Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 1

Photo credit: The 2012 International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an Facebook page.

So I’m starting to properly blog about my Taiwan trip that happened in July last year.  For a long time, drafts of this entry and a few others were languishing in this blog’s draft queue due to an unfortunate combination of mental block, inertia and plain old laziness.  Meanwhile, I almost fell into the trap of just posting slideshows, while I allowed this Taiwan series to be overtaken by my blog of my Tarak Ridge climb, which actually occurred after the Taiwan trip, as well as by some other entries.

To reiterate what I’ve said a number of times in the past, I must say I’m sincerely thankful that my employers allowed me to go on this trip in the middle of peak season.  Of course, presenting an authentic letter of invitation to an international seminar from someone who goes by the name “Venerable Master Hsing-Yun” really made an impression on them.  And so a onetime exception was made in my case and I was allowed to go on the trip.

This is THE Venerable Master Hsing Yun. More on him later.

The full name of the seminar is indicated in the title.  It is organized and held annually by a Taiwan-based Buddhist sect named Fo Guang Shan, and prospective participants who pass a certain set of criteria are sponsored by them through their local temples around the world.  In the Philippines, Fo Guang Shan has temples in Manila, Bacolod and Cebu.  The temple in Manila is named the “Mabuhay Temple“, a surprisingly posh, modern, “5-star” Buddhist temple and activity center in Vito Cruz near De La Salle University.  And it is through this temple that I submitted my application.

I first heard of this seminar through my college friend Jen Adams-Juan, who was switching to a Buddhist lifestyle under the guidance of the Mabuhay Temple.  Of course, the main thing that attracted me to it was the fact that it was sponsored.  And so, although Taiwan wasn’t high on my list of priorities as far as traveling is concerned, I eagerly filed my application.  It was only later on that I realized how right my decision was because the trip turned out to also be a richly educational experience, among other things.  And if there’s one thing in life that I really treasure, it is enriching my own knowledge and wisdom by being exposed to different world views.

TAIPEI BY PLANE, KAOHSIUNG BY BUS

Map source: Google Maps

The meet-up place was the Mabuhay Temple tea room where, at that time,  one side was a flurry of activity due to last-minute preparations and strategic weighing of our luggage to save up on possible overloading fees.  We were supposed to be briefed by Dave, the leader of our delegation, prior to departing, but since we ran the risk of running late, it was decided that the briefing will be done later on instead.  As we were leaving and boarding our van, we were serenaded by a group of young people who were resident scholars of the temple.  It’s too bad that we were in a rush and were not able to properly appreciate this kind gesture.

At the NAIA 3, we met up with a few other participants who went straight to the airport.  There, our small group made heads turn because we were all wearing jackets with the Philippine flag design.  Also, we were each holding at least 2 ukeleles as handcarry luggage, which made us look like some sort of National Ukelele Ensemble.  The ukeleles were intended to be gifts of the Mabuhay Temple to the monastery in Kaohsiung, by the way.

(While waiting at the boarding area, I made the mistake of exchanging my US dollars for Taiwanese dollars while still in the Philippines.  It turns out that the exchange rate between the two are very unfavorable when done in the NAIA.  Long story.  This left me kind of pissed for a couple of days and I just tried to console myself with thoughts of this trip being sponsored anyway.)

Moving forward, we soon boarded the plane, and a few hours later at around midnight, we were already in Taiwan.  Immigration was a breeze, although it took a long walk before we got there from the disembarkation area.

Taiwanese Immigration let me through even with this kind of photo.

Once everyone has gotten their luggage and was accounted for, we then boarded the coaster that FGS rented that would take us all the way to Kaohsiung.  At that point, we mostly still didn’t know each other.  So before everyone fell asleep, Dave and Marlon (another one of our leaders) facilitated the self-introductions and briefing on what to expect and what was expected of us during the week-long conference.  After that, it was sleep time, only punctuated by 2 stops to convenience stores for snacks and toilet breaks.

In Taiwan’s geography, Taipei is at the northernmost tip of the country, while Kaohsiung is at the opposite end at the south – approximately the same distance from Manila to Vigan.  While this distance usually means a 6- to 8-hour trip in the Philippines (or 13 hours in Cambodia/Vietnam), in Taiwan it only took around 3-4 hours.  The only explanation I could think of is that Taiwan’s highways are in excellent condition, and at that early hour, there were almost no vehicles on the road.

