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A group of self-ordained sisters from Merced County, California is on a spiritual mission to heal and empower the world through organic medicine. The main source? The cannabis plant — also infamously known as marijuana.

Despite the taboo associated with the plant, which is often used as a recreational drug, the Sisters of the Valley (SoTV) pay no mind to the criticisms. Their devotion, after all, belongs to nature and humanity alone.

“We prefer to work with the very real and very physical needs of our suffering people and our victimized planet,” they said on their official website. “Our holy trinity is spirituality, activism, and service.”

Some people are misled by their name and regalia, but the sisters are adamant about preserving their unique spiritual identity. 

“We are Beguine revivalists and prefer the title ‘Sisters’ or ‘Sisterhood,’” they said, referring to a medieval religious movement of women actively caring for impoverished and vulnerable groups. “However, by dictionary definition, we are, in fact, nuns. We live together, work together, pray together, and take lifetime vows.”

When asked whether they think this is disrespectful to the Catholic community, they responded: “Not at all. We respect their devotion and their excellence in healing and teaching.”

The Sisterhood grows their plants in the rich, agricultural fields of Central Valley, “where plants abound while jobs are sparse.” Aside from sharing and selling their organic medical products, they also aim to provide work and leadership opportunities for the women in the area.

Cannabis: Nature’s Gift for Healing

The use of marijuana for medical purposes had been legal in California as early as 1996. In 2016, however, in what many political experts consider to be a “tipping point,” California also legalized its use for recreation

SoTV clarifies that the cannabis they grow isn’t psychoactive, nor do sell the drug. However, they are not opposed to its use. “We are proponents for whole plant medicine, and for whole plant freedom,” they said. 

Sister Kate (born Christine Meeusen) formed the Sisterhood in 2014 to share the “safe, non-addictive, and non-psychoactive” properties of cannabidiol. She had been involved in the business as early as 2009, where she formed a collective that served cannabis-based medicinal products to patients. 

She said she wanted people “to experience its healing effects without needing to smoke it.” 

Sister Kate, Founder of the SoTV (Source)

Since the Sisterhood’s establishment, the nuns have sold the same medicinal products — salves, balms, teas, and oils — made from their own hemp plants, which they grow and tend to themselves. 

“It is medical cannabis with the THC bred to be only present in trace amounts,” they said on their site. “It qualifies as hemp, but it is not industrial hemp. We grow and make our products from medicinal hemp plants.”

In fact, any form of industrialization may just take away from the sanctity of their mission. Even the ingredients they use alongside the plants they grow are stringently tested and scrutinized. 

After all, it’s the seriousness of their devotion that counts them as nuns by definition, even if they do not identify with any system or religion. But they are still spiritual by nature, since they consider themselves “revivalists” of the Beguine movement — which, as they say, predate the very idea of Catholic nuns. 

A ‘Convent’, But Not Really

Despite not having strict traditions to adhere to, the sisters still perform rituals that often involve nature. They make their products according to moon cycles — which is something they believe their spiritual ancestors practiced.

They also bless the packages they make before sending them out into the hands of the receivers. Why so? “We believe that we have been called to this work, and that the Universe responds to our prayers and meditations,” they said.

Photo by Shaughn Crawford and John Dubois (Source)

Thus, every one of their creations is consecrated by their own hands, through personal prayers to nature. That’s also why they refuse to set them on the ground or store them in messy enclosures, which can taint their essence.

“We do not believe that our ancient mothers would ever allow their medicines to be carelessly treated,” they said. “Our Beguine foremothers were known for their excellence, and we don’t believe that this image could have been born without an emphasis on cleanliness.”

Silence is also important in the sisters’ stations — not because of maintaining strictness or control, but because they believe that their medicinal concoctions are sanctified through a respectful environment. Similar to traditional Catholic nuns, they strive for absolute reverence in their abode: “Like an abbey, like a monastery,” was their precise description.

Rebel Sisters on a Mission for Humanity

Despite the more progressive laws in the state regarding cannabis, they’re not entirely free from such politics. 

“We have to walk a very very fine, clean line here. Pay every cent of taxes, no cash sales,” Sister Kate told Refinery29. “I know that if we would give them reason, they would shove us down.”

But the sisters are steadily walking towards their visions of empowering more lives — not only through their products but also through their community. 

Criticisms continue to run high, especially from formal and devout religious groups. There is still taboo associated with the cannabis plant and the organization is often criticized for its divergent spiritual identity. 

However, Sister Kate and her newfound order are backed up by solid support from some of the townspeople. Many are seeing the value of the cannabis industry in changing the lifestyle and political landscape of the neighborhood.

