The truths of Buddhism are living truths and they cannot be handed to us by anyone. They must be discovered and experiences by each and every one of us.
Master Hsing Yun
Buddhism, Pure and Simple
It was the kind of summer day that burns out power grids when I walked through the entrance shrine with its five enlightened beings and back out into the sunny courtyard of the Hsi Lai ("shee lai") Temple and monastery in Hacienda Heights for the Eight Precept Retreat, eight days, seven nights. We were were supposed to bring nothing but a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, some underwear, white socks, and a sleeping bag. The form also said we’d need to bring, or buy from the temple, brown lo hans which are cloth, semi-open shoes. Nothing else was allowed.
So, with a small knapsack and sleeping bag in hand, I followed signs around the central courtyard and up the carpeted marble stairs to the registration room where I got a name badge with both English and Chinese characters on it. I was also given a thick manila envelope filled with a few booklets, a pen, a pad of paper, and a schedule for the week. Every moment from 5:20 in the morning until 10:20 at night was accounted for. Good, I thought, at least I won’t have the problem I’d had in Olema where, aside from making my meals, there was nothing running interference between me and my so-called “monkey mind.” In Olema, I’d felt like I was constantly policing a band of small children in my head.
I went to another table where I was given the clothes I was to wear for the rest of the week: two knee-length, slate gray tunics with matching pants that looked like raw silk but were made out of a heavy, manmade material. A robed nun put a folded dark brown cloth in a plastic bag on top of the rest. Then a woman behind a table directed me to still another table where a nun asked if I wanted to make a donation for food. They’d only asked for eighty dollars for the full seven nights of room and board so I gave sixty more. It didn’t feel like quite enough but I’d emptied my pockets before I got out of the car so it was all I had. I was then sent to still another table in the back for a translation device.
Yes, a translation device. A United Nations-like earpiece wired to a receiver I could clip onto a belt – if the gray outfit had a belt.
I hadn’t really focused on the part of the application where they asked what language we spoke. And I admit I ignored the moment in the interview where the cheerful nun had said, almost in passing, “You know you might not understand everything – we do a pretty good job of translating but still there may be some things you’ll miss. Don’t get upset. Just go inside (yourself). Notice what it brings up in you.”
She really meant it: the entire retreat was going to be in Chinese. Mandarin, to be specific.
Of the 207 or so people who came to the retreat, no more than a couple dozen of us spoke English. I turned out to be one of perhaps ten non-Asian people there. That meant I had to learn how to use and wear one of that translation device every waking moment and figure out how to keep it in my uniform’s pockets, battery functional, wire to my ear, while learning how to bow, kneel, take on and off various robes and other ceremonial items and take it on and off to go into the bathroom, all without accidentally dumping it or the earpiece on the ground. It also meant that someone from the temple had to be translating absolutely everything that was said from 5:20am when we got up until we went to our rooms around ten each night. Just think of the logistics and effort that required from the temple staff…kind of amazing.
Once my arms were full with papers and stacks of clothing and devices and my knapsack and sleeping bag, I followed a nun up a steep hill behind the monastery along with a young blue-haired girl who was wearing the most amazing amount of make-up. It was quite a contrast walking behind these two: the compact, shorn, Buddhist nun wearing heavy robes in the desperate heat followed by this brightly colored, barely-dressed girl wearing nothing more than a magenta bra under a cobalt blue sun dress as she struggled up the hill in her platform sandals.
Oh, and did I mention I was in the midst of the worst menopausal hot flashes of my life? Wave after wave of raw burning rose up from my ribs, tearing up over the sides of my neck and face with a heat no amount of sweat could cool. One swept over me as we topped the hill and walked into a building that said “Buddha's Light Publishing.”
One by one, the six other women meant to share the one bathroom flanked by two small rooms arrived. Other than the minimal conversation required to sort out which two drawers were whose, and an exchange of names, there were no real introductions. We were not supposed to talk in our rooms or, really, anywhere, for the full eight days and seven nights except for a couple of special sessions mid-week. So, with my roommates, I had little to go on but external appearances. All I knew was the bed next to mine was assigned to a white, middle-aged woman with fairly long semi-dyed blond hair who was an active Buddhist from Toronto. When she asked the nun a question, she called her “Sifu ” which I found out later meant "Teacher." The bed on the other side of her was taken by a heavy-set Indian woman with glasses who marched into the room and chose her two drawers before anyone had a chance to think about it. Perpendicular to us, was the final bed in my room which was taken by a tall, middle-aged Chinese-American woman who was our group leader. A woman from Miami and a teacher from Torrance shared the other room with Blue.
The nun took Blue Girl’s and my remaining valuables - cell phones, car keys, any jewelry – and sealed them carefully in separate envelops for safekeeping. I finally got a close look at the nun’s name tag: Venerable Miao Hsi. When she wasn’t our mother duck, she ran Buddha's Light Publishing. And, we learned later, she’s fully ordained like all the nuns in this brand of Buddhism. There’s no difference between the monks and nuns in terms of the rituals they can perform.
