Personal liberation and self-discovery are powerful, driving forces in many people’s lives, including my own. As a boy, I was raised in a protestant family that believed strongly in the existence of God, and the truth of the Bible. My mother was particularly focused on the evils of the world, and spent much time warning my younger sister and I to beware the many tricks Satan might play on us. Devotion to God, following his commandments, and not being caught up in the worldliness of others were paramount to our immortal future. Getting into heaven was the ultimate goal. To be distracted from God were seen as detrimental – even fatal. Going to hell was a very real consequence of disobeying God’s laws.
In my late teens, I began questioning my beliefs and the stories that I had been told by my parents. Though I did not know it at the time, I had set out on a path of personal liberation and self-discovery. That path would ultimately lead me away from my faith as a Christian, but ironically it deepened my curiosity about the nature of faith and religion. Many years later that curiosity is still burning strong.
I was recently privileged with the opportunity to tour two Buddhist temples as part of an Eastern religions class I enrolled in. Although I had a long-standing interest in Buddhism – even reading a few books on the subject – my knowledge of the customs and traditions was limited. In-class lectures provided some much needed insight on Buddhist practices, but visiting actual temples and hearing from faithful practitioners is what brought those insights to life.
It was a chilly, November morning when I visited the temples. Arriving early, I exlored the first temple of the Indo-Chinese Buddhist Association, in quiet solitude. My instructor had also arrived early; she offered me some jasmine tea, which I gladly accepted.
The Indo-Chinese Buddhist Association is a Mahayana temple. Mahayana Buddhists refer to their faith as a great vehicle. Until recently, Mahayana Buddhists thought of other branches of Buddhism as lesser vehicles.
The architecture of the temple, which was modeled upon Chinese style temples, was striking, as were the many religious objects and images. A large open area with red pillars dominated the main floor; from the ceiling hung a variety of oriental, rice paper lamps. The temple also housed a number of impressive effigies, including the Kuan Yin Bodhisattva – which is the primary deity of the temple – as well as Di Zang Bodhisattva, Amitabha Buddha and Wei Tuo Bodhisattva, to name a few. A table before the Earth God, Tu Di Gong, in the Ancestral Hall displayed offerings such as apples, oranges and rice. Beautiful bouquets of flowers were also on display.
Red donation boxes were also placed around the temple. I found a small donation box in a corner and made a donation. My classmates and I were encouraged to take a small statuette of a Buddha in return for our donation, so I selected a small bronze-coloured one.
Once the entire class was present, an elderly woman named Shun Yee, introduced herself and told us a few facts about the temple. She was a very likeable and friendly woman, quick to smile. She wore a jacket with a mandarin collar and a lovely jade bracelet. Standing before the group, she pointed out the goddess of mercy and compassion, longevity lanterns, rhythm fish, and Joss divination sticks, which are selected and then matched to a pink sheet. The sheets, written in Chinese, offer suggestions on what action a person should undertake.
After a time, some Buddhist practitioners arrived. One woman came in holding a bundle of incense sticks. She bowed, knelt, and left shortly thereafter.
Following our short tour, the class was invited to partake in a vegetarian meal in the downstairs kitchen area. We were treated to some delicious Vietnamese subs, soup and pink-coloured dumplings. A small shrine to the Kitchen God, Zao Jun, reminded us that food is a blessing, and it is something to be grateful for.
Following the meal, we proceeded to the next stop on our field trip: The True Buddha Pai Yuin temple. The Pai Yuin temple is a Vajrayana Buddhist temple. Vajrayana Buddhism is the newest form of Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhists are unique in their use of tantras, which are instructions on how to achieve enlightenment.
In stark contrast with the Indo-Chinese temple, which was open, airy and somewhat minimalist, the Pai Yuin was enclosed and filled to the rafters with colourful Buddhas and guardians of all shapes and sizes. The sheer number of statues on display — ranging in size from 10ft tall to a few inches tall – captured my imagination and left me with a feeling of awe. It was a feast for the eyes and senses.
A table near the front of the temple was piled up with food offerings including chips, cookies, instant noodles, cereals and candy.
A number of nuns with shaved heads and traditional maroon robes were moving about and at one point they carried out a ritual while chanting mantras. After the small ceremony, my classmates and I were free to explore the steps of the temple and to take pictures.
The colours, smells and sounds of the Pai Yuin temple altered my mental state, inducing wonderment and curiosity. Also, I was struck by an immediate desire to return to the temple at a later date in the hopes of tapping into the peace and tranquility it alluded to. I was not alone in this. Other students also expressed a desire to return; maybe they had glimpsed the same possibility of new knowledge. I cannot be sure.
Many questions swirled through my mind, but what I can be sure of is this: experiencing other cultures and religions first-hand makes opens windows to new exciting new perceptions. Seeing Buddhists pray and chant reminded me of my early childhood experiences in Christian churches. Although the rituals and theologies are different, there are some striking commonalities. For instance, the reverence one feels during a ceremony or prayer is the same, no matter what god is being honoured. Although I do not subscribe to superstition, I nonetheless understand the goals and objectives of religion. Finding inner peace, doing good deeds, seeking meaning in life, and respecting the powers of nature are all noble pursuits. However, despite the commonalities of religions, Buddhists also offer unique insights into the natural state of humanity. The Eightfold Path and the removal of kleshas – ignorance, greed and hatred – are wonderful examples of the wisdom of Buddhist thinking. Most importantly, Buddhism recognizes that the goal is not to gain something, but to remove something. It is possible to see through anatman, the illusion of self, and to be enlightened. In that sense Buddhism, like other religions, offers hope — hope for the possibility of peace, compassion, joy, equanimity and loving kindness. Importantly, these results are absolutely attainable without belief in the supernatural. It is results we should be focusing on, adopting the best ideas, and discarding the rest.