Center for Faith and Vocation

An Lac Buddhist Temple

AnLacGarden

(317) 545-1234
5249 E 30th St
Indianapolis, IN 46218
www.anlactemple.org

Institutional History/Information

The An Lac Buddhist Temple is part of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, and is the only Buddhist temple in Indianapolis founded by a recent immigrant community to preserve and perpetuate traditions of the homeland. The An Lac Temple was founded in 1986 by a small group of Vietnamese-Americans who bought two neighboring houses and used them both as a temple for community. The original intention of establishing the An Lac Buddhist Temple was to provide Buddhists in the area with a sense of community and kinship, as well as a place to practice and worship together. In 2002, a community of nuns moved into the second house and established it as a nunnery. Before this, the An Lac Temple community was lead entirely by lay-people, without the guidance of a spiritual leader. The group of nuns came to lead services, offer guidance, and formalize the institution. They are currently in the process of building a larger, more formal Buddha Hall in traditional Vietnamese style, on the same grounds.

Demographics

The congregation at An Lac Temple includes around thirty people at a normal Sunday service. Attendance is much larger at important Buddhist festivals. The temple is composed mostly of Vietnamese-Americans of all ages from children to the elderly. The nuns and nuns-in-training comprise a large portion of the congregation.

Service Style

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The An Lac Temple conducts its services in a manner loyal to Vietnamese traditions. The service takes place in a small home that has been converted into a temple. The home is adorned with a beautiful altar, including many representations of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and lotus flowers. The seating consists of rows of circular cushions on the floor. In front of these cushions are small stands holding large books of chants. The service begins with the ringing of a bell and a few bows. After that, the attendees sit cross-legged on the cushions for an hour long dharma talk led by one of the nuns from the temple. Following the talk, a quick question-and-answer session ensues. Then, the second portion begins with an hour long chanting session in Vietnamese, accompanied by bells. Finally, after the service, there is a small vegetarian meal to which all are invited. The entire service is conducted in Vietnamese, and very few people in the congregation speak English. However, headphones with English translation are provided for those who require them, and the few members that do speak enough English to communicate are more than willing to answer questions. Once the current expansion is complete, services in English will be offered as well.

What To Expect

First time visitors to the An Lac Buddhist Temple should call ahead of time to inform the nuns of their visit. The best time to reach the nuns is after 9:00 pm when they have finished their daily chanting. In addition, visitors may wish to ask what sort of clothing is appropriate, but casual attire is generally accepted, and modesty is advised. In most cases, visitors will be welcome to join in the service and will be provided with a translation for lessons done in Vietnamese. Before entering the temple, visitors should first remove their shoes at the door and bow toward the altar as a sign of respect. Bowing and chanting, as well as sitting on the floor for extended periods of time, should be expected during a typical Sunday service at the An Lac Buddhist Temple. Immediately following the service, members of the An Lac Temple gather to eat a vegetarian lunch while the nuns sit separately from the congregation and eat quietly. One should expect to be warmly greeted by the members of the temple who are eager to answer and explain questions one might have about the religion.

Butler students join the congregation at the An Lac Temple

Biographies of People Associated with An Lac

Biography of "Terri," by Anna Holman, Sara Gillespie, and Jordan Zehner

Terri is a nun at Chau An Lac temple. It is there that she greeted us with a smile and began to speak with enthusiasm; she spoke about her life as a nun and her experiences before entering into the monastery. Appearing to be in her late-20s, Terri talked about the place of importance that Buddhism holds in her life. She had not always planned on becoming a nun and spoke about her background and the events which lead her to the monastic life. Terri was born and raised in Vietnam by her Buddhist parents. At the age of twenty-two, she immigrated to California in the United States where she began her studies as a pre-medicine student at California State University. Terri told us that before becoming a nun, she always split her time between school and family, as she had always been very studious.

