The heat is coming. I can feel Summer on my fingertip. She is playing her favorite tune on the top of the banyan tree under which I’m sitting. Today is a beautiful day, but you’ll never know when Summer gets angry and exhales her “fire” everywhere on this arid piece of land.
It has been three weeks since the day I called upon my parents: “Mom, Dad, this summer please send me to a secluded pagoda in our hometown.” To people of my age, the act of voluntarily asking to stay in a pagoda may be very absurd, either because they don’t have access to that way of living or they don’t feel the need to, especially when we are not religious. Since pagoda or temple is a house of worship, it’s strange to call it a home to live if you’re not a monk or a nun. Yet I do. One day, I realized how much I desired some time for myself, only myself and I. I need to be face to face with Me, talk to her, and begin to discover, reflect, sympathize and trust her. I have been immersed within communal living for eighteen years of my life; even though it fulfills me, it spares me no time and space to outgrow myself and my zone. More importantly, I don’t know what I want, what I’m best at, what I should do and where I should go at this stage. I need most a direction, a guiding light to continue my journey. For all of those reasons, I ask for a comma on my life sentence.
“What?! A secluded pagoda? Why?!”—Mom and Dad were in awe. Yes, they are always like that. They will be in awe if I have a very bold hairstyle, get pierced, tattooed, wear unisex clothes and they will indeed kill me and kill themselves mentally if I’m not straight. They are afraid of me being not me (or the person they assume it’s me.) They are afraid if I become different. In this case, they thought I wanted to take refuge.
“Because I’m interested in and curious about our national culture. I need documentaries for my journal and I think this is a beautiful way to understand my birthplace.”—I genuinely smile.
My parents approved. The Buddhist door was open. So here I am, barefoot, wearing my monastic robe, wearing my newly adopted novice identity, ready to allow myself to grow and to be changed.
The day dawns with a cloudless blue sky. Fresh-born lights touch my pagoda slowly from the ceiling to the ground and find me sleeping next to the big bell. My favorite place in the pagoda is the shrine—where we do the chanting three times everyday. Shei and I go upstairs to the main shrine to do the morning chant. She is my best friend among novices here. Shei carries a big Pythagoras cup of holy water while I hold my chant book, trying to learn by heart everything before my fourth week comes.
“You have to finish volume one as soon as possible, otherwise Master Nun will make you clean the brass big bell for a month.”—Shei worried.
“I know… She said only the imbecile needed more than a week to memorize basic chants. So I guess I am the imbecile’s master.”—I shrug and she bursts out laughing.
“Alright. I can help you then.” Shei starts the first line and I follow her. We chant for two hours without break. Even though my legs still hurt for having sat cross-legged for so long, I enjoy the chant so much. Something does blossom inside of me everytime I read the chants out loud. It was the feeling of letting go, of pouring everything out from the deepest, of yearning and hoping for the best to come that touches me. The feeling is like singing under the shower, but the only difference is you don’t need to understand the lyrics. It’s Sanskrit. It’s Sanskrit for a reason. It makes sense even when it doesn’t make sense to us individually because unconsciously it has been a part of our story. It’s the story of mankind that Buddha and the Bodhisattvas observed from the real world and synthesized into wide-spread words six thousand years ago, which can be witnessed in every period of our history by us the disciples.
After chanting, Shei starts sweeping and cleaning while I prepare the daily vegetarian meal. Hmm… What should I make today? Master Nun is sick, so mushroom porridge with perilla leaves for her is a good idea. In this rice-favored country, porridge is the treatment for sickness. Plain porridge gurgles in the giant pot. As mushrooms and onions are sizzling in the pan, I run to the front yard to show Shei my masterpiece.
“It feels like nobody ever knew me until you knew me
Feels like nobody ever loved me until you loved me…”
I look at Shei. Startled. Isn’t she singing a love song? Noticing my stare, she stops singing, and her cheeks blush as if she was caught red-handed. She moves her broom faster and after a minute or two she finishes sweeping the whole yard.
“What are you doing over there? You only have half an hour to prepare the meal before our second chanting starts. Chop chop!”—Shei cried before rushing through the door.
I keep on stirring vegetables, but the record of Shei’s singing a love song hovers in my head. How could she know that song? Did she listen to popular music before she took refuge? I wonder how Master Nun would react to this. Shei seems not want to mention about it. But I am too curious. A girl whom I knew through chanting now starts thinking, or memorizing about something called “love.” Ever since she took refuge at fourteen, chants have been her music, her lessons, and an essential part of her life. But what happened before that? What would she do if she hadn’t committed herself to Buddha that soon? Has she ever tasted romance before? Is that the reason why she chose to let go of her mundane life? A bunch of questions are playing tag in my mind. The fact that she was singing one of my favorite songs drags her closer to me than ever. Yes, she is only nineteen—the most beautiful age of a girl’s youth, and like other same-age girls, she thinks of the most beautiful thing on the planet. But maybe it’s just my assumption. Maybe she doesn’t understand the lyrics yet she enjoys the melody itself. Yes… Shei doesn’t know English because she comes from a remote village where the only subject she could learn is harvesting. At the age of fourteen, she learned how to read for the first time at the monastic school. The world became more tangible to her and she began to open up herself to the world, she allowed herself to be changed. She has been fulfilled, and finds herself richer than she has ever been. But I’m sure that she wasn’t taught anything about love, except the Vietnamese classic The Tale of Kieu. It’s neither comprehensive nor fair, since love is rather a misery in this story, while as far as I know, it could save a person’s life. However, is it necessary to praise the magic of love when you are meant for the magic of belief, of religion, of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas?
I don’t know if it’s even proper to sing a love song in a house of worship, but I know for sure that Shei was enjoying her moment. She sang her worries away. Happiness is something that should neither be denied nor hidden. And however she chooses to find it, I feel happy for her.