Finally I was free to go to the temple, and my two ‘sisters’, Jiru and Cheng Rong helped me take my stuff on a bus ride out of Xiamen, and arranged with the abbot, Jin Wu Fashi to be met at the bus station.
Jin Wu Fashi had studied with Mingji Fashi, whom I had met through author translator, Bill Porter, and who has been a great help to me in my practice. Mingji introduced me to the great Chan Master Jing Hui Fashi, one of a few surviving disciples of the great 20th Century Chan Master Xu Yun, who lived to be 120 years old and singlehandedly revived and kept alive Buddhism in China during the very difficult times of war, civil war and Cultural Revolution.
Jin Wu Fashi initially trained at Bai Lin Si, or Cypress Forest Temple. Bai Lin Si was founded well over 1000 years ago, but it was the legendary Zhao Zhou, or Joshu, who really put it on the map. By 1987, the temple had been totally destroyed, save Joshu’s Memorial Stupa, itself damaged in an earthquake 20 years before. Zhao Zhou is famous in Zen and Chan circles for his crytptic responses to his students. One of his most famous stories goes like this?
A monk asked, “what is the meaning of Bodhidharma (the Indian monk who brought Zen to China) coming from the West (that is, India).
Zhao Zhou replied, “The Cypress tree in the garden”.
As noted, there were no trees there, until they were replanted recently, but clearly at the time he spoke, way back 1200 years ago, there probably was a cypress tree, hence the name of the temple.
Jing Hui Fashi gathered together overseas Chinese and also Japanese and Korean Zen Devotees, to see the site, and successfully raised the funds necessary to rebuild the temple. It is now one of the main Chan temples in China.
Following his initial training, Jin Wu Fashi undertook Pi Kuan, or self cultivation, staying in a cell for three years without leaving, without the benefit of his teacher, Mingji Fashi’s guidance, and with only his books to consult.
Following that, he arrived at the Tong Bo Yan, or Copper Bowl Cliff, where an 800 year old temple existed in quite poor condition. He took up retreat there, but apparently, the purity of his practice caught some local eyes, and in the last few years, the old temple has been restored, and a new temple is being built. Legend has it that the predecessor to the Buddha of our age, Dipankara Buddha stayed at this site, and that in a life prior to becoming the Buddha of our age, he trained with Dipankara Buddha at this site. Here is the 800 year old temple.
Tong Bo means, the copper begging bowl that monks used on their rounds to beg for food.
Yan, is the word for Cliff, the same word is in the Chinese title of the Blue Cliff Record, known as the Bi Yan Lu.
Si is the Chinese word for a Buddhist temple.
So the direct translation is Copper Bowl Cliff Temple.
Jin Wu very graciously offered me a new wooden building reserved for guests, about a ten minute walk up the mountain away from the main temple. I set my schedule to skip early breakfast, and take lunch at 11 and dinner at 6 pm. At first tiny nasty red ants climbed onto my bed where I did my sitting and gave me painful bites. When I felt about ten of them munching on my foot, I finally got them to stay off the bed by sprinkling talcum powder around each leg of the bed. They can’t crawl through the fine powder, so they generally left me alone after that.
My goal was to follow a standard meditation retreat schedule that I have done in various temples and retreats in the past, generally maintaining silence, and sitting meditation 8-10 hours a day, interspersed with walking meditation, yoga stretches, and occasional walks and exercise, such as pushups, back bends, and so on.
In the past, I have had a lot of knee pain and knee problems, had a cartilage removed years ago from my right knee. And there are all the other aches and pains people get when sitting for long periods of time. However, I found that doing a lot of hip and leg stretches makes a big difference. I used to get sciatic nerve pain, and still do sometimes, but stretching the hamstring and back thigh and buttock area brings circulation and flexibility to that area, reducing the pain, and allowing longer sitting with less danger of injury.
Here, he is lifting himself off the ground with his fingers while in full lotus position.