“It’s not like we all wake up one morning and go, ‘Meh, nothing wrong with marijuana. Let’s make it legal,’” said Tony Dossetti, former councilman and policeman. “It happens, in my opinion, at a grassroots level. It doesn’t happen in the halls of Congress, it doesn’t happen in the halls of city government or county government, it happens on the street level.”

Source

That is the goal of the sisters, who are not people in power imposing their word, but a fortified group of activists who are resolute in sharing their advocacies. 

“I’m not a follower of the movement per se, but I do believe in civil liberties,” said Jeremy Huesler, a watchman of the company as of 2017. “That’s why I feel so good about being out here.”

He added, “Sister Kate is the most fascinating human being I’ve ever met in my entire life. She is such a kindhearted person but at the same time, [she’s] kind of a gangster, a little bit.”

Source

It might be an uncanny description, but it’s perfect for the Sisters: many might consider their beliefs and practices “unorthodox,” but ultimately, their vision is to help and improve states of life. A religious establishment doesn’t have to be a prerequisite for that.

So, amidst the noise, the sisters carry on in their mission. “There is much work to be done, always, as there is no shortage of suffering people on the planet,” they said.

When you enter a Buddhist temple in the bustling cultural city of Bangkok, Thailand, the last thing you’d expect to see is a statue of football superstar David Beckham.

As far-fetched as the idea is, it’s entirely real. The Wat Pariwat is also nicknamed the “David Beckham Temple” because, strangely enough, a statuette of the legendary athlete sits at the very base of the main altar.

But Beckham isn’t the only surprise within the temple. The Wat Pariwat is home to a wide assortment of arbitrary pop culture icons, often plated in gold and traditional Buddhist colors. From beloved characters in fiction like Pikachu, Spiderman, Batman, Harry Potter, and Mickey Mouse to notable world figures like Barack Obama and Albert Einstein — there is no shortage of lifestyle and entertainment references in this unique place of worship.

Photo from AFP (Source)

Despite all its quirks, the Wat Pariwat is still a sacred space at its very core, and it is honored and regularly visited by many locals in the area. But its unique craftsmanship and unorthodox features make it an interesting venture for both locals and tourists alike.

A Mix of Customs and Pop Culture

In the late 90s, the craze over Manchester United — the team Beckham played for — was at its peak in Thailand. Not even one of the monks in the capital could resist his excitement over the sport. 

After securing permission from the Head Abbott, a 12-inch David Beckham statue was built for the Wat Pariwat around 1999, the same year Manchester United won three major competitions: the Premier League, the FA Cup, and the UEFA Champions League

The gold-plated Beckham statuette — sporting a complete Manchester United getup — replaced the traditional image of a Garuda, a golden-winged bird in Thai mythology. It shares its position on the shrine base with some of Thailand’s former prime ministers.

The David Beckham statuette. Photo from Willy Thuan (Source)

The structure of the building is quite standard. The Wat Pariwat is filled with richly embellished pillars and roofs, covered in mosaic figurines. At first glance, it’s just like any other Buddhist temple: cultural but conventional. 

Upon a closer look, though, the elements are anything but. Where one might expect to find a buddha, there’d be a Dragon Ball Z or Harry Potter character in place.

A figure of Pikachu from ‘Pokemon’. Photo from rice / potato (Source)

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the temple is devoid of significant ceremonial images. Just as in any other religious culture, Buddhism in the country is infused with local mythology, although the principles of the belief remain the same. 

The thematic contrast between traditional effigies and pop culture references is what makes the place especially striking. 

Spirituality is No Longer a Solemn Affair

While the ‘David Beckham Temple’ is perhaps the most renowned, there are other Buddhist temples in Thailand that are just as whimsical. 

The Wat Samphran, for instance, is a 17-story edifice with a massive green dragon coiled around it. (Why a dragon? According to the story, the visual is based on one of the dreams of the Head Abbott.)

In a way, one can say that these quaint temples are reflective of the distinct and vibrant culture of Bangkok. The city is one of the most popular places on travelers’ bucket lists because of its flamboyant arts, which is a perfect fusion of traditional and contemporary styles.

Pinocchio and Mickey Mouse. Photo from rice / potato (Source)

The Wat Pariwat can hardly be called a tourist spot, however — it is located in a relatively quiet suburb within Yan Nawa, a small district bounded by the Chao Phraya River. The temple doors are not always open to the traveling public. Still, some are able to pay a visit and witness its quaintness and eccentricity.

“It is amazing how both modern artistry and ideas are blended with and accepted into a Buddhist temple,” a tourist commented on Tripadvisor, a travel guidance platform. Another said: “Modern style with a lot of different characters from old and modern times — makes you smile.”

But it’s well worth remembering that most of the temple visitors are still devout Buddhists who come to pray and worship. Thus, people are reminded to dress appropriately and treat the place with utmost respect, as anyone would in any Buddhist temple.

