Chinese New Year at a Zen Buddhist Nunnery

S.N.

I stumbled into the nunnery purely by accident. My father was visiting and I had taken him to Lantau Island to see Hong Kong’s most famous tourist sight: the Big Buddha. The Big Buddha was truly a Big Buddha, sitting 34-meters tall on a huge lotus flower in the center of the Po Lin Monastery complex. Having finished our tour of the statue and surrounding temples, we considered exploring one of the nearby hiking trails. The most popular trail, to Lantau Peak, was an almost straight vertical ascent up a mountain 900 meters tall. Not in the mood for so many stairs, I noticed a small sign pointing out the “Fun Walk.” It sounded worth a try and we began to leisurely descend down the other side of the mountain. The road was quiet and bamboo trees sheltered us on both sides. Now and then a trickling creek would end in small, rocky pools.

About halfway down the path, we saw the nunnery. Wandering in to explore, we were warmly welcomed by nuns who had just finished their evening chanting and happened to be having their teatime. They gave us a glass of tea and invited us to sit down and chat. I explained that my family was Buddhist and I expressed interest to visit the temple again – perhaps I could join their meditation. The nuns informed me that mediation was in the evening – from 6-9 pm – so if I came, it was probably better to spend the night. They gave me the number of the Guest House and smiling, encouraged me to call anytime.

A year later, I finally got it together to go back. Frustrated by my own lack of discipline in efforts to meditate myself, I thought a group atmosphere might be what I need. I also knew that the nuns were sure to be planning some special activities for Chinese New Year.

When I called to book with the Guest House, the monk who answered seemed slightly apprehensive. “You realize,” he said, “You must follow the schedule here. We get up at 3:30 in the morning.”

“No problem!” I said, though I had been completely unaware of that fact.

“And the chanting is all in Chinese.” The temperature had also dropped to the lowest Hong Kong sees and I was starting to have doubts about the adventure.

Is that what they call spiritual materialism?” I wondered to myself, “The idea that waking up at 3:30 in the morning and sitting through something I don’t understand is somehow good for me?”

I arrived at the temple the day before Chinese New Year, exactly at 11:00 just in time for lunch. I followed about twelve monks and fifty nuns into the dining hall where we all sat on long wooden benches at long wooden tables. Each table only had one row. The rows faced each other but there was no talking. Each place had two bowls. After the mealtime prayer finished, nuns came down the rows with big pots, scooping up rice and vegetables for us to eat. There was no meat. The food was fantastic. I tried to savor the taste but everyone was eating quickly and as it was, I hadn’t finished before they rang the bell and began the after meal chant. The other nuns had already cleaned their bowls and began to filter out. I quickly cleaned my bowl and brought it out the back door to several nuns who were washing dishes. They motioned for me to leave the bowls and I went back into the main courtyard.

There, I saw a nun I recognized from the year before. She was the only westerner among them. “Excuse me,” I said, “I need to register at the Guest House.”

“I can take you there” she responded. I asked her name as Ha-si escorted me down the outdoor stairs. The nunnery was joined to a smaller monastery that sat beneath it on the hillside. Between, the two shared a shrine room and dining hall. The monks held most of the administrative jobs.

The monk at the Guest House looked concerned. “Do you know the rules here?”

“I can show her,” said Ha-si, “And while I’m here, I had a question about my seat.”

Later she explained, “They’re nervous about westerners – they think we don’t understand and will disturb the other nuns. Before, I used to live at a Korean nunnery. There, they told you immediately when you did something wrong. Here, they don’t. But they talk about it themselves and you hear later from the others. Actually, the rules are very simple. Always let the nuns go first. Don’t touch anything. Just be aware. I’ll show you where to put your things.”

She introduced me to another nun who was in charge of the sleeping quarters. I was given two blankets, a pillow, and a towel and we climbed to a loft above bunk beds where the nuns slept. Here, in a corner, I set up my bed. By nightfall, several other laywomen had joined me in the loft, among them another westerner, Maríe from Sweden.

Maríe had showed up a few hours after lunch. I was sitting in the courtyard with a nun named Ying-si, shucking peas and chatting in Cantonese. After we finished, Ying-si asked me if I wanted to go for a walk to visit some other nuns. She grabbed some biscuits and off we set, curving down the fun walk.

From the Fun Walk, smaller paths broke off in intervals and we followed one of these to a gate. Ying-si called out something in Chinese, opened the gate and we went inside to a small house and garden where only two nuns lived together. They were having lunch and offered us food, which we politely refused. Ying-si gave them biscuits and tried to make small talk but they seemed disinclined. We said our good-byes and continued down another small path.

“This next house,” Ying-si explained “has a nun who used to be a doctor. She studied in Canada and was a doctor for many years. She can speak English with you!”

“Why do they live in pairs?” I asked.

Ying-si’s answer was non-committal: “Many factors.”

