When I picked the assigned religion for my reflection essay and I got Buddhism, I immediately remembered my Vietnamese co-worker and a friend named Tuyet. I immediately contacted her if I can visit their temple. It is an opportunity for me to witness my very first Buddhist temple service in Oslo. I ask my friend to accompany me to attend in one of their services and was looking forward to observe their rituals. We went to Khuong Viet Temple in L?venstad, Oslo.
Upon entering the vicinity, I noticed 2 elephant statue facing each other before entering the main entrance of the temple and inside I was welcomed by a very vibrant and color of the temple. It was very unique on how it looks compared to the other religion services I attended before.
I was astonished when I know that all members were all Vietnamese ethnic, and learned that it is very seldom they have guests from other nationality.
One big challenge I guess is the only language used is Vietnamese in their service. Families around over a 150 were present in the time I attended. Mostly on special occasions more than 500 members are present. Thich Vien Ngo is the head monk of the Khuong Viet Temple and as well elected as head of Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha in Norway. My friend served as my personal interpreter in communicating with certain people I need to deliver my questions. It was a little harder than I thought because their English is very limited the same as my Norwegian speaking skills.
Most attendees are older people and children of young ages but very few teenagers.
I asked when the non-Vietnamese Khuong Viet Temple started and one of the monk said that it existed in the 1970’s. It was the time when Vietnamese refugees arrived in Norway, gathered themselves and planted their Buddhist faith in the country. He says that Khoung Viet is only of its kind and the flagship institution of Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism in Norway.
It was very overwhelming for me upon entering the temple on how beautiful it was. There were a lot of flowers and fruits lying around surrounding the big Buddha statue in the center. Pictures of Buddha are also around the temple. I also remember there were also Tibetan statues and scrolls in the temple’s shrine room. There were mats laid out on the floor for the people participating in the service and a scripture lying in front of every mat. Monks in front were wearing mustard colored robes. We seated ourselves on the back so I can see a wide view of my surroundings.
They have these two bells managed by a monk which they used during the service. Based on what I learned from them, these bells are called Bonsho (large bell), and Kansho (ritual bell). It is quite remarkable to experience how other religion do their services compare to our own. We Christians usually start with a prayer and a praise and worship songs and then proceed by the message and preaching of the pastor followed by the altar call and end in a closing prayer. They continually ring these bells on different occasion during the process of the service. After everyone is inside and settled kneeling on their own mat, the monk began reciting a blessing. After that, the head monk who will deliver the message for that service gave his opening remarks and was followed by a sutra chanting. After it was finished, they began to sing or chanting which I thought perhaps it was their praise and worship song but to make sure I asked my friend after the service on what the song is about and she explained that it was Gatha or the teaching of Buddha where they deliver it in a form of a song. After they had gone through about the Gatha, they read their scripture or what they call the Three Treasures. These three treasures are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. I won’t be discussing it one by one for my friend didn’t have the liberty of time to discuss it with me and just told me to google for the meaning of each term in the internet. Right after that the head monk or Howa gave his message to the people to further enhance their understanding of a particular ritual or about Dharma. They are still lying on the floor in their prayer-like position after the messages have been delivered and they began to pray and meditate. My friend says it will take about an hour of meditating and my back is starting to be numb while seating on the floor so we decided to leave the service and my friend jokingly said to me that I may possible to pass out of sleep during the process of meditation for I was not used to it. The remaining process was further explained to me by Tuyet. She said after the service, a delicious meal will be offered for the people in the temple to share and fellowship with one another. This time you will be seated on a regular chair with table for your meal.
First thing I asked her when we went out is why it was all Vietnamese people I only see in the temple? Is it only exclusive for only one ethnic group? But she answered that everybody is welcome and they do not turn away any people who wants to be part of Khuong Viet, it is just that the main factor that shy down people to join is the language availability used during each service, dominantly is Vietnamese. As I personally know more Vietnamese people in my work, speaking English is difficult for them but they can speak better Norwegian for those who have stayed longer here in Norway.
She in turn asked me of how I felt during their service. I personally found their rituals to be very calming and relaxing. People are seated with a space from each other so there is very minimal interaction between them. There were no instruments playing during their song other than themselves while in ours, we can freely express ourselves during the worship time. The environment was very quiet and reserve for me with very minimal interaction between people even before the service starts which is strange for me as I am used to the service that I regularly attending to be more conversationally acquainted with everybody. But perhaps it was the reason why I find Khuong Viet is so calming and soothing. It was my very first time to experience doing this yoga position sitting on the floor and I find it very relaxing actually but my problem in my back cannot tolerate it for a long time.
Another thing I cannot deny to notice is the abundance of flowers in the temple. My friend said that flower has a fragrant character and in Buddhism it represents a higher meaning. It makes people happy and karma is fragrant same as the flower. That is why they bring flower every time they go to the temple to offer to Buddha because flowers give good karma.
I also asked Tuyet why I find very few teenagers in the temple. She said, herself also have two boys aged 18 and 21 and they very seldom go to the temple with her husband. They mostly go with them if there are special occasions or gatherings. Vietnamese youth who are Norwegian-raised member are very difficult to get them to be interested in any Buddhism practices because they are much free in Norwegian society. Vietnamese parents are trying their best to include them in Buddhism practices and teachings. Tuyet said they have a built a bigger temple in Jessheim to cater the expanding growth of their community. The temple is dedicated to Quan Am, the bodhisattva of compassion. Quan Am is the most popular bodhisattva and very important for Vietnamese Buddhists. The temple in Jessheim also offers classes of Vietnamese culture and practices for their younglings to be able to preserve it. The temple was mainly built to cater all Vietnamese Buddhists family on special occasions as they can be thousands combined.
As for the two elephant facing each other on the entrance of the temple, Tuyet could not give me any explanation about it so I took time to research in the internet. According to GoodLuckSymbols, “The elephant is a symbol of strength, power, stability and wisdom.” Elephant sculpture or carvings needed to face the door for it is a superstition to welcome good luck and fortune into the house. That is why a lot of Asian people, it is a common practice to have a couple elephants in houses or building entrances to only allow good fortune and stability. Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher claimed “The elephant surpassed all other animals in wisdom”. Elephant is a very compassionate animal, you can even see them crying to express their sadness and grief.
Overall, attending part of the service of Buddhist religion is a positive experience for me. Observing the Buddhist do their service is quite astonishing. They do it differently compare to Christians. They are more reserved and very intimate specially witnessing them while they go through meditation. It was very quiet and calm. While the interaction of the people is limited, we Christians are very engaging. We do not just listen to our Pastor as he preached; we can even response “Amen” to it if the message speaks for us. As we are offered a promise of eternal life, Buddhism can obtain the highest state, the state of enlightenment. It maybe the cultural and linguistic that divide us from the Vietnamese Buddhist community, but the freedom, our openness, compassion and virtue for people will bridge the gap between us.