Photo from AFP (Source)

So is the display of non-religious figures considered an act of blasphemy? Surprisingly, not many think so. The moment the David Beckham statuette met the approval of the head monks and abbots, one can safely say that the religious culture of the area is a rather open one. 

Many also find that the temple is a good way to revive customary worship. “It can bring people, including kids, to visit the temple more,” a local told The Indian Express

If anything, the ‘David Beckham Temple’ challenges the notions of archaic religious spaces — and prompts a formation of genuine connections with an ever-evolving generation of believers. It shows that modern life and traditional sacred spaces could co-exist — and perhaps even enhance each other’s cultural significance.

Photo by Leiris from Atlas Obscura (Source)

When a local Californian man found himself fed up with vandalism, litter, and crime in his neighborhood in Oakland, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

A median strip at 11th Avenue and East 19th Street became a dumping ground for residential junk, and the city government turned a blind eye on the issue. But Dan Stevenson — who told Oakland North that he had “little faith in humanity” — refused to let it go. 

Purchasing a 60-cm stone statue of Buddha from the hardware store, he and his wife Lu decided to install the figure on the spot. Stevenson was by no means a religious man, but retaliating to the problem with an icon like Buddha — whom he called “a neutral dude” — seemed like an apt response.

What was meant to be an innocent, almost passive response from the non-Buddhist couple would turn out to be a miracle of sorts for the entire neighborhood. 

Photo by Thomas Walden Levy (Source

The small hardware-bought figure would, in time, become a little haven for the Buddhist residents of Oakland. Even more astoundingly: in 2014, five years after the installation, the police reported that criminal activity in the area dropped to an immense 82%. This is something many of the locals correlated with the existence of the Buddha statue.

Today, it is enshrined in a small abode, surrounded by offerings of all sorts. Soft, meditative music plays serenely from a speaker. Framed photos, flowers, and candles encompass the now-painted Buddha. 

On the shrine, a plaque reads Phap Duyen Tu, which means “tranquility.” It serves as the epitome of peace in a neighborhood once riddled with trouble.

‘Phap Duyen Tu’, A Quiet, Sacred Space

Stevenson said that he was not expecting much from the little project. He supposed that someone would steal the statue, vandalize it, perhaps even dispose of it in due time. (There was a reported incident of a theft attempt, which failed, and is fortunately unlikely to happen again — the figure is now attached to a stand.)

To his utter surprise, Stevenson found little offerings at the base of the two-foot figure from Buddhists in the area. It would particularly catch the attention of two Vietnamese citizens: Vina Vo and her son, Cuc Vo. 

According to a report from The World, Vina, her husband, her brother, and a few others made their way to Oakland in 1892 in a small boat. Vina was merely a young woman then, and the war had just ended in Vietnam. Her home village — including their places of worship — had sadly been destroyed.

Vina Vo, photo by Thomas Walden Levy (Source)

Upon hearing the small, uncanny Buddha statue in the intersection, Vina and her son took a keen interest in it. They wanted to care for it themselves.

The pair would initially ask Stevenson for permission every time they tried to make changes. But Stevenson was no Buddhist, and he wanted to encourage their efforts. “It’s your Buddha,” he’d tell them every time. “I’m out of this now.”

At some point, the mother and son mounted the statue up a platform: “In our religion, Buddha is not supposed to be on the ground,” Cuc Vo told Oakland North. 

Photo by Deana Mitchell from Atlas Obscura (Source)

The little Buddha would also be colored in time — first in stark white, then in full intricate detail. The flesh-colored, golden-robed icon is a far cry from when Stevenson first erected it. “His hair’s been colored. His garments are gold and red,” he said. “I mean, he’s beautiful. I would never recognize him on the street.”

Buddha Transforms the Neighborhood

Although Vina and Cuc were the most familiar visitors of Phap Duyen Tu, many other Buddhists in the community would turn it into a little spot of spiritual refuge. It’s especially meaningful because it was a rare opportunity for immigrants to be closer to their faith — especially in the bustling streets of Oakland.

Photo by Thomas Walden Levy (Source)

And this was not the only astounding effect of the statue. Crimes gradually started to go down since its installation in 2009, and while there was no proven correlation between the two factors, many people credit the statue nonetheless. Even those with no religious ties to the icon would be appalled by it. 

“The dope-dealing has stopped, the ladies of the evening have stopped,” Andy Blackwood, a resident of Oakland, said in an SFGATE article

Where garbage and vandalism once were, candles and flowers replaced. “They’re out here every morning like clockwork,” said another local, Alicia Tatum. The original purpose of the Stevenson couple was fulfilled: people would keep the shrine clean and well-maintained to preserve its sanctity. 

