D o n g ~ ~ ~ The temple bell strikes at four-thirty as usual. Deep resonance impregnates predawn quietness, giving it life rather than shattering it. From my room, I can’t hear the duty-monk chanting. But I had learnt the words from an evening attendance at the bell tower: With the first strike of the resonant bell, I chant the precious koan, shaking heaven above, piercing hell below….. Let all wars cease, armoured horses retire. May all souls expired in battles reborn in Pureland… As the mesmerising chant ends, the drum responds with the reverberating Wind-Rain-Thunder-Lightning routine, reversing the nighttime sequence.
First morning meditation starts at 4:50 while yogis warm up with sun salutations in the studio, long before the sun rises. I roll off my tatami to cancel the phone alarm before it goes off. Unlike the bell, it startles and shatters at this early hour even with volume set to just above mute.
I’ll be going home this afternoon. Sixteen days have glided past like a bird’s flitting shadow. I let the melancholy of departure settle before getting up to dress, leaving it behind to meld with fragments of delusive dreams, turning into hazy memories.
Dong Shan — Cave Mountain — approximately two hours by highway from Nan Chang airport, is the founding site of Cao Dong Zong, the branch of Chan Buddhism with a seeding influence on the development of Zen in Japan and Seon in Korea. Cao Dong Zong’s originator Master Liang Jie of Tang Dynasty built Pu Li temple on this bucolic location circa CE 860. Like China itself, it had since survived drastic vicissitudes.
Destroyed towards the end of Yuan Dynasty, the temple was rebuilt in Ming, then renovated by Qing Emperor Yong Zheng — himself a dedicated Chan scholar. When imperial China ended, the country once again struggled for rebirth. Pu Li Temple meditated in dilapidation until the late Master Nan Huan Jin came along to chime the bell. Ding! The temple roused, and is presently experiencing adolescence in its 21st Century incarnation.
A modern Retreat Centre now sits right outside the main gate, charging only RMB140 per day for a clean and spacious air-conditioned suite with a magnificent view, plus two-and-a-half green meals. Monks obviously have their own illusions in cost accounting. Instead of basking in mountain haze all day, guests are expected to join yoga and a minimum of two meditation everyday. Hanging a tag outside the door does not result in fresh towels and bedsheets. Washing machines are available on every floor.
Just Go Meditate
Contrary to its popular image, Chan Buddhism did not originate from Japan or California, and is not about deliberate obscurity. Its emphasis on wordless revelation merely highlights the fact that human languages are far from adequate to describe existential insights way above our severely limited perception. To Chan practitioners, persistent reflections and disciplined meditation are the most hopeful path to that aha moment one day. If not this life, well, then perhaps another one down the line.
“Just Go Meditate”, written in Abbot Gu Dong’s elegant calligraphy at the entrance of the enchanting Old Hall, captures Chan’s key approach to enlightenment. It has become kind of a slogan for Dong Shan. The plain and unpretentious meditation hall is my favourite place in the temple compound. Its antiquated simplicity and impalpable vibes have been thankfully spared from fancy decors and designer spirituality.
I’m used to meditating to the hypnotic hum of Hong Kong traffic. The unfamiliar silence here is deafening. The sound of someone swallowing saliva at the far end of the sizeable room is clearly audible. The light chime at the end of a session sends a shock wave through me. I wait for the internal vibration to calm down before opening my eyes.
The culinary skills of Dong Shan’s kitchen staff (mostly local farmer wives) are fantastic. But a monastic diet is free of stimulating condiments such as garlic, onion, and green onion. Chillies and fresh gingers, grown in the temple garden, help to spice up chopped veggies, and reinforce our constitutions against the misty mountain air.
But after the first week, my karmic habits kicked in. My taste buds missed the bombardment of pungent flavours. I started to find toothpaste tasty, and wanted to eat the farm chicken ranging outside the dormitory. Soon after the attack, my carnivorous cravings stopped. I think I can enjoy the simple diet perpetually now, though I might have garlic industrial chicken for dinner at home tonight.
Monks don’t eat after noontime unless hungry, which seems sensible enough. The modest breakfast and substantial lunch (served at 11:30) are main meals, preluded by chanting. Dinner is called Yao Shi — technically a “medical treatment” for those who need it to suppress a revolting stomach. It’s optional and informal, comprising mainly leftovers and soup noodle sans scallion.
Silence is observed during meal time. The monastic rules at Dong Shan are typically “respected” rather than “enforced”, therefore rather effective. Food wastage is frowned upon. A grain of rice dropped on the table would be picked up and eaten. Even as a temporary behaviour, it’s an honourable gesture nonetheless. After each meal, everyone washes his own bowl and chopsticks. I’ll take a stroll around the lotus lake after lunch, before catching my taxi ride to the airport.
I came to Dong Shan to practice yoga with Cheuk Na, my teacher from Yoga Mala in Hong Kong. She had relocated here to teach yoga pro bono since April. I only found out the history and other details after arrival. I was worried by the morning schedule at first, but soon discovered that getting roused by the pre-dawn interplay between drum and bell is a most enchanting way to start the day.
Students at Dong Shan seem remarkably talented and disciplined. Most are already amazing yogis after touching a yoga mat for the first time a few months ago. I suppose that’s what happens when young and disciplined students meet a dedicated good teacher. Dong Shan yoga is not troubled by hefty rents and profitability. Just like back in Yoga Mala, any practice session may turn into an impromptu workshop, something that commercial shalas can’t afford without violating their sacred vows to shareholders.
The mix of students is also unique. In very few studios would one find local farmers, Buddhist monks, university students, and retired businessmen practising next to each other.
Rice at Dong Shan is grown in nearby fields, harvested by the monks. It’s so good my carbohydrate intake has increased uncontrollably. Yet I managed to lose a bit of weight in the past two weeks. All the articles about the horrifying effects of carbohydrates must also be fake news.
Sixteen days, and I failed to attain enlightenment, alas. But retreating at Dong Shan did change me in a few small ways.
My healthy disdain for social media has strengthened substantially. I now clear most messages without reading them. With more usable time, life becomes longer right away. Why wait for longevity?
Thanks to Cheuk Na and the daily routine, my yoga has improved, though some issues can only be fixed by reincarnation. Instead of three days a week, I now practise six. Previously needed breaks were evidently an invention of the lazy mind.
My natural but gradual migration to vegetarianism over the years has been accelerated by the green meals at Dong Shan. I still love garlic chicken, but only in tiny chunks rather than big thick drumsticks.
Travelling doesn’t seem to have the same appeal anymore. What’s the point of flying all over the planet to look at slightly different arrangements of the same rocks and waters, while I can just sit still and be awed by a boundless private collection of bizarre thoughts and go —wow! No wonderment can match the overlooked magic of our own neglected life.
Om shanti shanti shanti.