Celebrating Chinese New Year at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple: Sheep and Harmony

On the train to my sister’s house, riding through southern California’s ultra-glamourous Inland Empire, I read Sera Beak’s book, Red Hot and Holy. In it, she talks about her many travels and personal experiences with spiritualities all around the world. in particular, I was reading how she studied with devotees of Kali in Calcutta. As I read, I longed to be able to do the same—to be able to travel the world and learn about different religions—to have that kind of freedom and enlightenment to inform my heart and bring back to my own practice.

Brother-in-law, Sister, and Nephew at Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple

Brother-in-law, Sister, and Nephew at Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple

I still had that prayer in my heart when I arrived in Covina to meet my sister, nephew, and brother-in-law. It was my sister’s birthday. She arrived at the train station in a demure black sweater with a purple flower climbing the shoulder, and a luxurious flouncing purple petticoat. Both she and my nephew wore party hats pushed to their foreheads like unicorn horns, (as unicorns are my sister’s totem of choice). We all hugged hello saying, “Birthday sparkles! Yay!” I even hugged my sister, which may be the first time I have ever done that, including when we were children. It was a good thing to hug her in that moment, because we were in the moment, and the awkwardness dissolved in the unicorn/birthday/petticoat sparkles.

On our way home, my brother-in-law decided to drive by the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple to show me how it was all decked out for Chinese New Year. I saw red lanterns peeking over the top of the hill, quietly. They had their own work to do—their own secrets to tell.

Looking down into the valley from atop the marble stairs at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple.

Looking down into the valley from atop the marble stairs at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple.

We drove up the hill and those few teasing lights multiplied into a galaxy of red and orange and yellow, clustered in constellations around every column, every newel post, every everything that would stand still long enough for them to float around and upon. We thought the temple might be sleeping, but it was instead blazing with light, life, and activity. We parked the car, having at one point to make a U-ey in the parking lot of the monks’ house, and proceeded to cross under the glowing red gate and up the marble stairs still slippery from an early evening rain.

Looking inside Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple.

Looking inside Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple.

When we stepped inside we were greeted by a wall of light in bright white striations on tan marble. The light was broken in nooks for five shining Buddhas, all in gold, white, and blue. We had to crane our necks to see their serene faces. Before we entered the temple, my sister told my nephew to keep his voice to whispers. Seeing those Buddhas, the admonition was unnecessary for all of us. The whispers of awe came naturally.

I saw, in the middle of the room, a wooden box on a post for donations. All I had in my pocket were the two quarters I had left over from the two packs of Djarum Black cigarettes I had purchased between the train station and the temple. Normally, I save all my change to put in my Owl-y for Athena (read: make an offering), but as I approached the donation box, I saw her open her hands and knew she would graciously give her coins to the Buddhist monks. I have to admit this was unexpected. As Hellenists, we are so often taught, or rather it is a cultural understanding, or misunderstanding, that our gods are jealous and stingy with their offerings, that their vanity extends to the point of whammy-worthy retaliation should we do something with their offerings other than lay them at their rarified feet. This was not my experience. Athena graciously gave of her offerings. The feeling I had was one of expansive respect for another beautiful, powerful religion and those who would devote their lives to the service of it. It would seem unimaginable to take an offering from her temple to lay it down in another, but I not only felt it was right, I felt she decreed it. Here is a place, so close to her own spirit, also dedicated to learning and culture. My small donation couldn’t possibly be better spent.

Chinese New Year courtyard centerpiece at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple.

Chinese New Year courtyard centerpiece at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple.

Before this realization settled in fully, and before I could settle my quarters into the donation box, I noticed my family had wandered off to the left, down some mysterious hallway, and I was quick to follow. “You have to see this,” my brother-in-law said. He had been down the hallway before us. We creeped along behind him. It was the kind of barren church hallway you would expect to see in any church—the kind that gets permeated with potluck steam and the perfume of church ladies. I expected to see something small, some gathering, some tiny, holy thing that maybe we weren’t supposed to see. We took a twist and turn and another twist and another turn and finally the hallway opened up to a glorious courtyard blazing with light. People milled around at tables at the end of the courtyard where we were standing. At the far end, great panels of red and orange lanterns loomed over a ram, a goat, and a sheep, standing side by side over a giant blue and gold sign announcing the new year. All around the edges of the massive courtyard were dioramas with happy sheep celebrating the new year, Buddhism, compassion, peace, and harmony among all religions.

One of the MANY smiling sheep celebrating Chinese New Year at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple.

One of the MANY smiling sheep celebrating Chinese New Year at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple.

