New Year’s Blessings at Ten Buddhist Pagodas
By: Jackie Bong-Wright
Vietnamese, as inheritors of Chinese
traditions, celebrate the Lunar New Year, or Tet, from the end of January to
mid-February. Celebrations include festivals, rituals, performances, and
visits among family and friends as well as exchanges of wishes and gifts.
Buddhists also want to be blessed at the start of the new year with visits to
pagodas - the more the merrier.
Although most Americans refer to Eastern
places of worship as pagodas, Asians here typically call them temples.
Very early in the Year of the Ox, on the
second Sunday morning of February, 100 Vietnamese, old and young, boarded two
buses. Escorted by Thien Tho and Kim Oanh, they set out to visit ten
Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Cambodian, Lao, Tibetan, and Thai
pagodas in Virginia, Maryland
and Washington. The ladies
accompanying the group have organized annual pilgrimages since 1993, and, in
2007, established an association called Hoi Chan Nguyen – Path to Inner
The Path to Inner Consciousness
The Hoi Chan Nguyen (HCN) holds
monthly meetings in private homes, studying Buddhist precepts, reading selected
sutra texts, and practicing meditation. George Dalton, a newly-converted
Buddhist and the association’s president, is happy to invite mainstream
Americans to the association’s new website. It features both Theravada
and Mahayana, Buddhism’s two major schools, and their different teachings and
practices. Thien Tho said HCN members were free to choose either
school of thought, with no pressure to take one or the other, since all were
headed toward the same ultimate goal.
South Asian countries, including Sri
have accepted the Theravada school of thought, which emphasizes a meditative
approach to self-awareness. Theravada, or the “Small Vehicle,” is the
more orthodox school, asking adherents to “abstain from all kinds of evil, to
accumulate all that is good and to purify the mind.” Disciples undergo
three kinds of training -- in ethical conduct, meditation and insight-wisdom.
Theravada Buddhism says that all compounded
things are made up of two elements - material and four non-material ones:
sensations, perception, mental formatives and consciousness. One should
seek to end suffering and free oneself of attachments and desire in order to
reach enlightment (Nibana), or pure land, a state of consciousness or a place
Monks, nuns and ascetic followers practice
Theravada strictly. They do not indulge in the pleasures of the senses
but follow the Noble Eight-Fold Path, which consists of Right View, Right
Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right
Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
On the other hand, Mahayana, or the “Great
Vehicle,” teaches that salvation can be attained through the middle path,
accepting existence and non-existence, eternity and non-eternity, self and
non-self. It advocates relativity and the philosophy of intuition.
It emphasizes compassion in helping others and the practice of yoga, which
purifies through reincarnation. Practitioners will eventually be
aware of deep insights into existence and find the highest truth and the light
(Bodhi). Mahayana schools can be found in China, Korea, Japan, and
All Buddhists learn Buddha’s life
story. Guatama, born in 566 BC, was the son of a king in northern
India. Leaving his wife and young son, he went out in search of
salvation, his own and that of all men and women. He meditated under a
Bodhi tree, attained enlightenment, and became Buddha. Afterwards, he
spent 45 years teaching throughout India, a labor of love. He died at 80,
and today his influence is felt in one-third of the globe.
A Rainbow of Pagodas
Back inside the buses, the pilgrims first
said their morning prayers in Pali, a form of Sanskrit. Then, throughout
the 12-hour trek, they recounted inspirational stories that enhanced their
spiritual knowledge. They received small gifts for knowing the right
answers to questions about Buddha’s teachings, and sang motivational songs.
At each pagoda, or temple, the visitors
chanted prayers before the resplendent Buddhas and other deities that adorned
altars framed in scintillating lights and brimming with flowers. They
paid homage to the monks and nuns they met, and in return got prayers and water
blessings as well as beaded necklaces, threaded bracelets and red envelopes
with a symbolic one-dollar bill – all signs of good fortune and prosperity for
After departing from the East Falls Church
metro station in Virginia, the group stopped at the Vietnamese Hoa Nghiem
pagoda at Fort Belvoir. Its adherents are still struggling to raise
enough money to build an impressive pagoda on the large piece of land they
bought 20 years ago. The Venerable Kien Khai, Dr. Tran Doan, his soft-spoken
wife, and several volunteers welcomed the visitors first with common prayers,
then with sticky rice cakes, typical of the new year’s dishes.
