In Search of Meaning - My First Steps in the Spiritual Realm
My mother’s eyebrows rose a notch when I asked to her to let me follow her to the temple. The first and middle days of the month in Buddhist calendar are special for its followers. On these days, Buddhist temples receive visitors, like how Christian churches receive disciples on Sunday.
Growing up, I’d never thought of myself as a “Buddhist”, despite growing up in a very religious setting. My family reserved a big room for the home Buddhist shrine. We had two big altars, one to worship our ancestors and, one to worship Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. My mother made sure the family never missed the ritual. My grandmother lived her old age as a Buddhist monk.
Even though I was forced to participate in most rituals. I didn't believe, or understand, how sending offerings to big statues will make deva ( Buddhist “god”) bestow people with good fortune, money, power, or health. I grew even more disconnected to the religion after my mother, worried by my single life, carried out a ritual to “cut” the “binding thread” that supposedly bound me to some spirit, probably my husband in the past life. She thought that then I could be free to receive another love.
Yoga was my first experience with something truly sprung from the roots of Buddhism. The more I practiced, the larger my affection for Buddhism grew, unconsciously.
When I was in child pose, I was a seed sleeping in the warmth of the earth. When I rose up to mountain pose, I was a tree rooting my toes in the soil. From then on, with each pose, my branches expanded, grew longer, bigger; I bent but my roots were never plucked from the ground. And when I finally descended to Shavasana, the death pose, I was a leaf dropped into the earth, ready to be transformed. In an hour of yoga practice, I experienced the continuum of life from beginning to end.
Yoga led me to mediation. Meditation brought me closer to the mindfulness teaching, and other teachings of Buddha: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eight-fold Path, the Triple Refuge, Karma. Ironically, it was the year I lived abroad in Europe that I finally understood the religion I was born in.
When I told my mother, she tried to hide her surprise but her eyebrows betrayed her. Nevertheless, she went home after work to fetch me to the temple, without questioning my intention. In fact, she seemed rather pleased.
As we entered the big wooden gate, I hoped to be moved by the calmness and serenity of this sacred place. I was being mindful of my breathing, paying attention to the small details around. I was opening myself to the divine energy.
I waited patiently, followed my mother’s footsteps to altars in different shrines, and gazed up at a myriad of deva statues. I noticed the expressionless, sometimes stern, look in their eyes. I found in me a sense of indifference, of distance. I could not connect with these gods; I did not know their stories, their sufferings, their teachings. I only knew, from my mother's explanation, what kind of fortune they would grant.
I looked around at many people bowing in front of the altars; eyes closed; mouth murmuring prayers. I wondered what they were asking for. A job promotion, protection from sickness, good marks at school ? A young woman in green caught my attention. She was making rather fast Namaste gesture, with two notes of 100,000 Vietnam Dong between the palms of her hands.
Filled with nothing but emptiness, I left the shrine and went to the garden. There, a poem hung loosely with fading letters written on a big yellowing paper:
~ ~ ~
Life is the Sea of Suffering
Excruciating Spirals, or
All belong to the Sea of Suffering
Everyone has Their Own “Sky - Buddha”
Doesn’t Matter what that is, Keep Believing
Don’t Try to Predict Future
Live the Presence, that is “Happiness”
Pure Lands after Death could be for Every One
I couldn’t help but felt an immense sadness.
What should a follower do? Expressing humility and realizing with gratitude every time bowing to Buddha? Or "buying" good fortune?; living the principles, follow the path, in daily deeds? or running in the wheel of time with a self-deceived sense of security?
A while later, I heard my mother calling my name; she’d finished the rituals and we were about to leave. As I went in a shrine to collect the treats we had placed on the altar, a chant broke the silence. It was from a middle-aged man, wearing a black robe, sitting on the cushion in front of the big altar. He struck the singing blow three times, picked up the mallet, started to repeatedly struke the wooden fish with it. A wooden-like, deep, hollow clock ticking sound filled the temple. As he started chanting the sutra, I felt at ease, as if my soul was singing with the chant. There was a small child sitting next to him, maybe his daughter. The little girl wore a grey children’s robe, calmly playing with her hair.
I saw again the young woman in green; she was burning a big chunk of money, as a way of sending it to the other world. The man’s voice, the hollow wooden-like sound, the small child in grey robe, mesmerizingly lingered in my head as I walked away from the temple.