Journey to the Pristine Photo Credit: Beata Ratuzniak
Dateline: Placa Espanya, Barcelona, Spain
Religion is a blistering topic. More often than not, it rains fire and brimstone when it’s discussed. Yet, this is a theme that is supposed to induce love. God is love, right? At least, that’s what the Holy books propagate.
We’re expected to transcend our animalistic tendencies for the good of all. But it’s the case that the minute we don’t have our way, our civilization vanishes.
My journey to this theme began at Placa Espanya, a popular part of Barcelona that is home to the bull-fighting ring turned commercial center. A visit to this area is highly recommended if you’re in town.
Over a plate of absolutely delicious Catalan cuisine, Elizabeth, an average height, pretty and dark complexioned lady from Ecuador tells me she is a Buddhist. I thought my ears failed me. Eeeeeeh? What did you say? “I am a Buddhist. I practice Buddhism.”
First of all, I’ve never met a black person that is a Buddhist – they’re usually Muslim, Christian, or African traditionalists. Secondly, the first time we saw each other, I was surprised that someone as dark as me hails from Ecuador. Pardon my knowledge of geography – Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, I know. Ecuador? Naaaa. I am wrong. Apparently, there are many black people across South America but they seem to be invisible.
I wanted to hear the beginning and end of this story, so I probed. Elizabeth tells me that she was seeking spiritual illumination for many years. This quest remained with her when she uprooted herself from Ecuador to Barcelona. Five years ago, a friend invited her out, without revealing the destination. They turned up at the doorstep of a Buddhist temple. By the end of the visit, she had experienced an inexplicable awakening. The rest is history.
My curiosity was fired up. I just could not let it go. It was therefore, inevitable that my Buddhist adventure would be born. I told Elizabeth that I would like to visit a temple to see things for myself. She was delighted.
It’s a Tuesday evening. The place is sequestered in the ground floor of an apartment building. Nothing obvious warns you of an impending temple. It’s very easy to miss the tiny sign in the corner: “Centre Culturel de Soka Gakkai d’Espanya.”
We step into the waiting room, which is almost empty except for a piece of furniture and some reading materials. Then the door opens up to the main hall. A robust wave of Japanese chants hit my face – “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo”, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo”, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.” My eyes dart around rapidly in random directions. People are sitting in an upright position with legs jammed together, palms clasped with prayer beads embedded in them, and raised half way between the forehead and the chin.
We hurriedly plant ourselves midway in the room. The hall is austere. Rows of simple chairs are placed on the left and right facing the lectern, giving way to a centre passage. Someone who appears to be a leader is seated on the podium chanting into the microphone with his back to the audience. Several other worshippers take turn to lead as well.
At the podium, a giant book like a scripture, seats in an open cupboard that is drilled into wall. The leader signals the end of a set of chants and the start of another phase by hitting a metal bowl with a short metal stick. It sounds like a bell: “Gong, gong, gong, gong.” It’s a repetitive process.
There are at least one hundred people and the service lasts for two hours with breaks in between and a short time for “preaching” from a scripture-like magazine. Recall Jehovah’s Witness magazines? It’s similar with a different content.
I would later learn that there are different types of Buddhism and this centre practices the strand from Japan called Soka Gakkai. The centre meets twice a week and even has other gatherings comparable to the Christian cell or house fellowship. Explaining Buddhism in detail is beyond the scope of one blog piece. Suffice to say that it was indeed an experience. Most importantly, my knowledge was enriched!
Here’s my take. The choice is ours to make on the sort of spiritual journey we embark on, if at all we do.
When I was growing up, my parents immersed us in Church as if Armageddon was approaching the next day. Activities were endless. Monday house fellowship; Tuesday Bible study; Wednesday midweek service; Thursday choir practice; Friday night vigil; Saturday repeat choir practice; early morning Sunday school; main Sunday service; several meetings after service. It never stopped.
I’m not complaining, although I grumbled sometimes. Having said that, I learnt so many things. Spirituality provided an anchor that was very helpful in turbulent times and still is. I felt grounded.
When I became a grown woman, travelled the world and discovered the lies and half-truths surrounding religion in general, I recoiled. For example, when I learnt that the pictures of Jesus and Mary that hangs in the Roman Catholic Church are not real, I shouted (in my head) “get me out of here.” That is not the Lord Jesus Christ they were preaching to us about? Chineke! (God in Igbo language).
You need to have seen my face. I was utterly confused. My background from getting baptized in the Anglican Church, attending a Roman Catholic boarding school and being raised in Pentecostal churches explains that confusion. Years later, living in the UK and discovering that many people did not have a religion, was another shocker. What is going on? Didn’t your ancestors come to Africa during colonialism (again, in my head), waving the Bible in the name of missionary work?
The more I travelled, the more perplexing the world was to me. Sometimes, I wondered about the evil that exists side by side with proclamations of religion. It baffled me terribly. In my country Nigeria, people are very religious. Churches and Mosques have enormous loud speakers mounted everywhere. If you live near one, you need earplugs, believe me! Yet, it does not necessarily reflect in general behaviour.
At other times, it was difficult to understand a world system with spectacularly rich parts and superbly impoverished people. It’s not a simplistic issue but something is not right.
It took me years to detangle the maze. Some answers came from my father, who is now late. Clarity came through reading and introspection, more travel, listening to my guts, etc. The bottom line is that I no longer have any illusion. While it may perform some altruistic role in society, I believe organized religion has also wrought tremendous damage in the world.
It’s a difficult one. What are your thoughts? Please share and have a great week!