If Dharma Drum Mountain was a normal place to live, as I was a fairly normal fellow, I would probably take lots of photos and upload them to this blog for viewing. This place is beautiful, and there are many images throughout the day that would be nice to share.

However, this is a monastery, and I’d rather be doing something else than taking pictures, in all honesty. Besides, taking pictures in a monastery is a bit of a sensitive endeavor. The closer you get to the spiritual life here, the less pictures are allowed or even worth taking. So, there’s not much I feel I can offer by way of photos of life here at DDM, other than a select few (for some more photos of the grounds and buildings of DDM, you can look here.)

However, in lieu of many photos, I might be able to offer some sense of things through some descriptive words and select pictures. There are some aspects of life here that seem interesting to share, and hopefully the following words will be able to communicate a bit of it all:

Amituofo

Amitabha Buddha statue in China

“Amituofo”: This is the ubiquitous greeting you hear throughout Buddhist communities in Taiwan. It is composed of four characters: 阿彌陀佛 (ā-mí-tuó-fó), which mean nothing if translated together literally. Instead they represent, phonetically, the name of a transcendent Buddha called Amitabha, in Sanskrit. I am not all that familiar with the teachings of this Buddha, but basically, according to ancient texts (composed well after the historic Buddha lived), Amitabha Buddha made 48 great vows to “save” sentient beings by creating, through his practice and aspiration, a Pure Land in the west (which is an example of a “Buddha Field” [buddhaksetra, in Sanskrit], the inspiration for the title of this blog). It is in Amitabha’s Pure Land that beings may be reborn and attain awakening under near-perfect conditions, according to certain Buddhist traditions.

Many of Amitabha’s 48 vows speak of the benefits bestowed upon practitioners who hear his name and keep it in mind. It is the 18th vow, however, that has become the basis of the recitation of “Amituofo”, the Chinese pronunciation of “Amitabha Buddha”. This 18th vow says that anyone who recites Amitabha’s name, even if only 10 times, with faith, will be assured of rebirth in his Pure Land. In this Pure Land, listening to, practicing, and perfecting the Buddhist teachings, thereby attaining liberation, is much easier, evidently, than here in this messy and complicated world. So, the recitation of Amitabha’s name (阿彌陀佛 : ā-mí-tuó-fó) has been strong practice in East Asian Buddhism for well over a millennia, such that many people with more devotional dispositions focus on the recitation of Amituofo as their primary spiritual and meditation practice. There are retreats in many temples and countries where retreatants spend hours a day reciting Amituofo, thousands, hundreds-of-thousands, millions of times.

Here is a 13 minute audio sample of one such recitation ceremonies: Amituofo Chant.

(Here is a site with a number of different, downloadable Amituofo chants, including the full hour of the one posted above.)

Because of this spiritual significance, the name of Amitfuofo is recited a lot here in Taiwan, in many different ways. Whenever you see someone at a monastery in Taiwan, this is often the first thing you say, with your palms together: “Amituofo!” It is a lovely greeting, invoking a word that carries with it deep, profound compassion and assurance of “salvation” (a tricky word in Buddhism, but worth contemplating.)

Amituofo is also used as a marker of agreement in conversation: “Ok, so we’ll see each other tomorrow.” “Right.” “Amituofo.” “Amituofo.”

People also use it to answer the phone, to end the phone call, or to transfer the phone call. It is also used in written communications (obviously not spoken).

Sometimes it is used almost like an apology; or, probably more accurately, like making amends after a misunderstanding: “Oh, actually, I said three of them.” “Ah! Amituofo.”

Obviously, with such ubiquitous usage, one can quickly forget its spiritual significance and purpose. So, it is helpful to mindfully recite Amituofo slowly, rather than absent-mindedly or nonchalantly.

Even if one is not the devotional type, and the concept of a transcendental Buddha residing in some far off land receiving reborn beings is a concept difficult to swallow, we can still hopefully appreciate the simple wish for another’s happiness by using the words, “Amituofo”: may the Buddha of Infinite Light bless you.

