Growing up in a predominantly Vietnamese community, religion played an important part in identifying and bringing members of similar views together. It acts as a medium for guiding people through life, especially during times of confusion when some form of clarity is needed. Among the various beliefs in my community, Buddhism and Catholicism are the two main religious practices.
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I myself, identify with being a Christian in the Catholic denomination. Catholic beliefs revolve around the idea that Jesus is the son of God, the bible is the true word of God, baptism is essential for salvation, the Ten Commandments is a moral compass, and the Holy Trinity is an objective reality. The Catholic service comprise of a very organized system of mass that is unique to the religion itself. In contrast to other non-christian beliefs, Catholicism follows a very intricate pathway for achieving ultimate salvation and a seat in God’s Kingdom. As a Catholic, I am aware that there are many different religious perspectives outside of Christianity. Although there are observable differences in how people approach certain practices, all religions aim to reveal truths behind human action, thoughts, and emotions. I believe that there is no right or wrong way to worship God(s), but in order to live in peace with contrasting views surrounding us, we must be mindful of each other’s religious affiliations. To achieve this, my group and I (all Christian Catholics), decided to enlighten ourselves with the knowledge of a commonly practiced religion in our community: Buddhism. On Sunday, November 4, 2018, we made a visit to Ch??a B?? D?? for the 11:00 AM service. Ch??a B?? D?? is a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, situated in a secluded area of the woods, located on 4386 Lincoln St., New Orleans, LA 70131. The temple follows the practice of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, which focuses on the principles of Dharma and how to attain enlightenment.
Upon arrival, many attendees had already removed their shoes before setting foot in the temple. This gesture was out of respect for the temple because it symbolizes a place of cleanliness. Removing the shoes also encourages relaxation when people take their position on available empty matts and begin meditating before the service. The area filled quickly during entry, so we decided to stand towards the back of the temple to participate in the service from the background. Among us were regular attendees whom had stood beside us because the area was fairly crowded. These people were very welcoming, explaining to us what we should do during the service. At 11:00 AM, the service began when someone struck the gong. The sound of it signaled everyone to stand up. Two monks were summoned into the room shortly after, standing near the altar. Their arrival cued the congregation to kneel down on the matts/floor, taking a deep bow before starting the first prayer. Unlike the Catholic church, the temple did not had any liturgical elements throughout the service. Mainly, the temple is a place for worship, so the service just consisted of monks reciting different prayers with people following along the booklet provided. The gong serves as a pacemaker, setting times for when a new prayer begins; attendees would bow in response each time the gong was struck while repeating the monks’ spoken words. This was done repeatedly for a little over an hour. After the service was done, some people from the congregation would light incense in front of the altar to pray for others, the Buddha, or other statues of Buddhist Gods in the room.
As I observe the events unfold before us, I started taking notice towards the unique architecture of the temple. Compared to the elaborate arches and engraving design of a typical Catholic Church, the the exterior of the Buddhist temple was built rather simplistically, following a roof-stacking rectangular layout (chinese pagoda style). The majority of the building was painted in a neutral tan color containing pointed red roofs embellished with gold, swirl-like accents lining the edges. Massive brick-tone french double doors open to welcome visitors inside, leading the way into a room filled with square matts, each accommodated with a small wooden podium for holding books. Visitors were dressed in casual clothing (jeans and shirt), but there were other people also dressed in blue and white robes. The temple, being as it is a respectful place of worship, I could infer that the dress code was pretty strict considering attendees were covered modestly from head to toe. From the entrance, a walkway guided the place to the front of the room where a golden monument of Buddha was seated at the center atop a wooden altar. Various offerings such as fruits, plants, candles, and incense pots surrounded the foot of the Buddha. In addition, two other Buddhist gods dressed in red were placed on each side of the Buddha with lotus flower statues adorning the bottom half, symbolizing fortune and purification. Inside, the room was set up like a classroom, with matts placed in rows towards the left and right of the Buddha. The the middle area however, was cleared, acting as a divider between the two sides. It could be seen clearly that the main focus was directed towards these monuments. From the outside, statues of white foo dogs were positioned beside a mahogany monument of Budai in front of the entrance. In the Buddhist religion, the dog monuments symbolizes royalty and protection. From the placement and position of the dogs in front of the entrance, the dogs may seem as though they are guarding/watching the temple. The statue of Budai, commonly seen with a joyful expression, was the first monument we saw as we made our way to the doors. Around the the perimeter of the temple lied a huge white statue of Kwan Yin, also known as the female buddha, carrying a water vase in one hand. Similar to the Buddha monument, fruits and incense pots were also place near her foot.