At the next house, the nuns seemed even less interested to chat with Ying-si. She tried to encourage the former-doctor to speak to me, but the doctor told her there was nothing to say. I agreed, really, and tried to butt in with typical Cantonese social niceties, “Well, we won’t bother you, we’d best be going.”

On the way back, Ying-si asked me, “You’re Cantonese is so good, you know, I have a niece who needs an English tutor…” I told her I’m sorry, that my contract didn’t permit outside work.

Back at the nunnery, we spent some time weeding in the garden. Ying-si had been given the job of dispensing manure, made from the nuns themselves, but after opening and examining every barrel, decided to wait until a later date. I wasn’t sure – was it good to have worms or not? I learned that Ying-si had only been a nun for five years. Before that she’d had many boyfriends, she told me.

At 3:30, evening chanting began at the nunnery. Ha-si had found me a bi-lingual copy of their chant book. The text was in several lines – romanticized Chinese at the top, Chinese characters in the middle, and English translation underneath. It was a bit difficult to follow. Sometimes I’d get lost because the romanization was for Mandarin sounds and written in a system long out-dated. Moreover, the majority of the nuns were chanting in Cantonese. If I knew the Cantonese word for a recognized character, I could pronounce it like the rest of the nuns, but when they went too fast, I couldn’t keep up. Too slow was difficult too. All the chanting was sung and if they spent too much time on one word I couldn’t tell when to move on. They hit a bell and drum and hollow wooden instrument the whole time to keep everyone together. There were notations in the book too that I think referred to the rhythm and timing, but I couldn’t figure it out. Anyway, the singing was beautiful and the meaning of the words that I could catch was lovely too. We sang praise to Buddhas of all directions and the voices around me rose and fell in unison with the instruments. The chanting lasted about an hour.

Afterwards, there was more free time and around 5:00 a small dinner was served – just leftovers from lunch in the kitchen. I spent the rest of the hour making sweet Chinese New Year dumplings and chatting in three languages with the other nuns. One of them was kind enough to loan me a couple extra fleeces. The temperature was dropping fast. At 6:00 we filtered into the main hall and began the evening’s meditation. It started with walking mediation around the center shrine. As Ha-si had explained to me earlier, there were three lanes like a racetrack. The innermost lane was for the fastest walkers while the outermost the slowest. So we circled clockwise, interweaving in and out of each other, for a good half hour. Ha-si had showed me how to tuck in the sleeves of the robe I’d just been given, so that they wouldn’t fly out. She also told me not to swing my arms too wide. It was important to be self-contained.

After the walking mediation we took our seats. The nuns sat on a raised platform along the outer wall. The other lay people and I sat on cushions just to the left of the shrine. When the sitting meditation began, the lights were turned out and the whole room was illuminated only by the glow of the candles on the shrine. We sat for an hour and a half in total silence. Normally, there would have been a fifteen-minute break at this point, but tonight was New Year’s Eve and thus a special ceremony. All the monks and nuns filtered into the hall, even the old master who had suffered from a stroke and had to be assisted in walking by younger monks. I took out my book and the evening chanting began. We repeated some chants from the evening session to praise all Buddhas and then added a long prayer to Maitreya. As I tried to imitate the sound of their singing, I caught glimpses of the English translation:

Maitreya dresses as a beggar
He waits in the street for someone to pass by
He is smiling and laughing
When will iron trees blossom?

The chanting ended with long section of full prostrations. We would take turns to bow – half of the room, then the other half. Each group would stay down a good thirty seconds, so it wasn’t very tiring. After the bowing, we began walking chanting. Repeating the mantra, the nuns filtered out of the shrine room in one long line. Outside, they snaked the pattern back and forth across the patio so that everyone would fit. The moon was full and the view off the mountain looked miles down to the glistening lights of the new Hong Kong airport. To conclude the ceremony, we all bowed in front of the shrine. Up on the first patio, nuns put out the sweet dumplings we had made earlier and everyone helped themselves.

Now, bedtime at 9:00. Huddled with all my clothes on and under a large blanket, I kept passably warm – just like camping outside in the dead of winter. I slept lightly and awakened quickly to the sound of a drum through the sleeping porch at 3:30 in the morning. At a quarter to four, chanting began in the shrine room. We welcomed in the New Year with praise to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, prostrations, and singing. I’d given up on trying to follow the translation and watched everyone else to synchronize with the bowing. When the ceremony finished, all the nuns lined up to give lucky red packets to the old master with money inside. The old master, in turn, gave all the nuns red packets, each with $10 inside. As a lay-practitioner, I later returned the red envelope to the shrine.

