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A Retreat at Zhen Ru Chan Monastery

By Eric Johns.

Zhen Ru Chan Monastery
Cloud Abode Mountain
Jiangsi Province
China 2012

Thursday, 8th November

I woke up in a cold, simple but clean room to the sound of heavy rain at 3.45 as my alarm clock went off. I had had an unpleasant dream; it warned to be more careful about what I say about people in the future. A monk came past striking the

wooden board. I sat up and made tea from my thermos. Soon the morning bell started to toll 108 times to the sound of a chant. I slipped into my robes and went to the morning chanting. It was held in the new block where I had given a lecture the evening before, just after arriving at the monastery. The same audience of two hundred or so young Chinese people were again assembled in the large new event hall. There were around fifty monks also present and so was the Abbot Master Chen Wen. The morning chanting lasted just over an hour. Then I found a quiet corner to practise Tai Chi before the formal breakfast. The board was again sounded (the board here was a half moon shape of the Ts’ao Tung School, as opposed to the rectangular board of the Lin Chi school). Hearing the signal, I made my way in the darkness over to the dining hall in formal robes and stood in line waiting to be ushered in behind the monks as they processed in to the spacious dining hall. My body was only slowly getting used to all the chillies in the food. Jiangxi food is very hot and chillies are often served at breakfast. Meals last around twenty minutes, with short chants before and after; everything is done in the traditional way, unchanged since the time of Grand Master Xu Yun or Empty Cloud’s restoration in the early 1950s. This monastery is considered to be an unchanged living fossil of pre-Revolutionary or Ching Chan Buddhism. The monks all eat from their begging bowls which they hold up high in front of them for the food to be served in. There is no heating and very few comforts anywhere, except where the stokers feed the huge wok cookers with firewood – these do all the cooking and heat the monastery’s water. Sometimes you can see an old retired monk sitting there in meditation, wrapped up and keeping warm. 

Then the board was struck again – that was the signal to call us to go to the one hour long sitting meditation, the first of the four sittings every day. There are two meditation halls in permanent use; the western one is for senior monks and the eastern one is for everybody else. I went to the eastern meditation hall and joined the monks running around the central shrine until the signal was given – ‘Bop’, with the wooden sword striking the floor, to go and sit. The large double swing door of the meditation hall was locked with a thump during meditation periods, with a large sliding wooden bolt; nobody can enter or leave during Chan meditation.

I took the risk of recording the chanting on my phone at lunch time. It was a success and I was not caught. Then I went to the afternoon meditation at 12.15. The monastery’s own strong green tea is served in the meditation hall at that time before the sitting starts (as this is the time when it is easy to doze).

There were builders in the monastery, and, just like everywhere else in China, men and women worked together on the concrete gang. They were repaving all the passage ways as well as building a new large extension for a vegetarian restaurant. The main new large hall for events on the opposite side to the Four Deva Kings Hall, where you go in, is now complete. The monastery had been rebuilt in the early 1950s by Grand Master Xu Yun and then badly damaged again during the Cultural Revolution by the Red Guards. Restoration and repairs were overdue in some parts.

I went to the third meditation period at 6pm. This is the long evening meditation lasting for ninety minutes. Master Xu Yun had introduced longer periods when training his students, but first was the fast walking and running. We were chased by the monk in charge with his wooden sword and his urgent shouts of encouragement for twenty minutes around the large, dimly-light and dusty Chan Hall. However he could not really keep up as he had a bad leg & limped along behind us as best he could. Obviously it had not been cleaned much since my visit there last year. This is very much a men’s monastery. The smell of up to a hundred men in there at times can be strong as well as the energy. That night, at the day’s fourth and final meditation, around fifty of us sat together in Chan meditation. Only five or six had really learned the skill of slipping into Samadhi comfortably. (In the Western Chan Hall everybody is skilled in meditation. I was allowed in there last year so I know first-hand that the standard in there is amongst the highest in the Buddhist world.) Many started to fidget after fifty minutes and some long before that. This is not a play monastery but hard work for all who train there. If you cannot accept hardship then don’t go to Zhen Ru Monastery!

There were boiling hot noodles in the dining hall at 7.30pm. Sam did not go as she had a job in the Abbot’s kitchen and she could eat there and avoid the chillies which are too strong for her. The builders were still busy working under flood lighting at 8pm outside in the freezing cold. I watched the workmen tidy up and quietness enveloped the monastery as we went to bed to the sound of the evening bell and drum.

