October 28, 2007

20 Buddhist Monks

Posted in Buddhism at 2: 00 pm by MK

This past Friday I forgot that I lived in a city in upstate New York. I went to a Burmese temple in a neighboring town to celebrate the Festival of Lights (the end of Buddhist Lent) with my new friends. The temple was a small two story house nestled in a row of houses on a semi-busy street. I arrived and entered through the main entrance to a kitchen full of people, children, food, and shoes. I was told to keep my shoes on and ushered through the kitchen, out a back door, up an outside staircase to enter the second floor through another outside entrance. I slipped off my shoes and walked down the small hallway into a large living room filled with people: a small group of Westerners, a group of Burmese, and twenty Buddhist monks.

I sat with the westerners (mostly folks who work or intern at the refugee office) and kept trying to take it all in. The monks were eating around short, cherry colored tables. Eventually bowls upon bowls of food were put in front of us, and we were encouraged to eat. The westerners were served dessert first, although the Burmese ate it last. As one Burmese man told us, “We serve Americans dessert first because we know you like appetizers.” The dessert consisted of mango, custard-like squares, samosas, sweet sticky rice with coconut, among other things. We were also warned not to fill up on dessert, more was yet to come.

After all the dessert dishes were cleared away, the tables the monks had eaten off of were transferred to our group. As they were carried and placed down in front of us, I realized that they were completely filled with tiny dishes of food: spicy shrimp, cooked bamboo, beef, chicken, fish, rice, nuts, sausage, bitter greens, and so much more. The spicy shrimp were definitely my favorite, but everything was incredible. We ate until we couldn’t eat any more. After declining more dessert,the food was taken away. We picked up the dishes and passed them assembly style through the room and then down the inside staircase to the kitchen. Once the food was cleared, the tables were picked up and put away.

One of the monks came over to greet us through an interpreter. We were told he was the leader of the group, and was pleased to have us there. Actually everyone was so welcoming. At times I felt a bit awkward, but I never felt out of place. We learned that every four years Burmese monks from around the country choose a new location to celebrate the festival of lights. This year, for the first time ever, our city had received the honor. The majority of the monks there had flown in from across the country. At the end of the day they were leaving to attend a conference in California to discuss the current situation in Burma.

We were told that the monks were going to now lead everyone in prayer. Everyone came up from the downstairs, and most of the Burmese sat down on their knees facing the monks who sat in rows, one behind each other, facing the group. The head monk spoke for a few minutes and led everyone in a series of chants and prayers. Another monk then spoke for about twenty minutes. This was all in Burmese, so I don’t know what was said. I just sat cross-legged, my eyes closed at times listening to the rhythm of his speech.

After the half-hour ceremony, we all stood and were ushered outside. Above the house there was a square brick patio with a large gold pagoda in the center. We took off our shoes to step up onto the brick and everyone formed a large circle around the pagoda. We were then told that the monks would be coming out for offerings. Everyone had envelopes in their hands, which I assume held money. In order to be in the circle you had to give something, so for the Westerners who didn’t quite know what to do they had post-it note pads for us to give! At first I was thoroughly confused. And I had the luck of being the first in the line of Westerners with post-its. Nevertheless, the monks came out of the house, walked up onto the brick and walked the inside perimeter of the circle with their robes held out. I hesitated when the first two monks passed me. The third monk made eye contact with me, nodded and looked down at the post-its, so I placed them in his robe. The other Westerners followed suit. After the others emptied their hands of envelopes, they knelt down on their knees to pray.

The monks went back inside and we were told the ceremony had come to an end. Simply put: it was an amazing experience.

I can’t help but note two funny anecdotes:

During the final prayer chant inside the house, someone’s cellphone rang. I glanced around with the other Westerners, with looks of, “oh crap,” please don’t let it be my phone. We then watched the head monk pull a cranberry colored razor phone out of his robe and speak for a couple seconds. I guess cellphone etiquette is a very cultural thing.

I always joke with husband about his need to spend weeks researching a product before he buys it. And when he finds a product he likes, he’ll go to great lengths to only buy that exact brand/type. The latest was his socks: he has been searching for this specific sock brand, which he claims is the most perfect sock ever made. I would shake my head, not quite getting it, won’t any pair of socks do? For P., not so much. Well, all of the monks had his brand of socks on. I was quietly laughing to myself, wishing P. was there. It seems that someone else knows the secret of the socks.

It was a day to remember, to say the least . . .