by Francisco Paz. Photo by Sean Henry.
A blue house with overextending porch. Brown house with a lion roaring Chihuahua. White house with perfect landscape, and a green house with tumbleweed grass. Who would expect a Buddhist Temple to share grounds with such a suburban neighborhood? I wanted to believe I had taken the wrong turn, to blame my GPS, but the sign, “Middle Land Chan Monastery,” said otherwise.
When I first heard that the Monastery was located in Pomona, I immediately cringed. Pomona, California is not city associated with peace and tranquility. Mention Pomona and I think of gangs, violence, drugs and idiots tagging up the streets. I wouldn’t be surprised if the monks inside the monastery had a bit of Cholo in them but I didn’t want to jump to conclusions.
Coming from a Catholic family, I was raised to believe that there is one God. Visiting the Buddhist monastery would allow me to learn about diverse religious views. Plus, the monks offered me the opportunity to learn traditional meditation. I had previously read a couple “How to Meditate” articles online, but this was the real deal. I wasn’t about to let this opportunity go to waste. Before I arrived, I was conjuring up images of an architectural work of art but the monastery fell short of that. It looked more like a giant house with a large parking lot. Regardless, it did have two stone, white lion statues, pillared outside the main entrance. When asked about its significance, Buddha Master Jian Xiang replied, “Snow lions protect the temple. They are placed outside Monasteries to protect the teachings of Buddha.”
Shoes of all shapes and sizes were lined outside the door. Every pair of shoes was systematically placed in an orderly fashion. This was no chaotic placement of shoes. It didn’t look like people just took their shoes off, and threw them on the floor. It looked like people actually took their time picking a spot for their shoes, almost as if they were parking a car. I thought,
“They’re just shoes,” I thought. “Who cares where they end up.” I hadn’t set a foot inside, and I was already realizing just how organized this place was. I wanted to walk in with my shoes on, just to see what would happen, but I decided not to test my luck. I didn’t want to be that “asshole” who disrespected the temple. I couldn’t just walk in and say, “Oh, I didn’t know.” The crowd of shoes outside made it quite obvious of what was required of me. I wouldn’t have been just an “asshole,” I would’ve been an “incompetent asshole.”
I slid the screen door open and stepped in. One of the Masters tentatively waited inside, and welcomed me to the temple. A row of cabinets hugged the left wall. I was politely asked to open the left most bottom cabinet, and pull out some slippers to be worn inside the temple. On the left were burgundy slippers, while on the right, blue. I tried several pairs on, but none fit. Every pair I tried on was way too small. My heels stretched beyond the sole of the slipper. I felt like Big Foot. Then I realized that every pair was the same size, “Duh!”
I set a pair of burgundy slippers on the floor, and prepared to slip my feet inside them. “No…sorry, the blue ones,” one of the monks said, stepping in to prevent my feet from making contact with the slippers. I now understood, blue for male, and burgundy for female.
The slippers were a character themselves. Thin, narrow soles, and an embracing strap compressed my feet together. They were made up of a high quality plastic, which would be considered a hybrid between suede and leather. For such a small fitting slipper, it was bizarrely comfortable. I’m sure it’s something that Dr. Scholl’s would approve.
To my slight left was the reception desk, then a few feet off to the right of that, was a smaller work table. There were some mysterious doors further out left from the main receptions desk, who knows what the hell was inside there. The bathrooms were located behind the reception area. Directly across, and in between the restrooms and the main reception desk, was the illustrious meditation room. The dining area was the last room directly south of the main entrance. Before reaching it, there’s about a six foot hallway that is made up of various shelved compartments. I wanted to pry open every drawer, and unveil every shelf. There was a sudden impulse in me to find out what was inside every single compartment. I was determined there was something inside, which was not meant to be seen by non-monks.
Before I entered the dining area, I was in for a shock. I had thought all monks were male. Boy, was I wrong. When I first entered the temple, I was greeted by a monk with studious glasses, burgundy slip-ons, a matching robe type drape, white socks, and a shiny bald head. There were three more monks at an eyes proximity. One was working as the receptionist, the other typing away at the smaller work table, and the third, stood outside the meditation room. They all looked identical, almost too surreal to be true. I seriously couldn’t tell them apart. Even more staggering, was when I painstakingly squinted my eyes, in hopes of finding distinguishing traits among the monks.
“Holy shit…those are chicks!” My eyes gaped open as I discovered the monk’s true identity. Good thing I didn’t refer to them as “sir, that would have been embarrassing. Not sure who would have broken the embarrassment meter. Me for being completely oblivious, or them for subconsciously admitting they looked like a dude. To me, their appearance was their identity. They dressed and looked alike to represent their uniformity as Buddhist Monks. It’s like a sports team. All players dress in uniform to represent the team. Their uniform represents their cause and aspirations. It’s what makes them unique.
