My stay at a Chinese Monastery

March of 2011

When Bodhidharma passed his Transmission of Mind on to the Second Ancestor, Zen, or Chan as it is pronounced in Chinese, was still quite obscure in China, but by the time of the Fourth Ancestor, TaoXin, it was gaining some recognition, and with the Sixth Ancestor, HuiNeng, it finally made its major breakthrough into Chinese Buddhism.

I had gotten the phone number of Mingji, the head monk at “Si Zu Si”, (Chinese for 4th Ancestor Temple) and gave him a call with my rudimentary Chinese. I told him I wished to come and visit, and when I got to China, one of my bilingual Chinese friends would call and make an arrangement. He agreed, and so, after arriving in Xiamen, a “small” city of about one and a half million people, on the coast opposite Taiwan, in early August, we got back in touch, and arranged to meet in Jiu Jiang, a city of several million in Hubei Province, an 18 hour train ride away from Xiamen.

Sure enough, when I got out of the train station, an earnest looking monk approached, and took me to a van. He spoke no English nor did the driver, so my “sub-survival Chinese”, learned the previous year in Xiamen, would have to do.

The Abbott of LaoZuSi and I

We traveled through Huang Mei, and I realized I was in “Chan country”, since the Sutra of Hui Neng, the sixth Patriarch, mentioned that he had delivered talks there. A typical drab Chinese city, I would not have guessed its famous history. So this is where my old hero HuiNeng hung out?

When I arrived at Si Zu Si, there was a “Buddhist Summer Camp” for young Chinese, and there were two excellent English speakers to translate for me. It also turned out that Jing Hui Fashi (Fashi is the Chinese for Roshi) was there, and they arranged a meeting with him.

The Tomb of the 4th Ancestor, Dao Xin, outside SiZuSi, 4th Ancestor Temple

There were about ten people in the room, several observers, a photographer, my two translators, the Head Monk Mingji, and Jing Hui Fashi, Jing Hui is one of the few real powerhouses of Chinese Buddhism, and holds a very high position in that hierarchy. He was a disciple of the legendary Chan Master, Xu Yun, who lived to be 120 years old and who singlehandedly revitalized Chan in China in the 20th Century, despite the awful turmoil China experienced during the first 80 years of that century. It is said that his samadhi was so powerful that one time, he boiled some potatoes and decided to do a little zazen before eating. Some friends showed up some time later, and the potatoes has gone mouldy, so he had probably sat for about a month! One time, Chou En Lai, Mao’s successor invited him to visit his office in Beijing and to come alone, with only one attendant. When Xun Yun entered the office, Chou was terrified, for there were hundreds of people with Xu Yun. “I told you to come alone”.

Xu Yun replied, I did come alone. What you see are Ghosts! (Presumably come back to haunt the Communist leader for all the deaths he was responsible for!)

Jing hui himself had survived 15 years in labor camps for his Buddhist activities, and is in his late 70’s in frail health.

We sat down in a meeting room, and Jing Hui Fashi and I had the following exchange.

Jing Hui: So why have you come here?

Eric: I want to experience the truth of Buddhism for myself.

Jing Hui: Can you still your mind?

Eric: (Just maintained silence and did Zazen)

After a few minutes, the room rang out with a loud shout

Jing Hui: HO!

Eveyone in the room was startled, but I however was not enlightened, despite Jing hui’s effort.

I turned to Jing Hui and he asked, so what do you want?

Eric: While it may be true that to try to become a Buddha doing zazen may be like trying to make a mirror out of a tile, I am willing to take my chances. I would like a room and food, so that I can practice.

Jing Hui: Very well. This temple is quite hot and has many visitors, so is very busy. We will take you to another place. At that point, he made a slight gesture with his hand which I took to mean, “Time’s up, take your leave”. I made a deep bow and that was that.

The next day, with my great translator friend, Michael ( many Chinese use an English name with foreigners), we went in a van to Lao Zu Si, or Old Ancestor Temple. After Michael left to return to the summer camp, and later back to Beijing University, I was on my own with no one to talk with, except one monk, Chun Jin who spoke “sub-sub-survival English”. I stayed at Lao Zu Si, “Old Ancestor Temple” so named because it was built brand new from the ground up, to honor a hermit who lived there a thousand years ago, and who had himself lived for over 1000 years, as the legend goes.

