This morning I didn’t wake up and go to church.
This morning, I didn’t get dressed in my Sunday finest, Bible in hand, and attend one of the many, MANY churches in Nashville.
This morning, I headed with a friend to Bongo Java for coffee and then went to a Vietnamese Bhuddist Temple.
Not that I’ve suddenly turned Bhuddist or anything. As part of our World Traditions in Faith and Reason class, we are doing a project that explores the sacred spaces of people different than we are. We were assigned to attend a Bhuddist temple, which was really interesting because we read The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama just a few weeks before. But reading a book and attending a service are two incredibly different things. I was about to step out of my own comfort zone and enter someone else’s sacred space.
We arrived at the temple just on time for the service. A seemingly nondescript house with a large garden in front. In the garden, two statues sat serene. Incense and fruit sat in front of the deities who looked with blank eyes into the cold October morning. Walking up to the front door, we saw an assortment of shoes sitting out front. My mind thought of Exodus 3:5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” Sarah and I looked at each other nervously…we had NO idea what we were getting in to!
We opened the door and immediately felt like we were intruders, foreigners, strangers. About fifteen people sat cross-legged on the floor, a Buddhist text resting on a pedestal in front of them. They seemed surprised by our entrance, and for a while I felt like an elephant in a china shop. But they directed us to the back, where we sat and tried to orient ourselves with our surroundings. What looked to be a living room was filled with statues and pictures. The smell of incense filled the air. In the front, a large statue of the Bhudda surrounded by other deities gave the room an Oriental feel. The monk and congregants were dressed in simple robes. The room spoke peace.
We sat down and I closed my eyes, taking in the incense, the quiet. All of a sudden, the monk began to chant. Half-song and half-prayer, his voice seemed to pierce the skin and enter the soul. And soon, the congregants joined him—all different voices, but all the same meaning. The voices seemed to become one and for minutes I sat entranced. Then I realized that an elderly Vietnamese woman was trying to show Sarah where they were in the text. Page after page, she pointed to the words, which were Vietnamese but written in English. Soon we found ourselves trying to form the same unfamiliar words in our mouths. Although it took a while, we eventually joined the congregation in their prayer. I learned afterwards that the prayer was for the world—for peace, for happiness, for deliverance from harm.
The woman led us from the main room to a side room in what I presumed was the kitchen. She then began explaining to us her story. A refugee from Vietnam, she came here as a child, having escaped the communism conflict in her nation. She had attended Syracuse University and then lived in California. Hearing her story was so interesting. I felt like history was speaking to me.
The service ended and we had the opportunity to interview the monk about the congregation and his own beliefs. He seemed young and told us that he had just started working at this temple after being in Atlanta. He too was a refugee and somehow found his place here in America.
Out of everything the monk said, the concept of sight and vision interested me the most. In talking about those who are no longer here, the monk said that they weren’t actually gone: You just aren’t able to see them because you don’t have enlightened eyes. I started to think about how “enlightened eyes” might apply to my own life. Are my eyes open to the needs of others? Do I see the blessings I have in my life or do I look past them? Are my eyes looking behind and wallowing in the past or are they looking so far in the distance that I am missing what’s here and now?
Leaving the Bhuddist temple, I was filled with peace, a deeper sense of appreciation for a faith so different than my own, and a recommitment to live with enlightened eyes in my own life.