In November 2016 I attended a Buddhist Meeting in Germany. Right after coming back, I started writing about my experience. As usual, I showed the draft to Avraham (my husband) and he told me that my article was missing all the emotions I had during my trip. I guess I had such strong emotions that it was easier to skip them than to dig into them. For that reason, I ended up just reporting what I saw, but not getting any personal. However, I think that the personal experiences are what makes stories interesting, so I made the effort and I rewrote the article. I hope you like it!
My relation with Buddhism
I am not Buddhist. In fact, I grow up quite far from any Buddhist influence. For some unknown reason, I have always been curious about this religion. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to learn more about it. I read some books, specially the ones of Dalai Lama. But I didn´t understood them well. To be precise, I was literally falling asleep while reading them! I also searched for some school or organisation. But as I was not familiar at all with Buddhism, I was scared I might end up joining a fake group, or even worst, a sect. Because of my fears, I just let it go.
Years later I moved to Israel for work; there I met my dear friend Shu Ping, who is from Taiwan and also Buddhist! In fact she is my first Buddhist friend ever. I finally had a chance to learn something from somebody I trust. I told her about my curiosity. One day she told me that an organization called “Bliss and Wisdom Organization” was forming an English group where I could study Buddhism by Skype. It seemed a bit weird to me at first, but I decided to give it a try. It happened to be a great decision because I loved the classes. We learnt by reading and commenting a quite important book called Lam Rim. It was pretty much as coming back to the philosophy classes at high school, that by the way, I also liked a lot. I joined the Skype class every week for around two years until it needed to be canceled due to logistic issues.
I was quite sad about not having the class and I really thought that this was the end of my Buddhist experience. However, the Organization still had a surprise for me: I was invited to a Meeting in Germany. I was told that it was a 4 day meeting that included in fact 2 different (and important) Ceremonies and that if I come, I could also help them with the photos of the event. I had doubts though. I had this terrible inner voice telling me: “How should you trust them?” “You don´t really know that people. You never saw them” “You are going to be fooled!!”. I decided to tell my friend Shu Ping about it. She told me that I had no reason to be afraid and that in fact, it was a great thing I was invited. In addition, a close friend of her was also going to the meeting. Her arguments convince me and I finally accepted to go. I’m glad I did! I become both an attendant and a member of the Audio Visual Team.
Getting to Germany
The meeting was held in Tübingen, a German town near Stuttgart. I packed my camera, Buddhist books and some clothes and I started my 12 hours trip from trip from Israel (where I was living at that time) to Germany via Istanbul. Once there I discovered that Tübingen is a beautiful town with a dark past. Its traditional houses are lovely; each one in a different color and it has a river where swans and ducks like to hang out. Nothing that will make you think about its strong Nazi past.
I got to Germany the day before the meeting started, so I had time to recover from the trip and take some photos from the city. I liked a lot the parks. It was the end of autumn and some of the trees still had the beautiful colors of the season.
The Youth Hostel was the place where the meeting was taking place and also where almost all the attendees stayed, including myself. On my way there I was thinking about the ironies of life. Under the Nazi regime, the Youth Hostel was the headquarters of the Hitler Youth. But for that week, it was going to hold an important Buddhist Meeting. I saw it as a symbolic gesture of defiance against hate in the most appropriate way I can imagine.
First contact with the Community members
I met the first attendees on the following morning, during breakfast time. All of them were either from Taiwan or China but now most of them live in Europe. For that reason the Organization is making an effort to develop their European branch. Like me (until my group was dissolved), most of the ceremony participants attend weekly Buddhist classes by Skype. I didn’t understand until then how important these weekly classes are for a Buddhist practitioner. It keeps their progress in learning the scripts and teachings. For many of the participants this was the first time they met their classmates in person. I relaxed a little as I was not the only one that didn’t know a lot of people. We were in the same boat. Although they were happy with the Skype classes, they saw the need of having meetings in which they can talk face to face. This was the first one.
This particular meeting was special twice over; two ceremonies were going to take place: Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels and the Eight Precepts. These ceremonies are the first step towards becoming a Buddhist. Does this mean that as I attended the Ceremony I converted to Buddhism? In fact not. They told me that becoming Buddhist in a serious matter and that they didnt expect me to do it . They made clear that I was welcome to attend the Ceremonies anyway in order to see and learn. In the future, if I want to convert, I can always tell them and then we will see. Taking into account the radicalization of some religions nowadays, I found their gesture as an example of how things should be: respecting/accepting everybody´s choice regarding to religion.
For the most part of the time, I was the only western non-Buddhist person of the meeting. The language of the event was Chinese. Some of the people talked English, but most of them talked only Chinese and German. Thinking back, I am now embarrassed of one moment when I was in the seminar room thinking I did not belong there, not even talking the right languages. While I was letting my doubts play games on my mind, two of the attendants came and sat down to speak with me. They spent some time asking me how I was doing, making sure I was not feeling alone and if I understood what was going on there. This was the moment when I realized that in fact, everybody was extremely nice with me and they were making efforts to communicate, even those not speaking English. I should not have felt like a stranger in any moment. A feeling of gratitude filled my heart. I was indeed lucky of having the chance of spending time with such a lovely community, learning from them, taking part in these important ceremonies and taking photos to share.
