Dharma Bum Temple (San Diego, California)

The Dharma Bum Temple (formerly Dharma Bum Center) is located in the Golden Hills of San Diego.  The name of the temple harkens to the Jack Kerouac novel “Dharma Bums,” in which Kerouac wrote semi-autobiographically about his search for a Buddhist context within which to ground his own experiences.  Jeff, Derek, and Maggie, who prefer to go without surnames, founded the community in early 2007.  These original three “Dharma bums” met at Hsi-Fang Temple in San Diego, and quickly rose to positions of authority.  This led to multiple trips to Fo Guang Shan’s Zen monastery in Taiwan.  When the bums were approached by the Venerable Master Hueiguang (who had started his own Zen temple in Taiwan) to open a Dharma center, they jumped at the chance.  What began as the Dharma Bum Center became a formal temple once the focus turned from discussions of Buddhism to the practice itself.   Most of the following information comes from the Dharma Bum Temple website, which can be found here: http://www.thedharmabums.org/.

The Dharma Bum Temple is decidedly Western.  The three founding members began their journey as fans of Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, and Buddhism. They had romantic notions of being Buddhist monks and traveling the world in Buddhist monasteries.  Eventually they came to recognize that they were better situated to propagate the dharma in the United States, and this became their mission in opening the Dharma Bum Center.  The founders wanted a place for people in the United States to learn Buddhism, without the cultural clash they had seen in Eastern Buddhist spaces.  Here there would be no chanting, no incense, no robes to turn Westerners off.  Classes are conducted in English, and the temple itself more resembles a cool downtown loft than a spiritual space. Although their views of Buddhism were traditional from the start, the founders acknowledge that Buddhism adapts to new contexts, and always had faith that their own temple would be no different.

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Beyond being Western, the Dharma Bum Temple strives to appeal to youth.  The website is easily navigable, and the temple has a strong Facebook presence as well.  The Heart Sutra plays in the background on every page, which is a nice touch.  The space is downtown, and apart from some Buddha iconography, does not present as a particularly temple-like space.  Demographically, the Dharma bums do appear to be largely young people.  There are a number of youth-centric programs, as well as an arm onto local college campuses which we will discuss later.  Introductory Buddhism classes are offered for children beginning in elementary school for a true immersive experience for the whole family.

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The Dharma Bum Temple is affiliated with the International Bodhisattva Sangha and the Hsi-Fang Temple, fellow Buddhist temples in San Diego. In terms of relationships with Asian Buddhist communities, the Dharma Bum Temple is affiliated with Fo Guang Shan’s Zen Monastery in Taiwan.  The founders began their journey at this latter temple, and monks from the Taiwan temple frequently visit the San Diego temple to teach Buddhist practice.  Fo Guang Shan itself is an international Chinese Buddhist movement which promotes Humanistic Buddhism – a human-centric rather than deist-centric approach to Buddhism.

The Dharma Bum Temple has a no-charge policy, and does not advertise – people find the temple, and if they find it a special place (as they often do), they keep coming back.  Individual views and choices are respected at the temple, and constituents are encouraged to develop their own understanding and practice of Buddhism.  The temple is open to everyone, even those who practice other religions.  According to Jeff, the temple operates “as a free space for all to gather in community and [as] a place of refuge for everyone.”  There are programs for youth, for addicts, for people of all backgrounds.  Primarily the temple seems to attract young people, in their 20s and 30s, as well as families with young kids, although there are some older people.

Ethnically speaking, there is no demographic breakdown listed for the Dharma Bum Temple, on their website or elsewhere.  However, by examining the photo galleries maintained on the temple’s website, we are able to deduce that the constituency is primarily white, with representation from Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and black communities.  The temple frequently hosts guest speakers, who are primarily Asian or of Asian descent, including a number of guest teachers from the affiliated Taiwanese temple (Zlotnik).

