A Week of Silence and the Putuoshan Pilgrimage

“I hate you all!” Violette yelled, walking down the bus aisle to get off at a rest stop.

Je vous deteste tous!” is what she actually said, thinking no one could understand her French. (I could.) After weeks of silence, meditation, rigid daily practices and discipline, the Woodenfish Program degenerated into the sweaty chaos of transporting 80+ adults and their stuff from the Jin’E Temple to a small island off the Chinese coast for a pilgrimage up Mount Putuoshan.

I was reminded of summer camps, or school field trips where a few frazzled chaperones tried to control the actions of dozens of high-energy, low-discipline children. This time, the campers were adults ranging in age from 18 to 40+, spoke different languages, had different cultural upbringings, and felt less compelled to follow the rules—because they were, after all, adults themselves. There’s not much incentive for a middle-aged Indian man to accommodate a twenty-something American staff member’s sense of time, or for a cool, self-possessed Russian woman to rush her gait for the sake of a group’s pace. The result? A day of yelling, rushing, lugging, standing, waiting, sweating, sweating, sweating. . .

Until this point, we had all only known each other in the context of gender-segregated, silent discipline. Now, as we piled into buses, unconstrained by restrictions on talking, eye contact, or apparel, I started to understand how my peers navigated the world at large, instead of the monastic schedule at hand. I learned the names of the men for the first time, and we relayed to each other the gossip that had been circling among our respective groups. “What have the girls been talking about this whole time?” one male friend asked. “Well what have the guys been saying?” I countered.

What happens when dozens of people from all over the world, mostly in their 20s, have vowed to live together confined to a small temple grounds for a month, with absolutely zero sexual contact of any kind?

Not nothing.

The scale is re-calibrated. Relativity reigns. When touch is not an option, eye contact becomes momentous. When eye contact is prohibited, walking in the same hallway at the same time becomes ardent intimacy. Tracking someone’s location in the room becomes a rich study, their mere presence emitting endless nuanced information. A whole saga unfolds in one’s own mind, with no external confirmation nor dismissal of its truth; a regression to middle school mentality.

During the silent retreat the previous week,  indoor walking meditation began as a monotonous walking in circles. It became, for me, a rigorous awareness of where the sexy Dutch man was in the room, and the experience of victory every time our pace and gaits matched up, walking side by side until the gender-segregated turnoff.

Meditation indeed.

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A roommate/bedmate.

The first three weeks of class and meditation at the temple led up to a final week of silence (this was right before the harried journey to Mount Putuoshan). For seven days, we rose, dressed, ate, and walked without talking. We made no eye contact, and touched no one. We meditated. For 8+ hours a day, we sat on cushions, or sat on benches, or walked in circles.

On the final night of silence, I set my watch alarm for 4:20 the next morning. In the pre-dawn dark, I grabbed my uniform and the slip-ons I’d bought from Rite-Aid, and padded out the door, buttoning my shirt and slipping on my shoes in the silent hallway.

What happens when you can’t talk to anyone else? What happens when your roommate keeps turning on the lights and waking everybody up in the middle of the night, and you can’t ask her to stop, or even make eye contact? What happens when it’s been a full day and you haven’t listened to music, read or written anything, talked to anyone, gone outside a small temple perimeter, laughed, or said one word of your own, and all you’ve had to do is sit there and be quiet? When your back aches during meditation and your legs fall asleep and your nose runs and your ear itches and you’re falling asleep but you can’t even stand up or lie down to relieve the strain? When your only options are to breathe in, or breathe out?

What happens when the only voice you hear all day long for seven days straight is the voice in your head?

“Let go of the pool wall and dive down.”

On the morning of July 23, I woke up to the meek beeping of my wristwatch at 4:20 in the dark, dank dormitory to relish the last few minutes of program-wide silence. I walked the uphill path to the laundry clotheslines, where I hoped to catch the best in-bounds view of the sunrise. The bamboo forest loomed beside me, thick darkness obscuring my view beyond the first few feet of forest interior. Cicadas screeched from within. Stinging sweat dripped behind my ears.

As I arrived to the platform, I saw that the vantage point was not as optimal as I’d thought, so I walked back down in search of somewhere better. In 45 minutes, I needed to be standing still and silent at my designated position for Tai-Chi. The sun would rise in about 30 minutes.

There was a cemetery in the field separating the temple from the town below. There I sat on gravel and weeds facing the rapidly lightening eastern horizon. I pretended (for my own benefit) to meditate, peeking my eyes open every couple of minutes to check the sun’s progress.

The sky turned pink. Peek. Clouds became white gold. Peek. The sky was officially blue, but still, the sun had not breached the mountainous peaks across the valley. Peek. It was almost time to head back for Tai-Chi.

Then: from within sharply cut rose-colored clouds, the sun rose, joining the billowing shapes already looming above the vast, sweeping landscape of Ningbo, China.