This is a large monastery

Dharma Drum Mountain is massive. Not only is the main ceremony hall huge, but the whole complex is extensive, with dozens of large buildings, thousands of feet of cloistered walkways (some underground), many walking paths, and a soon-to-be-completed university complex. It is, in effect, a small city.

Here is a photo of the main ceremony hall, during a typical Morning (or Evening) service (I would be one of the male monks in the third row from the front, on the right-side of the hall):

The main Buddha Hall (© Matthew Wakem Archive: http://matthewwakem.photoshelter.com).

A couple photos of the walk way from the monks’ quarters to the Buddha Hall.

Looking towards the monks

Same spot, looking the other direction.

It takes a while to get from point A to point B, so you need to plan accordingly. I’ve been late a few times because, for various reasons I have needed to take extended detours to my destination and I misjudged the time it would take. It is quite something to be in a place this grand. (It also evokes nostalgic and grateful feelings for simpler temples, just like the one back home.)

For more information on the daily life here, as well as for some more photos, you can see this earlier post on this blog; or this one, which includes the daily schedule.

No Garbage Cans

This is an interesting feature here. It took me a few days after arriving to realize that there literally very, very few garbage or recycling cans around the monastery. You really have to look hard for them, often traveling great distances through the monastery! For example, as far as I can see, there is only one, very small (three gallon?) garbage can for the whole of the monks’ quarters. It is a wonderful pain to try to get to, as well!

The reason for this, from what I know, is twofold. First, is the supreme importance placed upon recycling here. And by here I also include Taiwan, where you find recycling containers in many public spaces. Dharma Drum Mountain also puts much emphasis on environmental stewardship; including it as one of its spiritual practices.

The second reason is more personal and spiritual: take care of your own mess. When we do create waste (i.e. karma that leads to suffering), we should acknowledge it, deal with it properly, and minimize its reach. Related to garbage, this means not just flippantly disposing of our waste in the most convenient fashion, but actually needing to “work” to find the proper receptacle, thereby highlighting the significant of “throwing something away.” Related to the spiritual life, this means not assuming our actions do not have consequences; indeed, to learn to take good care so as to avoid any excessive waste, spillage, or unintended effects from our actions, by relying on mindfulness and a deep sense of responsibility.

Wash your bowl

During the formal meals (breakfast and lunch), when both the female and male monastic communities are together, we do not use our own personal bowl sets; we use generally available bowls. This means that other people will wash up after us after the meal. So, one of the practices here during meals is to make sure we do our part to clean our bowl, so that it is less of a burden for others to wash them. This is where the Chan (Zen) teaching of “leave no trace” is applied practically. However, how do you clean your bowl so well when you use chopsticks?

Fortunately, there is a trick. First, there is hot water available to rise the bowl. Second, using one or both chopsticks, you strategically spear a piece of vegetable or tofu to act as a cleaning tool in the water at the end of the meal (remembering to leave a strategic piece of vegetable uneaten, of course.) After gently scrubbing the inside of the bowl, and eating the cleaning tool when finished, we then drink the water to complete the process. It does take both some trail and error, as well as mindfulness, to master the art of this practice, but it is very good teaching. I’m not sure about others, but I often scan the available food at each meal for the best vegetable candidate to act as the cleaning agent. Once found, I find that I can relax….and eat mindfully.

Silence

As can be expected, Dharma Drum Mountain is very quiet. Silence, and minimized talking, is emphasized. There is even a large rock near the female monastic residence with the Chinese character for silence (靜) carved into it:

Rock with the character for stillness, calm, silence; near the female quarters.

The monks (male and female), in particular, are well-trained to minimize noise. I find this most inspirting during meals, where we sit on plastic tools, placed on slate or tile floors. It is all too easy to make a significant amount of racket by accidently bumping the feather-light stool with one’s foot, robes, hand, bottom, whatever. The monks have mastered the mindfullness practice of moving the stool, sitting, getting up, and placing it back under the table with the most minimum of noise. It is very impressive. I’m still a ways off at mastering it, but it is getting better.

Speaking of silence (!), I’d better practice it here, and end this post….

Thank you for reading, and I hope you are well.

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