Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Incense and Innocence

If you're looking for the questions to this week's Hodgepodge you'll find them here.

Back to Asia and yes, it is day 10 of the A-Z challenge (day 8 in letters) and I'm still talking about Shanghai. We'll move on to another country shortly, but I did a lot in this amazing city and I gotta put my words and pictures somewhere.

I is for Incense
The kind that sort of knocks you down as you walk thru a Buddhist temple or ten while on a trip to Asia.

Growing up I'm sure I imagined everybody had a family much like mine. Life as seen thru the rose colored glasses of my childhood meant mostly everyone had similar traditions, habits and beliefs. I suppose in my whitebread suburban neighborhood just a hop, skip, and jump from the City of Brotherly Love that assumption was somewhat true. Of course people had problems and were searching for answers to life's biggest and most important questions, but it was the 1970's. The doors to our homes and heads had not yet been thrown wide open for complete strangers to dissect, discuss, and judge like they are in the age of the internet. We didn't really know so much about what went on behind closed doors in 1971 but I do know for a fact that none of my friends were Buddhist. My friends were Catholic and Jewish, Baptist and Methodist. Some were no religion at all, but I can say for certain I didn't know any Buddhists.

Back in 1971 Buddhism was a 'religion' for people who lived a world away. A world I would never see or know up close and personal. A world full of people who were nothing like me and whose paths would never cross mine and who for sure would not be sitting next to me in PTA meetings in a country called England. Not people I would learn to call friend...people with whom I would share the joys and trials of parenting teenagers in a foreign country. Not people who, while very different from me in terms of spiritual beliefs, were not so different in other ways.

Dear young naive self-
Just you wait for the future. Oh the things you don't know that you don't know.
Older wiser self

Flash forward to 2012 and a life that's been lived more globally amongst people who practice everything from Atheism to Hinduism and I find myself wanting to understand it all just a little bit better. Not to practice, but to know and understand where my friends are coming from in matters of the heart.

I have to say that it felt a little bit strange to take pictures in this setting. Not so strange that I didn't do it but strange nonetheless. I compare it to how I'd feel sitting in church while tourists file by in a steady stream mid-prayer to photograph the altar and stained glass. Everyone was taking pictures though, including the people who were actually there to practice their religion, so when in Rome...

I visited two temples in Shanghai, The Jade Buddha Temple and the Jing'an Temple. I also saw Buddhist temples in Taipei and Hong Kong, no two the same but each one beautiful and detailed and, I have to add-bustling. Are our churches this crowded? Am I so determined to worship that I spend my lunch break in church? That I bring an offering? Methinks not.

Don't misunderstand...I am not a Buddhist and in fact, I only felt more confused after seeing all the many different Buddhas. I'm secure in my own belief in one God and his son Jesus who was born of the Virgin Mary and whose death and Resurrection give meaning and hope to a broken world. But there are many all around the globe and in my own backyard who don't share my beliefs. I saw a statistic that said low estimates of the number of practicing Buddhists in the world stands somewhere between 300-500 million people. That's not a small number.

The temples themselves all kind of made my jaw drop. Huge and gorgeous and smoky. The smell of all that incense made me a little loopy and also just a little bit nauseous. Mostly nauseous. I've never particularly liked the smell of incense and each temple had ginormous burners that were putting out smoke like there was no tomorrow.

Also, even monks have laundry.
Just sayin'.

I'm not sure you can really understand someone without knowing something about their belief system too. Where did we come from? What moral code will we live by? What are the customs and rituals that have meaning in our lives? And most importantly, what happens when this life on earth is done?

I walked thru these temples and read what was written and watched people practicing their religion (actually I'm not sure they call Buddhism a religion), and while I can't say I completely understand it I don't feel like I'm living in a vacuum either.

"The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are." ~ Samuel Johnson


  1. Joyce, I love learning about other parts of the world from what you've seen and experienced. The pictures are stunning and your stories keep me begging for more!

  2. Wonderful pictures! I do love to travel and see other parts of the world and other cultures I've never been exposed to before. :)

    I'm a new follower from the AtoZ challenge. Nice to meet you.

  3. Interesting thoughts, Joyce. My heart would be breaking as I saw people fruitlessly trying to appease a dead god. If we could only open our hearts and let them see a living relationship that we have with the creator of the universe!

    Beautiful pictures! I will actually be sad to leave Shanghi, but I'm sure the next stop in your trip will be just as wonderful.

  4. I am loving your stories about your trip! What an amazing experience!

  5. More great trips form the Far East. If I can't visit, at least I can enjoy the pictures.

  6. Great pictures! I look forward every day to your posts!
    I agree with Angie (who commented earlier). My would would break when I saw the fruitless appeasement going on in Singapore and other Asian cites we visited. We went in very few temples. I felt such a demonic presence when I was in them.

  7. I love that this A-Z challenge lined up with your trip re-cap. It's been a fun way to see China. Totally agree with your take on other religions - even if we don't agree, they deserve our respect.

  8. I don't know why, but the "monk laundry" made me laugh out loud!

  9. Wow, how beautiful! I can't even imagine living somewhere that lovely with all of its history!

  10. You are opening our world through your writings and pics. I love that you show us the "normal" (i.e. monks laundry) with the in-normal. Loved your meaningful questions.

  11. Interesting stuff...especially the "monk laundry"! LOL Thanks for sharing places I'll only ever see in pictures. What a collection of photos you must have!

  12. Those are some beautiful photos and some interesting thoughts.

  13. Loved the photos. They were amazing and your journaling with the pictures was so good. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Beautiful pictures Joyce. Attending HS in Chicago I had the chance to go into different worship areas for our history class. Bet they wouldn't do that nowdays. But anyway we went into a Jewish synagogue and a buddhist temple along with catholic, baptist, lutheran. It was a very interesting field trip and they were beautiful! Thanks for the interesting post!

  15. Those pictures are beautiful! One of these days I'm going to get caught up on your trip!

  16. Thank you Joyce for sharing your trip with me.
    I am enjoying these posts. I have never cared for incense either. I know very little about their religion.

  17. Hi Joyce! Enjoyed your post for the letter I. Thank you for sharing all of the pictures. If I can't be there is person, I can be there through way of the internet. I like burning incence, sometimes, when I'm writing.


  18. Wow, Joyce,
    You had some incredible experiences on your trip. The photos are amazing! Thanks for sharing..