While traveling abroad, I never miss an opportunity to visit the local places of worship. Not only do they offer interesting and often beautiful examples of architecture and art, but they also help me to better understand the people who worship there.
I’m especially fascinated by Buddhist temples. Asian countries can sometimes feel overwhelming. I think this is because many Asian countries have a culture so different from my own. Therefore, my senses are bombarded with unfamiliar information to the point of exhaustion. Buddhist temples are usually a quiet respite from the outside world, giving my mind the chance to relax and reflect while inside the temple walls. They are also full of statues, religious artifacts, and art. I have a great time visiting each new temple that I come across. I always enjoy learning about the historical and spiritual significance of the specific temple I am visiting and comparing and contrasting it to others I have seen.
Such was the case when I visited the Beita Temple in Shenyang, China. I hadn’t planned to visit the temple. In fact, I had spent the day walking around the city and was actually headed back to my hotel to have some dinner when I passed the front entrance to the temple and decided to pop in and take a quick look.
Beita Temple is one of four main temples in Shenyang which were built to guard the city. Beita is a practicing and functional Buddhist center of worship and is home to many Buddhist monks. As I walked through the various courtyards housing pagodas and gold or marble statues of Buddha, I was careful to be respectful of the worshippers around me. I tried to only take pictures in the areas where I didn’t see people praying, but I began to notice that more and more people were starting to trickle in and pray.
I could also sense the excitement in the air. More and more monks began to appear and congregate with the other practitioners. By the time I was finished seeing everything inside the temple, I had decided to stick around and try to discover what had caused the monks and practitioners to get so worked up.
Thirty minutes later, a kind old monk walked up to me and offered a white shawl, which he wrapped around my hands. He then placed two sticks of incense between my fingers and guided me towards an alcove where others stood, each with the same white shawl and incense in their hands.
I stood in this position for another hour as the excitement of the crowd grew. At this point, I still had no idea what was happening but I was grateful to be included in whatever this was. Finally, several monks walked through the crowd and lit the incense that was in our hands. Several more monks began to walk around, tossing yellow and red rose petals they pulled from baskets and gently tossed them to the ground.
Suddenly, the crowd grew still as the monks all rushed to take their place. Then, a stretch black Mercedes led by policemen on motorcycles pulled up to the temple. As the vehicle came to a stop, a smiling, gentle-faced monk popped out of the backseat and walked through the crowd, blessing each of us as he passed.
After the monk went inside, another much younger monk approached me. In broken English, he explained that the monk I had just been blessed by was highly regarded and famous throughout China as a holy man. The monk then led me inside the temple and found me a seat on the floor among the other practitioners.
A few minutes later, the famous monk where we were seated took his place, which was slightly elevated than the rest of us. Those around me began to pray. Many of them would crawl toward the monk and offer him what looked like large amounts of money. He would grab the money from their hands and hand it to his assistant seated behind him. He would then say a special prayer for that person before they would then crawl away.
Though I will never fully appreciate or comprehend this moment, these are the kind of experiences that I live for. The unplanned moments that I am privileged to witness, for no other reason than that I happened to be at the right place at the right time. These are the times when I am so grateful to be allowed to be a spectator of other people’s lives and cultures.
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