As serendipity would have it, I took my older son out on this gray Saturday to run some errands. Things didn’t quite go as planned. Instead of ending up at the grocery store, we ended up at the pet store. Instead of ending up at the craft store, we ended up at the bubble tea shop. We were wandering and enjoying our time together. He was excited to sit in the front seat. Just as we parked we noticed a joyful, round man dressed in saffron robes. The familiar fabric and gold accents were comforting for me to see even though he looked a bit out of place in a suburban strip mall. He entered the bubble tea shop in front of us so we ended up right behind him in line. My son and I enjoyed our bubble teas and chatted as the monk sipped his soup. Before heading out we approached the monk who was quietly finishing his meal. I pressed my palms together and faced him. He matched my greeting and stood up from his table to speak to us. “My name is Alfred.” I asked where he was from. “San Francisco,” no before that, “aah, Taiwan.” He’s here on a pilgrimage to the local Buddhist temple which I knew was very close to our present location, though I had never seen it.
After cordialities, he explained that he was on his way to the temple for an important ceremony at 8 pm tonight, but was traveling with a group and “had just escaped the hotel” for some needed time away before the night’s ceremonies. And maybe some American Taiwanese food. I chuckled at the irony of a monk needing to escape anything at all. Particularly a hotel. I told him of my visits to monasteries in Nepal and asked him what the Taiwanese auspicious greeting is. He repeated it twice. I inched closer each time and repeated it after the third chance. “But we also can say tashidelek.” I know that one! It is the Tibetan and Sherpa word for the same auspicious greeting. I repeated it with a more comfortable smile before we parted ways.
“That was interesting!” my son blurted, obviously engaged in the exchange we just had. Then I asked him if he wanted to go to the ceremony in the evening. “Let’s go see it now!” He returned. We headed to the address Alfred had given us, and there, at the end of a cul-de-sac, in an otherwise very plain suburban neighborhood, was a bright, glowing Buddhist temple. It looked joyful and beautifully festive if not completely out of place. We were greeted by a monk standing in the road,under an umbrella. He pointed us to a parking space then the two of us removed shoes and went into the temple.
Hours later with several of our errands finally completed, we returned to the temple for the evening prayer that Alfred had mentioned. The Grand Master was leading a final ceremony before heading back to Taiwan. Nearly two hundred people were in attendance, many wore saffron robes, many more did not. The two of us sat in the back row, outside the overflowing temple, each with translators in our ears so we could hear the incantations and teachings as they were delivered in Taiwanese. Gold Behind him Buddhas lined the wall in all sizes. Incense filled the air and beads clicked in unison with repeated chants. My son, though familiar with incense was taken with the giant sticks, thicker than a pencil stuck in a red and gold sand-filled container outside the entrance.
Everyone except those of us in back rows (which spilled out of the temple onto the cement) sat on square saffron cushions on the floor. We were on short stools. A monk in an unusual yellow robe sat on my right. I didn’t know if he was a guru or a student, he seemed like all the other monks except with a yellow robe instead of saffron. He gently demonstrated hand positions to match each set of incantations. We both tried to match him. But the translators were fuzzy and most words were lost, so after two rounds of incantations and twice around strings of meditation beads with repeated chants all in Mandarin, we attempted to exit gracefully. Returning the failing equipment, we went to descend the steps and there was Alfred, beaming at us, his tiny oval glasses perched on full, round cheeks. “You came, you decided to come. I am so happy.”
We explained the failing translators and motioned like we should go, but he offered that it was just about time for the Grand Master to speak, and he would translate for us if we wanted to stay.
I don’t know about you, but I could never say no to an offer like that. He stood next to us, behind the large incense burner, far enough behind the gathered crowd so that his voice did not disturb them. Then he listened intently to the Grand Master’s last dharma talk at Ling Shen Tze Temple. We peered between the standing heads and the posts of the incense burner to glimpse the man on the throne, surrounded by gold deities. Next week the Grand Master returns to Taiwan for six months and the group who studies here will be without him. TV cameras live streamed the event to everyone who couldn’t be present. The Grand Master addressed the webcast viewers as well as the present attendees. The Yellow Jambhala served as the center of the Grand Master’s talk, of the meditations.
Forty minutes later we were still standing under sprinkling skies just out from the roof overhang, still listening to the Grand Master’s words through Alfred’s translations. I handed Alfred a donation for the temple. He retrieved two bright red envelopes from his breast pocket, each square in Chinese red, each with a different embossed gold character. “This one says happiness,” he offered. I pointed to the second one. “This is the auspicious symbol. The Grand Master has given me this as my dharma name and he is the one who shaved my head. I am so fortunate he did that for me.” He glowed from behind his round smile and bid us farewell with praying hands and repeated bows. Graciousness flowed from him as he wished us safe journey. As we made our way down the steps, my son turned to me beaming and said “That was fun!”