From the moment I stepped inside the temple, it felt as if I were being watched by an unknown force. I instinctively knew that I should be at my best behavior. This feeling reminded me of my childhood. Whenever I would visit family members, my mom would say, “Be a good boy…or you know what will happen.” These weren’t threatening sensations, but more like gestures to demand respect. The temple had a sense of tranquility that I have never felt before. It truly felt like I was in a world free from calamity.
Everything looked outrageously clean and organized. Nothing seemed out of place. Dust particles were nonexistent. The air was refreshingly purifying. Glancing at the reception desk, I saw perfection. There were no sticky notes masking the computer screen. Coffee cups were not left out for days to accumulate a rusting residue, nor did they serve as random place holders.
The receptionist typed in a serene posture. She worked on a Word Document, and looked like a robot incapable of making mistakes. I was hoping her circuits would fry after making an error. She’d shout, “What the fuck! Why don’t you do what I say?!” I envied her flawless work methods. If I could write without ever making a mistake, I’d be a world class writer by now. I wouldn’t have to go through the exhausting task of coming up with the right words to say. I’d save money by not smashing my keyboard, squeezing the life out of my mouse, or punching holes in my desk.
The receptionists’ work area was a neat freak’s wet dream. A desk organizer to the right orderly made work more efficient. Black ball pens revolved around a wooden pen organizer. Sticky notes, a note pad, and the telephone, all lined up perfectly straight along the left corner. All electrical wires were tied up to avoid a tangled mess. With all the extreme neatness, I wondered, “What would they say if they saw my workspace?” Papers chaotically scattered, towers of books, scraps of food, and a sticky stain of God knows what smeared across the table. The computer tower’s cooling fan, clogged with years of accumulated dirt. Greasy fingerprints grease on the monitor and the printer still without ink. To top it all off, they have all suffered the aftermath of a dust storm. A face palm, followed by a disapproving remark, “Stop being such a nasty ass pig!”
I finally made my way into the dining area. It reminded me of my elementary school cafeteria. Every table was the same shape and color. Sandy brown school lunch tables, white walls, and intense fluorescent lighting. There was a division of two rows of tables. I proceeded to sit on the left. Before I could take a seat, one of the monks apprehensively leaped towards me with a concerning stare. “Well what the fuck did I do now?” I quietly said to myself. Apparently the left tables were for woman, and the right, reserved for men. This more so, reminded me of my elementary school days. I remember the boys would sit at different tables than the girls. Back then, it was us guys who would go out of our way to sit away from girls, but here, it was standard regulation. I was escorted to an appropriate seat, thanked for understanding, then I patiently waited, as one of the monks prepared a Buddhist educational video on the projector.
The video gave a brief historical background on Buddhism, but primarily focused on Chung Tai Monastery, a Taiwanese Buddhist temple. It centered on the average life of monks, their daily routines, duties, and service to the community. It was interesting to learn about a new religion, but I was more engaged with a frame on the wall, which was located at the very front, right side of the room.
The frame held a quote in Chinese, so during my one on one interview with Master Jian Xiang, I asked her about this mysterious quote. She explained to me that it talked about an important Buddhist belief, “We refer to food as medicine for our bodies. We only consume what we need, and what is necessary for us to survive.” Her words evoked a sense of self-appreciation. I was reminded of how lucky I am to have food on the table every day. I grew up without luxuries. I had to eat what was on the table, and there was no other choice. Although at times I’d complain, it was still food.
Now that the video was over, it was off to the meditation room. Before that though, I stopped by the restroom. I found it quite ridiculous that I had to remove my slippers in order to go inside the restroom. Not just that, but I also had to put on a different pair of slippers, that were placed just outside the bathroom door. To sum this up, you take off your shoes before entering the temple, and put on some slippers. Then you take those slippers off, and put on a different pair of slippers, that are specially made for the bathroom. It’s a bit of an overkill in my opinion, but this just goes to show their extreme hygienic level.
That restroom was the cleanest I have ever seen. It’s literally sparkly clean. The smell of cool mountain breeze was in the air, it made it rather pleasing to take a big whiff. All the urinals were spotless and free from piss stains. I checked all the toilets, none were clogged up. Every stall was fully stocked with toilet paper, same went for the paper towel, and soap dispensers. Most importantly, there was no shit residues on any toilet. Not even a drop of piss on the toilet seats. Sinks seemed to magically clean themselves. No visible water stains. The stainless steel faucet blinded me by its sparkly reflection. Mirrors were ultra clean, like High Definition Television. I looked sharper. All my physical details popped out more. I noticed my unattractive appearance with more clarity. I took one last glimpse of shame, then paced out the room.
