I don’t endeavor to emulate de Toqueville. For all the niceties and praise he laid on the then-newish America, the American people have run with his comments much more than is currently applicable. No, my observations filter through a perspective influenced by myriad ideologies, identities, affirmations, and rejections—you read only what I think, all the while unaware of everything that led me to that thought, and you to these words. My account, therefore, is always incomplete, as is your knowledge; as is all our knowledge.
What if the Buddhists have it right? That’s the Catch-22 of general religion, isn’t it? We hope that who or what we worship is the right being or object of our adoration, not out of fear, but pure belief; not to ward off damnation, but to grant salvation. Redemption. We hope to escape Samsara through increasingly virtuous existences, since we come back and back again, until our actions are worthy of merit and replication because they are finally recognized as good; or we hope Usher is right, and Pitbull, and all the other pop artists who sing about the one life we live, so obviously influenced by Christian thought, since, no, you do not get multiple lives, but only one, so live it right—and by right, we mean in a godly fashion.
I’m walking through a Buddhist temple, the day is cloudy and occasional drops of rain pinch my skin, as if trying to make me go home, or stay indoors. I play the role of eager tourist, who is there not to learn, but to record what he sees and move on. I don’t know if I’m looking at Bodhisattvas or emperors, but before me sit or stand various figures in various poses, bearing varying significances I’m to ignorant to understand or appreciate. This is a place of worship, though, as indicated by the cushions at the feet of the Bodhisattva(s)/emperor(s). Occasionally, someone will kneel, join their hands together flat, and look up at the mute observer whose gaze is fixed ahead of him, not at his worshipper. Are they thanking this entity, or are they asking for something? Does a conversation with God ever consist of anything other than those two things? I also consider kneeling, but unless I’m taking pictures, anything I do here cannot feel genuine, certainly because I would not be genuine in my intentions. I snap a picture, instead.
The faces of grandparents adorn some rooms, and though their display is not as grandiose as those of the Bodhisattva/emperors, they also bear offerings and occupy some not-so-scarce real estate. I snap their picture, too. Believe me, if they were alive and in the Metro, and if they saw me, they also would snap a picture of me—it’s happened plenty of times already. Aware of my intrusion, I leave the ancestor worship to those who at least know the proper way to hold incense. At this point, I feel my tourist-y identity kick in, and I think, wow, you could become quite involved in a place like this, if you wanted. But could you, really? If my phone wasn’t in my hand, it would be in my pocket, and if I left it in my bag for nonsensical reasons, then I would feel it in my leg like a phantom limb. Even if I did not own a phone, I would still see one in the hands of other tourists, foreigners and Chinese citizens alike. Would such a sight impede my idea of an authentic experience? Absolutely, but does that experience even exist anymore? Did it ever?
The amount of conditioning we go through, from what we should feel and what we should see, that’s what impedes true authenticity. What is a reenaction if not an act of mimicry, or the present recreation of that which is no longer true? Is not such an experience hollow, existing only to fulfill preconceptions, those which are already incorrect, with false truths only for our false confirmation? For all I know, this is a defense of the smartphone in the Buddhist temple that should not be, because for all we know, it is our attraction to the smartphone’s presence, permanent at this point, that prevents the sight or sound of something truly genuine. Perhaps the artificial sound of the camera shutter button obstructs something trying to get through to me in the temple. While I hold this phone, I am a part of it, not it a part of me, and I am a part of the phone’s world, not it a part of mine. For if I remain attached to that which is, I look past that which should be, and because I am unable to capture that which my phone cannot see or hear, I, too, cannot hear or see that which pervades this place.