Close your eyes.
(Keep them open.)
Imagine it’s 9 pm on a sweltering summer night in China. You’re sitting on a stiff, plastic cushion facing the open doors of a temple. Large gold statues loom up behind you. Bug spray seeps into your eyes and stings your freshly shaven head. Sweat drips behind your ears—or is that a mosquito?
Nobody talks but the insects outside, because you’re meditating. You are among 80 individuals who sit silently (or almost silently) and in stillness (or almost-stillness) every night after evening chanting. No matter how close the cicadas swoop to your head, their fat, metallic bodies throwing too-large shadows across your closed eyelids, you try not to open your eyes and look. No matter how loudly the buzzing beasts slam into the floor and struggle to right themselves, you try to ignore it (unless one actually hits you directly in the head—which it might). And perhaps, after a month of practice, this ritual meditation after evening chanting in the main temple will resemble something along the lines of “bearable.”
I never had a particular affinity for East Asian culture, or for Buddhism. China was not a bucket list destination, nor did I feel distinctly drawn to the life of a monk. However, when granted the opportunity to spend a month in a Chinese monastery through the Woodenfish Foundation, all meals and lodging provided—and, having recently left my job in San Francisco, suddenly seeing uncharted months ahead of me—the program seemed like a valuable use of my time if for no other reason than that I know almost nothing about Buddhism or China. As someone who has curiously explored the religions (and conflicts thereof) in Lebanon, and developed stronger understandings of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, I still had only the vaguest concept of Buddhism: a religion held by 488 million people around the world, about ten percent of the global population.
By rote of this fact alone, I found it worth my time to learn about something to which people dedicate their whole lives: a system of beliefs in which so many find a useful interpretation of the world around them. The importance of learning about China goes hand in hand with any interest in global politics.
I’ve still seen very little of China, but very much of the Jin’E Temple in Ningbo. Ningbo is an average city by China’s standards (population 7.6 million) but would be considered an expansive metropolis anywhere else. My flight into Ningbo landed at night, and I climbed directly into a temple volunteer’s van to coast over highways in the dark, up into the mountains above the city. I was in China, but I couldn’t see it out the window.
I arrived to the monastery after my new roommates were already “asleep”, and dug through my backpack for sleepwear by the glow of my trusty $20 digital wristwatch from Target which read “MADE IN CHINA”. After a month in India, my pack was already a mess. I gave up. Underwear-clad, I crawled between three strangers onto the cement platform that served as a shared bed, collapsing onto the woven mat. Not to sleep, mind you, but rather to toss and turn in the humid heat for a few hours before the wakeup call.
When the sun rose, I woke up to see, for the first time, my home for the next month: the gargantuan bamboo forests retreating up the hill, encasing the sweeping wooden beams of the 2,000 year old temple grounds. I introduced myself to the three girls I had slept next to on the communal straw mat in our room. We put on our new pale yellow uniforms and filed downstairs.
In the young morning sunlight, 80+ new monastic students sat in silence, listening to the cicada symphony reverberating from the bamboo forest. More than five students would break and go home within a week, but this morning moment was before the nonnegotiable schedule, the perpetual sleep deprivation, and the upheaval of adopting a religious life and study, entirely, at once. Before our first morning Tai-Chi class, we were segregated by gender and lined up by height. I stood toward the end, between a tall girl from Alaska and a tall girl from Russia. I would experience the next 30 days by their sides, and we wouldn’t be talking for most of it. We would sit on a bench and eat in silence beside each other every day; we would stand still, facing forward at lineup before meals, chanting, and class; we would sit on mats beside each other, eyes closed, meditating for hours; we would bow again and again and again, down on our knees in full prostrations, singing in a language none of us spoke for our nightly chanting—right before we sat on plastic cushions and closed our eyes for evening meditation.
I still know very few of their names. I am learning, through social media, the people I would have met in their own established lives, instead of in a monastery in China. They wear makeup and coats, have husbands and girlfriends, lose their jobs, finish school. They all have hair again, just like me.
I spent a month thinking that Clara, the girl from Alaska, reminded me of Little House on the Prairie, her bare features and smile so soft, warm, and wholesome. I had no idea she wears tube tops and hoop earrings, bombastic red lipstick, and thick, winged eyeliner in her regular life. I met her when she was not herself, and she met me when I wasn’t myself, either.