Once we were all there, Venerable Miao Hsi ran through the rules for the week in a kind but clipped manner: “Put your tooth brush, tooth paste, soap, cup and shampoo in this basin.” she said, holding a round plastic bowl. “Everything else you brought, including any make-up, any clothes other than the underwear you need, put those away. Your second set of clothes and the robe,” she held up one of the brown folded cloths wrapped in plastic, “should be carefully folded and on the shelf whenever you aren’t wearing it. And you won’t be wearing the robe until tomorrow night.” She then moved to the side of the bed I’d been assigned to demonstrate. “When you get up in the morning, here’s how you leave your bed: you take your blanket or sleeping bag and fold it first lengthwise in three and then you fold it again: one end into the center and then the other end on top to make a perfect square. Everything’s in threes. It should then be placed with the pillow on top at the head of your bed and look very neat.”
We then awkwardly followed her into the small hall outside the bathroom. A large clothes drying rack stood in one corner. “Your towel must be folded on this rack in the same order as your beds. Number one (that was me) goes here,” she said, placing her hand on a rung, “Followed by two, three, four. The other room, you go down here. When you fold your towels, the edges must be together, neat. The open side, the side with the edges, faces to the left, just like this. Every towel the same.” Venerable Hsi then took one of the small hand towels – the only towel we got, the only towel we were allowed – to demonstrate the required degree of perfection. “There will be room inspections every day so it’s important that everything be in place.
I panicked. All I could think was, how am I going to remember all of this? And what does this have to do with religion?
Let me say, straight out, I never put things down in the same place twice. I am the key-losing sort. I like to think it’s because I am too focused on the people in my life and the things I’m thinking about to worry about such mundane and routine things as order but the truth is, I’m a slob. A recovering slob, the way you have to be if you’re a mother or someone in charge of a workplace, but I’m the sort that comes up with reasons why unmade beds are actually good. (“Airs out the sheets.” “You’re going to just mess them up when you get in them later.” “It feels homey.” Etc.) But now I’m going to have to use just one single tiny hand towel all week and remember to fold it so carefully that all the edges match perfectly and that the opening is on the left not the right side every time I hang it up?!?!??! And they were going to inspect and critique whether or not I'd folded my slippery sleeping bag into thirds lengthwise and then again horizontally into a perfect square that could stay neat all day and whether or not my toothbrush was lined up perfectly parallel to my toothpaste and soap? This was a non-detail-person’s nightmare. I mean, I actually like chucking each section of my newspaper across the room in the direction of the wastebasket when I'm done reading it in bed. Kevin doesn't like it and I have no idea why I like doing that except it makes me feel all swashbuckly. And I have no idea how my shoes end up right in the middle of the room where people walk but they always do. Kevin claims I'm secretly out to get him. I'm not. Really. I swear. At least, I don't think I am.
Ven. Miao Hsi continued. “This is part of your mindfulness training, to keep track of your mind. There is no talking at any time but you may always come ask me any questions you have or with any problems you have.”
I admit I watched Blue Girl more than the nun during the demonstration and I couldn’t help but have sympathy. “No way” was practically screaming out of her head, probably with at least one expletive between the two words. A decade ago that would have been me, full of bristle and rage, caught up in a mental argument with what felt like rigid arbitrary rules. When I saw her reacting, I realized that something had changed in me. Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s my determination to know something I don’t know but, while I did feel overwhelmed, sure I’d never remember everything I was supposed to do, I still felt willing to see what following these directions might mean to me. Plus, I reminded myself, I can do anything for a week. Well, almost anything.
But Blue Girl couldn’t. Long before sunset, long before dinner, her mother came back to pick her up and she was gone.
Now, what I’m about to describe may seem extreme – and it was – but it’s meant to give people of all sorts a direct experience of what life is like for a monk or nun-in-training in this sect of Chinese Buddhism. While there were a few people in attendance who were actively considering whether or not they might want to become a monk or nun, most who signed up for this retreat were simply practicing Buddhists. This intensive session is something this sect encourages people to do at least once in their lifetime. It was meant to be tough. Just how hard core? All the men -- even the fourteen year-old boy -- had to shave their heads.
There were a few people there for other reasons like me. One of my suitemates turned out to be a world religions teacher in a local public high school. But I feel the need to warn you: what I’m about to describe is not the everyday practice of Buddhism; it’s the daily practice of a monk-in-training for this particular branch of Buddhism which is a Chinese order blending many different strands of Buddhism including Pure Land Buddhism with elements of Ch’an (known more commonly in the United States as Zen.) This branch of Buddhism is among the largest Buddhist denominations in the world, that is, everywhere but here in this country where pure Zen Buddhism is much more widely known and practiced.
Pure Land is sometimes described as the branch of Buddhism closest to Christianity in that it says that “liberation” from suffering – the goal of Buddhism – can be reached through the grace and intervention of a higher being and that chanting the Amitabha Buddha’s name can help call on that grace. Most Buddhist sects don’t get into the issue of God or any notion of divine being at all; most sects do not consider Buddha to be a divine figure like God. It’s not a matter of whether they do or don’t believe in God or a god; Buddhism’s focus seems much more pragmatic than that. The Four Noble Truths, the essential core revelations of the historical Buddha – a Hindu prince named Siddartha Gautama – are simply these:
Dukkha: All worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, suffering.
