Bongongongong…ommmmm…the loud gongs and soft chanting of Buddhist monks echoed through the temple. My beloved cousin Dasha, around two years older than I, was softly murmuring prayers with her incense as I struggled to stay awake. My own incense stick was expelling a spicy, warm cloud around my face.
When praying and performing Buddhist rituals in the temple, I was an impatient little child. I didn’t like the rituals. Dasha prayed for extended family and everybody she knew. She was faithful to the rites:
the slooowly burning incense, the long prayers, the offerings of fruits and flowers, and the fortune sticks, to be shaken until a long, slim bamboo stick with red Chinese characters shot out of the urn. She would leave a donation that was a large portion of her allowance. As Dasha set up offerings and chose our incense, I’d sit on a chair alone, kick my heels, and hum to myself, earning odd looks from worshippers and stares from the shaven-headed, yellow-robed monks. Time seemed to slow with the hypnotizing, repetitive Buddhist chants and spicy-sweet incense permeating the temple. Adults in black coats shuffled past me, mumbling prayers and slowly swaying back and forth like pendulums.
When praying to the gods, I had to think of everyone and everything that I wanted blessed. The whole process had to be repeated for the next god, and the next. There were so many similar gods. It was like praying to the same god over and over again. There was even a statue encased in glass, with four faces, so I had to walk around it praying to each face. They had the same lazy smiles and half-lidded eyes, imitating my own boredom.
Boredom aside, I couldn’t comprehend why I was here praying to these many, many gods. It wasn’t like they could actually help me. I never got what I asked for. I would ask for better grades, and they would stay the same. I would ask for better health, and my pneumonia stayed for all of winter break. I would ask to learn a certain piece of music in a week. By the end of the week my fingers would still search among the black and white keys. I started to lose faith in the gods and the power of prayer. The gods seemed to have mocking smiles or no smiles on their cold, flawless faces. Their bodies were stiff, frozen in eternal meditation. Copper and life-size, they all had flowing robes and heavy bracelets, with shiny hard jewels studding their hair and richly embroidered shoes, as if to show their superiority. They were mounted on platforms five feet high, to emphasize their authority and divinity. I started to dislike the gods and all that they represented: time spent on broken promises.
When I was eight, Dasha fell sick with cancer, an unexpected tragedy for my fervently pious, obedient cousin. My family was devastated, and Sundays, morning to dinnertime, were spent in Dasha’s hospital room. Her mother started developing fine lines on her forehead. My uncle had deep bags and black rings around his eyes. Dasha’s paternal grandmother would sit, out of Dasha’s sight and hearing range, in the waiting room, quiet, her hands covering her face, her shoulders trembling. She murmured, “Buddha, please protect her” and rocked back and forth like the adults at the temple.
Dasha had chemotherapy treatments, and thankfully the cancer had been detected in an early stage. She spent her time in the hospital, pale and fragile among crisp, starkly white sheets. She asked me if I prayed without her, and I said no, because I didn’t have the time for it anymore. She was very insistent, and made sure I was dropped off at the temple each Sunday before the visit, so I could have time to pray and burn incense.
I whined. I begged. I cried. I yelled. I threw tantrums. No amount of pleading from my end would sway her. I was back to praying to unmoving, uncaring statues each day, and this time I was sure the statues were mocking me. A god with half-lidded eyes looked bored, uninterested with my desperate pleas for Dasha’s health. I felt that the god was wondering why I was trying, as if he knew my prayers were being ignored as retribution for my frustration and boredom when I was younger. If the gods were so kind, why weren’t my prayers answered? Why did the gods let Dasha get sick? Why didn’t the gods help her heal?
My family bought a small shrine of Buddha for Dasha, which they placed on her bedside table. The Buddha, even in a miniature form, seemed to have an indifferent and mocking smile. The flowers for her were redirected to the shrine, before the Buddha. Every day, even in bed, she would light incense and pray to the Buddha. Dasha would choke on the spicy-sweet incense that suffused the room, the stick’s glowing tip wavering between her shaking palms. Her eyes were alight with hope, but each week passed and revealed no good news. My family, all young and old, would pray by the bed with heads bowed and palms placed together, crowded by the room, but bound closer by hope. I thought I saw my family bow a little deeper and take more time with prayers each time, perhaps to dare to bargain a little more with the Buddha, and to ask for a little more time with Dasha. When cousins went to talk to her, they would at first jarringly halt and bow to the Buddha, but as the weeks passed it became a routine habit. The chemotherapy was working very slowly on her body, and she was in great pain. My aunt had monks come to her hospital room to sing Buddhist chants and perform rituals. What was the point of all this bother? Incense and praying wouldn’t help Dasha heal. My mother told me, to quote from the book A Ring of Endless Light, “‘Prayer was never meant to be magic.” “Then why bother with it?” I asked. “Because it’s an act of love.’”
At that moment I realized that all this praying maybe did have a reason. Maybe, if not for Dasha’s peace of mind, it was also for my family’s peace of mind, to believe that if anything should happen to her, she would go on to a better place, and she would be happy. Our grandmother eased her crying by hoping Buddha would help. The family prayers also bonded us, in our desperate cries. We would all bow to the Buddha, maybe hoping that if she did pass on, Buddha would know, and acknowledge our many acts of respect to him, and perhaps ease her pain. She was much more at peace with her condition than many other children in the children’s ward of the hospital. Dasha’s neighbors had sullen fits, and though they tried to make the best of the situation, she told me that sometimes in the middle of the night she would hear them crying. Dasha was not angry at her body, or her life, or even the Buddha. She had no regrets about her life, and accepted her fate.
As it turns out, Dasha did get better. Maybe it was the chemotherapy. I personally think the prayers and belief got her through the cancer. The doctor said that her body was responding better now than in previous weeks to the chemotherapy and that she needed surgery, but after that she would be able to go back to her life. Of course, some things were different. Dasha needed a crutch to walk, and she would experience bouts of weakness. But there was hope.
The week after Dasha came home, I went back to the temple. The copper of the statues seemed to glow from the warm lights cast by lamps. Their eyes were half-lidded in calm and relaxation. Fresh flowers eliminated the spicy-sweet smell of incense. As I bent to pray to the Buddha, I noticed the biggest difference. The Buddha’s expression paralleled the one I saw in the mirror now every day: true happiness shoe through the Buddha’s warm, welcoming smile, and his face, body, and posture, seemed at last, truly at peace.