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Visiting the Maitreya Project.

Though I'm obviously a bit late in doing so, it's high time that I got around to recounting my visit with Rose to the Maitreya Project display in Eastern Montreal sometime back.

On that particular day, (which was sometime in late November or December 2007; I don't recall) our original intention was to meet-up with V.B. somewhere at or around the small, Vietnamese temple where the oeuvre was being hosted. The Maitreya Project, it should be noted, is the undertaking of a Buddhist monk -- Lama Thubten Yeshe of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism -- that began some years ago, and which continues now under Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche and a variety of other monks and laypeople of various genders and backgrounds.

The aim of the Project is straightforward: to travel widely and gather together a variety of Buddhist relics with the purpose of eventually incorporating them inside a great statue to be constructed in India, near the area wherein Shakyamuni Buddha is reported to have died.

Now, lest anyone have the impression that a Buddhist relic would take the form of some sort of icon, piece of artwork, or historically-significant bit of manufacture, be assured that that's not the case. Anyone familiar with Catholic relics can more easily imagine what the word signifies here: objects taken from the remains of saints, or else generated spontaneously at events of great spiritual merit.

In any event, V.B. did not make it out (neither did anyone from the Buddhist course that I was taking at the time, except for a fellow who had come earlier in the afternoon), and thus Rose and I were left unsupervised on our field-trip. The weather was unpleasantly cold due to a strong wind, which was compounded by our getting-off of the bus at the wrong stop; after ten minutes outside, we were pretty delighted to be inside anyplace with working heaters. The building itself was non-descript. The temple's only indications that it was, in fact, a temple were the many prayer-flags set into the ground outside -- a sign that would probably fly over the heads of most Montrealers.

We had an immediate shock when we first stepped inside. The sudden heat affected our sense of orientation no less than what we had stepped into; we had, quite literally, walked into the middle of a ritual procession! The temple was quite crowded, primarily with members of the Vietnamese community with the odd obiously-not-Asian mixed in. Nearly all were garbed in powder-grey robes and were calmly chanting liturgies while stepping along a winding, barefoot line towards the primary hall -- all the while carrying lit candles cradled in elaborate, lotus-shaped candle-holders.

What we had stepped into was the Light Giving Ceremony (that much we discovered by consulting the schedules at the front door) and it was quite obvious to both of us that we were not in the middle of a Tibetan Vajrayana ceremony. Rather, we had plonked ourselves in the middle of a Pure Land Buddhist ritual. Oops!

For those not familiar with the difference... well, let's just describe it in terms of the shock that a High Anglican from North Ireland might get if they walked into the middle of a church full of holy-rolling Pentecostals from south Georgia. They might both be Christian, and even both Trinitaria, but they certainly don't go about things the same way! (Now, replace the Anglican with two kids raised in the laicité of Quebec and you'll have an impression of our vertigo.)

To get back to the story, in order to get anywhere near the relics themselves (the alternative being to go back outside) we needed dispossess ourselves of our wet boots and coats, and be usered around the procession by a member of the Project. We were shown through by a middle-aged woman in good health who seemed to be an American of European ancestry; we didn't catch her name.

Skipping forward, we had it explained to us that the ceremony's purpose was first to allow the members of the temple and community to generate the merit that comes as a result of goodwill and generosity. That merit was then to be symbolically offered in the form of the candles left before to the statue of the Buddha (either Maitreya Buddha, Avitlokitesvara, or Amitabha; I'm not certain) by each participant. Soteriologically speaking, the merit and goodwill thus offered to the Buddha(s) was understood to be returned by the Buddhas in greater abundance in a dispensation of their infinite compassion for living beings.

When we entered the main hall, we found the gold-coloured statue at the opposite end. Around it, in a U-formation, were placed the tables holding the relics themselves. Each of the relics was contained (quite naturally) in a secure case (though I would like to meet the burglar who thinks he can fense the dessicated skull-fragment of a centuries-dead monk), with the individual items held in small, chalice-shaped altar peices that looked to be made of 14K or 18K gold. Among the pieces were a number of body- and spiritually-generated relics, which hailed from a wide variety of locales. India, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Korea, and Malaysia. Each relic had a complicated history behind its travels that was documented back to their original "owners", who included Tsong Khapa (founder of the Gelug school, and teacher of the 3rd Dalai Lama), Nagarjuna (3rd century Buddhist philosopher, and founder of the Madhyamika school of philosophy/theology), and Siddhartha Gautama (the eponymous Buddha of the 6th-5th century BC).

While Rose & I were studying the relics and sacramental objects, and pestering our guide with questions, the hall behind us had filled with petitioners. As each individual finished making their offering, they took a place on one of the many mats arranged upon the floor, and joined in a communal chant meant to both generate merit and express faith in the compassion of the Buddhas. Contrary to what one might expect, however, the parish did not face towards the statue and relics themselves. Rather, they faced each other -- those on one side of the hall facing towards those on the other side -- and allowed the monks to lead the chant while one set to tapping upon a brass bowl to maintain a steady rhythm. While we were listening, the parish switched from one liturgy to another, each equally incomprehensible to us and which might have just as easily been in Sanskrit or ancient Chinese as Vietnamese.

The experience was very strange. As Quebecers born after the Quiet Revolution, I don't think that either of us was quite comfortable being in the middle of a devotional mass; devotional worship in general is a bit strange in Montreal. It was as alien an experience as parachuting into the midst of a mass of Snake Handlers or Hari Krishnas. Judging by the demenour of the Tibet Monk seated in the corner (watching over the relics, I would guess), he wasn't particularly impressed upon in any sort of way; I'm pretty certain that he was dozing in his chair.

That, however, was it for us. Since it wasn't really the time or place to be querying people on the more scholarly or philosophical aspects of the individuals "represented" in the display case, we made a donation or two on the way out, picked-up some reading material on our way out, with liturgies still resounding through the door behind us.

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