My first day in Hong Kong was spent trying to get to a temple where I could learn to pray with Buddhist monks. I realize that this isn’t usually what people do when they arrive at one of the worlds most prolific shopping Mecca’s – but nothing in the world could have convinced me that shopping was a better idea than praying while my whole being was adjusting from living on a farm to being in the world’s most populated urban center.
I had an idyllic picture in my head – of entering a quiet dark place with a line up of happy looking meditating monks. I would quietly sit with them and enter some blissful state of nirvana. That’s where i wanted to go.
But the universe seemed to have very different plans for me – in fact no outcome could have been more opposite to my expectations.
Looking at my maps, I could see there were many temples within a reasonable distance from our hotel in Kowloon. I asked the front desk of our hotel for help, and the girl, when I told her I wanted to “go pray” inspected me with a quick ironic glance up and down my face and sent me with a wry smile to her co-worker – obviously someone more enthusiastic about temples and “that stuff” as she puts it.
I showed him where I thought I wanted to go but he quickly redirected me to a temple off of the metro line –
“Very easy to get there”, he said with an assured smile. I noticed that the Wong Tai Sin Temple was named the same as the metro station to get there – so I figure there is a good chance I would find it if I could just figure out how to get to the actual metro station.
Due to the sheer number of people living in Hong Kong the public transit system has been perfected and streamlined. I found the metro quite easily with help from my trusty GPS who only failed once or twice, and a kind local lady who saw me turn around with a map in my hands looking exceptionally lost. One thing to say about Hong Kong is that there is never a lack of people who are ready and willing to help out a lost looking stranger, and there seems to be a genuine pride in having rendered someone assistance.
To say the metro was crowded would be an epic understatement. I was crammed onto a moving train with 5000 of my fellow humans, and being the last one on I was lucky enough to have my face basically squished up against the window in the door. It gives new meaning to the adage “he who hesitates is lost” – or suffocated.
“No holding door sides” a notice said right under my nose.
So I grabbed anything I could when the train jarred to a stop or start, which included the poor girl standing beside me and her knapsack. I notice right away that people who live in hugely crowded cities have a distinctly different sense of personal space then lets say, a Canadian like me who live on a farm in wide open fields and only goes into the city twice a year. There were times I have to admit where I really felt like a bit of a country bumpkin. My clothes were not fancy, my shoes looked more like what the garbage collectors wear, and my purse screamed hippie-freak! thanks to my good friend back home who bought me a gift that would have the effect of reminding me who I am even when nothing around me looked even a bit familiar.
The trip to Wong Tai Sin Temple involved me having to switch metros half way there. I am pleased to report I only got a little lost, with the help of the trusty “customer service” counters and some work on my personal patience which was at an all time low. Eventually I found myself at the stop Wong Tai Sin Temple stop and I leaped from the anchovy can of a train into the bright sunlight.
The first person I met was a delightful toothless old lady selling “joss sticks” at the entrance to the temple. “Joss” is like incense but more for ritual appeals to the Gods in Taoist temples, I learned afterwards. She was charging ten Hong Kong Dollars for a bundle of nine sticks – which equates to about sixteen cents Canadian. I handed her five dollars Australian (equal probably to a week’s work) and all the change I could hand over. She was soon saying:
“…no no fine…good”, But I could see she was happy with her take for the day and I was happy to share with her.
Next, in my desire to avoid the other loud joss sellers who had focused on getting my attention (white tourist in a sea of Asian faces), I was rescued by a sweet Chinese man who had lived in Calgary and had since moved back to Hong Kong. He felt a kinship with me when he overheard me speaking loudly to the joss sellers.
The seller, Richard was loud and “carnival like”, standing beside the 100 foot or so long trough of fire that was constantly burning allowing prayers and revellers alike to spark up their joss and go make their offering.
“AH you American right?” the obnoxious Joss seller says to me smiling.
” I am not! I am Canadian”, I say in such an indignant tone, significantly more loudly than any Chinese woman would have said anything. John the kindly Calgarian-Chinese man overheard my exclamation.
“Oh, I am from Canada too”, he was already shaking my hand as he exclaimed this in a thick Cantonese accent.
“Really?” I smile grateful to have my impending outburst towards the carnival guy curtailed. Obviously my plan for serenity and happy little peaceful chanting monks was officially in the toilet.
John and his sweet quiet wife who never spoke a word but smiled often and encouragingly kindly offered to show me around the temple and teach me “how to pray”.
