The 2015 Session of the Woodenfish Foundation's Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program (HBMLP) was held from July 1st to July 28th. This was the 14th year of HBMLP and our 3rd year operating in mainland China- is it any wonder that with so much accumulated experience we would have an exceptionally fruitful month? Three temples in northern China graciously opened their doors to our group of lay students (plus one Korean monastic) and gave them the opportunity to experience Chinese culture, practice meditation, and survey the history and philosophies of Buddhism while immersed in a monastery setting. With an enrollment of 70 students from over 20 countries and 60 different higher education institutions, this was our biggest year yet!
Since 2002, Woodenfish's flagship HBMLP has offered students from around the world firsthand exposure to the daily life, practice and theory of Buddhism within a traditional Buddhist monastic setting. Whether seasoned practitioners or completely new to Buddhism, all students are engaged through monastic discipline and philosophical inquiry to turn their attention inwards in pursuit of authentic realization. On top of this, many must learn to adapt to both a foreign country as well as a highly structured, religious setting. These two kinds of challenges are ample fertilizer to help HBMLP students grow in awareness of themselves and other cultures, inspiring moral insight and a global outlook.
Three temples hosted HBMLP this year. The lay communities of these sites did their utmost to accommodate our large group and make everyone feel at home. These diligent volunteers who support the temples and their monastics, in addition to working in concert with program staff to ensure a smooth-running HBMLP, demonstrated the vitality of Chinese Buddhism in their day-to-day lives.
We were truly fortunate to spend July at the following sites:
Longfu Temple in Langfang City, Hebei Province (河北廊坊隆福寺) (2 weeks).
Located on the outskirts of Langfang City, this large temple was the perfect place to start off the program. Though still under construction (with 15 years to go), Longfu Temple had plenty of room for classes and daily activities. Its traditional Tang Dynasty-style architecture, layout and devotional artwork created a dignified atmosphere for study and practice. As far as temples go, this was a bustling place, with various Dharma functions, camps and ceremonies held each week.
Doushuai Temple near Baoding City, Hebei Province (河北保定兜率寺) (1 week)
This temple, also under construction, is situated in the mountains between Beijing and Baoding. Its isolation and natural surroundings were ideal for finishing up the academic portion of the program, advancing mediation practice and preparing for the silent retreat.
Pushou Temple in Mt. Wutai, Shanxi Province (山西五台山普寿寺) (1 week)
Surrounded by the five peaks of Mt. Wutai, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pushou Temple is the largest nunnery in China. It is also home to a Buddhist college specializing in Vinaya. It was here that the silent retreat was conducted, culminating in a pilgrimage to nearby Dailuo Terrace (黛螺顶).
The combined hours of academic instruction given this year amounted to over a semester's worth of material ranging from basic Buddhist history and the teachings of Shakyamuni to later developments in Chinese Pure Land Buddhism. The academic course served to inform students, contextualize their experience and exercise their critical thinking abilities through a combination of standard format classes, discussions/debates and interactive activities. Buddhist thought has a history of over 2,500 years. To compress such a vast body of knowledge into 3 weeks' time and present it in a digestible way was no small feat, much is owed to the skill and expertise of our main instructors:
Instructor in Indian Buddhism: Karl-Stephan Bouthillette, PhD candidate, (promotion in Indology) at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) München
Instructor in Chinese Buddhism: Peter M. Romaskiewicz, PhD candidate, Department of Religious Studies, University of California- Santa Barbara
Instructor in Chinese Buddhist Poetry (two classes): Tom Mazanec , PhD candidate, Chinese Literature, Princeton University
HBMLP staff are all volunteers who have participated in previous programs. Staff members assist with the daily operations of the program, schedule activities, support instructors, provide instruction in meditation and chanting, translate lectures, ensure student well-being, document events, coordinate with temple staff and other tasks required for things to run smoothly. This year's staff consisted of 7 alumni, some returning, others serving for the first time.
Kim Dembrosky ('13)
Guttorm Norberg Gundersen ('13)
Sean Francis Conway ('06)
Cory Hardaker ('13)
Ryan Richard ('13)
Fernanda Polo ('14)
Jordan Galler ('14)
This year, HBMLP students came from over 20 countries, namely the USA, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Canada, Poland, Switzerland, Sweden, Mexico, Netherlands, Egypt, Turkey, Singapore, Cuba, Norway, Serbia, Slovenia, Hungary, South Korea and Mainland China. Prominent higher-learning institutions represented included Harvard University (4 students), Yale University, Columbia University, Stanford University (2 students), UCLA, Rice University, Smith College, McGill University (3 students), Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology and University of Zurich.