In her youth, Terri had never considered becoming a nun. In fact, her family worshipped primarily at home and apart from monastic direction. Only once had she talked about becoming a nun. Terri jokingly said that she would enter the monastery when her mother passed away. It was years later, after the unexpected passing of her mother, that she became more involved in the temple. She went to dharma talks and prayed for guidance and it was then that Terri said that she began to seriously consider taking monastic vows. After forty-nine days of prayer, she decided to take the final step and commit herself to life as a nun. She faced opposition from her family; one of her sisters was especially against the decision. In an effort to prove her seriousness and diligence, Terri delayed initiation until after she completed her degree at California State. In 2003, she took vows at Chua An Lac under the tutelage of the master who resided.

Terri said that one of the most striking things about the transition to monastic life was the renunciation of all worldly things. She initially found this difficult because, as the youngest of five, she was often spoiled by her older sisters. Another obstacle, she told us, was her anger; she has struggled with learning to become a member of a larger community. Such struggles are not uncommon for monks and nuns, and Terri understood that she was, in her description, moving against the stream of life which resists such renunciations of irrational emotions. However, Terri's life as a nun has calmed her greatly and she enjoys the peace it adds to her life.

Outside of the convent, Terri serves as a Vietnamese translator for hospitals and courts. While these encounters with the secular world can sometimes be challenging, Terri says that she wants to help the community through compassion and by providing comfort and guidance where she can. She believes that just speaking with members of the Vietnamese community and relating the dharma to their own situation helps them to recover emotionally and physically. Not all of those who Terri interprets for are Buddhist as many members of the Vietnamese community in Indianapolis are Christian. Despite differences in religion, she indicated that she feels a great connection with them and considers the religions of Christianity and Buddhism to be friends. Terri said that providing translation services for the Vietnamese community has helped her along her own dharma path. She views her work in social services as a means to balance her life and says that it acts as a reminder of the struggles that exist outside of monastic life. It also serves as a way to understand the practical application of Buddhist teachings in the larger community.

Just as Terri feels a great connection with people of different religious practices, she sees the importance of working with others from different Buddhist traditions. Terri said that she and the nuns of An Lac, or her dharma sisters, work side-by-side with monks and nuns from other Buddhist temples and that her monastic community values the interactions, cooperation, sharing and learning that they gain from other traditions. In the time spent within the monastery, Terri and her dharma sisters work together doing chores in order to ensure the upkeep of An Lac. Each individual has their assigned tasks or chores that must be completed; however, they all work to help maintain the temple. Some of the duties that the nuns share include washing dishes, cooking, cleaning the worship area, and tending to the garden in the summer months. This garden provides an excellent source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the nuns who become nearly self-sufficient during the warm seasons. When fresh produce is not available, the nuns purchase food that they need with donation money from the laity. Moreover, it is not unusual for someone to provide a meal or two instead of or in addition to a monetary donation. The nuns at An Lac rely on the frequently volunteered generosity of the lay community.

Reflection is another important aspect of Terri's day. There are certain times when Terri and her dharma sisters observe silence, meditate, and study the precepts. Terri said that apart from group meditation, each individual has their own private meditative practices which aid them on their dharma path. Even when separate from her sisters, Terri finds her beliefs efficacious in different ways. Once, she and a friend had gotten lost in the woods while searching for a famous Buddhist monastery on the west coast of the United States. After being unable to find the path back, they both knelt down and prayed to the bodhisattva Quan Am (Avalokiteshvara). After several minutes, a stranger found them and led them back to the correct path. Such experiences, Terri said, help remind her to always be self-aware and to be mindful of the situations in which she finds herself.

Terri and her fellow nuns belong to a particular school of practice known as Pure Land, a part of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. This path of Buddhism places great importance on compassion, a virtue the bodhisattvas extol when they decide to remain just shy of reaching nirvana in order to help others along the path. As a nun, Terri finds that she can practice compassion in addition to meditation and learning about the dharma. In fact, she is able to see how acts of compassion can lead to a greater understanding of her own path. In helping others, one comes closer to realizing one's own Buddha nature and enlightenment. To demonstrate their devotion to the service of compassion, the nuns of An Lac Temple place candles, flowers and fruit on the altar at the front of the room. This display surrounds three main figures. In the middle sits the Buddha, known as Siddartha Gautama in India; to his side sit two important Bodhisattvas, Quan Am, the bodhisattva of compassion, and Dia Tang. Motioning to the front of the temple where the statues stand, Terri explained the Bodhisattva identities: Quan Am, a manifestation of compassion, constitutes one of the most revered bodhisattvas in Pure Land Buddhism and Dia Tang, who, according to the tradition, vowed that he would remain in the realm of samsara until all the souls in hell had reached nirvana.

