Sunday, August 2, 2009

Fourth Patriarch's Temple

As we walked into the Fourth Patriarch's Temple, the one thing we needed most was someone to let us know whether it was possible for us to stay overnight, and if so what the procedure was to do so. We had no idea how to find out or where to go.

At that moment, a taxi pulled up and two women got out carrying some luggage. This looked hopeful.

I went up to the older woman and asked if she spoke English and she motioned to the younger woman, her daughter. The younger woman came over and asked if she could be of any assistance.

She introduced herself as "Carla", and asked us to follow her. It turns out she and her mother had come to stay at the temple for three weeks where she would participate in a week long "camp" for university students interested in Buddhist practice. She took us to the monk who was responsible for checking in visitors.

Carla has been our personal guide, interpreter and assistant throughout the day. We couldn't have asked for a better welcome.

Cynthia and I were directed to separate (but adjacent) dormitory rooms, where we have been relaxing and enjoying refreshing cold showers.

Carla showed us around the temple and escorted me up the long flight of stairs to Tao-hsin's stupa, which house his relics. Cynthia chose to pass up the stair climb and enjoy the quiet pond instead.

We had a nice long chat with Carla about the resurgence of Buddhism in China and the number of new reconstructed temples that are have been conducting summer camps for university students for the past 6-10 years or so. In fact, the camp here will start next week with 180 participants. There are a huge number of preparations underway to accommodate the students. The daily schedule has been modified so that the formal meditation periods have been omitted.

A cafeteria style vegetarian dinner was served around 6:00. Men eat on one side of the hall and women on the other.

At 7:00 pm we joined the chanting service held in the hall with three big buddha statues There are cushioned low benches for doing prostrations. There were about 50 monks and 10 nuns plus about a dozen lay people in attendance. The chanting has a soothing quality that tends to stay with you after you leave the hall.

Lights go out at 9:30 pm. Carla suggested I set my alarm for 4:00 am, as the morning service begins at 4:30. We had a few moments to stand outside the hall to listen to the head monk doing some chanting. His chanting was punctuated by a rooster crowing and some bats flying around. Seemed a bit early for the rooster, as it was still pitch dark.

The morning chanting service was similar to the evening's. Most of the monks knew the chants by heart, but a few held chant booklets to read along. When the head monk noticed that I asn't chanting and didn't have a chant booklet, we went over and got one for me. At first I thought I should refuse it as it was all in Chinese, but then on second thought I accepted it as to not be rude. About the only thing I could gather from the booklet was that you turned the pages from right to left and the characters were read vertically in columns from right to left. Oh, I did notice that some characters were repeated.

Other than that, my practice was to try to keep track of when to have my hands palms together and when clasped over my chest, when to go down into a prostration and when to come back up again.

After the morning chanting service we were served breakfast, this time in a slightly more formal "Zen-like" style. We each had two bowls in front of us and a pair of chopsticks. People serving the food came by periodically and you could indicate our wish to have some by placing your bowl forward, or pass it by by pulling your bowl back. No food is to be left in the bowl when you are finished. They come by with hot water so you can wash out the last grains of rice and drink the liquid. After some meal chanting, we each filed out to wash our bowls in a sink, before placing them in an upright steam sterilizer.

Everyone is busy preparing for the summer camp while Cynthia and I are reading and writing.


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