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The Discussion Meeting

I stand at the end of the path for a moment, staring at the modest home before me. This is the place; this is the address I was given. I am not really sure what waits for me inside but I have a feeling that I was right to come here, that my friend was right to invite me. This aspect of his life had always sparked my curiosity but only now had I accepted his invitation to find out what it is really about.

I reach the door and I am greeted by an obscenely cheerful woman, so pleased to see me despite having never met me. Her home is a welcoming place and, on this day, open to just about anyone. Stepping in, my coat is taken; should I remove my shoes? It seems the right thing to do.

From a room near the end of the hallway comes a low humming which I suspect to be the chanting my friend had told me about. I am led in that direction and, as we draw nearer, the words come clearer; a dozen or so people reciting in unison the same phrase over and over. I am nervous. The sceptical part of my brain is saying, "It's a cult; turn and run!" I could not leave now, though, and disappoint this smiling lady.

We step into a cozy, little room with lots of mismatched furniture and cushions strewn about. The pleasant aroma of incense that fills the air soothes and calms me slightly. Everything and everyone in the room is pointed towards an elevated wooden cabinet, its doors open to reveal a paper scroll with peculiar symbols, probably Chinese or Japanese or something. Although I had been prepared somewhat for a sight like this, it was all very odd to me. 

The kindly lady offers me a comfortable seat on an old sofa beside a young lady, probably eighteen or nineteen years old, who flashes me a warm smile as she chants this phrase strongly and proudly. I think I am hearing it correctly but I dare not try to repeat it lest I offend. The room is loud yet peaceful, a seeming contradiction but perfectly natural here. I sit, quietly surveying the scene, not knowing what will happen next. 

I spot my friend kneeling on the floor near the cabinet, a look of concentration and determination adorning his face. He is one of many holding a set of beads between their hands, occasionally rubbing them together, sometimes gently and sometime vigorously. I am reminded of rosary beads but there is no apparent rhyme nor reason to it; I make a mental note to ask about it, if I can build up the courage.

My mind is a-buzz, in fact, with all the things I want to know, all the questions I ought to ask. The whole situation, mildly intimidating though it is, has piqued my curiosity. I would like to say that I have always had a spiritual side but, if the truth be told, I have never before taken much heed of any religion. My parents, although classifying themselves as Christians, were not religious and did not raise me and my siblings to be so and the four compulsory church visits per year, forced on us by our school, did nothing to deepen my faith and belief in anything. I have always been quite content to be blissfully ignorant of the true meaning of life and what lies beyond it.

Why, then, am I here now? It is a good question and not one I am yet able to answer. Something about the way my friend spoke about it, about the way he exuded confidence and conviction in all he said, resonated with me in an inexplicable way. He was not like one of those Jehovah's witnesses; he was simply expressing the joy he had found in his faith with no ulterior motive. The invitation to this meeting had been extended almost flippantly at the end of the conversation as though certain of receiving a rejection. Indeed, I surprised myself by accepting; even more so by showing up.

Another man, tall and hippy-looking with a beard down to his navel, enters the room and mouths an apology to the chanting hostess. He has brought a packet of cookies which he places on the ground in front of what I am now thinking must be some kind of shrine beside several other such offerings. I feel suddenly dreadful for not having brought anything; I never even thought. I resolve to make up for it the next time.

The next time? The meeting has not even started and I am already thinking like this is going to be a regular occurrence. "See how it goes first, eh?" that sceptical part of me interrupts, not letting me get swept up in it all.

I wonder who is "in charge", who the "priest" is. No one is wearing any particularly distinctive clothing or giving off a "holier than thou" vibe as religious officials often do, in my experience. After several minutes of inspection, I can only assume it is the man sitting front and centre, leading the room in its steady rhythm with his deep, booming voice; he certainly has more presence than the rest. Yet he still lacks the authoritative quality I expected. Time will tell, I suppose.

The man, whom I now realise I am watching intently, raises a thick, wooden stick and rings a bowl-shaped bell three times as the chanting slows dramatically. I had not even noticed the huge bell sitting atop a silk-covered cushion but now it draws my eye to the other paraphernalia before the shrine - a cup containing (I imagine) water; candle sticks, not yet lit; the incense tray. Two tall, green sentry plants stand on either side in beautiful, ceramic pots. Even as an outsider of sorts, I can see the care and attention that has been paid to this immaculate altar.

The chanting has ceased and a few quick hellos are murmured amongst the group. Several people's eyes have fallen on me if only for a second, invariably accompanied by a sincere smile. I am feeling a lot more at ease now; my lingering apprehension has turned to quiet anticipation and I am oddly keen to find out what will happen next.

A quick seat swap results in the friend who invited me now in the leading position; perhaps he is more senior than he lets on. He asks the room a semi-rhetorical question which I do not understand and, upon receiving a couple of affirmative responses, lifts the stick to ring the bell once more. I look around to see that most people now have small, coloured books in their hands in readiness; for what, I am not yet sure.

