A Closer Look

BY DR. AGONSON

The building is a bright, inviting yellow, an eye-catching house which has time and again pulled my attention from the road to its sign: Light Temple. I’ve cracked jokes with friends and family, suggesting I should dress up as the Hero of Time[1] and pilfer their stores. Today, however, I would go without donning a literal sword and buckler, and catch for myself a closer look at this temple.

As we stepped onto their lawn, it became apparent that repairs were in order. A paint brush, caked in a crusty, off white yellow, lay in the tall grass; a paint roller waited in the sun. After observing their service, the Master, as he was called, walked us around his temple, showcasing the more completed work on the shaded side closer to the fence. He would complete the job as he found the time and money. The new coat of paint almost covered this hidden wall shadowed over by some bushes. The sunflower yellow of the past was slowly disappearing under a creamy white.

As he led us on to the very back of the temple, we were given sight of both the worst and arguable the best aspects of this property: Here the rot of the house could be seen—the Master had pulled away the exterior wall as he worked to replace the moldering wood. Piles of young timber waited to be nailed in, and broken, swelling planks waited to be demolished. However, from here one could spy the healthy and abundant garden which the Master, his followers, and myself, later dined upon.

The temple door was unlocked when we approached, a sign inviting guests in. Beside the door a clear, plastic box—like those used by realtors—housed single-sheeted pamphlets, yellow as the temple. My friend and I entered, and we were shortly greeted by a nun. She indicated an open door to our right, the Master’s office. I’d been on the other end of this dance before, interacting with visitors to my church. The gentleman sat behind a desk, if memory serves, he was still wearing his grey robes, and he invited us to take a seat. I pulled a chair from the wall and positioned myself before the desk.

As we exchanged opening pleasantries, a theme developed: Would we join in with the chants? He gave us three opportunities, and finally quit, saying something to the effect that we could get either little or much. It was time for the services. After pulling off our shoes, we were led into their holy place, and seated in the back beside a statue of a beardless warrior with what appeared to be a club with three blades, flanges running up to the handle. Across, on the other side of the room, another warrior waited, bearded and armed with a guandao. They seemed to stare at each other, the sculptor capturing the alert and ready energy of a fighter in each idol. Offerings cooled at their feet, little cups full of food. Many such offerings waited, uneaten, before the many statutes.

The Master and the nun were changing clothes, wrapping themselves in orangish robes. Two parishioners came: One was an elderly woman, likewise clothed in robes, though these were brown and black, and a middle-aged woman who wore jean shorts. The latter, I learned at supper, was raised Catholic, said something like she always found the Buddhist beliefs true, and informed me that Jesus was a radical socialist. The elderly woman had a certain beauty to her, a simplicity. She moved slowly but surely, placing offerings here and there, and lighting incense. She forced into both my and my companion’s hand a smoking stalk. Often, she would come before a Buddha and bow thrice, falling upon her face and rising again. She led us to one of these idols, imploring us to place the incense in a bowl. A little unprepared for her interceding, I whispered a prayer to Christ, asking that as this burning stick invaded the soft earth within the pot that God would invade this place.

The ceremonies started with ringing bells. What looked to me like a witch’s cauldron was struck, the low tone reverberating through the building. There was a wooden turtle which also sounded, producing a hollow note. So the time was kept, and the Sutras were sung. None of the four seemed to know what they were saying; I even understood the Master himself implying that he did not speak the original language. He assured us, however, that it was efficacious to repeat these prayers, it was good karma. I noticed, during this hour, how the Master fought off a cough. As the nun continued the chants, he would break, turning his head away to hack and clear his throat.

There were idols everywhere, and something else too. Three main buddhas sat against the far wall, and below them smaller buddhas and other statuary rested. The something else, though, which caught my eye was the American elements. Mixed with these seemingly archaic practices and bobbles, the Master and nun had microphones attached to their ears relaying their voices through two boomboxes bolted high up upon the wall. The perfect image of this was captured, I think, in the electric lighting hanging off the wall stylized to look like paper lanterns.

The middle-aged woman seemed the least experienced, and the little old woman would often interrupt her own worship to educate this initiate. So said they their prayers, and so came they to their conclusion. In what seemed an improvised speech, the Master explained the why of their worship. I myself had been wondering, considering this simply question my starting point when this was all over. With a stuttering opening, he provided a quick explanation of karma, proclaiming that it is unknowable the exact good or bad any action produces, but finally assuring that these ceremonies generated some amount of good to offset some amount of bad.

It was now time to ask our questions. We waited as the Master disrobed, folding his regalia into a neat pile. There was a pocket sewn into his yellow garments to house the battery and relay of his microphone. He then replaced the grey clothes upon his back, and we were led into his office.

I had two question now that he had given us the why of his worship. On one hand, he had referenced good and bad, and I wanted to know what he was basing this concept off of. From reading about Buddhism, I wondered if they even believed in any such thing. I understood the concept that desire bread suffering, and that the goal of Buddhism was to undercut this suffering by severing oneself from one’s desires, and yet I could not conceive what good or bad meant apart from desire. To say something is good is to say it is desirable, and the undesirable is bad.

So the first question I put forward: What was good?

What I had been hoping for was a concept, some rule or ideal, but instead he began to enumerate different good actions, kindness, prayer, and so forth. I attempted a new tack, and asked him what bad was. To this he gave an abbreviated history of his life—which was on point with answering my question—which I will attempt to further boil down here. He worked to do good his whole life, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully, but his life was thrown into turmoil by a bad back that medicine was powerless to cure. He purchased the services of a Buddhist nun for twenty dollars. She prayed for him, healing him with the caveat that he basically become a vegetarian. For three days his back was great, then he ate some pork. Putting two and two together, he left his Taoism and became a Buddhist. This all was to explain what bad karma was. I began to develop the vague sensation that this was a utilitarian doctrine of pain and pleasure, that it was useless to analyze what was essentially elemental, suffering and avoiding suffering.

So it came down to my final question, something I had been considering as I thought of my own religion when compared to what I knew of Buddhism: Was there anything that was worth suffering for? As I understood it, the central theme of Buddhism was to avoid suffering, but central to Christ’s message is that terrible command, pick up your cross. As I tried to put it, “Was there anything in life that you would choose to have your bad back for? Was there anything that was worth suffering for?”

If I understood his answer, he said yes. To obtain enlightenment and avoid the, I believed he referred to it as, “dark hole,” were the ultimate goods for which any suffering was worthwhile.

We left his office then, and as we replaced our shoes, he directed our attention to a poster displaying the different points of reincarnation. The bottom three levels were the hole he had talked of, the place one cannot escape: hungry ghosts, animals, and Hell. The artwork was rather good, and I found the mythology enveloping. I noticed another poster hanging by this, a stereogram, and as the Master talked, I began puzzling its image from it. I guessed beforehand that it would be the Buddha which would resolve into my vision, and with a closer look I soon saw the three-dimensional image.

I complemented the Master on his stereogram. The old man did a double take, and asked in a somewhat surprised tone, “You can see it?”

[1]
The Hero of Time is the title given a video game character who often goes to abandoned temples to fight with monsters and procure “items” which can help progress the game.

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