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Buddha, Beastie Boys and the Way of the Fist
An extraordinary local Buddhist’s journey – so far
By Joe Rogers
Canstar News Service February 22, 2007

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Sensei Fredrich Ulrich is a Buddhist that has been knocked out five times and had 52 pieces of bone removed from his elbows from time spent in competitive, full-contact martial arts. The North Kildonan resident, now sensei at a West End Buddhist church, even had his own Kempo Karate school for 10 years, which loosely translates into “The law of the Fist.” Even though he was a Buddhist at that time, Kempo gave him a sense of physical balance that eventually became unhinged as his body and mind aged. He chose to listen to his body and quit to restore that balance. “Fighting is almost as intimate as love making,” said Ulrich, who now practices the much gentler tai chi. “The smell of (an opponent’s) breath and sweat...In the end, the intimacy of fighting repulsed me.”

It hard to imagine that belligerent side of him as he gently pours tea and, at times, closes his eyes when he speaks, as if to put his words into a well-thought-out cadence. It sounds like a movie, but the path Ulrich took to Buddhism is wilder than any Bruce Lee film. It was a combination of his disillusionment with Christianity and his Aboriginal background that helped Buddhism find him.

Ulrich was at theology school in Denver training to be a minister when he found himself in a religious crisis. “It dawned on me that if I’m going to make a living at this, I’m going to have to really believe,” he said. At that time he couldn’t, so he went back to his Aboriginal ancestry and embarked on the first of his major vision quests. He spent seven days in the Colorado mountains, bringing him closer to Earth and he found Buddhism to be his true calling. Ulrich just couldn’t fathom or find reason in the notion of Christian salvation. “In order to understand Christ, I would have to see my grandmother going to hell,” he said, referring to his Aboriginal relatives whose religion was Black Elk’s Vision. One of the cornerstones of Buddhism is acceptance of all religions, which is concisely explained in the vow of the Bodhisattva, which Ulrich recites like an old friend: “I refuse all salvation until every being has been saved before me. Even to the dust on the soles of my feet.” Ulrich points out that the Beastie Boys have recorded a song titled “Bodhisattva Vow,” and he said they did a good job of explaining its meaning.

Ulrich has been the Sensei at the Manitoba Buddhist Church, located at 825 Winnipeg Ave., since 1999. Ulrich is married and has two daughters. One of his two daughters and a son-in-law are both United Church ministers and he said there is an 80 per cent inter-marriage rate among his own 200 parishioners. But like all churches, they are facing a decline in numbers. Judy Kaita, a parishioner for nearly 50 years, said this is partly because of a change in demographics with people having less children than her generation. She praised Ulrich’s ability as a minister and said the church is becoming more inclusive. “He’s a wonderful minister and everyone likes him,” said Kaita, with a Japanese accent. “It’s for all Canadians, not only for Japanese coming to the church.”

Ulrich said the church aims to bridge the gap between religions and people from all denominations are welcome – on one condition. “Everyone is welcome at the church as long as they don’t get on a conversion kick,” said Ulrich, with a smile. Ulrich cites a trend of exclusive fundamentalism that runs the risk of intolerance and violence, which we see playing out in the news nearly every day. Ulrich believes the way to curb this trend is for Buddhism and Christianity to come together and learn from each other. He said a dialogue with Christians will help that religion reawaken their meditative and non-verbal tradition, while for Buddhists it would help them to express their beliefs through social commitment.

And Ulrich and his church are putting their end of the deal into practice with increased involvement in the community. They actively raise funds for Winnipeg Harvest and Agape Table, a local soup kitchen that feeds 250 people daily. “Our hope is to be accepted as a positive influence in the community and trying to make the city a better place to live in,” said Ulrich.