I knew of Buddhism from my grandparents who raised me. I remember watching the whole 40 episodes of the 1996 version of Journey to the West with my Grandpa. It was a story about the legendary pilgrimage of a Buddhist monk and his 4 disciples, where Mt. Putuo and Guan Yin were also mentioned. Alongside that, I grew up seeing my Grandma interact with Guan Yin (“Goddess of Mercy”) on our alter–she would offer her white rice and/or black tea, and occasionally ask for forgiveness, mercy, retribution or peace. But it wasn’t exactly something that she forced me to learn/practice particularly because I was an “American Born Chinese.” Living in the Western world, I would often hear of “zen gardens,” mindfulness being practiced without knowledge of its history, Lucky Buddha’s Enlightened Beer, and Buddha statues used for decorative purposes. I never thought too much of the cultural appropriation until Buddhism became an important part of my life–the way of life.
It was at the end of the year 2016 that I was suicidal, but a friend helped me out of it without even knowing that it saved a life. I then took a solo trip (from the extreme ends of deserts to glaciers) in May 2018 and that’s when I met Diego, who taught me the story of Buddha at Museo delle Culture in Milan, Italy. When I returned home, my friend Dylan introduced me to the Chan Meditation Center and the Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program with Woodenfish. I was so down for that, but I had just missed the deadline. A year later, I fell into a period of depression–it was mainly kicked off from 4 death losses within a year’s time span, lacking a sense of purpose, and just feeling alone. As I started to work my way out of that rut with my personal trainer, I got an email from Kim at Woodenfish, asking if I was still interested since the 2018 cohort applications just opened. It was like the universe heard my cry for help and knew I needed this. Perhaps it was a message from Guan Yin, or maybe my late Grandpa.
My adventure in China started in Beijing with the amazing Xiǎocài (小菜) and her recently adopted cat, Māo māo (猫猫). Despite our difference in Chinese dialects, we still shared stories and laughters over meals that she cooked with love. One day, she even prepped a bottle of homemade soy milk for me, aww! Xiǎocài was also a professional photographer mainly focusing on creative portraits of women and children; she took impromptu photographs of me before I left. During my stay in Beijing, I also explored a Hútòng (alley formed by traditional courtyard compounds lining both sides), experienced the Forbidden City, and hiked Mt. Fènghuáng with some Woodenfish students. Before we knew it, we were headed towards Wenzhou, on our way to Fuding City.
Upon arrival to Fuding City, the Woodenfish leaders picked us up for a bus ride to Zhaoming Temple. The month with Woodenfish would be spent in this monastery, in the remote mountains of Ningde Prefecture. I arrived with no expectations at all; I just had the mission of working on my self discipline during the duration of this program. If you came with the expectation that this would be a vacation or yoga retreat, it is the exact opposite of that–this was also the reason why a few students were removed from the program, or personally gave up and left.
What was the monastic lifestyle like? Each day was consisted of about 17 hours of activities with 7 hours of sleep. We woke up to the clap of wooden boards at 5:10am and practiced Taiji kungfu until breakfast. Then we had 3-hour lectures on Buddhist history and philosophy, cultural activities (Chinese calligraphy, Shaolin practice), meditation sessions (sitting, standing, walking), personal time (for laundry, cleaning, napping, journaling), dharma talks with tea and confections, and vespers before all lights go out at 10am. What we didn’t have was the modern day comforts of air conditioning, soft beds, internet, sweets and sugar, etc. And mind you, the temperature was about 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit with 80% humidity.
At the time of the head shaving ceremony, I was so hesitant to make the decision. I had promised Dylan that I would do it. I had told myself that I’d do it for Buddhism. I had doubts–I was afraid of what my family, friends, or partner might think of me. Leon was giving me all kinds of encouragements, and what gave me the final push was the thought of an inspirational person in my life who had a life-ending condition, but she was the most compassionate, kind, and giving I knew. I decided I would secretly dedicate this moment to her.
Consumption as Nourishment, Not Luxury
We chanted before and after the vegetarian food prepared for us by the temple’s laypeople. Before each meal, we have a session of standing meditation to contemplate on food as nourishment, not luxury, and appreciate the hard work of delivering food from farm to table.
Meditation + Woodenfish
The wooden fish is a percussion instrument made of a hollow wooden block, which is usually used with chanting and meditation sessions. It symbolizes wakeful attention, like how fishes sleep with their eyes opened. During our program, it was struck for the start of our meditation and struck again when the session ended. Śamatha (calming the mind) and Vipassanā (clearing the mind/insight). Those were the two methods we were introduced to and practiced.
On Impermanence: TYPHOON MARIA
We had a day trip to the tea farm, incense making shop, and clothing factory in Fuding City, where our abbot arranged customized robes made for those who shaved their head. That evening, we returned to the temple’s dining area and were sat down for an announcement; Typhoon Maria is coming and we had to evacuate. We were given 30 minutes to pack our important items and get on the bus right away. Nobody was ready for that kind of news since we did not have internet access to know whats happening out there. It was indeed the real test of impermanence, a term often discussed in Buddhism. I definitely had some trouble adjusting to “civilization” after some time isolated on the mountain. Thankfully, we all got through the storm and returned to the monastery for restoration and reflection work. We cleaned up the temple grounds, rearranged moved furniture, and planted new trees, which was a very fulfilling project.
