New Temple of the Vedanta
The first sight for the visit is the New Temple of the Vedanta Society of Northern California located at 2323 Vallejo Street, San Francisco. The building of the temple is of light-brown color with long and narrow windows. Inside it is spacious and light so the atmosphere is calm and inviting. Vedanta Society relates to one of the oldest religions on the globe – Hinduism (Vedanta Society of Northern California, n.d.b, para. 1).
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Hinduism is a religion that combines some Indian cultures and worldviews that create a system of specific ethical goals of human life such as prosperity, hard work, sincere emotions, the sense of liberation, purposeful actions, and different paths. Hinduism is not centered around one God, rather, there is a number of gods that are regarded as different forms of the same God. The Vedanta Society of Northern California was established in 1900 by Swami Vivekananda to teach his disciples about how Freedom can be attained as well as how happiness can be achieved through the manifestation of divinity.
One of the focal points of the New Temple is the Altar which represents the concept of God as it is seen by the Vedanta Society. The Altar includes five figures in shrines: Buddha, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and Jesus Christ. The altar is not situated high near the ceiling, rather, it is low enough to be carefully examined or touched, which creates a feeling of divinity being very near to a person instead of being far and unreachable.
The most appealing sacred detail is the OM word located above the enshrined gods. According to Vedanta, this symbol represents divinity in any aspect of human life (Vedanta Society of Northern California, n.d.a, para. 1). In my opinion, the word OM is appealing for its meaning of tranquility and all-inclusivity which lacks many aspects of our lives.
San Francisco Zen City Center
The second sight is the San Francisco Zen City Center or otherwise known as the Beginner’s Mind Temple located at 300 Page Street in San Francisco, CA. It is a brown brick building with large white windows and a garden, which greatly contribute to the overall peaceful environment. Zen is a Buddhism school, heavily influenced by the Taoist beliefs of personal expression, bringing good to others at the same time with practicing discipline and self-control (BBC, 2002, para. 1). Established in 1969 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the San Francisco Zen Center offers its visitors classes, programs, meditation services, and sharia talks on the themes of spiritual practice (San Francisco Zen Center, n.d., para. 2).
The main meditation area is light and spacious and includes a number of statues that make up a shrine that does not look like a conventional shrine that can be seen in other spiritual sights. Despite the presence of a large statue of Buddha on a pedestal, there is no sense of pressure to obey to a deity and follow certain rules. Therefore, the unique religious character of peace and self-control is transferred through the lack of religious imagery and symbols that can only clutter the meditation space.
Because the San Francisco Zen City Center does not have many sacred details, one has to find sacred meaning in regular things. The small fountain in the middle of the city garden, in my opinion, serves as a sign of purity and tranquility practiced by Zen Buddhists. Furthermore, the sound of water helps the process of meditation and relaxation, which are the primary activities conducted in the Center. The San Francisco Zen City Center is a place that is detached from religious beliefs and strives towards achieving spiritual balance rather than follow particular religious rules and guidelines.
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Shambhala Center of Himalayan Buddhism
The third sight is the Shambhala Center of Himalayan Buddhism on 1231 Stevenson Street. The building of the Shambhala Center is rather small and plain; however, it only counts what is inside. The vision of the Shambhala Center relates to the Shambhala traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and is rooted in the “legendary kingdom famous for being an enlightened society” (SF Shambhala, n.d., para. 1). Nowadays one of the main purposes of Shambhala is bringing together people of different backgrounds and teaching them to explore themselves and transform their lives to become an enlightened society. Established by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Shambhala Center offers meditations, dharma talks, and community discussions to everyone.
The center is decorated with the symbols of the Himalayan Buddhist tradition as well as with the photos of its leaders and followers. They are there to show the sense of community and support among the members that strive towards creating a society of enlightened individuals.
One of the images that I found especially appealing is the image of the Primordial Rigden, which is considered the main shrine in the Shambhala tradition. The picture is hung on the wall of the main meditation area in the building so that the participants of ceremonies and meditations can clearly see it. The image captures Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the Center’s Leader, who represents the embodiment of peace, goodness, and enlightened leadership (Shambhala, n.d., para. 2).
Wong Tai Sin Temple Service
The fourth sight is the Wong Tai Sin Temple Service located at 586 Sixth Avenue in San Francisco. The building of the Temple is not unique at all, rather, it blends into the neighborhood. The Temple can be distinguished by a large sign in Chinese hieroglyphs. The Wong Tai Sin Temple practices Buddhism, a religion that encompasses a range of beliefs and traditions attributed to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama otherwise known as Buddha (Faure, 2011, p. 7). The Wong Tai Sin Temple is similar to the temples across China where people are welcomed to come and pray. Therefore, the Temple manifests the ancient Buddhist traditions far from the country of origin.
Inside, the Temple is small and contains a number of Buddhist statues to which people can pray. The staff there is friendly and ready to help the visitors to conduct their prayer. In addition to prayers, the Temple offers Kau cim fortune-telling services. Visitors can pray to the statues of Wong Tai Sin, Guan Yin, and Guan Yu, the popular Chinese Taoist deities. The praying space is filled with the objects of Buddhist traditions, incents, fruit, and flowers that visitors bring to ‘give’ to the deities to which they pray.