ARRIVING AT FO GUANG SHAN

It was already past sunrise when we finally arrived at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery.  Due to some rule that was then currently in place, our vehicle was not allowed to drive us all the way up to our lodgings at the “Cloud Dwelling Building”.  Instead, we were dropped off at the “Non-Duality Gate” (these are really cool names, by the way)  near the entrance of the monastery.  From there, we had to hike uphill with all our bags and stuff for a quarter of a kilometer to be able to formally check in.

The Non-Duality Gate.

Most of the participants have already arrived the night before and so they already were wearing their “uniform”.  As for us, we had to join all of them for breakfast even before we got our seminar pack and t-shirts, so our civilian attires definitely stood out in the sea of pink and baby blue.  Before proceeding to the dining hall, we were ordered to line up with all the other participants and for a while, we had doubts as to whether we were in the right group because it seemed that we got mixed up with really young participants.  Fortunately, we were overheard by a young Filipina participant nearby who was actually part of our delegation but arrived the day before, and she assured us that we were in the right group.

The very spacious dining hall. This is actually just half of it. (Also, take note of the absence of pillars.)

Our first experience of breakfast at Fo Guang Shan was a foreshadowing of how the seminar will be conducted in its entirety.  That is, it was orderly, organized and very efficient.  We had to enter the dining hall in straight lines without talking; occupy the seats starting with the row nearest to the center aisle, filling all rows one by one; and once the pre-meal chanting has begun, the dining hall will then be closed and latecomers will not be allowed to enter.  (We later on learned that latecomers were fed eventually, but this was only after everyone else has finished.  It was important that the formal sequence was observed on time.)  There was enough space between the table rows that enabled the food servers to distribute the meals, viands, soup and dessert in a speedy (but not messy) manner.  More on this later.

When it came to the actual eating, I was already briefed back in the Mabuhay Temple on how to go about it.  In FGS, there is such a thing as a proper way to eat, ask for more food, decline food, as well as how to arrange your plates, bowls and chopsticks that signify you are already done eating.  Although I’ve already done this before, it could still be an overwhelming experience when you are with hundreds of other participants and you can’t help but be impressed at how the whole dining experience functions like a well-oiled machine.

MEETING ROOMATES, SETTLING IN

My seminar pack. (Note: I had no idea that they would put the name of my school on my ID card. It should not be interpreted to mean that I was an official representative of the Ateneo de Manila University.)

After breakfast, we then went to our assigned rooms at the dormitories upstairs.  The Cloud Dwelling Building does have elevators, but the sheer number of people who wanted to use it meant that it would actually be faster to use the stairs rather than waiting for one’s turn at the lift.  “Dormitory” is clearly a relative term as the dormitories we found ourselves in that day could make a few hotels I know of look like a pension house.

The common area of the Cloud Dwelling dormitory. Nice, eh?

Since the Philippine delegation was a small one, we were all assigned a different room each.  There were already two people occupying my room – a British bloke named Paul and tall American named Daniel.  They seemed to have missed breakfast because they were still getting up from bed when I arrived.  Later on, we were joined by 3 Chinese guys from different parts of the world: Alex from Florida, Richard from Macau, and Zhou from Australia.  The 6 of us were roommates throughout the 4 days that we stayed at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery.

My roommates (L-R): Paul, Daniel, Alex, Richard and Zhou

The first formal activity of the seminar was still a couple of hours away so we had ample time to take a shower and rest a bit before assembling at the conference hall.  At some point, Marlon arrived to give me my seminar pack and “uniform” – 2 dry fit t-shirts, one baby blue and the other one pink.  They were the only upper garments we were allowed to wear for the duration of the seminar so we had to do the laundry every night just so we’d have a clean shirt the next day.

“WELCOMING” ACTIVITY

Photo credit: The 2012 International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an Facebook page.

Naturally, the first activity would be something that would welcome the participants and put them at ease with each other.  This would be a very difficult thing to do since there were around 800 to 1,000 people packed in just one conference hall, so they divided  the entire group into 2 major divisions: The Chinese-speaking side and the English-speaking side.  The former group is mainly comprised of Taiwanese and Chinese mainlanders, while the latter group is everybody else, including some Chinese individuals based in other countries.  (Being from the Philippines, we were grouped under the English-speaking side, under the sub-grouping “India, Indonesia and the Philippines”.)

Photo credit: The 2012 International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an Facebook page.

The ice breaker was singing a few songs with matching actions.  This was something I felt I was already too old for, but I had to keep in mind that most of my fellow participants were in their early 20s, and so I had to adjust myself and not be a snobbish prick about it.  Unexpectedly, there were some scary moments during this singing activity, particularly when everyone started jumping up and down all at the same time.  Because the conference hall was an extensive area without pillars, the floor actually shook when people were jumping.  It was pretty unnerving and it made me like the song even less.  On the other hand, you’ve got to admire how the place was designed.  The flooring was apparently made of flexible material (bamboo?) to withstand repeated stress, but light enough in order for it not to collapse in the absence of pillars.

The next activity was quite a familiar one to a lot of Filipinos.  I can’t remember what they called it, but it goes by the name “human bingo” hereabouts.  The main objective was to get to know someone who matches the description in each box and have them sign their name on the box as proof that you got to know them.  In theory, you “win” by being the first to have all boxes signed, but the rules are flexible.

Admit it. You’ve all played this game at some point in the past.

Again, I didn’t really like to play this game since I’ve played it many, many times in the past and it has already lost its appeal for me.  Fortunately, everyone else seemed to be enthusiastic about the whole thing, especially the Chinese participants.  I found that I only had to stand in the middle of everyone and look pleasant enough, and eventually, somebody will approach me to ask me to sign their paper, or have them sign mine. Soon, it was all over and some winners were announced.

The next activity though was a bit more interesting.  We were divided into mixed groups of around 20 people each for group discussions and I was assigned to Group 5 (as indicated in my ID card).  I was delighted to learn that all my roommates were also in the same group, as well as fellow Filipinos Veronica and Chingbee, so there were at least 7 friendly faces that would make me feel less awkward.  (Believe it or not, I am a naturally shy person and I am easily overwhelmed when placed in a situation where I don’t know anyone.)

Veronica’s “active listening” face. ;D

It was a pretty diverse group, with people from Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, U.K., Australia, Hungary, Hong Kong, Macau, the U.S., and Canada and even. We at first naturally stuck to our own countrymen, but in the course of the next few days, we gradually got more comfortable with each other, but I remember the Malaysians Biki and Maxie being the most approachable that early on.

Eventually, it was time for lunch.  The morning’s activity worked up an appetite in me and I remember having a hearty meal at that time.

AFTERNOON ACTIVITY

Venerable Master Hsing Yun delivering a talk at the Tathagata Building Auditorium

There was still an hour to spare after lunch before the next activity would begin, so I thought I’d go for a quick nap in our room.  Big mistake!  Air conditioning has a way of increasing one’s inertia and so I later on woke up disoriented and alone in the room.  When I went out, it seemed that I was the only one in the entire floor.  Apparently, I overslept by around 30 minutes and everybody else has gone to the formal opening ceremony at the Tathagata Building Auditorium.

The Tathagata Building, as viewed from the back. (Photo credit: http://vincenttraveljournal.blogspot.com/2010/03/fo-guang-shan-sights-1702-2002.html)

So as it happened, I was late for the official opening of the seminar.  I didn’t really know where the venue was because I always assumed that I could just follow the crowd.  Well, there was no crowd to speak of so I just concentrated on exiting the building and just worry about finding the group once I’ve done that.  Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who was late.  Tessa, a fellow Filipino participant, also overslept and I actually met Veronica in one of the corridors looking for her.  (Or maybe I had them mixed up.  I can’t remember.  I was still pretty disoriented at that point.)  Later, Tessa was found and the three of us proceeded to the Tathagata building.

When I finally entered the auditorium, people were already seated and were in a festive mood because each countries’ delegations were being introduced.  Veronica had saved Tessa a seat, so I got a bit separated from the small Philippine delegation and was seated instead at the row occupied by the equally small Japanese delegation.  Yeah, we were just around 20 individuals, including the ones who arrived the day before.  But when we were introduced, we made sure that we were heard.