Regardless of religious affiliations — and whether or not it truly helped alleviate the criminal activity — the Phap Duyen Tu was a transformative space for the community.

“[People] believe this is a holy site now,” Cuc told AJ+. “If it brings good feelings to people, and [they] like to come and give a little prayer in the morning or at nighttime, then that’s a beautiful thing.”

At an age where the youth seems to be losing touch with traditional forms of worship, a DJ-turned-Buddhist priest would rise to the challenge by incorporating rave culture in his services.

In 2017, Gyōsen Asakura, the master of the temple at Sho-onji in Fukui City, Japan, fused psychedelic lights and techno beats into his Buddhist ceremonies. They may have appeared like a warehouse rave, but these ceremonies were still religious at their very core. 

If anything, the techno-celebrations were an imaginative interpretation of Buddhism’s concept of heaven: “Pure Land,” as it’s called.

Gyōsen Asakura by Caters News (Source)

“I happen to be a massive music fan,” said Asakura, who was a DJ in his twenties before he became a priest. “I think, maybe, I can use beautiful music to introduce the Buddhist ‘Pure Land’ to the public.” 

Some have called Asakura’s methods “unorthodox,” but he remained undeterred. “Priests are publicity agents for Buddha,” he said in an article by The Jakarta Post. “I want to reach out to people in my own way.”

Mixing Techno with Faith

Asakura has already shown great interest in the arts far before his priesthood. After finishing high school, he worked in a club in Kyoto where he was both a part of the lighting staff and a DJ. But as passionate as he was, he could not ignore the call of his faith — which he eventually heeded dutifully. 

At twenty-four years old, Asakura returned to Fukui City and devoted himself to a life of priesthood. And in time, he would succeed his father as the 17th temple master in the town.

Unfortunately, the number of visitors — especially young ones — of the temple was steadily declining. Asakura began to think of solutions to remedy the issue. 

Observing the light projectors as he reads the sutras, he came up with a novel idea: why not use his music and light skills to bring life to the solemn walls of the temple?

“I have long thought the rhythm of reading the sutras can be matched with techno music,” he told The Jakarta Post. 

Recreating ‘Pure Land’ Through Lights and Music

In Buddhism, the Pure Land is a heavenly realm characterized as “a world of light.” The buddha Amithaba, whose name means “Infinite Light,” ruled this domain after reaching enlightenment himself. 

As the story goes, Amithaba was once an earthly king who gave up his throne to pursue an ideal life — one that is free from suffering. He then became a monk called Dharmakara and declared his spiritual resolutions in 48 vows

He eventually became a fully enlightened being and established Sukhavati: the Pure Land. Amithaba promised his followers the same fate of residing in these heavens, as long as they practiced their belief with conviction and sincerity.

And since Pure Land was a heaven filled with light, Asakura believed that modern technology could help believers visualize it in a more tangible way.

Photo by Ellie Duncombe (Source)

“In the old days when electricity didn’t exist, people tried to recreate [the] atmosphere by lacing sculptures with gold leaf to reflect candlelight,” he said. At the time, this was technology at its peak. But this is no longer the case, of course. 

“What I want to do with this project is use lightning and contemporary technology in order to make it possible to get a more accurate image of what Lord Buddha’s world looks like,” said Asakura.

‘Magic, Cosmic, Amazing’

Despite facing criticisms for his approach to faith, Asakura says that he “was happy to have gotten a response at all.” 

He knew that not everyone would be welcoming to his unconventional celebrations. “Those who are against the idea say that Buddhist services have to be serious and quiet,” he said in the BBC Trending video. However, on the other hand: “[Those] who support the service think it makes them feel closer to the Buddhist Pure Land.”

And that’s Asakura’s goal in these projects — to bring back a culture of worship that’s interactive and alive. “I wanted to show the younger generation that temples are open to all kinds of people,” he said.

People of all ages — and all religions — are flocking to a YouTube video of Asakura’s services back in 2016. The section is filled mostly with optimistic and excited spectators, who praise Asakura’s work for its innovation. Among the adjectives people had written were: “magic, cosmic, and amazing.” Many also noticed how the sutras were embedded in the musical pieces.

“This is the true beauty of music and spiritualism,” a user had commented. Another had written: “I love your techno temple. I feel very close to God. It synchronizes with my mind perfectly.”

Photo by Caters News (Source)

So are Asakura’s efforts considered a faux pas in the community? It’s a your-mileage-may-vary situation. But a fact remains here: more people have begun to participate in a celebratory religious culture that seemed to be on the brink of stagnation. And that, of course, is something to celebrate.

“In an era lacking faith, I am hoping that, with effort and ideas from us priests, we can keep passing on Buddha’s wisdom from 2,500 years ago, for thousands and thousands of years,” said Asakura. 

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