A Sunday Snapshot: Phat-An Today

On Sunday mornings, people begin arriving at Phat-An long before the Dharma talk begins. Some stand around the cafeteria to drink tea, to read the newspaper, to talk with friends; others slip off their shoes and enter the bright worship hall. The elderly sit in chairs against the wall, while others sit on the floor before the three Buddha statues. Though women sit on the left and men on the right, the line blurs as more women than men slowly fill the rows.

The Dharma talk and sutra recitation begins, in Vietnamese, and people quietly come and go from the main hall. The sound system projects the monk’s words to the entryway outside the glass doors, where people sit or stand. In the adjacent worship hall, people talk with friends and family or sit apart with eyes closed. Children run through, punctuating the rooms with giggles and pattering feet. In the spacious main hall, the monk continues to discuss the teachings of Buddha.

Meanwhile, people have begun to eat the lunch that volunteers dole out. Atop the Styrofoam trays, women pile mountains of rice, salads with tofu, macaroni noodles, spring rolls. The soup is gelatinous and lukewarm; delicious, like the rest of it. People eat with plastic utensils, sitting beside friends and family and filling the room with their voices.

Around noon, the monk ends his talk and begins to recite a sutra, joined by the voices of those gathered in the hall. He then leads the procession, slowly, to the adjoining room. There, before an altar crowded with pictures of the deceased, sticks of incense, and food offerings in Styrofoam bowls, he prays with those who have lost a loved one. People who have lost someone within the last 49 days wear white bands across their heads.