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Buddhism and I

November 12, 2018 – originally posted on http://blogs.luc.edu/goglobal/country/china/buddhism-and-i/

By Justine N., Loyola University Chicago, TBC Fall 2018 Student

I grew up in a Buddhist Vietnamese family. As a child, I went to the closest Buddhist temple to my house every Sunday to sit and listen to the morning chants and teachings alongside my family before attending Vietnamese school for a few hours. I grew up wearing necklaces with little Buddha carvings and prayer beads around my wrist. I was raised with Buddhist traditions, and I was told that whenever I felt unsafe, unsettled, or just not right, I should pray to the Buddha. Doing so would calm my rapid heartbeats and my noisy mind. So it was natural for Buddhism to become the belief that I would call my religion for a good part of my childhood.

But, as I grew older, I questioned what Buddhism meant to me and if it had a place in my life that was more than something I grew up with. I didn’t know if belief in the Buddha would help me achieve my goals — I came to strongly believe that my accomplishments were because of my efforts and my efforts alone. I also didn’t think that praying to the Buddha would do anything for me. I, unfortunately, found that whenever I did pray to Buddha, when my head would spin and my emotions would reel out of control, I found no calm, no real peace within those prayers. And so, I put Buddhism on the back burner and saw it as just part of my Vietnamese heritage. It was nothing more, nothing less.

Moving forward in my life, I labeled myself as “agnostic,” although I would often clarify to others, “But if I had to identify with a religion, it would be Buddhism. My family’s Buddhist.” I knew that I was spiritual. I knew that there were forces and miracles out there that just couldn’t be chalked up to pure coincidence. I also knew that Buddhism held a piece of my life that I could not just give up. It was a huge part of my culture, after all. But I didn’t know if Buddhism itself, let alone any other religion, was right for me, and so for years, I considered myself to be agnostic.

Flash forward to my time here in Beijing, China.

Coming to China, I never expected that something like my spirituality and my relationship with Buddhism, naked and confused, would be brought out into the open. I knew that I would see Buddhism more in my surroundings, more than I saw it back in the United States, but nothing could prepare me for what I would spiritually experience here. The prevalence of Buddhist temples and motifs all over China forced me to confront what I had been neglecting to address for years.

It all started on the Silk Road in the Buddhist monastery town of Xia’he. If you’ve read my blog about our time in Xia’he, you already know that story of my hike around the Labrang Monastery early in the morning. I want to reiterate the significance of that morning to me yet again. What I felt is still something, even after a few months after that morning happened, that I cannot explain. It was a sensation that I just could not begin to understand. For a while, it only made me really giddy to know that something that significant had happened to me that morning. It was something that I told people close to me because all I thought of it at the time was that it was important to me. After some time, though, I finally was able to bring myself to analyze and reflect on why exactly that feeling was important to me. It was too remarkable for me to just ignore. However, I wasn’t able to come up with an explanation for what it could have been on my own, so I decided to bring this conundrum before a Buddhist monk.

This monk I met during a field trip my Introduction to Buddhism class took to a famous Buddhist temple in Beijing. After a tour of the temple grounds and a delicious vegetarian dinner, we all sat down inside of a prayer room that looked very similar to the prayer room that I sat in for so many Sundays of my childhood. We then had a Q&A session with one of the monks of the temple, with my professor acting as a translator. I timidly raised my hand to ask the first question of the night. I remember my voice shook as I tried to explain my family background and what had happened to me in Xia’he. I asked him what he thought of my story. I remember my friend, who sat next to me, pat my back in quiet support, hearing the emotion in my voice and knowing that the moment had meant something personal. The monk listened intently as I told my story, shifting his weight on the cushion he sat upon as my professor translated what I said into Chinese. Then, he gave me his explanation.

The Buddhist monk told me that what I had felt could have been a reaction of my soul to the circumstances of that moment. In the Buddhist tradition, the soul is reborn a number of times in a never-ending cycle. He proposed that I could have been a Buddhist in my past life, and my soul, in that moment, could have remembered that it was Buddhist in the past life. I was brought to tears because I unconsciously remembered that. He also said that if that particular explanation was a little far-fetched to me, I could have reacted the way that I did because what I had prayed for was very deep and personal, and because my prayers had come from the bottom of my heart, I was moved to tears as those prayers meant a lot to me.

