A night in a Buddhist monastery

By Lise Floris Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/18 14:13:39

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT


I am not one to pass on cultural experiences in China, so on a Monday morning back in May, I joined nine other expat women on the fast train to Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province.

Our destination was the Bailin Temple, a 1,800-year-old Zen monastery and the only active Zen temple in China that allows foreigners to stay overnight.

We had somehow imagined a romantic place in the mountains, so we were struck by its semi-urban location when we arrived. But we soon discovered that behind the big wooden doors, only a stone's throw away from the busy street and the flashy 7-Eleven sign, was a world of beauty and peace.

After check-in, we were taken to our rooms. They lived up to their promise of basic accommodations.

Our guide Feng arranged for us to be shown around by one of the monks. A young fellow, the monk amazed us with his knowledge about the temple. Later, we got to watch as the monastery's 140 monks silently and almost noiselessly crossed the courtyard and entered a chanting hall. We were moved and observed the chanting from a respectable distance at the back of the hall.

Evening meals are consumed in silence in a big dining hall. We were hungry but didn't want to risk disrespecting the monks by leaving food on our plates. We ate most of the lukewarm congee and red bean baozi (steamed stuffed buns) they gave us.

After the meal, we made our way to the meditation hall for a workshop with our friend the monk from earlier. Buddhist monks meditate up to six hours a day. They sit on a hard cushion in complete silence. Their aim is to take control of the mind while still acknowledging the body. A small bell rings every half hour to allow them to slightly change position. We meditated with the monk for 20 minutes and found it hard enough.

When the sunset gong sounded, we retreated to our humble abode for the evening. Some of us secretly snacked on chocolate we brought from Beijing while others finally gave in to the urge to talk and giggle. Lights out was at 9:30 pm.

After breakfast, which was the same as dinner the day before, we met for a final meditation session and a recap with the monk. With Feng as our interpreter, we took advantage of the monk's offer to answer our questions. We discovered that he has a university degree and used to run his own business. We could not help but wonder why the monks chose this way of life, away from their families with no contact whatsoever with the outside world. At the same time, we admired and respected their choice. Together, we reflected on how we tend to depend on material things and how status plays a role in our society. Everyone is equal at the monastery.

When the moment came for us to leave the monastery, our friend waved goodbye at the gate and walked back to his world. He wouldn't want it any other way.

This article was published on the Global Times Metropolitan section Two Cents page, a space for reader submissions, including opinion, humor and satire. The ideas expressed are those of the author alone, and do not represent the position of the Global Times.


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