Wandering the courtyards amidst the five buildings of the historic Longhua Buddhist temple in Shanghai, I noticed a family gathering inside one hall for a funeral, or more likely a memorial anniversary. Perhaps a dozen people, not seeming to be freshly in grief, were eating lunch at tables inside the temple, alongside three towering gold Buddhas. In front of one statue was a large antique portrait of a woman who looked to be 40 years old, taken decades ago, decorated with fresh flowers. Several monks in saffron robes entered and sat at their own table, near the other two Buddhas, and began to recite prayers. I watched this from the far corner of the temple, standing next to a Chinese man who suddenly and cheerfully asked me in a slightly-too-loud-for-moment voice, “Where are you from? How long in Shanghai?”
I regret not getting his name or photo, but I did get a nice conversation. He explained the three Buddhas are the pathway to eternal happiness, and their prayers are meant to usher her soul there. His English was halting, he looked to be 30, wearing black track pants and a t-shirt. He himself is from Shanghai, but has been in Melbourne where his wife is finishing her degree. They go back and forth about where they should live, but he thinks that if they have children, it would be better to raise them in Melbourne.
“The Chinese education system, it’s really difficult for children. It’s too much. It’s pressure,” he says, gesturing with tensed hands.
My acquaintance and I both wander to the side of the three Buddhas temple but the walkway is closed off to visitors. Then two black SUVs pull in, and their smartly dressed passengers are escorted through the bamboo gate that marks off an area restricted to monks.
“They are probably VIPs,” explains my impromptu guide. “Probably they give money to the temple. The family with the funeral, they probably give money, too.” He gestures around the grounds and shrugs, “I think giving money to such a big temple is….” He’s either searching for the English word, or else he's uncertain how his opinion will land.
“Meaningless. I think it’s meaningless.”