One thing I forgot to mention in the last entry was that my participation in this seminar did not in any way obligate me to convert to Buddhism, nor was there any expectation on me to undertake further studies in Buddhism afterwards. Basically, it’s the closest thing to the proverbial “free lunch” as far as I was concerned.
However, as a matter of courtesy, non-Buddhist participants were expected to observe rituals, participate in prayers, chanting, as well as gestures of veneration to the Buddha. This last point involves bowing, kneeling and prostrating oneself in front of statues of Buddha, and might be unsettling to non-Buddhists, especially followers of monotheistic faiths who are conditioned to worship no one but God.
It’s worthy to note that in Buddhism (or at least Fo Guang Shan’s brand of Buddhism), gestures of veneration are not equivalent to worshipping, Buddha himself is not thought of as a god but as an exceptional human being who has achieved Nirvana, and who is to be emulated. Being raised a Catholic, the concept of “kneeling but not necessarily worshipping” is something that I’m quite familiar with. (It’s basically the same way we regard saints.) But I’d imagine this would pose a difficulty with, say, a Born Again Christian or a Muslim.
There was an optional meditation session every morning at around 5am for the duration of the seminar. I wanted to join this activity. However, I was too tired the night before to wake up early enough, so I spent a precious hour getting more sleep. When I finally got up, it seemed that Richard and Zhou went out for meditation because their beds were empty. The three roommates though had the same idea as I did.
So having had the benefit of extra rest, I was able to take a leisurely shower prior to proceeding at the dining hall downstairs for breakfast. Naturally, we, the ones who got left behind, were the first in line for breakfast …but I’m sure there were some who opted to skip both meditation and breakfast in order to stay in bed longer (most notably my roommate Alex, who had a habit of going missing every now and then.)
I was hoping that I’d get to experience cool temperature once I stepped outside, but then I realized that it was summer in Taiwan at that time (July), and it could get quite warm even at an early hour.
On the way down, I came across some Venerables (monks) whom I politely greeted with “Ji Xiang” with palms met and with a slight bow. This expression apparently means “auspicious blessings”. The other common greeting is “Omitofo” (Amitabha), literally meaning “Buddha”, but is also used as a greeting. Since I’m not a Buddhist, I stuck to “Ji Xiang”. I was told that it’s supposedly taboo for a Christian to be saying “Omitofo”.
Someone who has very little knowledge of world cultures would be shocked to see so many swastikas displayed prominently all around the monastery. Actually, the swastika is one of the most universal of all good luck signs. For hundreds of years, they adorned temples, houses, clothing and even everyday objects from as far as East Asia, thanks to Buddhism, and to the Americas, where they were used by Native American tribes. It’s only during World War II that it acquired a stigma due to it being adopted by the Nazis.
I’ve already talked about meals at length in the previous entry, and even showed a video. But what I’ve forgotten to mention was the fact that Fo Guang Shan is vegetarian, like most Chinese Buddhist sects. So for at least 6 days in Taiwan, I ate nothing but rice and vegetables. This does not mean to say that the food wasn’t good. For the most part, the food was very palatable and we could have as much of it as we wanted, provided that we knew the proper way of asking for more food, as I’ve mentioned previously. By the way, here’s a photo of an illustrated guideline on how to dine in Fo Guang Shan:
After breakfast, we were given some free time to freshen up (mostly for the benefit of those who went for morning meditation) and let the food settle in our stomachs. I used this time to take out my other shirt outside to have it completely dry off. The closed and air-conditioned environment in our room simply wasn’t doing the job, so I thought it needed some time out in the sun at one of the Cloud Dwelling’s balconies. There, I found that a lot of people had the same idea and lots of shirts already hung at every conceivable place. I had to attach my baggage tag at my hanger so as to be able to identify my own shirt later on.
The balcony was also the laundry area and there were still some who were washing their clothes (probably not being able to do so the previous night), while others were having tea/coffee in the morning sun. While I was there, I got to know Robert, a kind-faced medical student from Poland who is built like a wrestler. I found him to be a very friendly person who was enthusiastic about Buddhism. There was a lot to talk about since we were both from Catholic countries, and he seemed to be really interested in getting to know other cultures.
