Walking into the Chua Bo De Buddhist Temple in South Philly was a culture shock for sure. The first obstacle when entering this temple was the obvious language barrier. In fact, many of the members of the temple didn’t seem to speak English or spoke very little, and I don’t speak any Vietnamese. So, communication was a problem. This was also my first time experiencing monks – which I had heard of but envisioned monks as aesthetic men who lived in the remote mountains of Asia. You can imagine my surprise when I walked in to find men and women in monk robes in the middle of a modern city like Philadelphia.
The person who welcomed me into the temple was very encouraging of my photographing there despite our difficulty communicating. He ushered me up to the top floor, where monks were sitting on the floor and chanting to the Buddha. The walls were covered with images describing key moments in the life of the Buddha, and I was enamored by how much elaborate imagery was surrounding their giant statue. They offered fruits, flowers, and incense to the Buddha and other deities that stood by him along with their chants and playing of the drum and other instruments.
The monks began circling the room whilst chanting and eventually made their way downstairs and out the building to a small shed by the main temple. My guide ushered me along with them and encouraged me to take photos of anything I wanted to – even giving me some helpful suggestions of shots to take. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying during their many chants, but I enjoyed listening to their rhythmic melodies.
As the ceremony continued and the monks moved from room to room, I began to connect what exactly this was for. They migrated to a room with a wall covered in images of people and a table full of more food offerings, possibly to the people on the wall. I later found out that those were photos of people who were part of the temple or relatives of those in the temple who had passed away and that this was probably some sort of funerary service. People who I am presuming were family members of the deceased kneeled at the front of this room and held food offerings to photos of small children. It was sad and fascinating to see a service like this and to see how the Buddhist faith responds to death.
Because of intermixing between the Buddhist faith and local faiths in the Asian countries where it first spread, the belief of ancestor worship has made its way into a lot of Buddhist culture. So, while my understanding is that ancestor worship is not a part of the original Buddha’s teachings, it has become a part of many Buddhists’ practice of their faith.
I was told that Buddhism, at its core, is a humbling of self. This is why many monks are seen with shaved heads, simple robes, and plain diets. They don’t want to puff themselves up with pride at who has the best clothes or whatever other material items threaten to cloud their minds. This is a very admirable aspect of the Buddhist faith and something I think anyone can put into practice. A life of minimalism has been proven to help clear the mind and make people happier and more productive. You know what they say – a messy house equals a messy mind!