I was born a Buddhist. My mother forced me to attend countless ceremonies with her throughout my life. Most of it was a confusing blur of repetitive movements and chanting. I don’t think any lessons were learned, except maybe the virtues of patience and discipline.
What I remember more than anything is that small children are simply incapable of sitting with both legs tucked beneath their bottoms, sometimes for 2-3 hours. Try telling Mom that. If I whimpered, cringed, shifted excessively, or otherwise showed any signs of impatience, I would receive a sharp and well-disguised pinch. I watched forlornly, as other children my age ran around the temple grounds, chasing one another. Their parents were oblivious. Those children were even allowed to eat snacks before the monks took their one and only meal of the day. Inconceivable. I could have done without the snacks, had I just been allowed to move.
Buddhism, like all things Mom tried to teach me, is not something she really thought would stick. But, lord, was she going to try anyway.
I never doubted the value in being pious. I never even really questioned the fundamental principles of Buddhism. There was no existential crisis in which I pondered whether or not I was on the Right Path, or what did it all even mean? I protested going to temple purely because, as a child, I had not developed patience.
It was not until I was in college that I became Buddhist. Compulsory education had taught me all along how to think; in college, I started to expand my understanding of what was rational and what was real. So I read a lot of religious books and made the conscious effort to live the rest of my life as a Buddhist.
My journey through Laos was part of my spiritual development, and it is impossible to talk about my time there without addressing the religious aspects of the trip.
Saturday 5 November 2006
Each morning, at sunrise, we wake up to give alms. I haven’t recovered from jetlag, but Mom insists. The practice of alms-giving makes more sense in this context: the monks must eat once a day and we, in turn, must make merit each day. It should not be seen as begging or bargaining for salvation but rather as a most humble gesture. In America, I was not accustomed to this daily practice; we only went to temple on specific occasions. The reason for this is a practical one – the nearest temple is 45 minutes away from the Shire. Here, there is a temple for every neighborhood.
At my uncle’s house in Dong Palan, I struggle to rise, eyes still half-closed, clumsily wrapping on a long tube of cloth (sinh taem) to cover my legs, and stumble down the stairs from the guest room. My bare feet and hem of the cloth become wet from the morning dew. I am picturing myself as a 5-year-old, sitting in a prayer room…being pinched by Mom.
Today we are going to Boun That Luang, the biggest Buddhist festival of the year in Vientiane. I feel very fortunate to witness it on my first trip to Laos.
Pha That Luang is a well-known symbol of Buddhism and also considered a national monument. The magnificent golden stupa at the heart of the temple grounds is said to house the knee bone of Siddhartha (some sources say breast bone). When we arrived, thousands of people were already gathered, gently pressing against one another as they moved towards the inner square. Women were selling food, both pre-made and prepared to order: spicy papaya salad, coconut desserts, and ga-poon. I spotted the occasional Westerner, and several tourists were from other Asian countries; but for the most part, the people were locals. I had never seen so many monks gathered in one place.
Normally, a mass of humanity of this magnitude would cause me great anxiety; but instead, I felt one with a pulse that resonated with joy and peace. I was content.
Growing up, whenever we went to a religious event, Mom was the only thing between distraction and purpose. She constantly reminded me that we should always give what we can. Her monetary donations to the temple may have been small compared to other families, but she emphasized meticulousness. From the way she folds dollar bills into flutes (for offerings) to the neatness of our clothes, every detail reflects her devotion.