I am not exaggerating when I say there were sheepies everywhere! Little smiling sheep with rainbow wheels. Little smiling sheep with flowers. Little smiling sheep at play with other little smiling sheep. One little smiling sheep was even sitting on a swing amongst his smiling sheep brethren. It may seem silly, but all those sheepies brought a warmth to the heart that evoked the peace and compassion around which the dioramas were designed. Who can resist the sheep? You can’t. They overwhelm you. It’s impossible. Resistance is ewe-sless (see what I did there?).

Buddha garden at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple

Buddha garden at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple

Leaving the immediate courtyard, my sister, brother-in-law, nephew and I found a Buddha garden. My brother-in-low insisted there was a bell somewhere in the garden that you were supposed to throw a coin and hit so as to receive blessings. My eyesight is so poor, I had to take his word for it. I gave my nephew one of my two Athena coins and he made the toss. No bell rang, (giving me suspicion this bell might be imaginary after all). I’m sure blessings ensued regardless of aim or reality of said bell.

Along this same corridor, another Buddha garden, but this one with a fountain. The fountain I could see, so my nephew graciously let me toss my last Athena coin in. As I did, I asked her to bless the temple and all who worshipped there that it may stay beautiful and thriving. I know she will pour these blessings out freely.

We noticed people walking around with round, multi-colored lanterns and, (because this is what kids are good for), we asked my nephew to go find out how to procure one. He went over, worked his charms, and got an orange one just for the asking. Thinking there might be more lanterns to be had, the rest of my fandamily and I moseyed on over where the lanterns were strung. A happy lady dressed in an orange vest, belonging to the temple in some way, I assume, popped out from under the lanterns and asked if I would like one. I said yes, but then she told me I had to answer a riddle first.

(Pause here to meditate on how AWFUL I am at riddles).

This was the riddle (or something like it): “What animal has a big fluffy coat in the winter then, in the spring, when it’s warm, he can take it off and share it with people?”

Very blurry swinging sheep at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple celebrating Chinese New Year.

Very blurry swinging sheep at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple celebrating Chinese New Year.

The answer? Why, “sheep” of course! And I actually got that one, if you can believe it! (My sister guessed a bear—she didn’t say the animal gave up its coat AND its life. I’ll give her some slack though. I thought bear too at first, then I looked around and… wait a minute…). Our lady quizmaster pulled a red blessing tag off the lantern and handed me one of a beautiful blue to match my coat. My sister, feeling it might be bad form to ask for another right off the bat, wandered back toward the swinging sheep.

While loitering there, my brother-in-law came over to ask for help with his lantern riddle. All I can say is I’m glad it was him and not me, because “sheep” was only going to get me hooked up once.

His riddle was, “What is a small container that holds a flower you can see but you can’t touch?”

He counseled with us. I guessed “seed”. He took that back to the quizmaster and was shot down. “You can actually SEE the flower,” she told him, then gave him another clue. “It starts with a ‘k’.”

Still no idea.

Another clue: “You played with it as a kid.”

Chirping crickets.

And finally, “It’s related to a telescope!” (with hand gestures).

“Kaleidoscope!” we burst out at the same time, (though, in all seriousness, I was a second faster). Such a relief and a pretty purple lantern for him to give to my sister for her birthday.

The red tags she took from the lanterns were blessings for us to be added to the blessings basket. I can’t imagine any blessing greater than simply being there that night to witness and to participate in that glow. It stayed with me for days and stays with me still. Great blessings from my own gods to have been able to visit and play in the sacred space. The longing I felt from the train had been answered in full.

-M.

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Tarot Challenge Day 5: Self-Soveriegnty

IMG_0614Day 5: How can you achieve your long-term goals?
Deck: Prisma Visions
Spread: Simple Hermes
Cards: Ten of Pentacles (r), Death (r), Four of Chalices (r), Ten of Wands (r)

The is more a list of don’ts than dos. Don’t resist change. Let it come. It will be for the best. When that change comes, let it come on slowly. Don’t make rash decisions the moment you see glimmers of a new dawn out of fear of the light. One ray of sunshine at a time, you will learn what it is to have the warm sun on your face again. Don’t put too much stock in the opinion of any one person. You are you. You are different. You are unique. You are always the final authority on you.

Planetary Day: Jupiter
Planetary Hour: Mercury
Moon: Full in Virgo, v/c

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Tarot Reading: If There Was Ever a Time In Your Life NOT to Throw Like a Girl, That Time Would Be Now.

