Three giant Buddhas, more than 10 feet tall, are staring down at me. Their half-closed eyes look like a smirk. “Laowai,” they seem to say looking at me and my friend Hannah standing in front of their alter, hands clasped together in prayer pose, our knees resting on the padded foot stool. They know we’re not regulars.
The monk, chanting loudly and methodically while banging a drum, ringing a bell, and hitting a piece of wood, stands up and we follow. Without breaking his song he indicates that we are to come to the front next to him. He hands me a small piece of wood and I stick it upright in a small pot of sand. He hands me another, and a third. Then I move aside as Hannah moves to the center and does the same.
For the Dragon Boat festival we went to a small temple called Guang Jue Temple (located in a forest outside the city) for 3-days of rest and peace. Hannah has been here before, and there are usually 5 monks in attendance, one of which is Australian, speaks English and leads meditation sessions. But due to the holiday all the monks are gone, along with the office worker who can speak English. In residence is only one monk, the Master of the Temple, and an old, nearly-deaf woman who cooks the meals. Looks like we are alone here for the long weekend.
At 6 a.m., (2 hours after the normal wake-up call, but I’m not complaining) over breakfast of rice porridge and veggies the monk asked us to write our chinese names on a piece of paper. Now in the ceremony our names are on the alter, written on red decorative pieces of paper. Again, breaking protocol perhaps because he feels bad the temple is so empty, he has dedicated the morning prayer to us. Instead of just standing in the back and watching, like most guests, we are active participants.
We do exactly as the master does. If he stands, we stands, if he bows, we bow and if he kowtows, we kowtow. He takes a small bottle of water with a fake flower over to us, still chanting non-stop, and throws the water over us again and again. I’m not sure if it’s polite to wipe the big droplets off my face so I let them be. I’m also trying to keep the smile off my face because I’m afraid he’ll misinterpret it as laughing, but really I’m just excited. I never expected this.
The monk, dressed in a yellow mustard robe with a bright yellow ceremonial robe on top looks much more majestic and regal then he did the day before when he met us wearing a white t-shirt and black shorts. Back then he seemed like a friendly grandpa puttering around the house but today, in his element, he seems mystical and wise.
He lights two sticks of incense and hands them to us and we start following him around the temple. We follow him walking around and around the small temple room to his banging of the drum and rhythmic chanting. I hear Hannah humming along with him, not quite attempting the words, but just the tune. I don’t even try, content to just listen and walk.
We go back to the middle of the room, in front of the Buddha’s and he goes to the alter and takes down our name cards. Inside one is a piece of paper he has pre-prepared with all our information. We spoke to him a little bit the day before, and while he speaks Mandarin, he has a heavy accent that makes it hard for me to understand. In the ceremony I don’t understand everything he says, but Hannah and I catch our Chinese names, our nationalities and words like “good health” and “successful career.” I think we’re getting a general good luck prayer session.
We stand watching him, incense sticks burning lower in our hands, as he continues for several more minutes. He finally takes our name cards, and the paper he had just been reading from and grabs a lighter from the alter. In a puff of flame and smoke, he burns it all. I know Buddhism believes in non-permanence, but I was really hoping to keep the cool name card.
He hits a block of wood, rings a bell and an hour after he began, the ceremony is over. “We can go,” he says taking off his outer robe and hanging it up. We go back to our room and now have the whole day free to relax, take a walk, and just be quiet in this empty temple. The other monks won’t return the entire time we are there, and next day it is back to business as usual (4 a.m. wake-up call to a clanging bell and drum and a morning prayer ceremony we watch from the back) but today, this morning, we got to experience something unique and unexpected. Something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.