The evening meal is served. Laura is trying to communicate with Theresa :-)
Our first meditation session
Time to say goodbye
It’s an early Monday morning in May. I find myself together with nine other expat women on the fast train to Shijiazhuang in the Hebei province. Destination: The Bailin Monastery. An 1800-year-old Zen monastery and the only active Zen temple in China that allows for foreigners to stay overnight.
China Cultural Centre has briefed us about the rules in advance - so on the train we agree talk and laugh as much as we possibly can before we need to be quiet for 24 hours.
A train ride, a few small towns and a nap later, our bus pulls up in front of Bailin temple. We are struck by its semi-urban location and had somehow imagined a romantic place in the mountains. But we are soon to discover that, behind the big wooden doors, only a stone’s throw from the flashy 7-eleven sign, lies a world of beauty and peace. This is exactly what we had been hoping for. And more.
Once the check-in procedure is over, we are taken to our rooms. They live up to their promise: basic accommodation. I try to encourage my roommates. One night ladies. We can do this.
It is raining cats and dogs but luckily, the corridors of the temple are covered. Our fantastic guide Feng has arranged for us to be shown around by one of the monks. A young fellow whose charisma and Zen takes us by storm from the moment we meet. We are amazed by his knowledge about the temple. With twilight approaching, our jaws drop at the spectacular sight of the monastery’s 140 monks silently striding across the courtyard towards the chanting hall. Evening chanting is about to start and we’re invited to watch from a respectable distance at the back of the hall.
We have been very excited about the prospect of eating together with the monks in the dining hall. It is important that we do not disrespect them by leaving food on the plate or, God forbid, starting to talk or laugh. Once we're seated at a long table, the monks start serving the humble meal. It is bland to say the least. Some of us manage to drink the lukewarm porridge and eat the red bean baozi with cabbage on the side. But for some it proves too difficult.
After the meal, we make our way to the meditation hall for a workshop with our friend, the monk from earlier. We all walk in expecting to have an hour of pure relaxation ahead of us. What we’re about to experience, is a far cry from candlelit, guided meditation on yoga mats. Buddhist monks meditate up to six hours a day. They sit on a cushion. In total silence. Their aim is to take control of the mind, while still acknowledging the body. A small bell rings every half hour in order to allow them to slightly change position. We meditate with the monk for 20 minutes and find it hard enough.
To the sound of the sunset gong, we retrieve to our humble abode for the evening. Some secretly snack on the chocolate we brought from Beijing and some finally give into the urge to talk and giggle. Lights out at 9.30 pm. Tomorrow’s program starts with breakfast at 5.30.
Not all of us choose to have breakfast (the exact same meal as dinner). For some, a couple of Snicker bars seem like a better option than bland congee. But we all meet for a final chat and a meditation session. We have had a day and a bit to take it all in. And with Feng as our interpreter, we welcome the opportunity to ask the monk all the questions that have arisen over the since yesterday. Most of them are related to everyday life here at the monastery. But we slowly move onto more existential questions. We find it hard to contemplate how the monks, of their own free will, have chosen this way of living. Away from their families and with no contact whatsoever with the outside world. We discover that our friend has a university degree and used to run his own business. When he ran into trouble, his parents recommended that he go and talk to a monk about his problems. He tells us that his parents were later to regret encouraging the encounter. Little did they know that their only child – a son - would end up devoting his life to Buddhism inside a monastery, far away from home.
With all the respect in the world for his choice, we agree that this is nowhere near a life we could imagine for ourselves. But just like this young man’s parents, we realize that no ‘logical reasoning' can change the mind of a person who has followed his calling. We are almost obsessed with the need to be enjoying life. But what defines enjoying life? For us it may be travelling, sipping drinks in fancy roof top bars, watching our children grow up, exchanging points of view at dinner parties, shopping at the mall. But what gives us the right to assume that these monks are not enjoying life?
In the early afternoon, the moment has come to say goodbye to the monk. Getting to know him has been a privilege and we feel humbled by this unique experience. He waves goodbye to us by the big wooden gate and walks back into his world. He wouldn’t want it any other way. ------------------------------------------ Special thanks to Vanessa for suggesting/planning this trip and to Mette and Feng for the pictures