The relation between Hinduism and what is called Buddhism at the present day is nearly the same as between Judaism and Christianity. Jesus Christ was a Jew, and Shakya Muni (Buddha) was a Hindu. Hinduism cannot live without Buddhism, nor Buddhism without Hinduism.
Address to the Chicago Parliament of World Religions, 1893
Classes at night, services on Sundays – my temple obsession is cutting in to our family time. So, when Kevin said he wanted to go to the Thai Buddhist temple’s food market on Sunday to eat lunch, I agreed to take a day off from Hinduism, figuring Kevin, Matt and I could hang out together (Luke was out, as always, with friends) and I might be able to check out the monks, too. Buddhism’s next – that is, if I ever figure out when the time is right to move on from Hinduism. Pretty hard to imagine how I will ever be able to move on given how little I know now in spite of all my efforts.
The Wat Thai Buddhist temple is in North Hollywood. Now, North Hollywood might sound glamorous to some but its reality is anything but. It’s a haphazard section of San Fernando Valley full of straight anonymous streets with low, practical buildings so the temple, with its red roof edged in gold stands out. Its Sunday food bazaar has dozens of stalls selling grilled seafood and meat, noodle dishes, sticky rice and mango, and that sweet milky iced tea – with and without tapioca balls. Kevin loves going there.
It was crowded as usual when we got there so we had to park blocks away. Matt moved some noodles around on a plate as cover for his main meal: tapioca balls. He sucked those sweet black chewy balls through oversized straws. Sitting together, chewing and chatting, usually felt good but I was so distracted I was hardly there.
Matt wanted another boba. “Mom, can I have another dollar?”
I was thinking about the monks inside and whether or not I was going to walk up those steps to try to meet them.
“Here, Matt,” Kevin said. He handed Matt what he needed then asked me, “Girl, what’s up?”
“I’m nervous. I don’t know why but I am.”
“Why?” Matt asked.
“I don’t know. I want to go in there, I know I should, but I don’t want to. It just feels too hard, like I don’t have it in me today.”
“Just do it,” Matt said, happy to be giving advice. “You always tell us to just do it.”
I might have been more careful with what I said to my children if I’d known that they’d store everything I‘d ever said to them – wise and foolish – to toss back at me with those gotcha smiles when I least wanted to hear it. The only compensation is it makes them very, very happy.
“Girl, we’ll just walk around a bit while you go in.” Kevin said. “It’ll be fine.”
When I started this project, I knew it was going to be ridiculously hard to do but I was only thinking about logistics: how long it would take, how little I knew, how impossible it was to figure out how to even begin. I thought I was just going to learn about various faiths. It never crossed my mind how much I was going to have to deal with me, with my own fears and limitations, with the rising suspicion that I’m not fully aware of all the reasons I’ve become so determined to do this.
I picked up my cup, the pile of balled up napkins in front of me, and my paper plate and tried to tuck them into a stuffed trash barrel so they wouldn’t fall out on the ground, then walked towards the steps to the temple. What is my problem? I’ve been a journalist all of my life; I’m used to walking in to new places, meeting new people, yet there I was with the same dread I felt when I was a kid, when I’d waited too long to write some school paper. It felt like I was trying to lift my own dead weight, like I needed skills I just didn’t have, skills I knew were missing but couldn’t even name. Okay, so maybe I’m making this far more complicated than it needs to be, maybe I don’t have to plumb the depths of my being to figure out what, if anything, each tenet might mean to me – a lifetime’s task (a Hindu might say a task of several lifetimes) all jammed into months. Ridiculous. Just find out the rituals, do them, and see what happens, what I learn. I can do that, can’t I? Just do it. This belly-aching self-doubt is useless.
I walked up the stairs, looked inside… and stopped. A plump Thai woman with a jug of free orange juice and a plastic bag full of fruit was sitting on her folded legs, chatting with a monk on an orange cushion. A few other monks were scattered around the room. One look and I just turned right around and walked back down the steps again.
Kevin and Matt were just starting to walk towards a display near the Wat Thai school when I walked up behind them. Kevin said, “Oh! You’re already done?”
He put his hand in mine and the three of us walked back to our car.
(8 October 2006)