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Published: April 13th 2010
Wu Wei Si is a Buddhist monastery nestled in the picturesque Cangshan mountains, not too far from Dali Old City. I had heard about this place through word of mouth and figured it would be different way of experiencing some Chinese and Buddhist traditional culture. The monastery itself dates back about 1200 years. Mahayana Buddhism is the form practiced here. This form of Buddhism differs slightly from Theravada Buddhism in that it is believed that nirvana (a transcendent state in which one breaks free from karma and life/death cycles, the final goal of Buddhism) can be achieved by anyone within a lifetime by putting mind and sometimes body towards the goal. Those that have reached enlightenment may delay nirvana to help others achieve this goal. I was to spend the next week training in the ancient art of Kung Fu, learning more about this philosophy and living a monk lifestyle.
I arrived in the afternoon, after making my way up a steep mountainous incline with all my gear, and was met by a peaceful pathway to the temple. At the temple I encountered a young monk who greeted me and then tested my moral character with simple questions pertaining to
my purpose and wishes about studying here. Then he gave me the rules. Only serious students were allowed to stay, there was no electricity on the temple grounds, the food consisted of a vegan diet, alcohol and smoking were prohibited, shoes, long pants and sleeved shirts had to be worn at all times during training, curfews had to be respected, pictures of the monastery itself were allowed but none of the monks (I broke this rule slightly), intimacy between men and women would not be tolerated, when walking past an elder monk one had to place his hands together and say "Amitofu", which can signify a greeting, a blessing, or a multitude of other meanings. Some use this word as a mantra, as part of a quest to attain spiritual enlightenment. Finally, he requested that I not highly publicize the place upon leaving because they wanted it to remain relatively quiet and not overrun with tourists. Although I suppose writing a blog about the experience is a form of publicity, but then again I doubt too many people really read my blog entries so at this time I wouldn't consider it popular publicity.
Once I agreed to the rules
I was shown to my room. Two other foreign students were there as well. One was a Dutchman while the other was Swiss, having also just arrived. I shared a room with him. I set my stuff down on the straw mattress provided. Soon after a Frenchman arrived, who had previously trained there for a long time. A few other foreigners had left just previous to my arrival. Young locals may live and practice at the temple for years. Some may stay for a lifetime. Occasionally, a foreigner may train for many months and sometimes more than a year.
5 AM: I awaken to a loud gong, followed by chanting. I continue drifting in and out of sleep. Buddhist rituals begin within the temple.
6 AM: Wake Up
7 AM: Morning Training. We run a short distance down the mountain until we reach a pile of rocks. Taking one, we then balance it on our head and walk all the way back up with it.
8 AM: Bell is sounded. Breakfast is served, this generally consists of noodles or some rice porridge. Each of us has our own bowl and chopsticks which we must take care
of. Certain table etiquette must be maintained such as no elbows on the table and lifting up the bowl while eating. Everyone says "Amitofu" before we can begin eating and Shifu (master) always begins eating first. He resembled a Kung Fu master that one might imagine out of Chinese folklore, having a long beard and carrying heavy rosary beads. All food in the bowl must be eaten, even something that drops from ones bowl must be picked up and eaten. When leaving the table, a minimum of two or more people can leave the table together and must say "Amitofu" to each of the other remaining tables.
9 AM - 12 PM: Kung Fu Training. We begin with stretching, followed by assisted stretching and then various exercises. Next is plenty of Kung Fu movements and Katas. The training is not for the weak of heart. Literally. Some also practiced Tai Chi.
12 PM: Lunch. The food is quite good, albeit could become a little mundane. Everyone is usually famished by this point. Since we don't eat meat, dairy or eggs, tofu is used as the protein element of our diet. Everyone drinks the regular "tap" water which seems
to come from the mountains (never during a meal, only after), and although initially weary of this, I don't have much choice to do otherwise. No one became sick.
1 PM - 4 PM: Free time. I often did calisthenic and weight training, meditation, writing, or simply wandered through the temple grounds and surrounding nature.
4 PM - 6 PM: Kung Fu Training. More of what I described above. Very Intense.
6 PM: Supper. Assortment of veggies, tofu and always rice as the staple.
6:30 PM - 7:30 PM: Buddhist prayer and rituals in the temple. I'm not obliged to do this but the monks do like it if we partake and it is worth doing to get a fuller monastery experience. I thoroughly enjoyed this spiritual aspect.
9:30 PM: Bedtime. The curfew is non-negotiable and everyone goes to sleep at this time. Besides without electricity there isn't all that much to do once darkness hits.
Everyday played out more or less like this. The monastery life is all about routine and discipline. There were about fifteen monks living here, plus a few old women who did the cooking and cleaning (although
Said to be about 1200 years old
the monks themselves did clean up after themselves a lot). Many of the monks were quite young, trained hard, and were very disciplined considering their age. I was amazed at what some of them were capable of. I witnessed one jump an entire flight of stairs with weights strapped all along his legs. Many others could perform unbelievable acrobatic feats and seemingly had superhuman strength and flexibility. I felt privileged to be able to view these acts in person.
Being in the monastery also afforded me much free time between training in the afternoon. I put this time to use by doing my own exercises in the training ground, and using some free weights that were available. I practiced a bit with the variety of spears and swords in the armory, this was quite fun. One of the older monks was an absolute master with these, and I caught myself staring and awestruck. I went for short hikes into the countryside, on one of them I discovered an old graveyard full of past monks, many of the tombs must have been hundreds of years old. I read and wrote a lot in peace. I took advantage of the seclusion
Good luck symbol in Buddhism
to practice meditation, finding a quiet spot and letting my mind go blank. I gazed at the old giant tree, about the same age as the monastery itself, partly hollowed out and battered by the passing ages. Sometimes, after evening rituals, I would join the monks and sit around a fire with them. Throughout the week I did my best to communicate with them. Many of the young ones were decently versed in English. Otherwise we would use non-verbal communication which often got the point across, with less detail of course.
The training was intense, and by the end my body felt broken, but in a good way. My muscles burned, my ligaments stretched far beyond what I was used to. I completed my first Kung Fu Kata, quite well in my opinion but I must continue practicing to perfect it. So could I see myself living like a monk? The training itself was awesome, but certain restrictions would be difficult to live with. I learned much about the ideology of Buddhism and was grateful to be immersed in it for my time here. I was made more aware of being mindful and ever present. I'm very glad I
had the opportunity to experience this and will remember its lessons for a long time to come. And I may yet return one day.
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