If you must, one day, receive an email from a treasured friend asking you never to contact him again, then I wish the following for you:
A plane ride a few hours later to a Buddhist monastery tucked into the cyber-censorship of China for a month. Three roommates (well, technically bedmates) to ease your traveling solitude. Daily practice of a Buddhist anthem: letting go of attachments.
Having these things will be better than not having these things.
I woke up to the sound of a woodenfish knocking in the hallway every morning at 5:20 am. Or, if a roommate decided to get up at 4, turn on the lights, and write in her journal, then I woke up at 4. By 6:15 I was standing on the specific intersection of stone tiles at my particular spot in the outdoor courtyard. Silently we stood tall “like a reed” in rows ordered by height, waiting to begin Tai-Chi practice as the cicadas screamed at us from the surrounding bamboo forest, and the sun began to beat our shaved heads from the east where it rose.
I no longer remember what time we ate breakfast—but it was after Tai-Chi and a short break. During that short break I would lay down again on the woven mat we slept on, my eyelids demanding I doze for a few dissatisfying minutes. We lined up again before breakfast, in gender-segregated rows down either side of a corridor. For five minutes, we stood meditating until a curt word from a leader set the lines winding toward the dining hall entrance.
Palms together, seated in rows, we chanted. Our four bowls, two chopsticks, and one napkin were dutifully arranged in the proper order, and the seven or so peers on dining duty that day quietly traversed the wooden tables serving rice, soup, cooked vegetables, buns, and sometimes a fresh fruit treat. No talking. Hands moved slowly to avoid making sound when setting a bowl down on the table.
It wasn’t until the third week at the Jin’E temple that I began as a cantor for mealtime chanting. I’d sit, chime the instrument three times, and begin to sing, inevitably in the wrong key. After a few measures, everyone else would join me, the women straining to sing so low while the men behind me bellowed with relish. Then I would eat self-consciously in my more prominent cantor’s seat, glance around to see if everyone else had finished eating yet, and ring the instrument three more times to initiate the post-meal chant. Then, to the sound of three more dings, we stood, bowed to a statue of the Buddha, and collected our bowls to quietly wash them outside.
It was the first time I’d sang publicly since leaving Tisch School of the Arts a year prior. One guy, who had only ever glared at me up until that point, approached me during a break after my first day as a cantor. He said he really liked the way I sang, and he really liked that he could sing along with me. I like to think we were pals after that.
After breakfast, we were officially allowed to talk again (for the first time since evening chanting the night before). Following another short break, we convened in the classroom for a morning of lectures about Buddhism, China, and Sinophelia (fetishization of Chinese artifacts, art, etc., which comes with a simultaneous fear of the country and culture).
During brief bathroom breaks, we refilled our water bottles with green tea and hovered quietly in the shadows outside the classroom, moving slowly to avoid sweating through one of our two hand-washed uniforms.
After class, we had lunchtime. Again, we stood in our height-ordered, gender-segregated lines in the corridor, standing silently until cued to file back into the dining hall, where we chanted, ate in silence, and dissipated into our long afternoon break.
Apparently, if you did your laundry during the afternoon break, you could take the forbidden shortcut over the creek and up the hill and nobody would notice, because everyone was asleep. I didn’t learn this until after the program, because at 1 pm, I was always upstairs lying beside my roommates with the curtains drawn, trying to fall asleep as fast as possible in order to get as long a nap as as I could. With practice and focus, I was able to fit 45 minutes in before rousing myself to the alarm of my $20 Made-In-China digital wristwatch from Target.
Following break: afternoon meditation.
Day 1, our leader, the Venerable Yifa, had us sit for a 15-minute meditation. It was the longest meditation I’d ever done, and the only stationary, seated meditation of my life thus far. By week 2, we were into the 30-to-40-minute territory. By the last week (our week of silence), we were doing 8+ hours of meditation per day in 45 minute increments, punctuated by bathroom breaks and meals.
But on Day 1, I fell asleep. Sitting upright in an air-conditioned room, finally relaxing my shoulders for the first time in weeks of backpacking—I didn’t stand a chance. The day before, I was in Bangalore, India, sitting on a bathroom floor, reading and rereading an email I couldn’t quite process. That day I was in China, in a monk’s uniform, being told to sit and be quiet with myself. Fighting to stay upright “like a bell” was misery, so I stopped fighting. I hung my head and dozed. It never happened again.
