After doing the customary tourist round of the little shop with the romping buddhas, I go into the main temple. This is the largest of all the temples, the middle building with its fluted roofs, vermillion posts, and wide expanse of altar. Its back is tucked snugly into the hillside.
I tell my cousin I want to light incense and pray, even if I haven’t done this sort of thing before. He hesitates, looking at me as though I’m crazy, but he is used to my sudden whims. This cousin, we practically grew up together in the short bursts of time spent on vacations and chance meetings.
So he follows me inside the temple. We had perfect timing, all the other visitors were gone. No photographs are allowed inside the main temple, so I tuck the camera obediently inside my bag. The photos here, by the way, are of the interiors of the two smaller temples on the grounds.
We each take three incense sticks (four is bad luck) from the pretty container at the entrance and light them at the altar. Visitors may drop a token donation into the slotted box if they wish to, but it’s not obligatory.
There are several rows of knee cushions facing the altar and as I head for one of them, a young chinese guy rushes towards me. I am alarmed at first, thinking I must have done something to desecrate the temple, what with the young man shaking his head, making emphatic gestures, and rattling off a string of chinese words.
It turns out that he just wants to teach me how pray in the chinese manner. He has a mild speech defect, so his accented English is even harder to understand. I repeat each instruction and toss in a lot of gestures for good measure. Despite the overly theatrical exchange, we manage to understand each other.
I was to hold the incense spread out in one palm, clasp both hands together, and wave the smoke towards the altar. Then I was to kneel down and bow from the waist, deeply, towards the floor, praying as I do so. After a few tries, I get the hang of it. My cousin follows, and the young man beams proudly at us. He nods, clasps his hands to his chest, and bows several times. He then returns to the corner to give us some space to do our tourist worship.
Strangely, as I close my eyes and murmur hopeful prayers to gods I didn’t know, I felt calmed. The giddiness dissipated with the smoke, and I felt a sense of peace drift down like a cape to envelop me. It was a curious feeling, I picture it now as a fragrant mist, a thin fog settling slowly around me. I paused and just sat still, my eyes closed. I waited for the sensation to end in its own time, and after a while—I’m not sure how much time had passed—it just felt right to open them again. I see that the incense sticks I stuck in the pot of sand were more than half ash.
I look over at my cousin and I see his eyes are closed. For a big, tall guy, he seemed really still. I know this quietness, I recognize it. We sit there for a while, not speaking, each in our own fog. When it was time, we just stood up, bowed to the gods at the altar, and thanked the smiling young man at the temple door.
Maybe I’m not such a crass, commercialized tourist after all. Maybe the spirit inside me is stirred, and turns to recognize something greater than itself. Maybe one of these days I’ll go back to that temple and sit at the altar, be still and wait for the fog, just sit still, just be.