The sounds of silence
The silence around me isn’t a strict silence. It’s an inclusive and forgiving silence, the kind that can accommodate the soft sighing of 1 000 lanterns, the gentle swishing of a calligraphy pen or the muted patter of bare feet. It’s the kind of silence that moves with the cooing of the pigeons in the rafters, makes way for whispered prayers and embraces the sounds you make as you try to imitate it. It’s a silence scented with incense, suffused with golden light and radiating calm warmth.
I have been sitting in this silence for nearly two hours at the Nan Hua Temple in Bronkhorstspruit. I have completed a written meditation and am now quietly reposing in the company of three large and smiling Buddhas. I don’t know them very well, but they seem not to mind my restless presence. The silence hasn’t found its way into my head yet, but I am practising stillness and for now, that is enough.
It’s an inclusive and forgiving silence, the kind that can accommodate the soft sighing of 1 000 lanterns, the gentle swishing of a calligraphy pen or the muted patter of bare feet.
A monk in a saffron robe walks through the temple. Some of the lanterns positioned around the various shrines flicker as a door opens and closes. In the light of the late winter’s afternoon, the pigeons on the rafters take flight. Their beating wings anticipate the chanting of the monks, which begins with a long, pure note that doesn’t waver or drop. In fact, the sound gathers and soars and as the silence drops away, I become lighter with it for a brief moment, buoyed by a very deep breath and let down gently by a long sigh.
Then I open my eyes. It’s time to leave. I am clumsy as I put my shoes back on. As I cross the temple’s grand courtyard, the soundtrack of chanting recedes with each step. When I reach the gate of the residence, I can barely hear it. The sun has dropped below the temple and the last echoes cling to the rim-light. I would watch it longer, but dinner is at 6pm. Privileged to share this place with the devotees of the Fo Guang Shan (Buddha's Light Mountain) Order, the least I can do is not be late.
My visit to the largest Buddhist temple and seminary in Africa lasted less than 24 hours and for about nine of them, I was fast asleep in the simple but comfortable accommodation that they reserve for visitors. It felt like I’d been gone for longer and travelled much further than Bronkhorstspruit, which is less than an hour’s drive from Pretoria. The seminary caters for novices all over the continent who come to Bronkhorstspruit to complete their three-year period of study, and curious visitors like myself.
Designed as a “cultural and educational” complex, the temple occupies a whole neighbourhood, a cultural precinct that began with the donation of six hectares of land by the Bronkhorstspruit City Council, to the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order in 1992. It has become the African headquarters for the monastic order founded in Taiwan in 1967 by Venerable Master Hsing Yun. It is one of the largest international Buddhist organisations in the world.
In fact, making Buddhism accessible to people is one of the principles of the 'Humanistic Buddhism' of the Fo Guang Shan order, which espouses the idea that Buddhism needs to fit a modern world and ‘come down from the mountains’. This means they welcome people like myself. There is a range of accessible pamphlets and books for visitors at the temple’s small public library.
I visited Nan Hua out of curiosity. I have seen the ornate architecture from the N4 on various occasions, and find the tenets of Buddhism of intellectual and possibly spiritual interest.
I also just needed to go away for a weekend and to light a candle for someone I love and think about them, without having to explain it all or talk to anyone.
Once there, after a warm welcome from Sipho and Helen, I lost myself in the colours and lines of the place. I spent more than an hour in the temple’s museum, learning about their beautiful collection of bodhisattvas. I ate their simple, affordable vegetarian food with immense enjoyment. I skirted round the edges of a Buddhist Indian wedding. I was quiet. I was still. I lit my lantern.
On special occasions, like Buddha’s birthday and the Chinese New Year, the grounds are decorated and packed with people who come to visit and people who come to worship. It remains first and foremost a place of faith, though. They also offer tours, and beginner and advanced meditation retreats and workshops.
I am tempted to book one. I liked to soar, just for a second with the birds. I liked to practise stillness. I liked that the silence didn’t mind me and I didn't mind it. I’d still like to invite that silence in sometime and spend some time getting to know it better. I’d like to check back on that lantern I lit and, perhaps, light one more.
The Temple is closed on Mondays, and open to all visitors from Tuesday to Sunday, 09h00-17h00, free of charge, and for a vegetarian lunch on Sundays @ R30 per person, 12h00-12h30. Visit the Nan Hua Temple website or you can call (013) 931-0009.