The Kitchen God & His Wife


Continuing my series on obscure deities at temples, I'd like to discuss the Kitchen God and his Wife. Aside from being the title of a twee novel by Amy Tan (I have problems with Amy Tan - she can be so good, and she can be so very, very bad), the Kitchen God and his Wife are important deities in the Chinese religious pantheon.
The Kitchen God is the protector of place, and at the end of the lunar year he travels to see the king of Heaven and report on all the things that have happened in his particular household. Most Chinese temples have a shrine to him hidden somewhere in the temple precinct, normally accompanied by his homely wife. One should always make an offering to him and ask him to continue to care for the temple and, if possible, to extend his protection to your own household.
I am lucky because in two directions I have temples with shrines to the God, so I figure that between the two of them I have things well and truly covered.
As it's the last day of the Western year I think I'll offer up a prayer to this comforting duo and ask them to only report on the good things I have said and done in the past year. Perhaps they'll choose to turn a blind eye to my less saintly moments - they look like a nice couple, after all...

Guan Di


A couple of days ago I blogged about the Dharma guardians, and one of those guardians is Guan Di, a legendary Chinese general who, in addition to being appointed a protector of the Buddha Dharma, is also an object of worship in his own right in Chinese folk religion.
This fearsome, red-faced soldier is always clutching a sword, poised to strike obstacles out of his way. You can see him frequently in a small shrine in Chinese shops and restaurants, as Guan Di is the appointed deity to guarantee success in business and the accumulation of wealth. This is why there are frequently whole temples devoted to him - including one in Sydney's Summer Hill - the business people who make offerings are inclined to be lavish in their praise, and so Guan Di temples can be sumptuous.
I have a confession to make - ever since I returned to university in 2005 I have made my own special devotion to Guan Di, beseeching his help in assignments and exams (Guan Di is also the protector of students). And I have to report that throughout the entire period I have done exceedingly well in my academic pursuits. Chance? Maybe, but I am superstitious enough to believe that my humility and thanks in the face of the universe's generosity may just have helped things along. And channeling that thanks through the form of Guan Di was convenient and served as an excellent visual stimulus.
I went to temple today (it being the last day of the year I can possibly do it) to give thanks for all of the wonderful things that have happened to me in 2007 and to pray for his continued protection. I pray that all of my readers may be similarly protected!

Atonement


I remember years ago when Atonement was the book to read - I always avoided it, as I normally hate books that everyone raves about. Now I wish I'd been more suggestible.
You see, Thang and I went to see the new film of Atonement, and it was one of the most exquisite films I've seen in a very long time. A complex and morally challenging story, it must have been devilishly difficult to turn into a screenplay. But it's been done, and in the process a masterpiece has been created.
All of the acting is exceptional, and Keira Knightley is a revelation - impossibly beautiful, she has such an exceptional screen presence that I want to go out and see everything she's ever done.
Do yourself a favour - this will be the best film you've seen all year, and there's not much of the year left to go!

Dharma Guardian


Mahayana Buddhism is filled with a diverse array of Bodhisattvas, deities and devas. Throw into this multitude any number of popular religion idols and a visit t o a Buddhist temple can be quite confusing. Though I have spent my life studying Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism, I am still a little hazy on a few of the commonly seen images - primary among these being the Dharma protectors that feature at almost every temple.
The fellow at the left is at one of the outdoor shrines at Kwan Yin temple, which is just down the road from my house. The Dharma protectors always have offerings made to them, but you'll find nary a mention of them in any English book on Buddhism.
A monk once told me that these deities are manifestations of Kwan Yin in her wrathful form, there to protect the Buddha Dharma from corruption and destruction. They are always placed close to the entrance of temples in order to deflect any negative attention from the main shrine.
This particular statue is of Wei Tuo Bodhisattva, who is always depicted carrying a sword in order to better defeat ignorance. He is a general and guardian of the temple.
At Minh Giac temple, which is my local, the monk recently converted the backyard barbecue into a shrine to the Dharma Guardians. As you know, Vietnamese Buddhist monks are staunchly vegetarian, and so this inherited backyard feature was never really of much use to them. I'm glad they have found a more appropriate use!

