A desk for tourist information was on the ground floor of the Hounslow Library. I went there for information about Buddhist temples in the neighborhood. A middle-aged woman was sitting behind the desk, watching her computer. She was in her sixties with ash blond hair, and she seemed to be very precise and meticulous at her work. She wore glasses with a silver frame. As soon as I approached her, she looked up at me from the computer with her pale blue eyes.
“May I help you?”
“Yes, please. Do you know about a Buddhist temple to visit nearby?”
The lady looked carefully on the screen and then turned to me.
“The nearest Buddhist temple is in Chiswick. Here is the address. It’s about half an hour from Hounslow bus station.”
I thanked the lady and headed for the bus station. After about half an hour, I reached Chiswick. It was not so easy to find the Buddhist temple. People didn’t know about it, but after many attempts, I caught sight of the building, which was near a large square with trees.
I expected to find a big temple open to the public like those I had seen in Southall. Instead, this temple was in a private building. I knocked on the main door, and a short gentleman, who didn’t look like an Englishman at first glance, came and opened the gate. He was about a meter and sixty centimeters tall, maybe less, light-skinned with gray eyes. I thought he was too short to be an Englishman, but he spoke excellent English slowly, making it easy for me to understand. He wore a gray suit and a red tie. I was under the impression that he might be the owner of that mansion.
He sat me down in a small room by the corridor. From time to time, monks passed. Their habits were yellow, different from the crimson ones I had seen while watching the Dalai Lama on television.
“The color of the habit of your monks is different from that worn by the Dalai Lama. Why? Is not the Dalai Lama the head of all Buddhists?”
“Not at all. In Buddhism, there are no heads, but only many traditions, which originated from the founder Buddha Shakyamuni. Buddhism has developed horizontally, not vertically, as it happened in other religions like Catholicism.
“Usually, the laity talks about Buddhism as if it were one religion, but it is divided into many sects, each one with its own doctrine, practices, and scriptures. These sects are divided into numerous branches. Many of them blend with local religions, cultures, and traditions. However, how can I help you?”
His question perplexed me. I was hesitant about what to ask. Then, I decided to go straight to the core of my problem.
“I’d like to know whether everything ends, that is, we disappear into thin air, or something of us survives, after we die. I want to know whether the soul exists and whether it is immortal.”
He looked at me with his eyes full of surprise, but soon he recovered, and, speaking very slowly for me to understand, expressed his opinion about the subject.
“It’s possible to give different answers to such a question! There is an extreme conception called nihilism, according to which everything ends and nothing remains with our death. Nothing is immortal, eternal, and unchangeable. Everything passes, transforms itself, and ‘becomes.’ We are like blades of grass that will never grow again after having been pulled up. There is another idea. It believes that death is only the beginning of a new life. After death, human beings are resurrected or reborn. It is like taking off worn clothes and putting on new ones. Our Buddhist idea is a half way. For us, after death, there is neither nothingness nor resurrection. We think that there is a kind of immortal and indestructible energy inside every living being.”
“Can you make yourself clear? What do you call energy?”
“Energy is just our minds.”
“The brain, that is?”
“Not at all. The mind is different from the brain.”
“But how can the mind purify itself?”
“In order to get good results, it is important to practice meditation. Come with me. I will show you our meditation room.”
He walked me to a room with a hazel-colored carpet on the floor. There were many statues. Shakyamuni Buddha stood in the center. Other statues and portraits reproduced enlightened masters.
“Who is your God?”
“We have no God. In this sense, we are atheists. But we have our own spirituality.”
“Who is Buddha?”
“Buddha is an attribute of a general characteristic. It means ‘The Awakened One,’ that is, someone who awakened from the sleep of ignorance and sees things ‘as they really are.’ There were persons who became Buddha in the past, and others will become Buddha in the future. According to Buddhist teachings, one of the main causes of suffering is the excess of self-grasping and self-cherishing. The tendency to protect the ‘I’ leads to delusions and excessive attachment. What we call love toward others is love toward ourselves. Too much attachment is oppressive for families, friends, and partners. It has nothing to do with love.”
I treasured his words.
“May I come to meditate in this temple from time to time?”
“Yes, of course, you can come here anytime.”
I said goodbye to that man and left the temple.,,
This is an excerpt from Travels of the Mind
Ettore Grillo, author of these books:
– A Hidden Sicilian History
– The Vibrations of Words
– Travels of the Mind