This is a tale of karmic unfolding, and of how one reluctant American woman found her calling as a Jodo Shinshu priest.
Like a lot of baby boomers, Carol ‘Gansho’ O’Dowd was curious about the meditative traditions of the East. She’d read extensively on the subject but had no practical experience. Then one day in 1983 she was driving down a street in Arvada when she happened to notice a house that appeared to be doing double duty as a Vietnamese Buddhist temple. She found the number, phoned the temple, and was invited to come for a visit. The following Sunday, she jotted some questions on a sheet of paper, stuffed it into her back pocket, and went.
‘I sat in back by the door and listened to a talk that was given entirely in Vietnamese,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to be rude, so I just sat through it.’
After the service, she noticed some Westerners standing in front of the place, and learned that they were a group of Gnostic Christians in the process of buying the temple. They invited her to join them in their negotiations with an English-speaking monk named Thich Thom Won. Feeling very out of place, O’Dowd sat against a wall and tried to make herself inconspicuous. But then a very strange thing happened. Master Thom Won entered the room, sat down, turned to her and said, ‘So, what are your questions?’
‘Maybe after the meeting?’ she offered.
‘You will find the answers you seek,’ he replied, ‘when you let go of everything.’ Later, completely oblivious to the fact that Buddhist monks are enjoined from any physical contact with women, O’Dowd tried to shake his hand. Master Thom Won did not stand on ceremony. He took her hand and shook it warmly. ‘It was like shaking hands with a living rock,’ she remembers. ‘Later, as I was driving home, light was pouring out of everything; trees, rocks, people, cars. I said, ‘Wow, that was something.’ Then I forgot the whole thing and got on with my career.’
For the rest of the decade, O’Dowd served as town manager for a number of Colorado communities including Snowmass, and Aspen. In 1990, she left government service and moved back to Arvada where she launched a counseling service and got more involved in raising her son, Scotty.
One day Scotty’s second grade class took a field trip to Denver’s Tri-State Buddhist Temple and O’Dowd went along as a chaperone. In the middle of an introductory talk on Buddhism, Scotty looked up at her and said he wanted to join the church. ‘I’d been thinking that he needed some religious education and I’d made a deal with him that he had to go to church, but that he could choose whatever church he wanted to belong to,’ O’Dowd says. ‘Actually, what he said was ‘you said I could choose my church, but you didn’t say which religion.’‘
For her part, O’Dowd felt completely at home at Tri-State, despite the fact that she was Caucasian, while the church was 85% Japanese-American. One Sunday morning she was standing next to an elderly Japanese man named Henry, waiting to enter the shrine hall, when he turned to her and said ‘Have you ever thought of becoming a minister?’
‘Never crossed my mind,’ she replied, and waited for him to enter the shrine hall so that she could go in behind him, temple etiquette requiring that a junior member wait for a senior member to enter first. But Henry didn’t budge. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘would you at least think about becoming a minister?’
‘People were backed up behind us, and so to shut him up and get the line moving I said, ‘OK. Fine. I’ll think about it.’ He got this big grin on his face and stepped into the shrine room. I put the whole thing out of my mind.’ But then other temple members, many of them in leadership positions, began urging her to consider it.
Once she made up her mind, O’Dowd jumped in with both feet. ‘It was like I’d been getting little sips of water and now I wanted to swallow the whole ocean,’ she says. She enrolled at Naropa University and earned a Masters in Divinity. She took courses online from the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley and ordained as a full-fledged Jodo Shinshu priest.
Today O’Dowd serves as minister at Longmont Buddhist Temple. ‘We offer a meditation service twice a month where people are free to practice in any way they choose,’ she says. ‘I call it ‘come as you are Buddhism.’ Of her own spiritual journey, Carol Gansho O’Dowd says, ‘I’m getting better at being open to both the seen and unseen blessings of life. When I reach out to others, I’m touched by light and life from all directions.’
Carol Gansho O’Dowd will speak at Colorado Insight Meditation Community on Sunday, February 27 at 6:30 pm. First Unitarian Church of Denver, 14th and Lafayette St. in Capitol Hill. The event is free and open to the public.
For more info:
Longmont Buddhist Temple
Prajna Partnerships Consulting
Jodo Shinshu Buddhism
Buddhist Churches of America
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