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Celebration of the Buddha’s Awakening at Zhongtai

Mirroring the diversity of Buddhist traditions across Asia, the celebration of the Buddha’s Awakening takes place on various dates, depending on the country. In Taiwan and in the Chinese cultural sphere relying on the lunar calendar (nónglì 農曆), it occurs on the day corresponding to the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, which this year was Saturday, January 24, 2015 (year 104 in the Taiwanese calendar beginning in 1912). Thanks to the kind invitation of a Dharma friend, I went to attend the celebration at Zhōngtái Chánsì 中台禪寺 in Pǔlǐ zhèn 埔里鎮, central Taiwan, one of the flagship Chan monasteries known for its magnificent architecture and the quality of its teachers.

View of Zhongtai Chansi from the front

Since I had no idea about what to expect, I was there for a surprise when finding out that more than ten thousand followers were gathering for the occasion, with hundreds of buses full of people coming especially for the occasion, often travelling more than four hours (one way) to come from remote hometowns. I simply had never seen so many people in a Buddhist temple! We were not allowed to take pictures inside the monastery, but this may give an idea of the first few buses who had arrived around 4 p.m.

Buses parked at the rear of Zhongtai

Participants were grouped in different units, identified with jackets featuring distinctive colors and indicating the subsection from which they came. The leader of the group, carrying a placard, would be responsible for taking care that the individuals in his or her group would stay together. Here is one example:

Groups of followers gathering in front of the main hall, flanked by giant video screens

Around 5 p.m., everyone moved into different spaces, including the huge dining hall in the basement of this structure, fully equipped with video screens retransmitting live all the events taking place in the main hall. The highlight was the arrival of Great Master Wei Chueh (Wéijué Héshang 惟覺和尚), who gave a substantial address to his many guests. At the age of 86 his speech is still precise and his memory phenomenal. He often illustrates his teachings with poetry quoted from his vast repertoire.

This was followed by several performances, in particular by pupils attending the neighboring schools belonging to this denomination. The banner in the dining hall read “Friendly Gathering and Dharma Assembly of the Year 104 Zhongtai Chan Monastery Celebration of the the Buddha’s Awakening” (Zhōngtái Chánsì yìbáilíng nián Làbā wéilú fǎhuì 中台禪寺一百零四年臘八圍爐法會). It is interesting to see the expression wéilú 圍爐 (tentatively translated as “Friendly Gathering”) being used in this context, because it literally refers to a circle of people [chatting] around a fireplace or hearth. The Taiwanese climate usually does not warrant setting fireplaces but I imagine that this must be a remnant of traditions from colder areas in mainland China. In any case, this provided an invaluable glimpse of the vitality of lay supporters coming from all wakes of life, including teenagers, young parents, and children. The gorgeous vegetarian meal was far from frugal and included the traditional làbāzhōu 臘八粥, a nutritious rice gruel enriched with nuts and dried fruits.

Night view of Zhongtai radiating laser beams evoking beacons of truth

To return to the various approaches to the Buddha’s Awakening, this joyful gathering around a dinner table contrasts with the more austere way the same event is celebrated in Japan. In Japanese Zen monasteries, it is called Jōdōe 成道會 (Ceremony [to commemorate] the Realization of Awakening) and takes place at the end of the harshest meditation retreat known as Rōhatsu Ōzesshin 臘八大攝心. The ceremony is usually performed at dawn on December 8, after a whole week during which practitioners barely slept and were pushed far beyond their usual limits. This week of extreme asceticism stands in stark contrast with the laxism prevalent in the way Buddhist precepts are practiced, or rather disregarded, by the modern Japanese clergy. In Southeast Asia, they have regrouped the three celebrations of the birth, awakening, and passing of the historical Buddha on a single day called Vesak. An official United Nations Day of Vesak (UNDV) has even been established. This year an academic conference will coincide with the event and will be hosted by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University in Thailand between May 27–31, 2015. This plethora of interpretation begs the question of whether it may be more accurate to speak of “Buddhisms” in the plural, as suggested in scholarly circles.