IMG_0608

Query: General
Deck: Prisma Visions
Spread: Simple Hermes
Cards: Ace of Cups (r), Ace of Swords (r), Five of Chalices, Three of Pentacles

The immediate past has been an emotionally and intellectually barren time for you. It is time not only to move past it, but to willfully and deliberately cast it away from you. Do not simply drop it into the abyss, but cast it out with all your might. After you have done so, take the good that is left and go back to work. Go back to building the cathedral of mind and spirit you were working on before this frightening, yet temporary downward turn.

-M.

Planetary Day: Mercury
Planetary Hour: Mercury/Moon
Moon: Waxing in Virgo

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Tarot Challenge Day 1: General Reading: Let your lover do what Lover’s gonna do—doo-bee-doo, doo-bee-doo.

IMG_0610_2Day 1: A general reading/overview of your life right now.

Deck: Tarot of the Absurd
Spread: Simple Hermes
Cards: Ace of Cups, The Lovers, Temperance, King of Swords (r)

This is a full and blessed time for you individually as well as for you in your relationship. You and your love have reached new depths of understanding, one to another, and, as you complement each other so well emotionally as well as intellectually, you are set to achieve some mighty things as partners, meeting strength for strength. The caution is that you not try to control things with your intellect. Use your intellect, but give the reins to your heart and spirit.

-M.

Planetary Day: Jupiter
Planetary Hour: Sun
Moon: Full in Virgo

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The Chthonic Hermes Card

IMG_0133It just occurred to me that I never posted the picture of this card, the Chthonic Hermes card, from the “Circus Freaks” deck I received last Christmas, (not sure how I feel about the title of the deck). This card is all him, no doubt about it. From the tip top of his top hat to the tips of his long, limber fingers, it is him. Also, the jack of diamonds, the gambler—could any card be more perfect?

And there is a very woo-ish tale surrounding this deck…

Since 2011, I have carried a deck in my purse at all times that I have given to Hermes. It is not a holy artifact. I use the cards often to play with my family and friends. The deck I had since 2011 though was not entirely a positive thing. It was given to me by my terrible ex’s stepmother when he was in the hospital and insisted I stay with him night and day for a week, (if you ever have an urge to sleep in a chair for a week, from experience I strongly encourage you not to do it). It was that surgery, (unnecessary surgery), that ended up giving him an excuse to get hooked on pain killers and use alcohol again, the unbearable consequences of which resulted in me leaving him. So that deck, even though I gave it to Hermes, was tainted somewhat by that association.

Here’s the woo: Last christmas, when I went to put the new deck in my purse, not intending it to replace the Hermes deck I already had, I discovered my old deck, which was in the side pocket of my purse, had been somehow completely ruined by water even though nothing else in my purse was even remotely wet. The box was falling apart. The ink on the hopelessly warped cards had run to disfigure the cards beyond repair. Apparently, Hermes really wanted that new deck and to have both he and I released from ownership of the old deck which was heavy with distress and despair.

Then this card… and I discover he is not only of the deck, but in it also, (and even the art is heavy with gold).

-M.

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On Hekate: On Attitude

HekateAs pop-ish as I realize this picture is, it’s the attitude that is most accurate—in fact, spot-on accurate. Hekate was, in my dream, as far as it is possible to get from the common fluffy assumptions about her. She is not, in any way, what one would call “nurturing”. She is not your patient, gentle guide to the secrets of witchcraft. She will teach you what she feels like teaching you… maybe, but only if she decides you are worthy, and even then, she is inclined to change her mind—sometimes for good reason, sometimes for the smallest of infractions such as wearing her least favorite color, and sometimes simply on a whim because it amuses her to watch your pride crumble at her feet.

She has an unshakeable sense of high honor and rightful duty (less common among the gods than you would hope). Her standards are exacting. When something or someone violates that sensibility, her wrath rains down in an unforgiving torrent of choking ash and fire as if she were personally shoving one of her torches down your throat.

A shared sense of this high honor and rightful duty is, in part, what makes her and Chthonic Hermes such well-matched lovers. If you can believe it though, between the two of them, Chthonic Hermes who turns a cold, deaf ear to the pleadings of the throngs of dead he escorts, is by far the softer of the pair. We must remember she is significantly older than he is. He is her lithe young man. Perhaps she is more jaded. She is certainly more wise.

-M.

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Galaxy Shoes (dream)

516ea84a7428f2b07f57088247104201Her gentle benefactor made for her a pair of shoes as a gift of love and mystery. They were crushed suede pumps of a cloudy, midnight blue. Across the foot, in a Mary Jane strap, three strands of milky pearls buckled with a gold, pearl, and lapis brooch that looked as if it were its own system of sunlight, planet, moons, and esoteric meaning. He slipped the shoes onto her feet over her black stockings. He kissed her knee and rested his cheek there. He said, “These are your galaxy shoes… and they are only mine to give.”

-M.

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