One of the most enjoyable and memorable events during my stay in Rockhampton was being invited to a lunch dana at Thai Taste, a restaurant owned by Connie and her husband, Nigey. Their business has been operating for twenty years in Rockhampton and seems to be a kind of unofficial cultural outpost for the local southeast Asian community.
Over thirty people of all ages joined the event, including people originally from Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Thailand, as well as their children and grandchildren who were born here in Australia. The amount of people surprised me; it was a weekday, and many participants had taken time from work to be there and the young kids had been given permission to skip school for the day. The amount of people and the diversity of attendees is a real testament to the community leadership of Connie but is also a sign of how important it was for these Buddhists to participate in the cultural activity of offering food to a monk because of how rare such an occasion is in a place like Rockhampton. As with many regional areas in Australia, there are no temples or monasteries nearby for hundreds or even thousands of kilometres.
In contrast, many of the people in the room grew up in countries where there were temples everywhere—even a small village is likely to have several monasteries. In such places it is easy to offer food to a monk. This is considered a highly meritorious deed and is one of the most common forms of interactions people have with their spiritual practice. In Asia, people begin participating in giving alms from an early age, and for many offering food to monks is an activity that they do every day. In Australia, however, it is not easy to participate in this practice and even harder in regional towns where there are no temples or monks at all.
So, for the south eastern Asian community of Rockhampton, having a monk come to visit them was a good opportunity—not only to offer food and make merit—but also an important chance to pause and reflect on spiritual issues and to reconnect with religious and cultural parts of themselves that may have faded into the background over the years. Many of the attendees mentioned that they have not had the opportunity to think about their spiritual practice for a long time. Some talked about how they used to offer food to monks back in their home village as a child and how they miss seeing the monks or going to the temple. There was a palpable sense of nostalgia and even a few tears.
For immigrant communities, these types of occasions are intimately wrapped up in memories of their home country and often bring to the surface a lot of complex emotions about their migration experience. Engaging in cultural activities brings to mind the vast distance between them and their family and friends back home. Such events bring into focus the time that has passed and the differences between the life they used to live and the life they are living now.
Despite the heaviness of such feelings lurking beneath the surface, there was actually a great deal of merriment on the day. The Thai and Lao people love to do everything with a great sense of fun and enjoyment. There was lots of laughter and a real sense of happiness that they could come together as a community with friends and family for this special occasion. We joked about being worried that it had been so long that people would have forgotten how to do the usual ceremonial chanting but in the end they chanted loudly and with great enthusiasm, creating a lot of positive energy in the room, which I think surprised even them.
The presence of young kids also made the day fun and enjoyable. The parents were keen to introduce the younger generation to Buddhism and traditional cultural activities. It was a real delight to see the little ones learning how to place their hands in anjali and bow towards the Sangha.
After the meal, I gave a talk about the importance of maintaining a connection to our spiritual practice even when external conditions are not supportive. I also shared what I had learnt from travelling to southeast asian countries about the Dhamma, especially being inspired by the practice of generosity in Buddhist communities abroad. I also reflected on how Thai and Lao peoplehad taught me the importance of having fun in the moment, enjoying everything with a light heart and a ready smile. There is a beautiful wisdom in this kind of everyday happiness that shows the potential for us to choose perceptions even when things are challenging.
I really enjoyed my time at Thai Taste. I look forward to visiting this wonderful and vibrant community again soon!