The girl at my side nudges as the phrase I have heard several hundred times now is chanted three times slowly. She holds open her little, blue book to show me the pages on Asian symbols and non-words written therein. My mind cannot comprehend any of it; it is complete gibberish to me. The lines are recited at what seems to me like break-neck speed and the kind young woman's finger guides me though it throughout. They are as robots to me as the passage is mechanically churned out verbatim with scarcely a variation in tone to be heard; I cannot tell if these are supposed to be words or simply successions of noises, though they must have meaning.

After this, more chanting and I relax again, making a mental note to find out what on Earth had just happened. I feel myself mouthing the words, if you would call them that, along with the curiously mismatched group. Simultaneously, feelings of fear and excitement overwhelm and confuse me; I am enjoying every moment of this but I cannot, for the life of me, say why. 

The chanting is over more quickly this time but is followed by an almost reverent silence. I am shown the little book again and this time the words are in English; they are offering a silent prayer. It is not clear to whom they are offering it but that is definitely what is happening. They offer three prayers in total but I see they are marked at the "second", "third" and "fourth" prayers; the absence of the "first" prayer is peculiar, to say the least. My head is at bursting point with everything I want to know about this strange and wondrous religion.

The meeting proper seems as though it is about to begin; my friend turns his chair to face the room, smiling broadly at me, and others reposition themselves so that we are more or less sitting in a circle. I expect my friend, or maybe the original leader, to start speaking but the room is addressed by a tiny, old lady that I had not even seen until now. Her voice is brimming with true, unadulterated joy as she welcomes us all, her vibrance infectious.

Glancing towards me, she suggests that it would be proper and polite to do a round of introductions. I greatly appreciate the gesture which I assume to be purely for my benefit as I am not aware of other "newbies" present. Going round the skewed circle, each person happily offers at least there name, almost all of them directing their words to me. Some give more information, such as where they are from, their relationship to others in the room or how long they have been practicing. The group is more diverse than I, at first, realised.

A few people identify themselves as being relatively new to the practice whereas some began chanting over thirty years ago or were born into it. The range of professions is highly interesting, too; from students to homemakers, retired engineers to artists. I am in tremendously fascinating company, it seems.

It comes to be my turn to introduce myself; I nervously stumble over a few words as I explain who I am and how I have come to be here today. All eyes are fixed on me as though I were the most interesting person they had ever met which I knew could not be true. Their welcome is sincere and warm; my scepticism has not completely left me but I am now certain that these people are, at the very least, well-meaning and not entirely deluded.

The introductions come to a conclusion and the small woman in the corner, clearly the "chair" of this meeting, begins to speak again. There has been no mention of a "priest" or anything of the like and I start to think that maybe no such thing exists; maybe it is run for the people by the people. This appeals to me; I never much liked the idea of someone claiming to be "closer to God" than someone else.

An apparently predetermined topic for discussion is put forward but everyone is asked, in respect to the guest, me, to avoid unnecessary jargon and to explain non-standard terms when they are used. Similarly, I am encouraged to ask for clarification on anything I do not understand and, indeed, to participate as fully as anyone else. I can hardly believe the courtesy I am being shown; these people are too nice, too lovely.

The discussion is lively and informative. I learn so much just listening to these people, some of whom exhibit awesome wisdom. Not wanting to interrupt the flow of this impressively inspirational dialogue, I do not ask every question that forms in my mind, choosing instead to be selective, even whispering the occasional enquiry to my accommodating neighbour. At any rate, I am so intrigued by it all that I have all but decided that this shall not be my last encounter with these people. Usually apt to be somewhat flaky, this meeting has sparked an enthusiasm within me that has long lay dormant. 

An hour passes seamlessly and still they continue to talk, giving me the most wonderful insight into their way of life. The moderator of the discussion pipes up once more, signalling the end of the meeting and three chants precede the closing of the wooden cabinet, which I now know to a be a "butsudan". The discussion has definitely ended but there is a sense that we are not quite done here. The hostess rises and disappears, followed by a couple of the other women, but most people stay in their seats and a few conversations spark up; I remain where I am, unsure.

My friend, seeing my slight confusion, comes over to me and explains that after the meeting they usually stick around for a cup of coffee and a chat. I now realised that these people are not just a part of some organisation; they have, over years, forged strong bond of friendship. This is as much a social event as a religious one. I am told that I am free to go but am strongly encouraged to stay to get to know everyone a little bit better. I do not even have to think about it; I have no desire whatsoever to leave yet. Coming to this meeting was one of the best decisions I have made in some time.

Coffees and teas are served along with fruit and cakes and crisps and biscuits. The conversation is now lighter, more personal, and everyone is full of laughter and fun. Another hour and a half passes without my noticing; the numbers have depleted but the quality of discussion has not. Phone numbers and e-mail addresses are exchanged and invitations to chant extended which I know are genuine; there is no dishonesty amongst these people, only sincerity. The smile on my face feels as though it may never leave.

With sadness at not being able to stay longer, and after several hugs and handshakes, I leave the kindly lady's home, grinning from ear to ear and with an impression made that will never be forgotten. The glowing sensation engulfing my body lets me know that something momentous has just happened, something that may change my life forever.

I may just have taken my first steps towards becoming a Buddhist.

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