Inside the jewel-box sanctuary, Dora spots two free benches side-by-side and we squeeze our way down a row and take seats. Women in monastic robes mill about, preparing for the service to begin. I am the only non-Asian present. I feel privileged to be a guest. For her part, Dora seems very pleased to have brought someone, especially someone so inexperienced. For each person who turns to look at me, she puffs a bit with pride. She makes a fuss to secure a folder of the phonetic versions of the prayer sutras. She hands it to me with great aplomb, as if to accentuate to all that she has obtained this item on behalf of her clueless guest.
The service kicks off with chanting. Perhaps because the sanctuary is full and the room is not so big, the sound of the voices is particularly powerful. Dora turns my folder to the right page, but it is just a long series of phonic fragments (NA MO HO LA TA NA TO LA YEH YEH, etc.) that every once in a while fall into an arrangement that could mean something in English (CHER LA CHER LA). I’m amazed that everyone here has committed this complicated sequence of syllables, with its intricate intonations, to memory but, then, this is the heart of worship. This exercise improves karma—not just of people in the room; it’s for everyone in the city, the state, the country, and all around the world. I chime in when I can, but even when I have the correct pronunciation, I don’t have the tone just right. Luckily, my mistakes are drowned out by the collective. Certain syllables resound so deeply that the walls seem to vibrate.
On the other side of me is an older gentleman whose full head of dark hair is salted just so. Age has bestowed upon him the rugged good-looks of an Asian Marlboro Man. During the chanting, when he notices I’ve grown silent and Dora’s not looking, he points to my open page—as if my failure to join in were as simple as having lost my place. He continues to make sure I know exactly where we are in the chant. At first he does this surreptitiously so Dora doesn’t notice. Eventually his effort grows more brazen and Dora shoots him a look. He gives her one back, as if to say, “It’s not my fault you’re slacking on the job.”
This little power struggle continues through the dharma talk, for which my Marlboro Man elects himself the superior translator. Perhaps because he better understands the Cantonese in which the talk is given, Dora concedes. It takes me a while to determine that the person giving the talk is female. Her head is shaved and her robe is a variation of the ones worn by the nuns who have hair. Baldness is a great gender neutralizer as are robes, for that matter. I imagine she is the abbot here or some other high-ranking position. She is the spitting image of the founder of this sect, whose picture hangs on the wall, and I notice she is addressed as “Master.”
“She talks about desire,” my Marlboro Man tells me about one minute into her speech. “It’s not good for you.” He goes silent, so I elaborate in my mind. I imagine she’s explaining how that feeling of wanting, craving, grasping—anything other than satisfaction with your immediate situation—removes a person from the present moment. Several minutes go by and I’m tempted to ask what she’s saying now, but I decide not giving in to that impulse is sort of the point of the talk. Finally, he leans over. I can see him struggling to find the right words. “She says desire is bad…” I wait for him to elaborate, to offer some new twist or detail, but he doesn’t. Fifteen minutes go by and the speech winds down. My Marlboro Man shrugs. “Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.”