Standing before a statue of the Hindu God, Ganesha, looking at my brothers in borrowed skirts and the bindis on all of our foreheads, I had no idea what to pray for. Am I allowed to pray for anything to this God I don’t know? I looked at the locals in the temple with their heads bowed down and I didn’t know if they were praying or meditating. What’s the difference?
This was all part of the beginning of my questioning into my childhood religion, into different religions and my spirituality. My family and I had started this trip as any other – a vacation to Kauai with plans to learn how to surf and go paddle boarding. But with the storm making all the water around us look like it’s coming out of a sewer we were forced to adhere to other parts of the town.
Our mini house we were staying at was steps away from the beach. My family and I stood on the back porch watching the storm roll in; the wind making palm trees bend and the gray clouds forming to hide any hint of blue. We were all thinking the same thing – what is there in Kauai without the beach? And for the next day or so we drove aimlessly trying to answer that question.
We visited everything from the Kilauea Lighthouse to the Wailua River and even a nearby beach park. The time spent mostly consisted of my family bonding in our rental car on long drives. Only occasionally we would get out to stare at a famous or historical sight for a matter of seconds until leaving. While the views held their own significance, I could not find any simply looking at them. The color of the water took away from the unpretentious state of the landscapes. All I could do was look and that was not rewarding enough.
It wasn’t until we were back at our condo that I was intrigued by what was around me. My dad and I had decided to explore around the condos and found Buddhist statues laid out consecutively throughout the bushes. Circling back to the main office we asked the owner about them. She began to tell us how many people on the island are Buddhist and what the basis of the religion is. After this conversation, I still could not get enough.
I found that the religion was more than a fat, happy man meditating in all the statues I’ve seen. The introduction to Buddhism had me hunting down information on the religion; falling in love with such peaceful and powerful notions.
After being introduced to Buddhist ideas, Kauai was renewed to me with gorgeous landscapes that had somehow come to mean more. But with the weather clearing up, my family and I started to do the activities we had actually planned for the trip. The sun parted through light clouds and the greenery seemed to come to life for the first time since we arrived. With this, we enjoyed our first day in the sun zip lining through lush forests under blue skies. We zip lined for miles and miles until we reached a pond. Thankfully the water was clear enough that we could jump into the pond from a ledge and relax together in tubes. The next day our adventure consisted of, again, trying new things and residing by natural phenomena. We kayaked through rough water to a trail in the middle of a forest. Then we followed a guide who navigated us through loose rocks and tied a rope for us to pass through a stream. Finally, we arrived at a waterfall that had created a natural pool. We spent our afternoon there eating pre-made lunches and taking pictures in front of the waterfall, trying to stay out of the freezing water. But my mom and I had found some awapuhi flowers around the waterfall and convinced my dad and brothers to wait for us to finish running their oils through our hair before the tread back.
These excursions had brought us back to what we were there for and furthered our experience of new things. However, my discovery of Buddhism compelled me to continuously beg my parents to take us to a temple before the trip ended. On our way to the excursions we’d pass Buddhist temples with detailed architecture; the passing car and reserved excursion time locked my curiosity to the outside. I could not stop from wondering what went on inside the temple or succumbing to stereotypes of the religion. I wanted so badly to immerse myself in the religion and experience what the temple had to offer for myself.
On our last day my dad had looked up a temple for us to visit and I could not have been more ready. We arrived to wooden shelves with rows of cover ups for too short of shorts or exposed shoulders. While this made my brothers hesitant to follow through, it only intrigued me. But when we passed through a trellis with woven vines and ended up in front of a Ganesha statue, I realized we were not in a Buddhist temple. My dad had found Kauai’s Hindu Monastery and I was relieved to know I was not the only one in the family that wasn’t very cultured. A little bummed as I was, I was still ready to learn about this new religion as well.
One by one each of us were greeted by an older man in long robes holding a small box filled with red powder. Once we were face to face he gently pressed his thumb into the powder and spread it on the space between our eyebrows.
The man explained that it symbolized protection from negative energy and allowed us to be “spiritually open to the Divine.” In this moment goosebumps traced my body and I felt spiritually connected for the first time. And during this time I didn’t even know what I was spiritually connected to. But I knew it was something incredible.
The monastery was breathtaking in every aspect. There was a long pond with lily pads and a view over looking a stream with so much greenery around. As lost as we felt and I’m sure we looked, it was nice not having a “tour guide” or any previous information on the monastery. It allowed us to experience the energy of the sacred space and the various practices that were being performed. I could modestly observe. There was no influence but my eyes and I was content with what I saw. The people were devoutly giving thanks to their Gods and nothing but kindness was exchanged in the interactions I witnessed.
Following our own tour of the monastery, my family and I found the gift shop. Statues of figures, some with too many arms and some of elephants resembling humans, were resting on tables in all sizes. We admired the mystics because we could not admire their meaning that was unknown to us. This experience in this place was learning a new belief system and we could not learn everything in this time. Considering it was our first time in a Hindu monastery, we were simply fascinated to know they had various gods and distinct rituals.
But one thing that really caught my eye in the gift shop was a kids’ book was displayed on one of the shelves. Captivated by the titled “Vegan is Love”, I flipped through the pages to see pictures regarding love to every animal as part of our existence. The book encouraged not only avoiding eating animals out of love, but everything else that comes with it. Animal testing, killing for fur and overall exploitation were introduced in such a basic manner.
The concept of love was made so simple. All it meant was to treat everything with respect and truly one another as living beings. The book had left me astounded at such a basic idea in relation to its complexity in my life.
I left the monastery feeling like I had just discovered an entirely different world and way of life. To everyone’s expectations, that night I influenced my parents to take us to a vegan restaurant. After a delicious meal, the night had assisted my growing belief in veganism and encouraged me to try new things. When we were leaving the restaurant, I turned to my mom and said “It’s good to know that vegan cookies can actually taste good!”
The vacation to Kauai had changed my outlook on life. I am now vegan and have expanded my views on spirituality by incorporating ideals from both Hinduism and Buddhism. My beliefs originated from this trip and followed me back to my home. The confusion over the concept of meditation is now clear as I meditate every day as part of my spiritual practice.
Now, traveling is more to me than seeing things I had not seen or going places I had not gone, but opening myself up to cultures and ideas I have not been exposed to.