It’s January 19th. Tet will begin in just 11 days on the 30th. Not particularly a Buddhist holiday – it’s lunar New Year in Vietnam, China and other traditionally Buddhist parts of Asia. I’ve celebrated Tet with my family every year for the last twenty six years. That’s twenty six years of meditating at temple (or when we lived in areas where temples weren’t available, at our own shrines). Twenty six years of preparing food for donation to the needy. Twenty six years of boisterous family feasts, new haircuts and new clothes to kick off another year together.
This morning, I began to prepare a northern Indian feast for a semi-regular Sunday evening dinner with neighbours and all I could think about, instead of the beautiful array of spices spread before me, was how much I will miss the temple aspects of Tet.
As a Sikh, I can still celebrate the lunar New Year with new clothes, family feasts and donating to the needy. And I will. I have no intentions of giving up those incredibly positive traditions. This year the new clothes will consist of keshi and chunni though. In losing the Buddhist religion and adopting Sikhi, there are things that I will no longer be participating in. In particular, I will not have my hair cut. I will not pray at temple and this year, I will be giving my Buddhas, my own shrines away to practising Buddhists.
I never did get into the superstitious aspects of temple at Tet. I found fortune telling an amusement at the best of times. Rather than asking ancestors for gifts in this life, when I lit incense at their shrines, I caught them up on what the year had brought and remembered them with stories. Instead of these things at temple I always looked forward to the community. I enjoyed meditating with the monks first thing in the morning, bringing them a donation of food, greeting neighbours and strangers with good wishes for the New Year, burning away the chaos of the last year, remembering the ancestors who came before us at shrines and sharing their stories and the thick smell of jasmine scented incense rising from pots in front of the temple as I walked in. Now, mediation will be different and with a different community. I also will not participate in any of the superstition or fortune telling. No longer will I add my own burning sticks of incense to the pot. When I visit a temple during my travels now, I will be a welcomed tourist but a tourist nonetheless.
I am going to miss those times dearly. Though I’m struggling with the idea that those days are now over for me, I’m not actually sad about the change. I’m also looking forward to what is to come. I will still enjoy preparing food for the needy. The money I would have spent on a new haircut and a whole set of new clothing will now also be donated to the needy. I’ll enjoy the family feast. Those things won’t change.
In addition to those times, I have new things to look forward to. This year, I will adopt a new name as part of my identity – Himmatpreet Nguyen Kaur. I look forward to many hours of seva at gurdwara. I look forward to finally mastering the art of wrapping my keshi. I look forward to meeting more members of the community and to learning more about the light of the gurus. In all of this, its impossible to feel sad.
I am told its not uncommon to feel nostalgic for the life you’re leaving behind when you convert to a religion, even if you were never very observant in your old faith. A Jewish friend of mine, converted many years ago from Catholicism, reassures me that she still misses the community feeling, the scents and the tradition of Christmas Eve mass and even more misses Christmas morning. When I asked her whether she had second thoughts, she also assured me that, like me, she’d taken a lot of time considering options before converting to her new faith but once the decision was made, she’s never thought twice about it.
As I type this (in between food prep stages) I feel my kara hanging off my arms and I feel the keshi on my head, my kanga tucked beneath it. They feel lighter than air, lighter than I’ve ever felt. And they feel warm, like parts of my body. I’m pleased to know that though few will ever know it, my hair beneath it will not be cut. I know I made the right decision, I don’t have any second thoughts just nostalgia for an important, happy part of my past. And that’s perfectly okay.