I was at the Powell Street Festival in August when I walked across Oppenheimer Park and noticed the Vancouver Buddhist Temple at 220 Jackson Street.
I climbed the steps and walked in. A gracious man whose name I would later learn to be Patrick [Couling] was taking questions from the few people dotting the pews. Yes, pews! In a Buddhist temple. Go figure.
In my brief visit, I learned of a 5 week course offering a very elementary introduction to some main types of Buddhism by knowledgeable speakers. At $30 for the five weeks, the opportunity was a no brainer.
I’ve been interested in Buddhism ever since I set foot in a Buddhist temple in 1988 in San Francisco during a walking tour that began in Chinatown. I still have a photo above my desk that I took of the smoke wafting up from the incense sticks into a space that had a great view of the nearby Transamerica Pyramid.
On the first night of the course, a fresh-faced young guy was tasked with explaining the mythology of Siddhartha. Casey Collins, a PhD student in Asian Studies at UBC, ended up being one of the very best storytellers I have heard in recent memory. He wove contemporary references into the ancient story to make it entertaining and memorable.
Think of it this way. It would be like if one of the Kardashian sisters suddenly woke up and thought, this isn’t enough, I want more, I’m dissatisfied, but not just any dissatisfied, a very specific type of ennui. I want to know the meaning of life. I want to know why we have to get old, get sick and die. I think I’ll sit under a palm tree off Rodeo Drive, night and day, and then after renouncing Mac Cosmetics, Coach bags and Pilates, gossip, bitchiness and martinis, I’ll venture out into the world penniless to see what I might learn. And at the end she’d arrive at the four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold path.
Mr. Collins didn’t use this analogy — thankfully — but as someone who has sat through many, many stories in the past few years, I found it ironic that an academic-in-training would end up being the most exceptional story teller I’ve heard in a very long time. Yay for him.
The second evening was presented by Lama Rabten Tshering. I’m guessing he might have been in his 40s. He was dressed in his maroon robe, one long maroon sleeve, one short, golden, cap sleeve. His shaved head gleamed under the lights. He did, fittingly, seem pretty darn happy. An iPad for notes was propped up in front of him. I think I saw a cell phone as well. Not sure why I expect monks to renounce technology in this day and age but I do. If you’re a grown man wearing a robe in public, it just seems wrong that you should be carrying tech gadgets to taint your spirituality. My bias. Partly kidding. He’s associated with a temple in East Van called NalandaBodhi.
I enjoyed taking in his presence and my mind drifted back to my time in Thailand and Cambodia. I had so much curiosity towards the monks that I saw there, all ages, wandering the streets or cloistered on a mountain top (Sampeu Hill) just outside Battambang, Cambodia.
Every time I’d see them, they’d elicit so many questions. What were their days like? Were they content? Did they wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘oh, if only I’d just gone into engineering when I was 21 like my dad said I should have.’ I realize that whenever I see monks, I always assume they’re happy. Maybe they’re miserable. Maybe their misery is what drove them to become monks in the first place.
Back in the temple, Lama Tshering was drawing us in with long silent pauses while he gathered his thoughts. I filled those gaps by observing him intensely. I followed the irregular cadence of his voice that accompanied his slow sentences. I tried to stay awake as he used words I’d never heard, a challenge compounded by his accent.
He explained how important lineage is in Tibetan Buddhism. The right teacher and teachings handed down generation upon generation is really important. He spoke of the Common and Uncommon paths. The Common path focused on recognizing human preciousness, death and impermanence, cause and effect, and Samsara, circuitous change.
All I recall about the Uncommon Path is how many times you have to do stuff – 100,000 times – which for a full time monk, could take just two months to achieve. But, for the rest of us, possibly more than one lifetime. I see a disconnect with my way of being here. Ya think?
We did some meditation. Spine very straight. The lama sat in the lotus position, “not necessary,” he said. Chin not up, not down. Straight ahead, relaxed glance. Mouth not open, not closed. Huh? How does that work? A slight smile. Relaxed focus on the breath. Tibetan Buddhists do not close their eyes when they meditate. He had a lot of eyes staring back at him that night.
The temple is right down there in Vancouver’s Downtown East side. Ambulance sirens blared every so often as we sat inside the Hondo hearing what might have been yet another call to another fentanyl overdose, just one type of struggle in a world where wandering off the “right path” seems to have become the predominant theme. And maybe that’s why staying curious, staying open, and seeking, in a spiritual way, feels like a necessity.