Performance in a Former Bomb Shelter Made into a Lively Peace Sanctuary

On Saturday, January 17, 2015, I had the privilege to attend a performance by the art group of Meimen. This performance was titled Bǎirěn zhī yè 百忍之夜 , which literally translates to “The Evening of a Hundred [Forms of] Forbearance.” We will see, however, that the Chinese word rěn 忍 can be interpreted in a myriad of different ways and that it may have been intended here to mean something different from its usual meaning of “endurance, patience, or forbearance.” First, something must be said about the location called Meimen Garden (see http://garden.meimen.com, only in Chinese). This in one of the restaurants belonging to the Meimen Qigong group, right next to the former City Hall (Zhōngshāntáng 中山堂). The fact that it is situated underground results from its former function as a bomb shelter (fángkōngdòng 防空洞 ). The founder of the Meimen approach, Master Lee, reinterpreted these three characters to mean “preventing the human heart from being hollow” (fángzhǐ rénxīn kōngdòng 防止人心空洞), which is also why it has a stage where various heart-filling cultural events can take place. This is how the sign in stained glass posted above the entrance leading underground looks now: DSCN1463 I will abstain from attempting to interpret this piece of art, which obviously suggests the convergence of various religious approaches. The caption on their website explains that it was created by Yóu Shūfēn 游淑芬 and “symbolizes the world where all phenomena return to the one” (象徵萬法歸一的境界). Let me rather return to the performance. It was made of six sections, each referring to one of the functions of the six consciousnesses (the five senses, plus the mind). From what I heard, this is linked to the teachings given by the founder about the Method [to Cultivate] a Mind of Great Endurance (百忍心法). I will post further info about this when I learn more. At first sight, it involves much more than “patience” and seems to carry the nuance of “appreciation” as well. In any case, as a performance, it was really impressive. Each of the six sections made a distinctive point about the six aspects: 1. sight (guān rěn 觀忍), displaying an enthralling dance performance, 2. hearing (tīng rěn 聽忍), expressed through two mini concerts, one with violin and the other one with the traditional èrhú 二胡, 3. smell (wén rěn 聞忍), expressed through danse, 4. taste, involving amazing sleights of hand culminating with the magic apparition of a guava juice (pǐn rěn 品忍), 5. touch (chù rěn 觸忍), which featured acrobatic martial art combat, and 6. thoughts (yì rěn 意忍) conveyed through songs. A video excerpt from the martial art section is visible here: Video. Regarding the technical term rěn 忍 and its use in Buddhism, although it is widely understood in modern Chinese in the sense of the verb rěnshòu 忍受, to endure or to bear, or as the adjective or the noun rěnnài 忍耐, patience, endurance, ancient Buddhist texts used it as a translation for the Sanskrit kṣānti, with slightly different nuances. Recently, I came across the following fascinating article by a Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at the State University of New York: Cho Sungtaek (趙 性澤). “The Psycho-semantic Structure of the Word kṣānti (Ch. Jen).” (online article, no date) http://www.buddhism.org/board/read.cgi?board=BuddhistStudies&y_number=19 Although this is fairly technical, his discussion focuses on the expression wúshēng fǎ rěn 無生法忍, and its equivalent in Sanskrit, anutpattika-dharma-kṣānti, which indicates one of the forms of awakening assuring avinivartanīya, the non-retrogression stage of the bodhisattva. He claims that “the earlier usages of kṣānti in Buddhist texts will show no relation to the word ‘patience’.” He further asserts that, “as a Buddhist technical term, it denoted an attentive ‘intentionality,’ or various modes of such mental states.” If you had the patience to read up to this point, what do you think about the Chinese word rěn 忍? What does it suggest to you, and do you see any good translation into English that would avoid the largely negative nuances associated with verbs such as “to endure”?

Well, since I raised the question and asked to members of the Meimen movement how they perceived this technical term, here are the few elements of answers gathered so far.

  • The character rěn 忍 evokes rèn 認 without the radical yán 言 for “words” and can thus hint at preverbal recognition, such as in the compound  rènmíng 認明 signifying to see clearly or to recognize something for what it is.
  • One person suggested “acceptance” but I am more inclined to favor “awareness.” I understand this as a pointer toward the need for mindfulness, a nonjudgmental recognition of how the sense objects interact with the corresponding faculties and mental factors associated with them.
  • This seems to closely correspond to the early Buddhist discoveries about epistemology, formulated by differentiating between the eighteen components of cognition, made of the six sense faculties, their six objects, and the corresponding six consciousnesses (shíbā jiè 十八界).

Tremendous Emphasis on Reading and on Education

Although most countries put a heavy emphasis on the economy coming first, Taiwan stands out as a privileged place where culture and education occupy a central place. The level of knowledge displayed even by young children is impressive and the fact that this largely results from a national policy is visible from various angles. It is a private enterprise but let me begin with the remarkable example of the bookstore called Eslite (Chéngpǐn 誠品), which is open twenty-four hours a day and attracts flocks of people of all ages. Many of them enjoy reading in a cosy atmosphere, sustained by refined classical music.

