A Visit to Chùa Hải Hội Temple
As an assignment for my Spirituality and Family Therapy course, I was tasked with attending a spiritual gathering outside my comfort zone and write a reflection on the experience. It was an assignment I enjoyed very much. Here it is.
"In my contacts with these new friends, I feel consolation in my own faith in Christ and his indwelling presence.”
- Thomas Merton, upon connecting with Buddhist monks in Tibet.
I pull into the parking lot quickly, a little later than I had intended. Beside me, an Asian woman is just getting out of her Porsche SUV. She opens her trunk and pulls out a plain grey tunic, which she begins to pull on over brand-name clothing. I walk quickly past, hoping to get inside and meet up with my interpreter before the service begins. A nun with saffron robes and shaved head greets me - the same calm and friendly voice that I spoke with on the telephone two days ago. She introduces me to Di Van, a soft-spoken, slender woman with slightly greying hair: “She will interpret for you and answer your questions.” We shake hands (on my initiative, I think) and bow to one another (on her initiative, I think). East meets West on friendly terms, and she leads me up several flights of stairs into the temple.
We enter into the back of what feels to me immediately like a throne room. I associate it in my mind with the royal courtroom of Kublai Khan as I saw it in Marco Polo on Netflix. Three large, gold-embossed buddhas are enthroned across the front of the room. The side and back walls are adorned with thousands of identical little Buddhas. Worshippers are kneeling and bowing toward the front. Di Van tells me to bow and I follow suit. Now is the time to be a gracious guest and not the time to make a stand about bowing to idols. I don’t even know if that’s what’s actually going on here. I have the feeling of being surrounded by powers and facing a power that do not quite understand. I am in someone else’s territory. I am grateful for a guide who speaks to me with gentle courtesy, doing her best to orient this Western stranger, who has come for reasons she accepts to be his own. Neither she nor the nun ever asked why I wanted to come here. I asked, and they welcomed. It was that simple for them.
All the prayers and scriptures are chanted, to the rhythm of a huge slit drum, accented by massive bells that seem to ring endlessly into their diminishment. I cannot tell apart the tonality of the language and the tonality of the musical scale in which the group is singing. To my ears, the sound is plaintive and primal, the cry of humans reaching higher than themselves for help and blessing. The drum varies the pace of prayer considerably, like a train leaving the station, gradually picking up the speed for all those aboard, and then with perfect control applying the brakes for a smooth stop at the next station. The physicality of the ritual cultivates a feeling of calm alertness. The body is seated, but the back is straight. The voices call out, the liturgy guides. The song is a balance of passion and structure.
I am impressed by how much the prayers are other-oriented. There is a long prayer for the spirits of the deceased who are stuck in lower, more miserable states of consciousness, “different levels of hell,” in the words of Di Van. A significant aspect of the community’s spiritual work seems to be to come to the aid of these lost spirits. Later, the scripture reading relays the story of the Buddha going into the spirit world to find and assist his mother to let go of attachments that kept her spirit in a state of suffering.
Memorials for the recently deceased are part of the ceremony, and celebrants walk amongst the congregation with pieces of paper that they lay on the heads of family members, “so that their relatives will recognize them,” Di Van whispers.
Next are prayers for those who are suffering in this life. I don’t know what I miss in the content that is not translated for me, but I am surprised that at no point do I hear anything of the type of self-help spirituality that I tend to associate with Western practicioners of meditation and mindfulness. There is talk of helping others to reach nirvana, but not of seeking nirvana for oneself.
Next there is a food offering ceremony for the Buddhas. I am reminded of similar ceremonies in Indigenous community, and I wonder about the cultural and genetic connections as I look at the woman chanting with the slit drum, her long black ponytail running down her back.
There are some things going on that I am not comfortable with. Are the food offerings, in Buddhism or Indigenous practice, a way of “wheeling and dealing” with the spirit world? Why do these spirits need earthly food? Why do they need paper certificates to recognize their relatives? And I don’t like the Buddha I discover in the corner of the room, with big hair and angry eyes and sword in hand.
But I know that my own religion is full of pomp and garishness and superstition, and that from its swollen body it has birthed saints. Who can say what is bloat and what is pregnancy? We too have caked the Christ with gold and addressed him as our feudal “Lord.” The laughing Buddha and the banqueting Christ seem to suggest that the subversion can run powerfully in the other direction, that they are more than capable of seducing the status-obsessed monkeys that build their shrines into a glory beyond our schlockiest dreams. So if they aren’t worried, I can relax too, even about that crazy red swastika on the chests of the ten thousand Buddhas gazing calmly at me from their perches on the walls. Whatever it means to them, I know it’s not what it means to me.
After the ceremony, Di Van leads me downstairs to a banquet hall where folks are sitting down for a delicious vegetarian Vietnamese noodle soup. I ask her about the grey tunic she is wearing, and she explains its significance. The grey colour is to encourage calmness, to reduce distractions for the eye in the temple. I get a sense that part of what is being discouraged is the rating game by which humans signal our specialness and stature to each other through the clothes we wear. “Rivalry,” as James Alison says, “is the enemy of worship.” It is as true here as it is in Christian sanctuaries.
The grey tunic is also a sign that Di Van is a devotee of “The Five Precepts” - which are to stay away from killing, avoid lying, avoid adultery, avoid intoxication and avoid stealing. Each of these cloud the mind and sow discord in the human community. Anger seems the most important state to avoid and calmness seems to be the most desirable state of being, but again, not for one’s own sake, but in order to be reincarnated into a higher state of consciousness, to return to the world able to help people. Di Van admits that those who come to the temple infrequently typically come just to seek favours for themselves and their families. “They do not yet understand the real teaching.” I am impressed that her tone is neither blameful nor embarrassed. Her voice is untroubled, matter-of-fact.
A young boy chimes into our conversation. He introduces himself as Christopher, and I have to laugh to myself that here in this place, at this table, I meet a young friend whose name means, “Christ-bearer.”
“Excuse me,” he says. “When I was at Chinese temple, I went to the toilet to pee, and when I flushed the toilet, the water spinned around and around and around.” I am delighted by his change of subject and his passion for it. He proceeds to tell me of other places he has seen this spinning water: bathtubs and raging rivers. “That river is dangerous. You can’t swim in that spinning water. You have to swim in the flat water.” He sounds like a little Buddha.
“Excuse me,” he says. “Look at that Buddha.” He points behind me to a fat and jolly laughing Buddha who looks like he’s just heard the best joke he’s heard all week.
“He looks like he’s having a good time,” I say.
“Excuse me, because he’s happy?” says the boy. “The Buddha loves children,” he adds, and then, out of the blue, “And I love Jesus.”
Di Van smiles into her soup, and Christopher’s slightly embarrassed mother laughs.
“Well, how ‘bout that,” I say. “So do I.”