The path to enlightenment may take hundreds of thousands of lifetimes. Terri said that many people do not actually feel as though they are in a place to reach nirvana during their present life; however, nuns and monks are considered in a slightly better position and as such are treated with utmost respect. With a smile, Terri said that monastic life provides a convenient teaching and learning environment. It is a smoother and easier life of practice. She said that nuns and monks may be able to learn the dharma and gain a better understanding of life. Despite this, she said that nirvana is possible for any human to achieve. Even the laity may be able to recognize their own Buddha nature and realize nirvana. Human form is very rare and fortunate because one is able to reach nirvana directly from this realm, according to Terri. Therefore, one must plant good seeds (i.e., accumulate good karma) during this lifetime in order to be born into a better next life.

Terri also talked about the obstacles of being Buddhist. Many people consider themselves Buddhist but remain aloof from monastic influence. Terri emphasized the importance of attending temple to hear the dharma talks. Speaking from personal experience, she also said that the more worldly knowledge one has, the harder it is for one to let go of the delusion of life. To explain this, she told the story of a very knowledgeable man who went to a great teacher and asked to be his student. The master set two tea cups before them. He poured the tea into one cup and kept pouring until the tea overflowed and spilled all over the table. The man was shocked and asked why the teacher had done this. The master replied that the man was like the tea cup. He was so full of knowledge that anything the master had to say would simply flow out and not be learned. Terri, a college graduate, found her knowledge to be troublesome at times. As she explained, having too much knowledge makes one attached to one's opinions and makes it difficult to realize that all the knowledge about worldly things cannot lead one to understand one's Buddha nature. She has used this knowledge to help in understanding what she is being taught as a nun. There are some teachings, she said, that she does not understand right away. She meditates on them and remembers that becoming too attached to one way of thinking or one teaching is not conducive to progress. The teachings she receives are meant to help her to remain unattached and continue her understanding of such non-attachment and with greater understanding comes different lessons.

Sitting with Terri in the An Lac Temple, one is aware of Buddhism as it is lived and practiced by monastics. Terri's simple lifestyle and path of compassion can be seen in her smiling eyes and relaxed posture. She said that her family can see a great difference in her level of happiness now that she is learning to free herself from worry. Buddhism as practice, learning how to reach the end of suffering, is apparent in her frank and open manner of speaking which compels one to smile along with her and feel a measure of peace free from the worries of the outside world.

Biography of "Matt Godshall," by Derrick Deaton

As I waited anxiously for Matt to arrive, I browsed the menu of the Vietnamese restaurant we had chosen for our meeting. Not being familiar with Vietnamese food in general, I decided to wait for my interviewee to arrive to perhaps try a dish he suggested. Finally, Matt arrived and we began our evening. The setting was definitely appropriate, as we began our conversation on his life and his introduction to Buddhism. Matt gave me several suggestions and encouraged me to try a traditional Vietnamese dish that was actually a soup. I opted instead for the rice noodles and beef, another one of his suggestions. As the young Vietnamese waitress approached, I sensed immediately that Matt was definitely a regular here. The waitress greeted Matt in Vietnamese and called him by name. He spoke back to her and placed his order in Vietnamese as well. I was to find out later just how perfect the setting was, after Matt explained how Vietnam had a lot to do with his involvement in the local Buddhist temple here in Indianapolis.