The Philippine delegation. The bald head partly hidden at the back directly under “Life” is mine. (Photo credit: The 2012 International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an Facebook page.)

Predictably, the biggest delegations were those of the Taiwanese and the mainland Chinese.  The Malaysian delegation was pretty sizable too.  Conspicuously absent were representatives from the Theravada countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.  Fo Guang Shan, like most Chinese Buddhist sects, is from the Mahayana tradition, which is quite different from Theravada both in form and substance.  Despite their proximity to the Theravada countries, the Buddhism in Malaysia, Indonesia and even the Philippines are mostly of the Mahayana tradition because of the influence of its local Chinese communities.

Anyway, what followed immediately after was a formal orientation on the aims of the seminar.  We were personally welcomed by Venerable Master Hsing Yun, who is the founder of Fo Guang Shan sect. Under his leadership and guidance, Fo Guang Shan has grown to be the most influential Buddhist organization in Taiwan and has established various temples, schools and organizations around the world promoting humanistic Buddhism.  He was given a rousing welcome by everyone, and – as far as I can tell – was regarded as a superstar by most of the Chinese participants.

There were other talks that afternoon.  Most of the time, we non-Chinese wore translation devices on one ear because some talks were delivered in Mandarin.  It was a bit hard to follow because occasionally, the devices would inexplicably stop working.  Good thing there is a running translation transcript projected on the wall that supplemented the audiible translation.

DINNER

Photo credit: The 2012 International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an Facebook page.

Dinner in Fo Guang Shan was served quite early at around 5 pm.  I’m not sure if this is really the hour that dinner is served in Chinese culture, or if they just did it that way to insert more seminar activities at night.  Anyway, I thought of recording a video of the dining “process” that I described earlier, and here’s how it went:

Silent meals at Fo Guang Shan from Liquid Druid on Vimeo.

We were actually prohibited from taking pictures or videos of the dining hall at any point during meal time, but I just could not help making a record of this.  I had to do it on the first day when it was still “excusable” so that I could feign ignorance (*wink.)

AFTER DINNER

Some of the 500 Arhats at Vulture Peak (yet another cool name.)

I was most certain that I would at some point doze off during the night’s lectures.  I haven’t had any proper sleep since the day before, back in faraway Manila.  Once again, the entire body of participants was divided into the English-speaking and Chinese-speaking groups.  The latter had the good fortune of attending a talk on Ch’an Buddhism by Master Hsing Yun, while the rest of us in the English-speaking group (most of whom were not Buddhists) attended a talk on Buddhist doctrines by Venerable Hui Feng.

Ven. Hui Feng is Caucasian and originally from New Zealand.  He was apparently named Matt Osborn prior to taking refuge in Buddhism, and has by default become the favorite lecturer of the English-speaking crowd.  It was unfortunate that he was the last lecturer for the day, because I fell asleep a number of times during his lecture.  (I wasn’t alone.  Looks like everybody was just so tired from the day’s activities.)  I did try to take down notes but I couldn’t understand them afterwards when I tried to make sense of them.

Soon enough the lecture was over and it was time to retire for the night.  I was already pleasantly filling my head with thoughts of finally sleeping soundly on a soft bed in an air-conditioned room until I realized that I still had to wash the t-shirt I was wearing.  By that point I was already too lazy to go to the laundry area and line up with all the others for my turn at the washing machines, so I just hand-washed my shirt in the bathroom while I took a shower.

It was already past midnight when I was done.  What a day.

= = = = = = = = = =

This entry is part of the Taiwan series dated July 19-27, 2012:

1. Gallery: Fo Guang Shan Main Shrine
2. Gallery: Feng Chia Night Market
3. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 1
4. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 2
5. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 3
6. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 4
7. Taiwan: Tainan & Taichung, with Lukang in between
8. Taiwan: Science and Religion
9. Gallery: The Taiwan Theater Museum
10. Taiwan: Traipsing around Yilan
11. Taiwan: Closing Program at Fo Guang University
12. Taiwan: Leaving Yilan, Arriving in Taipei
13. Taiwan: Last 24 hours in Taipei
14. Taiwan: Epilogue

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