GALEN HOLLEY: Full moon festival draws Buddhists to Panola County

The scene was similar to what one might see at a temple in Hanoi, or perhaps in Jakarta or Phnom Penh, diminutive, bright-eyed worshipers moving around with placid expressions and a hurried sense of sacred purpose.
As night fell they poured polite, steaming servings of green tea into clear, plastic glasses. They hung candle-lit, paper lanterns shaped like cats, fish and stars.
In the florescent light of the Dharma Hall, four children, with gold sequins stitched down their shirt sleeves and down the legs of their pants, stepped into a bright, red dragon costume.
Tonight, as it did every fall, the time had come to meditate upon the full moon. Faithful who’d come from across the state prepared to sit in mindfulness, to contemplate the sign under which the Buddha was born. They readied themselves, through eyes of death and rebirth, to behold the heavenly body that pulls life-giving waters over the face of the earth.
“Tonight, we celebrate miracles of the present moment,” said Sister Boi Nghiem, one of 16 Vietnamese sisters who, upon joining the community of Magnolia Village, took vows of celibacy, poverty and rare simplicity in all things.
Hidden amid the winding back roads west of Sardis, Magnolia Village is what Christians in this area might call a “plant,” an extension of Plum Village, a Buddhist community in southern France, founded by the exiled Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hahn.
At the start of the festival Saturday night, one of the male ascetics lit a string of firecrackers. The bright, tiny explosions breathed sawdust and gunpowder into the air. Moments later, the broad, fatherly sound of the drum heralded the approach of the dragon. The radiant creature danced into the circle of lanterns, carried on the shoulders of four children. It trailed incense smoke and parted the faithful like a tiger cutting through the foliage of a Vietnamese jungle.
“Tonight, we remember our childhood under the stars,” whispered Sister Nghiem, translating the festival text into English.
As the moon drifted across the sky giddy children acted out skits, illustrating the life of the Buddha. The faithful drank glasses of tea. They passed trays of pastries, filled with whipped chocolate and wrapped in flaky, nutty crusts.
Now and again, amid the laughter and singing, Sister Nghiem sounded the signing bowl. She struck three even tones with a mallet against a concave, stone receptacle, calling the faithful back to silence.
When the singing stopped, everyone turned to face the moon. They sat in silence, absorbing the sounds of the night and feeling the respiration of those around them.
Very quietly each of them rose and took a lantern. They followed one another out into the darkness like supplicants moving toward a sacred river.
The chain of glowing lanterns reached from the Dharma hall, past the giant oaks and pines that lined the nearby hillside, down to the lotus pond. There, a statue of Bodhisattva Avalokitesha watched over the calm water, frozen eternally in a posture of peace and listening. His gaze went out over the green lily pads and the tall, slender stems that pierced the womb of the night.
Around the statue, the monastics stood silent as the grave, lost in the glade-loud croaking of frogs and crickets. They peered from under brown hoods, seeming, with their shaved heads and thin, sexless bodies, strangely powerful and severe. As one androgynous body, without expression, without desire, the monks and sisters stared obediently into the pearl colored wash of moonlight.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com

Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal