I have had a bad cough for the last few days. Something to do with an allergy apparently, but not much fun from my point of view. Loud coughing is not appreciated in polite company generally – but even less so in the Buddhist temple of Nan Hua in Bronkhorstspruit. Which was where I happened to find myself coughing this afternoon. I’m not really sure why I went back this weekend. Mostly a desire not to spend a weekend indoors I guess. That, and to see what I missed in the whirlwind tour with my brother a few weeks earlier. Treading carefully over the polished wood of the main temple building, with the gaze of three titanic Buddhas over my head, I hated that cough.
Breaking the the incense-filled silence, the calm so carefully sewn together by those who had a real reason to be there. Surrounded by so many symbols of a world I know only a tiny fraction about, I was walking around the edges of the floor, a tourist watching and trying to make more sense of what was happening than I had managed previously.
Little scraps of card in front of smaller Buddhas, off to the side of the three collossal centerpieces, give the smallest clues to outsiders like me. ‘Prayer wheel’, ‘ Medicine Buddha’…
I stifle a cough as we stare at each other. Me admiring the irony of our encounter this afternoon. He smirking at me in that manner that only a Buddha can.
Retreating to let those who belong in this place offer their incense and prayers to him. I walk erratically back to the front of the temple space where the monk on duty is watching over the incense and other materials of those who belong. After some mental tugging and insecurity, I trade my donation for some incense sticks and walk with only half-intention back to Medicine Buddha. Staring at him, and he at me, I feel like such a sham. I don’t know the bows, or what I am meant to say. I don’t even really know what you are meant to mean to me.
You are important to those who belong here. My ignorance of his place only outweighed by my awkwardness and embarrassment at having the temerity to return, confused and silly, with my little incense sticks in hand and no idea what to do with them. I’ll more likely incur your wrath than your sympathy. The monk at the front desk is watching me now. No doubt with a similar opinion of my foolishness as I have right now.
He wants to speak to me. To ask me what I think I am doing. Somehow, I don’t think that “I don’t have a clue myself” will really cut it.
I light a stick of incense, put it in your bowl and ask you, in my thoughts, to do what you can. I can hear people who have a right to your time approaching, so I leave and make my way to the sunlight outside, trying to bury the awkward metaphysical moment for later philosophising. But I don’t quite make it.
My heart freezes as the monk at the front desk motions me to come towards him. He wants to speak to me. To ask me what I think I am doing. Somehow, I don’t think that “I don’t have a clue myself” will really cut it.
Drawing closer, he pulls out a little white pastry and gives it to me before I can start my excuses – stopping me dead. Smiling, he tells me in broken english;
In the back temple today
It is that buddha’s birthday.
You go there.
And give him this.
I am allowed to be here.