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Vows: That was Zen, this is vow…

January 30, 2010

From The Pacific Sun

If Buddhism is, loosely, a faith founded on the idea of non-attachment, then a Zen wedding—the attaching of two lives together—might seem like something of an oxymoron.

But not to the hundreds of couples in the Bay Area who turn each year to the non-dogmatic folds of the Asian tradition’s principles when joining their lives together.

Evan Kavanagh, a Buddhist minister “empowered” through a program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in San Geronimo to perform Buddhist rituals, including weddings and memorials, does not believe there is a conundrum. His definition of “non-attachment”—”being in the moment, each moment, and accepting things as they are”—he says, “is the foundation for a true and rewarding relationship.”

I agree. My husband and I chose a Buddhist wedding ceremony in a family backyard more than 10 years ago; it was presided over by the Honorable Patricia Leonetti, then abbot at Green Gulch Zen Center in Muir Beach. Though my husband practices Buddhism, I had done little more than read about it in college and keep a battered copy of Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind on my bedside table for reading. Still, what I had read convinced me that it would be a peaceful and loving way to express my commitment to my husband, since I have a more piecemeal spirituality.

For many couples, being practitioners of the tradition is not necessary to hold a Buddhist wedding. Kavanagh marries many people who are simply drawn to the principles and rituals.

“Buddhism has come from outside of the American mainstream culture and probably has fewer associations with our childhood traditions,” Kavanagh says. “People often want their spiritual commitment [to each other] and the values they live by to be expressed in their wedding ceremony.”

Kavanagh describes the American Zen wedding as a “lovely invention,” as couples in Asia do not usually get married by Buddhist monks or nuns. “In Asia they’re purely civil affairs. They’re likely to go to the temple after City Hall for a blessing,” he says.

Kavanagh counsels couples about their spiritual values in advance to uniquely tailor each ceremony.

“Even when we’re in a relationship with somebody very closely, how often do you sit down and say—what is your concept of God, or karma or reincarnation?” he asks. “For many couples it’s the first time they’ve considered what or how to express these values to each other and their community.”

Many couples blend their American traditions with the rituals of Buddhism. Doug Boggs and his wife Michelle brought a wide mix of religious background to their Buddhist ceremony. “I have a broad religious background of practices from different Christian schools and varied philosophies like that of Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist [and] Rumi, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism,” says Boggs, who is also an ordained minister and meditation practitioner. “Michelle’s background is Catholic.”

They chose to have their wedding in the Shakespeare Garden at Golden Gate Park at the tail end of summer. “The flowers of the garden were in full bloom on a gloriously sunny and unseasonably hot, September Bay Area afternoon,” Boggs remembers fondly. Jigme Rinpoche (Rinpoche means ‘precious one’ and is an honorific), the Tibetan monk who maried them, was dressed in the traditional garb of an orange wrap and numerous ceremonial scarves. “He brought Buddhist props, such as an urn, which he blessed, and is to be placed in a high location in our home to attract beauty and manifest love and light. He also blessed a ceremonial stick decorated with feathers and ribbons,” says Boggs. The couple wrote their own vows, and Boggs included a poem “scrolled onto Nepali sheets of paper” that they’d brought back from their travels.

“Jigme chanted throughout most of the ceremony. The beauty that he created was staggering. It laid a bed of love for all to be blessed with,” says Boggs.

Beautifully juxtaposed with the Tibetan chanting was a classical trio playing Mozart.

My husband and I also opted for a mix of traditions. We spurned convention and met our guests at the door, to much astonishment. Many female guests told me it was bad luck to be standing there in my wedding dress but I did not feel that way at all; we were inviting them into our ceremony, and our lives. My husband and I walked down the grassy aisle together—my father did not “give me away”—and we took vows that we had written, as well as Buddhist vows to respect, cherish, honor and love. We wore ceremonial Buddhist scarves and set a statue of the Buddha alongside photographs of beloved deceased relatives on the altar where we were married.

“We have been told, and some people still remind us to this day, that ours was one of the most beautiful weddings they had ever been to,” says Boggs.

My husband and I heard similar praise.

Kavanagh feels that another reason people choose a Buddhist ceremony is due to the openness of the tradition. After San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s attempt to equal the marriage playing-field for gays and lesbians, Kavanagh found himself marrying many couples in the LGBT communities. He was married to his own husband legally in San Francisco, and his license has not been invalidated by the courts.

“The world of American religion is so complex. In convert Buddhism, there is a complete openness to the LGBT community. It could well be that [to] those of us [of any sexuality] who grew up in churches where there was a judgment, a Buddhist ceremony offers a great deal more tranquility.”

In a Buddhist ceremony elements may include an altar set with a variety of “props” to symbolize values or beliefs. Usually there is a short meditation or period of silence, and then the couple recites the “refuges” and “precepts”—a statement of how the couple intends to live their lives spiritually. There may be a poem or song, often spoken by family or friends, then an exchange of vows and rings.

“I love sitting with people in love who are optimistic about their future; it’s such a joy,” says Kavanagh.

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