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A shore excursion took me to this famous Buddhist Temple in Hong Kong.
Since I live in Singapore, my attitude was one of ‘been-there-done-that’. The building the architecture, the nestling of culture within ultra modern skyscrapers were all as I expected.
But for me an experience in the worship place of any religion is always beautiful. Less because of the spiritual element, more because how humans make temples and churches and pagodas into buildings that must be respected, buildings in which the atmosphere is micromanaged to attain the aura of serenity, buildings in which, everyone, upon entry, leaves behind their bitterness, their anger and their negativity turns into a nicer, a more humble and a more respectful person. This training we all received as children from our parents and they from their parents
And so here we are, climbing up for a spiritual experience.
This temple is popular with locals of all generations and not just because of its central location.
Here, people come to have their fortunes told or have their questions answered with fortune sticks.
Kneeling on one of the prayer stools in the temple courtyard, the worshipper faces the temple, prays and mentally asks a specific question about her future. These are usually related to success at work or school, health issues, love issues or social issues or anything at all – such as ‘will my mother allow me to get a dog’ (ref: my daughter at a temple in her childhood). These questions may also relate to life choices – should I select Option A or Option B.
The open box of sticks is held, shaken up and then given an upward thrust so tat one of the sticks falls out. Each stick is inscribed with a sutra and the one that falls out must be seen as the answer to one’s questions.
A fascinating psychological soother! While one can really not influence the mechanics of the world nor increase or decrease the probabilities of things happening around us, it is always hard to have unanswered questions. And rituals such as these pacify the storms of the mind during times of uncertainty.
One similar ritual that changed the course of my life very dramatically came to mind: When offered with a job outside India over a decade ago, we were unable to make up our minds. The money was great in my husband’s new job offer but so was his career in India. It would have been easy to choose between black and white. But even with all the critical analysis and logical thinking put in by two MBAs grads, it was very difficult to choose between two shades of white.
We had been discussing these issues with our close elders. And one aunt, spiritually inclined, decided to use the wisdom of her favorite god – Ganpati to decide. She wrote the two alternatives on two small pieces of paper, folded them up, shuffled them and mixed them up. Now no one knew which paper had which option written on it. She placed the two bits of paper in front of an idol of Ganpati and left it there for awhile. After she finished her day’s work and her evening bath, she sat down for her evening prayers before the idol. After chanting and praying, she picked one of the two chits and our fate. A huge turning point. Brought about by what I call the forces of probability and what she calls destiny.
Coming back to the moment in Hong Kong – I walked around and took in the atmosphere through my senses and through my camera. And that is when I noticed the lady in the last row of kneeling stools. Alone. Isolated. She preferred it that way I think. Because she was in tears. Completely distraught and the tears were unstoppable. The Chinese are always in perfect control of their emotions and rarely put up their inner feelings for public display – so this lady ‘s tears meant she was in really great distress.
Her situation was breaking her heart. What her tragedy was I will never know. But it was obvious that this was not about success at school or work. It probably involved a huge personal loss – either one that had already been incurred or an impending one.
She pleaded and sobbed.
For her, for Kevin Carter, for my own helplessness. For the unsolvable tragedies of life.