New Year’s Blessings at Ten Buddhist Pagodas
Vietnamese, as inheritors of Chinese traditions, celebrate the Lunar New Year, or Tet, from the end of January to mid-February. Celebrations include festivals, rituals, performances, and visits among family and friends as well as exchanges of wishes and gifts. Buddhists also want to be blessed at the start of the new year with visits to pagodas - the more the merrier.
Although most Americans refer to Eastern places of worship as pagodas, Asians here typically call them temples.
Very early in the Year of the Ox, on the second Sunday morning of February, 100 Vietnamese, old and young, boarded two buses. Escorted by Thien Tho and Kim Oanh, they set out to visit ten Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Cambodian, Lao, Tibetan, and Thai pagodas in Virginia, Maryland and Washington. The ladies accompanying the group have organized annual pilgrimages since 1993, and, in 2007, established an association called Hoi Chan Nguyen – Path to Inner Consciousness.
The Path to Inner Consciousness
The Hoi Chan Nguyen holds monthly meetings in private homes, studying Buddhist precepts, reading selected sutra texts, and practicing meditation. George Dalton, a newly-converted Buddhist and the association’s president, is happy to invite mainstream Americans to the association’s new website. It features both Theravada and Mahayana, Buddhism’s two major schools, and their different teachings and practices.
South Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand, have accepted the Theravada school of thought, which emphasizes a meditative approach to self-awareness. Theravada, or the “Small Vehicle,” is the more orthodox school, asking adherents to “abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify the mind.” Disciples undergo three kinds of training -- in ethical conduct, meditation and insight-wisdom.
Theravada Buddhism says that all compounded things are made up of two elements - material and four non-material ones: sensations, perception, mental formatives and consciousness. One should seek to end suffering and free oneself of attachments and desire in order to reach enlightment (Nibana), or pure land, a state of consciousness or a place in paradise.
Monks, nuns and ascetic followers practice Theravada strictly. They do not indulge in the pleasures of the senses but follow the Noble Eight-Fold Path, which consists of Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
On the other hand, Mahayana, or the “Great Vehicle,” teaches that salvation can be attained through the middle path, accepting existence and non-existence, eternity and non-eternity, self and non-self. It advocates relativity and the philosophy of intuition. It emphasizes compassion in helping others and the practice of yoga, which purifies through reincarnation. Practitioners will eventually be aware of deep insights into existence and find the highest truth and the light (Bodhi). Mahayana schools can be found in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
All Buddhists learn Buddha’s life story. Guatama, born in 566 BC, was the son of a king in northern India. Leaving his wife and young son, he went out in search of salvation, his own and that of all men and women. He meditated under a Bodhi tree, attained enlightenment, and became Buddha. Afterwards, he spent 45 years teaching throughout India, a labor of love. He died at 80, and today his influence is felt in one-third of the globe.
A Rainbow of Pagodas
Back inside the buses, the pilgrims first said their morning prayers in Pali, a form of sanscrit. Then, throughout the 12-hour trek, they recounted inspirational stories that enhanced their spiritual knowledge. They received small gifts for knowing the right answers to questions about the Buddha, and sang motivational songs.
At each pagoda, or temple, the visitors chanted prayers before the resplendent Buddhas and other deities that adorned altars framed in scintillating lights and brimming with flowers. They paid homage to the monks and nuns they met, and in return got prayers and water blessings as well as beaded necklaces, threaded bracelets and red envelopes with a symbolic one-dollar bill – all signs of good fortune and prosperity for the year.
After departing from East Falls Church metro in Virginia, the group stopped at the Vietnamese Hoa Nghiem pagoda at Fort Belvoir. Its adherents are still struggling to raise enough money to build an impressive pagoda on the large piece of land they bought 20 years ago. The Venerable Kien Khai, Dr. Tran Doan, his soft-spoken wife, and several volunteers welcomed the visitors first with common prayers, then with sticky rice cakes, typical of the new year’s dishes.
