It was very fortuitous for me to have met Mingji Fashi this time. They say there are no accidents.
I got to Lao Zu Si just in time for a big ceremony and celebration, officially opening the Temple.
There were several hundred people there. This wasn’t a time to do a lot of meditation, but that was OK, because of this special event. When I arrived the weather was perfect. Lao Zu Si is high enough in the rural region of Hubei Province to be pleasantly cool, while the lower areas are sweltering in the August heat.
Since last year, there had been a lot more construction, including the placement of a 35 foot Kuan Yin, or Avalokiteshvara statue. Kuan Yin is revered in China as the Enlightenment Being, or Bodhisaattva, who practiced the Perfection of Wisdom in the Heart Sutra, thereby alleviating all suffering and distress. People also worship Kuan Yin, who is sometimes depicted as male and sometimes as female, when they are feeling troubled or in danger.
One of the most important monks in China was there to preside over the ceremony, Jing Hui Fashi. I had previously met Jing Hui Fashi last year at Si Zu Si, where we had a dharma dialogue that I’ll never forget. You can read about it in my post from last year.
At that time, he presented himself as a very powerful Chan (Zen) Master. You knew by meeting him that he is “the real thing”. People were lined up to have their picture taken with him, so I took a chance and moved up next to him, and gave my camera to someone to take our picture.
Apparently, the collar on my temple clothing was a bit out of line, so just before the picture was taken, he verrry gently reached over to arrange my collar. I felt like a little kitty kat being licked by his mom. Rather than a harsh, “Fix your collar, Eric”, he taught me in the most kind way to be a bit more mindful in wearing my clothes. He was also showing me how to correct others in a kind and gentle way, and indeed, his teaching was three fold, “fix your collar, be mindful, be kind, not critical when pointing out others’ mistakes.”
The ceremony attracted several hundred people from all over China, one of whom is a strong supporter of Buddhism, named Lily Lee. She donates time, energy and money to conferences and is a strong believer in Chinese culture, and Harmony. Harmony is a common theme in Chinese culture, and manifests in different ways, such as in the relation between humans and Nature, as well as within the family, and in society. In fact, you can even see the word on billboards, both in English and Chinese.
One time, I was on a bus in Xiamen, and was watching the TV that is on most buses in China.
They’re a mix of short cartoons, advertisements, skits and so on. In that case, there was a rendition of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. There was a cartoon of bombers and other weapons, and then a Chinese guy with long hair—a Chinese Bob Dylan, with a Peace sign for a necklace. I didn’t understand the words he was saying in Chinese, but the meaning was clear enough. “War is NOT a good thing, folks!”
So I really appreciate Lily’s work in this area. She invited me to come to Beijing, where she lives, and invited me to come for a Chan week, held at a tea house, where they have a Chan Hall, that seats about 40 people.
The conference went on for a couple of days, and I had the chance to meet a few Chinese, though most spoke little or no English. However, since I was the only foreigner there, save for one fellow who showed up for a short time, I was treated a bit like a celebrity. One of my Chinese friends tells me that when she was just a child, in school, her teachers impressed on them the importance of treating foreigners with great respect and deference. I certainly have felt that, and now I know why. This is a bit of a paradox for me, because, China was treated very badly by foreigners, especially the British, who forced the sale of opium on the Emperor at the point of the British navy gunboats.
It is also well known that at one time, China had the largest navy in the world, and could easily have projected power and colonized the whole world. But at one point, the then Emperor decided that China did not need anything from the outside world and the “barbarians”, and had the whole fleet destroyed. Had he not done so, I surmise, the British could not have forced China to accept the opium, and China, which before that time had the world’s largest supply of silver, would not have been reduced to poverty and humiliation at the hands of the West, and later, Japan.
Staying at the temple, I really got the feeling of what a refuge it is. One young woman I met, a software engineer, had just stopped working and lived a simple nomadic life. She told me she had experienced a lot of anxiety due to “some bad things” that had happened. Another fellow, a 27 year old telecom engineer, had lost his father a couple of years before, and was staying at the temple. He had also left his job at a major internet company in China. These are some among many people, who could come and stay the temple for free or for nominal cost, typically about $3 a day, for room and food.
In fact, no one even asked me for money at all, even though I was staying in a more private room reserved for honored guests. Where does the money come from? In some cases, the government helps out. For example at Tong Bo Yan Si, they are building a retirement space, so that poor Chinese who have no children to sustain them in their old age, can stay at the temple. Despite decades of disparagement of Buddhism as mere superstition by the authorities, and serious problems during the Cultural Revolution, there is still strong support and reverence for Buddhism. Even to the extent of government support for the retirement facility. They correctly recognize that old people want to stay at a temple.
But in a time of rising prosperity throughout China, people are looking towards their cultural roots, and as a refuge from the hectic nature of modern society. So there is a huge amount of new temple construction going on, with donations from newly rich Chinese, as well as smaller donations from the population at large.
I stayed at Lao Zu Si for 35 days of meditation practice. The first 3 weeks I practiced alone in my room, going to the dining hall for meals, taking walks in the beautiful countryside, and talking with the monks if an English speaker were there, or getting by on my minimal Chinese.
