Guandi Temple at 2089 Milby St.
Houston, Texas 77003
January 2004–In many ways religion does not matter to me unless someone wants to discuss or preach me their beliefs. I get extremely annoyed by claims that “God” will grant you salvation if you are righteous, and condemn you if you are sinful. I say this to not to offend anyone but to acknowledge that there are people of different religious beliefs, and we must respect them for whatever they may believe in. As for me, I’m a Buddhist and one that believes that there are many gods, not just one all-powerful one. The Buddhist religion is also split between two beliefs. The first is the belief that gods watch over the people, control the weather, and fight against the evils. The other belief is in the enlightenment of one’s mind and body through acts of righteousness and the fulfillment of self-happiness. I have been raised to respect higher beings shaping the world. I was raised to go to temple and pay my respects through lighting incense and murmuring chants. My religion, like many other religions, is part of a customary routine that everyone follows. For instance, going to church/synagogue/temple to reassure yourself of your religion.
Temples are places of holiness and salvation for many Buddhist followers. They pray under certain gods hoping for good welfare and blessing from the gods. Recently, I have been going to a temple near the University of Houston, next to I-45. The temple can only be seen if you drive carefully and on a course to it, because it block by run down buildings close to the highway. As you arrive at the temple, to the right you’ll see the pavement parking lot with patches of grass growing on top. Surrounding the temple are steel bars protecting it from intruders during the day and night. Across the parking lot are the temple gate and a circular pond of goldfish behind the gate. A 12-foot statue of a goddess made of clay and painted pure white stood on the edge of the pond looking toward the gate. She is holding onto a tall slender vase pouring water from it.
The temple has three buildings: the main temple building, a cafeteria/kitchen building, and another building for storage. The temple grounds are paved in cement and on the border of the temple grounds are trees and bushes planted near the steel bars. After passing the circular pond you reach a short stair leading up to the temple’s main doors. There are three doors on the front side of the temple: the main large doors, and two smaller side doors.
The temple is highly decorated with red and gold. On each side of the stairs statues of Chinese gods, all made from clay and decorated in white hue. On the porch are green plastic tables and white chairs for the many people to sit on during holiday events. To the left and right side of the main doors are large golden circular Chinese emblems. To the left of the door is a showcase of photographic pictures of monks chanting for ceremonies. On the right is another showcase of old newspaper clippings of stories involving temple monk doing miracles. The temple’s main doors are composed of hardwood, painted with a black background and a painting of a Chinese general dressed in a metallic scale armor of the old Chinese empire.
As I enter the temple, the custom of taking my shoes off is necessary to show respect. About ten feet from the doors is the first altar of Buddha and two gods to his sides. The Buddha statue is sparkling gold and wears a golden sash across his chest diagonally and around his waist. His hands are in the praying/chanting fashion. The altar itself is well decorated with long red candles, a red tablecloth, and a giant golden bowl in front of the statue used for placing incense, and beautiful flowers with long stems in white vases. To the right side of the altar is a copper bowl shaped gong used for meditation. To the left and right of the center altar are smaller altars in tribute to different gods that bless for good fortune. These are decorated very much like the center altar but with less grandeur.
The largest altar lies in the back tributes to three gods. The god to the left side of the altar bares a very dark face, and is dressed in a golden scale armor shimmering of colorful jewelries. The middle god has a bright red facial expression, a long black mustache, and is dressed in a golden scale armor covered by a green robe with multicolor jewels. The god on the right has a skin-textured face wearing a Chinese style robe with hues of orange, green, and red. This god holds a red pouch with Chinese lettering on the pouch. Three bowl-shaped pots hold incense, each pot representing each of the three gods. This, altar, too has two smaller altars to the side of it of more different gods. All altars are decorated on a red background with golden borders. Finally a table on the left side of the temple wall used for fortune telling, a woman’s main attraction.
An old story of how those three gods became gods started thousands of years ago when three powerful men ruled China. The middle god, Quan Cong, was once a very distinguished general whom many people had respected. He had made a brotherly pact with two other generals. He was the second oldest of the two. When the oldest became the king of China, he became a loyal general to the king. All that knew him respected his loyalty and sternness. He was not easily persuaded into temptations or emotions. The god on the left, Quan Binh, was once a master thief. He met Quan Cong one day and out of admiration became his follower. Chau Xuong, the god on the right, was the son of a former general. Chau Xuong was an illegitimate son and follower of Quan Cong. Quan Cong was lured into a trap setup by the king of a neighboring nation and his head was chopped off. The neighboring king ordered Quan Cong’s head be presented before him. Upon seeing the gruesome head of Quan Cong, the king became crazy and later died. The people of the kingdom started seeing the spirit of Quan Cong’s headless body searching for the person who had killed him. Quan Cong’s restless spirit terrorized people by stripping people’s head from their bodies. His spirit finally met a monk, and the monk taught him that the people he killed will look for him for revenge. After hearing the reasoning of the monk, Quan Cong’s spirit rested in peace. Quan Binh and Chau Xuong also died with Quan Cong. People started to realize that it was important to pay their respects to Quan Cong and his followers. Quan Cong’s personality and his followers’ loyalty became the basis of loyalty and honor for men. They became gods to the people that had worshipped them, and are place in many temples.
During important Chinese holidays, men and women wander into the temple grounds speaking to the monks and praying with them in moments of silence. They pay their respects to the gods by lighting incense, saying a little prayer and placing the incense into an incense bowl filled with sand. After paying their respects, usually women ask the wise monks for their fortunes at the table to the left of the temple. With the strong incense smell filling the room as more people light incense and pray, one eventually adapts to the smoky smell and the murky streams of smoke coming from the incense. On religious days and Chinese New Years, the celebrations become a festive time for people of all ages.
Chinese New Year celebration starts with the dancing of the lions. The lions are made of colorful cloth and flexible bamboo. The lions require two youths to operate. One of the youth plays the tail of the lion while a more talented youth plays the head of the lion. The youth that controls the head must be expressive as he operates the head of the lion. Opening and closing the mouth and eyes of the lion requires training and friendship of the partners. Usually there are two to four lions performing. They perform to the beating of drums, moving and dancing to the beat of the music. The youth must work in unison to move like a real lion’s body.
As they perform, long fireworks are lit and loud explosions fill in the excitements of the audience. Monks come and go during holidays because there is no place for them to live in this temple, but they travel back and forth from their monastery. They may make trips to other temples in Houston. There are caretakers of the temple doing the job voluntarily. As I said, this temple has a cafeteria and people donate their cooking in a huge potluck so the children and hungry adults can eat after the celebrations. Most of the time the food is vegetarian, made to look like meat. For instance, meat stuffed eggrolls become cabbage stuffed eggrolls and barbequed pork becomes barbequed tofu. Tofu is a main ingredient of most of the vegetarian dishes served at the temple. The taste and flavor of the meat look-alike is unnoticeable to even the best of chefs. Many people just come and pay their respects and leave, similar to my family, because we don’t need such excitement. However, when we have little kids in the family it is hard to resist their happiness. The importance of the celebration is for people to enjoy themselves in their accomplishments or failures.
The temple shows how important a place to worship can be for all people. Different religions do not mean that people do not share the same desire to believe. Different religions allow people to express themselves in the multicultural environment of the world. Some religions are too expressive and some are hardly noticeable. Sometime I think of religion as the destruction or the unity of the people as the effect of how people act. So it matters not what religion you are, but by the way in which you choose to express yourself as a representative of the religion.