The Japanese Ekoji, which means the
“Temple of the Gift of Light,” was next. It stands majestically in a
modern building in Fairfax Station. A scroll with three Japanese
characters - Buddha’s Infinite Life and Light - hangs above the altar.
There is only one statue of the Buddha, on the left side, in keeping with a
style that is simple, elegant, uncrowded, and quintessentially
The group moved on to the Lao pagoda,
dedicated in 1993, which sits on 58 acres of landscaped grounds at Catlett,
Manassas. Reverend Abbot Bounmy and his 12 monks, including a
newly-converted American, preside over weekly ceremonies and special
festivities. The Lao New Year festival in April and a cultural festival
in July bring thousands of the faithful, who call this wat, meaning pagoda or
temple, the Buddhist Holy Land.
Swinging into the District of Columbia, the
visitors reached Giac Hoang Pagoda on 16th St Northwest.
Right at the entrance, a large statue of Kuan Yin stands in a fountain of
lotus flowers. In back, an impressive, lighted Buddha, with his right
hand raised, dominates a large auditorium with carved-wood panels on both
sides. The group was told that the beating of the drum and the burning of
candles and incense, which produced a sweet flagrance, led people to the path
of self-purification. Putting the palms of their hands together to chant
meditation verses, the visitors seemed to float within a space filled with
tranquility and compassion.
The six remaining pagodas were all located in
Maryland. The brochure at the Tibetan Kansan Playful Choking (KPC) showed
that its mission was “to inspire people to improve the world through saving
lives and caring for beings, especially animals.”
Founded by Jetsunma, a young woman selected
by Tibetan religious leaders to be this pagoda’s director, KPC has conducted a
24-hour prayer vigil for world peace since 1985. Most KPC monks and nuns
are Caucasian Americans who use digital technology, including webcasts, a
YouTube library and videos to spread Buddhist teachings.
The group then stopped at Vien An Pagoda, run
by Vietnamese nuns who pray and teach Buddhist social ethics and
principles. Buddhism considers material welfare to be necessary to man’s
temporal happiness; therefore, security and social harmony are important for
moral and spiritual development. The nuns cooked their visitors an excellent
vegetarian gourmet dinner of hot ginger tofu rice soup mixed with peas and
At the Chinese Avatamsaka Vihara temple, two
groups of Chinese worshippers dressed in different colored robes and standing
on either side of the aisle alternated their chanting and bowing to
Buddha. They were accompanied by drums and bells, in different tempos.
Each year the pagoda conducts a seven-day retreat during the week of
Thanksgiving and a three-day recitation on long weekends.
Next was the Wat Thai, founded in 1975, where
monks offered weekly meditation and study sessions, and recently established an
open discussion forum on the internet for both adults and children. Lay
people take part every year in the Katina ceremony, giving new robes to the
monks at the end of their three-month retreat. The Wat Thai’s biggest
event is the Songkran festival marking the start of the Thai new year, when
thousands come to pour water in honor of Buddha and the monks.
Moving on to the Cambodian Buddhist Temple,
the visitors were welcomed by Sovan Tun, President of the Cambodian Buddhist
Society. His volunteer board members manage a pagoda that features
regular ceremonies, religious and language classes, a temporary shelter for the
homeless, and a dining facility for the hungry. It also has an art
program, and its classical and folk dancers perform at the Kennedy Center, the
Library of Congress and government agencies.
The Burmese-America Buddhist Association
(B.A.B.A) came into existence in 1980, and the founders named their monastery
Mingalarama. Adherents hold monthly meditation retreats in its spacious
Dhama hall and have a collection of magazines, periodicals, and books written
by monks and scholars for Buddhist disciples to research and study in their library.
A Day Well Spent
In the icy-cold winter, the food,
snacks, and drinks at each temple and the exchange of good wishes were sources
of warmth and hope in time of environmental turmoil and economic
downturn. The peaceful atmosphere of the pagodas brought consolation to
their hearts, the pilgrims said. At the end of the day, My Hien, a former
social worker, and her five family members, including a grandson of five, said
they were physically tired, but mentally fit. They felt tranquility and
harmony within themselves and vowed to repeat the experience the following
year. Celine Duong, a Taichi instructor and staff of Boat People
SOS, a non-profit that provides social services to the needy, said, “I am
excited to be part of the group. I promise to recruit more young people
in their twenties to join the pilgrimage next year.” She concluded with
Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in
the service of others.”