One of the most appealing sacred details present in the Temple is the sculpture of Wong Tai Sin, a deity that is very popular in Chine and especially Hong Kong for the magical healing properties (Discover Hong Kong, 2016, para. 1). Because of the popularity of the deity, his shrine is furnished with flowers, candles, fruit, and dishes brought by visitors that want their wishes fulfilled. The sacred sculpture represents a feeling of hope and trust that people have for it when they come to pray.
Sherith Israel Synagogue
The next religious sight is the Sherith Israel Synagogue on 2266 California Street in San Francisco. The building is a representation of some Classical Revival elements, combined with the Islamic and Romanesque styles (Sherith Israel, 2016, para. 2). The Synagogue is a place for Judaist practice, a religion that is based on the Hebrew Bible principles, which were explained in the Talmud. The main principle of Judaism relates to the existence of one all-knowing, just, and fair deity that created mankind (Commisceo Global, 2015, para. 2). Established on 24th of September, 1905, the Sherith Israel is a ‘spiritual home’ to the community of Judaists through conducting various community programs and educational opportunities that unite visitors from different backgrounds and opinions.
The building of the Synagogue is furnished with frescos on religious themes, with the main focus on the dome. The frescoes represent the Ten Commandments, the passages from Torah, images of Chanukah menorah, the Star of David, as well as other significant symbols inherent to Judaism. These spiritual objects create a connection between a person and God and remind that obedience to the rules set by the sacred writings are the only ways for achieving good in life.
One of the most striking spiritual objects of the Synagogue is the bright stained glass picture on the west window of the building. It depicts Moses presenting the Ten Commandments, one of the most known episodes from the Exodus. The image is the epitome of the Judaist faith that is directly based on the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments in order to be approved by the highest deity. In my opinion, it creates a sense of control over the Synagogues visitors.
Holy Virgin Cathedral
The sixth sight of religious worship is the Holy Virgin Cathedral on 6210 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco. The cathedral is quite unique for its architecture for the States since it is a traditional Orthodox design that can be found across Russia. In terms of the Christian religion, Orthodoxy is a conventional belief that relates to the early teachings and customs of the Church of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Orthodox Christianity refers to the original doctrines taught by the church – the trifold nature of God (Wellman, 2013, para. 3). Established in 1927, the Holy Virgin Cathedral has one of the most known congregation for Russians that live in Northern California.
The interior of the Cathedral is typical to the traditional Orthodox Church furnishing that includes large amounts of wood, metal, and gold. There are many hand-painted icons of Christian Saints – apostles, prophets, martyrs, the monastics, the fathers of the church and the just. Each of the saints has his or her own characteristics. For example, Saint Zachary is considered a patron of peace while Blessed Virgin Mary is the patron saint of childbirth (Orthodox Church in America, 2016, para. 3). The images of these saints in the Cathedral create a feeling of support for the visitors that come to pray and ask for good in their lives.
One of the most significant spiritual objects in the Cathedral is the icon fresco of Jesus Christ and two angels situated above the main altar. Jesus Christ is the main symbol of Christian faith since it is believed that he is one of the three images of God in human flesh. The icon is appealing for its grandiose size and the meaning it bears – unity between men and God.
Islamic Society of San Francisco
The last spiritual sight is the Islamic Society of San Francisco, situated on 20 Jones Street. The Darussalam Mosque is a simple three-floor building that does not differ from others in the neighborhood. The Mosque is a place for the cultivation of the Islam practice and education (Islamic Society of San Francisco, 2016, para. 2). Islam is one of the largest monotheistic religions in the world that believe that Quran is the word of the only and all-knowing God (PBS, 2003, para. 6). It is commonly accepted by Muslims that Prophet Muhammad is the founder of Islam. Nowadays the mission of the Islamic Society of San Francisco is developing the American Muslim identity on the basis of respect, love, and dignity, as well as the teachings of the Quran.
Modesty and dignity are considered virtues in Islamic faith so there are no religious objects and images present in the Mosque. The main space for prayer consists of carpeted floors and large windows, and a small cabin where the leader is holding a prayer. Since there are no spiritual objects to discuss, it is worth mentioning that the Mosque cultivates a strong sense of community and mutual support which is not interrupted by any extra embellishments or shrines.
BBC. (2002). Zen Buddhism.
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Commisceo Global. (2015). A brief introduction to Judaism.
Discover Hong Kong. (2016). Wong Tai Sin Temple.
Faure, B. (2011). Unmasking Buddhism. Malden, MA: Wiley.
Islamic Society of San Francisco. (2016). About.
Orthodox Church in America. (2016). Christ and the Apostles.
PBS. (2003). Basic facts about Islam.
San Francisco Zen Center. (n.d.). City center.
Shambhala. (n.d.). Sakyong Mipham.
SF Shambhala. (n.d.). Shambhala vision.
Sherith Israel. (2016). Historic sanctuary.
Vedanta Society of Northern California. (n.d.a). New Temple Altar.
Vedanta Society of Northern California. (n.d.b). Vedanta.
Wellman, J. (2013). What do Orthodox Christians believe?