Khmer Buddha


Some years ago (1999 in fact) I spent some months living in Vietnam studying Vietnamese at Ho Chi Minh Social Sciences University in Saigon. I was a devout Buddhist boy at the time, and spent most of my time in the company of monks. I developed some strong friendships with Khmer monks living and working in the city - many people forget that in southern Vietnam the Khmer people make up a sizable minority, and that Saigon itself was once a Khmer city.
These monks showed me a part of Vietnam that I didn't even know existed - whole provinces populated by Khmer people, vast temple complexes populated by 70 or 80 monks, a whole world speaking Khmer and observing the old-fashioned kind of Khmer culture that Pol Pot attempted to destroy in Cambodia itself.
One day, whilst strolling down Dong Khoi, I glanced into one of the fake antique shops and saw this wonderfully goofy Khmer Buddha statue. It was exactly the type made by amateur craftsmen that clutter up houses and temples all over Kampuchea Krom (those mostly Khmer provinces in South and South-Western Vietnam). I fell in love with it and have to have it. The charming woman in the shop sold it to me for an outrageous $60 (I could probably have bought it for $15 in Tra Vinh, where I remembered watching the men make similar statues), and also sold me a small sandalwood Bodhidharma into the bargain.
When I came home I didn't have room for it in my luggage, so it lived for some years in my sister-in-law's house in Ho Chi Minh City, much commented on, though I suspect she thought it hideous. Finally, a couple of years ago, I brought it home with me, and I absolutely cherish it - it is a focal point in my home. For a while he lost an ear (through the efforts of an over-zealous cleaning lady), but Thang repaired him, and now he is looking resplendent once more.

Statues


We are celebrating Christmas day at our place tomorrow, so that means lots of people coming around. Now, the place is already quite tidy - we have a wonderful cleaning lady who sees to that. But I wanted to ensure that it was as dust-free as possible, and so I launched a major offensive on my enormous collection of religious kitsch.
I prefer to call it my collection of 20th Century popular art, and am convinced that some day the whole thing will be worth a fortune, but my partner has other names for it. I think of them as bibelots, objets d'arts, and just seeing them makes me happy - they remind me of my travels around the world and of my particular enthusiasms at certain stages in my life.
But they DO take up a lot of space and they DO attract dust.
So today I began taking every piece off the shelves, washing it in warm soapy water and wiping down the shelves themselves. Each object was then put on a table to dry before I set about re-arranging my displays according to themes. I now have a Buddhist shelf, a Hindu shelf, a Christian shelf and a little section devoted to images of monks....
Am I starting to sound obsessive compulsive?
Here is a pic of only part of my collection, drying out and awaiting a new display...

My Dog


My dog Mimi has to be just about one of the most lovable creatures on earth. Now I realise that most people say that about their dogs, but I really mean it. Mimi is not conventionally beautiful - indeed, she may not even be unconventionally beautiful. She proves the dictum that any creature that is beautiful as a baby is destined to be ugly as an adult. Her fur is inclined to scruffiness, her eyes bulge, and her legs are longer and thinner than might be deemed necessary for her torso and head. But we love her, and her ego is such that she's convinced she is the most beautiful dog on the block. We are the classic modern parents, bringing up our child with an excess of self-regard that slips into unrealistic ideas of self.
In another life Mimi may well have become a circus dog - she is capable of extraordinary feats of balance and endurance, though strangely devoid of any accompanying physical grace or grandeur. She manages to look thoroughly clumsy even whilst performing feats of extraordinary dexterity.
She is very affectionate, and a little too ready with her tongue. She needs more discipline, I suppose, but it's far too late for that now. I suppose some might say she's been spoiled.
And yet I've never encountered a dog with such charm. Most people fall completely in love with her after knowing her for only 5 minutes. Strangers laugh at her in the street, and vets have been known to suggest we put her on TV, so peculiar is her appearance.
But we love her, completely and utterly. And she loves us, I have to believe.

