group of area Buddhists at the Unitarian Universalist church where they study the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha.
They say prayers and sing praise music, then spend their final moments in meditation.
"If you're a Buddhist, it's important to have a regular group meditation practice. There's a palpable sense of psychic energy there," said Cleveland, 31.
The Buddhist group is a relatively new addition to the Unitarian church. They've been meeting for several months in various locations around Victoria but only recently found a regular home at the church Sunday nights.
"We're a non-sectarian group, and we're open for anyone who wants to join," Cleveland said, mentioning the group's openness to the community. "It's a massive religion, so you could spend your entire life learning about it."
Cleveland and Schlembach, the group's founders and leaders, are both converts to Buddhism principles.
Schlembach, a self-proclaimed atheist, said he grew up in a home where faith-seeking was acceptable. Cleveland grew up Baptist and made a decision as an adult to move away from the Christian church.
"My family didn't like it at all. They thought it was silly. They grew up in a Christian family, in a Christian country, and in their minds, Christianity is the one, true religion," Cleveland said. "It could have been anything. I could have become a Muslim, and they would have thought it was just as bad."
Cleveland said he began questioning self and God and existence when he was in his teens, and in time, he realized he didn't fit in church.
"I realized the congregation's actions didn't reflect the message they were teaching," he said. "It's not a failure of Christianity necessarily; I just didn't agree with the hypocrisy."
Cleveland said he then began studying philosophy and world religion, including the teachings of Buddha.
"It's weird to be alive in the first place, and that it's weird that anything exists at all, if you think about it. Why is there something instead of nothing? Quantum physicists are still trying to figure out the universe and how it got here," Cleveland said. "Everyone has their own opinion of who Jesus was, and what Christianity means. ... I know Jehovah is a god and he exists, but I don't believe in him."
Eventually, Cleveland settled on the teachings of Buddha and committed his spiritual mind to exploring the existential.
Schlembach's faith journey to Buddhism, however, wasn't as complicated.
"I'm nominally Jewish, ethically Jewish, but I don't speak Hebrew or observe the High Holy Days," said Schlembach, 29. "My father introduced us to the Unitarian church when we were growing up, so we learned about other religions, Buddhism included, and we talked often about the psychology and philosophy of religion."
Schlembach, a self-proclaimed atheist, said because Buddhism is a godless faith believing in eternal realms rather than interactive deities, the two can be compatible.
"Buddhism is a polytheist religion; it's a host of different things. We believe gods are in the world, but they're not divine, and they have longer life spans. They're gods because they had good karma from previous lives," Schlembach said. "But Buddhism refutes a creator deity. Since beginning-less time, the universe exists with its realms and always has existed in some form or another."
The men now spend their spiritual attentions seeking enlightenment, focusing their energies on ending suffering in their lives and the suffering of others. To Buddhists, suffering exists, it has a beginning and end, and it has a method to bring about its end, Cleveland explained.
"The ultimate goal is being enlightened and showing others the way out of suffering," Schlembach said.
And if they can't do it in this life, there's always the next life, they said.
"If I'm fortunate enough to live a long life, I hope I can achieve enlightenment," Cleveland said. "But if that's not possible, I hope it's possible in the next lifetime. Or the lifetime after that."