Before we knew it, the monastery bell was already ringing and it was already time for the next session, so we made our way to the conference hall to look for our respective groupings.
As far as group dynamics (GD) activities go, I’ve learned that the more you take it seriously, the less fun you will have. Believe me, I’ve gone through a lot both as a student and as an employed person and I can say with certainty that it only ever works if people are having fun. It is with this mindset that I approached that morning’s activities.
Nothing really much to say about it except that it did help us be more at ease with each other as a group. Not as fun as I hoped it would, but it did what it set out to do. The GD activity was apparently named “Humble Table, Wise Fare”, and I don’t think I ever understood why it was named that way.
LECTURES, LECTURES, LECTURES
I won’t pretend that I had a great time listening to the lectures. I’ll reiterate that we, non-Chinese speakers, were at a disadvantage because the quality of our handheld translation devices left much to be desired. Actually, the Venerables who were tasked to do the actual translating were quite fluent, but it was the transmission to our devices that had problems. Sometimes, there was too much static, or sometimes the signal is bad, or as I’ve said before, it would just stop working.
This was quite unfortunate because I was really interested in listening to the lectures. I had to make the most of what I was taking in by somehow getting the gist of what the speakers were saying with the help of the running translation projected on the wall, the speaker’s intonation and expression, as well as when the our translation devices were actually working, or if the speaker was expressing something in English.
Sometimes though, there were lectures that sounded boring and monotonous (through no fault of the speaker) no matter how much you wanted to listen. And you had to do something to keep awake. Sometimes, you’d doodle, read something else or discreetly talk to your seatmate. In my case, I take pictures and videos, like the one above.
THE GREAT BUDDHA LAND
We were given some free time in the afternoon to tour the surroundings of the monastery so I thought I’d take my camera and take pictures of some interesting spots. The monastery itself is an extensive area built on mountainous terrain, so not all of its buildings and temples are easily seen once you’re actually inside.
The previous day, I got intrigued by what must be a towering golden statue of Buddha, whose head and upper body I espied through the trees when we were making our way to the Cloud Dwelling Building. Taking note of its general direction, I went up the concrete footpath that signs say would lead me to the “Great Buddha Land”.
As it turns out, the towering statue was not the only attraction that can be seen there. There were also hundreds of smaller identical golden Buddha statues that adorn the park. So far, I’m seeing a recurring theme in Chinese Buddhism, and it is repetition. Whether it is chanting, prayers, statues, and even simple designs.
And this does say something about the belief system of Chinese Buddhism. For them, repetition – when done the right way – is something that aids in meditation, and magnifies the effect of prayer. In modern westernized belief systems, there is an effort to view God as a personal being whom one can interact with in the same manner that one normally interacts with another person. As such, formula and repetitive prayers are now de-emphasized in certain Christian sects in favor of a more personal approach in interacting with the divine.
I believe it would be very hard for this latter idea to take root in Chinese Buddhism because of the central role of meditation in its belief system. And besides, Buddhism is not really concerned about talking to God in the same way a regular theist does. It takes a remarkable amount of inner silence for meditation to achieve its intended results and this type of silence can never be achieved if one’s mindset is to relate personally to the divine.
There was one more activity after dinner before we returned to our dormitories to retire for the night. I thought I’d check out the other laundry area (there were 2 balconies) at the opposite side of the building. Since I would only be washing one shirt, I didn’t use the washing machine anymore and just opted for old-style hand washing. I couldn’t quite understand at first how some participants had so many clothes to launder, given that it’s only the second day of the seminar. Then I realized that they might have been pooling all their clothes in one bunch to save up on costs. (The washing machines were coin-operated – NT$ 10.)
I did however find the spin dryer quite useful. Since our seminar shirts are made of synthetic material, they dry quite easily. After this, I took a few photos of the city lights far off in the horizon, but the photos didn’t seem to turn out well. I then returned to my room and called it a night.
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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