Now time for breakfast, we filtered into the dining room. We ate in the same way as before, no one speaking. I tried to eat faster this time but only barely managed to finish the generous amount of food before the gong was hit and everyone cleaned up. Afterwards, I was put to the task of cutting off dried mushroom stems while enjoying a glass of milk tea. When I went outside to wash my cup (Ha-si reminded me these things should be done immediately upon finishing) I was startled by the sound of firecrackers. Looking down the hillside over the roof of the shrine room, I could see sparks of light from between the monastery’s buildings. The moon sat full above the dragon-topped roof and a dozen stars shown in the bluish-purple dawn. The sun was just about to rise.

Recitation of the Diamond Sutra began at 7:00. Ha-si was just informing me of this when Maríe came up.

“What time is the diamond Sutra?” she asked innocently.

“What time do you think it is, Maríe?” said Ha-si.

7:00?” I ventured.

As Maríe walked away, Ha-si complained, “She’s as old as I am. She’s been coming here for years. And she still doesn’t know what time the Diamond Sutra is. The whole thing…it’s about awareness!”

There wasn’t a romanticized version of the Diamond Sutra. Instead they gave me an English copy and I sat at a small table next to Maríe, reading silently to myself while the nuns chanted around me. Early morning sunlight streamed into the room from outside. The chanting was fast paced and beautiful to listen to. Their voices flowed in time with the instruments. The nuns went through it twice.

All phenomena are like
A dream, an illusion, a bubble, and a shadow
Like dew and lightning
Thus should you meditate upon them.

Afterwards, we sat outside and folded paper offerings. Ha-si was in a chatting mood. I learned that she was originally Polish but had immigrated to Canada for political reasons. She lived there for ten years working as a graphic designer. She’d always felt like the cycle of working to make money to buy things and support herself was a second choice, but never realized what the first choice was. Although she knew about Buddhism, she wasn’t yet ready to make the commitment needed to join. Even when she did, she didn’t become a nun immediately. She spent a year teaching English as a Second Language back in Poland but when her teacher requested her to return to Canada, she did and later joined a Chinese nunnery in Vancouver. This nunnery was the same branch and she’d come to Hong Kong four years ago.

Guests were starting to arrive at the nunnery. These Hong Kong residents had begun their new year early by taking a bus from the airport development area to the bottom of the Fun Walk (though I don’t think it was called the Fun Walk from that direction) and climbing the mountain to the nunnery, laden down with gifts for the temple. By 10:00, the numbers had grown and we began to visit every shrine on the premises, at least half a dozen. Apart from the two main shrine rooms in the complex, other shrines sat in nooks in the hillside and only got visited by everyone once a year. Monks, nuns, laymen, then lay women; we bowed and gave offerings, chanting the whole time. I kept forgetting to take off my hat when I bowed and Ha-si would give me reminding looks. By 11:00 we had finished and the line wove into the dining hall where we were served a delicious, plentiful feast and ate in silence.

After lunch I packed up my things, returned my bedding to the nun in charge, and washed my towel. Ha-si escorted me to the Guest House to sign out, interrupted on the way to receive a lucky red pocket from a visiting couple. “Next time, you don’t have to call before you come,” said the monk at the Guest House, then on second thought, “Well, maybe you should – yes it would be better if you do.”

Ha-si walked me to the gate. “I think you did well here; you seemed to catch on quickly. Just remember to pay attention to what’s happening. And after you leave, try to keep the awareness. Just remember that: keep the awareness.”

As I ran down the mountainside, hours of chanting still resounded in my head. At the foot of mountain, I caught a bus and rode back to the city.

 

Sitting Meditation

 

Foyan (1067-1120)

The light of mind is reflected in stillness
Its substance is empty of relative or absolute
Golden waves abound
Awareness is constant, in action or non-action
Thoughts arise, thoughts vanish
Don’t try to stop them
Let them flow spontaneously
What has ever arisen?
What has ever vanished?
When arising and vanishing quiet down
The great master appears.
Sitting, reclining, walking around
Presence is continuous
When meditating, why not sit?
When sitting, why not meditate?
Only when you have understood this way
Is it called sitting meditation
Who is it that sits?
What is meditation?
To try to place it
Is using Buddha to look for Buddha
Buddha need not be sought
Seeking takes you further away
In sitting do not look at yourself
Meditation is not realized if there’s a crowd
At first the mind is noisy and unruly
There is no choice but to sit and bring it back
Thus there are many methods
For learning quiet observation
When you sit down to gather your spirit
It scatters
After awhile it eventually calms down
Freeing the six senses.
When the six senses rest a bit
Discrimination occurs
With discrimination there is arising and vanishing
This is just the appearance of one’s own mind
When the mind is brought back to the mind
There’s no need to repeat the cycle
You wear a halo of light on your head
The spiritual flames leap and shine
Completely unobstructed
All inclusive, all pervasive
Birth and death forever cease
No one believes, but it is true
You can turn from ordinary mortal to a sage
In an instant
All over the earth confusion reigns
Best be very careful
Sit up straight
One Suchness embodies All
Utterly still, naturally present
One day you’ll bump into it
This I sincerely hope