Our Lady of Walsingham


You know of my special devotion to the Virgin Mary, and in recent days, for one reason or another, the Virgin has appeared in my life again and again. I heard from a friend about an amazing new book being published next year that will set out the path of Marian devotion for the non-Catholic. And then for some reason everyone at work started talking about the BVM. Finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury came out with his now infamous statement about the necessity - or otherwise - of believing in the Virgin Birth.
Having been brought up a protestant I was never really exposed to Marian devotion, but for some reason from the very earliest age I have been fascinated by her and felt a strong attachment to her. I call it karmic. Now, for those protestants who may feel a little uneasy about praying to the Virgin, there is a perfect solution in the presence of Our Lady of Walsingham. Walsingham is an Anglican shrine to Mary, replete with miracles, pilgrims and apparitions. It is my greatest wish to go there one day. Until then, I have to make do with a quaint little shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham (pictured) discretely hidden away in a corner of Christchurch St. Laurence.
Oh, and to cap off my week filled with the Virgin Mary, I went to have morning tea with my Mum at the gorgeous little cafe at St. Patrick's, Church Hill. There I had a ham sandwich and came away with a little icon of Mary and a lovely bottle of Fatima water, which protects me even now.

Icons


I love Icons, and am convinced of their special spiritual power. Two of my favourite authors - namely Wilson Van Dusen and Henri Nouwen - both wrote books about the spiritual efficacy of meditation on icons, and I sometimes wish I could take up icon painting as a hobby. Sadly, I am largely devoid of artistic talent, and so I am afraid that my icons would be a little wobbly, but doubtless it's the intent that is most important!
When I was at Christchurch St. Laurence on Monday I spent some time reflecting on the exquisitely beautiful contemporary icons that are on display there. They really are very nice, and Earle Bracken, the talented artist who did them, deserves to be much better recognised on the Australian art scene.

The Numa Numa Song

While I was in Vietnam (this time last year) the Numa Numa song was at the very height of its popularity - one could hear it blaring out of every clothing store and hairdressing salon from District 1 to Binh Chanh. They even played a hotted-up heavy bass version of it at Disco Ben Thanh. A friend of mine came to stay and within days was dreaming about the Numa Numa song, so deeply had this tricky and incomprehensible ditty entered his psyche.
A brief perusal of Youtube shows that the Numa Numa song has now taken over the world, and you can see and hear myriad different versions of it. I was delighted to discover that there is now a Vietnamese version, and it translates particularly well into Viet (let's face it, the original made no sense). And the guy singing it is just a hoot!!

Christchurch St. Laurence


Sometimes (rarely) I go to meditation at Christchurch St. Laurence in Chinatown on a Monday night. Now Christchurch is a beautiful place - some say the only true High Anglican Church in Sydney. It has been the spiritual home to generations of gay Sydney men, and is frequently filled with artists and intellectuals and the very cream of Sydney cultural life. Services there are wonderful - exquisite music, everyone frocked up, clouds of incense and more bowing and genuflecting than is healthy. I have many dear friends there, though my inherent paganism means I can never feel thoroughly comfortable in an Anglican milieu, aware as I am of the great tradition and richness of Anglo-Catholicism.
Oh, and you'll notice the red door - I just found out on the weekend that all Anglican churches should have a red door, in order to indicate welcome and the presence of the Holy Spirit - kind of nice symbolism, don't you think?

Magnificat


Those of you who aren't regular churhgoers (and I know you're out there!) may not be aware that this week's gospel reading in the common lectionary was Mary's exquisite song about her holiness and the special nature of Christ commonly known as the Magnificat. The Magnificat is a wonderful piece of poetry, and many of its phrases would be familiar even to the most committed heathen. It has also been set to music many times, producing some of the most beautiful music ever.
I am especially fond of it because in Benedictine monasteries it is the last thing the monks sing before retiring for the night.
Here is the text:

My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Because he that is mighty, hath done great things to me; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear him.
He hath shewed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy:
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever.