The Japanese Ekoji, which means the “Temple of the Gift of Light,” stands majestically in a modern building in Fairfax Station. A scroll with three Japanese characters - Buddha’s Infinite Life and Light - hangs above the altar. There is only one statue of the Buddha, on the left side, in keeping with a style that is simple, elegant, uncrowded, and quintessentially Japanese.
The Lao pagoda, dedicated in 1993, sits on 58 acres of landscaped grounds at Catlett, Manassas. Reverend Abbot Bounmy and his 12 monks, including a newly-converted American, preside over weekly ceremonies and special festivities. The Lao New Year festival in April and a cultural festival in July bring thousands of the faithful, who call this wat, meaning pagoda or temple, the Buddhist Holy Land.
Swinging into the District of Columbia, the visitors reached Giac Hoang Pagoda on 16th St Northwest. Right at the entrance, a large statue of Kuan Yin stands in a fountain of lotus flowers. In back, an impressive, lighted Buddha, with his right hand raised, dominates a large auditorium with carved-wood panels on both sides. The group was told that the beating of the drum and the burning of candles and incense, which produced a sweet flagrance, led people to the path of self-purification. Putting the palms of their hands together to chant meditation verses, the visitors seemed to float within a space filled with tranquility and compassion.
The six remaining pagodas were all located in Maryland. The brochure at the Tibetan Kunzang Palyul Choling (KPC) showed that its mission was “to inspire people to improve the world through saving lives and caring for beings, especially animals.”
Founded by Jetsunma, a young woman selected by Tibetan religious leaders to be this pagoda’s director, KPC has conducted a 24-hour prayer vigil for world peace since 1985. Most KPC monks and nuns are Caucasian Americans who use digital technology, including webcasts, a YouTube library and videos to spread Buddhist teachings.
Then they stopped at Vien An Pagoda, run by Vietnamese nuns who pray and teach Buddhist social ethics and principles. Buddhism considers material welfare to be necessary to man’s temporal happiness; therefore, security and social harmony are important for moral and spiritual development. The nuns cooked their visitors an excellent vegetarian gourmet dinner of hot ginger tofu rice soup mixed with peas and chopped mushrooms.
At the Chinese Avatamsaka Vihara temple, two groups of Chinese worshippers dressed in different colored robes and standing on either side of the aisle alternated their chanting and bowing to Buddha. They were accompanied by drums and bells, in different tempos. Each year the pagoda conducts a seven-day retreat during the week of Thanksgiving and a three-day recitation on long weekends.
Next was the Wat Thai, founded in 1975, where monks offered weekly meditation and study sessions, and recently established an open discussion forum on the internet for both adults and children. Lay people take part every year in the Katine ceremony, giving new robes to the monks at the end of their three-month retreat. The Wat Thai’s biggest event is the Songkran festival marking the start of the Thai new year, when thousands come to pour water in honor of Buddha and the monks.
Moving on to the Cambodian Buddhist Temple, the visitors were welcomed by Sovan Tun, President of the Cambodian Buddhist Society. His volunteer board members manage a pagoda that features regular ceremonies, religious and language classes, a temporary shelter for the homeless, and a dining facility for the hungry. It also has an art program, and its classical and folk dancers perform at the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress and government agencies.
The Burmese-America Buddhist Association (B.A.B.A) came into existence in 1980 and named their monastery Mingalarama. They hold meditation retreats in its spacious Dhama hall.
A Day Well Spent
In the icy-cold winter, the food, snacks, and drinks at each temple and the exchange of good wishes are sources of warmth and hope in time of environmental turmoil and economic downturn. The peaceful atmosphere of the pagodas brings consolation to their hearts, the pilgrims said. At the end of the day, My Hien, a former social worker and her five family members, said they were physically tired, but mentally fit because they felt tranquility and harmony within themselves. They vowed to repeat the experience the following year.