It was finally time. I was finally going to get firsthand experience in meditation. The first thing I noticed walking in, were the golden yellow meditation mats on the floor. There were four rows of six mats each. Two rows on the left, two on the right, and a walkway leading up to an altar displaying three golden Buddha statues. I thought the mats would be as old, stinky, and uncomfortable as gym mats, but as soon as I took a seat in one of them, my ass felt very comfortable. It felt like it was made out of Tempur Pedic. Every mat was around three feet wide, had a protective cover sheet on top, and a type of thin blanket folded up to the left side.
Master Jian Xian stepped in the room. She made her way up the altar, and sat on an elegant, brown leather chair, which was centrally positioned below the altar. A white marble table ran across, and a smaller identical table stood a step below. She spoke into a microphone with a delicate tone. Master Xian mentioned that she would teach me two basic types of Meditation, breathing meditation, and walking meditation. The purpose of breathing meditation is to create a healthy state of mind. Buddhist believe that all emotional problems arise from the mind. Breathing meditation is a simple, but effective technique, which can reduce stress, by learning to control the mind.
To meditate, one needs to find a quiet place, away from distractions. Sit cross legged, place your left thumb inside the fist of your right hand, and gently rest your left palm on top your right fist. Close your eyes, and focus on the tip of your nose. Sit up straight, breath normally, but try to consistently count to a number between five and nine each time you breathe. Focus only on breathing, don’t think about anything else.
I was promised that if I would do this every day for at least ten minutes, I would feel younger, mentally stronger, and healthier. I believed every word Master Xiang said. The monks looked like in their mid to late twenties, but most were actually in their forties. They all had a slim fit body, and I was willing to bet that they were all in perfect health. If ten minutes a day is all it takes, count me in.
After the session was over, I felt very refreshed. It felt like diving into a pool on a hot summer day. My refreshed state of mind made me believe that I could walk out the room without a care in the world. That I could forget about my personal problems, and only focus on making myself happy.
Walking meditation followed, but before that, I couldn’t help but ask, “What happens if someone sleeps while meditating?” I honestly thought one of the Masters would say, “We just kindly wake them, and ask them to please stay focused.” I got a completely different answer. Apparently, if you happen to sleep during meditation, one of the Monks smacks you with a wooden paddle. The answer caught me off guard, because I had the impression that all Monks were peaceful people.
Although it wasn’t as spirit lifting as the previous session, walking meditation, was still worth the experience. Its purpose was to also aid in the cleansing of the mind, only this time, it required physical activity. You start off by walking around the room in a relaxed state. A monk stands near the front of the room, and holds two wooden bricks. Each time she hits them against each other, you must walk faster, and faster each time. During this type of meditation, your only focus is the circle in which you are traveling, not the stress and pressure of everyday life. Breathing should be free flowing. It’s not required to count your breathing this time. Walking meditation made me pay attention to my body’s movement. It helped me understand the rhythm in which my body travels. Up until that moment, I thought of walking as just a form of transportation. A way to get from place A to place B. It was mind bending when I felt the rhythm of my own body for the first time. No longer will walking be just a way of transportation. I can use it as a tool to relax my mind.
With both sessions now over, it was back to the dining area. The monks had prepared lunch, and I was invited to join them. A monk’s diet consists of strict vegetarian cuisine. They believe that all living things should be respected, not harmed. For that reason, they don’t consume any type of animal products. After learning of this, I couldn’t help but ask, “What happens if you happen to kill an animal, even if it’s by accident?” I went up to Master Xian with my concern. Her response was quite captivating. “The moment we kill, we are no longer Monks,” she asserted. Master Xian explained that Monks will go out of their way to move an ant out of their pathway, just so they don’t step on it. It made me think of the time me and some friends drenched some fire ants with gasoline, then lit them ablaze. Good thing I left that out. Although it would have been interesting to see the look on her face.
Being a vegetarian myself, I was excited for lunch. Lunch consisted of a spaghetti with mushrooms, a croissant sandwich with tofu, and green tea. It was the first time I had tasted tofu, and I can say it was delicious. I could hear the pouring rain outside, and feel the sudden drop in temperature. The warmness of the tea just hit the spot.
The lunch signaled the conclusion of my visit to the monastery. It was an honor to learn about Buddhism, and experience traditional meditation. I thanked the Monks for giving me the opportunity to visit their temple, and made my way towards the exit. It was truly provocative to learn about Buddhism. I had never experienced anything like it. I’d be certainly delighted to visit again in the future. I smelled the pouring rain and felt the chilling cold as I approached the door. I slid the door open, then realized my shoes were soaking wet. I carelessly placed them away from the roof’s protection when I had first arrived. I didn’t care though. I put my shoes on, and walked to my car without a care in the world.