One of the many curious details of my life in Eugene is that I happen to live up the street from a Buddhist temple. Most days I ignore it, because I am not a Buddhist and am not presently in search of a religion of any sort. But the Saraha Nyingma Buddhist Institute is there, and frankly I like that it is there. It's a beautiful part of my community and appropriately placed amidst trees and hills. It is quite serene, because as far as I can tell not much is usually happening there.
I visited Saraha today for the first time, because I became aware that something was happening this weekend, and my curiosity was piqued. Presently, the temple is hosting a collection of Buddhist relics on tour. I decided to have a look at the Maitreya Heart Shrine Relic Tour, for the purpose of educating myself, and experiencing closer a part of the community I had essentially neglected.
When I approached the building, I already found it in a much different state than usual, with cars crowding the curbs and a huge line of people (and shoes) pouring from the entrance. In fact, I spent nearly an hour standing in that line, barefoot, trying not to feel conspicuous amongst a crowd of very serious people. Most of the people were older than me, but there were a few parents with small children, as well as a few dogs who were allowed in to be blessed. An older woman behind me was speaking German, and though I don't know much German it sounded like she was describing a Buddhist legend. I don't know how many of the people were Buddhists and how many were interested outsiders like myself, but everyone was very respectful and patient. I tried to be equally patient as the line slowly advanced into the main chamber.
The staff and volunteers were kind and welcoming, and they took the time to explain what was going on to me. The Maitreya relics inside once belonged, they told me, to various Buddhist leaders and teachers throughout history, including Shakyamuni Buddha, Gautama himself. If this is true, and I have no particular reason to doubt that it is, then the oldest stones and fragments of bones on the display table are about two thousand and five hundred years old. The relics are displayed in small, beautiful glass containers, and certainly looked the part for their antiquity. I entered with the expectation, of course, of dispassionately viewing some artifacts in a museum-like context. This experience was much more religious than that. People were actively meditating and worshiping to the side of the viewers, and the artifacts were plainly presented for veneration, not just idle display.
Though I am not a Buddhist, I was invited and encouraged by the volunteers to participate in a few basic rituals. While standing in line, I copied a line from a sutra (though I did not quite understand what it meant). I poured water three times over the head of the Buddha's statue, and lightly rang a couple of bells. I spun a small prayer wheel (incorrectly, as the little girl in front of me pointed out). Finally, I was invited to receive a blessing. As the woman who blessed me asked me to pray silently, I contemplated my upcoming journey to Korea with my girlfriend, Tara. Though I doubt its practical efficacy, the good will I felt from the temple during the blessing was heart warming in the best sense.
As I made my exit, I passed a container of holy water, blessed with the "energy" of the relics on display. A sign instructed me to take some of it home with me, to add to some water at home and use as part of my daily routine. Being from a Catholic background it had never really occurred to me to use holy water in this way, but I duly filled a small paper cup, walked back to my house, and made myself some tea. I don't know what effect I was supposed to perceive from the energies of the relics, but I have to admit it tasted good.
Today was the final day of the Maitreya exhibition at Saraha, and I'm glad that I took the time to do something a little out of the way. No matter how ordinary a neighborhood may seem, at times it may be touched by something larger. Rarity appears in surprising places.