After the field trip, the first thing I did was tell my parents about the monk’s words to me. My mom smiled with excitement on my phone screen as I told her and my father about the Q&A session. “Maybe it was meant to be for you to go to China and learn more about Buddha,” she said as a passing comment. But I took note of her words, and I held them in the back of my mind as I continued about my days in China.

Since I received that explanation, my heart felt a little lighter. My mom was certainly right that China was becoming a classroom for me to learn about Buddhism in a surprisingly subtle way. I felt like I could look at Buddhism in the eye, sit down, and have a proper dialogue with it instead of ignoring it like I had done for all of those years. I could see it in action in the lives of the people here. I knew, I knew, that deep down it held a very dear place in my heart. It was undoubtedly part of my cultural heritage, after all. I believed in many of its morals, and I had extensive knowledge about the religion. Yet I still had this weird complicated relationship with it, unable to call it my own because I still questioned it. Now that I had gotten to this point with it where I could comfortably reflect, I felt that I could search for an answer to the question I had been asking Buddhism for quite some time: “What role do you play in my life?”

One of the things that puzzled me about the religion was that it seemed contradictory as a result of its material culture. Buddhism is a religion that attacks the material world with such a vigor no other religion can compare. Yet material culture still exists within it. I didn’t understand why it is necessary for us to pray with prayer beads, to burn incense, and to read sutras as we chant. It disturbed me to see so many tourist sites along the Silk Road sell prayer beads and other Buddhist ritual items as souvenirs. So, what did I do to try and understand this phenomenon?

I wrote an extensive 13-page research paper about material culture within Buddhism for a class.

While researching information for that paper, my Buddhism class took another field trip to another different Buddhist temple, sitting down in a monk’s living quarters and having a very casual talk with him. The monk was named Yuan Liu. He spoke extremely good English and was very hospitable, constantly offering us more tea and more snacks to eat. As we enjoyed each other’s company, we were allowed to ask him any questions that we had about Buddhism. Obviously, I had to ask him about the role of material culture within Buddhism, both for my paper and for my own sake.

The answer that he gave me became an answer that I had been looking for.

He said that the items, like prayer beads, are a way to guide the mind, which by its nature is uncontrollable and easily distracted. Whenever anyone starts practicing the Buddhist belief, their minds start out as wild and uncontrollable. The rituals, the chanting, everything, serves as a reminder to practitioners of their belief and the path that they walk on. Perhaps most importantly, he reminded me that what really matters in Buddhism is the tempering of the mind and the discovery of inner peace and happiness through a simple life.

Again, the first person I called to tell this experience was my mom. She basically reiterated what the monk had told me. Perhaps the most significant thing she told me was that wearing prayer beads meant that one was always praying to Buddha, reflecting the dedication to the Buddhist way, even if one didn’t go to temple every Sunday or prayed all the time.

I contemplated on Yuan Liu’s and my mom’s words long after I turned in that essay. I slowly came to understand that all that stupid questioning I did was a result of me blatantly veering off of the path that my parents put me on during my times of turmoil. They had put me on that path because they believe that the teachings of the Buddha would allow for me to grow up into a responsible, strong, polite woman. They believe that the teachings could help me redirect myself when in times of difficulty. I’ve come to better understand that Buddhism isn’t a religion in which I have to do all these rituals to call myself a true Buddhist, but it is a guidance. Buddhism, at its core, is the nurturing of the heart and the spirit, and by passing down its traditions to me, my parents were nurturing my heart and my spirit, long before I’ve realized it. It’s taken me a trip to China to finally, truly, understand that. And that’s a powerful realization that brings me to tears.

The prayer beads that I bought in Xia’he as a reminder of that morning now serve as a reminder for the Buddhist teachings embedded in me as part of my Vietnamese identity. I don’t claim that I’ve had a sudden spiritual awakening during this study abroad experience in China. But I think the critical self reflection that I’ve done while I’ve been here is more than enough to say that my perspective on what Buddhism means to me has changed. I wouldn’t have been able to do this self-reflection if I didn’t hop on that plane to come here. I wouldn’t have come to terms with a part of me that I’ve ignored. Buddhism and I still have a lot to work on, together. It isn’t collecting dust behind me anymore as I walk forward in my life; it’s back to walking beside me, acting as a nurturing guide whose presence I am still getting used to.

Maybe my mom was right. Maybe fate meant for it to be this way for me after all.

Thanks for reading~

-Justine