The familiar sights and scents at the temple reminded me of my Grandma, which brought me comfort from afar. The hot water jugs, bamboo mats on our hard beds, hand washing our uniforms in plastic wash basins and line drying them, and the aroma of the kitchen food.
Importance of Silence
On the last week at the temple, we took our 7-day silent retreat–it was both physically and mentally challenging to resist any forms of input or output. We were not allowed to have eye contact, verbal communication, nor writing. Sitting meditations went on for hours and days straight, which brought together all my traumas and bad feelings of the past, and letting go wasn’t easy at all. I cried. That was my only outlet. The physical challenges were also pressing: I was constantly getting bitten by mosquitos and my leg kept falling asleep during the sittings, but I had to keep my stillness and my center. The method of body scanning in Vipassanā meditation helped me through that and even got me addicted to pain–the pain was “relieving” to the mental struggles.
The final moment has arrived–the one that I looked forward to. We chanted and did our prostrations at Mt. Putuo, one of the four sacred mountains for Buddhist pilgrimage in China. Every step I took and thought of my 3 repentances and 1 vow to the world; I felt lost in the best way. I blocked out all the noises and distractions of the people around us–I’ve never felt that focused in the moment before. It was honestly so unreal, especially when we finally reached Guan Yin at the top to take our precepts and the three refugees. Looking up to the Guan Yin figure, it gave me the sense of home and everything I knew growing up–my grandparents, my culture, and hope.
Emptiness is a form.
Shanghai – We had a closing ceremony at the Golden Temple restaurant in Shanghai with the most heartfelt performances all night by staff and students. Some of us reunited for Shanghai Brewery and dancing til 5 in the morning. I had another amazing AirBnB host Cháng Qīng (常青) who lived with his golden retriever pup Xiǎohǎi (小海) here in this city. Xiǎohǎi made a mess often, but she was a precious lil one and I knew I signed up for it. The last month was so overwhelming that I was glad to even have one rest day to do laundry. Cháng Qīng took me and Marc out for a bomb ass dinner with his boyfriend and showed us around the local area. On the other days, we explored the city with our fellow Fishie Dominic and had a great time with Miss Lu who led a traditional tea ceremony. One of my main missions was also accomplished: went rock climbing with some Woodenfish peeps.
My dharma family is “wisdom” and I was given the dharma name of “Brightness.” ❤
Hangzhou – Ara, Leon, Marc, and I met again by the West River in Hangzhou for food and adventures. One time we went hiking and it was pouring rain out of no where, but we came across an old couple who invited us to their home. The couple served us hot tea and we ended up purchasing a tin of white tea leaves from them. The days, Marc and I spent a lot of time just walking around the town and one time we were “one red wine bottle down and decided it was a good idea to do a Chinese cosplay photoshoot” (in the words of Marc), haha. Oh, and that time we tricked Leon into the infamous ice cream cone trick and tried the dragon breath ice cream, too. 🙂
Huangshan – My time in China would not be complete without visiting Dylan in Anhui. With us two together, it was definitely a Brooklyn in the house situation–it was interesting to hear him talk about his cultural adaptation here and the nostalgia that I brought to him. I sat in his English class with the kids and waited for him to get out of work so we could start the evening right–we messed around making up a mixed drink with Russian vodka and grapefruit juice and hung out with the dope peeps (and doggos) at the local bar. We rolled ’round town on Dylan’s scooter, which was the main source of transportation here. That night, I had unknowingly locked us out, so we started a whole new adventure at 2am trying to break into Dylan’s house and ended up with a 24/7 locksmith, haha. The next day, we had a day trip to Guzhu village for a waterfall hike with his friends– great company, good food, refreshing waterfalls, and being able to lay down on beautiful rock formations! Oddly, my favorite part was walking past the village that smelled like poop, pigs and chickens, which gave me heavy nostalgia of my dad’s hometown in Taishan.
Shanghai – And back to Shanghai I go–I was so happy to be alone at last! It was hard to find a latin social for a Monday night, but I came across Hot Salsa Club, where I got some Bachata, Salsa, and Kizomba dances in! I ended the night right with a huge frozen margarita and walked in the empty dark street by myself. It was a great way to end the adventures in China and travel back to New York. 🙂
Loving kindness was the constant hustle of the Woodenfish staff team, our abbot’s fatherly love, the kitchen ladies’ service, and the selflessness of fellow students. // Although my mother was at the verge of disowning me for embarking on this temporary monastic lifestyle and pilgrimage, I did not regret this experience one bit. It showed me that it was OK to make my own decisions and I did not have to hide anymore. I was grateful for the emotional support from my friends and Professor Douglas, who shaved his head that very next day after me and created the hashtag #liveMandylive. Before I flew to China, my late Grandfather had also appeared in my dreams--he was putting on his shoes and telling me that he was going with me. In many ways, I was shown what loving kindness meant. Amitoufo. ❤