I didn’t know what kind of temple I was in at the time, and even when I was staring at all of the gods and deities represented by various animal statues, kneeling monks, dead emperors and other people who had served the emperor loyally, faithfully or courageously, I couldn’t quite understand what I was seeing. Continuing into the temple, I decided to just keep my eyes open and do what others did. In front of the temple, standing tall and beautiful with all its red colours and gold filigree archways were two lions. Following what the hoards and masses of temple attendees were doing, I watched as they each took a moment to put their hand on the lions, patting them a little for luck, or a wish I suspected. I put my hand on the lion too – hoping something magical would happen. It was cold and smooth smiling widely at me with some sort of round ball in its mouth.
Inside the temple was semi-circle of 9 foot tall bronze animal statues – The Horse, Ox, Goat, Pig, Monkey, Rat, Rabbit – all the animals of the Chinese zodiac, each holding an element like fire, or a spear, for protection. The horse felt like it was for me – a fire horse smiling proudly holding a big flame in its right hand. I am a fire horse too – born in 1966 during a time when the Chinese superstitiously refrained more than normal from having children for a period because no one wanted to have a female “fire horse” – too much personality, too hard-headed. Go figure? I wasn’t sure if it was ok to take a picture with them – I remember in Africa people thinking a photo stole the soul of things – so I took two quickly.
I went up the temple stairs into the main area where you make a plea to whichever god fits what you need at the time – money, health. Family, success, sex, love – they are all there.
I took the instructions of my inadvertent teacher john and burnt the “joss” – the woodsy smelling thick incense that we are given to burn at the particular God you want to ask a particular deity for. John told me hurriedly –
“Now you pray! – pray for what you want. You go now.!” I felt like I should dash into some penitent position – my inner lingering Catholicism knocking on the door. And really until that moment I had not considered “what” I would pray for. I wanted to ask John what to say if you
Have nothing you want to pray for – but I realized quickly how insane this must sound to someone who has probably experienced so much “lack” in his life. What did I knowe about being hungry or supporting a family by doing a job you might hate, working in one of those indescribably inhumane chinese factories maybe. The possibilities were endless so I stayed quiet.
“Quickly – what do you want?”
No time to answer…
“OK you pray for your family ok? Now go, pray ask for what you want now you go ask…”
He shows me how to place the joss sticks in a long rectangular incense box which is situated in front of a temple with various Gods/previous politicians or dead governmental administrators and emperors. When the Chinese pray to their ancestors – they pray literally to their ancestors. It is not uncommon for a politician – for example a minister of finance that was efficient with the countries money – to have a golden statues in his likeness made so that the people can bring their requests for money for example, or health or wellness for their families. These are all “deities” that the people in this place feel can help them in times of trouble, some mythical, some historical figures. In fact the Wong Tai Sin temple is particularly well-known for being powerfully connected and somehow “superior” in granting more wishes and prayers than any other.
Prayer in the Wong Tai Sin Temple is a speedy business…and the gods are treated like so a little like Santa Clause:
“Now – you go pray for what you want to pray for what you want!”.
All around me I hear a shaking noise, people kneeling down behind the Joss stick holder shaking cups filled with long bamboo sticks. John shows me where to get my own bamboo cup and tells me to find a cushion and kneel and….
“shake shake shake – until one of them falls out. You shake now!”, his wife smiles widely at me encouraging me to listen. I shake with my head bowed reverently. I feel like a catholic in the middle of all these shakers, while inside actually having a conversation with God –
“ok make this good…”
Plop – out comes a stick and number happens to be 26 –
“Come now – we go see the soothsayer” – John takes my hand practically dragging me to my feet to return the cup of sticks to the stick lady’s booth. I say a quick “Che Che” (thank you) and am pulled away by the excited stranger.
In front of me is a sign clearly marked “Soothsayer”…I have only ever heard of “soothsayer” or fortune-teller, in the books I read about king Arthur and Merlin. And there indeed behind the temple guards and the oracles and god’s are soothsayers – a long row of women – no men I notice – who are awaiting customers to have their numbers interpreted.