The Entrance to LaoZuSi, the Old Ancestor Temple

Chun Jin, my host conveyed to me that with my  bare feet in sandals, I was NOT TO WALK in the woods. So one day, I was walking along the road, and the cook monk with his teenage novice monk friends was walking along, too, and asked if I could join them.

He agreed, and so we walked a few hundred yards, when suddenly he took off into the forest. Ooops! “I think I am not supposed to do this, but at least I have this monk to guide me.” After about 20 minutes walking along in damp woods with small streams and lots of foliage, I noticed an itching sensation under my sandal thong. It was a leech enjoying a mid after noon meal at my expense, plus another one just getting down to dinner as well on the side of my foot. We pulled them off, and arrived at a small hermitage where a Taoist nun lived. She may have been immortal, as is the goal in Daoist practice, for she was quite old, but she looked at me and spoke in totally unintelligible Chinese with the most sparkling eyes and smile I think I have ever seen. We all chatted, had tea, ate sun flower seeds (Chinese have mastered the art of shelling them and eating at the same time in their mouth), and then returned to the Temple.

Chun Jin got a pair of Chinese monk shoes, just a piece of cloth sewed to a thin rubber sole, and I vowed not to go back into the woods again. It took over a month for the itchy bites to heal.

Towards the end of my stay, we had a Chan week, a 5 day sesshin, which was not so rigorous, but for the first time monks and laypeople sat together in the Chan Hall.

They would carry a stick that is shorter than a Kyosaku, but about ¾ inch thick. Traditionally, if you fell asleep sitting, you might get whacked to wake you up. One time, I was leaning to the left, and the monk, who carries the stick as if it is a billy club, at waist level, took the stick and veerry gennntly, gave me a bit of a push to correct my posture. No one ever got hit the whole 5 days. But between periods of zazen, there was often tea, cookies and fruit available, and people chatted with each other.

Another time, a monk from Bai Lin Si, Joshu’s temple showed up, and with our rudimentary language skills, had a great discussion about Joshu’s Mu. He invited me to come up to visit – it is near Beijing. I decided to stay at Lao Zu Si for the time being, but hope to go there in the future.

At the close of my stay, everyone showered me with presents, a stone mala, a Lao Zu Si shoulder bag, and Mingji had already given me two sets of temple clothes, as well as a Ming Dynasty edition of The Record of Finger Pointing at the Moon. By coincidence, I was reading Da Hui’s Swampland flowers, translated by Chris Cleary, which is an excerpt of that massive two volume set of Chan Masters’ lives and dialogues.

Staying at the Chinese temple was a great inspiration for my practice, I having been the only foreigner who had ever spent a longer time at Lao Zu Si, so it was a great honor for me.

Villagers working to repair the road to SiZuSi

Maybe at some time in the future, we can do a sesshin there, or take a walk in the woods as long as we wear leech proof leggings!



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2 responses to “My stay at a Chinese Monastery

  1. Karl

    Eric, thank you for posting your experience, it is inspireing. Did you return to Laotzusi again? I’d like to go there myself and follow your example of joining practice. I spent a week of meditation in Kaominsi, Yangchou over ten years ago and was greatly inspired by that short visit. It makes great sense to me to actually visit these old Practice sites as i belive something important is communicated by making the effort going there. In Red Pine’s book Zen baggage he mentions Laotzusi planning to raise money through growing tea – did you see anything of that? Be well, hoping to hear from you.

    • Sorry for the delay. Been traveling in China of course, and didn’t see your post. Now I am working on a long story about my most recent trip. To answer your question, yes, Laozusi is, like most temples in tea climate friendly areas, growing tea. I have some and it’s pretty good, not that I know much about what makes good or bad tea. But what I really wish, is that temples would plant food trees, as in ‘permaculture’. If they planted trees, such as nut, fruit and chestnut trees, they could grow a lot of food in a relatively small area, without the backbreaking work of gardening or rice farming (or wheat farming in the north.) Trees may also be somewhat more stable in terms of water supply, since their roots go down deep, and don’t depend as much on rain in a given year.

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