Saturday, August 18, 2012

Translating quiet

I don't know what's going on in China.  I've never been there, in fact.  Which is why when a member of the Buddhist Community at Stanford sent an email around inviting us to a dialogue with members of Beijing's Longquan monastery, I thought it was very convenient.  I haven't always been a big fan of Buddhist events involving foreign monks, largely because their English is often very bad - no fault of their own (my Chinese isn't too hot either), but still hardly conducive to passive understanding, let alone dialogue.  But I've been warming to this kind of event since writing this blog.  It makes me feel very worldly and journalistic to go to talks by teachers from Japan, Tibet, even England - and I don't even have to do any traveling.  They all come to the Bay Area, or we drag them here, because San Franciscans' hankering for gurus is on a par with Londoners' thirst for tea.

The other thing that's always put me off about monks is that they're always late for shit.  Or at least, they're late for meetings with me.  Once in the monastery of San Domingo de Silos in Spain - the monks there are the Metallica of Gregorian chant - a Benedictine fellow made my friend and me wait two hours to speak with him, and all we wanted to do was ask dumb questions about Catholicism for our school project.  Then there was that guy from the Dhammakaya Foundation who was studying towards a PhD at Stanford who used to hold regular meetings - and was late every time.  This time the monk and his crew were about an hour late.  Poor Rebecca from BCAS who organized the visit kept popping in, red-faced, to apologize and inform us that the delegation was on its way.  At first they were in Berkeley.  Then they made it to Palo Alto.  At a certain point they'd found their way onto campus but had promptly gotten lost.

Being Buddhists, we hunkered down and made a show of being good at waiting.  In fact we sat on the floor in a circle and meditated.  After the first session everyone introduced themselves, and I was amazed to find myself face to face for the first time with members of the Stanford Zen group: I knew them immediately because they looked very serious and calm and introduced themselves as members of the Stanford Zen group.  It felt strange to meet them, because we'd passed each other like ships in the night.  When I'd first heard about them I was above Zen, and just wanted to meditate with the 'normal' Buddhists.  Then I got into Zen through my Wednesday sitting group in San Francisco, and wasn't interested in attending evening events on campus.  And it seems like I'll never have a chance to sit with the Stanford Zen people, since I'm a regular at Wind in Grass the same night of the week as they meet...

They seemed very nice and to know exactly what they were doing, despite there being no certified teacher around.  But there were other people there who I knew from BCAS, like Forrest, the Chinese Master's student in something sciency, who occasionally came to afternoon meditation when I was there.  It turned out that he was actually from Beijing, or had studied there, and had even been to Longquan monastery once or twice.  He started telling us about how the monastery had been effectively left to rot at some point in the 1960s, but had seen a huge revival in recent years, not only providing a home for monks, but also welcoming thousands of lay Buddhists through its doors.  There were quite a few Chinese and Chinese-Americans there, some of whom I'd seen at Buddhist events before.  A few people were talking in Mandarin.

When the delegation turned up it was similar in its general modus operandi to the similar monk + hangers-on teams I'd seen with the Thai Buddhist community.  There was a thin young monk at the center of everything bowing in all directions; he never seemed to have enough spare cloth around him to conceal all the objects he needed, which meant that people constantly had to hand him things and later take them back.  This was the Venerable Wuguang, the first Chan Master I'd seen in the flesh (unless you count Simon Child, who for some reason I'm not counting because he's Western).  Besides the brown and grey robes rather than the bright orange ones I'd seen in Thailand, not much differentiated him from the Theravada monks I'd met in the past, except maybe a bit more focused calm and a bit less ebullient smiliness.  He sat down in the center of the circle.

Immediately everyone scattered from the area like frightened pigeons, but he repeatedly encouraged us to sit beside him, so I took one for the team and did.  He seemed friendly enough.  The session consisted mainly of us asking him questions in English, which a translator would then relate to him.  He'd answer in Chinese, at which point that would be re-translated back to us.  I seem to remember that most of the questions were about the place of Chan in modern-day China, the day-to-day workings of the monastery, and the interface between monks and lay practitioners.  I got the sense that things were much stricter there than at even, say, the San Francisco Zen Center: the Chinese lay people seemed to live like the monks in SF, while the Chinese monks seemed to keep all the old vows of absolute celibacy and almost constant silence to the letter.  I of course asked a question about accountability, and got a well-meaning but slightly bewildered response.

Some of our side were asking their question in Chinese as well as English, and eventually the session flipped to them asking us about ourselves.  We went around the room and introduced ourselves and said a bit about why we liked meditation or Buddhism or had come to this event.  All this was related to Wuguang, who smiled very approvingly at everyone after they'd said their bit.  I wonder how it sounded to him to say that I'd taken up meditation because it helped with headaches, but he seemed to think it as good a reason as any.  At the end of the day they started handing out gifts to everyone, mainly DVDs of prayers and chants.  We were also warmly urged to check out their website, where they translate Buddhist texts into other modern languages, and also visit them in Beijing.  Maybe one day I'll make it, so that I can finally say that I know the price of tea in China.

1 comment:

  1. Buddhist monks everywhere but Japan (and possibly Korea in some cases, my memory is hazy) adhere to the Vinaya much more closely. Way back when, the Japanese government did the whole repression thing on the Buddhist establishment, and more or less forced them to either get married or disrobe. They did the same thing to Korea during one of the occupations, but I believe once the occupation ended, the Koreans had a big debate about it and decided to go back to celibacy etc.

    Japan is really the anomaly. I've heard reports that when Japanese monks/priests go to Buddhist conferences, they're sometimes made to sit with the laypeople, but I haven't confirmed that with anyone.