On the Buddha’s Birthday

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On the Buddha’s Birthday

DUIC took a look at the Longquan Temple in Zuilen

A shaved nun walks by with a drill in her hand. Two Chinese people are standing on a ladder. Another is hurrying toward them with some iron wire while he’s giving them instructions. A task that is being performed with the utmost attentiveness on a Tuesday afternoon in Zuilen: hanging the banner that broadcasts the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday one week hence. This is a day for everyone to get acquainted with the temple and with Buddhism.

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From inside the Longquan Great Compassion Monastery the sound of singing emanates. The six nuns who call this temple their home are chanting, singing rhythmically. One nun is indicating the rhythm on the gong. The doors are wide open and you can see Buddha smiling friendly through the doorway.

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On Buddha Day, the day that the Buddha Shakyamuni came unto this Earth, the Longquan temple is filled with mostly Chinese people. The decorations are even more colorful than usual. On the tables, draped with golden cloth, offerings such as bowls of kiwis and bananas are arrayed. Lotus flowers are also omnipresent, whether in natural form or in the form of artificial lighting. In the center of the temple the silver bath of Shakyamuni is located, where he shall be cleansed with holy water. This year, also mayor Jan van Zanen had the honor of performing this ceremony.

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Transported from China

Bathing the Buddha is the highlight of this day, says 26-year old Mette Bekius from Groningen. With her Dutch blonde hair she strikes a noticeable figure at the temple. Water is poured over Shakyamuni Buddha, which ensures purification of yourself and your own mind. The local from Groningen became inspired by Buddhism during her studies in Beijing. A classmate invited her to go to a temple where multilingual ceremonies were being held. According to her, in China there is much more international interest in Buddhism. “The master’s microblog is translated in 12 different languages over there.” In the Netherlands the same intention exists, but for now it is only in its beginning stage. Recently Mette joined the translation team of the Longquan temple; she is the only one who speaks English and Dutch as well as Chinese. The main language of the temple is still Chinese, a logical consequence of the fact that this is the only language that the nuns are proficient in. Their lives have been moved 8000 kilometers, they have maintained all the traditions and rituals from their Longquan temple in China. “They have basically just been transported”, Mette states. Their days look the same as in Beijing. Every morning they get up at 4:30 a.m. to pray for an hour, followed by cleaning the temple. Breakfast is at 6:30 a.m., and after that the temple is opened to the public at 9 a.m. The most important moments in their days are at 10:50 a.m. and at 4:30 p.m., which is when they lead ceremonies that are accessible to everyone. It is a requirement that the attendees take off their shoes, or wear shoe covers that are supplied to them.

The shaved heads and light grey habits of the nuns draw attention. However, the iPhone and Ray-Ban that the 30-year old nun Xianfu carries create a more familiar image. Talking to her leads to many smiles and hand gestures. Xianfu’s English is not quite at the desired level yet, which causes her to switch to paper. Unfortunately she only produces Chinese characters: thankfully her iPhone can provide some relief. Through a translation app we are able to have a short conversation. She is very positive about the Netherlands: “The people are very kindly, I feel very warm.” And how about disappointments? A shy smile: “The lot of rain.”

A language barrier

The intention is that the nuns will quickly learn English and Dutch so they can perform the ceremonies bilingually. At the moment these are still difficult to follow for people that do not speak Chinese. The Chinese Caicha recognizes this too, she is married to the Dutch Arie. Currently the couple can be found at the temple almost every day. Caicha believes it is a shame that so few Dutch people visit the temple. For this reason she brought a colleague to a ceremony. “But it was kind of difficult, because she didn’t understand the language. An hour of sitting silently can seem quite long, that way.” Afterwards her colleague was able to say exactly how many Buddha statues were present at the temple. These are very numerous, since all the walls are filled with the small gold statues.

For Buddhism to truly take off in our country, it should not only be present, but also attain a certain significance. This is stated by André Kalden, former head of the Buddhist Union of the Netherlands (BUN) and involved in with the temple from its inception. “For the temple to truly have meaning in our country Chinese Buddhism needs to be not only present, available and taken seriously, as is already the case, but it also needs to serve a function.” According to him Buddhism did not play a significant role in the Netherlands for a long time. Partly influenced by pop culture in the 60s Zen Buddhism started to take root in our country. “In the beginning of the 70s it was just a small plant.”

