Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Exit (Peacefully) Through the Gift Shop

This past Sunday I attended my third religious service for challenge no. 29 (attend ten different religious services and record your impression of each). The lucky religion was Buddhism. I chose the 10:00 a.m. service at the Mahayana Temple in Chinatown NYC. Again, I must begin by saying that I am Buddhist newbie, and this is my humble depiction of one service, so forgive any uneducated bits. If I offend any Buddhists, you can retaliate with violence.

Oh, that's right. You can't.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by a large bin of fortunes, rolled up like tiny scrolls. They request that you donate a dollar for every fortune you take. I have no complaints about the fortune I chose. Except for the "try hard" part. That just seems like a lot of work.

The decor was absolutely refreshing. The bright colors (mostly reds, yellows and oranges) and fresh fruit piled before the temple were beautiful. Thirty-two framed prints lined the two main walls, depicting moments of Buddhist history. A simple sign that read "NOBLE SILENCE" was one of my personal favorites. Obviously there were numerous Buddhas to be seen. But it's the enormous gold Buddha inside the temple that draws tourists. There were people who came in and out just to take pictures of it during the service, despite signs that asked them not to. It's just too hard to resist a giant gold Buddha.

Emo Buddha.

Giant gold tourist-attracting Buddha.

The table in the picture above ran down the center of the room and sat twelve on each side. It was full of Buddhists in black robes, save for the one monk dressed in a yellow robe. We took a seat in one of the chairs up against the wall, facing the table.

The service itself was wall-to-wall prayer, chanted hypnotically and 100% in Chinese, stopping only to move around to a different part of the temple for varying types of prayers. While everyone chanted, the monk in yellow led the service. Drums and bells (and the occasional gong) could be heard all the way through. Many times I simply closed my eyes and enjoyed the sounds and smells (incense and citrus mostly). Normally I find incense overpowering, but something about the incense at Mahayana was different. It had a mild smoky scent that I loved, rather than being overly "flavored," if that makes any sense. Pun!

My favorite part was when everyone at the table got up and started walking slowly in a circle around the temple with their hands in prayer position, bowing every time they came around to the giant Buddha. It looked like the most peaceful conga line ever, so we jumped in. It gave me a chance to see all of the historical prints and clear my mind a bit. Like walking meditation.

Overall, I really enjoyed this service. The people were nothing but kind and helpful. They invited us to lunch downstairs afterward, and one of the elderly attendees gave us a book about Buddhism. I wish I could talk more about the message, but from what I can tell, it mostly revolved around praising the different Buddhas and asking for wisdom and understanding. There was a prayer for the deceased, one for incense, and an offering of food.

Did I mention that Mahayana has a gift shop? It does and we went there. We purchased three Buddhas to remember our experience. As I learned, there are many different postures a Buddha can take, each representing a different event in the life of the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama). But In Mahayana specifically, Buddha is the true nature of all beings, so in a sense, everyone is Buddha. Yeah, it's a bit confusing.

According the gift shop employee, the two gold ones below represent travel and money (the fat, laughing Buddha emerged from Chinese folklore in the 10th century). The larger red Buddha is a more somber statue, meant for blessings and deep meditation.

I am going to invite the red she-Buddha to my morning mediation sessions per challenge no. 6.

In conclusion, my peek into Chinese Buddhism was a fantastic experience. I might even go back. And not just for the free lunch.


  1. i wish there was a like button for these posts.

  2. The Buddhist experience sounds really interesting!

    Here's a hint for one of your remaining visits: If you want to go somewhere that you don't have to walk on eggshells, try a Universalist Unitarian church. They have overcome not only racism and sexism (and a lot of other isms), but also credism. They don't care what you believe! You can express your ideas freely, without fear of getting put down. I've visited congregations made up of Jews, atheists, Christians, Wiccans, gays, straights, etc. Everyone got along just fine.

    1. I definitely want a Unitarian service to be one of the ten I attend. Austin's dad goes to one down in Florida. Maybe the next time we visit I can check it out. Thanks for reminding me!

  3. true buddhist temples encompass all of the above, in fact, siddhartha was not even a buddhist, buddha just translates as "awake". buddhism, even though depicted wrongly by many college religion text books, is not a religion. but then again, jesus wasn't a christian either. we'll not go there for now. Mahayana may be the oldest sect, and so steeped in deep tradition, but by no means does that translate into "walking on eggshells". The most salient feature of this tradition lies in its ability to shoot straight towards the heart, a willingness to sacrifice oneself for all of eternity for the benefit of others, called becoming a Bodhisattva. sound familiar? -- >JC