One of the defining characteristics of monastic life is routine. Each day of HBMLP 2015 followed the same basic structure (seen below). Students were expected to be at all classes and activities punctually, pay attention to monastic etiquette and behave according to the regulations of the program. This regimented lifestyle is a tool employed for the sake of discipline and allows to students to focus more attention on their practice and study. Adjustments were made in the schedule when unique opportunities for students presented themselves, such as outdoor farming activities and special guests.
Aside from the regular academic lectures, other classes/activities held daily included:
Zen Meditation: Basic instruction in sitting, standing and walking meditation, focusing on foundational postures, development of concentration and meditative insight. Students generally had 1.5-2 hours of meditation per day, though they were encouraged to continue practicing in their free time. The meditation portion of HBMLP 2015 culminated in a five-day silent retreat at Pushou Temple in Mt Wutai. During the retreat, walking and sitting meditation amounted to about 7 hours per day. Additional meditation instruction from other traditions was provided during the morning section and other impromptu sessions.
Taiji: Each morning, students lined up for instruction in the short form of Yang Style Taiji.
Heart Sutra: In the latter half of the program, Ven. Yifa gave Dharma talk-style lectures offering analysis and commentary of the Heart Sutra.
Detailed Report of HBMLP 2015
Special thanks to Sherry Jia (嘉木) for compiling original report in Chinese
After arriving at Longfu Temple the previous day, the staff had an early breakfast and began preparing materials, assigning rooms, scheduling activities and divvying up responsibilities. They inspected each student room to ensure they were in working order and posted instructions in public areas. No aspect of student life was left unconsidered as they prepared to begin receiving the early arrivals.
20 students arrived early on this day. Staff held an icebreaking activity in the main classroom in the evening. Students were encouraged to voice their concerns about being in a foreign country, state their reasons for attending the program and introduce themselves.
As the official start date approached, staff led those students who had already arrived in preparing the classroom, cleaning the facilities, wiping tables, retrieving meditation pads and other necessary tasks. Most students arrived before noon.
One student, upon arriving, informed staff that he had lost his wallet on the train while en route to Langfang. That afternoon a phone call came from the train station- his wallet had been found intact by another passenger and given to a train station employee. Left on the train, the wallet had traveled over 300 kilometers to Jinan City in Shandong Province and been brought back to Langfang by the employee. After confirming with the station that the wallet did indeed belong to a Woodenfish student, a volunteer went with him to retrieve it and thank the employees there for their kind assistance.
The staff worked hard to ensure that everyone who arrived was greeted, given a proper rundown of the temple grounds, and assigned their rooms. Donning their new uniforms, students lined up in front of the meal hall prior to medicine meal. Despite the summer heat, they stood in silence and expressed no impatience, many simply smiled and took in the new environment.
That evening, staff and students introduced themselves to each other. Everyone enjoyed tea amidst the sound of chatter and musical instruments, giving the students, many who had never been to China before, the chance to get acclimated and comfortable.
This was the first official day of HBMLP 2015. At 5:20 AM sharp, students were woken up by the morning bell, at 5:50 they were lined up and by 6:00 the first Taiji lesson had begun. The Taiji instructor, Miss Wang, and her assistants were professional and attentive, giving demonstrations and instructions where needed. During breakfast, Ven. Yifa taught students in an essential facet of monastic life- mealtime etiquette: keeping silent, sitting upright, holding one's bowl and utensils properly; these are the objects of mindfulness when eating in a temple.
Following breakfast was the official opening ceremony. Special guests included Woodenfish founder Ven. Yifa, Longfu Temple abbot Venerable Hui Guang, and Woodenfish Foundation sponsors Huang Xing, Luo Jia, Zhang Yang and Liu Ranling. Venerable Huiguang was first to share his words of welcome to the staff and students. An important point he emphasized was that to have so many people from so many countries converge in one place to study Dharma was the outcome of a deep karmic affinity between all present, and that perhaps everyone had at one point been monastics there during the Tang Dynasty. For this reason, he welcomed everyone back home. Venerable Huiguang also recounted his experiences in building Longfu Temple to tell everyone that so long as you have the Right Dharma, you will find a way to accomplish what you set out to do.