André gives a speech to the visitors of the temple on the Buddha’s birthday: “You need to imagine, all the Dutch people that are currently Buddhist previously were either atheist or followers of a different faith, namely Christianity.” He addresses the crowd from the speaker’s platform on the left. Above him is a screen that shows tulips and on the right side is another speaker’s platform, which is where his Dutch is being translated into Chinese. After every few sentences André falls quiet, so the translator can address the larger part of the room. The nuns are easily recognizable; one is hurrying along to fix a microphone, another is filming the speeches. According to André the nuns are the most important part of the temple, rather than the building or the statues. “Without the nuns this is a body without a heart.”

Teaching Inner Peace

The nuns, then, are to teach us about Buddhism, rather than the cheap Buddha statues that are flooding the market. Some of the worshippers at the temple believe these are just a hype. “Next time we’ll see images of doves everywhere, they may bring good luck too”, somebody supplies. According to the blonde Mette from Groningen Chinese Zen-Buddhism has the most practical focus of all the different Buddhist schools. This form, which is practiced in the Longquan monastery, provides guidance on how to treat each other and act in the wellbeing of society. For example, an important aspect in Chinese Zen Buddhism is ‘compassion’. Mette: “You need to live in a loving way. Compassion is important. When somebody is annoying you, you could imagine that this person is perhaps tired and therefore acts in this way, rather than getting irritated.” Besides that it is important to treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself. But kindness does not mean you should always act sweetly. “There needs to be some power behind this kindness” according to André.

Meditation is also an important aspect. This inner peace would be of benefit to many Dutch people. “Everybody is always so busy around here”, Caicha explains. “You can also meditate without believing in Buddha.” Mette also advocates this. “Meditation is not something that you can only practice sitting on a pillow. You can take it with you wherever. It’s about having attention and being aware of the things that you experience.”

Extremely broad source of inspiration’

At this time the Netherlands counts around 60.000 Buddhist practitioners. It is difficult to determine this exactly, since many people practice by themselves without being part of any community. The influence of Buddhism however is much larger than this number, according to André. “Take for example those courses in Mindfulness that are being offered everywhere, this is an attitude and technique that is based on Buddhism. Buddhism is an extremely broad source of inspiration.” He doesn't have much time to talk, since he needs to pose for a picture. “I’m sorry, I have to go sit down again.” Shortly after the familiar ‘cheese’ resounds. Also within the temple everything is being recorded meticulously. The visitors at the temple are not holding religious texts in their hands, but rather their smartphones (which they use to take pictures). During one speech suddenly a lot of attendees swarm outside. A girl whispers: “The mayor is coming”. All people position themselves on the pavement with their phones at the ready. When he has entered the hall Van Zanen is the only one present who is still wearing his shoes. But even when you are not the mayor, you are treated kindly at the temple. However, most likely with a few less selfies and the requirement to take off your shoes.

Still, for some people the threshold for entering the temple is rather too high. For example, a passer-by in sweatpants and a gold necklace carefully glances inside. “Such a madhouse” he mumbles softly. After looking on hesitantly for a few minutes, he walks onto the pavement. A woman in a yellow volunteer jacket walks up to him. “Have a look?” she asks, while gesturing at the box with the shoe covers. The boy softly shakes his head, but hangs around doubtfully for a short while before walking on. Arie, Caicha’s husband, is calmly standing in the doorway looking in on the scene at the temple. Surrounded by cameras, the mayor pours large spoonfuls of water over the small Shakyamuni statue. Arie is not a Buddhist, but he considers himself a ‘friend’ of Buddhism. That is why he enjoys lending a helping hand in the daily business of the temple. He loves doing that, especially now that he is retired. “I believe Buddhism is the most peaceful faith on earth.” It is accessible to anyone, also the most sober Dutch people. Being asked the question whether this will actually happen in the near future, André responds: “They are planting a seed here now, come back and see in another 15 years.”