Matt, a Euro-American in his late fifties grew up in Shelbyville, Indiana and around the age of 18, he joined the military. After being stationed in several cities in Texas, he arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, the town which he enjoyed living in the most. Matt was able to take classes at the local university to work on furthering his education while he was stationed there. In 1963 Matt was called to Vietnam during the Vietnam War and his journey towards Buddhism began. Coming from a small town in Indiana, he was excited to be in a new and different country. He was stationed by the coast and described the heat in Vietnam as being "Florida times two!" As he rode bikes around the area that he was stationed in, Matt began to have a deep interest in Vietnam. After he returned to the United States, he couldn't stop thinking about Vietnam. The people, the food and the experience were still fresh in his memory. He always wanted to go back to Vietnam but after the Vietnam War, Americans were not allowed to travel there. Not forgetting about his experience, Matt was able to return there many years later.

The Eli Lilly Corporation was offering a grant to those wishing to travel to Vietnam and would send the lucky few there for 10 weeks. Matt immediately jumped at this opportunity. By this time, Matt was married and his wife, being a French teacher, also possessed a great interest in the country. After all, the French occupied Vietnam for over 100 years. While she was interested in studying Vietnamese architecture, Matt was more interested in seeing how things had changed over the years. Seeing how the culture had changed was his main objective. Matt and his wife were approved for the 10 week visit in 1996 and Matt set off for his second venture into Vietnam. After doing, what he described as 'casual research', traveling throughout the country and doing numerous interviews with locals, Matt and his wife returned home. The National Education Association's publication did a write-up on Matt's trip and his research. Needless to say, both Matt and his wife were very pleased with their adventure. But Matt's path to Vietnam and back kept leading him closer and closer to his faith.

It wasn't long after Matt returned from Vietnam that he received a call from An Lac Temple, a Buddhist nunnery and temple in Indianapolis. He was asked by those at the temple to help in assisting young children learn English. The majority of the faithful that attend this Buddhist temple are Vietnamese and many who had come to this country and this city were able to find a place to strengthen their faith at An Lac. They wanted their children to speak English and Matt was happy to oblige. And so began his direct involvement with An Lac. Being so involved at An Lac, Matt began sitting in on Vietnamese classes at the temple, eager to learn as much as he could. He soon starting attending services and classes every Sunday and enjoyed teaching the second graders as much as he could about English and how to speak it. Soon after, he was asked to help teach the nuns there how to speak English. This quickly became a quid pro quo. Matt helped teach the nuns English as they in turn taught him Buddhist principles. Most of their Buddhist writings and texts were in Vietnamese so he was glad to learn more and more from the nuns about this peaceful and loving faith. At this point it was almost an academic endeavor and he was interested in comparing Buddhism to other religions he was familiar with.

One particular event was important in Matt's journey. He doesn't recall perfectly, but believes it may have been the Buddha's birthday. He remembers several new inductees being welcomed to the temple as members. He heard the five precepts that they accepted before the crowd and began to become more and more interested in Buddhism. His work with the temple community soon turned from an academic endeavor to a journey of faith. Matt had always been disenchanted with Christianity, not necessarily the church but the dogma and the people. The more he learned about the teachings of the Buddha, the more he understood and the more it clicked with him. He agreed more with the creed of Buddhism much more than that of Christianity. He recalled a story about certain people wanting to join a Methodist church he was involved with. In order to be a member you had to be interviewed by the church and sign a paper. This just didn't sit right with Matt and he never forgot it. Throughout this process, Matt mentioned that at no time did he ever feel pressure from anyone at the temple. They allowed him to make his own way and never pressured him into joining.

Before long, Matt became a member of the An Lac Temple. When I attended a service at An Lac I was so warmed by the wonderful Vietnamese vegan lunch they had waiting for us after the service. When I inquired about the meal to Matt, he laughingly told me he could not cook Vietnamese food but always donated money to the temple to help with the cost of preparing the meal. He did, however ask someone at one time if there was anything he could do to help with the meal. He never got a call asking him to do anything. This really speaks to the creed and belief there, Matt added, saying that no one would ever pressure anyone to do anything. All is done with free will, including preparing the meal. While we discussed the meal further I asked Matt about many Buddhists being vegetarian or vegan. He smiled and told me he did try to eat vegetarian most of the time, but there are times when he does enjoy the occasional piece of meat. When talking further about how he lives his life as a Buddhist, Matt pointed out that one of the five precepts that he recited before the temple when he became a member was to stay away from intoxicants. He does abide by this most of the time. There are those instances where he will have a glass of wine, for example "while watching the Super Bowl", but usually does follow this precept. He certainly does not go out and drink socially.