Shortly after I arrived, my friend Cheng Rong told me that an Italian woman, Professor Stefania Travignins, specializing in the teaching of Nagarjuna (one of the most influential monk philosophers in Mahayana Buddhism, famous for his discourses on dialectic) wanted to meet Jin Wu Fashi. Stefania told me that she had been offered a tenure track position at Penn State University, but then the entire religion department, of which she is a faculty member, had been totally eliminated, without a word of protest from the students. After I got back to Chiang Mai, however, I heard that there were big protests when the beloved long time head of the football team lost his job due to repeated sexual assault of young boys and men.
So the students didn’t care when the possibility of learning human values and ethics is gone, but all hell broke loose when their beloved game of football and its coach were punished for violating the most basic rules of human behavior.
During the time I was at Tong Bo Yan Si, a new building was about to be constructed, and to do so required a whole hillside to be taken out. There was a fair amount of noise, but not so much, since I was a good distance away. However, some large boulders remained that couldn’t be removed by the earth moving equipment, so they had to blow up the huge rocks—up to 30 feet across—with explosive charges. To do that, required drilling holes. So I would be sitting there with the whole building shaking from the drilling. I am a patient man, but the vibration did seem a bit much. Finally, De Ping Fashi, another fine monk I befriended, suggested that I might be better off at another temple, located on Lu Shan.
Finally, one morning, there was a huge explosion as a hundred or more charges went off, my whole building shook, and when I came down to take a look, the rock was gone, broken into a million small chunks that were hauled away.
I can’t really express how much I appreciate the kindness and depth of my Chinese friends, guides and helpers. One of the cool things about being a foreigner at a temple in China, and indeed, I was the only foreigner who had spent any time there, is that they will do whatever they can to please you. For example, the food is pure Chinese vegan. Basically, rice and vegetables, as well as a good amount of tofu, peanuts and textured vegetable protein. After about a week, I was starting to crave some fresh uncooked food, especially fruit.
Now, my Chinese is not very good, so it was pretty common that we would get into a conversation, reach a point where neither of us could understand the other, and we would both end up bursting out laughing. “Du bu qi, bu dong” Sorry I don’t understand. I often pointed to my heart and said, my heart understands but my brain and ears don’t.
But I really did want some fruit, so in my minimal Chinese said, “You shi hou you shui guo ma? Wo xiang shui guo.” Do you ever have fruit here, I would like some.
About five minutes later, one of the lay brothers at the temple, who takes care of the day to day affairs, showed up with a bag of 3 apples, 3 oranges, a couple of pears.
Then, every other day, I would get some pears or peaches, watermelon, honey dew melons, and so on, I had trouble keeping up, and sometimes would just make an offering to one of the various altars at the temple or give them away to other people.
On the last day of my stay, I was thinking how I could get back to Xiamen, since Tong Bo Yan Si is quite far from there. There is a bus that goes to another bus, but I had always had Chinese friends get me to the last stop of the bus station out of Xiamen, and then the monks at Tong Bo Yan Si would pick us up.
This time, though, Jin Wu Fashi arranged to take me in the temple minivan all the way into Xiamen, straight to my hotel street. That is about a 90 minute drive. How can I possibly express my appreciate for the great kindness, generosity and support I have received there? Jin Wu Fashi and I (with help from a Chinese interpreter) talked about foreigners at his temple. He is clearly a deeply committed meditator, and wants to make his temple available. He said he is not interested in people just coming to hang out, although certainly people often visit temples for a day of relaxation from their hectic lives. If you want a place to go where you will be left alone to do your practice, and don’t need day to day instruction, then this temple may be what you are looking for.
Lu Shan is a huge mountain in Central China often called the heart, or spiritual center of China, where the great Chinese poet, Li Bai, spent time in poetic seclusion, when he was not dealing with governmental affairs in the Capital.
So, as my visa ran out, I decided to go to the temple at Lu Shan.
Usually in China, you can get a tourist visa that lasts for six months. However, you can only stay for three months at a time, then leave the country, and then can return for one more three month stint. Fortunately, Xiamen is a coastal city, and by chance, there is a small island still under the control of Taiwan, which you can reach by ferry boat.