To be or not to be. That is the question;
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer—
—for, as the Buddha said, life is suffering—
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
I recited Shakespeare to myself as I walked up the hill, soaking my uniform with sweat, to go hang my second, freshly-washed uniform up to dry. Following afternoon meditation, and another lecture session in the classroom, an evening “medicine meal”, and a group walking meditation, I used the early evening break to muck about, both literally and figuratively. After a day of piousness and sloth-like movement, painstakingly avoiding sweating through my uniform so I wouldn’t have to do more laundry, I was thoroughly gross anyway, so it made no difference. To hell with decorum.
or to take arms against a sea of troubles
and by opposing end them. To die, to sleep—
As long as we live, we have attachments. And as long as we have attachments, we suffer. Attachment causes suffering. Existence is suffering. Mulling over again and again the bleak ideas I was being taught in class that seemed to point to futility of all tasks, the emptiness of all moments.
No more. And by asleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—
To transcend flesh itself, to escape the heartache and the thousand natural shocks? Attaining nirvana.
—Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished—
So if life is suffering, and attachments are suffering—and even attachments to family, friends, meaningfully loved ones, commitments, are all fundamentally empty . . . What was I supposed to do with my time?
I found an empty room and danced to Ed Sheerhan’s “Shape of You.” Before entering China, I’d downloaded only one playlist on my Google Play account. All Google services are blocked and banned in China, so once I arrived, I could no longer stream any music.
A few days into the program, I wandered into a dusty room with a dining table, a sink, and glass cases of artwork during a break and found it quiet, private, and empty. The next day after laundry, I snuck my iPhone and earbuds back to the room with me, plugged my music into my ears, and embarked on a daily routine of shoving my uniform sleeves up onto my shoulders, pulling off my shoes and socks, and dancing to the same songs, over and over and over.
Ed Sheerhan’s “Shape of You”.
“September” by Earth, Wind & Fire.
Kendrick Lamar’s “Complexion”.
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, by the Rolling Stones.
“The Look of Love”, by Dusty Springfield.
Some Django Reinhardt.
A bunch of songs by Tim Maia.
A Dixie Chicks tune.
Tina Turner’s “The Best”, which had been my ex-friend’s suggestion for my traveling playlist.
I huffed and puffed around that dining table, jamming my headphones back in when they slipped out of sweaty ears. Periodically checking my trusty watch to avoid being late to the next lineup, I tucked my shirt into my pants to practice some yoga inversions and stretch before mopping my sweat off the floor, sweeping the room, and running back to the dorms for a quick shower before evening “Dharma Talks” with Venerable Yifa.
No one had explicitly told me I was allowed to use the room, just as I’d never been told it was off limits. A few weeks in, some local temple volunteers happened upon my session. I returned the next day to find the room locked.
Another few hours in the classroom. Perhaps a calligraphy artist leads a workshop, or a musician. Most likely, we hear a lecture by Venerable Yifa, who, though she is the Woodenfish Foundation’s founder and leader, was rarely present outside of afternoon meditation and these evening “Dharma Talks”.
It was dark by the time we finished. We fetched our cloaks and songbooks and padded back to the courtyard to line up one last time, silently, with our eyes closed. We stood under fat, splotchy stars while the bamboo forest invisibly retreated up the mountain and mosquitos gravitated toward any patch of skin left unsprayed. An image to remember: rows of bald heads standing still, while rows of cloaks blow gently in the humid wind.
Another one-word command, and the women’s line pivoted left and filed toward evening chanting. The men followed. One by one, we lifted our legs to cross the foot-high threshold to the main shrine while a sweeping gold statue of Buddha gazed down at us from the rafters, where his head loomed far above. Shadows fell across hundreds of small statues lining the walls in the sparse fluorescent light, and wide, cylindrical banners hung from the center of the ceiling.
We chanted, and bowed, and chanted, and bowed. Then, we meditated.
After evening meditation, we were turned loose until lights out at 10, but weren’t allowed to speak until after breakfast the next morning. In the quiet of the evening hour, some of us laid down on the still-warm courtyard stones and watched for shooting stars; careful not to let our Dharma books touch the ground, or to lay too close to somebody else.
We sleep on our right sides, knees bent, “like a bow.” I face the mountains and valleys of my roommates’ silhouettes in the dark before me. I fall asleep to quiet.