Three is a magic number – at least that is what School House Rock and Jack Johnson taught me growing up. Perhaps “magic” is the wrong word, but my visit to Chùa Quan Âm revealed to me just how important the number three is within Buddhism.
“Do you know why there are three doors? Think about it.” I was caught off guard when my liaison, Kim, asked me this, so I told her I was not sure. She said that the three doors stood for the past, the present and the future. Even more so, they stood for the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community). From reading so my Thich Nhat Hanh, I was shocked that I actually could not recall this answer. Chùa Quan Âm is of the Mahāyāna branch of Buddhism and more specifically, it is of the Pure Land school.
During the cold months, the temple keeps the front doors open, so Kim led me around to the side where an assistant monk stood in an ochre colored robe. Kim exchanged a work of greeting with him and led me into a common area with tables for the lunch later that day. To our right were shoe racks with stairs leading up into the back of the temple. As I slipped my shoes off and stepped into the back foyer, the scent of incense overwhelmed me. It was not pungent, just enough to fill the area. I followed Kim down the left side of the prayer hall and sat at the back where I sat on a step and crossed my legs on a thin saffron zafu.
The prayer hall was nearly filled when the monks came in with the Venerable Master, Thích Đạo Chơn. Suddenly, an enormous bell rang out on my right and a large drum rumbled on my left. Everyone stood up and folded their hands high upon their chests. The monks faced the three large statues of Amitāba Buddha and two bhodisattvas and began chanting. Kim explained that they offered several items in celebration of life and remembrance of the impermanence of life: flowers for the beauty of life; fresh fruit, the goodness of life; water, essential and cleansing; grain, a basic staple needed to sustain life; incense, permeates the air as good deeds should permeate one’s life; and light, which extinguishes darkness as wisdom expels ignorance.
Then a bell or a bowl was sounded and everyone sat down and opened their prayer book. It was in Vietnamese and Kim wanted me to follow along. I laughed to myself a bit because I could not see that being a possibility. However, as the chanting began, I found it fairly easy to follow when everyone was going slow. But the chanting frequently changed pace and ended with three bows by everyone in the congregation – one each for the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
The aroma of the incense and flowers, the booming of the voices, the ringing of the bells, the rigid stance and folding of hands, and the rhythmic chanting – all of these made for an atmosphere where the senses were completely overwhelmed. Even the mere space of the room felt intoxicatingly mystical. After the chants, the Venerable Master then turned and stood just behind the laughing Buddha statue. He was a rather young man, in my opinion, and he spoke light heartedly. Kim told me that it was the anniversary of the Buddha’s awakening and we were giving celebration. Normally, the message would have waited while five to ten minutes were dedicated to silent meditation.
When the Venerable Master finished, everyone stood and recited chants from memory, bowing after each recitation – again, three times. I was caught off guard again by such an abrupt ending, but I suppose when you are used to it, the ending would not seem abrupt. Most everyone in the assembly went back to the dining area and slipped on their shoes back on, a few others stayed behind for a remembrance memorial. A teenager from the temple had committed suicide the week before because of school bullying.
Kim explained all this to me as we sat down for a Q&A session that lasted for over an hour. We naturally discussed how Buddhists understand tragedy and death, especially in those so young. Reincarnation and karma were at the forefront of this. The Buddha had taught that perhaps a soul only needed to live a short amount of time before completing its tasks from another life. Alternatively, though, there could have been bad karma from either parent.
We also discussed intellectual and social aspects of Buddhism like five precepts (Refain from killing, adultery, lying, speaking ill of others, and drinking), the purpose of bowing, the meaning of the colors in the Buddhist flag, and the eight-fold path. I was most intrigued by the eight-fold path because each aspect was needed together and could be used to strengthen the other aspects. These are: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness, and right meditation. It was quite a noisy conversation as the children and teens were in a Vietnamese language class in the next room, but it was a delightful experience in itself.
As I was about to leave, lunch was being served. I think I was offered four different bowls as I was walking out. In the end, I left with a plate of sticky rice with peanuts and a green, spongy cake slice of Bánh Bò Nướng. Kim walked me out and told me that if I understood one statue in the front yard, I would understand all of Buddhism. We made our way around front as the rain picked up, but we ignored it. We stopped in front of a statue of a very fat laughing Buddha. He had five children playing on him. She said that the children were the five sense and yet they were innocent. The Buddha learned to love and protect his senses. And as for that bulging belly that seemed to suggest indulgence; it was full of compassion, not food.
I thanked Kim and we bid each other goodbye, but before I left I had to take a picture of the outside. In the top picture you see three words: Từ Bi, Chùa Quan Âm, and Trí Tuệ. The middle is the name of the temple, but the first word is Vietnamese for compassion and the second is wisdom. These three words hang above three doors. In front of the doors are three statues of different aspect of the Buddha. Is “three” magical? Depends on what you mean by magic, I suppose.