(Note: I am posting this about two weeks later):
Sunday May 29th.
Much has taken place since arriving about a week ago. I spent the first few days recovering at Tian Nan temple from what was a much easier bout of jetlag than expected. I’m grateful I was there, as they had two events that weekend that impressed me greatly. The first was what they call a 法會 (fǎ huì), or literally a “Dharma Meeting.” It seemed to basically be a one-day retreat they offer once a month. A couple hundred laity practitioners came for the sittings, chanting, and talks. That was Saturday, May 21st.
On Sunday, the 22nd, they held a ceremony called 浴佛芥法會, or just 浴佛 (yùfó), which amounts to “Bathing the Buddha.” This is the annual ceremony commemorating the birth of Shakymuni Buddha, held across the Buddhist world in various ways. Back at MABA, the previous Sunday, we held our own version, called Vesak. To the celebration of his birth, Vesak adds an honoring of the Buddha’s life and death as well. The ceremony at Tian Nan temple was lovely and heavily attended; I’d guess around 4-500 people.
One of the things that has impressed me thus far about Dharma Drum as an organization is the number of “volunteers” they have. These are devoted lay people who often spend their free time (which sometimes is most of they time) helping Dharma Drums’ various temples and activities. They must have hundreds and hundreds of volunteers of all ages.
Then on Monday, Ven. Changkuan picked me up and we traveled into Taipei via public transport so I could register for my Chinese class. I’m very grateful for his assistance, as I would have had a heck of a time navigating by myself. Taipei has a great subway system, called MRT, and most of the street and station signs are both in Chinese characters and English (or romanized characters.) So with his introduction and help, I have been able to successfully move around Taipei without much consternation.
After registration (which included, among other things, a very humbling oral placement test which showed just how much Chinese I really do not know), we went and had lunch at Dharma Drum’s administrative headquarters: a 10-floor office building in Taipei. This new, very lovely (and cool) office building felt like an oasis in the midst of a busy city. There are a few monks who work here, plus a number of volunteers and paid staff. I will say more about this place in later posts, and I will be spending a fair bit of time here.
From there, we went back to Tian Nan temple and I gathered some of my things. We then drove about an hour and a half up to Dharma Drum Mountain on the north part of the island to their main monastery and complex. This is where I will be staying.
The next post will be about Dharma Drum Mountain, as there’s a fair bit to say. In the meantime, here’s the rest of the week.
During the first few days of staying at DDM, I basically worked on getting accustomed to the monastery, schedule, monks, and various goings-on. I cannot adequately describe how impressed I have been with this entire place. My mind kept wondering if this is an close to a “heaven on earth” for monastics. The facilities are excellent, the planning of all the buildings and layout has been masterfully done, and the whole area is imbued with a tremendous, still, and powerful purpose that resonates very strongly.
I spent a fair bit of time in their main library, mostly continuing my Chinese studies, as well as delving into a few of the many English Dharma books in their collection. I am staying in the monks’ quarters, a four-floor and three-sided brick dormitory-style building. I have been given my own room for the time being, though each room could sleep three. Here’s a photo looking down from my floor onto the central yard with the meditation hall on the right:
As much as I can tell, there are around 20-30 male monastics in residence, and probably over 170 female monastics. While there seem to be a couple of visiting monks staying here as well, I am the only westerner.
The usual daily schedule for the monks is as follows:
4:10am – rising
4:30am – group exercises (using the Eight Form Moving Meditation)
5:00am – 30 minute meditation or prostrations before the Buddha.
5:50am – process to Buddha Hall for Morning Service
6:00am – Morning Service (早課 zǎokè), alternating days with the Surangama Mantra one day or the Great Compassion Mantra (chanted three times) as the central texts.
6:45am (or so) – Breakfast – a formal breakfast, with the monks still wearing our kesas. Male monastics eat on one side of the dining hall, female monastics on the other.
Sometimes there is a talk after breakfast either by one of the senior teachers or a recorded lecture by Master Shengyen, the founder of Dharma Drum who passed away in 2009.
7:30am-8:30am – Daily chores
9:00am – Monks enrolled in one of the two colleges here generally attended classes, while the others attend to their own respective responsibilities.
12:00pm – Lunch – also a formal meal in kesas.
1:00pm – 2pm – Napping time.
2:30pm – Additional classes or various work projects.
5:00pm – Medicine Meal (dinner) – an optional silent, informal meal.
5:30pm – Free time
8:00pm – Evening Service (晚課 wǎnkè) – This also alternates days, with either the Amitabha Sutra or the 88 Buddhas Repentance ceremony as the core text. Each evening service also has a section offering merit to the “hungry ghosts,” or those in dire circumstances.
9:00pm – 30 minute meditation or prostrations
10pm – retire for the night.
I generally follow the morning, noon, and evening schedules, and am left to use the rest of the day for study. Once the Chinese classes begin, this will be my primary activity.
Two final things about this first week at Dharma Drum: on Friday, after breakfast, much to my surprise, I was invited to introduce myself to the Sangha. It is quite something when you are sort of half listening to what seem like announcements being made by a senior monk after breakfast (in Chinese of course) to an assembly of 200 monastics when you hear your name, “Kongmu,” show up in the incoherent litany of sounds. Needless to say, blood rushed to my face as I had a feeling of what as going to transpire. I was asked to introduce myself, but fortunately they allowed me to do it in English! However, this meant that many of the monastics didn’t understand what I said. Afterwards, Ven. Changkuan kindly came up on said some words in Chinese about my background. It was a humbling experience to speak before such an assembly of those who have left-home.
Finally, last night (Saturday), Dharma Drum held its monthly Great Compassion Repentance ceremony. I cannot even attempt to describe this beautiful, elaborate, and heartfelt ceremony of formal repentance before the Buddhas. It is a ceremony that is Tientai in origin, if I understand correctly, and is strongly associated with the Lotus Sutra and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva and the small sutra of Samantabhadra that is often connected as the “closing” sutra of the Lotus Sutra. The ceremony is about two hours long and hundreds of lay devotees came for it. Again, I am not going to be able to describe it here, but it was very, very lovely. It takes place on the fourth Saturday evening of every month.
Ok. I’ll write a bit about Dharma Drum Mountain next post. Hopefully, future posts will not be nearly as long as this one…