By PHO VU
For those who are brought up in Asian households, “reverence” is like “respect” but with a higher level of intensity. In case you are Asian but do not see the word that way, my statement merely stems from the impression of “reverence” the very first time I looked it up in an English-Vietnamese dictionary. If I could use one of my life experiences to illustrate “reverence,” it would be unhesitatingly reciting a Buddhist chant — something I do every day.
After tenth grade, I came to live with my aunt in California and continued my schooling here. Traveling to the United States, I initially had hopes about expanding my horizons through a Western-style education. Indeed, I was on track with my supposed goals. However, at such an impressionable age, I had so many questions for the world. Never would I ever imagine my seeing-life-through-a-pink-len approach would all then be reverted by my spiritual aunt, a devout Buddhist. Outside school, whenever possible, she would show me Youtube videos and tell me stories about how people committing heinous acts would be tortured in Hell as soon as they passed away, and how we could correct our wrongdoings by doing a few things while on Earth, like reciting chants and not cursing. These stories first fascinated me, but as time went on, they felt like something on loop, repeating themselves over and over as my aunt would not relent. They slowly incorporated themselves into my mind that I needed to be careful with whatever I did, and I always recited one of the popular Buddhist chants called “Maha Karunika citta Dharani.” Not to mention, when I was alone, to prevent the devils from manipulating me, I would use the help of the “Om Mani Padme Hum” phrase. It was a lot to take in, so I was proud the moment I managed to remember all these details.
I attended a private Christian high school where Bible education was required. In classes, my teacher showed us Bible-inspired songs and films that would demonstrate the greatness of God and his plan. One time our entire school went to see a Christian musical performance at California Baptist University, and my eagerness to stay active with extracurriculars for college admissions at that time swayed me to volunteer for half a day at Gateway Seminary in Ontario, where many of our teachers went for post-graduate education in Bible study. The conflict started when my teachers would try to convince students to convert, hinting that “idolizing other gods” was a violation of the Ten Commandments. Meanwhile, my aunt said Christianity was true but firmly stuck to her argument that Nirvana was higher than any other afterlife outcome such as heaven, meaning that you will be free from incarnation. For the first time in my life, I feared that a war of religions was bound to break out inside of me. It did not inflict any physical wounds, but it was worse than visible injuries that can be healed: the neurological confusions that I was left with were seemingly irreversible.
Reverence for the divine world taught me to be cautious of my actions. It made me frightened of every single thing that I did or planned to do. I said no to invites for fear that I would be led astray in one of the hangouts or parties. Little by little, I detached myself from my social circle. Those who stayed were those that truly cared about me; at the time, I interpreted these relationships as predetermined — as long as they were around, it meant our thin red thread of destiny was not at the end of its road yet.
Upon graduation from high school, I knew that I inherited invaluable knowledge from both belief systems, and I sincerely trusted both. My deep respect for the existence of these religions came with a choice of eventually committing to one. I chose Buddhism since it has always been a part of my family. Following up the conscious choice was the price of entrusting my faith into something I couldn’t see but could only feel yet sometimes couldn’t. My aunt tended to accomplish her goals through quick ways — through tips and tricks?— and she was great at knowing what others were scared of and using it against them. After three years living with her, I was haunted by my own existence. My self-esteem took a nosedive because whenever something bad happened to me my aunt would always say I must have done something bad in my previous life. It made sense, but it hurt me over and over. My vision for a future head hit its darkest place.
Like my aunt, I trust that life is just and that whoever is masterminding my living patterns will make sure I pay all the debts and earn all the rewards before advancing to the next chapter. But unlike my aunt, I focus on the more positive belief that we are born to suffer first so that later we will cherish the good things that happen to us. Therefore, I choose to trust the religious system. One year after high school graduation, I left for South Korea with a carry-on of intertwined relief, wistfulness, and resentment. Of course, I did not forget to bring with me my certificate of ordained Dharma name.
In Korea, things slowed down for my soul. The unexpected tranquility created space for me to process things that had happened and my most recent decision to leave home. I couldn’t forget the incidents, but with my efforts to push through, the tragedy felt lesser day after day.
During my time at Amherst, I saw young people on campus studying, partying, enjoying themselves, and having fun. I asked myself: “What if I could just have fun for one tiny moment?” I didn’t need to take it as far as drinking alcohol or doing drugs (which are not my cup of tea), but maybe I could stop fretting about consequences and break my daily cycle. It is always easier said than done. Overcoming my own trauma demanded a lot of patience, yet I knew it was part of the process.
I have a soft side for the world of souls and spirits because deep down inside me, I believe that everything that gets talked about gets talked about for a reason – maybe they are true. I would pay full attention to my mom reporting what a fortune teller said about me. I would go to tarot and palm reading sessions to hear what the spiritual readers have to say about my studies, careers, or love life. I would say yes to other similar things because somehow, I know that besides the privilege to have my free will in various aspects of my life. I can gain access to the message that the universe reserves for me. If I have the will, there is always a way.
The reverence that I have had for the unseen forces makes me feel protected. Despite not knowing what kind of superpowers “they” possess and how to address them properly, I am sure they always accompany me on my journey and miraculously save me from countless situations in reality. Still, making real-life decisions for myself sometimes feels hard just being aware of the invisible entities, especially when this world is not all in with me in this aspect. Above all, what counts is that, through this emotional path and the reverence that I have developed over the years, I learned gratitude, humility, and moral ethics. I also learned to trust what my normal eyes can’t see and to trust that I don’t have to change anything about the self that makes me me.