After remarks by Woodenfish sponsors, Ven. Yifa thanked Longfu Temple for their assistance in providing such an excellent, well-ordered spiritual training ground to conduct the program in. She discussed her reasons for becoming a nun and how Buddhism led to positive transformations in her own mindset. Her last piece of advice to students was that, in order to get the most out of the program, they should "empty their cups," that is, they should abandon their prejudices while learning about new cultures and open their minds to the challenging experience of monastic life.
Later that afternoon, Ven. Yifa personally led the students in seated and walking mediations, covering the physical and mental aspects of the practice such as posture and how to treat the discursive thoughts that inevitably arise when trying to focus. Though many students had either no or limited mediation experience, most were diligent enough to make it through the hour-long session.
Other classes held on 7/2 included the first lecture on Indian Buddhism taught by Karl and basic chanting instruction by Sean.
This morning, students accepted a special invitation by Longfu Temple abbot, Venerable Huiguang, to do some community service on the temple's farm. Longfu Temple is remarkable for the fact that all produce it consumes and provides to the community is grown in its own fields by volunteers using traditional organic farming techniques. Together with the temple's monastics, students and staff weeded several plots of soil. Ven. Huiguang took this opportunity to teach by analogy, "Weeding a field is much like mental cultivation. It is easy to find and pull up prominent, major afflictions from our minds, just as it is with weeds. However, it is the smaller weeds that require more attention and greater effort to extract. Moreover we must weed our fields regularly and be sure only to pull up those plants that are not beneficial to us, otherwise the field will either become overgrown or completely desolate."
When community service time ended, students were led by Ven. Yifa to the main shrine of Longfu Temple for a class in shrine room etiquette.
Buddhist studies PhD candidate and Woodenfish alumnus, Peter Romaskiewicz led a tour of the temple after lunch. From the front gate, to the drum and bell towers, and the various shrines and halls, nearly every corner of the temple was given an explanation in terms of its symbolism and historical significance.
That evening, Ven. Yifa led students in their first vespers service. Using the HBMLP handbook's Pinyin notations, students chanted the Heart Sutra, Three Refuges and Dedication of Merit in Chinese. Over the course of the month, students refined their chanting abilities through daily practice.
In the afternoon, a communal tea service was held as a means of facilitating communication between students, teachers, staff and the temple. The Woodenfish team was joined once again by Ven Huiguang, along with several temple volunteers and Woodenfish sponsors.
Ven. Yifa noted that in the Song Dynasty text, "The Rules of Purity in the Chan Monastery," (禅苑清规) over 1/3 of the content is about communal tea services, indicating the prominent role tea drinking and etiquette plays in Chinese monastic living.
Ven. Huiguang was asked to say a few words. He said that tea was actually a drink invented by Chinese monastics. Although tea leaves are themselves bitter, when heated and dried, they become a wholesome and healthy beverage. He emphasized that Buddhism utilizes wondrous and circumstantial teachings to guide practitioners, great stock is placed in using wisdom to resolve the afflictions of daily life. He said that Buddhism was like a school, the Buddha is the principal, the Bodhisattvas the teachers, the monastics are alumni, while each detail of the temple, from the sculptures to the landscaping, contains a profound principle. The tea service, he said, also demonstrates the principle of equality between students and teachers. Ven. Huiguang taught that the communal tea service offers us three lessons: 1. We should never be haughty, for if the individual separates themselves from the group, their life will lose whatever meaning it had; 2. Only by being brewed in boiling water may the flavor of tea be released- it is only through testing ourselves and experience that we can be successful at anything; and 3. The tea service is very much like life itself, only by serving others and respecting those around us will our lives be worth living.
Students were given an introductory class in calligraphy by Beijing-based artist Liu Jianxin. After a brief lesson in the history and development of Chinese writing, Mr. Liu demonstrated a number of calligraphy styles and finally had students try their own hand at this millennia old artistic tradition.
Longfu Temple is not only a Buddhist temple, it is also a hub of traditional Chinese arts. To this end, it frequently invites artists to arrange concerts in its large venue, which is situated directly under the temple's main hall. That evening, students were given the chance to attend one of these special functions and enjoy Chinese orchestra, Beijing Opera, traditional dance and vocal arts like Xiangsheng. In the spirit of cultural exchange, students and staff took to the stage to perform some small pieces of music for the audience as well.
