I had, undoubtedly, many insecurities and suspicions concerning Buddhism. Is it really a religion in itself, and what is this ambiguous designation of “life philosophy” people seem to employ?

One way or another, my affair with Buddhism was brief, yet incredibly eye-opening and memorable.

 

After volunteering in Pretoria’s Nan Hua Temple, a tiny breath of serenity to say the least, I watched myself let go of my unadmitted misconceptions about Buddhism. The whole ordeal seemed strange to me: bowing down to what was, apparently, an overly adorned physical representation of multiple deities, each with its own genesis of divination. From a historical point of view, it all sounded wonderful. The cultural meaning and social function of the doctrine was an open window to the quotidian of those who chose to practice it and, truly, I came to learn much more about Buddhists as humans than anything else.

Vagabonding through the humid walls of Fo Guang Shan Temple, in Taiwan’s Kaohsiung, emphasized my inner unfamiliarity with the doctrine. Each minute a new manifestation of Buddhism stumbled upon me, the thousands of perfectly replicated statues of Buddha and the multiple ovations left me uneasy. Here are, nonetheless, some lessons and observations I’ve experienced in my quiet conversations with Buddha.

The Social Function Of Food

The first notable shock I experienced related to food. Granted, I could write a testament about the texture of the rice and its scent that makes for any curry, and the joy of mastering the technique of picking up the tiniest grain of rice with chopsticks (I’m ever thankful to monastic life for this!), but I’d be dishonest if I were to reduce the importance of food to its taste.

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For starters, Buddhism has a clearly defined history of food, on how to prepare it, how to eat it and how to be conscious of the meanings behind food itself. The concept of Mindful Eating dismantles the ways we have all come to associate eating with mere satisfaction of a biological need. Forget #instafood and Masterchef, the purpose of eating, in Buddhism, is to awaken our spirit and practice ultimate gratitude to those who have prepared it and to the universe for having provided us with medicine.

So, while eating, it is important for us to keep in mind the Five Contemplations.

The process of sitting by oneself, facing your food and eating in complete silence forces you to empty your mind and focus on what you bring to your mouth. This repetitive movement becomes meditative at its core, and the experience of eating goes from a social activity to an extremely personal opportunity for introspection. Mindfulness, in Buddhism, is an important aspect of humanity, and the goal which brings us to wisdom.

Music In Prayer

16099940427_bc24005862_kIt often takes a while for us to remember that music, in its essence, is a religious experience. The fact that humans have come to express themselves in several intonations and musical tones speaks to the fact that there is more to simply uttering words. The concoction of instruments and imitations of nature are a constant attempt to reconnect to our inner spirituality.

Each hour deserves a chant, usually initiated by an elder whose responsibility is to lead the masses into the prayer.

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In the midst of beautiful sounds, I stood, and often, as opposed to paying attention and carefully repeating after what I read, I caught myself wondering whether the meaning of the chant wasn’t lost in the ceremony.

At Church, I’m one who is always hesitant to raise my hands or “let the spirit lead me” thanks to my incessant scepticism.

When do I know I’m genuinely communicating with my God and not simply following the sound? The same question floods the Temple when it comes to the incantation of the chants. They sound beautiful, and make you feel at peace, but how many people are actually accessing the symbolism and purpose of the practice?

In the Ghitassara Sutta, Buddha himself addressed the danger of becoming lost in the melodic rhythms of the chant, stating that people get lost in the sound and fail to tap into the objective of the whole thing. How many times in our religious houses do we find ourselves distracted by an off-key piano, as opposed to be communicating with God? An interesting difference between Buddhism and other mainstream religions is that music, as a form of worship, must sound “pleasing” to the creator’s ears, whereas in Buddhism, this aspect is to be put aside, for monotone chanting is often what holds the meaning of the words intact.

Cultural Buddhism In The World

A reality I could not help but to observe was the vivid incorporation of Chinese culture in Buddhism. Well, I was in Taiwan, and perhaps in Tibet or Japan things would have been different, but for a girl like myself in the midst of 1500+ people from the globe, Buddhism sure seemed like an introduction to Chinese-ism.

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Like any other religion, there is a certain deal of access that is limited to people. The doubt that stays in the back of our conscience, the “is this the truest truth?” that confronts us when trying to understand our beliefs. Am I truly in line with the Christian doctrine if I don’t read in Hebrew, is this the original text if it’s not in Arabic, and finally, what is the real origin of Buddhism? Its disputed origin appears problematic from the start. No one could ever give me a concise answer. Some tell me it started in India, or in Nepal, but then it came to China and became popular, and the Japanese tradition is so different, etc. Semantics have also changed, the chants are different, the “truth” is twisted, and, as a novice to the doctrine, it seems you must stay close to your tradition.

The thing that sparked a curiosity in me, however, was the fact that every depiction of Buddha seemed suspiciously distant from the character of Siddhārtha Gautama, the once king who abandoned everything in search of enlightenment. My naïve assumption was that the Buddha would appear as a consistent replica of the memories in which this king was held, an averagely Indian-looking male for the adoration of those who adopted his teachings.To my surprise, the Buddha I came to know appeared as a calm and laughing man with clearly demarcated Chinese features. Today, this is the image that comes to mind when you picture Buddhism, none other than China’s “Fat Buddha”. Likewise, Christianity doesn’t fall short of the undeniable misrepresentation of Jesus Christ. In Portugal, a white man with blue eyes; In Ethiopia, an unapologetically black male.

So what is the relationship between representation and religious adoration? Does Buddhism’s “foreign” origins create a cultural conflict in China? And what of its equally foreign practitioners? I witnessed people of several nationalities subconsciously assimilate into Chinese culture in order to access Buddhism, and to be recognized as Buddhists themselves.

This is not unique to Buddhism, of course, and this trend is increasing. We mistake the rise of terrorism with a call for religiosity, but it only goes to show that religion and culture are not as mutually exclusive as we once thought them to be.

A Taste For More…

To say my observations end here would be a blatant inconsideration of the truth. Two weeks passed by me as mingled with the complexities of this doctrine, and I am certain that other opportunities for inquiry will present themselves just as this one was presented to me. With them, new questions will arise and new answers will be offered, some will suffice and some won’t, but that’s the nature of things.

A conclusion of this never-ending odyssey is that things are more complicated than I’d wish, and that Buddhism is not as simple as I once believed it to be.

What remains is my curiosity and willingness to explore, understand and learn about what makes us human.

Original photographs by Jirka Matousek 小豪豪 Wu and  JasonChamberlain.

Read more:

  1. “Skinny Buddha vs Fat Buddha”, Michelle’s Rhetoric and Civic Life blog
  2. “The Buddhist Diet”, Michael Ohlsson
  3. “From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy”, The Zen Site