The episode on the DMCA takedown notice sidetracked me from my blogging, which, in a way, means that the plagiarist has accomplished what he/she has set out to do. So as not to prolong this, I have to continue blogging. The show must go on.
I made it a point to wake up extra early this day to be able to join the morning meditation session. It’s a good thing that our room had 2 shower rooms so I didn’t have to compete with my other roommates who also got up early to join the same activity. It was a particularly warm morning that day as I was walking towards the garden where the meditation will take place.
I was one of the early ones so I was positioned on the second row from the front. An interesting sight greeted me at the garden because it was a very warm morning, yet there was visibly some residual fog that lingered. I associate fog exclusively with cold weather so it was pretty disorienting.
Anyway. people kept streaming in and the meditation soon started. I was hoping I’d get to take a video of the event but I didn’t want to catch the ire of the venerable leading the exercises (and I wanted to do a sincere effort at meditating.) So the video above was the only record I have of the meditation, i.e. before it even begun.
The first activity after breakfast was Chinese Calligraphy. Now the Venerables believe that writing calligraphy of sacred Buddhist texts is a meditative effort that increases one’s own well-being. Not knowing how to read nor write Chinese, I initially thought that this would be a very difficult effort. Fortunately, for activities like this, participants make use of a sort of tracing paper where one only needs to trace one’s pen over the pre-written characters.
Even then, it’s still hard to meditate if you do not actually understand what you are writing about. I found the activity more of an exercise in concentration rather than meditation. Obviously, the Chinese participants found this one quite easy, while we non-Chinese struggled to finish as many characters as cleanly as possible, without stray marks and unsightly ink blots.
I actually wasn’t able to finish within the allotted time, and I spent a few lectures later in the day finishing my calligraphy sheet.
THE BUDDHA MEMORIAL CENTER
A big chunk of the day was spent at the Buddha Memorial Center, built on an expansive tract of land adjacent to the Fo Guang Shan Monastery. Since it was just close by, we marched en masse (in an organized manner, by groups) towards the Center.
It was noontime when we marched, and good thing I had my hat and arm wraps with me for protection. Nevertheless, it was still quite sweltering and we stuck to the shade whenever we could.
Some interesting acts about the Center: The place is less than 5 years old but has become a tourist attraction because of the scale of its construction and its religious significance for Buddhists. As the story goes, a Tibetan Lama, who has been safeguarding Buddha’s tooth relic, was impressed by Venerable Master Hsing Yun’s efforts to propagate Buddhism. And so the Lama turned over this relic to the Venerable Master on the condition that a monument to enshrine it will be built.
The latter certainly kept his word. The resulting monument now occupies over 100 hectares of land, with a receiving hall, 8 pagodas, a main hall shaped like a pyramid surrounded by 4 stupas, terraces, open spaces, and an enormous gold-painted statue of a sitting Buddha.
At the main hall, there was also a sizable indoor amphitheater, as well as a museum of ancient Buddhist artifacts, with the aforementioned tooth relic as its centerpiece. Numerous amenities for tourists can be found at the premises, as well as smaller temples for the devout. (Buddhism has as many holy men as Catholicism has saints.) The main hall also had a sort of underground time capsule museum that is closed to the public and will only open at a predetermined time in the future (when all of us are probably dead already.
All in all, it’s a mix of traditional architecture and very modern, hi-tech amenities. It even has its own Starbucks inside!
BUDDHIST CHANTING APPRECIATION
For many of us who were there for the first time, seeing and walking through the Buddhist Memorial Center rendered us awestruck. We could not help but admire the sheer size and scale of the buildings and open spaces. Every few steps, we stopped and separated ourselves from our groups to take pictures of the place, making our facilitators’ job quite a hard one. They had to somehow herd us to the Main Hall, in the process passing through the entire area. I could clearly see the frustration in the face of one of our facilitators Gabo (from Hungary), when she tried seemingly in vain to keep our group as one cohesive unit.
The first activity we were to do at the Center was to listen to listen to some Buddhist chanting as performed by a number of Venerables. We were brought to a sizable indoor amphitheater that acted as the performance hall. It was a welcome change from the noontime heat outside because it was air conditioned and had very comfortable seats. I quickly realized why Gabo wanted to get us here at the soonest possible time.
When the chanting started in earnest, I immediately admired the good acoustics of the place. (Or maybe just the extremely good sound system.) Although I did not understand the chanting, a translation was given at a large screen visible to everyone. Since the event was entitled “Buddhis Chanting Appreciation”, for me it accomplished what it set out to do because I certainly was able to gain a newfound appreciation for it. I think I can also now distinguish the variance of techniques between eastern and western chanting.
Of course, it was hard not to doze off once in a while because the comfortable seats and the all the chanting was so conducive for it. But I stayed awake as much as I could. Photography was prohibited, by the way. So the photos here are from the Seminar Secretariat’s official photographer.
One of the words that we encountered the most during the seminar was “dharma”. Although I haven’t learned that much about Buddhism to come up with an exact definition, the way I understand it is that it loosely means “teachings”.
The next activity was named the “Dharma Hunt”. This involved us participants each being given sheets of paper with questions, the answers to which we had to find all around the Buddha Memorial Center. We still had to act as a group though, so Gabo and Elisa’s (our group’s other facilitator) respite during the Chanting Appreciation activity was short-lived and they once again guided us from one dharma clue to the next.