After another morning of working in the temple's fields and going on a brief walk in the surrounding environs, students participated in a Dharma Lamp Transmission ceremony. Students wore special lay robes and bore themselves with dignity as all members of the temple community led a procession to the under-construction stupa in the back of the temple grounds. Ven. Yifa said that in the Vimalakirti Sutra, it describes the Dharma gate of the eternal, everlasting lamp of wisdom that we must bear the responsibility of passing on to future generations, and that as our candle's flame spreads to others, the collective wisdom of the world will shine ever brighter. Taking part in such a large Dharma function left a deep impression on all the students.
Peter Romaskiewicz gave a lecture on Buddhist history and theory. He introduced common types of meditation and terminology. Later in the afternoon, Ven. Yifa had a meeting with the 10 graduate students attending the program.
In the morning, students used hoes to clear up the large field in front of the classroom building. The hard work and heat from the summer sun were no deterrent to their enthusiasm. As they finished up, students, temple volunteers and monastics came together to share an exciting round of song and dance accompanied by our own staff and student musicians.
In the evening, Ven. Yifa gave a lecture detailing the creation and development of the Woodenfish Foundation: In the spirit of Humanistic Buddhism, the Woodenfish Foundation has sought to enable outstanding foreign scholars and students to take part in an authentic experience of Buddhist monastic life with the aim of providing participants with a clearer perspective on their futures. Over half of the hundreds of Woodenfish alumni have gone on to enter academic fields related to Buddhism or organizations working for the welfare of society as a whole. Ven. Yifa then elaborated on Woodenfish's development in Mainland China, which has been done with the intention of increasing international exchange, academic research and forming lasting collaborative relationships. It is her hope that more scholars from abroad will be able to come to China and engage in academic exchange at historically significant sites of Chinese Buddhism and that more young monastics and laypeople from China will find the chance to go abroad for study and travel.
A tea master came from Langfang to demonstrate the art of the traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Students were given a spectacular performance while also learning about how tea ceremonies have evolved throughout the centuries. Like all arts, enjoying the beauty of tea is in the subtle details- water quality, temperature and the state of the leaves will all influence the brewed tea. After enjoying a cup of this finely brewed tea, one student said she felt a profound sense of physical and mental calm.
In the evening, students were led by Ven. Yifa to attend the 88 Buddhas Repentance Ceremony in the temple's main shrine. This ceremony consists of chanting and making 88 prostrations as a display of one's willingness to recognize and repent for one's misdeeds not only in this life, but in past and future ones. For many students this was a test of will, patience and endurance, requiring physical energy and mental concentration to complete.
Musicians and artists from Beijing venue and conservatory, Sharmonic Hall (知音堂), came in the afternoon for a gala with the students and to perform traditional Chinese musical arts. The rich and colorful program included a Heart Sutra chant, a performance of "Three Variations on Yang Pass" by Sharmonic Hall Director Wang Guangming, followed by his recitation of Li Bai's poem "Bring in the Wine." The music was accompanied by tea and incense ceremonies. Students applauded the performances and then took to the stage themselves to share with the Chinese performers.
In the afternoon, Ven. Huiguang arranged to have a local Kung Fu instructor come give a class on the basic postures and philosophy of his profession. After teaching a sequence of moves to students, he brought everyone outside the front gate of the temple to drill the routine in the fresh air.
In the afternoon, six monastics from Long Fu Temple were invited to the classroom to engage in group discussions with the students. The monks overcame language and cultural barriers to field all matter of questions from their intrigued interlocutors. They answered inquiries about monastic life: Being in a monastery allows one to live a pure and simple life, away from the numerous afflictions of the mundane world, the contribution monastics wish to make to society is to promote the happiness and wellbeing of all individuals, resolving personal troubles and spreading a positive outlook on life; the monastics were pleased to meet so many foreigners who shared an interest in Buddhism, for this allows them to share their message and teachings with more people.
In the evening, Ven. Huiguang gave a Dharma talk: With respect to meditation, our mind is hindered by our body, it causes a great deal of distraction. Meditation allows our minds to become still and focused, which allows us to have a better understanding of where we are going in life. Chan/Zen is the act of finding and returning to our inner tranquility and harmony. The act of establishing and constructing a temple is also a kind of spiritual practice in that it tests our wills and strains our bodies for a greater mission.
In the morning, students and staff prepared their luggage, cleaned their rooms and had their final breakfast at Longfu Temple. With warm farewells from the monastics and lay volunteers, HBMLP 2015 departed from their home of two weeks and made way for the mountains Southwest of Beijing, where Doushuai Temple is located.
