The sound of wooden sticks rattling inside a bigger wooden cylinder echoed throughout the circular corridor of Pagoda Avalokitesvara. Slowly, a wooden stick began standing out above the rest and soon enough, it fell to the carpeted floor of the pagoda’s shrine. Prayers were made to thank the gods as the caretaker of the temple showed up with bringing a yellow paper containing a poem and a fortune.
That, my friends, is the basic description of a ciam si ritual, a fortune-telling ritual commonly done by Chinese-Indonesians at Pagoda Avalokitesvara. Ciam si is one of the things that a lot of people do when they get to the pagoda apart from taking photos and learning about Buddhism. My mother and sister were two of the people who did it as well.
It was raining when we arrived at Vihara Buddhigaya, the complex in which Pagoda Avalokitesvara is located. The temple’s name itself is actually less known by people than the name of the pagoda since the pagoda is more famous for being the tallest pagoda in Indonesia at the height of 45 meters. The pagoda has seven stories symbolizing the Buddhist belief that there are seven levels of heaven in the after life and visitors can only access the first story of the pagoda.
We climbed the pagoda’s wet marble staircase and took off our shoes at the topmost step to respect the sacredness of the pagoda. With our bare feet against the cool marble floor of the pagoda and the smell of incense thick in the air, we made our way circling the pagoda’s corridor while learning about it from its caretaker.
The pagoda is a place to worship the goddess Kuan Yin and thus, there is a big shrine inside the pagoda building dedicated to the goddess. There are several plates of food and flowers laid out as offerings on a table in front of the statue of the goddess. Candles are lit among them and at the front of the desk, there are several cylinders with bamboo sticks in them to be used for ciam si. In front of the table, a carpet has been placed with cushions laid out on it to cushion the knee during prayers.
Outside of the shrine, there are five statues placed at even distances from each other which represent different things that believers can ask in their prayers: fortune, a good daughter, protection, a good son, and health. Placing an incense stick in front of on the statues means that the person praying asks for that thing. So if you want to pray for protection, then you need to place your incense stick in front of the statue representing protection.
There were also paper lanterns strung out on the pagoda’s ceiling. These paper lanterns contain words of thanksgiving written by worshipers who have had their prayers granted.
And of course, like most Buddhist temples, there are candles lit near the big shrine and a special metal lantern with flame to light incense sticks inside it.
We made our way full-circle around the pagoda and back to the big shrine. The caretaker also pointed out that the statue of Kuan Yin at the shrine actually faces a bodhi tree, under which Sidharta Gautama received enlightenment and became Buddha. Under the tree is a metal statue of Buddha himself and on its branches, ribbons have been strung by worshipers containing their wishes.
The caretaker also explained the procedure of ciam si. Through ciam si, those who believe can learn about their fortune for the entire year after receiving it. However, ciam si does not usually explain one’s fortune directly, but through poems. These poems are then interpreted by a Buddhist teacher to a message for those reading them. The interpretation usually covers your fortune in terms of career/business, love life, finance, health, and family.
Even though the caretaker advises that non-Buddhists doing ciam si can pray to their Almighty God, the ritual involves kneeling in front of a goddess’ statue and fortune-telling. For that reason, even though I was really curious about what the poems says about my future, I didn’t do the ritual because my heart of hearts just felt like it would betray my faith by doing it. However, my mother and sister took part in ciam si and I learned about the ritual as well.
Ciam si in Pagoda Avalokitesvara starts with lighting up incense sticks and praying to the Almighty God while introducing ourselves to him. After that, worshipers place several of their incense sticks on a pit in front of the big shrine before kneeling in front of the shrine .
Then, worshipers circle the pagoda and pray in front of each of the five statues, leaving three incense sticks at each one. Once they return to the shrine, they are then given two pieces of wood shaped like half a circle, ask the gods (or whoever it is they are praying to) a question they want to ask, then throw the pieces of wood to the ground. If both pieces of wood have the flat side up, it means that their question is being laughed at. If both have the curved side up, then their question is being ignored. Both of these mean that worshipers need to ask a different question or ask the same question again. However, if one piece of wood has the flat side up and the other the curved one, then they can proceed to the next step.
This step is the core of ciam si. Worshipers are given a cylinder containing numbered wooden sticks and they shake it until one stick falls to the ground. After looking at the number, they are then given the same semi-circle wood from earlier and are supposed to ask whether or not that answer is the one for them. If both woods have the curved or flat sides facing up at the same time, then the person asking for the fortune needs to shake the cylinder again until another stick falls to the floor and then ask whether it is the right answer again. If both woods still have the same side facing up, then they need to keep shaking and asking until one of the semi-circular wood has the flat side up and the other has the curved side up.
Once that happens, worshipers can thank the gods and the caretaker of the pagoda will give them a paper corresponding to the number on the stick containing the poem and the fortune.
Through the eyes of a non-believer, it was a very complex yet fascinating ritual. It was interesting that those asking for their fortune need to introduce themselves to the gods first. It was as if you can’t just barge in there and demand them to tell you your future without them knowing who you are first, which makes a lot of sense. The part where you need to be direct with your questions to the gods and have to ask them “is this it?” when they give you an answer is also quite fascinating. There’s some sort of beauty in asking “okay, is this really the answer to my question?” and trying to get other answers again if it’s not it. Plus, the smell of incense is brilliantly calming for me.
There is something so beautiful about ciam si that I can’t exactly pinpoint. Watching it carried out in the quiet solemnity at Pagoda Avalokitesvara may also add to that beauty. Even though I don’t believe it, I respect those who go through ciam si to know more about their future and I respect what the pagoda showcases of Buddhism: that it is a belief about gratitude of the past and faith that their gods are the only ones who can fulfill what believers wish for their future. After all, don’t we all ponder about our past and future from time to time no matter what we believe in? Whatever way we believe can answer those questions, it’s nice to learn how others answer them as well.
Pagoda Avalokitesvara (Vihara Buddhigaya) | Jl. Perintis Kemerdekaan, Pudakpayung, Banyumanik, Kota Semarang, Jawa Tengah | Open: 7 AM – 9 PM | Entrance: free. To participate in ciam si, you can pay however much you want to pay.