The aroma of tea fills the air, and the noise of Puli’s streets nearly drowns out our voices as my sister, myself, and the two monks accompanying us, attempt to order. After much nodding and pointing, I take my first sip of Taiwanese milk tea.
It was absolutely amazing, though that might have more to do with the figurative flavor of rebellion, than the literal taste of the tea. You see, we were supposed to be volunteering on the grounds Chung Tai monastery, where my family was spending a month-long pilgrimage. But, when a couple of monks hatched a plan to head to the city for milk tea, that seemed much more exciting.
We were discovered by my mother and an accompanying nun while returning the car to the garage (ducking underneath the backseat window does not render one invisible), but the adventure revealed that even monks were capable of small rebellions. I was fascinated, and though I didn’t yet realize it, the “milk tea rebellion” was actually the seed of changes to come.
I was raised as a Zen Buddhist, spending long hours of my childhood at our local Buddha Gate Monastery. I loved everything about it—volunteering, taking classes, counseling for the summer camp. So, naturally I was incredibly eager for my first pilgrimage to Taiwan at age 9, excited to see the famous Chung Tai temple and the community that lives there. That first pilgrimage didn’t disappoint. I toured the grounds, worked with volunteers, and was in awe of the tranquil positivity of every person there.
However, three years later when my mom proposed a second pilgrimage, I had misgivings. In the past year the serene ambiance of Buddha Gate’s lecture halls had begun to dull, their once captivating luster wearing away as I repeated the same monotonous tasks. Uncertainty about my dedication to a faith so vital to my identity dogged my heels, made worse by the fact that I was constantly aware of my doubts precisely because Buddhism teaches awareness.
Nevertheless, I made the second pilgrimage, hoping that Chung Tai’s peaceful atmosphere would ease my mind. It did not.
The silence throughout the grounds felt smothering. I was tired of tranquility; I wanted to make a mark, have a say, argue with someone. Luckily, high school was on the horizon, and I was soon to find an outlet in debate.
In the universe of high school debate, everything can be questioned and criticized -- even the rules of a debate round itself. For the first time, I was free to question the need to abide by predetermined rules, and examine the good in accepting them. Debating things as banal as transportation infrastructure pushed me to think more critically about everything, my faith most of all.
I found could no longer ignore the fact that no one seemed to encourage discussion or questioning of what often seemed like rigid practices grounded in archaic, often patriarchal, traditions. Despite all the teachings I’d received on awareness, I realized that my willingness to passively accept the terms of faith as dictated, was actually the opposite.
I’m still uncertain of the role Buddhism will play in my life, although I’m confident that it will always play one. I still volunteer at the monastery, and I spent time this summer taking care of children during summer camp. My time with them made me more patient and forgiving, just as my weekends as a ceremony acolyte taught me teamwork, compromise, and efficiency. The Buddhist principles of awareness have equipped me to closely examine myself and the world. They’ve helped me identify the dichotomies of good and bad present in almost everything, as well as the importance of navigating a complex world with compassion and empathy.
I’ll likely never be as dedicated to Buddhism as the volunteers at Chung Tai, but perhaps one day I’ll find a balance between faith and doubt. Until then, I plan to keep asking questions, debating the answers, and expanding my awareness outward.