The Dhamma in China, Part 2

In the last post I talked about visiting folk temples in Zhejiang, China. Unfortunately, I found most of them to be pretty disappointing for someone looking for dhamma. But most of them told me if I wanted to meet some meditation monks, I needed to find one of the Chan temples. The most said something like, “Well, we serve the people, but Chan monks just spend all day, every day meditating.” So I made my way to Tiantong Temple to check out the Chan scene.

The site is massive. It is designed straightforwardly as a tourist trap. The signs literally say, “Tourists this way.” You buy tickets. The site has a lovely walking path with several pools and reservoirs. It also has a huge string of shops selling tourist junk. It’s mostly fakey Chinese fans, swords, and plastic “ancient” instruments that can be bought at every tourist spot. The temple itself is just like every other temple but built on a much larger scale. Giant fake gold Buddha, Four Great King statues, places for offerings and kneelers. So basically just a supersized version of the folk temples.

But one thing was different; there was a smallish room off the main building labeled, “For monks only.” It was — dum da da dum — the meditation hall. I managed to talk to a few monks, and they were very kind and enthusiastic. The assistant Master was all business, and made it clear that laypeople were NOT welcome to sit with the monks.

From their perspective, all of the tourist stuff just funded the real working of the temple; the work of the monks.

I had a long talk with another monk who was very serious about practice. He was in his thirties, and had been at the temple for about 10 years. Unlike the Master at the folk temple, he knew the Four Noble Truths and a great deal else. They study the sutras twice a day, chant, and meditate. He said in summer when it’s hot they meditate for a couple of hours a day, but in winter more like 14 hours a day. They follow all the rules of the Vinaya.

It can be hard to talk about meditation even with people who speak the same language, but we tried our best. From what I understood, they practice a jhana style of breath meditation. He explained as, “Sort of like being relaxed like you’re asleep, but still very aware of everything.” He told me that the goal for him was to be completely at peace with dying.

I was surprised to find a heavy mix of Pure Land. They all greeted each other with, “Amitofo”. This surprised me, because it is less Chan and more Pure Land. I was even more surprised when I asked him about what happens after death. He got impatient, and told me I wouldn’t really understand. He told me he wanted to be enlightened, but that he wanted to be reborn in the Western Heaven.

In all, I was encouraged by the dedication and depth of practice at the big temple but disappointed that the laity was still kept at arms length.

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