Inset: Statues of Buddhas at the Ci'en Temple in East China's Zhejiang Province Photo: courtesy of the Ci'en Temple
The Ci'en Temple in Tiantai mountain, Zhejiang Province, used to be a quiet haven for the resident monk population. In recent days however, it has become a hectic place as the number of monks boomed, courtesy of an online announcement on June 28 which welcomed people to come and live the life of a monk for free, on a temporary basis.
The notice drew nationwide attention and thousands of people showed their interest. The temple's website was quickly shuttered under the weight of the heavy traffic.
"It is absolutely beyond our expectations," Zhidu, the abbot of the temple, told the Global Times Thursday. "We had thought there would only be around 20 people willing to sign up for the activity. But now, we have received as many as 500 applications."
"Among those who submitted applications, over 60 percent were born after 1980, suggesting young people are the major participants in this activity," Master Shengzhou, the monk in charge of handling applications, told the Global Times.
"The pressure of my job and marriage has tortured me for a while. I need to find a place to release this stress," a 32-year-old Web user surnamed Li, from Zhengzhou, Henan Province, who is ready to apply for the chance, told the Global Times.
"People go to temples not only to study Buddhism, but to change their passive attitudes and learn to tackle difficulties in life through meditation and Buddhist doctrines," Master Rulin, a monk with the Beijing-based Chaoyang Temple, told the Global Times.
However, the monks are worried about how the temple will handle the influx. "We have only eight monks in the temple. But we have more than 500 applicants. Even though we can separate them into batches, we still have too many to handle," Master Zhidu told the Global Times. "Many of them might have to sleep on the floor."
A harsh life
When most people imagine life in a temple they picture relaxing meditation, but the reality is much more difficult.
"Living conditions there are not as good as they are elsewhere. Every year there are a few participants who cannot stand it and flee from the temple," Master Zhidu told the Global Times, adding that it is not the first time the temple has held this kind of activity, but over the last seven years, there were fewer than 10 participants each year.
Activities include chanting, doing manual labor and physical exercise. All activities are free, including using Wi-Fi to access the Internet, but the amount of time they can spend online is restricted.
"Participants do not have to pay for their accommodation and food, but they have to prepare monk clothes and other necessaries themselves," said Master Shengzhou, adding that tuition and other fees are only optional.
According to an introduction released by the temple, people can choose stays of differing lengths, with options of three months, six months, one year or two years, and at present, participants are mainly being sent to the Ci'en Temple while some are going to the Hangzhou-based Shengcai Temple.
"If a participant wants to quit before his due date, he or she can apply to the abbot to leave and it will be OK," Shengzhou said.
Eligibility differs according to gender. The age limits for male participants range from seven to 60 years old, while for females it is 18 to 60. Male participants have to shave their heads and abide by the Novices' Ten Commandments - a strict doctrine made for monks. Females must abide by a different set of rules known as the Eight Buddhist Precepts.
Confusion and enlightenment
Serving as a monk for a short period of time is normal in countries with high concentrations of Buddhists such as Thailand and Myanmar. Every male in Thailand is expected to undertake this duty for at least a few weeks. Similar practices can also be found in several other temples across China.
"Applicants are basically long-term believers, interested students who want to experience Buddhism during the summer vacation, and those who need tranquility because of huge pressure," Master Shengzhou told the Global Times.
Master Zhidu said they had expected to see many young applicants, usually aged between 20 and 40, as they are shouldering more stress than ever before.
A similar phenomenon has also occurred in Chaoyang Temple, where the majority of participants in its Zen meditation and short-term monkhood programs are young, as a clear mind is quite helpful in terms of grasping the doctrines, said Master Rulin.
"Many of them came exhausted and confused due to high pressure, high family expectations and the increased responsibilities brought about by the competitive social environment. We hope to communicate and guide them toward finding intrinsic power, and facing hardships with inner peace," she said.
Relief from pressure and a desire for tranquility seem to be the major factors that drive people to the practice. "I'm not really a believer, but want to find peace and I got it from the pious days there," a 22-year-old woman surnamed Zhang who spent time in Putuo Temple in Zhuhai told the Global Times.
"Buddhism at its roots teaches people the right way to deal with life and mold their personalities, and it's not superstitious," Master Guozhi, with the Ciyun Temple in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, told the Global Times, adding that the frame of mind where they renounce desires doesn't mean pessimism, and instead means letting go of the desires that control them.
Master Zhidu also said that their intention is to heal people's pains and give them a more positive attitude toward life. "We don't necessarily hope they choose to become a monk or a nun."
A cursory search on Sina Weibo showed nearly 200,000 results as of late Thursday, with many netizens expressed intention. However, some found it merely "fun" and said staying in a temple would help them lose weight or escape from work, which cast doubts on the sincerity of their desire to participate.
"This kind of mentality without piety is also normal, and some people leave once they feel uncomfortable. We enlighten them if possible, but don't force them," said Master Zhidu.