Samudaya: There is a cause of suffering, which is attachment or desire (tanha).
Nirodha: There is a way out of suffering, which is to eliminate attachment and desire.
Marga: The path that leads out of suffering is called the Noble Eightfold Path.
So what all sects of Buddhism share is a focus, primarily, on the pragmatic alleviation of suffering. There are two main branches of Buddhism (Theravada & Mahayana) and they’re split along a simple idea: what's most important, your salvation or the salvation of others? The Hsi Lai temple is part of the Mahayana branch, the branch that focuses on the salvation of others first and this retreat was designed to help us learn how to reduce our suffering. But first I guess we had to learn all the ways we suffer and why.
The “Eight Precepts” we were supposed to follow during the retreat were 1) no killing, 2) no stealing, 3) celibacy, 4) no lying, 5) no use of intoxicants, 6) no eating after noon, 7) no use of decorations, dancing, or watching entertainments and 8) no sleeping on comfortable beds or sitting on comfortable chairs. The first five precepts are supposed to be followed by every Buddhist except the third, for lay people, isn’t celibacy but to refrain from sexual misconduct.
Okay, so following the precepts was the big picture. The devil was in the details. Our most basic actions were broken down into rules. And it didn’t stop with towel folding.
Once we’d given up all of our belongings and gotten into our grey tunics and pants, brown lohans and white socks, head shaved if we were men, hair pulled back tight if we were women, we went to the auditorium to get the rest of our rules of conduct in the auditorium from a frightening six-foot tall Chinese nun who was called, just for the retreat, the Discipline Master.
This woman could give Roald Dahl's Mrs Trunchball a scare. Her eyebrows were black, her shoulders were broad, her glare was a weapon. “Sit up! Don’t be lazy, leaning back on your chairs!” She barked harsh Chinese syllables into a wireless microphone close to her scowling mouth. A beat or two later, a sweet voice translated her barks into my ear. “This is not respectful. You must cultivate a respectful posture. Don’t bend your body even if no one reminds you. You must cultivate this so it will be part of your life.”
She was imposing, her fierceness mesmerizing. A few syllables later, the sweet voice in my ear said, "What are you looking at?”
What are you looking at? It took me a moment but I suddenly realized, in this room of over two hundred people, she meant me, she was talking, no, yelling at me, me and a few others. I thought I must be hearing something wrong. Looking? There's a problem with looking? Isn't it respectful to look at someone when they speak to you? Disrespectful not to? I "look", like, all the time. I’m dependent on looking. I learn by looking. I support what I hear by reading lips and body language. I've even made a living my entire life by being a careful looker; after all, isn’t that what reporters are? Professional lookers? How am I going to be able to know what’s going on without being able to look at anything, especially when they’re speaking Mandarin? I mean, I wouldn't have known I was one of the people she was speaking to if I hadn't been “looking.”
But, then, she wouldn't have been speaking to me.
Okay. No looking.
I had no idea how I was going to pull that off or why she thought it was so important but the muscular nun was pretty riled up about it. "You're about to become monastics and still you look around? Where is your mind? You only have seven days here! Are you going to waste your time looking at others?"
But no looking was just the beginning. The scary nun, along with about a dozen other women in robes, told us how to sit – with our back straight, not against a chair back ever, eyes down; how to stand – feet only slightly apart, toes turned slightly out, right hand resting in the palm of the left at the waist making the bottom of a comfortable triangle with your head as the apex, eyes down; how to walk – mindfully, quietly, in straight line in order of tallest to smallest without looking around at anything or anyone; and even how to sleep – on your right side, somewhat curved, with one hand under your head. We were supposed to “Stand like an oak, walk like a breeze, sit like a bell, sleep like a bowl.” (If we had been actual monastics in training, there would have been someone coming in at night to make sure we were, indeed, sleeping like a bowl.) And, whenever anyone of the monastics addressed us by saying “Preceptees” in Mandarin, we were to answer “Ah-mi-tuo-fo.” It took me two days to actually understand the syllables we were supposed to say loudly and why. It’s the Amitabha Buddha’s name in Pali.
In our dorm, that first afternoon, Sifu (Ven Miao Hsi) said, "When you’re dressed and your rooms are in order, line up outside. We’re going to dinner.”
Although the shadows cast by the buildings were growing, we were having a record-breaking heat wave and the heat was still intense. Those of us who were ready first stood waiting, looking at nothing, until everyone was in their proper place in line with the back of our right hands resting on the palm of our left. Our grey outfits were buttoned all the way up to the neck, our translation devices were in our pockets with a wire up to our ear pieces and, with our hands held just so, we walked single file in silence, back down the hill to the dining hall. Our schedule said it was time to learn Buddhist meal etiquette.
7 July 2007
A class led by Master Hsing Yun on the Heart Sutra (YouTube) it isn't in English but it has voice-over translation