A Visit to a Buddhist Temple

Dear reader of World Religion Weekly,

Last week, my grandmother and I had coffee with a fascinating professor of anthropology from Linnfield College. I will publish a post about that encounter soon, once we sort through the details of her interview. In addition to going through some of the effects of religion from an anthropological standpoint, she also put me in contact with a Buddhist monk, to whom she frequently refers curious students of anthropology.

Sadly, I am leaving Oregon before the Saturday service, which he conducts in English. Yes, I specifically mention that it is in English. The temple where he teaches is part of the World Buddhist Preaching Association of U. S. A. They bring in priests, monks, nuns, and others from all over the world (Thailand, China, Manchuria, and Taiwan were given as examples). The monk I was put in contact with is from Thailand, and he is one of the few with training in the English language. Most of the services cater to the local immigrant community. The majority of the services are conducted in Chinese, with a few in Thai, Vietnamese, English, and a few other languages. This is pretty evident on their notification board.

The monk warned me that, if I did not speak Chinese, I probably should wait until Saturday. However, I decided to risk it, just to get a glimpse of the temple. Inside my mind, I already had half-formed, worried plans involving a translating app on my phone. Luckily, I did not have to employ them.

As my grandmother and I entered the temple, a man at the front desk gave me a small wave while speaking English on the telephone. I breathed a sigh of relief. I examined the lobby. One glass case held beautiful jewelry for sale, which seemed like a sensible way to help support a temple. Next to it was an enormous book case labeled: Free Books.

These books about Buddhism were printed in Vietnamese, Chinese, and English. I spent a few minutes selecting a few that looked relevant to me, noting the instructions on the back.

My grandmother and I wandered into a gleaming room beyond the lobby.

I busied myself, attempting to read the numerous plaques next to each of the images. The four large, gold figures are spirits of the North, South, East, and West. They are important to Mahavana Buddhism.

The scenes depicted behind them are scenes meant to represent certain disciples of Buddhism. They have exaggerated features and actions which are meant to convey their personalities and even teachings to the viewer.

At this point, the man at the front desk seemed to done with his phone call. We introduced ourselves, and he rightly guessed that this was our first time in the temple. He showed us through the first room again, elaborating on the history of the elaborately carved black stone  and the nature of the figures throughout the room. The plump, gold figure seated at the other side of the room is the Happy Buddha. He shows the happiness and spiritual richness that await the followers of Buddhism.

I will put in the information given to me later where it is relevant, though this will make the experience a bit anachronistic for you, dear reader. I think that the immediate explanations will be worth it, though.

We then moved beyond that room, to the less sumptuous room behind it. Tables with “Happy Birthday!” tablecloths draped over them stood alongside another bookshelf of free books and a few images of either the Buddha, the Bodhisattvas, and/or disciples of the Budhha.

The man explained that this was where they ate their post-service meal.

Then he showed us to a set of stairs leading to an open door. he said that we could enter, if we took off our shoes. My grandmother and I quickly scraped off our shoes. The man returned to the front desk, as we entered a new chamber.

It was breath-taking and fairly unexpected. Overwhelmed with awe, I spent a moment just absorbing the majestic, golden beauty. My grandmother and I only spoke in maybe three sentences to each other, each whispered.

Beneath the windows, gold plates beautifically displayed even more disciples of the Buddha.

With bare feet, I padded over the to left side. One thing stopped me in my tracks.

This had to do with I Ching, I later learned. It is a kind of fortune-telling. A person throws the sticks on the ground. Each stick has two different sides, like a coin. Someone tallies up the “heads” and “tails” sticks. Depending on what you get, you open a certain drawer, which holds a fortune.

I next came to cabinet full of books used for prayer and chanting. Most of these were in Chinese, based off the lettering on their spines.

This table is used if individuals want to pray to their ancestors or other deceased personages. People can leave offerings of food and burn incense to aid in this. I don’t think that this is strictly a Buddhist practice, but many Asian cultures hold high respect for ancestors. I then wandered back towards the center of the room.

This individual is a deity who, the priest explained, is neither male nor female but, at the same time, is both male and female. Gender is one of the mortal things which are ultimately meaningless on a deeper level.

The majority of the room was taken up with prayer stations. Individuals kneel on the cushions and chant from books, which are propped up by chopsticks.

This large pack of water bottles seemed out of place, seated among gold renderings of deities. However, it was there for a purpose. During service individuals chant, which is a very holy activity. The water is thought to gather a purifying influence from this.

During the service, bowl-like cymbals and drums aid the chanting.

Now I moved to the right portion of the temple. This table is dedicated to asking for things which currently affect you. Again, individuals can burn incense and leave food offerings to assist in this.

Like many of the prayer books I’ve seen, Buddhist chanting books contain both the original Chinese, phonetic rendering of the Chinese in the Latin alphabet, and an English translation.

Before leaving, I spent a moment regarding this enormous bell. I assume it must be deafening when rung.

These are pictures of monks, nuns, and other religious leaders who work with  the World Buddhist Preaching Association of U. S. A. Yes, in the top left, a man is being balanced on the tips of swords. Yes, in the top right, those are martial arts master Buddhist monks.

We then met up with the man from the front desk again. This is where he explained most of the things that confused me in the worship hall. Find out what happens next in the Interview section of Buddhism.

Thank you for reading,

Audrey Cole