What does Chinese New Year mean to me? First, it is the power hoses that one begins to notice… these are not your ordinary garden-variety hoses with a spray nozzle attachment… but more the industrial strength kind, with large tubing pipes and forceful water-pressure strength to reach tall buildings, wash down public pavements, and cleanse the city surfaces coated in pollution-grime. I am a westerner living in Chinese Hong Kong and over the years, this is what I first begin to notice edging into the mind’s periphery as I duck under mist near the buildings, hop over hoses across plazas, and make way for the street teams of scrubbers.
Our western notion of “Spring cleaning” comes early in the lead-up to the annual Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations. Great excitement and great cleansing takes place to symbolically sweep out the old, and pave the way for renewing ties, fresh starts, family time, and turning a page in the mindset of the astrological calendar. Coincidentally today, I wear my old “new trousers” from CNY 14 years ago, when as a new arrival in Hong Kong, my Chinese advisors suggested to buy some new clothes for auspicious beginnings. Water splashing, fresh paint, traffic crawling, and the district Recycling Day – all were early warning signs as the preparations gained momentum – anticipation energy was busy and contagious.
There is a tingling sense of superstition and luck in the air and a giddiness and buoyancy in the moods of the people. A friend of mine from New York marvels about a grumpy colleague who grouses for 11 months of the year, and suddenly ‘transforms to happiness’ in his enthusiasm to return home to Hong Kong for the annual holidays. It is an important time for home-cooking and traditional family gatherings, evidenced by the mass transiting movements of Chinese communities around the world.
My location of work, in its pre-CNY vibe is a peculiar and special kind of place – not your run-of-the-mill office desks and cubicles sort of area. Truth is, we are actually part of a Chinese Buddhist temple, which also serves as community center, offices, classrooms, monastic residence, and host to periodic meditation retreats. It is a beehive of activity on a normal basis. This curious intersection of Chinese culture and Buddhist devotional practice lends itself to an appreciative air of holiday symbolism and festive atmosphere that is quite engaging with cheerful greetings and decorations arriving daily.
While for weeks our office dharma center filled up with the visual delights of holiday fun: red lanterns, orange trees, new chairs, red packets and decorations galore… oh and yes, lots of washing, coats of new paint and moving the furniture around… another sort of force was expanding in the mood: appreciation and gratitude. Twin reminders for Buddhist practice in our daily lives. Combine those heartfelt sentiments with dana (giving, offerings), and off we went to lunch one day with a group of our robed sangha members and some lay patrons in the spirit of celebration…
‘Happy Veggies’ is a sunlit and cheerful restaurant in the heart of a busy commercial area called Wanchai – the upstairs dining counters look out over a sports park and busy tram lines. What makes this place unusual and different from other nearby vegetarian eateries is the philosophy and the staff: non-profit and employing the hearing-impaired for promotion of self-reliance in society. The food tastes good; the employees have a useful sense of purpose in life, healthy eating, and our sangha community shares in dana, appreciation, and gratitude together in our patronage of the restaurant. It was a meaningful lunch that day and an opportunity to reflect on Buddhist practice thanks to the seasonal holiday occasion.
CNY is a Chinese cultural celebration, and when viewed through the Buddhist lens, it is full of natural practice moments during gestures of generosity, shared connections with family and community, and expressed gratitude for fellowship and purpose. The lunch outing caused me to reflect on some things in life: joy within our sangha community, the passing warmth of smiles with another, kindness of courtesies exchanged, my own ability to hear… and others not – these were the silent blessings and offerings that I received this year. Feeling gratitude. Just little reminders that we all need to stay alert and practice the teachings of Buddhist wisdom.
Well, time to start a (lunar) new year once again… hm, let’s see about my transition progress … ? cleaned out the old closets, ? 8 new projects for work, ? visit with friends more often… and ? take my elderly dog to her favorite park each week… and don’t forget to hand-signal… after all, she’s deaf now. Her silent world reminds me always to be attentive and respond with gentle kindness. This reflective time gives me insight for practice.