So in mid August, my buddy Paco, a fellow American now living in China with his Chinese wife, and I decided to make the trip. We took the ferry from one of two harbors in Xiamen, and had a pleasant day wandering around Jimen Island. Paco decided to stay overnight, but I wanted to get back, so I took the first ferry back, which happened to return to the other port. What I didn’t know, was that the other port has no bus or other public transport, so I ended up walking for about three hours, finally getting to my friend Cheng Rong and WangKai’s house at about 8:00 PM. I like walking, but if you ever go to Xiamen, be sure not to take the boat from the north end of the Island!
After dealing with the visa, I had another three months to stay in China. I had already completed 45 days of meditation practice, sitting about 8-10 hours a day at Tong Bo Yan Si, but I’d promised myself 90 days of practice in a temple, and the rest as travel and visiting friends.
I took the offer to go to the temple on Lu Shan, and went to the fairly small temple near the top of the mountain. There is an overnight train from Xiamen to Lu Shan or to Jiu Jiang and the monk picked me up in Lu Shan. However, when we got there, Mingji Fashi was there along with a Taiwanese professor of Buddhism, Dr. Yo Hsiang Chou, from Fo Guang University and his wife, Grace. Mingji speaks no English, but Dr. Yo and Grace speak fluent English, which gave us the chance to share ideas.
The Buddha Hall at Lu Shan
Although I liked the mountain top temple, I wanted to take the opportunity to spend time with Mingji and his friends. So I asked to travel with them, and then go back to Lao Zu Si, not far from Si Zu Si, and the same temple I had stayed at the previous summer. , as
That evening, we were invited to go to a tea party. Perhaps you might imagine what a tea party is. Probably something rather British. But in this case, we are talking about China and Chinese culture. The party started with the making of several different kinds of tea, such as Puer, Oolong and Black tea. Tea culture in China is not like something Westerners can readily imagine. The tea is made according to its particular type. There is a ceremonial aspect to it. Everyone sits around a tea table, which in itself may be a work of art. Pictured here is the solid stone tea table at Tong Bo Yan Si, with my friends Stefania and Cheng Rong. There is a small drain cut into the table, and the cups are usually not much bigger than thimble sized.
People sit around quietly and talk. Oftentimes, when men sit and drink tea, they also smoke profusely, which is the Chinese custom. Fortunately, things are changing and at this party, there was no smoking. We spent a good hour chatting and drinking different kinds of tea—it was really very similar to a wine tasting, and the teas can often be as expensive as fine wines. One hundred dollars or more for a small bag of a special tea that may have aged for 20 years is not unusual.
The Guqin has a very deep, low tone, and is quite conducive to slow deep breathing. This picture was taken at a birthday party for a highly regarded professor. (More on that later.)
Then, the party moved to a calligraphy table. Calligraphy is a high art form in China, and people practice for years. One of the most common subjects of calligraphy is the Xin Jing, or MahaPrajna Paramita Hriday Sutra, in English known as The Heart Sutra, perhaps the most popular text of Mahayana Buddhism, recited daily in temples from Tibet in Western Asia to Korea and Japan, and of course in China.
Often, calligraphers will choose a famous Chinese poem or simply compose their own poem and put it on paper. Here is someone practicing calligraphy at a friend’s shop in Xiamen.
The following day, we went to visit a temple, where the emphasis is on chanting the name of Amida Buddha, or in Chinese, Amitofo. The temple is quite old, however, as is the case all over China, temples are either newly built, or are being rebuilt. It’s comforting to me to see that so much time energy and money is devoted to both culture and to inner cultivation. Many people in China realize that their culture is precious and worth preserving; likewise, they experience the same pressures of modern hectic life.
The pictures shown here are of the main building at the temple, and also a worker carving the statue of , I think, General Kuan, a mythic general of ancient China, who is invoked to protect the temple, at the entrance. He is sort of like a Chinese George Washington, and he is a very common figure in Chinese painting, and always a statue at the entrance to temples.
Dr. Yo and Grace were quite wonderful to talk with, both showing deep intellectual and spiritual depth. I appreciate Dr. Yo’s encouragement of me in my meditation retreat, and Grace, whose name befits her warm character.
However, they were on the last stop of their trip to China. Mingji Fashi left them at the nearby international airport for a flight to Shanghai, and then back to Taiwan. I then went back to stay at Si Zu Si for a night before going to Lao Zu Si the following day.