Here is an exterior view of the building:

The twenty-four hour bookstore called Eslite (Chéngpǐn 誠品)

Now, as an example of public policy, it is rather surprising to find a branch of the Taipei Public Library in the subway mall, appropriately called “Intelligent Library” (Dōngqū Dìxiàjiē Zhìhuì Túshūguǎn 東區地下街智慧圖書館). This type of intelligence, however, also refers to the insight cultivated in the Buddhist tradition (prajñā). In any case, encouraging people to read books with the explicit aim to help them expand their knowledge and their wisdom is inspiring. The Chinese verb used for “to study” is niànshū 念書, which also has the meaning of “reading books” (kànshū 看書). A government pushing its citizens to become more educated or even literate deserves to be praised. Maybe the American policy-makers could learn something from Asia!

A section of the Taipei Public Library in the subway mall

Here is a picture with a better definition.

Seated Meditation at Pu De

Thanks to the introduction and support of many new friends, I went yesterday to the Pu De Meditation Center (Pǔdé Jīngshè 普得精舍) in the Daan District of Taipei. This is one of the centers affiliated with the Chung Tai monastery (Zhōngtái Chánsì 中台禪寺), which belongs to the Chan (Zen) tradition like most major Buddhist schools in Taiwan. The same organization has an impressive network of centers in Taiwan and abroad. See http://www.ctworld.org.tw This was a refreshing experience, with about 50 participants, most of them regular members (it requires a certain level of commitment). Participants included roughly half males and half females, seated in two different rows. The ritual bows involve a distinctive sequence, which evokes the mudras (gestures) of Tantric Buddhism. The chanting of the sutras was uplifting and slow enough for new-comers to join the choir. Regarding the seated meditation, it probably lasted about 30 or 40 minutes but I lost track of time… Before beginning, when I asked the gentleman who was seated next to me how long the seating session would last, he just replied “as you wish” (suíbiàn 隨便). No clappers or directive bells, no keisaku (Ch. jǐngcè 警策) like in Japan. Overall, relaxed and dynamic atmosphere. The room is air-conditioned and even has humidifiers to keep practitioners comfortable. This was followed by a lecture by a female Dharma Master, Venerable Jianpin (Jiànpǐn Fǎshī 見品法師). Although my grasp of her words was still fragmentary, I recognized several Chan anecdotes she mentioned and was impressed by her energy and eloquence. We had a chance to exchange a few words after the talk. Teachers in this tradition display a phenomenal erudition, combined with their ability to connect in a modest way with ordinary people. They are skilled in using humour when it is effective and demonstrate the exemplary demeanor expected from authentic followers of the Dharma. The organization of this center seemed remarkable, in the sense that every single detail appears to have been taken into account. Even vegetarian meals are provided before the meditation for those who are hungry, and there is a light meal between the mediation and the Dharma talk. It seemed just the proper amount of adjustments to the needs of modern lay people who are engaged in a busy professional life and come after work to participate in these sessions. Yet the core content of the tradition does not appear to be adulterated.

Essential Yoga in Taipei

On January 12, I was fortunate to attend a wonderful yoga class directed by Lynn, a former dancer with a comprehensive experience in teaching “true yoga” (as opposed to the kind of physical exercise often mistaken for yoga in the West). A group of dedicated students is gathering in a studio near Zhongxiao Fuxing (Zhōngxiào Fùxīng 忠孝復興) every Monday evening. The in-depth sequence of āsanas is followed by meditation. Here is a picture of some of the practitioners who gathered that evening:


This group is inspired by the Mahāyogi Mission in Kyoto and New York. For those in Taiwan who are interested in “true yoga” as a path to realization, please consult either websites:

http://www.mahayogiyogamission.org (in English)

http://www.mahayogi.org (in Japanese)

The discovery of true shame removes the root of all conflicts

Today, first guided class of qìgōng 氣功 at Meimen, focused on the píngshuǎi 平甩 exercise, followed by a meditation. Wonderful people and warm atmosphere. After spending some time sipping their special tea in the tea house, went to their restaurant called Meimen Tea Pavilion (Méimén shuǎichálǔ 梅門甩茶滷), which promotes the ideal of “nourishing one’s life [energy] with strong tastes” (yǎngshēng lǔwèi 養生滷味). The dining hall is a reconstituted ancient school, displaying traditional mottoes on the wall under the portrait of Sun Yat-sen. Here is a picture:

Inside the Meimen Tea Pavilion

For a better definition, see here:  http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-CvGHkrH/0/L/i-CvGHkrH-L.jpg Now, curiosity demanded to transcribe these characters and to seek their meaning.

