Guang Jue Monastery: Part 2 - time to think

01:56 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

The temple is located in Zaoxi, an hour’s drive from the town of Lin’an. The scale of development is more familiar to British person. Most Chinese cities are sprawling monstrosities which litter factories and tower blocks across the land. However, small villages such as Zaoxi have a much more human scale. Villages are separated by countryside and there was barely a tall building in site. Labourers toiled in the fields and men in straw hats strolled along the roadside with sickles resting on their shoulders. The temple was surrounded by lush forest and the peace was captivating, (apart from the occasional Chinese fighter jet screaming past). I’ve sacrificed a lot to relocate to China and finally, it felt worthwhile; I was able to enjoy the countryside rather than endure the city.

A Buddhist temple retreat is about purifying your mind and simplifying your existence. As a result, the living quarters at the temple were pretty basic. I had to sleep on a hard wooden bed without a mattress, whilst constantly being harassed by flies. We ate nothing but rice and vegetables (apart from my secret chocolate stash) and the only thing suitable to drink was the local green tea. With barely any electrical power and no distractions like TV and the internet, when it got dark there was nothing else to do but sleep. By 8pm most evenings I was fast asleep.

I knew it was coming. My sleep was disturbed by the tolling of a bell which reverberated through the hills. It was still pitch black outside. I scrambled to find my torch and then my watch. My eyes refused to open but I managed to glimpse the time – 4.30am. Ugh. I threw on some clothes and crossed the courtyard and entered the main temple hall. The bell marked the beginning of the morning ceremony. As I entered the hall, the Sifu began to play a huge drum. The pace of the drum quickened and my heart rate chased to keep up. Then the music stopped and the chanting started. I closed my eyes and I was absorbed by the experience. The sounds quickened my heart, the incense sharpened my sense of smell and the morning sunlight teased the sleep from my eyes. The ceremony finished at 5am and I left feeling charged, caught in the moment. Outside, mist still clung to the hillside. In the bamboo forest the frogs, crickets and birds had begun their daily song.  After sleeping surprisingly well on a wooden bed, a new day had arrived and I was feeling more alive than ever.

Whilst I came to the temple with an open mind, I wanted to form my own opinions and I avoided any individual lessons or teachings. I didn’t want the ‘big sell’ which religions usually push upon the agnostic. The teacher was happy with this and he left me free to do nothing and hopefully de-clutter my mind.
It turns out that I’m not very good at doing nothing. The beautiful start to the day had left me invigorated and I spent the day exploring the temple and the surrounding countryside. I investigated all the little nooks and crannies and took far too many photographs.

With so much peace and quiet in which to think, I began contemplating life in China, my life back home, my family and my friends. I decided to write some letters. Each letter had a little bit of nostalgia and sentimentality and a big dose of cheese, but it was rewarding. I also attempted to meditate. It was hard though. As soon as you expel one thought from your mind another unconnected thought takes it place. In each period of 30 minutes attempted meditation, I only had two minutes of actual meditation. Also, I had plenty of time to read my book. Time is fluid but it seemed that each moment was much more fruitful in the temple. I tried doing nothing and ended up getting so much done. I suppose the main reason is that there are no other distractions. And that my day started at 4.30am. Or the copious amounts of caffeine in the green tea.

At 4.30pm a second bell rang and the students, teacher and Sifu all gather to eat. We ate a simple vegetarian meal. Everyone has rice and then you can add your own tofu, pickled bamboo, potatoes, green beans and chopped herbs. The highlight of each meal for me was the dried mustard plant. The students are from Britain, America, Finland and Indonesia. It was nice to be communal. Everyone is pleasant enough and I’d love to know how their stories all converged on this temple in China.

After the meal I sat in the courtyard, drank some of the local rocket fuel green tea and listened to the silence. Like bathing in ice cold water, I was totally refreshed.

A final bell rang at 6.30pm and it was time for the evening ceremony. We all entered the temple and were asked to focus on a single object whilst chanting the name of the Buddha, Amituofo. Whilst I was feeling self-conscious, I came here sincerely, so I tried chanting. My mind began to focus and clarify. Then, I became acutely aware that the mosquitos had chosen this moment to begin feasting on my flesh. The little bastards knew perfectly well that I was helpless and that I couldn’t swat them away whilst I was in the company of the Buddhist Sifu. With my mind sharpened and another 30 minutes of chanting ahead, their bites really fucking hurt. Amituofo.

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