Two months earlier, I had been sitting in warm low-tide Fijian waters, watching the sun rise over the Pacific when a curious turtle popped its head into the air a few feet away from me, curiously observing me. Then, I had shot upright and shouted my excitement to my brother. The turtle disappeared instantly, and my brother was too far away to hear me, much less to come see. I sat down again quietly, hoping the turtle would return, but to no avail. I was alone with the sun.

Here in China, after weeks of solo trekking through the Philippines, navigating cities and towns in India, accepting the fallout of relationships back home, and silently plodding the halls of the Jin’E temple without human contact, I knew better than to wish for a fellow witness to this Ningbo sunrise. My instincts, however, had not been informed. The sun had arrived, I was there to greet it, and I instinctually looked around to see if there was someone to alert to the occasion.

I didn’t know before that moment that I wasn’t alone. To my left, standing on the other side of some brush, was one of the young men who had been studying in the program as well. I still don’t remember his name. Tall, pale, skinny, and bespectacled, he looked like he was in high school, though I knew he must be in college.  All the college boys looked younger with their heads shaved.

He didn’t see me peering around the weeds up at him. He stood focused on the display, glowing right back toward the sun as it lit his face in rose gold. After a few moments of supreme satisfaction, he turned and headed up toward the courtyard to line up for Tai-Chi.

I didn’t speak, or make eye contact. I broke no vow. The only shift that had occurred was my own awareness of not being alone. I did not have the knowledge, and then I did: that another person was watching the same sunrise at the same moment as I, breathing the same morning air in summer of 2017.

 

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A friend.

 

Violette was brash, resisting dress code, roll call, focusing in class, and smiling in front of anyone but the sexy Dutch man or me (when I was holding a camera).

It wasn’t until the last night of the program that I became aware of her passion for international law and public diplomacy, and her extensive experience studying elsewhere in China. I sat in the backseat of a dark taxi on the way to a bar across Shanghai, and Violette sat in the front. She talked about leaving France, choosing to live in China again and again, and her plans for the future. Despite her disapproving demeanor at the Jin’E Temple, she cared about where she was and what she was doing, and did it all to help people. To “make the world a better place,” so to speak.

It wasn’t until following Violette on Instagram a few weeks later that I became aware of her powerful emoji habit, constantly using rainbows, stars, and hearts to express herself on social media.

Moving to China for a month to study Buddhism is a jarring experience for anyone. It challenges a person’s identity no matter where they’re from. This group of 70+ of us met each other under these exceptional circumstances. At Woodenfish, no one knows who you are, or what you’re doing with your life. There’s not really an occasion to tell them.

So when my hair is removed—

my power to make decisions about where I go,

what I do,

for how long I do it

is all removed;

the food I eat,

what time I eat it,

how I place my bowls on the table and

how I grip my chopsticks have all been prescribed;

when my clothes, shoes, and undergarments are all predetermined;

when I cannot assert my personality by talking, performing, or writing,

or craft the way I communicate with other people;

when I have been instructed on the proper positions for sitting, standing, and sleeping—

When all these individualizing, daily decisions are stripped away from me, what is left? What actually does define me, if anything?

Or, am I simply a composite of my hair, the clothes I wear, my relation to others, my vocal patterns, and my desire to sleep in?

I was asked to find out, to “let go of the pool wall and dive down.”

The objective is not pleasure, but rather the discovery of what is left when we stop clinging to pleasure. It was by no means “fun.” I by no means enjoyed it, yet it remains one of the most skill-building experiences of my life.

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A deskmate.

I think of the impact of dozens of people experiencing monastic life in China every summer for more than 15 years, flying back to their homes across the globe, having had this rigorous experience of silence and self (or lack thereof). I think of the policy and foreign relations that have been swayed through simple exposure, and through the organization’s work with the United Nations. I suppose it’s always clunky to engineer opportunities for people-to-people diplomacy—bureaucracy, politics, and religious propaganda are somewhat inevitable—but still, what more direct way to make the world a little smaller than to put people not from China, in China?

“If you want to live in heaven, make everybody live in heaven.”

“If you want to live in heaven, make everybody live in heaven,” Venerable Yifa told us one evening toward the end of July, as we sat in the cool evening classroom and cicadas chanted outside. She had made herself scarce over the course of four weeks, allowing her staff to herd us about the temple and allowing our questions to go unanswered. At the evening dharma talks, though, Venerable Yifa emerged briefly, talking about vows, being alone, and on this particular night, karma. Before the silent 7 days, my raised hand was usually left unaddressed. Once the silence began, I couldn’t try to ask a question anyway. I sat in the back with the tall girls, my buzzcut drying lightly from the shower I just took and a coolness settling over my body for the first time in a sweltering day.

Venerable Yifa scrutinized us, her hands clasped on the table before her. She is many things, but she is not sentimental. She gazed levelly at the 70 multinational adults in shapeless yellow uniforms who had dedicated their month to her, and to her curriculum. We looked back at her silently. “This program is not for conversion,” she told us. “You all have to go home.”

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Venerable Yifa with a sister.

 

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