East meets West
One of the marvels of life is that it leads us down paths we have never expected to travel. Today was a spectacular day, even by Southern California standards. The Santa Ana winds had blown all the smog out of the valleys revealing the full glory of the San Gabriel mountains framed by clear blue skies. It is my sister-in-law’s birthday. We are meeting her, her son and his Chinese girlfriend, as well as the girlfriend’s mother at a Buddhist temple to attend a Sunday service.
I’m not sure exactly what I had expected, but it certainly was not the Hsi Lai Temple. Located in a working class section of Los Angeles, the 102,000 square foot temple complex sits on 15 acres of land overlooking the local mountains. This is the largest Buddhist temple in the United States, and one of the largest outside of mainland China.
Hsi Lai means "Coming West." The temple, built to serve those who are interested in learning Buddhism as well as Chinese culture, serves as a bridge for cultural exchange between the East and the West. Open seven days a week, the temple’s multiple parking lots were already full when we arrived. Having found a space on a nearby street, we slowly made our way up to the main temple gate, bypassing a number of smiling stone Buddha figures demonstrating 10 different exercises as a path to relaxation. We passed through a number of the red walled buildings with Chinese inscriptions in gold characters.
The walls are lined with Bodhisattva Statues representing those who aspired to Buddhahood and have devoted themselves to altruistic actions especially for the sake of the enlightenment of others. There are also figures with bulging eyes and frightening demeanors, possibly to keep evil away. On one wall is a passage from a famous sutra, "All phenomena are like a dream, illusion, bubble, or shadow; they are like dew or lightning. One should meditate upon them thus."
We cross a large square courtyard, and ascend another flight of stairs to the main worship hall. From inside comes the sound of chanting, accompanied by the beating of a drum and the clinking of cymbals. The smell of incense comes wafting out to us, as we are invited to join the ceremony inside. We are handed books with English transliterations of the Chinese words, as well as English translations of the prayers being chanted. We are one of the few occidental’s present. I look out at the faces of those present praying, seeing a mixture of young and old, with facial and body attitudes not unlike any be found in a Christian ceremony. Except for the microphone held in the hands of the monk leading the chants, the scene before me could have occurred at any time in the past several millennia.
Afterwards, we eat the delicious vegetarian lunch served in a large communal hall underneath the main temple. While the ceremony and its setting was strangely alien to me, the impulse to spirituality inherent in us is one I easily recognized. I’ve attached a few photographs in the photo section of my blog for those of you interested.