Since tea is a major part of Chinese culture, one of the monks invited me to have tea with him and two other laypeople, both of whom spoke some English.
Other times, a monk invited me and others to go for mountain hikes, usually to visit hermits living off by themselves.
On a trail to a monk’s hermitage, which was rebuilt recently. The original is several hundred years old.
As summer ended, it was time for the Full Moon Festival, which took place in September. After an evening chanting, tables were set up in the courtyard in front of the Buddha Hall, right under the full moon. This was a real temple party, complete with extra food and (nonalcoholic) toasts. This is a picture of the drum tower of the temple, with the full moon sitting on the peak. Several of us tried catching the moon, too.
As autumn set in, it was time for Chan Qi, or Meditation Week, which could last from 3 days to up to 70 days.
At that time, in this temple, everyone, monks, nuns (if any were there at the time) and lay men and women all did zuo chan, or sitting Zen in the Chan Tang or Meditation Hall.
The Chan Tang at Lao Zu Si
The Chan Tang seats 80 people on the platforms at the walls, and more people could sit on the floor, with cushions provided. One period is one hour, starting with 15 minutes of fast walking around the altar, a traditional Shakyamuni, followed by 45 minutes of sitting.
The first Chan Qi had about 5 hours of practice a day, and lasted 5 days, followed after a two day rest period, of a 7 day Chan Qi. By November, in the mountains, it is so cold that the road is blocked with snow. So they hold a 70 day Chan Qi, with no leaving the temple possible. The high humidity and cold temperature, usually below freezing, make it a place for hardy souls only, however, at the time I was there, the weather was quite comfortable, getting no lower than 60 degrees F.
On one of the rest days, my friend Mr. Bai (Bai means “white”), took me to visit the 5th Ancestor Temple, not too far from Huang Mei. As the legend has it, Chan developed in this area of China, and the 4th Ancestor’s and 5th Ancestor Temples are near Huang Mei, where the 6th Ancestor, Hui Neng often gave talks. (I could not find his temple, which I think is in disrepair at this time).
The Thousand Armed Avalokiteshvara (Guan Yin) Bodisattva statue at Lao Zu Si.
It was the 5th Ancestor, Hung Jen Chan Shi (Chan Master), who recognized the poor illiterate Hui Neng, as a true Vessel of the Dharma. And now Wu Zu Si (5th Ancestor Temple) is a busy functioning temple with quite a few monks there.
The main building at the 5th Ancestor Temple.
When Hung Jen first met Hui Neng, he said, “…you’re a barbarian. How can you become a Buddha?”
[Hui Neng] replied: ‘Although people from the South and people from the North differ, there is no north or south in Buddha Nature…..”
“The Master wished to continue the discussion with me; however, seeing that there were other people nearby….he sent me to work…..where I spent over eight months [threshing rice] treading the pestle.” I am quoting here from The Platform Sutra, Yampolsky translation.
Sure enough, the pestle (or one like it that is used in Asia to thresh rice) was there to view.
The Dining Hall at Wu Zu Si
The Wooden Fish, which is struck announcing that it is meal time
Coming to Wu Zu Si had very special and poignant meaning for me. While I was at Lao Zu Si, I learned that my Uncle Sidney, the last surviving relative of my parents’ generation had died.
This caused me to reflect on my path in life.
As Hui Neng pointed out in the Platform Sutra, his father had died, and Hui Neng’s mother and he suffered extreme poverty. Yet, by great luck, he had heard the Diamond Sutra, one of the most important texts in Chinese and Mahayana Buddhism, which opened his mind. He was told by the monk reciting it, that he should go to Wu Zu Si. But as he says in the Sutra, he was predestined to have heard him, and made his way to this temple, eventually becoming one of the most important Chan Masters.
My own father had also died at a young age, leaving me with my own mother, and we lived if not in extreme material poverty, certainly, in spiritual poverty. Yet, by pure happenstance, or more likely through past good actions, I became acquainted with Zen.
In Asia, I have met many monks, who were brought to the monastery because their families simply could not take care of them. Many monks’ fathers had died, like mine. So they were raised in the temple. Although I had a good education, my inner life was one of great turmoil. And in fact I felt the lack of a wholesome male role model very acutely. So, right after I finished college, I left home, like Hui Neng, and after a few months of wandering around, made the decision to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. While Zen Center had its own problems, it was the first time I was with men who were actually cultivating themselves, and saw personal development as worthy of being a full time job. As poet Gary Snyder calls it, “The Real Work”.
Nowadays, especially in the USA, there are so many broken homes, dysfunctional families, fatherless children with no one to bring self confidence, discipline, or even basic training in how to relate to work or others, men or women. What institution do they have to learn these life skills? The Military waits with open arms, and does provide some skills, but the purpose of military training is ultimately, how to kill and harm, rather than to calm one’s mind, discern the Real, and develop wisdom and kindness.
Is it any wonder, then, that our society is afflicted with so many problems?