Last Sunday, I headed to a Buddhist temple in Springvale, in Melbourne's south-east. I wasn't going for a Songkran festival (Thai New Year), and it wasn't a part of my routine.
I was going because my mother wanted to pray for her eldest sister, who had died on the Friday. My mum is over 80 years old. Her family here and in Malaysia suggested she should not make the rushed journey for the funeral in Penang as she would have to travel alone while grieving and it was in only two days' time.
My mother is a temple frequenter. For decades, she maintained a Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) shrine in our family home. On official forms, she lists her religion as 'Buddhist'. When travelling, she'll want to visit temples, say a prayer and, usually, make a donation.
I am not a temple frequenter. I had not been to one for many years. I do not subscribe to a religion. I'm only in temples because of family commemorations or if I'm accompanying my mother. This Sunday was no exception.
When thinking about where to take her, my partner and I discussed what would be a good place for her to go — a space that would affirm the way she likes to express her faith. It needed to be a place that didn't require familiarity with those who ran it, and to which we could just turn up. It needed to be a place that had old school features and enabled traditional ways to worship.
The temple complex we went to was huge, as Springvale temples tend to be. There was a big main temple and many smaller ones, as well as shrine sites. There was an ease to the informality of the worshipping practices surrounding us.
Some people brought fruit offerings to set at the base of their preferred deity, others lit handfuls of incense and prayed on their knees, others still were there to assist in the running of the temple. A constant stream of visitors attended to their own spiritual practices, and many of them were intergenerational groups much like ours.
My mother gate crashed a service that was underway in the main temple but she wasn't excluded; the nuns just worked around her. She invited all of us to light incense and pray with her at various sites around the complex. My children had never been to a temple and had little experience of prayer rituals overall. They found the processes interesting and peaceful, and they were happy to participate.
"Even harder to explain is the comfort that familiar rituals can bring, even when the practitioners themselves don't believe in the reasons behind the rituals."
My mother concluded her visit by making a donation in the main temple. She was very grateful and satisfied with the temple experience. It gave her the atmosphere necessary to find solace when she was so far away from her family overseas, as they were attending her sister's funeral.
I was very satisfied with the temple experience because, too, as it gave my mother what she needed at a stressful and very sad time. The immediacy with which she felt she was part of a worshipping community, even though she'd never before been to that temple, was something for which I was particularly thankful.
It was also an opportunity to reflect on how I understood the practices that surrounded me, which I'd only ever experienced through following the examples of others during important ceremonies. Trying to explain to my children why incense is lit, offerings are burnt, and food placed at shrines tested the limits of my understanding of these rituals and how they have developed. Even harder to explain is the comfort that familiar rituals can bring, even when the practitioners themselves don't believe in the reasons behind the rituals.
Tseen Khoo is a lecturer at La Trobe University and founder/convenor of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), a network for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. She tweets as @tseenster.
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19 April 2017
Rituals in worship can sustain us in times of stress and sadness, and stimulate us in times of faltering faith. I'd never thought that anyone could 'gatecrash' a service already underway! Worship, although very personal, is not merely a consumer experience. It is saying "I'm here because I believe I should be here" - warts and all.
19 April 2017
Rituals are extremely important in our life. They enable us to give voice - be it spoken or unspoken - to stages in our journey. They enable us to connect with our spiritual selF. I believe that one of the reasons that many disastrous results of events such as seen in schoolies week is that we do not provide or engage with necessary and appropriate ritual to celebrate this stage.
19 April 2017
Dear Ms Khoo, and Pam, I have started to attend Church again after many years of absence. I do this, not from a regained knowledge of a Supreme Being, but from a need for ceremony, solace and a need for continuity. I do believe that people, from members of hunter-gatherer societies to multinational corporations, need ceremony, and occasion in their life.
19 April 2017
Thanks for this as I had a similar experience in attending an Easter service in Singapore whilst on holidays.
After the very long and ritualistic Catholic service my very adult children expressed a joy in the experience.
19 April 2017
"...harder to explain is the comfort that familiar rituals can bring..." You have expressed a well recognised effect of belief and community on human health and well being, Tseen. There is much in the international medical literature which attests to the improvements in general personal health associated with regular religious practice. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, grief management and obsessive compulsive disorder are all known to benefit. As well, physical conditions such as hypertension and heart disease are also not as frequent in people who practise their religious beliefs in regular rituals.. Religious practising communities are also less prone to societal problems such as suicide, self harm and domestic violence. Curiously, however, dedicated or obsessive religious practice also leads to perhaps the most difficult of all psychiatric disorders to treat, religious scruples, which in its own right induces self harm and suicide in some sufferers and demands complete readjustment of belief for its successful treatment. The human psyche is indeed a most powerful force and in many ways dictates the ethos of a society. A global survey in 2007 (conducted by Encyclopaedia Britannica)indicates that 80% of people believe in a god or higher being, 18% don't know and 2% are non-believers. It might be that in our society the upsurge in domestic violence suicide , self harm and all manner of violence towards others is related to the decline in belief and religious practice. Maybe we all need to experience a religious ritual every now and then to re-aline our perceptions of what the important things in human life are. We need to stop ignoring our inbuilt instincts in favour of our perceptions of our own intellectual capacity to ignore those things we don't understand as fairy tales. (The climate sceptics are a good example of this latter, flawed human trait !!!)
Roy Chen Yee
21 April 2017
Rituals are the visible things you do to exercise your invisible beliefs. People of no particular other faith gather at dawn on Anzac Day because of a faith that something derived from Gallipoli should be remembered. Were it not for that faith, the dawn ritual would not be practised. Even with the faith, the dawn ritual might not be practised but subsumed into some other ritual such as, for example, the practice of commenting in Eureka Street about matters to do with defence against hostile faiths and philosophies. Practising a ritual in somebody else's sacred space without believing in the reasons for the ritual would be akin to parking yourself in a chair on some stranger's verandah because you need a breather during a walk. It's ambiguously OK, I suppose, but it is an intrusion of sorts.