Friday, 9th November

Some new young Chinese guys arrived as aspirant novices. One was seventeen years old. He sat next to me in the eastern Chan meditation hall for one hour. I could not help noticing his twitching, shuffling and idly looking around the Chan hall. This must have been his first hour’s meditation ever. A couple of days later I bumped into him near my room. He now had very short hair and grey monk style clothes; he was like an excited kid. I hope he goes on to become a great monk.

The rain stopped at last so Sam and I went for a walk to the village. I bought one kilo of local premium Fog green tea for the bargain price of £15.00. Back in my room, Felix, who was also an aspirant novice, came to talk. He was working in the guest master’s hall where we had met him whilst checking in. He spoke soft, fluent English and had been there for around six months, the usual trial period there before being accepted. A few days later he would take the Novice or Samanera ordination vows as a Buddhist Monk in the Chinese tradition, shave his head and don monk’s robes. He talked about the new international meditation centre nearby, and that his monastery had just started building it. It is a big ambitious project and the funds are already in place to get started. He also told me that in the western Chan hall five or six of the senior monks never need to lie down to sleep, their ribs no longer touch the mattress, and they sit in Samadhi all night long. During my first visit here in 1985 a lot had been destroyed and it had been very basic, no meditation halls were open and only a few old monks lived here. Now there were many young monks and even the Abbot was a lot younger than me.

There was a powerful electric storm, and thunder and lightning were engulfing the mountain. Later, the atmosphere in the dimly light Chan meditation hall was amazing and electric. After the storm the calm was so peaceful as I fell asleep that night.

Saturday, 10th November

I woke up early and sat on my hard bed in meditation, then went to the morning chanting back in the old main hall where the acoustics are so fantastic. The building vibrated with the healing mantras and chants, the smell of incense was divine, and the atmosphere was infused and charged with an amazingly wonderful energy of the type you don’t easily forget. 

I spent most of the day in the meditation hall; a couple of other keen sitters came and went from time to time. As I had been on retreat the week before in Shenzhen, my leg muscles had stretched so it had become rather comfortable and easy to sit for longer periods. When I went outside to pee, my mind was clear, just simply observing the things around, in non-reactive awareness. The rain had gone, the birds were singing and it was very cold, but everything was so incredibly beautiful, as if seen for the first time with no habitual consciousness operating. Knowing this was just the place to really begin practice I gently questioned, how did I know and what is the self? After I went back into the meditation hall the sound of howling wind greeted me. It was still howling when I went to bed. ‘Who are you?’ it asked. ‘Who are you, who visits this mountain?’ ‘Go deeper than just this surface clarity,’ it implored.

One of the old monks, who sat in a senior seat in the hall, used to bark instructions from time to time whilst everybody was getting ready on their benches facing the centre of the hall for meditation. This is not like Japan; here the cushions are low, here you wrap a blanket around your legs to keep them warm and to protect open knee joints from the cold. Full lotus is the chosen posture for almost everybody. The old monk, whom I could hardly understand because of his strong accent, would make a lot of fuss arranging his legs and blanket to meditate. But within twenty minutes he was either asleep or fighting it. As he usually sat opposite me I could see or hear him snore. Afterwards, he would often shout at novice monks. Asking why he was so angry, I was told he was not, but greatly compassionate. The monk telling me this burst out laughing. This grumpy old cultivator had not transformed himself very much, it seemed, despite years of training. 

The novice monks are given a tough time here; they must work very hard to attain the higher ranks. Five or six young monks had clearly mastered the art of sitting comfortably in Samadhi for the whole time of the meditation and they were calm and serene afterwards, unlike the unfortunate ones who looked like they had survived torture. There was a patrol with the Master in charge with a wooden sword to catch the dozers; it was a game of cat and mouse for some who either got caught sleeping or snoring. They were firmly tapped on the shoulder with the sword or incense board. Violent use of the wooden sword is not allowed here; you must use the empty soft hand when given the job of patrolling.

Sunday, 11th November

It was very cold this morning. Sam and I met after breakfast and shared how we felt and wondered how we could manage. (We had just come from subtropical Shenzhen.) Then we had a phone message from our friend Master Yi Jue whom we had met there last year. He was now on Jua Hua or Nine Peak Mountain and invited us to go there and join him. But as our time was short we declined, deciding to go some time in the future and spend a week there. The sun was soon up and it was getting warm fast and, to our relief, we felt much better. It was Sunday and many visitors started to arrive. After lunch there was a cremation ceremony for an old monk. A crowd from the village and the deceased’s relatives gathered around the cremation tower in the warm sunshine, to chant and watch the old monk’s cremation. He was sitting in the meditation posture, quite dead, in a special box-shaped coffin. Then the pyre was set ablaze and the group chanted their best and most wonderfully moving chants.

