I was going to blog from the temple, but of course it ended up panning out differently. It was a wonderful weekend and it’s great to see how things are progressing there. The last couple of days I’ve been putting together the piece for Vantage Magazine, and here is the draft that I’m turning in. It’s a bit of a rewrite of the Emergent Buddhism piece for a more public audience. We’ll see what the editing process will do to it. I had to take a knife to it myself and cut about 500 words, always a hard thing to do. Hopefully Vantage will just tidy it up a bit and help it flow. It’s obviously for a more mainstream audience, so there were many aspects that I could only really allude to rather than express directly, and plenty of details that I had to leave out all together, but hopefully without losing too much depth in the process. I have lots of photos (the best were taken by my partner, Anya), some I will include here, but I’ll make a new post for the rest when I get around to it….
Buddhism is woven deeply into the cultural fabric of China, visible everyday in all sorts of ways, even in a city like Shanghai. From the majestic grandeur of the recently renovated Jing An temple amidst the bustling downtown, to the Buddhist trinkets, symbols and beads that dangle from the rear view mirrors of taxi drivers, and a hundred and one other temples, sites, relics, art, and objects that fill antique markets, museums, tourist and historical sites around the country. It has been an intimately formative force in the Chinese cultural make up, enjoying a long and rich history of development here.
However this may be, in recent times it has been for the most part regarded as simply a 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 the current climate of our hectic world it has taken a more peripheral role in the lives of most modern Chinese people, even among those who would describe themselves as Buddhist, understandably focussed on improving their material standing and wealth, and transforming China into a global economic powerhouse in the process. If the deeper, more real character of Chinese Buddhism, beyond commercial images and tourist temples is an enigma to most foreigners, it is also somewhat of an enigma to all except a small handful of dedicated monks and lay practitioners in modern Chinese society.
However, in a small rural village temple, Guang Jue Monastery, close to the regional centre of Lin’An and about three hours bus ride out of Shanghai, something quite new and magnificent is happening. Over the past three years, this seemingly insignificant temple has opened itself up to the general public, who are welcome to come and stay for as little or as long as they want on a donation only basis. In doing so, one gets to experience a very authentic slice of Chinese Buddhist temple life, led by the Venerable Master Zheng Rong, his retinue of five or six monks, and an Australian man Malcom Hunt (Zhi Sheng), who became a disciple of the Master and has been developing a program of retreats and courses for visitors to learn about the practices of Chinese Buddhism. In particular the most widespread form of Buddhism in China, the Pure Land school centred around the Buddhist figure known as Amitabha, or Amituofo as it is pronounced in Chinese.
In recent years, people from all over the world have increasingly adopted a range of practices that have their origins in Buddhism. In particular Mindfulness, which can be described as a host of practices aimed at bringing ones attention back to oneself here and now, the present, rather than being cast adrift in wandering thoughts of the past and its associated attachments, or the future and its anxieties and hopes. It aims to develop and deepen ones capacity for experiencing awareness, to be mindful of our thinking and its contents, our actions and the world around us, rather than operating from automatic and impulsive reactions that arise when we are unaware of our mind. One of the most sought after and noticeable effects is the ability for mindfulness practices to reduce stress and develop a calmness of mind.
Such has been the wave of its popularity, that modern neuroscience and research is taking it quite seriously. Numerous studies have confirmed time and again that undertaking mindfulness practices effect structural changes that can be measured in the brain associated with memory, sense of self, emotion, empathy and stress. Beneficial effects that last long after one leaves the meditation cushion and engages with their everyday life. Prominent researcher B. Alan Wallace, who initiated the ‘Shamatha Project’ (www.shamatha.org) in 2007 in conjunction with the Center for Mind and Brain at University of California Davis, is comprehensively studying on-going effects of long-term meditation practice. The preliminary results so far have been extraordinarily successful and encouraging. Not only do the positive psychological changes to well-being noted above persist, but it appears that there is also a link to the physiological processes of ageing. Research shows that stress impairs normal cell function, and also suggests that mindfulness practice seems to have a direct effect right down at the cellular level, slowing down the aging process and mitigating diseases that occur from cellular breakdown.
