In the first 20 years of my life in China, I had never spent more than two hours in a Buddhist temple. Yet, after five years in the US, one of the first things I wanted to do upon returning was to do an immerse myself in a monastery. The rise of Buddhism in the West has ignited my curiosity about this ancient practice. I wanted to take a closer look.
1. Getting there and the first impression
There were a couple of retreats coming up within three hours’ reach from me. I chose the one in Suzhou. Strictly speaking, it was not a retreat in a yoga retreat sense. It was more like a summer camp to experience monastic life in the Chinese Buddhism tradition. So, one morning in August, I set off for Suzhou with a small backpack.
A two-hour-long train and bus ride later, I arrived at this all-female monastery: Qing Liang Shu Yuan (清凉书院). The name, which literally translates into “Refreshing Academy”, anchors a sliver of coolness in the 40-degree (104 F) summer heat. As I approached the entrance, the volunteers and the nuns immediately welcomed me with warm smiles. Everyone calls a nun or a monk Shifu (better known as “Sifu”), so I went along. Its equal would be “Swami” in Hinduism and “Roshi” in the Japanese Zen Buddhism.
My first impression of the monastery was how immaculate it was. Everything seemed to be under discreet care. The newly-paved ground was ironed flat and the plants were beaming greenness. There were another 8 people in my assigned dorm. The room looked more like a hotel suite than a dorm. Instead of arm-wide bunk beds, we slept in double-sized beds arranged next to each other. No privacy, of course, but the place was spacious enough for everyone move around.
Our dorm is the youngest with an average age of 22; the nuns gently referred to us as the “kids’ unit”. The majority of the 40 some participants are between the age of 35 and 60. Due to the compact schedule, I didn’t get to interact with many people, so I couldn’t get the whole picture. But from the little I know, some of them were on their way from a lay Buddhist to a nun. Some wanted to deepen their Buddhist practice. Some were interested in becoming a Buddhist by taking the precepts. Some were on vacation from their stressful work and wanted to relax (too bad, it was anything but relaxation). In a rare case, one person was urged by a rigorous family member to come as this family member worried that they would commit sins if not living in a Buddhist way. Yup, surprise, fanaticism exists in Buddhism too. Anyways, most people were there either to deepen their practice or out of spiritual curiosity.
In my case, I have always been interested in spirituality and curious about different practices, religions or not. Judging from afar through other people’s lens is like trying to smell something while wearing a mask permeated with others’ breath. Sometimes it protects you from harmful scent, but in the case of established practices, it’s not my preferred method of smelling 🙂
2. Daily Schedule
So how did my day look like?
- 4 wake up
- 4:30-5:30 morning chanting
- 6-6:30 breakfast
- 6:40-7:30 cleaning
- 7:40-10:30 classes (martial art, Buddhist precepts and chanting)
- 11-11:30 lunch
- 11:30-13:30 nap
- 14-17:20 classes (sutras, Buddhist philosophy, and precepts)
- 18-19 evening chanting
- 19:20-20:30 meditation
- 20:30-21:00 drumming and chanting
- 22 sleep
I’ve long heard that you need to get up at 4 am in the morning to do pujas in many ashrams, but I didn’t know it’s the routine in a Chinese Buddhist temple as well. For the first a few days I woke up to the alarm at 3.40 sharp. Yet, this enthusiasm didn’t survive the waves of drowsiness in the afternoon. By the end of the program, I woke up close to 4 am, giving myself just enough time to get ready.
3. Thoughts and observations
Keep in mind that Buddhism itself is a vast menu. Chinese Buddhism has been distinctly localized and has developed itself into many sects. So this is not intended as a generalization. I am drawing strictly from this retreat experience, which pertains to the Chinese Buddhism practiced at Qing Liang Shu Yuan in Suzhou, Jiangsu. By the way, QLSY is a branch under Hanshan Temple, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in China.
1) Living a monastic life is HARD WORK.
