Monday, November 16, 2009
Angels in the Rafters
I love rituals. They make the everyday special. I also love chocolate. So it's no wonder that one of my rituals is to regularly and consciously go to my favorite chocolate shops and deliberately enjoy. Everything about the experience becomes part of the ritual, including the people who work at the shop. It turned out that as part of one of the rituals, one of my sister's good friends worked at one of these shops. His name was Ryan.
When Celeste and I lived in Korea, one day I was talking to my sister on the telephone and she mentioned that Ryan had killed himself, tragically, along with his sister in a joint-suicide. Even though I wasn't extremely close to Ryan and had never met his sister, this news weighed on me immeasurably. I couldn't shake the thought from my head. Lucy, my sister, asked me if I would go to a Buddhist temple and light a candle for Ryan and his sister. I didn't know if they even did that in Buddhism but I told her I would.
It was about this time that we went on a meditation retreat up in the mountains with our dear friend and guide, Jin-Soon. After our time at the retreat was spent, Jin-Soon suggested that we go on a light hike up the mountain to her favorite temple. It was late Autumn and we hiked, swimming in the warmth and light of the sun, especially after the biting cold of the morning.
We came to a small temple and quietly, we took off our shoes and stepped inside. Already sitting inside the temple were 2 female monks, both with shaved heads and gray habit, sitting on mats deep in meditation. I thought about my own meditation experience, how difficult it can be at times, and I wondered how long they had been there or planned to be there. They looked as though they may as well have been permanent fixtures in the temple. Jin-Soon handed Celeste and me a mat, and we all sat down and began our own meditation. The sun shone through the window of the door in a perfect rectangle that surrounded my body like a picture frame. I was warm and quiet. I don't know how much time we spent there. Time just dissolved.
Once we finished our meditation, outside of the temple, I remembered the promise I had made to Lucy to someday light a candle for Ryan and his sister. I asked Jin-Soon how to go about getting candles lit in the temple. She kindly walked me to the center of the compound not far away and helped me buy two 14 inch candles.
With the candles in hand, I walked to the main temple, took off my shoes, and solemnly entered the door. Just inside the door was an old monk whose face was perfectly wrinkled, obviously from a life-time of smiling. He saw the candles in my hand and speaking no Korean, I motioned that I wished to place them on the alter. He understood and beckoned me to follow his lead. I watched as he approached the enormous, golden Buddha in the front of the room and performed a dramatic bow, lowering himself to the floor then standing up again with his hands together in a prayer motion. I was amazed and how similar this bow was to the Sun Salutations, Surya Namskar, we practice in yoga. The monk performed this beautiful bow simultaneously honoring both the Buddha and the Buddha Nature in himself and all beings. I approached the Buddha to give it a try. I kept Ryan and his sister in my mind and intended to honor their Buddha nature as well as my own and that of every other being. As I accomplished my bow, I tried to remember all the steps I saw the monk perform. I did my best version and then together the monk and I walked to the alter and placed the candles gently on the candle offering.
After placing and lighting the candles, I retreated slowly backward and made motions to leave. My monk, however, had more to teach me. He held up seven fingers and motioned that it was now necessary to complete seven more bows. Again, he made dramatic motions for me to see the precise actions to perform this rite. I tried to follow his exact gestures but got lost in the details. The kind smiling monk instructed me to do it again and made me watch him again to get it right this time. Again I tried and by now the monk was softly laughing. Despite the spectacle I was making, I couldn't help but smile as well. With my every attempt at a bow, the monk hovered over me and corrected me where I forgot. Before too long, the monk decided that I was all but hopeless and encouraged my actions by physically helping me put body in the right places. After what seemed like 30 tries, I eventually performed seven correct bows. I guess this is how I learn the best; by experience. This is the process: Stand with legs together, hands in a prayer stance. Kneel down and cross the left foot over the right while placing the palms on the floor and lowering the forehead to the floor. The butt must come down and touch your ankles (which must be much easier for him than it was for me because the monk couldn't figure out why I couldn't get that right and corrected me repeatedly on this point). With the forehead on the ground, raise the hands off the ground, palms facing up. Replace the hands on the ground, palms down, uncross your feet, and press yourself to a squatting position. Then stand up, feet together, without using hand. Finally, with hand pressed together in a prayer, make a deep bow toward the Buddha. When I completed my offering, my monk gave me a gentle bow and an enormous smile. I reciprocated in bowing and smiling my deep thanks to him.
As I left the temple, I was certain that Ryan and his sister were sitting as angels in the rafters, laughing at my tutelage and grateful for my gesture. I'm sure of it.