It is practices such as these that Chinese Buddhism can be rightfully proud of its historical and cultural role as major ancient custodian. It definitely deserves to be more widely recognised as such, given this new and scientific interest. Within Chinese Buddhism, these practices of mindfulness and other techniques have been preserved, practiced, and handed down for countless generations. It is clear that to the Venerable Master Zheng Rong, the revitalisation of Buddhism in China as a genuine practice, above and beyond its current culturally defined role, is vitally important to China’s future, which he elaborated on:
“Chinese president Hu Jintao gave a speech at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in which he emphasized the crucial role of Chinese culture in our future development. As Chinese, we should try to preserve and disseminate Chinese culture to build a society with an advanced culture… Take the essence and adapt to it modern civilization, science and technology… Chinese culture is the spiritual prop of the Chinese nation and it is the great spiritual power for China to exist and develop. Without protection, our culture will be lost in the future generation. So we must protect our culture with immediate action, and Buddhism is a very important part of Chinese culture.”
Guang Jue Monastery was once home to a bustling community of over 200 monks and nuns spanning well back through history to the Han Dynasty. Afterwards however, the Sino-Japanese war and later the Cultural Revolution left the temple site in little more than ruins. Now, and over the past decade or so, 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. He was initially sent to find an old nun reported to be living among the ruins and practicing her Pure Land meditations and mantras there non-stop for more than 60 years. Inspired by her dedication, instead of taking her back to Hangzhou he stayed and rebuilt the temple to what it is today.
At first glance, Master Zheng Rong is your archetypal village temple Abbot, leading the monks in the various duties, trainings, and ceremonies that constitute typical temple life. Though he is also a man of progressive vision, sincere dedication, obvious compassion and a big ready smile, having spent his life in service to Pure Land Buddhism. Over the weekend that Vantage spent at Guang Jue Monastery we were lucky to witness a time-honoured ceremony of induction into the Guang Jue Pure Land Sangha (community) for a novice monk, Malcom Hunt, and one of the foreign visitors who had made the decision to have a more lasting and formal association with the temple and the Master.
The atmosphere at the temple is punctuated by a pervasive stillness and peace that’s difficult to imagine until you’re out of the city and drop your bags there, nestled in the surrounding countryside of small farms and bamboo forests, near the village of Zaoxi. The simple accommodation, the relaxed and contemplative surrounds, the smell of incense wafting from the main temple hall, the yellow buildings and plant life climbing the rustic walls, literally feels like you’ve been transported back to a more simple time. Each day, meals are cooked from vegetables grown on the temple grounds, provided by the temple’s idiosyncratic cook affectionately known as Po po, a real local character who’ll hover over your meal making sure that you eat everything unless you wish to incur her displeasure.
Other residents apart from the Master, Malcom Hunt and Po po, are a three-legged cat with a broken front leg, and a contemplative nun who spends the most of the day in her meditative practices or making little repairs and maintenance around the temple. Most days there are visitors from the surrounding areas that come to pay their respects and make offerings, and occasionally for requested ceremonies to mark special occasions. For every visitor who stays, Guang Jue Monastery leaves a deep impression.
It is still very early days. The vast majority of visitors who come to stay and participate are foreigners, sometimes for extended periods of time. But there’s also a growing proportion of Chinese visitors, particularly the younger age groups who are the face of modern China, coming to participate in the courses in growing numbers. Within the interest and growth of mindfulness practices globally, Master Zheng Rong with the help of Malcom Hunt have overseen a quietly expanding base of support within China and abroad. Invigorated by a very modern interest and application of these ancient practices, the traditions of Chinese Buddhism with their unique character and history are slowly gaining a new recognition, one that could very well see Chinese Buddhism playing an updated and legitimate role in the hearts and minds of modern Chinese people and people from all over the world.
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. I have added it to the Causes page, as much help is needed to continue the courses, keep up the renovation work and other temple projects, and support the long-term goal of revitalising and preserving the essential practices of Chinese Buddhism within China and beyond.