When I asked Matt what the most important aspects of Buddhism were to him, he put it very simply. Bad things come back to you. Karma and the cause and effect of Karma were important to him. When we dug a little deeper into the Buddhist philosophy that really spoke to Matt, we discussed the Eight Fold Path and how important it was to try and follow it. One aspect of Buddhism that he liked was that there is no praying to an outside "god" or God or even the Buddha himself. You are in total control of your life. You do not have to pray to someone or something else to help you. There is no praying to get help to win a basketball game. It is up to each individual person. "We have the power of thought", Matt told me, and explained that right thoughts bring right action. We discussed a very well-known quote from the Buddha; "All that we are is the result of what we have thought." This quote really tells us how our thoughts affect our lives and actions. "There is no one to save you in Buddhism," Matt told me. And I couldn't help but think of the last words of the Buddha, "work out your own salvation." Matt said that developing self-control and self-reliance was a form of atonement for him. Not atonement in the Christian sense, but in the more Buddhist sense of being responsible for one's own actions.

When I inquired a little more on his thoughts on Christianity and Jesus in particular, Matt replied that he believed Jesus and Muhammad were both humans just like the rest of us. But they were both humans who had reached Enlightenment. They came up with a formula to live by, but they were human just like the Buddha. Matt told me the story of a friend of his that practiced Buddhism. He was a construction worker and Matt often found him in the Lotus position in the early mornings. His mother sadly passed away, and keeping with Buddhist teachings, his friend would go to the temple every day for 49 days to honor his mother. We spoke more about An Lac in general and Matt was excited to say that he and others at An Lac wanted more Americans to come and be part of the services. He was also excited about the new temple that is almost completed. Matt was one who pushed for a new sound system in the new temple as well, so that the English speaking faithful could hear the Dharma talk translated into English a little better than on the earphones that are used for this purpose now.

I was also interested to know what reaction his friends and family had to Matt's involvement with Buddhism. He explained that he was once playing tennis with some friends and everyone was sharing where they attended church. When asked what church he attended, Matt replied that he was a member of the An Lac Temple. So you must be Jewish was the response he got. He laughed and told them no, he was a Buddhist. I could tell from Matt's story that their reaction was mixed, as he tried to imitate their darting eyes when he said this.

One subject I was really excited to talk to Matt about was the subject of attachment versus non-attachment. This is something I myself have been struggling with understanding. When I asked Matt how one could love their spouse or family and friends and not be attached to them, his reply really put things into perspective for me. "Family is like money, you can't take it with you" was how he summed it up. He told me of a time when some of the nuns at An Lac were leaving for a while, but did not tell anyone goodbye. It was not that they didn't care, he explained. But saying farewell would show attachment. Buddhists, Matt believed, were the most giving people. He once told a friend at the temple one day that he liked his hat. The friend immediately removed the hat and offered it to Matt. Of course, Matt refused but this was just a small example of the generosity of the Buddhists at An Lac. He also said that he is especially saddened when he sees an animal killed by the side of the road, possibly more sad than normal. He doesn't like to see suffering or the tragedy of an animal being killed by a car. This to me really shows the compassion of Buddhists.

The conversation went on as we discussed the periods of chanting I had experienced during my visit to An Lac. While Matt does speak some Vietnamese, he felt it was too difficult and distracting to try and follow along, so he simply tries to concentrate and relax his mind and body. Our talk began to wind down and finally turned to whether or not Matt believed that true Buddhahood was possible for the normal person. He simply said he wasn't sure. He wasn't sure that Buddhahood could be attained, but he sure does feel that following the path of the Buddha and his teachings is definitely a great start. And so ended our evening together and I must say, I left the Vietnamese restaurant that night with a better understanding of Buddhism and was grateful for the chance to speak to a practicing Buddhist.