The first time I meditated in a proper temple Kayne West lyrics from Mercy started marching through my head and the incongruence of being in that very special place hearing that particular song made me laugh out loud. I sat on a thin cushion topped by an ill shaped half circle, on a plain wooden floor inside a residential neighborhood home that was converted into a Buddhist temple. I sat there wondering if I would ever have sensation in my feet again after the pins and needles of sitting uncomfortably for so long. Being the only white person it felt doubly, no triply important to do a good job at meditating at the temple (which goes to show how western my practice has been), with as little fidgeting as possible, slow, calm breathing, sitting up straight with hands on knees.
But first, the barrier for entry. I have this friend who knows me well enough to give me suggestions on things to do. “We should go bungee jumping!” “Sure, I’ll go!” “I know this temple where you can meditate!” “Okay.” “Come to tai chi class and see if you like it!” “Well, alright.” “I know this place where we can meditate on our chakras!” “Right.” I had been meditating for about a year and a half at the time, and had worked my way up to 30 minutes silent mediation daily on my extremely comfortable zafu at home. I read Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, Suzuki and everything else I could think of. I was looking for the next step because I could not get my brain to shut the fuck up already and I had a lot going on that made it a good idea to be able to focus. “There’s this temple that has a 30 minute walking meditation after a 30 minute sitting meditation at night, want to try it?” “Yes. Yes, I’ll try it.”
But first. How do you walk into a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple as a white person when your friend who told you to go doesn’t show up? You go in. You bow. The monk comes over and it goes a little something like this. You have to get permission to be in that special space. You have to be respectful, thoughtful, and conscientious. And there are a few questions to answer. “Who told you about this?” That one is easy. My friend with all the crazy ideas and this is his name. “This is a 60 minute meditation followed by a 15 minute walking meditation. Do you meditate?” I do! But the most I’ve ever done is 30 minutes. “What do you focus on when you meditate?” My breath. A candle. “Do you have a meditation teacher?” No. (Maybe I do now?) Okay he says. Okay. Go sit for one hour.
It ended up being a 75 minute meditation because I came early to speak with the monk to ensure I was allowed access. And then the walking meditation, which is one of my very favorite things. After that first 90 minute temple session I felt total euphoria because the cushion I sat on was such a terrible fit that not sitting in an extremely uncomfortable position any longer made my body rejoice with disbelief that the session was finally over.
There was a large alter where the monk sits. Nearing the end of the silent meditation I saw him bring out something that was glowing and hold it in his hands. I thought “Oh wow, my first session and I’m already learning the deep secrets of buddhism.” …Eventually I determined that that night’s secret was that the monk possessed a smart phone and he was checking the time.
My favorite thing about the buddhist temple is the quiet. Sometimes you can hear flocks of wild parrots squawking. There’s a large buddha with a circular LED screen behind his head (Buddha’s aura in fact, with the same colors that appear on the buddhist flag) on the alter. The lights vary in color and pattern and it’s a very calming thing to look at when you can’t keep your eyes shut any longer. There are orchids usually and other flowers depending on the seasons. On my first visit there were beautiful orange gladiolus, one of my favorite flowers. There is always fresh fruit. In the silence you hear clocks tick, you hear other meditators falling asleep and snoring, stomachs growling, people coughing from the incense, smart phones ringing, people shifting in place on their cushions, or the gurgling of a water fountain. When it’s really hot, like oppressively so, you’ll hear a swamp fan. Otherwise, you hear silence.
When you do walking meditation it is a slow, thoughtful walk. We do it in a converted living room, back and forth, back and forth. When you slowly pick up your foot, you think “up.” When you slowly put your foot down, you think “down.” If the floor is warm, you think “warm.” If the floor is cool, you think “cool.” When you reach the other side of the room, you carefully turn, moving one foot at a time a quarter turn clockwise until you are facing the opposite wall. Fold your hands in front or in back and keep your head down. Walking slowly without falling down is harder to do than you would think. But it is calming.
The monk told me he would be happy to answer my questions after each session. I only had the guts to ask him a few things over the course of a few months. Here are the questions I asked with his answers.
Me: “My mind is not silent, is that okay?”
Monk: (laughter) “Do you focus on the breath?”
Monk: “No problem.”
Me: “Is it okay if I look at the Buddha’s aura while I meditate?”
Monk: (laughter) “Yes. No problem.”
Me: “Where do I put my hands when I meditate?”
Monk: (smiling) “On your knees or in your lap, it doesn’t matter.”
Me: “Where does meditation take place in the body? Where do you go when you meditate? Is it deep inside your mind?”
Monk: (Thinking about what I said, but touching his heart when answering) “Yes, it is deep inside the mind.”