The nuns’ schedule is close to ours but differs on the subject of the courses and the study time. Many of them would stay up late or even get up earlier to going over their studies. Some were taking preparatory classes to become ordained. Some were working on their dual undergraduate degrees, one from a Buddhist Academy and the other from a university. Some were doing their graduate studies in Buddhism. Even the head of the monastery was working on a Ph.D. on top of her intensive work.
The rigorousness of their life left me awestruck. It’s the complete opposite of the stereotype: idling away one’s life to escape from reality. It is, however, much quieter than the outside. Across the street from QLSY, there was a busy shopping mall persistently blasting music at night to attract the crowd. In stark contrast to the commercial invasiveness outside, people seemed much more concentrated inside.
2) It’s all about following the precepts.
There are different Buddhist precepts geared towards practitioners at various stages. A special set of Eight Precepts is for lay people whose secular life requires more flexibility. On the first day, we were offered the choice to take the Eight Precepts for the duration of the program. I opted in with the intention to get the most out of this experience. Over the past year, bit by bit, I have been adopting a yogic lifestyle. It shares a few common grounds with Buddhism, so it wasn’t a big change for me. Had there not been the yogic assimilation, it would have been a challenge for me to take the Eight Precepts. For example, one of the precepts is to abstain from eating between noon and sunrise. It would’ve been a torment for the foodie me a few years ago. But after practicing Kriya yoga for half a year, I now naturally eat less and feel drawn to sattvic food a lot more than junk food.
The Eight Precepts are reasonable. What I didn’t resonate with, though, is the strict rules and conservative beliefs. To me, they emanate sexism and continue to contribute to the entrenched patriarchy.
A quick example is the rule that women can only become a monk once but men seven times. I learned this from a high-ranking nun. (I haven’t been able to find citation in English, click here if you read Chinese). Another one is that nuns cannot go out alone but monks can. In our precept class, the Shifu told us that this came about because monastic Buddhists used to dwell in rural areas where large animals roam around. It was more dangerous for a single woman to face off against a tiger than a single man. Today, many monasteries are in the urban areas or are still in the mountains but much more accessible. Yet people still adhere to this rule. The Shifu even told us that she refused to attend a governmental conference until they agreed to invite another nun so the two of them could travel together. Did I tell you I didn’t encounter a single tiger during my bus ride?
This is also my issue with some other spiritual practices that have been established into religions. Their reluctance to exfoliate the dead skin depressingly covers up its well-intended glamor.
I really wished that we spent more time on meditation. The schedule allocated more than an hour a day, but in reality, it only totaled up to 2 hours during the program due to various reasons. We learned how to take care of our body before, during and after meditation. Such as how to completely covering up our legs, how to palm the eyes and rub the back of the neck, etc. It was so interesting to learn these things as neither of my early introductions to meditation mentioned this (Headspace and Sadhguru). Meditation is one of the most important factors that drew me to spiritual practices. It seems clear that I should sign up for a Vipassana retreat sometime soon 🙂
3) But it’s still a beautiful practice that stills your mind if you’re up for abiding all the rules.
I’m glad I gave a try at the monastery. I know seven days are far from enough for one to understand a practice thoroughly. But we don’t have to be well-versed in the technicalities to sense our likings, especially when it comes to spirituality.
The Chinese Buddhism practice that I experienced is still a beautiful one and a well-established one that helps you still your mind. But all the rules make it less relatable to me. If your curiosity is drawing you to Chinese Buddhism, I encourage you to experience it for a few days. With the increasing effort to globalize Chinese Buddhism, more information is becoming available in English. I recently came across this interesting program called Woodenfish. They run programs for English speaking youth to experience Buddhist monastic life in China. And Longquan Temple is now a leading force in introducing Chinese Buddhism from mainland China to the world. Check them out if you’re interested.
Comment below if you know more resources for English speaking friends to experience Chinese Buddhism 🙂