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A Day at Fo Guang Shan Temple

September 20, 2011
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Main Shrine at night, Fo Guang Shan Temple, Taiwan, by Monica Sanford

Although not terribly interested in planning too far ahead, the Taiwanese I met were all exceedingly punctual.  So I tried to practice equanimity while chivying my slow-moving roommate to get a move on.  We were late for an appointment with a nun. The Venerable had met us when we returned to Fo Guang Shan by bus the previous day following our compulsory, whirlwind tour of the island.  She had arranged for us to spend today visiting the Women’s Buddhist College on the grounds.  She was now waiting on the landing as My-Linh, who had appeared dressed already, changed into a different shirt and shorts.  With one final reminder, I slipped out to go wait with the Venerable.

She was one of the Miao’s.  All the venerable had two names (three I learned later, but the family name is always the same).  The first is some sort of marker of rank or generation, I was never quite sure which.  The youngest nuns all started with You (pronounced “yō”), then Miao, then Jue, then E.  The monks had a similar system, but they were fewer in number, so I was never really able to sort out the order.  The second name is one of a broader assortment of various Chinese Dharmic words (Ding, Zang, Jang, She, etc.). The fact that they were all short, Asian, brown-robed, and shaven-headed didn’t really help in keeping them straight and remembering all their names as much as I tried.

“She’s coming,” I told the Venerable Miao optimistically.

She smiled and nodded  politely.  “Okay, is…” she broke off as her pocket rang.  She slipped a hand under her robe and extracted a slim fabric pouch with practiced ease.  It held a smart phone that slid smoothly out of it.  Venerable spoke rapidly in Chinese and then slid the phone back into its hideaway, oblivious to the fleeting anachronism.  “They are waiting for us,” she told me.  “I hope she’s coming soon,” she added just as My-Linh finally appeared, still looking more than half asleep.

Venerable didn’t wait, but set off at once for our rendezvous, My-Linh lagging behind and I shortening my long stride to bring me somewhere between.  We didn’t have far to go, just down the steps from the Pilgrim’s Lodge where we stayed, past the dining room, and up another short flight to a landing leading into the college.  The temple was full of many such stairs and landings.

On this landing we met another nun and two students dressing in the grey uniforms of the women’s college.  They introduced themselves as JQ from Singapore and Pie from Malaysia.  Unfortunately, we were told, the college was closed today for the annual disinfecting (apparently a common process in humid, mildew-prone Taiwan, in which all the surfaces were sprayed with bleach).  However, JQ and Pie, lay students as denoted by their pants (not robes) and hair (they had theirs), would be happy to show us around Fo Guang Shan and answer any questions we had.

Already wary of the Taiwanese notion of “tourism,” I accepted with more cheer than I felt.  It turned out to be the best day I spent in Taiwan, by far.

We started with an ambitious climb to the Great Practice Shrine.  There are four such shrines at the temple, each dedicated to a different bodhisattva.  The Great Practice Shrine was dedicated to Samantabhadra, who traditionally rides a white elephant to the left of Shakyamuni Buddha and represents commitment to one’s practice, particularly meditation and generosity.  I didn’t know this at the time, of course, but the various shrines come complete with English brochures.  (Collect them all!)

Alex, My-Linh, Venerable Hue Ding, the author, and JQ at the Great Practice Shrine, Fo Guang Shan Temple, Taiwain, photo by Pei

The shrine itself is a freestanding building of the traditional Chinese style in appearance.  It is surrounded by a small, shady garden with a fountain, where we stopped for a brief rest, before climbing the final set of stairs to the main floor.  We ran into Alex there, a fellow leftover from the seminar, stranded due to unforeseen issues with his British passport, and continue to the shrine together.  There golden-robed Samantabhadra is enshrined, surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller statues in individual niches.  However, even more importantly, this is where we met Venerable Hue Ding.

“The monk who takes care of the shrine will write your names in calligraphy,” JQ told us.

“Oh?  That’s cool.”  How is he supposed to do that? I wondered.  I don’t have a Chinese Dharma name.

I needn’t have worried.  Venerable Hue Ding set to work right away, not only writing our names in calligraphy, but making them into a short poem.

“Monica Sanford has been to Fo Guang Shan.  May she travel the world in safety.” He painted my name syllable by syllable (English names are comparatively long) in black ink, never minding a few new spots on his brown robes.  He stamped our scrolls with red ink signature blocks and a tiny symbol of a buddha or a lotus.  JQ translated the blessing poem for each of us as best she could.  We thanked the Venerable and took photos in front of the shrine, but our visit was not done.