In the afternoon, American student Andrew gave an introduction to the basics of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Topics covered included the concepts of Qi, Ying and Yang, the Five Elements, the Dantian, channels and meridians. With hands-on demonstrations, everyone had a chance to experience acupuncture and heartrate measuring techniques. Andrew also shared examples from his own clinical practice to demonstrate the efficacy of TCM treatments.
Thomas held his Chinese Poetry class in the morning. This was followed in the afternoon by a guided meditation led by Venerable Mingyue, abbot of Doushuai Temple. In the evening, students met with college-age volunteers of the temple to discuss the lives of Chinese youth and to share with each other about their experiences with Buddhism. Finally, in the evening, Ven. Yifa gave a lecture on the Heart Sutra.
Peter gave a class in the morning on the history of the Chan school of Buddhism. In the evening, we were graced once again with the presence of the performers from Sharmonic Hall to enjoy more traditional Chinese music and meditate on the beauty of sound.
In preparation for the upcoming silent retreat, students were given a day to practice silence. They were encouraged to treat the day as a light silent retreat day and to pay close attention to their responses to this new expectation. In the evening they shared their experiences with each other and discussed different ways of approaching silence, exploring the deeper meaning and effects of silence on meditation practice.
After departing from Doushuai Temple in the morning, students visited Baoding City in the afternoon for lunch. It was then on to Mt. Wutai in Shanxi. Arriving late after the usual medicine meal time, the lay volunteers of Pushou Temple stayed behind in the dining hall to ensure that students were fed before an early bedtime.
Students were taken on a tour of Pushou Temple. They were first shown its monumental main hall, which contains three enormous Buddha sculptures and beautiful wood engravings of pagodas across Asia. From there, students paid their respects to the founding master of the nunnery and were then taken on a tour of the Buddhist college adjoined to the main temple. The Buddhist college was constructed by the resident monastics in the 90's and reveals a much more personalized and rugged charm compared to the cold and clean feel many temples have when they're built by professional contractors.
In the afternoon, the silent mediation retreat began. For five days, the students would be expected to keep the Noble Silence and devote all of their attention to their meditation practice. All forms of communication, from gestures to writing to eye-contact, were strictly forbidden.
In the evening, Abbess Rurui gave a Dharma talk to our students. Students were given a temporary suspension of silence to put forth serious questions to the Abbess. Following this lecture, students went to bed and mentally prepared for four more days of silence and contemplation.
On this final day of the silent retreat, students ventured out of Pushou temple in a double line and made their way to the base of Dailuo Terrace (黛螺顶) for the pilgrimage to the temple above. After making their way to a certain point on the ascending staircase, students were led by Guttorm and Sean in "three steps, one prostration"- chanting the Chinese name of Shakyamuni Buddha, students would take three steps up the stairs and finally prostrate, bringing their foreheads near the ground, only to stand back up and repeat the sequence over 100 times before reaching the terrace. There, a simple ceremony was held where students who elected to were given the chance to take refuge and receive the Five Precepts.
After returning to Pushou Temple, the silent retreat officially ended. Students were given a free day to tour the temples and hills of Mt. Wutai.
Departing in the morning, we made our way to Beijing. In the evening, a closing ceremony was held at Sharmonic Hall in Beijing. Students and local performers gave an outstanding show to a full house of Woodenfish sponsors, friends and family. The staff and students pooled together their talents to provide a diverse array of musical performances, spoken word, song, dance and even a Banjo-accompanied recitation of the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit. The urge to hold off parting ways took precedence over the initial schedule as the program extended an hour and a half over the planned end time. Eventually Sharmonic Hall had to close and we were forced to face one of the many great sufferings the Buddha had spoken about- parting with loved ones.
It is hard to put into words everything that happened over this month. What are recorded here are a few superficial details, outlining where we went and what we did, however all of the real development, the true purpose of HBMLP, can only be found in our wonderful program attendees. This group of 70 students and professionals opted to spend their summer vacations not on a beach or in front of a TV, but in three Buddhist monasteries in a country many of them had never set foot in before. That alone reveals a high degree of resolve and recognition of how important it is to look both inward and outward. On top of that, throughout the month there were none that shied away from the seemingly overwhelming challenges inherent to a program of this nature. It was an joy to spend a month with so many strong willed and intelligent people, may they continue to temper their spirits and advance forward on the Bodhisattva Path.
Want to learn more about HBMLP? Click here to view the program page.