I hurried off the subway and out onto street level. The novelty of travelling alone in downtown Toronto was apparently yet to escape me. It was a Sunday morning, and the sun was offering a warm, pleasant feel to the city. I took a deep breath, which was clearly some weak attempt to savour the moment, and almost instantly the reality of where I was truly hit me: I was slapped in the face by the smell of garbage and simultaneously almost run over by a cyclist, who grumbled something I’m sure was not “good morning.” I soldiered forward however, and rounded the corner onto Bloor St.
It didn’t take me too long to find the Buddhist temple I was seeking, and my sense of purpose was restored. I would enter, ask politely to use the library for my research assignment and then hurry off to work. I planned to do this in about 40-45 minutes, since it would take about an hour to get to work, and I had just about two.
I entered almost naively open-minded, and was greeted by a welcoming monk who silently guided me to a room where I took off my street shoes, and replaced them with a pair of slippers she provided. I was slightly familiar with this cultural custom, and that combined with my inner pushover allowed me to just go with it. I stated that I was interested in using the library for my research, and she simply smiled, handed me a pillow and escorted me into a large room filled with people meditating. I knew where this was going and I knew that the only place I wanted to go was the door, but I had no intention of running away from a monk. So I coyly entered and found a place along the wall, just as many others had earlier. I was apparently late, but I mean I hadn’t exactly planned this as part of my Sunday morning. It should also be noted that the great thing about being late for group meditation is that people are too busy focusing on their own inner peace care about others, let alone notice some girl stumbling awkwardly to a seat, while completely preoccupied with the massive shrine to Buddha in the centre.
And so I sat on my little pillow against the wall… and sat. And then I continued to sit some more. It was mid October which meant two things: a) I was dressed in layers and b) I had a cold. Have you ever felt obligated to stay completely still in a silent room filled with people meditating, while trying to deal with a runny nose as slyly as possible? Exactly.
I was impatiently praying for it to be over just when my left leg had literally forgotten the essence of circulation, I heard a gong, followed by several more gongs, in some kind of rhythm. My eyes opened, and for the first time in forty minutes, I didn’t feel guilty about it. It was apparent to me that the twenty odd people who accompanied me in the circle around the Buddha shrine were regulars, and it was apparent to the few who noticed me that I was completely and utterly the embodiment of a noob.
And suddenly, in one scarily choreographed movement, everyone was standing. And then so was I, except since meditation was not apart of my own personal Sunday morning ritual, rather than say, nursing a hangover, I found myself with a left leg so asleep that when I walked on it, my knee buckled. In literally any other situation I’ve imagined, this would make me laugh. At this point in my life however, I was horrified, since the next set of rhythmic gongs resulted in chanting and circling the centre shrine. I know, I know.
And so I hopped, and mumbled (because for some reason I didn’t want to admit to myself that it wasn’t totally apparent to these people that I didn’t speak Cantonese…)
The chanting service, which I later learned it was called, ended with another meditation session, this time probably around 30 minutes long. I was past the point of uneasiness or embarrassment: I had just hopped around a circle, pretending to chant in Cantonese, while trying to tend to my runny nose. What did I have to lose?
When it was finally over, I was offered by a friendly monk the chance to stay for brunch, but since I didn’t even have time to use the library, I declined and with what little dignity I had left, swiped my shoes in exchange for the slippers, and dashed to the subway to get to work.