The translation below has been adjusted thanks to several readers’ comments but I would appreciate further suggestions for improvement.

禮尚往來 lǐ shàng wǎnglái

義在合宜 yì zài héyí

廉得其情 lián de qíqíng

恥化干戈 chǐ huà gāngē

Courtesy calls for reciprocity

Righteousness derives from what is appropriate

Thorough purity and lucidity leads to obtaining such sensibility

The discovery of true shame removes the root of all conflicts.

The first sentence can easily be traced back to the Book of Rites (Lǐjì 禮記), and I believe it has a lot to do with the current importance given to preserving one’s “face” or reputation (miànzi 面子) by reciprocating gifts or favors. The last sentence, however, is the one that struck a nerve, especially given recent events. The Confucian exemplary person (jūnzǐ 君子) radiates power and virtue that originate from a profound awareness of his or her own limitations, so profound that it leads to what I have translated as “true shame,” an indirect way to indicate realization. The presence of such persons will lead those who surround them to cease conflict and drop all weapons. Furthermore, the microcosm interacts with the macrocosm and, by extension, a realized person will contribute to make warmongers and trigger-happy folks realize their foolishness and help them realize that violence toward others is harming themselves.

Aside from the Confucian classics emphasizing the importance of this deep self-awareness, Chan recorded saying also include the telling example of the Linji master Wǔzǔ Fǎyǎn 五祖法演 (1024?–1104) who expressed his deepest insight by modestly saying he had “discovered true shame” (zhīxiū 知羞).

Inner peace begins with food and dedication

In a world shattered by senseless violence and fanaticism, it is comforting to see a society exuding poise at almost every corner. Without overrating the Taiwanese social fabric, which has to deal with its own set of problems, it manifests signs of equilibrium and purpose in unobtrusive ways. Two of these striking features are the average people’s relation with food and the degree of dedication to traditions exhibited in small stores everywhere.

Regarding food, vegetarian and vegan restaurants abound. One of the most remarkable ones, which makes my life here much easier, is the restaurant  Sùshí Tiāndì 素食天地 (The Heaven and Earth of Vegetarian Food) near Shida (National Taiwan Normal University 國立臺灣師範大學, abbreviated as Shīdà 師大). It provide an affordable buffet for lunch and dinner, which costs on average between 100 and 200 Taiwanese dollars depending on the weight (100 Taiwanese dollars roughly correspond to 3 US $). There are about 50 different dishes available every time, and they are different from day to day. Here is a view showing inside the restaurant, with a statue of the Bodhisattva Guānyīn 觀音 presiding over the buffet:

Inside Sùshí Tiāndì 素食天地

For a picture with a better resolution, see: http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-qxXWLsb/0/S/i-qxXWLsb-S.jpg

Regarding dedication to traditions, examples are visible on main avenues as well as in the tiny back alleys. Here is one illustration: a dry cleaning store with its striking bright altar.

Nearby dry cleaning shop with its altar

For a picture with a better resolution, see: http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-396j6HB/0/L/i-396j6HB-L.jpg

In relation to the delicate topic mentioned at the beginning of this post, displays of senseless violence feeding the media frenzy, today’s language class included an interesting exchange. As we discussed the premisses of the Buddhist tradition, I was asked whether even “bad people” such as “terrorists” also possess the Buddha nature. My unequivocal reply was that wúmíng 無明, “ignorance” or “nescience,” constitutes the root of all negativity. This entails asking the complex question of what can be done to remove the layers of ignorance covering the minds and hearts of the largest portion of mankind, beginning with oneself. Since providing a verbal answer will not suffice, this awareness ought to translate into action, educational, pedagogical, humanitarian, engaged, or otherwise.

A down to earth perspective of Taipei

Chinese religiosity is often characterized through its practical character. It tends toward realism in the sense of being anchored in concrete reality (shíjì 實際), as opposed to the taste for metaphysical speculation found elsewhere.

