There isn’t the usual hushed silence you would expect in a church or a mosque; in fact it’s quite noisy. As well as the recorded background chanting interspersed with the occasional gong sound, there are ladies selling candles, people praying, and tourists talking to each other.
Although the floor is polished marble our feet don’t make a sound. Shoes are not allowed in the main shrine at Nan Tien Temple so Duckfish and I are in our socks. It isn’t as cold underfoot as you might expect, rather refreshing and cool after the confinement of our shoes.
The walls of the shrine are entirely covered in compartments each containing an identical statue of the Buddha. Some have names inscribed below. The sign on the wall tells us that these offerings will ensure a smooth transition into the next life which will be filled with wealth, beauty and power. I ponder the contradiction of wanting a better life next time around when Buddhism is all about suffering and non-attachment.
A small dark robed tour guide enters the shrine with her group of eight followers. We had intended to do the tour, but a miscalculation on the amount of time it would take to drive from Sydney to the southern outskirts of Wollongong meant we turned up too late to register. We sit on a bench and eavesdrop, feeling like we are stealing something we should have paid for.
The tour guide is a Buddhist nun. She is young, Asian, and beautiful in spite of, or maybe because of her shaved head. She reminds me of Tripitaka, the Buddhist boy priest (who is played by a woman, Masako Natsume) in the cult TV series Monkey. I wonder for a moment if the majority of my Buddhist education comes from television. No wonder I am confused.
She speaks quietly so we strain to hear her words. She is explaining the gestures of the five large Dhyani Buddha statues that dominate the shrine. Their names are Amogasiddhi, Ratnasambhava, Vairocana, Amitabha and Akshobhya and they represent North, South, Central, West and East. They are identical except for the colour of their robes and the position of their hands. The guide talks of teaching, humility, mediation, giving and fearlessness. I find it hard to concentrate.
It’s not her words that are boring me, but there is something in this place that makes it difficult for me to think. It is like the clear sharp voice of reason that comments continuously on daily life is somehow muted by layers of cotton wool. Perhaps it is the smell of incense, the rows of candles, the exquisite artwork on the ceiling or the accumulation of prayers that have soaked into the fabric of the building, but the air seems thick and warm. It is like breathing in contentment, satisfaction, and peace. I stop struggling to hear the guide’s instruction and simply inhale the fullness.
Duckfish feels it too. He leans into me and whispers “This place is so beautiful. I don’t want to leave.”
I don’t want to leave either. It is as though time has stood still and everything that crowds our daily lives doesn’t matter so much. I’m not deep in meditation, my eyes aren’t closed and there is noise and activity all around me and yet I feel totally present. I sink deeper into the feeling, exploring the edges of it so that I can remember it outside of this space.
Reluctantly we get up to leave, walking around the shrine one last time to drink in the sounds, the smells, the images and the feelings in this room. We place a donation in the wooden box to pay for our partial tour and to show our gratitude the only way we know how. Outside in the afternoon sun we put our shoes back on and re-enter the world.