Many from the LGBTQ+ community have found a home at the Dharma Bum Temple, which is open to people of all sexualities.  The website “San Diego Gay and Lesbian News” ran a piece on the temple that names the Dharma Bum community as one in which queer-identified folks will be welcomed.  The piece, by Emily Pippin, quotes Jeff, a founder, who says: “Buddhism teaches us there is no difference in race, gender, age, sexual orientation; no one, in the ultimate sense, is any different than anyone else.”  In this way, he believes, Buddhism is inherently open to LGBTQ+ identified individuals.  As a result, many LGBTQ+ people currently attend Dharma Bum Temple, as well as serve as meditation leaders and hosts of the Buddha Badges program.

The Dharma bums are in the process of propagating a co-ed fraternity, Delta Beta Tau, founded on the six perfections.  The goal is to foster an accepting and tolerant space where students from all walks of life can come together to build friendships and learn about Buddhism in daily life and practice.  Fraternity activities will include guest speakers, informal discussions, retreats, and volunteer work.  The only currently open chapter is at San Diego State University,  but the plan is to open chapters on college campuses around the country, contingent upon the success of SDSU’s chapter.  In a piece posted on KPCC, Jeff stresses that the fraternity is meant to be cultural organization rather than a religious one; he envisions offering classes in Buddhism and meditation meant to help college students cope with stress, anxiety, and depression.  Currently, no such Buddhist fraternities exist in the United States, but students at San Diego State University (many of whom already participate in a Buddhist meditation club) seem eager to join.

The Dharma Bum Temple offers a number of free programs, including: introductory meditation and Buddhism classes, dharma talks, homeless outreach, prison outreach, dharma bum kids, dharma bum teens, residential dharma bum life program, visiting monks, nuns, and Buddhist scholars, silent retreats, Buddhist 12-step programs for people in recovery, Aztec Dharma bums, college meditation groups, and more.  Service work includes food redistribution, temple cleaning, prison outreach, and Buddha badges (sellable badges whose proceeds go to charity).  The temple’s FaceBook page tracks each of these service and program opportunities, as well as logging photos of the events.

Flyer for Delta Beta Tau, the Dharma Bum Temple take on frat culture.

This Thanksgiving, for example, Dharma bums got together to organize and redistribute food to local families in need.

The first Saturday of every month, meditation retreats are held.  The retreats lasts four hours, and are free and open to all.  The Dharma bums view retreats as an intense period of meditation, used to deepen one’s own Buddhist practice.  Silence is expected of all attendees, and all electronics are banned – the silence is meant to be as full and complete as possible.

At the center of the Dharma bums’ Buddhism are the six perfections – generosity, morality, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom – and the Bodhisattva Path.  The temple does not advocate one particular school of Buddhism, but rather serves as a bridge for people to begin practicing Buddhism.  Constituents and leaders strive to practice Buddhist principles not only when sitting in meditation, but in their daily lives as well.  The temple hosts many Dharma leaders, each with a unique style and presentation of Buddhism.  According to the website, “there is the practice of all forms of Buddhism here, but behind each practice is the ultimate teacher, Siddhartha Gautama, the original Dharma Bum…”.  At core, all Dharma bums see themselves as disciples of the Buddha, practitioners of the Dharma, and caretakers of the Sangha.

The Dharma Bum Temple has been growing steadily since its founding almost a decade ago.  The temple exemplifies what Buddhism can look like when adapted in the West.  Dharma bums focus on community engagement, mindful living, meditation, and brotherly love.  People of all walks of life are welcome to attend, and there is no pressure to commit, no fees, no strings attached.  The Dharma Bum Temple is radically different than an Asian Zen temple, and intentionally so.  Dharma bums embrace Buddhism without discarding their Western perspectives, and the two coexist beautifully in the Dharma Bum Temple.


Works Cited

Dharma Bum Temple: Buddhist Temple. Facebook, 2015.  Online.  23 November 2015.

Jeff Zlotnik.  Dharma Bum Temple.  Dharma Bum Temple, 2008.  Online.  23 November 2015.

Pippin, Emily.  “At Dharma Bum Temple, all are welcome, including LGBT community.” San Diego Gay and Lesbian News. 31 March 2011.  Online.

“Temple co-founder wants to start Buddhist frat and sorority.” Southern California Public Radio 6 September 2015. Online.