An International Community in a Monastic Setting
At the 1200-year-old temple, Jin'e Temple founded by an influential Zen master, Huaihai, in the historical city Ningbo in China, undergraduate and graduate students from 23 countries gathered to experience the Buddhist monastic life. Woodenfish’s signature program, the Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program (HBMLP), celebrated its 16th year while the program took place from July 1 to July 28, 2017. Many of the participants had hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the Chinese and Buddhist culture, and thus they went on this journey to the east, to hear wood block knockings, Buddhist chanting, the voices from this international group of participants, and from the depth of themselves.
From the moment the participants put on their white linen Zen uniforms designed by Ven. Yifa, founder and President of Woodenfish Foundation, our participants took on the manners and mentalities of Buddhist monks and nuns, transforming themselves into part of the sangha. Like the sangha, the HBMLP participants had a set of daily routines and conducted themselves in keeping with monastic behavior. Ven. Yifa first taught them the four Buddhist manners – standing like a pine, sitting like a bell, walking like the wind and lying down like a bow. In fact, adhering to these manners not only makes one's behaviors elegant and dignified, but also helps one to become more mindful of one’s behaviors and thoughts. Ven. Yifa also demonstrated the Buddhist way of eating, which can potentially advance one's Buddhist practice. A set of four bowls were used, which were designed by Ven. Yifa using environmental-friendly degradable materials after her research on monastic practice in the Song Dynasty (96-1279 CE) to combine tradition and innovation. Besides dining etiquettes, Ven. Yifa also revealed the profound philosophy behind eating, such as appreciating the food, reflecting upon one's own virtues to see if one deserves others’ endowments of food, retaining a balanced mind unattached to either delicious or unpalatable flavors, and treating the food as sustenance for the ultimate goal of obtaining liberation from samsara and achieving Buddhahood. The participants also experienced another important part of monastic life — cleaning. On the one hand, a clean and tidy external environment influences one’s inner mentality in a positive way, contributing to happiness and efficiency. On the other hand, cleaning the common space with a compassionate and joyful heart helps one to habituate the mentality to benefit others. While cleaning the environment, we are also sweeping the dust of attachments and self-centeredness off our own hearts and minds.
Meditation and Worship
Participants engaged in essential Buddhist practices during the program. Frequent meditation calmed their minds to seek inner wisdom. Ven. Yifa also led worshipping, which can often be controversial in the west. However, Ven. Yifa wisely elucidated the meaning of Buddha worship – we are worshipping statues or images of the Buddha to remind ourselves of and learn from Buddha’s compassion and wisdom, and bowing and kneeling aim to overcome one’s arrogance and attachments to oneself. With the inverted bell ringing, participants in unison put their palms together, bent and knelt, letting go of their ego and approaching the Buddha’s compassion and wisdom. At the end of the program, everyone went on the three-step-one-bow pilgrimage to Putuo Mountain, which is associated with Guanyin Bodhisattva. Their persistence moved everyone and manifested the Buddhist mentality of never giving up on the path and benefitting others.
Immersion in Chinese Culture
The HBMLP further exposed the participants to Chinese culture by incorporating Chinese Martial Arts, Calligraphy, Ink Painting, Tea and Incense Taoism. Every morning, Xia Baofeng, the 13th inheritor of Neijia, a form of internal martial arts that emphasizes the spiritual aspect, taught the students this profound means of exercise. Renowned calligrapher Yang Xinge and ink painter Xu Zhihuang also introduced the students to Chinese calligraphy and ink painting. Using brushes, participants progressed from basic strokes to writing words like Buddha, Zen, happiness and peace, and to drawing crabs. The students further learned about the tea and incense culture and practice, and how both played significant roles in ancient history and civilization.
Living a Monastic Life in the Modern World
At the conclusion of the HBMLP program, our participants left with joyful hearts and cleansed minds. Through this unique program, they not only learned about Buddhism, they lived it. Furthermore, they will bring the Buddhist approach of compassion and wisdom with them back into their daily lives.