Before my time in China, I had spent the previous year teaching a year-long weekly course in meditation and related spiritual practices in Sydney, which itself came off the back of many years spent travelling in Europe, Asia and the US, teaching courses and undergoing phases of meditation practice and retreat. Both as a leader and participant, as well as a significant phase of solo meditation retreat.
My time in China and living in Shanghai was of an entirely different character, and probably unrecognisable to many who had known me from the times that preceded it. After two years here, it had come to the point where I wanted to again make a deeper reconnection to my spiritual life beyond daily meditation practice. Although it had never actually been left behind at all, it was the longest time I had gone without delving into retreat of any kind since I was 20 years old.
I resolved to find somewhere here, a place that I could go to for a week, two weeks etc. and get down to some intensive practice with little to distract me. I was in China, home of a deep and rich tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, the spiritual home of Chán (Zen), and the practices that grew around Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land school, such as nianfo. It mattered little that these places were not the traditions I was trained in, I hoped to find a temple or retreat centre that was compatible to intensive practice, that could accommodate an experienced practitioner that didn’t really need instruction on the basics or to follow a course, and hopefully steeped with the palpable energy that a genuine tradition carries. I knew that I was hoping for a lot.
Buddhism in China for the Chinese people, although woven deeply into its cultural fabric and visible almost every day in all sorts of relatively unremarkable ways, is for the most part a lively facet of cultural heritage, folk religion with its attendant obligatory ceremonies and calendar occasions where families will attend the temple, light some incense and make their wishes, or at most a set of moral codes to adopt and believe in. In my conversations with Chinese friends and colleagues, almost no one knew or understood anything at all about meditation or mindfulness. More often than not, if they noticed the beads that I occasionally wear around my wrist (given to me at the Tianmu Mountain Chán Monastery), they would ask me if I ‘believed in the Buddha?’ A question I had no idea where to begin answering. Buddhism is an integral part of everyday life in China, in a way that it can never be in the west, and yet and yet, at the same time it has largely been co-opted away from something that is right there at its essential core, an experiential reality that one can feel and connect with, independently of thought or belief. In three years, I have met only three Chinese friends who understood something, anything, of what it is to practice mindfulness, or meditation, and the possibility of contacting deeper spiritual insight and awareness directly through such self-effort and cultivation.
In October 2010, after a few Google searches, to my delighted surprise, I had found just the place an easy three hour bus ride out of Shanghai, close to Tianmu Mountain in Zhejiang Province. Guang Jue Monastery is a small Pure Land village temple in the countryside surrounding the regional centre of Lin’An. There, laypeople are invited to come and stay for as little or as long as they like on a donation only basis, and participate in temple life. Guang Jue Monastery was once home to a bustling community of monks and nuns spanning well back through the history of the Qing Dynasty. Before the Cultural Revolution. Afterwards however, war and revolution left the temple site in little more than ruins. Now, and over the past decades thanks to the incredible efforts of Master Zheng Rong the temple has been rebuilt and a new community of monks, albeit small, have gathered there.
At first glance, Master Zheng Rong is your archetypal village temple Abbot. He awakes at around four o’clock in the morning to conduct the morning liturgies, he attends to the locals that come to visit the temple throughout the day – mostly the seniors of the surrounding village – looking after their various needs, and leads his retinue of five or six young monks in the various duties, trainings, and ceremonies that constitute typical temple life. He is not a meditation master, or highly-realised yogi dwelling in lofty and sublime states of being, however he is a man of sincere dedication, obvious compassion, and radiant equanimity, having spent his life in service to Pure Land Buddhism and Amitabha (Amituo’fo in Chinese). And he is also highly inspired.
With the help of Malcom Hunt, an Australian man with a background in social work, therapy and copy writing, Master Zheng Rong’s first foreign disciple (and perhaps the only foreign Buddhist disciple within China?), Guang Jue Monastery is to my knowledge the only temple or centre of any kind in China that is so open to visitors, particularly foreigners, offering courses and trainings in meditation, mindfulness and related exercises in English. It is clear that on the Masters agenda, is the revival and revitalisation of Buddhism in China as a genuine practice, above and beyond its current culturally defined role. It is still very early days. The temple grounds still suffer from neglect as there has not been enough hands on deck or money to make much needed improvements and repairs. But this is rapidly changing. Since opening up more and more people, the vast majority being foreigners, are coming to stay and sometimes for extended periods of time. Enjoying some get away time, doing their own practice, or participating in the classes and courses that Malcom runs throughout the year, and also lending a hand around the temple wherever they can. While the Master compassionately insists that visitors stay on a donation only basis, in the past year there have been some generous donors. One Russian millionaire in particular, who stayed for some months in 2011 donated a sizable sum that has significantly contributed to one of Master Zheng Rongs projects; transforming a huge swampy hole in the ground just outside the walls into a sanctuary for various endangered local animals, centred around a great statue of Guan Yin, the form that the Bodhisattva of Compassion takes in China.
The vast majority of contributors, visitors and donors are foreigners. Apart from a very small handful of people, it is still something that modern Chinese people do not feel as particularly relevant to them or the future, their own or that of China. But with such rapidly growing interest, and increasing numbers of visitors booking time at this quaint little village temple, where (somewhat) hot water has depended on the time of day, drinking water is boiled and distributed in old hot water flasks, and all the food is grown and picked from the temple grounds, it is sparking much curiosity and interest among the Chinese. The proportion of Chinese visitors, particularly the younger age groups who are the face of modern China, are coming to participate in the courses in growing numbers.
In the year between visits, the temple has undergone and is still undergoing many improvements. I was quite astonished to see the difference. This year with the inspiration, negotiations and blessings of Master Zeng Rong, along with the retreat facilitator Malcom, Chán meditation masters from the surrounding area will come to Guang Jue Monastery and for the first time teach their time-honoured practices, having never taught publicly before.
For the coming issue of Vantage Magazine, I will be visiting Guang Jue Monastery again with a professional photographer by my side, to further document the work of Master Zheng Rong and Malcom, and discuss this new emergent Buddhism in China, especially within the context of Buddhism as it is emerging globally right now, with a growing body of solid and respected scientific investigation into mindfulness practices, such as the work of Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, and the Shamatha Project of Dr. Alan Wallace. Also, this fascinating way that it is starting to feed back into the East. Particularly China, where apart from its culturally decreed role, knowledge of these practices outside of a handful of temples, monks and practitioners remains relatively obscure.
Guang Jue Monastery, Master Zheng Rong and Malcom Hunt are online at taishendo.com where you can find out the latest news, courses etc. and help by donating or sponsoring. Malcom also keeps a blog at taishendo.blogspot.com. I will very soon add their work to the Causes page, where you can also help out by donating or becoming a sponsor. Much help is urgently needed to continue the courses, maintain the renovation work, finish the Guan Yin Sanctuary project, and support the long term goal of revitalising and preserving the essential practices of Chinese Buddhism within China and beyond.