The process of shaking the sticks is called ” Kau Cim” and is related to the oracle Kuan Yin who is akin to a female Buddha, and in her day was a Bodhisattva and Buddhist nun. In China and Tibet Kuan Yin is revered Goddess of Compassion and Mercy. Her existence, like the Buddha is based on a real person who was said to have lived long ago. There are many folk tales surrounding her, each one holding the similar facet that she reacts to great cruelty with compassion and love. In fact she is the Chinese equivalent to the heart sutra – or heart chakra. She takes on the karma of others to relieve their pain, suffering and guilt. Many school of occidental philosophy and the attainment of enlightenment are related to someone “becoming as Quan Yin” if they deepens their meditation practice continuously. She is also knows as Tara in Tibettan Buddhism. Since His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the representative of compassionate being in this life’s incarnation, this must also mean that he is the incarnation of Kuan Yin. I suspect that that this is a major cause of his banishment from his homeland – the Chinese government knows very well that they could not continue to survive and control the people if someone is perceived as more powerful and authoritative than they are. Communism is far too weak and fickle a political system for such a thing. In all though, It seems that each of the many varied schools of Buddhism have a version of Kuan Yin which always boils down to love and compassion – and the powerful presence of the divine feminine as Kuan Yin is very often portrayed as a woman. The Sutras of Buddhism are meant to teach the individual how to attain such a level of compassion – to attain “Kuan Yin”hood.
John, the Calgarian-Chinese man still clasping my hand, brings me to the first soothsayer he sees along the long row of many. They have a quick discussion in Cantonese and I notice she looks annoyed and harried. I pay her the required 40 Hong Kong dollars and she hands him a piece of paper grunting something with my “26” fortune on it. He explains that it is a kind of poem, and then quickly add that it says I should not stay away form my family too long or they will be lonely. I notice he hasn’t even looked at the paper yet. I wonder if this is the Chinese way of giving what he thinks is sound fatherly advice. I could see that he didn’t understand my children were all grown and no longer needed me so I took his actions and words understanding his kind intention – but there were no men in those booths that I saw – and i imagined that these “poems” were not meant to be interpreted by men- and he knew it. He pushed the paper into my hand and said a quick good bye, I thanked him as he dashed off and melted into the crowd with his wife.
I almost leave but decide to walk slowly around again and see if I can find the peacefulness in this chaos – surely a spiritual feeling must be hiding here somewhere…it was a temple after all!
I find myself again on the rows of soothsayers and my eyes connect with a young women who has her mother sitting behind her smiling sweetly.
She interrupts her reading and looks at me straight in the face –
“You come here next”, it wasn’t a question – it was a statement, and I felt like maybe she had something to tell me.
I pay for another reading, but now I ask her to do my palm as well. She tells me that my left hand is for a reading regarding my life before 30 and my right hand after. She begins, saying my career life has “not been so good” before thirty, but soon it will be very very good – better than I could have imagined.
She sees my kids – the biological ones, in my hand. Then says I have many more children, I am mother to many – Yup…right on.
Her name is Jennifer I see on her card, and I smile – why do all these obviously non-english people have english names” I wonder. British rule I suppose – easier to pronounce I expect.
And the reading gets good now:
“You have too strong personality!” Jennifer insists. “You must be softer, be softer for your husband. You must not speak so loudly. More patience to make his work go well”.
The words echoed in my head. I must have looked dumbfounded because she kept asking
“You understand ok?”, her english was great – I consoled her.
You must be quieter, softer – more patient…she keeps repeating.
I finally cut in and say:
“I’m not sure how to explain this to you – but I will never be quieter, nor softer and probably will always have no patience. That’s just me.” and I smile as sweetly giving her a “don’t you know who I am” look – but you know, everyone has some form of “invisibility” meltdown – where you don’t quite know who you are in the context of a completely alien environment so you end up saying stupid things…
I try to make it more “chinese friendly” –
“Maybe my energy is Yang and his energy is yin? But it works like this for us…” now I’m babbling…
She says frowning,
“You are married to woman?” she replies curious but unperturbed. I has seen allot of women openly gay in Hong Kong, holding hands even more at ease than I see at home. But now I thought of my husband who would have cried laughing.
“No, he is a man – but does not need me to be different than what I am – and what I am is NOT soft. Where I come from women can be strong.”
She ignores this.
“AH,” she says now a little confused and simply continues as if I have not really said anything…
“OK then – you be softer now ok? If not for husband then on YOU ok? You too hard too hard in your mind on YOU. Husband he be ok then…”
OK now you’re getting it.
My temple experience was amazing – not at all what I pictured – way better than what I could ever have imagined. However, I can tell you that when I returned to our hotel in the busy noisy, bustling moving city, it was THEN that I experienced the peacefulness that I thought I needed to go to a temple to find. In that high up room overlooking the unstoppable world below, I felt a quiet bliss. And I sat, like I would have with those imaginary happy little monks in the humming temple and I found my inside quiet that had been with me all along.