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The Meeting

Putian, China

By kpPublished 15 days ago Updated 13 days ago 6 min read
Top Story - May 2024
16
My sangha (I'm in the second to last row, third from the left.)

READ "PART I" HERE:

My third adventure outside the United States was to Putian, China (the second was with a college friend to London for Spring Break—a unique choice that I'll write about later). It wasn't exactly a study abroad opportunity, but I was still in college, and a philosophy professor recommended the experience to me. She knew I was interested in Eastern philosophy, focusing on Daoism, and thought a trip to a Buddhist temple in China might be up my alley. She was right.

The Woodenfish Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program (a mouthful, I know), or HBMLP, is a cultural exchange program that operates in a new place every summer. Temples across China, Thailand, and Taiwan host up to one hundred people for the month of July, integrating them into monastic life and teaching them the traditions and beliefs of Buddhism.

The cost of food, classes, and lodging was only $250, which was easy enough for me to cover then. I didn't have money for a ticket, but I decided to go for it anyway. It was 2019; I was young, dumb, and brave. I cashed in what little I had already saved in a Roth IRA to cover travel costs and any expenses before or after the program and prepared to leave.

Morning Gung-Fu.

I went with Lexi, my comrade from school with whom I had gone to Guatemala. Since we didn't stay the month after our study abroad, we decided to do this together instead. She was the perfect hype travel companion to quell my anxiety about this flight. I don't handle planes well; rather, my stomach doesn't. And while this one was no different in that regard, Lexi did manage to ease my foreboding before takeoff.

We could share contact information with other attendees beforehand to get to know each other and coordinate travel plans if we wanted to. Some had planned to land in Beijing a few days early to explore the major tour sites. Lexi and I opted out of that potentially awkward social interaction and gave ourselves two days to get our bearings alone.

The Lexi in question explores a temple in the Forbidden City.

From Beijing, we would fly to Fuzhou. There had been a last-minute change of venue. We were supposed to go to Gutian, but there were some logistical problems, so they moved to the Southern Shaolin Temple in Putian. Our flights had already been booked, so they sent a guide to meet us in Fuzhou and help us get taxis to the temple. They had given us a phrase to show the taxi driver if we got separated from our guide for any reason: 你好。請帶我去莆田南少林寺。A polite request to take us to the temple.

We all had to be at the monastery by 8:00 PM on the first of July. Lexi and I were some of the first to arrive that morning. It was already eighty-five degrees by 9:00 AM. Sweat poured out from me in ways that offended my Midwestern pores. When we checked in, they gave us our uniforms and food bowls. I found a small microfiber towel with the bowls, presumably to wipe them clean... I decided mine would be my sweat rag. We found our rooms and attempted to settle in for the long month ahead.

When I opened the closet door, cockroaches scurried to the corners and into the cracks of the shelves. I closed the door, never to touch the closet again for the remainder of the month. I placed my camera bag and luggage pack on the foot of the bed I wanted and lay down. The bunk beds had no mattresses or pillows, just wooden frames with sheets over the boards attached for us to sleep on. I used my neck pillow from the trip to support my head. Once my body acclimated to the firmness, I got some of the best sleep of my life on that plank of wood.

One of our daily meditation locations.

Our days looked mainly like this:

5:20 Wake-up

5:50 - 6:30 Taiji/Gung Fu

6:30 - 7:00 Meditation

7:00 - 7:45 Breakfast

8:00 - 11:00 Classes on Buddhist History and Philosophy

11:20 - 12:30 Lunch

12:30 - 2:00 Afternoon nap/ Personal time to do laundry, etc.

2:00 - 3:00 Meditation

3:00 - 5:00 Applied Buddhism / Chinese cultural activities

(Tea, calligraphy, music, incense, etc.)

5:00 - 6:00 Personal time

6:00 - 6:45 Medicine Meal (supper)

6:45 - 7:00 Walking Meditation

7:30 - 8:30 Dharma Talk with Ven. Yifa

8:45 - 9:30 Evening Vespers and Meditation

10:00 Lights Out, Silence

Every day. Our personal time was usually spent hand washing one of the two uniforms they gave us to wear for the whole month or exploring the temple grounds while we waited for our clothes to hang dry. Suffice it to say, it didn't take long for us to have funky-smelling and stiff clothes.

I met one of my best friends pretty early on in the experience. She is about an inch taller than me and stood next to me in our line-up. We only talked a little to establish who should stand where when we were asked to line up based on height. Andrea is the one who broke the ice. We were weeding the temple grounds on one of our cleaning days when she asked me if I was "working through something." I was pulling the weeds from the ground with more force than necessary. "Perhaps," I replied.

Meditating with my closest comrade, Andrea.