What more need I say? Everything there is different from what it is with us and excels in both size and beauty. They have no fruit the same as ours, no beast, no bird. –The Travels of Marco Polo
Nothing feels more performative than shaving your head, folding your hands, and playing “Chinese monk” for a month—and I earned a BFA in acting. As our instructors reminded us, 99.9% of things are the same in China as they are anywhere else. You still have air, you still eat food. You still wake up in the morning. People smile, blink, sweat. They have emotions, earwax, and families. The exoticism of the Far East exists only by the grace of our own indulgence, building it up into some Zen utopia. As the West becomes more and more disenchanted, we seek re-enchantment and select ~*~CHINA~*~ as the “mystical marvel”, far far away.
The Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral of European material civilization and culture. –Edward Said’s Orientalism, 1979
There is no way to learn a religion, tradition, or culture that is neutral.
“I went to Africa one time. CULTURE SHOCK,” Officer Huang* said, seated at the desk in front of our batch of new monastics. His powerpoint presentation played dimly behind him:
Chinese Immigration Laws and Regulations
Exit and Entry Administration Group
Ningbo Municipal Public Security Bureau
Applying for a Chinese visa can be a touchy process, particularly when entering the country for any sort of religious purpose. Moreover, the legality of foreigners staying overnight at any sort of religious facility is a grey area. To ensure approval of our visas, we had all been instructed to apply as tourists, and to not mention religion.
Our visitor, Officer Huang, sat facing a classroom of 80 foreigners in monk uniforms at a monastery, many with shaved heads. His boyish thrill at speaking to so many foreigners didn’t match the words coming out of his mouth, nor did the words coming out of his mouth match the circumstances of the moment.
“Different language, different skin,” he went on, talking about his experience in Africa one time. Meanwhile, laws and regulations for foreigners were projected onto the screen, not lasting long enough to be read. Information on the slides had to do with crimes we are not supposed to commit, statistics on foreigners’ visits and foreigners’ offenses. Words like murder, rape, drug-trafficking flickered across the screen.
A person who goes whoring— briefly flashed, and then immediately disappeared, leaving us all quietly laughing in confusion.
“It’s my pleasure, a good opportunity for me to communicate with you,” he beamed at us all. “It’s my first time in front of people from so many countries.”
—you shall not endanger China’s national security, harm public interests, and disrupt social and political order—
“The scenery in Ningbo is the most beautiful I have ever seen. For me too,” he went on, proudly. He was right. Out the doors behind us, a lush mountainside swept high above the temple grounds, and far below them. The sense of scale was all distorted, because both the mountain peaks and the bamboo shoots upon them were gargantuan. Like in a Dr. Seuss book, we were swept high into a sky that seemed too big, too far to be real. China dwarfed us. Ningbo dwarfed us. The temple itself dwarfed us, its massive curved beams looming high above our heads.
“I hope you are not disappointed if you want to learn Kung Fu here. It’s different from movies,” Officer Huang continued. The room had turned from a lecture into a communal state of childish disbelief. We students checked in with our classmates around us, making eye contact to verify that this was, indeed, real. Our teaching assistants were bemused, but not alarmed. The Venerable Yifa, the head nun and leader of the Woodenfish Foundation, wasn’t phased in the slightest.
Do not be involved in political issues such as
You may have your different opinions but now you are in China.
These are our core interests.
“Don’t talk about it,” Officer Huang said, for once addressing the words we saw behind him. He still smiled eagerly at us. He moved on.
Attend classes as required
Don’t conduct religious activities
“I hope you go back and tell your countrymen China is good enough and beautiful enough,” he said, his eyes and cheeks brimming with joy as the powerpoint presentation finished.
Somehow, after a 15-year history of the Woodenfish program getting busted by the government, and students having to pack up, relocate, and try again, a precarious arrangement had been reached between the local authorities, the abbot of this particular temple, and the ever-mobile, ever-determined Venerable Yifa. It seemed that, unless someone screwed up, we would be permitted to stay the month.
Venerable Yifa’s friend told her, “You know, there is probably a government agent listening in on all your phone calls.”
She said, “Good, then he will hear lots of dharma.”
Her friend said, “And you know, there is probably a government agent following you.”
And Yifa said, “Good, then I have a free bodyguard.”
As to why Yifa doesn’t just conduct the program in a different country without the same obstacles and possible consequences?
“I like a challenge.”
*Name changed for privacy.