Last summer I grabbed my backpack and joined 60+ students from 12 countries to learn about Buddhist monastic life in China. A short reflection of the Woodenfish HBMLP experience.
Although somewhat unexpected, the program unfolded in two very interesting settings:
The first place was a simple, local temple which had been destroyed and rebuilt several times in run-down village near Baoding city, Hebei Province. The other was a newly established fancy Tibetan-style temple at a famous pilgrim site with several parts that are still under construction.
In the first two weeks we had a pretty full schedule and strict rules which layed the foundation for monastic discipline and appreciation. We woke up every day at 5.20, had Taiji class, silent breakfast, class, free (nap) time, meditation, cultural kungfu class, free (shower? laundry?) time, dinner and vespers.
Although for a die-hard monastic it might seem pretty comfortable because we had good beds and even a weak wifi connection, we faced a few hardships: We had shared toilets /showers with nearly no privacy except for a small curtain, we were also only served simple vegetarian temple food – eat it or leave it.
Because of the climate change and jetlag at first we used most of our free time to take naps, slowly we got used to the routine and some even started going jogging or having special activities and I ventured out drawing and socializing with Chinese locals in the temple.While we were there we experienced not only the daily life of the monastics and lay people but also witnessed a kids camp and the temple’s 20th recontruction anniversary ceremony. By the time we left the temple, many of us had to say good-bye to a bunch of new friends. Monks, Chinese helpers, their children, bystanders, kitchen staff, even the pets. It was quite a touching scene having them bow and wave us goodbye while we were getting into the bus.
Impermanence in plans
The second part took part in a super fancy Tibetan-style temple and we were lucky to be able to live in a newly built hotel right next door. The rooms were excellent and we even had our own private toilet and hot water shower!
But the external comfort barely compensated the effort we had to put in the last week. Few days after settling in we started the silent meditation retreat which still consists of 5.20am – 9.30pm days but in complete silence and with -6 hours of sitting and walking meditation. The taiji was replaced by stretching and cultural class by tea ceremony. The mornings (8-11am) were spent in sitting meditation, something that required so much mental strength that during the small breaks we would only have the force to stretch or lie down and during long breaks we would fall into exhausted sleep.
During our stay we witnessed some interesting events:
The first was a special event in which we were able to see many different monks, even hermits, coming to the temple. The second was the arrival of a an important Lama and a small procession to welcome him. We also got invited to meditate in the main hall, a very insightful experience.The first temple had only a handful of monks and most visitors were helpers and village people, after some time we knew most of the people there. The second temple was bigger with more monks and a touristy place, meaning there were many new faces every day and lots of photos taken.
Things I learned this month:
- appreciating an apple/piece of watermelon as snack
- eating everything (including Pepper, Porridge and other food I couldn’t digest well/wasnt fond of)
- eating vegetarian for 1 month (except for 1 day break when I had fried squid)
- how friendly the lay people around temples are, I was super touched by their kindness
- control my mind, even if my body is hurting (at least to a big extend)
- going with the flow, embracing impermanence
- 1 month without cellphone/watch
- 10 days with no internet at all
- I went from 0 sport to daily taiji + kungfu and meditation exercises
I started as complete meditation newbie (never tried at all) and gradually learned Anapana-Meditation and Vipassana-Meditation. Within 3-4 weeks I got aware of my breath, managed to find and let go of most hurting parts in the body during meditation and later achieved a sense of body-lessness, only feeling the mind, heart and respiration. ☸