Truth be told, I was "working through something" with the entire meditation retreat. I thought that was pretty obvious, but over time, Andrea chipped away at the real reasons I had subjected myself to what we were starting to call a "Buddhist Bootcamp." For all my therapy and efforts with different types of medication, I still struggled deeply with my bipolar disorder and depression. I had made a deal with myself: Find some inner peace in this place designed to help you find it, or die trying.

I told myself I would follow through with one of my many "plans" if I didn't feel better upon my return. Two months before I had left, I got on a new anti-depressant and said it would be the last one I would ever try. Fortunately, three months on Celexa, a month away from the stressors of my life, and a shit-ton of meditating later I felt like a new person. It was as if someone had just jump-started my soul. I came alive again.

Our pilgrimage led us here.

Once Andrea and I became friends, my daily schedule adjusted as such:

5:20 Wake-up, trade notes with Andrea

5:50 - 6:30 Taiji

6:30 - 7:00 Meditation

7:00 - 7:45 Breakfast

7:45 - 7:55 Walk to class with Andrea

8:00 - 11:00 Classes on Buddhist History and Philosophy

11:00 - 11:15 Walk to lunch with Andrea

11:20 - 12:30 Lunch

12:30 - 2:00 Afternoon nap/ Personal time to do laundry, etc. With Andrea

2:00 - 3:00 Meditation

3:00 - 5:00 Applied Buddhism / Chinese cultural activities

(Tea, calligraphy, music, incense, etc.)

5:00 - 6:00 Personal time with Andrea

6:00 - 6:45 Medicine Meal (supper)

6:45 - 6:55 Walk to meditation with Andrea

6:45 - 7:00 Walking Meditation

7:00 - 7:25 Read with Andrea

7:30 - 8:30 Dharma Talk with Ven. Yifa

8:30 - 8:40 Andrea

8:45 - 9:30 Evening Chanting and Meditation

9:30 - 9:55 Prep for "bed"

10:00 Lights Out, Silence

10:00 - ??? Sneak to the roof with Andrea and listen to forbidden music

We were inseparable. Perhaps obviously, we admitted to each other later that there was an attraction, but due to the strict celibacy rules of the monastery, we kept our feelings hidden as best we could

Our final day was spent on a pilgrimage to Mt. Putuo. Several hours of marching and prostrations later, we reached the temple for the closing ceremonies. Here, you can officially take the five precepts and "become a Buddhist." It's not at all required or coerced, which I was thankful for, considering my devout commitment to atheism, but it did remind me of the times at bible camp when they would ask a bunch of six-year-olds to accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. I didn't do the ceremony, but several people had practiced Buddhism for years and felt ready to take the step. I found it moving to watch them receive the precepts, declaring this temple as their home and these people as their sangha (this translates to "collection," but is meant as "family.").

After the ceremony, Andrea and I explored the island together, eating our weight in dumplings and mango popsicles.

The mango popsicles.

When the program ended, I stayed in Shanghai for two days with Andrea, Lexi, and some others. Andrea was set to travel to Thailand afterward and invited me to stay with her. I wanted to, more than anything, but my obligations back home were screaming for me to return and take care of them.

I cried at the airport while Lexi and I waited for our return flight, harder than I had in months.

"Amituofo," I thought to myself.

Me at the beach in Mt. Putuo.

PART III

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About the Creator

kp

I am a non-binary, trans-masc writer. I work to dismantle internalized structures of oppression, such as the gender binary, class, and race. My writing is personal but anecdotally points to a larger political picture of systemic injustice.

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Comments (11)

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  • Anna 9 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story!

  • angela hepworth9 days ago

    What a powerful experience this sounds like! Beautifully put.

  • Novel Allen11 days ago

    Heartfelt and exciting story. Congrats.

  • The Dani Writer13 days ago

    Oh. Emm. Geeeeee!!! What a phenomenal journey and exciting life story to share! I sucked up every word. Thank you big time for writing this and sharing it with the world!

  • Congrats. Comprehensive.

  • Lamar Wiggins13 days ago

    I do my best to learn something new as frequent as possible. Your experience revealed details of a culture that I knew about but didn't know about. Triple thanks for sharing. You are an adventurous soul aimed at going further in life than anyone ever imagined...believe it! Do you stay in contact with Andrea, just curious.

  • Natasha Collazo14 days ago

    Great job!

  • Wow, what a journey and experience. How humbling too. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • Matthew Fromm14 days ago

    what a powerful walkthrough. I appreciate the routine in this, it really helps paint that day in/day out picture.

  • Judey Kalchik 14 days ago

    What an amazing experience, and the photos are incredible. Thank you for this glimpse into a new world (to me!), and congratulations on the Top Story!

  • China seems interesting! Well written!

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