Thus, allow me to digress with a few practical adventures punctuating the day. It begins with having bought some kumquats (jīnjú 金橘, often written 金桔, kinkan 金柑 in Japanese) in a local grocery store, thinking that they would provide a welcome protection against the colds widespread in my surroundings. Unfortunately, once the plastic box was opened they proved not to be fresh enough to be eaten, and I thought that trying to return the item would provide a good opportunity to practice my language skills. Thus, I went back to the store and explained that because they were not fresh they were not edible, and therefore requested to return the fruits. Mission accomplished: the refund was granted without problem.
Getting used to living in a new country involves myriad of small things to learn, such as the above. Coming from Japan, I was also unused to having to watch for tea bottles labeled “unsweetened” (wútáng 無糖). Who would suspect that most teas including green tea would be full of sugar? Always learning through trial and error (chángshì cuòwù fǎ 嘗試錯誤法 , shikō sakugo 試行錯誤 in Japanese)…

Speaking of first experiences, today I took the subway, also called Taipei Metro, and more commonly known as the MRT (Metro Rapid Transit) or jiéyùn 捷運. Went to Zhōngshān 中山, where the Central Station for trains and buses is located. Very convenient rechargeable “Easy Card” (yōuyóukǎ 悠游卡, literally “leisurely and carefree card”). In the third basement floor of the shopping mall, there is a wonderful vegetarian buffet called Míngdé Sùshí Yuán 明德素食園 (English name: Minder Vegetarian). It is amazing to see that even in a busy food court there is a vegetarian stall: it really indicates that vegetarianism belongs to mainstream Taiwanese culture.

In class, I learned about Kuāfǔ 夸父, the giant who chased the Sun and died in the attempt. The expression Kuāfǔ zhúrì 夸父逐日 refers to someone who doesn’t know his own limits, evoking a form of Quixotism but linked more precisely to the lack of humility (qiānxū 謙虛), a cardinal virtue in the Confucian ethos.

Pictures taken tonight, mostly in the area of Gǔtíng 古亭, with its temple dedicated to Dìfǔyīn Gōng 地府陰公 (a deity of the underworld), have been posted here: http://www.smugmug.com/gallery/n-Fb44v/

From Laozi to Kongzi, and a first glimpse of Taiwan’s diversity

Second day of Chinese classes with the third of my dedicated teachers. Each of them has a distinctive background, a distinctive pedagogical approach, and seems to reflect a particular facet of Taiwanese society. Yesterday we discussed Daoist beliefs including the supreme deity Tiāngōng 天公, also known as Yùhuáng Tiāndì 玉皇天帝 or the Jade Emperor, and the matchmaker deity Yuèlǎo 月老 (Yuèxià Lǎorén 月下老人), whose story includes mentions of the “red thread” (hóngxiàn 紅線) used to tie the feet of love partners.
While reading chapters from the textbooks Chinese Traditions and Festivals and Chinese Myths and Folktales, we started exploring specific religious approaches and the ethnic composition of the island. Roughly, it can be summarized into four groups:

  • The indigenous people 原住民 yuánzhùmín, also known as the ancestors 祖靈 zǔlíng. During the colonial period the Japanese used the term 藩 fān, which is now taboo, to indicate the minorities. They further distinguished between those who were uneducated, called 生藩 shēngfān (“raw minorities”), and those who had received formal education, the 熟藩 shúfān (“ripe or mature minorities”).
  • The Hakka 客家人 Kèjiārén
  • Those who came from Southern Fujian 閩南人 Mǐnnánrén and spoke Taiwanese (台語 táiyǔ)
  • People from other mainland provinces 外省人 wàishěngrén, who spoke Mandarin (華語 huáyǔ).

Obviously, this also coincided with a wide range of religious backgrounds including, for instance, the cult of the deity Mazu (媽祖 Māzǔ), the goddess of the sea, who has a considerable following in Taiwan.
The following epic movie depicts the resistance of the aborigines under the Japanese colonial rule: Sàidékè Balái 賽德克巴萊 (2011). It portrays in particular the hero of the resistance, 莫那魯道 Mònà Lǔdào (1880–1930).
I will further discuss Laozi and Kongzi in later posts.

The picture below shows the view from my current room.

Amazing Taipei

Intensive first day of Chinese classes, followed by the discovery of the back streets around Shida (Taipei Normal University). Guided by the HappyCow app and intrigued by the description of a vegetarian restaurant belonging to a group of Qigong practitioners, I landed in the Meimen Center for Arts and Ethics. Although the restaurant was closed to the public on Monday, a lady invited me to share their meal and provided me with a wealth of information. I ended up learning the basic movement of Píngshuǎi 平甩, and receiving an invitation to come any time or on Saturday during the formal Qigong practice in English. Not too bad for my second day in Taipei! Although this is a huge city whose air is more polluted than the places I am used to, it exudes considerable positive energy and an uplifting vibe. Youth and elderly people seen in the streets mostly look happier than in many other places. I suspect that this may be related to the deep layers of spirituality supporting this thriving culture. Young people may seem unaware of their legacy, with their usual vulnerability to superficial trends coming mostly from the U.S., but they are unknowingly participating in something much bigger, which has the potential to transform the world. I am eager to learn from everyone with great humility.