The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to reach Nirvana, a state of peace where there is no suffering, desire, and sense of self. At the center of Buddhist teachings are the Four Noble Truths, which aids in the path leading to Nirvana and dealing with human suffering. The four truths are: (1) Dukkha – truth of suffering, (2) Samudaya – truth of origin of suffering, (3) Nirodha – truth of the end of suffering, and (4) Magga – truth of the path to end suffer. For the first noble truth, Dukkha, Buddha states that we need to understand that everything in life is craving and suffering. We are all suffering because we want something, so the key to living a happy life would be appreciating the things we had instead of wanting the things we didn’t have. Samudaya, the second noble truth reinforces us to understanding that the cause of our suffering originates in our mind by wanting and desire things. This is then followed by the third noble truth, Nirodha, which basically means to put an end to Dukkha. If we can stop Dukkha, then we can attain Nirvana, where we don’t have to keep coming back to the miserable place/state we’re in. Because the idea is that when we want or need something, it creates karma, and karma keeps us trapped in a reincarnation cycle. The fourth noble truth, Magga, explains that there is a pathway of reaching enlightenment: the eightfold path. The eightfold path is also called the middle way because it is the mid way between our desire and suffering. The path urges followers to seek an understanding of the four noble truths (right understanding). We have to be able to control our thoughts (right thought), having determination and resolve in our faith and in our way. We can not engage in gossip or slandering because it creates bad karma (right speech). Along with avoiding gossip, we must also avoid misconduct and be good people (right action). In addition, Buddhists do not believe that people should be in any type of profession that brings pain, violence, or suffering to others/creatures, thus we must have a right means to making a living (right livelihood). We also have to be aware of our minds and control negative thoughts (right effort), bringing awareness to our mental and physical state, being in touch with ourselves (right mindfulness). At the end of the day, Buddhism is really about meditation, learning to control our minds in order to clear it through breathing and visualization techniques that helps us come to our own truths/understanding (right concentration). When I attended the prayer service, I now understood why meditation was such a crucial part of Buddhism. People were meditating and engaging in prayer in order to have a better grasp of the concepts of the four noble truths to which they can reach their nirvana. The service encourages individuals to reflect upon their thoughts and actions, gaining a deeper appreciation for simplicity in the nature of humanity.
The nature behind the practice of Buddhism stresses the individual to avoid indulgences and self-denial. People have to overcome the challenges of temptation and desires that may deter them from the path of enlightenment. During the service, attendants were led by the monks, praying and bowing at specific times when the gong struck. The service was structured rather formally and simplistically, there was really no spontaneous elements present. In contrast to the Catholic Church, where some of the prayers are sung with accompanying instruments (led by the choir), the prayers at the temple were spoken in a rhythmic fashion, led by the head monk who synced the timing of the chants with the sound of the gong. The chants, from what I can discern, were in the Vietnamese language. However, I was not able to understand what was being said because some of the terms were pretty complexed. Being that people were chanting in a monophonic way with no modern musical elements, it can be concluded that the practice was very traditional, following ancient rituals of Buddhism since it originated during sixth century B.C. After the service, I spoke to a few of the community members and learned that there wasn’t an appropriate method of worship in the religious practice of Buddhism. In contrast to its nature, the regularly held worship service is not definitive in its set of ritual practice and are subjected to change. Despite the changes however, the practice still revolves mainly around worshiping the Buddhist Gods. As the service lasted over an hour long with constant chanting and prayer, it can be inferred that Buddhism is a practice that requires self determination and commitment in order to obtain nirvana.
The congregation members were predominantly of Vietnamese descent. From the way people interacted with each other and engaged in lengthy conversation, it can be concluded that the members were very close to one another. When conversing with the participants, I learned the majority of the members resided in areas such as Belle Chasse; some people even traveled as far as New Orleans east to attend these services every Saturday and Sunday. Similar to my own Vietnamese Catholic Church community, people would arrive to the service in groups consisting of adults and kids; the religion itself draws people in by a combination of ethnic and family ties. The unity observed in the Buddhist community emphasizes how Buddhism brings people with similar goals together. Throughout the service, the monk was the person who was mainly leading the prayers. Unlike the priests in the Catholic church whose role is to preach the word of God and administer the sacraments, the role of the monks in the temple is to assist people in spiritual development by creating a pure and serene environment for worshipping. During the service, the purpose of the head monk leading the prayer was to aid in the process of helping participants achieve their own nirvana. In addition, people also view the monk as an ideal example of how good Buddhists should live because they uphold the practice of Dharma to a high degree. As people prayed in unison, the communal effort of the religion really shows how everyone in the congregation aims to achieve the same ultimate goal of enlightenment.
My experience at Vietnamese Buddhist temple was very refreshing as I got to learn more about a different religion that is practiced heavily around my Asian community. I believe that attending the service helped me realize the importance of religion and the role it plays in bringing communities together. The architectures of the temple was very beautiful, emphasizing the monumental aspects of worship. The simplistic elements of the service itself reflects upon how the Buddhist religion stresses meditation and worship for the good of the individual. I found it very interesting how compared to Catholicism, Buddhism’s main focus is to achieve a state of nirvana where individuals are not trapped in a vicious reincarnation cycle of desire and suffering. The religion aims to help individuals achieve a balance between indulgence and denial. Also, the participants of the service were very friendly and welcoming towards our arrival. Overall, the visit to the temple was very pleasant and interesting, being a great learning experience.
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