My mom tried everything to keep me off the streets, even religion. In Southeast Asian Buddhist culture it is customary for young males to spend time in their local temple as a novice monk. It’s a way to earn merit for our past offenses and a way to earn respect from the surrounding Asian community. Growing up in Asian-American ghettoes I had a reputation for being a knucklehead, so I didn’t mind doing something respectable, even if it was forced by my mom.
There are Buddhist temples all across America and they’re all the same. This was my third time as a novice monk so I knew what to expect. The first two times were in California (Fresno area) and this last time was in Des Moines, Iowa. I knew that the temples were originally normal-looking homes purchased by devout Buddhists and converted into ornate places of culture and tradition. I knew that the living room was the main place of worship with the far wall decked out with dozens of different sized idols and gold Buddha statues. I knew that every morning you would rise to the fresh smell of burned incense. I knew that we had to memorize mantras in Sanskrit and recite them three times a day. I knew that every single day after 12pm we would fast from food. I knew that we had to shave our heads and eyebrows and wear bright orange robes. I knew that we had to abstain from all desire (the root cause of all suffering) and this included not having to wear underwear for a whole month.
As a monk I felt free. Besides the naked freedom I felt between my crotch, I felt free from the drama of family members fighting and drunken Asian parties. I felt free from the stress of rival gangs and peer pressure at school. I felt free from the uncertainty of living day to day on welfare and food stamps. But this freedom was just a façade. It was a temporary illusion of peace easily shattered by crisis as I would soon learn.
One night I couldn’t fall asleep. There were five of us novice monks sleeping in the basement of the Buddhist temple and I was the only one still staring at the big round wall clock. It read 12:05 am. At that moment I heard the creak of footsteps on the basement stairs going up. I had a direct view of the stairs and from there could also see the opening into the kitchen. There was no one there and never had there been people up at this time of night.
I stared into the darkness of the kitchen doorway and saw small shadows that made me cover my head with a blanket. That’s when the noise started. All at once I could hear cupboards opening and closing, dishes and pots clanging, sticky rice baskets falling, and refrigerator water buzzing as if the spirits were getting a drink of water. As abruptly as it begun it ended. Then the kitchen sink turned on for a few minutes and then shut off.
“Oh shit,” I thought, “now that they’re done the ghosts are gonna come back downstairs!”
Beads of sweat began to form on my head. I heard six slow and heavy creaks returning downstairs. I could hear my heart beating. I clenched my eyes under the blanket and lay completely still. When I opened my eyes it was morning. I was the first to wake and run upstairs.
That morning my mom, along with the other women, arrived as normal to bring alms and prepare food for the monks. None of them believed my story, except mom. She believed me but didn’t have an explanation. Mom was always looking out for her kids’ best interest but she didn’t have all the answers. She didn’t know why the temple was haunted. She didn’t know why I was a juvenile delinquent. She didn’t know why my older brother was gone for days at a time doing drugs. She didn’t know why my dad was always drinking. Mom was deeply troubled and cried as she shared with me that she could only make more merit and hope that things would change.
That afternoon I found myself completely alone in the main shrine room. So I kneeled down in front of the Lord Buddha; at least three feet tall, shiny, gold plated, sitting with legs crossed and eyes closed as if in deep tranquil meditation. I began to weep. I wept for my family. I asked the idols if they were real. I begged them to bring change and demanded that they respond. Here I was a teenager, completely humble, openly desperate, genuinely devout, bearing my naked soul to a statue. I couldn’t escape chaos through meditation. I couldn’t escape pain and suffering through merit-making. I definitely couldn’t escape fear by hiding under a blanket and so I waited for an answer. But all was quiet and the statues remained lifeless. There was nothing else to do except wipe my tears and walk away.