Precious Moments

This is just the most sublime song, and the girls are beautiful. I defy you to listen to this song and not feel happy...

Going to temple


My spiritual journey over the past fifteen years or so has been mostly through Buddhism, though as a child and teenager I was strongly interested in Christianity, and also had a lot of exposure to the Hindu tradition through the yoga school my mother and her friends were involved in. For many years I was something of a Buddhist fundamentalist, with very rigid ideas of what was valid and invalid in spiritual life and highly judgemental of those who didn't want to identify strongly with a particular tradition. Now of course I AM one of those dilettantes, strongly interested in the meeting of Christianity and Buddhism in Western culture and excited about the possibilities of deep religious pluralism and the burgeoning Interfaith movement.
But my heart and affection are always with Buddhism, and I always feel enormous affection and nostalgia if, as I did yesterday, I see a Buddhist monk or nun walking down the street. So much of my 20s was spent in the company of monks and nuns!
So I try to go to temple at least once a week. Admittedly I rarely ever go now to sutra chanting or dharma talks, for various reasons. But I still like to sneak off to the nearby Chinese temples to offer incense and prayers, and occasionally I'll drop in on one of the various monastics that I know for tea and cakes and chat.
Yesterday I went to Kwan Yin temple, which is close to my house. I've always felt a great affinity with Kwan Yin, and love to re-connect with her in a more meaningful setting. The temple itself is more a community meeting house than religious site, and is a wonderful collection of buildings kitted out in the kind of faux-chinoise style much beloved of Chinese communities abroad. This is a picture of the verandah of the community hall, watched over by a marble lion, and a cement Doberman and giraffe. Go figure.

Tea


For many years I was a coffee drinker. I still do drink the stuff (I'm one of those who enjoys the smell more than the taste), but only 3 or 4 cups a week - it used to be 3 or 4 cups a day. I made the switch to tea several years ago because I imagined that tea was better for my health. Of course, I now consume several cups of English Breakfast a day, with milk and sugar, so I probably haven't really gained much in the health stakes. What I have gained is some social status. It is immediately obvious to all but those sad coffee-addicted souls that the consumption of tea is a much more aesthetic and refined experience. I have noticed that tea has gained in popularity in the past few years, and one has witnessed the rise of tea houses and tea shops the re-emergence of the tea cup.
And while coffee is ubiquitous, and its consumption a somewhat hurried, workaday affair, places serving tea tend to have a more measured, stately atmosphere. Naturally, it is in Chinese and Japanese culture that tea drinking has reached the zenith of aesthetic experience. Indeed, throughout Asia the consumption of tea is seen as a virtue, superior even to the drinking of water, a habit that is looked upon with disfavour in most traditional forms of medicine.
A few months ago at work we resurrected afternoon tea, and it has become a wonderful tradition. someone prepares a big pot in an enormous silver teapot (pictured) and we all sit around a table drinking tea and eating biscuits. After we've finished our cup, several staff members versed in tasseomancy read the leaves.
I advocate the adoption of afternoon tea all over the globe - it is civilised, restorative and a timely reminder of the importance of rest, reflection and friendship.

Self Help


I am an enormous fan of self help books. Indeed, I am obsessed with them, and have spent some time researching their history and evolution. So acute is my obsession with Self Help literature that I plan to do my PhD on it! I normally have one or two books that I am obsessed with - at the moment it is Jack Canfield's How To Get From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be, and I am listening to the abridged CD of Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. These are the current two texts that are guiding my life!
I came to Self Help from being a complete skeptic. When I was younger, to merely possess a self help book was sufficient to incur my loathing and withering contempt. Now I can't live without them.
Do they work? Hard to say, but I do know that I have moved from being a very angry and depressed person in my youth to a somewhat happier and more content soul. I have also reached a couple of goals that I formulated directly as a result of reading a self help book. On the other hand, I'm still overweight, and I must have read a million books that were meant to cure me of that!
Another thing occurs to me. The whole self-help movement was an outcome of the social concerns of liberal Christians (particularly Unitarians) in England and America in the 19th Century. I find it interesting that conservative Christians now either embrace the genre and try to manipulate it to suit their own ends, or else they are highly critical of it and its proponents.

