Senior Pastor Dr. T. Marquis Ramsey and Daishin Buddhist Monk Bushi Yamato Damashii have much in common, and they should do, as they are one and the same person. A person who is at the forefront of a slow smouldering paradigm shift where two faiths, thought by some to be mutually exclusive, come together in an inter-faith temple.
“To some this is blasphemy. They will cite that “man cannot serve two masters.” I tell them I am serving no master. I serve neither Buddha nor Christ. I serve humanity (laughing).” Bushi Yamato Damashii declares.
The journey to a combined faith, ordination as a Monk and the establishment of the St. Stephen Interfaith Temple in North Carolina is one that began many years ago.
“By the time I was nearing my mid-teens, I had grown both weary and leery of much of religion’s rhetoric about divinity and the Sacred,” explains Bushi. “I began exploring Hinduism and Buddhism and grew increasingly fond of the Lord Buddha. Because of my family’s strong Christian tradition I studied Buddhism and the Dharma secretly away from my family’s knowledge. This would have been a cardinal no-no in my parents and grandparents eyes (laughing). Later I spent time in Japan and had the spectacular opportunity to visit the temple of Zen Daikokuji Temple in Saga Kyoto, Japan and was hooked. I was 20 at the time.”
Upon returning to the Unites States T. Marquis Ramsey, as he was exclusively then, followed the path of an American Baptist Pastor, and spent 20 years in that role, earning two Masters degrees and a PhD in the process. And while, during that time, dissatisfaction with much of the doctrine and dogma of the institutionalised Church grew, his love of the teachings and person of Jesus remained constant.
“Of the issue of Christianity, Jesus was always the theme. In my eyes, His teachings of responsibility to one another are essential. I eventually broke away from the institution and have since disavowed many of the theological trends and teachings of the Christian church...but the essences of Jesus’ teachings are valid and alive in me all the time. I took my vows as a Buddhist monk and never once disavowed the compassionate Christ I have come to know and understand. I understand what His Holiness The Dalai Lama means when he speaks of “...the need for building tolerance for other faith traditions.” The essence of a pure religion is compassion for all sentient beings. This idea binds me to Christ and the Lord Buddha. At age 42, I am a Buddhist monk who loves and honors the teachings of Christ.”
It was on June 1st of this year that Bushi took his Upasampada, which means ordination in Pali. He had been a novice monk for six years before this momentous occasion.
“I am a follower of Mahayana Buddhism, but more specifically, Nichiren. The tradition is sometimes considered ‘Nichiren Buddhism’. Here in the United States, like many other parts of the world, each sect or branch of Buddhism adapts to its host country or culture. Nichiren Buddhism here has priests, monks, and nuns. I am a member of the Daishin Buddhist Society of America. My tradition is a highly open-minded tradition yet deeply rooted in the Lotus Sutra.”
As his move from Christian Pastor to Interfaith Priest and Monk took shape, Bushi was determined to take the Church of St Stephens, where he was Senior Pastor, with him.
“The idea of doing interfaith ministry started for me about 10 years ago. I was already moonlighting as a Buddhist away from my congregation. I knew that at one point I was going to eventually begin exploring the idea. And in 2008 I came to this place which at that time was a Baptist church, and I began selling the idea almost immediately (laughing). It did not go over so well at first (laughing). Many were really reluctant and had never looked at Jesus as an ‘inclusionist’ or even ‘broadminded’ to say the least (laughing). But some were open to the idea and wanted to explore other religions and perspectives. It was a tough sell but my urging prevailed. After four years of teaching and urging the need to become tolerant, knowledgeable, and understanding of other people and faiths, we converted to an interfaith ministry and added the Buddhist Center.”
However, while some were willing to make that journey with Bushi, once the shift to Interfaith Temple began to become a reality, many were not willing to follow their Pastor’s path.
“We lost nearly everyone of the former congregation. Many did not want to explore nor accept Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, et cetera. It was okay. This was understandable for me. I understood how people could become so dogmatic and institutionalized by religion. And I also understood very intimately how traditions and culture mean everything to some people. I however understood too that I must in some small capacity bridge the gap of the broken hearts and minds of religion. With hard work and great compassion we have gained so many more new friends. We are doing well. Many new people are exploring Buddhism and other religions by interacting with the people who are here. We are discovering that many former Christians and ‘moonlighting’ Christians are visiting with us and exploring meditation and chanting the Nembestu. It is not uncommon here to hear both Namaste and Amen.” Bushi declares with delight.
For Bushi Yamato Damashii his Christianity has been enhanced by his Buddhism, and his regard for the Lord Buddha has been similarly enhanced.
“Jesus in my opinion was a great person who cared for all sentient beings. Many Buddhists, including myself, consider Jesus to have been a Bodhisattva (a living Buddha). I certainly view him in this regard. I refer to the teachings and history of Jesus to draw strength for living a very committed life as a monk, and as a person accountable to other persons,” he explains. “It was Thich Nhat Hanh who wrote the book ‘Living Buddha, Living Christ’, and in it he speaks of the compassion of both the Christ and the Buddha. He also speaks of the need to rid ourselves of the desire of material items of futility. I think both Christ and the Buddha were in favor of this idea. In my opinion, the more advanced the world becomes with technology, material sufficiency, and wealth, the more alienated we as a species become from each other. This separation and exile from human connection, I feel, is what both Jesus and Buddha taught us to avoid.”
A black belt in various Martial Art traditions and the Minnie R. Smith Professor of Theology and Divinity at The Institute for Divinity Research (TIDR) means that this mixture of Buddhism and Christianity is manifesting in many parts of Bushi’s life, and this is exactly how he likes it.
“My work is to bring humanity together through one of the great philosophical divides of history... religion!”