The time before the Ceremony
The meeting was led by 4 Venerable monks. Later I was told that usually there are are just 2 of them, but due to the importance of the ceremonies we had the honor of having 4 Venerables. One of them was Venerable August. He was the one leading my Skype class, so I was really happy to meet him in person. A group of volunteers from the Organization took it upon themselves to take care of the logistics and to make sure that everything was running smoothly. They also took care of me by translating everything that was happening from Chinese. The efforts they made truly moved me, It was priceless.
The meeting started with a welcoming talk and some time for preparing the seminar room. We all divided into little groups, each with a mission. I helped to clean the floor and prepare flower offerings. Very quickly the grey and common seminar room became colorful and decorated with flowers, candles and other offerings to Buddha. An altar was set for the Buddha and three gorgeous images were hung from the wall: the image of Buddha was placed between the image of the Bodhisattva of compassion and the Bodhisattva of Wisdom (photo below).
I really enjoyed this part, it gave me the chance to do something and to get to know the people better. The idea behind the joint work, besides preparing the room for the ceremony, was also to clean our hearts and focus our attention to where we were and for what we came.
During the 4 days the meeting lasted, we will able to give offerings of water and light to the Buddha at any time. In Buddhism, water symbolizes purity and clarity of mind and light symbolizes wisdom.
In addition, other offerings were placed in the altar. It looked beautiful. I want to point out that all the offerings are not really for the Buddha. Buddha doesn’t need anything because he already reached enlightenment. The offerings are for us, to set our intentions and gain virtues. This is a complicated concept and I am still working on understanding it.
There was also a purification ceremony in which the place was blessed and we showed gratefulness to all the sentient beings, including both the visible and the invisible, for sharing the place with them. The Venerables went outside the seminar room and gave a tour to the building of the Youth Hostel (I just want to remind you that it was the same place that hosted the Hitler’s Youth in the past), and blessed it by spreading water meanwhile they walked. People who wanted to participate followed them doing the same thing. It was a especial moment. Somehow all the good intentions of all that people seemed more visible while walking and blessing. A lot of good vibes and positive energy were spread all over the place.
I joined several seminars in which subjects as “Life after life” and “Happiness” were discussed. Something that I liked about these classes was the way the Venerables taught. They were giving explanations of complex things in a way that everybody could understand them. And they did it in a light hearted way. They were at the same time respectful with the teachings and using a sense of humor that comes from joy and happiness. Seminars were full of both laughs and wisdom and in this nice and relaxed environment people seemed to participate more than in other type of seminars I attended in the past.
A discussion about “Life after life” seemed to me especially interesting. I always thought that for being Buddhist you need to believe in both Karma and in reincarnation (or as they preferred to call it, Life after life). It was a surprise to see that I am not the only one with problems accepting this concept. The Venerable leading the seminar divided the class in 2 groups: one needed to find reasons to believe in just one life and the other for life after life. A debate between the side started and opinions of all sort were heard in the room. The final conclusion of this exercise was that none of us found any good reason in any of the 2 sides. Quite a surprising conclusion!! Nobody was right not wrong because until now nobody has been able to probe or discard Life after life. The Venerable leading this seminar said that believing in life after life doesn’t have to be total. It is normal to have doubts. But he thinks it is good to keep open to the possibility of its existence because this give you a new perspective in life. Then you have a goal: do good things in this life to accumulate merit for the next one. If you do so and life after life does not exit, what is the problem after all? That you spent a life doing good things? It is not a problem at all. I found it a really practical approach.
The Ceremonies themselves
Although I decided that it was not the time for me to become Buddhist, I am glad I attended the two ceremonies (Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels and the Eight Precepts), which were held one after the other. One is called . I am not going to explain what these ceremonies are about because this is a subject for a book or two. But I want to share with you something the Venerables told us about these ceremonies: they have the objective of setting our hearts. The Venerable said that a lot of people start with Buddhism by doing meditation or by studying the Sutras. But if these things are done with the wrong heart, they are not going to be helpful for us. First set your heart with the right intentions and then move forward. I have been thinking a lot about this. It seems that you can apply it to every day life too. If you do things half heartedly, just to “get it over with”, it would be evident in the outcomes. But also, you would feel unsatisfied with yourself.
Spending these 4 days with the Buddhist community was a great life experience. I learnt a lot, I met wonderful people and I calmed my soul. Now I know how a meeting of this kind is hold and I was lucky to see two important Buddhist ceremonies. Buddhism is no longer a mysterious far thing for me.
I just have a problem now. As I told you at the beginning of the article, my Skype Buddhist class has been cancelled. After the ceremony I know that I want to keep studying. Now I need to keep looking for a group to continue.
I am finishing today with a sentence I heard during one of the seminars and that I liked a lot:
“Some people open the window and see the middle ground. Other people open the window and see the stars”.
I definitively want to be the type seeing stars. May your path in life be always full of light.