We joined Venerable Hue Ding for tea and cookies on the lower terrace.  He spoke with compassion and insight about his work counseling prisoners.  He endured many hardships, because their was not much pay for the work and he had to live on his own, away from the temple.

“Everyone has a story,” he said, through JQ who translated wonderfully.  “This is what I learned.  Everyone has a story and they will tell you if you listen.  However, it is important to be strong in Right View.  You cannot let yourself start thinking that the way they see the world is the way it is.  Because they are caught up in their own story, they are not seeing clearly.  They are angry and often blame other people for their trouble.  So you must cultivate Right View in order to be able to listen to them, but still see clearly.”

“When they get out of prison, often they will have problems and will go back to their addictions.  There are three things that need to happen to make them successful when they get out.  They must be able to accept themselves.  They must be accepted by their family.  And they must be accepted by society.”  He ticked them off on his fingers.  “If this cannot happen, they will probably not do well.”

Tea and a chat with Venerable Hue Ding at the Great Practice Shrine. Photo by the author.

Eventually, Venerable Hue Ding gave up the prison work and came back to the temple to take care of the Great Practice Shrine.  He was not yet an old man, only in his fifties, he claimed, but he seemed to have more wisdom than that.  He had never learned calligraphy, he claimed, he just did it.  He got out a telescope on a tripod so we could get a closer look at the Great Buddha of the Buddha Memorial, whose head was just visible over the hilltop to the northwest.  He also shared with us the many large print, laminated photographs of the lotuses that grew in pots all along the walk to the shrine.   We stopped to admire many on the way down.  Alex left us, but My-Linh, Pei, JQ, and I continued on past the gardens and greenhouses, mostly for growing flowers.

Pei and JQ took us to visit some of their classmates and instructors, temporarily relocated for the day but still busy making trinkets, which they showered on us.  The Taiwanese are very generous and have a love of key fobs, little pictures, miniature sutra scrolls, amulets, blessings folded into origami and other such.  Apparently, the students made them in their free time.  It often made me feel a poor guest that I had nothing to offer them in return save my thanks.

We ate lunch silently in the dining hall with the temple community and visitors.  There is an elaborate ritual to formal meals that we had been introduced to the week before.  Afterward, Pei and JQ took us to one of the waterdrop tea houses, this one down a little alley, a hidden flight of stairs, and overlooking the Kaoping river.  We talked of many things and had coffee, tea, and congee or rice porridge.  The porridge is served at all the Fo Guang teahouses, which are fixtures of their temples and viharas, places anyone can visit.  It is in remembrance of the rice porridge served to the Buddha just before his enlightenment by the peasant girl who found him starving.

Afterward, we visited the Art Gallery, another common fixture of Fo Guang centers.  Community, education, and art are all very important to Fo Guang Shan, as demonstrated by their galleries, teahouses, universities, and continuing education programs.  This gallery was no exception, being given over half to art (photography, calligraphy, painting, and sculpture, both modern and traditional in style) and half to an exhibit on the history of the Buddha Memorial Center being constructed next door.  This exhibit included design sketches and examples of the types of things being collected for the “treasure vaults,” which are time capsules designed to be added to every hundred years.  They even had little installations depicting the life of the Buddha in Legos!

My-Linh and I were fascinated.  JQ and Pei soon left us behind to go sit in the attached teahouse (a different one; apparently there were five scattered around the temple).  No doubt they had seen it all a dozen times before.  When we caught up with them, it was time for afternoon snacks.

“So University of the West uses the Fo Guang curriculum?” Pei asked.

“Um, no, I don’t think so,” I replied around a mouthful of Taiwanese-style Au-gratin potatoes.  “At least, I’ve never heard anything about it.  The university is accredited to Western academic standards.  Do the universities here use a special curriculum?”

Apparently they do, though just what that curriculum entailed was never quite clear.  Given Fo Guang Shan’s immense influence on the island and the nature of its teachings (practical, moral, and slogan-based), JQ and Pei seemed surprised University of the West was so independent.  We spoke about the differences in our educational experiences.  Finally, however, they had to take their leave.  They had been wonderful company and amazing tour guides.

Full of snacks and needing no dinner, My-Linh and I wandered back down the hillside, stopping to snap photos of the Main Shrine all lit up for the evening.  I spent the after dinner hours in the quiet bookstore catching up on email and enjoying the air conditioning.  It was nice to be alone and quiet for a bit.

The next week I would begin my work on the Buddhist Art Dictionary, but that is another adventure.

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