Work


I work at a New Age Bookshop in the centre of Sydney. Out front things are love and light and colourful and hippy-trippy. Out back things are decidedly different. Like most work environments, behind-the-scenes takes on a decidedly utilitarian caste. This is a pic of our groovy work lockers. Can you pick mine? It is filled with spare shirts, cologne, pain killers and a book on G. G. Allin a workmate gave me to read about a year ago and that I still haven't got around to taking home yet.

More Reasons to Blog

I am the kind of person who likes to compartmentalize his life. Perhaps it's my secretive, Scorpionic nature, but I have a tendency to divide my existence, my friends and my time up into discrete little sections that never really meet up. To that end, I have decided to set up another couple of blogs - one to chart the evolution of my Honours thesis on an obscure Australian author (should get a massive number of hits on that one!) and the other to discuss the book that I am writing on Vietnam - hopefully that will have broader interest, as it will cover writing, travel, culture and the creative process. And this marvellous little blog will, of course, remain the principal venue for my random movings. I'll keep you informed.

Meditation


I do my best to be a meditator - I have my own reasonably regular practice at home (though I could do with a little more self-discipline!), I occasionally venture out to meditate with other communities and I teach my own meditation class, which I find enormously beneficial. I am absolutely not a meditation fascist - i.e. someone who says you need to sit for 3 hours a day in full lotus position following the Vipassana method in order to garner any benefits. The fact is that most of us are so disconnected from ourselves and from the present moment that even 3 minutes a day following any method would be of enormous benefit to the vast majority. Mine is a softly-softly approach, for which I don't apologise.
I took my friend to the Buddhist Library in Camperdown this week to attend the Lotus Buds Sangha meditation session. This is a group of people who follow the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a man for whom I have enormous respect. It was a lovely night, though I found the singing unbearably daggy - an obvious attempt to ape Christian traditions which I think is completely unnecessary. The format is sufficiently varied so as not to cause discomfort, and there is a lovely, zen-like atmosphere of peace and calm. I'm not sure if my friend will go back, but I probably will. If only Camperdown weren't such an impossible place to get too...

St. Andrew's


Last night I went to meditation with a dear friend who is interested in deepening his meditation practise and in exploring Buddhism. I had to wait for Thang outside St. Andrew's, and I couldn't help but reflect on how such a beautiful building could be devoted to such an ugly spiritual vision. In most big cities the Anglican Cathedral represents a reasonably broad and inclusive vision of Anglicanism. Indeed, in places like Grace Cathedral they embody the very spirit of spiritual progressivism. But in Sydney the Anglican church is ruled by closed-mined religious bigots, and the glorious St. Andrew's Cathedral that dominates central Sydney is a bastion of the lowest and most simple-minded variety of evangelicalism. What a waste.

Fortune Telling


Now, I know that all rationalists and even most fervent religionists condemn fortune telling, and truth be told I am an enormous cynic. That said, I can almost never resist casting my oracle when I go to a Chinese temple. There is a big Chinese temple right near our house, with several shrines set up with oracle sticks. When I'm about to start something new, or thinking of starting something new, I always go there to see what message the universe has for me. Here is a pic of me last weekend with my little cousin casting our fortunes at the Guan Di shrine. I got a good one - number 88. I find it useful to reflect on my message for a few weeks, to look at it daily and see if I might be able to really apply it to my life and help me to work on changing things for the better. The oracle messages are practical, poetic and often a little cryptic - but they ALWAYS say "settle arguments with your family" and "don't go to court" - sensible messages on any occasion, I should think.
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