For many Chinese immigrants and tradition-bound Chinese families, it is essential practice to pay a visit to the neighborhood temple on the occasion of the lunar new year.
Last night, Wednesday, when the Year of the Tiger came to an end with a boisterous roar, the Year of the Rabbit was welcomed by the heavy Asian population of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
I observed the occasion at the International Buddhist Temple in Steveston — the second-largest Buddhist temple in North America. If I said my prayers properly, I parted company with the evil spirits and bad luck of the past year, and opened myself to all the blessings of a new year.
At the side of the spacious parking lot that flanks the multi-building temple complex, newly arrived temple goers bought sheaves of incense sticks from a row of vendors. I followed them as they lit the entire bundles in nearby oil burners, and then carried them through a gateway.
Past a classical garden pond with a beautifully illuminated pagoda, I watched worshippers make their initial offering to an alabaster-white “laughing Buddha” icon.
A few steps further, more incense was presented to a tier of bronze sculptures representing a Chinese Buddhist pantheon. I recognized Guan Gong, who assures safety, and Bao Qing Tien, the master of justice.
The walkway entered a portal to the main temple grounds. A gong sounded my arrival. A wall of murals, to my right, wrapped around a 360-degree statue of GuanYin, presented as a thousand-armed goddess of mercy.
The broad courtyard bustled with activity. Whirring fans in the good-luck colors of red and gold were being sold to my left. In front of small icons in all directions, visitors were offering incense and flowers.
At the heart of the courtyard, two dozen steps climbed to the main worship hall. An enormous image of the seated Gautama Buddha, covered in gold leaf and flanked by attendants, dominated its center. Pyramids of fruit — oranges, persimmons, pomelos, all round to symbolize the perpetuation of life — were piled in front. Towers of tiny Buddha images rose on all sides.
At about 11:30, temple monks knelt on cushions before the main image and began chanting. Their rhythmic song continued until midnight. Several dozen temple visitors joined in, stumbling over the words to the sutras but never losing the spirit of the occasion.
Chinese religion is an interesting blend of beliefs. Those raised in the Christian tradition often consider it blasphemy to embrace other faiths. But Chinese are Buddhist — and they are Taoist — and they are Confucianist — and they offer basic ancestor worship. The pursuit of one path does not preclude the pursuit of another.
On New Year’s Day, February 3, I ventured to another, very different, Buddhist temple. The Thrangu Monastery, built just four years ago in Richmond, was the first traditional Tibetan monastery built in Canada. Few worshippers were in this magnificent temple when I visited, but I was cowed by the 40-foot Buddha that rose over my head, surrounded by more than 1,000 small Buddha images.
Chinese New Year comes early in 2012: January 23. I’m already making plans for a mid-winter return.