Paradise of the South

by Laura Olcelli

While volunteering at Nan Tien Temple in Australia, the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere, a traveler tries to tease out what mindfulness really is.

In the Harmony Room, the Reverend unfolds a 16-column spreadsheet, the plan for the day. As she goes through row by row, two bean-shaped scars stand out on her shaved head. I observe her rosy cheeks dotted by a lonely mole, her unkempt eyebrows as she switches between English and Mandarin, Mandarin and English. Most of all, I’m captured by her beaming eyes that cannot stop smiling – whatever language she speaks.

My friend Bec is assigned to MCing the multicultural performances, while I will have to coordinate the dancers and manage the crowds. Bec, who’s been here before, had warned me the tasks would be straightforward, but that’s not the point. “You see, Laura, the point is not to do more, but to be mindful about whatever you’re doing. You’re here to do something good for the community. Just enjoy the moment. It’s really that simple.” 

As we head out to begin our duties, a paper taped by the door handle reminds us to Close the door mindfully

We are at the Nan Tien Cultural Festival, and truthfully, I’ve stopped worrying about how controversial it is that, as a born and raised Catholic, I’m volunteering at a Buddhist temple – on Christmas Day

— 

I had been back in Australia a couple of months, feeling a need to grow deeper roots Down Under. The Nan Tien Temple – literally, Heaven of the South – symbolized everything I wished for my Antipodean stay ahead. 

Built in the 1990s just outside Wollongong, Dharawal Country (about an hour and a half south of Sydney), Nan Tien is the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere and home to the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist order, originally founded by Master Hsing Yun in Taiwan. In fact, it’s one of over two hundred Fo Guang Shan temples and associations worldwide that promote Humanistic Buddhism. 

From the books the Reverend gifts me at the end of the day – all either written by, or about, Hsing Yun – I learn that Humanistic Buddhism is focused on integrating the Buddha’s teachings into everyday life. Altruism, joy, timelessness, and universality are all core characteristics of this religion slash philosophy. 

The Nan Tien complex is as vast as the sweeping Australian landscape it’s been built on. It’s immersed in the green, and from the highest viewpoints, there’s no limit to how far the eyes can see. Within its perimeter, it includes shrines, an eight-story pagoda, a lotus pond, library, pilgrim lodge, and even an annexed university. Mount Keira and Mount Kembla hover in the distance. More often a place of stillness, today it was ready to be rocked by hundreds of volunteers and thousands of visitors.

Before getting started, a mandatory pit-stop at the main shrine. The strong scent of incense burning in the cauldron is nearly hallucinating in the humid heat. We step inside. I steal a glance at the devotees, who are paying homage to five gargantuan Buddhas by repeating a series of ritualistic gestures and movements. Arms wide open, hands in prayer position, kneeling down, bowing. Palms facing up to receive love and closed into fists to hold it. The contrast between this southern paradise and my typical Christmas in the northern hemisphere reaches an apotheosis. 

A lotus pond at the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern hemisphere

At noon, Bec is ready to announce the live music. Songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s begin playing at full blast. Not quite the music you’d expect to hear in a temple, but the singer has reassured the Reverend that he knows how to read an audience. 

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun / l’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes … 

In the meantime, next on our schedule is lunch. Mindful eating. Keep silent, a large sign in the canteen instructs us. My senses are so awakened that it’s impossible not to perceive some whispers while I’m chewing a tasty square of dried tofu. Bec and I giggle; she must have heard them, too. 

… And darlin’, darlin’, stand by me / Oh, stand by me. 

By the time we make our way back to the main courtyard-turned-stage, the last notes are being sung. It’s my turn to crowd control during the group and solo dances. An hour goes by uneventfully and when the multicultural performances come to an end, both Bec and I offer to help with more tasks. I had been telling Bec all day I would have preferred to work at the stalls selling books and art objects; there was a stall by the Wishing Tree and one by the Laughing Buddha. Serendipitously, the Reverend sends us to the children’s cultural corner. At this stall, we channel our inner child and paint oil-paper umbrellas, lanterns, and round fans with a dozen young visitors. 

“Given the temple’s name – Southern Heaven – what’s the concept of paradise in Buddhism?” I ask the Reverend before leaving. 

She hands me a fruit juice. “It’s 75% juice. No sugar,” she digresses. Then, she continues: “Paradise is in your mind and heart.” I hint a smile, waiting for more. “You’re smiling now. If I scolded you, you would no longer be smiling. But you can still be in paradise.” 

Despite the subliminal messages around the temple, she’s reluctant to use the word “mindfulness” or even “present moment.” They’re just buzz words. “Enlightened moment” is a better enabler to paradise. 

“Paradise,” she concludes, unwavering, “is where you choose to be.” 

“Now I need to stop talking and return to my duties,” she silences me in the thick of it. A second later, I’m staring at the wall. She’s gone. 

At the end of the day, I turn towards the temple one last time. My gaze lifts up to the sky: not a single cloud in sight. The terracotta roof tiles – similar in color to the nuns’ robes – are shining under the fiery sun. So are the Chinese mythical creatures that adorn the roof hips. The wind blows gently, as if attempting to cool them down. And with each blow, the blue, red, and white flag flutters gloriously above the paradise of the south that the temple – and Australia – is.

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