Smog and Incense

When I moved to China in the fall of 2016, Beijing was experiencing one of its worst years on record for air pollution.  Most of my memories from that first semester here are of hazy, dusty streets, white masks turned gray from particulate matter originating in coal-fired power plants in Hebei Province, sputum on the streets.  Given the lack of sun and fresh air (along with a decaying relationship and a demoralizing work environment), I grew extremely depressed.  I experienced panic attacks on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis, and my general anxiety about my life’s direction left me constantly shaken.

One of the few bright spots from that first year was when I visited the Lama Temple, the most notable of Beijing’s Buddhist temples.  The incense, the quiet, the focus on individual spiritual practice and choice sat well with my tormented mind.  Christianity’s often cold and distant view of God was not the medicine I so desperately needed at that point in my life.  Rather, it was the Buddha’s teaching of letting go of our attachment to this life, of freeing ourselves from our self-imposed cycles of suffering and oppression that I so desperately needed to hear.  As I discuss in my blog post from last Lent, God longs for us to experience His divine transcendence, even if that needs to happen in the sacred space of another faith. Below is the account I recorded on that first visit to the Lama Temple- join me as I journey back and spin the prayer wheels once more here at the Pilgrimage to Somewhere.

“I wandered into the Lama Temple today after having completed some bureaucratic exercises- the sheer oddness of the place struck me.  I’m used to stained glass, elegance in simplicity, or, should I be in Spain or Italy, elegance in grandiosity.  This temple was neither; rather, it was foreign yet holy, spiritual yet worldly.  Much like its Christian counterparts, gold leaf covered the Buddha in similar fashion as we Catholics cover the Virgin.  The lack of a defined preaching space was interesting and – dare I say it – captivating.  In its place were incense and padded kneelers, prayer wheels and a meditation pavilion, flocks of laity and saffron-robed monks, all bowing three times to the North, the South, the East, and the West.

As you enter the first courtyard, the nose is overcome with smoke, the eyes with great clouds of billowing white.  I find it rather beautiful that the Buddha would prefer smoke to pulpits, kneelers to pews, and wide open sky to a vaulted ceiling.  Continuing on with my incense now lit, it became clearer to me that this was more a personal rather than a corporate faith.  In the West, we are often taught that those in the ‘East’ value the collective over the individual, yet, what I was witnessing seems to run counter to that generalization.  Young, old, Chinese, foreign, all coming forward, wandering forward, incense and prayers in hand and heart, each one offering their specific plea, their unique prayer, their wonderfully individualistic experience of the divine.  Although I do not know the Buddha well nor his teachings, I am certain that his gregarious smile reveals his good heartedness towards a wavering Catholic boy with a penchant for good sex and even better liturgy. 

Dear Buddha, keep on smiling.  Who knows, maybe I’ll sit with you a while under the banyan tree and see what I can learn.  I’ve always wanted to be enlightened.

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