Lenten new year
We associate New Year’s Eve with parties (at home or out in the streets), bingeing on food and alcohol, lots of noise and singing and dancing, and fireworks.
There will be variations across cultures, and sometimes even within a culture, so when I’m asked how Chinese New Year is celebrated, I answer that there are different ways.
Many years back my mother forced me to go with her to a Taoist temple in Manila, which was packed to the rafters with people, leaving no elbow room, and with the air thick with incense. There were a number of non-Chinese present, including quite a few celebrities—politicians, actors—which made the crowd even larger because of star-struck people from the neighborhood coming in to gawk.
Mainly, though, that gathering was meant to change one’s “destiny” (kue un in Minnan Chinese), the idea being that if the year was going to be bad for you, predetermined by the year, month, day and time of your birth, you could still deflect its ill effects through offerings and prayers. Not only that, you could attract good luck, opportunities for wealth and prosperity, again through offerings and prayers.
There were a lot of rituals, governed by feng shui rules—the direction to face for bowing and for offering incense, for example. People were also told what direction to use once they left the temple, even if it meant going on roundabout routes.
I looked at that whole New Year’s Eve celebration as an anthropological experience. As a Chinese-Filipino, the rituals and the emphasis on luck and good fortune were not unfamiliar, but I got to think of how a new year does bring so much anxiety and uncertainty, maybe even dread among those who were told it was going to be a bad year. The large mixed crowd of Chinese and non-Chinese certainly reflected how living in the Philippines brings on the idea of another year of living dangerously.
I had planned to spend this lunar New Year’s Eve quietly at home. However, I received an invitation from Fo Guang Shan, a Buddhist group, to join its celebration at its Mabuhay Temple in Manila.
It had been a long day of work for me and I wanted to beg off, but my father insisted that I go with my son, especially because he was not feeling well and could not attend. “Just stay an hour or two to represent our family,” my father said by way of negotiating.
We arrived at the temple at around 8 p.m. and ended up staying till almost midnight, with my son—who I thought would end up totally bored—wanting to stay on. I thought I should write about the experience as a way of suggesting that we can learn from a more quiet, but still productive, way of celebrating New Year’s Eve.
Dragons, lions, children
There were many people in the temple although thankfully it was not too packed. Many younger ones, including children, were present, and while the gathering was predominantly Chinese, I spotted many other nationalities. The air was clear, incense being limited to the main altar (part of a growing trend among Buddhist temples worldwide to reduce air pollution).
Eating there was, along with singing and dancing, as well as fanfare, but not in the traditional way.
First, the food was all-vegetarian. There were no alcoholic beverages, the “strongest” drinks being coffee and tea.
Second, the singing and dancing were mainly by performers. There were students from the Fo Guang Shan’s Guangming College (all nonethnic Chinese, and all scholars). There was also the Worldship Orchestra, a group of young Japanese touring the Philippines and Cambodia to encourage an appreciation of classical music through free concerts. The group’s repertoire that night included a mix of western and Japanese selections and Lucio San Pedro’s “Mga Katutubong Awitin.” (You can catch the Worldship Orchestra at Rizal Park this Sunday at 5 p.m.)
The Wushu Federation Philippines, based in Chinatown, was there not to do martial arts but a lion dance—actually several performances rolled into one, including a dragon dance, and thunderous drumming that must have reverberated down the entire street, up to Manila Bay.
The organizers kept everyone busy through the night with several tables for a fund-raising bazaar, mainly to support the group’s scholars. One of the tables offered what was probably the “wildest” activity that night: face and body painting, with rather prim and proper graphics to choose from. My son got a dragon on his leg.
Most impressive, though, was the quiet time one could get amid all the frenzy. Fo Guang Shan is a Chan Buddhist group, Chan being the Chinese predecessor of Zen, with an emphasis on meditation. It is also one of several Buddhist humanist groups that emphasize service, including educational institutions.
There was a room with an exhibit of musical instruments, both western and Asian, and those used for Buddhist rituals. Another room had people just reading, or doing Chinese calligraphy, which is considered a form of meditation.
A temple would not be complete without prayer. There was that, too, the main hall’s seats having to be rearranged several times to allow the cultural performances to give way to prayers.
The prayers said at around 11 p.m. were the most moving, led by the temple’s nuns. (They don’t have any monks.) The persistent theme in the prayers, and in a short homily in
English by the head abbess, Ven. Miao Jing, was to “repent” for the past year’s shortcomings and to resolve to cultivate new habits for the new year.
You don’t just get good luck, the abbess emphasized, with burning incense. You bring it in through hard work, through helping other people. She called for building peace and harmony, for people of all faiths to work together, and I thought of Mamasapano and the world’s tumult, and how the choices we make in this new year can spell the difference between lasting peace or more war.
One prayer had this pledge: “I will still the winds of ignorance with truth; I will extinguish the fires of anger with tenderness; I will dam the torrents of greed with joyous giving; I will level mountains of arrogance with humility.”
How appropriate, I thought, that those passages were for this year’s confluence of Ash Wednesday and Lent, with a lunar new year.
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