Ep. 006: At a Mountain Hermitage

Tea and colloquy

In the summer of 2006, through the kindness of Chinese Buddhist friends in Shenzhen (Hi, Mr. Wu! Hi, Mr. Wang!), I was invited to teach over a hundred kids in a mountain temple in Ningde, Fujian Province. Those seven days in the presence of monks and lay Buddhists revolutionized my understanding of "how things work," Chinese-Buddhistically-speaking, and I'll be sharing bits and pieces of that experience with you from time to time.

The details come from an online journal I kept sporadically in those days (all my journaling efforts are sporadic), and there's lots of other Buddhist stuff in there that I'll be sharing with you, too, in time.

Zhiti Shan Huayan Temple, Ningde, Fujian, China

Huayan Temple

So there we were, in this temple up a long, dead-end road in the coastal mountains of Fujian, alive with the sounds of kids and young teens, and yet somehow serene in spite of it all. With me was my friend's 18-year-old son Diego, a great kid (now a husband, father, and the CEO of a financial services company in Hong Kong), and an excellent translator. Most of the conversations I'll recount were possible only with his help.

To the Hermitage

The Hermitage

The day after celebrating my birthday, I walked with Venerable Hui Jing, the temple administrator (and later, abbot); my friend Diego; and an internationally-known Master named Ji Qun, who had come to present an evening of lectures to the kids. We were headed for a nearby hermitage, a place to which the temple's monks could retire for more solitary practice. (When I asked Ven. Hui Jing if the hermitage belonged to the temple, he answered cryptically, "Well, it belongs to me, so it belongs to the temple.")

Arriving at a nondescript building with a spectacular view, we all sat cross-legged in the front room to have tea--an essential part of any encounter with monks and nuns in temples. I was invited to ask the Master a question, another part of meeting with a great monk or nun that's so common it’s nearly a cliché (have you seen the old TV series, Kung Fu? "Master, why does...")

Interview with the Master

Master Ji Qun

Rather than the usual questions about gaining enlightenment and so on, I asked the Master this: "What is the greatest challenge to spreading the Dharma [the Buddha's teachings] in China today?" He was surprised at that, and said that no one had ever asked him that before!

His answer, if not original, was very pleasing: He said that China's so-called "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976) had damaged not just Buddhism, but many aspects of Chinese culture. He felt that part of his calling was to re-establish not just the Dharma, but the cultural matrix in which it had flourished. Thus, temples would become centers for the revival of many aspects of culture. Furthermore, with a shortage of qualified teaching monks, he saw the advisability of training up lay teachers to carry the Dharma into the broader culture.

Master Ji Qun leaves

At the end of our tea, Master Ji Qun returned to the temple to prepare his evening's lecture, and most of us went out in front of the hermitage for dinner.

Debating Venerable Hui Jing

Venerable Hui Jing

You may recall that, in Episode 005, I mentioned my friend Ume-san, a Japanese Shingon priest who inherited a temple from his father. This phenomenon--married priests in Japan--led to the first of many "arguments" with Venerable Hui Jing.

My great friend the monk spoke only one word of English all week, and that he spoke repeatedly. Whenever I said something about Buddhism with which he disagreed, he simply said "No!" with a dismissive wave of his hand, and sometimes a little stomp of his foot for emphasis.

(My young translator was nervous that I might be offended by all this rejection; I told him not to worry--that in fact I welcomed this reaction as a chance to learn. When I floated a story to a monk like Ven. Hui Jing, or to a sophisticated layman like Diego's father, I was looking for either confirmation or for alternatives. This method added immensely to my repertoire of stories, teachings, etc.)

So, on the evening we were dining outside at the hermitage, I mentioned to Ven. Hui Jing that some Japanese priests are married. After thinking for a moment, he said "No!" and then stated categorically: "Well, then, there are only two gems in Japan!" (The Buddhist "Triple Gem" is made up of the Buddha; the Dharma, his teachings; and the Sangha, his followers.) So the Venerable meant that there was no duly-constituted Sangha in Japan.

In further discussion, he contended that the Sangha only includes ordained monastics. Many experts agree with his viewpoint; but others hold there is a four-fold Sangha, and support that idea with (among other passages) the words of the Buddha just before his death. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha said, "I shall not pass away ... until my monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen, have become true disciples."

At the table before the debate

I pointed out that there are in fact celibate monks and nuns in Japan, and that Japan's greatest teachers are among them. And I had just insisted that laypeople are an essential part of the Sangha when the cook came out of the kitchen to ask how our dinner had been.

I asked the Venerable, "Who's more important: Master Ji Qun or this woman?" I was really putting him on the spot, with the woman standing right there! Nevertheless, he agilely replied that what Ji Qun offered was timeless, whereas the cook's food was merely for the body. I countered that the Buddha, when seeking enlightenment, had declared that extreme asceticism interfered with practice; if you're weak with hunger, you can't meditate properly.

Hui Jing liked that, and the cook liked it so much that she invited us back for lunch the next day!


I'll have more to say another day on this method of teaching through debate, but I'd like to share a homely and powerful image. Near the end of our time together, I told the Venerable and another monk that I appreciated the spirit of our discussions (they agreed), and I quoted the Book of Proverbs to them: "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." They replied with the idea that, to clean freshly-dug sweet potatoes, you put them in a vat of water and stir them. As they tumble against one another, they wash each other clean. It's a marvelous image, and it describes exactly the process I took part in during that week.


The spread of Buddhism in Asia (Wikipedia) (click, then magnify, to enlarge)

Ven. Hui Jing's objection about married priests in Japan brings up a larger issue.

Looking at a map, we can see the tremendous number of cultures through which Buddhism had spread long before it reached the West. One route ran from India through Central Asia, then to China, Korea, and Japan. (Other areas include Southeast Asia, Tibet/Mongolia, and so on.)

In each of these areas, Buddhism evolved to accommodate characteristics of the culture. For example, it's widely held that "Buddhists are vegetarians." This is not always so. Buddhists of the Mahayana school (the one most likely to be found in East Asia) tend toward vegetarianism, it's true. But traditionally, Tibetans could not grow enough vegetables on their high plateaus to sustain an entire culture, and so had no choice but to eat meat. Likewise, in South Asia, where Theravada Buddhism is the norm, monks live by begging and--with some exceptions--are obliged to eat whatever is given, including meat.

But even within cultures, there are wide doctrinal differences. There were (some say "are") eight major schools of Buddhism in China, only two of which, Chan/Zen and Pure Land, survived intact the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution under the Tang Emperor Wuzong in 845. Japan has even more schools; most of them are derived from the Chinese, but some--like Nichiren Buddhism--are completely homegrown.

In short, "Buddhism" is no more cohesive a term than "Christianity." All stripes of Buddhists can be found, so that "Buddhisms" might be more accurate.

So much to explore! So many forking paths! Just in this one episode, I can see five or six more topics to write on. I hope you'll stick around for more!

Until I get to them, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: It's Missions Monday! If you or your kid went to fourth grade in California, you must know about "El Camino Real," the Royal Highway from San Diego to Sonoma that links the California missions. But you may NOT know that the highway continues south of the border for 750 miles, to Loreto in Baja California, Mexico (and another 300 miles beyond THAT!) We'll look at some of the missions and churches along the way, from a trip I made in December of 1990.