For every correct answer that we figure out, we get to have our paper stamped by a person in charge. It was at this point when I noticed that our Chinese co-participants were just crazy about stamps. While the rest of us non-Chinese didn’t see the stamps as a big deal, they on the other hand were meticulous about getting them, even though it wasn’t actually required and there’s no prize involved for the most stamps. (Later on, when I got to tour other places in Taiwan, I noticed that there were also souvenir stamp booths for those who want to “authenticate” their visit to a particular place.)
I have to admit that I found this part of the Seminar a bit more educational than the lectures we’ve had the previous 2 days. I’m more attracted to information when it’s presented in “trivia” format, and so I was able to assimilate Buddhist information tidbits much better here.
THE MAIN HALL
For good or bad, I found the Main Hall to resemble more a first-class mall (think along the lines of Greenbelt 4) than a place for religious worship. I’m sure it’s a lot quieter there on ordinary days, but since all of us participants were there, the noise levels were unusual for a temple.
I mentioned before that the Buddha Memorial Center had a Starbucks branch. It was located here in the Main Hall, as were various shops alongside exhibits and smaller temples. The Dharma Hunt was still ongoing at this point so people were still organized in groups and facilitators were still trying hard to organize everyone from one point to the next.
I rather liked the museum that had ancient Buddhist artifacts. The centerpiece of everything, however, was a bit of a letdown. I’m talking about the Buddha Tooth Relic – the whole point of this entire complex. It looked like this:
Which leads one to think: Where exactly is the tooth relic in all that? I couldn’t understand why the relic had to be placed inside a cup filled with white grains. Was it an anti-theft measure? If it was, couldn’t they find a way to keep it secure while still showing the actual relic in its entirety? I just don’t see the point of the way it was presented. Soon enough, it was once again time to go outside.
When the Dharma Hunt portion was over, all of us participants assembled outside for one final activity prior to having “dinner”. By this time, the clouds were overcast and the sun already nearer the horizon. It was a bit more comfortable to sit on the floor of the vast courtyard (or plaza?) of the Buddha Memorial Center. The activity was for each group to solve a jigsaw puzzle which, when correctly done, would form parts of a collage.
Since there were around 20 of us, and only a limited amount of working space where a puzzle could be made, a lot of us opted to let the others solve it without interruption. I wasn’t being lazy. I just thought I’d be more of a nuisance if I tried to butt in while others were already huddled so close together. (See the photo above.)
And then after that, it was finally dinner …which felt like heavy merienda due the the very early hour. It was also our free time so it was the first time since the Buddhist Chanting Appreciation that we were able to relax. Some of us just sat idly, some took more pictures of the surroundings, and Alex started to play tunes with his ukelele, to which Henry and Daniel sang in accompaniment.
Alex was fast gaining fame partly due to his ukelele, and mostly because he’s a pretty cool easygoing kid. So even though he frequently disappeared and was late for the seminars and activities, neither Gabo nor Elisa, our group’s facilitators, ever really got upset with him.
After dinner, we were once again herded (sorry I keep using that word) to the Main hall’s indoor amphitheater for an item in the program called “Sounds of the Human World”, which turned out to be a song and dance concert by a number of participants.
Nothing much to say here except that at no other point in the entire seminar did my then-34 year old self feel so far removed from the rest of the teenage/early 20s participants than this part of the program. The last time pop music appealed to me was in the mid-80s, and seeing and listening to all those kids singing and dancing on stage to contemporary pop music, I had to stifle a cringe every now and then because either I found them to be so corny, or that I could not understand how a particular performance could elicit so much applause and adulation.
Sorry, just an old man being grumpy. I know they mean well. I guess it’s part of the price I had to pay for being at the borderline age. Anyway, I had no right to complain, so I just shut up the entire time and just enjoyed the air conditioning.
LIGHT OFFERING AND PRAYER CEREMONY
Soon enough, the concert ended and we exited the performance hall to once again proceed to the courtyard for the highlight of the evening, which was the Light Offering and Prayer Ceremony. Again, all the prayers were in Chinese so I hardly understood the significance of the ceremony. But I appreciated the solemnity of it and I tried hard to go through the motions as meaningfully and piously as I could.
I was however surprised when the facilitators distributed tea “candles” for us to light and offer to the Buddha with our prayers. They weren’t wax but plastic and ran on electricity. It also lit very gradually and went off just as slow, like blinking but 100 times slower. I later on learned that Venerable Master Hsing Yun has made it a personal advocacy to make Fo Guang Shan as environmentally friendly as possible. That meant using these small plastic candles prevented tremendous amounts of air pollution associated with wax candles.
However, the real nice thing was when the prayers were over and the facilitators told us to just leave the “candles” on the floor as we filed out. What happened was that an entire section of the courtyard floor seemingly had twinkling stars on it. Along with the backdrop of the dramatically lit Main Hall and Buddha Statue, everything looked very picturesque.
We only stayed for around 20 more minutes before we once again organized ourselves into groups to troop back to the monastery. It even drizzled as we were entering the monastery, so a lot of us ran for cover. You can bet that at that hour, everyone was just so exhausted. So far, this shaped up to be the busiest day of the Seminar.
= = = = = = = = = =
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