Our first monastery stay at the Jotokuji Monastery in Kyoto was absolutely incredible. The ritualized meals, meditation, and even the cold weather allowed us to fully experience the life of Buddhist monks firsthand. When we left Jotokuji, we were excited to see what our second monastery stay had in store for us. This time, we were headed to China to stay at the Nanhua Monastery. After getting through customs, we had a four hour bus ride through rural China before arriving at the monastery.
A New Experience
Although we were excited for the monastery stay, we were all expecting it to be pretty much the same as the first one. The monastery in Japan was a highlight of the trip for many of us, so when we arrrived at the Nanhua Monastery and began realizing that this experience would be completely unlike the first one, we were all thrown off. Over our four days at the monastery, we were able to appreciate the differences more than we thought was possible.
We did not make it to the monastery in time for dinner or meditation on the day we arrived, so our first activity at the monastery was a 4:30am wake up call followed by an hour and a half long morning ceremony. While we were at the monastery in Japan, the only people we interacted with were the head monk and one other monk. At this monastery, there were about 200 monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists around us at all times. All of these people participated in the morning ceremony, and the many voices joined together for chanting blew us all away. The chanting in China is much more melodic than in Japan, making it more enjoyable for most of us.
After the morning ceremony, we experienced our first Chinese monastic meal. It took us a little while to catch on to the routine. We were each given two bowls, one for rice and one for everything else. The monks would walk by and fill up the bowl until it was overflowing unless you stopped them. Because we didn't really know what we were doing, most of us ended up with way too much food. The monastery requires each person to finish all they food they take, and at a fast past, so we were all frantically eating the food they had given us. It was also pretty intimidating to have monks staring at you while eating. Luckily, we quickly learned what to do and were prepared for the rest of the meals.
While we were at the monastery in Japan, we meditated five times in one day. The Nanhua Monastery initially seemed more relaxed becaue we only meditated once a day, but it turned out to be just as challenging. We arrived at the meditation hall about twenty minutes before the actual meditation started and were all given robes. We attempted to tie them correctly, then entered the hall where all the monks and nuns were already seated. After sitting down, we were given tea. All of a sudden, everyone was walking quickly around the Buddha statue that was in the middle of the hall. Again, we didn't have much direction so we just followed what the others were doing. The monk who was in charge of meditation stopped most of us at least once to correct something we were doing wrong. A lot of us had tied our robes incorrectly. We finally sat back down and began our hour long meditation. This was our longest sitting yet; we had previously only done about thirty minutes at a time. Meditation is a mentally and physically demanding activity, and that hour felt like it lasted forever. Many of us left feeling discouraged.
However, our second night of meditation had completely different results. We arrived with little time to spare, so instead of putting on robes, we went directly into the hall and began the meditation. After meditation on the first night, Professor Kopf talked to us about the mental aspect of meditation. He told us that overcoming the mental side is often the hardest part. With that in mind, many of us were determined to make it through the entire hour of meditation without moving. When the hour finally came to an end, most of us had successfully made it through, even though our whole bodies were in pain and we were mentally exhausted. It was an extremely rewarding experience, and a favorite memory from our time at the Nanhua Monastery.
Although we were initally unsure about the monastery because of how different it was from the first one, it turned out to be another amazing experience. We got to see another country, interact with many monks and nuns, and fully participate in monastic life, which was unforgettable.