Bushi Yamato Damashii, 43, has had a long spiritual journey, one that led him from Christianity to Buddhism, Baptist minister to monk.
He was born Torrence Marquis Ramsey and raised a Baptist in West Palm Beach, Fla. He joined the Marines at 17, allowing him to visit 34 countries, including Kuwait and Iraq, where he saw combat in the 1990s. It was during a visit home that he was first introduced to Buddhism – which has more than a billion followers in Asia and around the world – by a Vietnamese-American friend.
“A friend of mine was practicing meditation,” Damashii said. “It was something that was intriguing to me. One of the things that was most intriguing was that he could find ways to laugh or be at peace with certain things that the rest of us, particularly myself, couldn’t wrap our heads around.”
Damashii learned meditation himself when he went to Japan to take part in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.
He left the Marines in 1996, years after being stationed at Camp Lejeune and settling in North Carolina with wife Christine, and focused on becoming a Baptist preacher. His grandmother was a minister, and he felt it was expected of him to follow in her footsteps.
He said he considered himself a “Christian Buddhist” but kept his interest in Buddhism quiet since he didn’t think it would be accepted. Damashii served as pastor at several churches through the years. He moved to Thomasville in 1999, teaching martial arts while serving the spiritual needs of churches. He still privately studied Buddhism, finding parallels between it and Christianity that made their way into his sermons.
He settled in at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, an African American church with about 50 members, in 2008. He said congregants were looking for a minister who would do “new and daring things” to reach out to the poor and those with HIV/AIDS. He felt the freedom at the church to open up about his Buddhist-leanings and his belief in being accepting of all people, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered congregants. Members agreed and to denote the change in philosophy, the church was renamed St. Stephen Progressive Baptist Church.
“I began to try to introduce inclusion, how important it is to view one another as an important and necessary and vital strand in the universe,” said Damashii, who holds master’s and doctorate degrees in Theology.
The church’s name changed again to St. Stephen Interfaith Temple as Damashii further pursued Buddhism and decided to open the church to all faiths. He said he wanted to create a dialogue between people of different faiths so that different believers could learn from one another.
In June 2012, after studying Buddhism with monks in the Lexington Buddhist Temple, Damashii took his vows as a monk. The former Baptist church was rebranded the Daishin Buddhist Temple and Mindfulness Center.
He said along the tumultuous journey, some of his congregants “got it,” while others didn’t. Only a couple of his original congregation remain, but he said just as many newcomers have replaced them. The church’s board, which has also seen changes over the years, has mostly been supportive of its leaders, allowing him to transfer the church into a temple, where he and his family now live.
Winston-Salem resident Geigh Jackson is one of the new temple members. She said she left the Christian church because she couldn’t find her answers in one particular religion. She visited a service at the temple two years ago and was impressed with Damashii.
“His sense of humor and humility grabbed me more than anything,” said Jackson. “He takes the literal meaning
of the word ‘servant.’”
Jackson has since become Damashii’s student and assistant, and now “leans more toward Buddhism” than other religions.
“One thing I love about Bushi and his teachings, there’s no commitment requirement,” said Jackson. “If I want to learn about the Buddhist faith, I can, but I don’t have to convert.”
Damashii said the temple draws people of different ages, races and religions, including Christians. He prefers to call Buddhism a philosophy rather than a religion. He says the Buddhist philosophy is compatible with other beliefs. Though he’s Buddhist, Damashii says he still believes in God and Jesus.
As a monk in Daishin (Japanese for “big mind”) Buddhism, Damashii is allowed to be married and have a family. He said that he feels living with his wife and their two children, Torrence Marquis Ramsey II, 14, and Isaiah Ramsey, 11, enhances his religious life.
“It allows me to be engaged,” said Damashii. “Many of the things I work on overcoming through my Buddhism, through mediation and through practice, I have an opportunity to practice directly with my family, with my wife: patience and compassion and kindness and love and generosity.”
He still conducts weddings and funerals as a monk and can perform them in the Buddhist and Christian traditions. Since June, he said he’s performed two weddings at the temple, one in each tradition.
He still gives lectures on Sunday mornings, but he now leads his services while sitting instead of standing behind a pulpit. Attendees sit on the floor instead of in pews. Services end with a time for discussion and questions after the lecture.
Anytime the temple is open, people come by to visit or meditate. As a monk, he has vowed to serve whoever visits the temple, including by offering to cook for visitors. He has also taken a vow of poverty. He lives off the financial and food donations given by temple members and visitors; he said the donations have been generous.
Though there are only a few black monks in this country, Damashii said he has always felt accepted by other local monks and is generally well received when he ventures out into the community in his robes. Many strangers are excited and curious to see him, he said.
His decision to become a monk has divided his parents. His mother is having difficulty accepting it, while his father embraces it and even attended his son’s ordination.
In June, after one year as a monk, Damashii will be released as an abbot to start doing “compassion events” in the community such as helping the homeless.
The Temple is located at 11267 US Highway 64 East in Thomasville. It’s open daily from 7 a.m.–7 p.m. and holds Sunday services at 11 a.m. For more information, visit daishinbuddhistcenter.webs.com or call 336-472-0446.