Sam and I went for a walk down to the Dragon Water Falls with her monk boss from the Abbot’s kitchen and his other lay lady assistant. He was amazingly light on his feet and cheerful; he told me he had been in the western Chan hall for five years. The lady was not fit and she complained about the distance and all the steep steps. Her son had become a monk at the monastery. After he had left home her husband also left her, so she had come to live here as a volunteer in the Abbot’s kitchen. She was a skilled cook and knew a few English words to help Sam, and they used their phone dictionaries for the rest. After the waterfall, we walked on down the rough mountain track in search of hermits, but found only some abandoned, untidy and collapsing bamboo shelters. It was 6.30 and quite dark when we got back to the monastery.

Monday, 12th November

I was in the firewood gang, carrying firewood down from the forest just above the monastery. Some of these old monks are surprisingly strong; we worked for a couple of hours whilst another aspirant novice plied me with questions in quite good English. His name was Laurence and he had not been a Buddhist for long. He was well educated, tall and strong with heavy-rimmed black glasses. ‘Have you heard about The Old Monk Xu Yun?’ he asked. ‘What do you think of him?’ he went on. It was very hard work and we poured with sweat. The older monks, who had had very little education because of the Cultural Revolution, spoke in strong accents or dialects and were hard to understand. All the younger monks with education spoke good Mandarin and some spoke Cantonese. Some had degrees or doctorates and had worked internationally. The one thing they had in common was that they all walked very fast, like in the meditation hall where they all spent long periods fast walking or running around clockwise every day, in there, training their legs and minds with questions like ‘Who is thinking about the Buddha?’ or similar meditation topics such as ‘All things return to the One, but to where does this One return?’

After lunch Sam and I went for a walk in the very welcome warm sunshine just outside the monastery to the small village. There our friend ‘He He’ or Mrs Zhou lives, together with her husband and kids. He runs a minibus business with a few side lines. She runs a small guest house in their home where monks, nuns and lay people sometimes stay. She also runs a small souvenir stall at the monastery gate nearby with a couple of her neighbours. There, they sell incense and charms to the monastery’s visitors, mainly at weekends and on the various Buddhist event days. They were looking forward to the extra trade the international monastery would bring to their village. I bought some Fog green tea from He He’s friend who remembered me buying 500 grams the year before, so I bought one kilo for £8 this time after haggling for a while. It was a bit underweight and looked like grade B, but it was still a bargain. I now had enough for one year’s supply back home and my suitcase was almost full.

Sam and I walked off into the nearby Pagoda forest amongst the tea bushes and sat in the warm sun for a couple of hours in front of Master Hai Deng’s stupa. He was the monk who could stand on one finger, never laying down to sleep and was Abbot of Shaolin monastery for a while. His stupa was here as he was one of Master Xu Yun’s top disciples. Then we met a Chinese Theravada monk who had been training in Burma and whose English was very good. Also we spoke to a passing young and enthusiastic Chinese monk in Mandarin, and he told us about his tactics for surviving the strict, tough winter meditation retreat. I translated for Sam as best I could. We used our phone dictionaries for the rest. He liked the game of cat and mouse when he patrolled with his sword. He boasted he could walk on air so that nobody knew he was coming. He caught all of the dozers he assured us. If he can catch all his thoughts and desires so easily he will become a great Master I thought. We laughed together in the warm sunshine eating local satsumas.

We went back to our rooms. I tried a shower but very soon gave up, finding them clean but all broken (the opposite of the year before). So I got another thermos flask of hot water from the kitchen and had a towel wash in my cold room.

At 6.30 Sam and I arrived at Mr Zhao Chang Chuen’s home for supper. His wife, He He, was cooking with firewood on a traditional wok cooker. She cooked eight of her best mountain vegetable dishes for us and she cooked rice in the electric rice cooker. The four of us sat down in their simple village house to eat at a square wooden table in their kitchen/dining room. He He smelt of wood smoke. They both looked full of health and vitality. Mr Zhao told us how they get up at 5am every day to practise. He recited sutras and mantras, and Zhao Chuen recited the Buddha’s name before they eat breakfast every day. They were as sincere and devout as the monks or nuns and there was a deep respect between them all.

We walked back the mile to the monastery, the old monk at the locked gate allowing us back in. We walked under the stars around the Bright Moon Pond, amazed to be back at this wonderful place and to be treated so warmly and kindly by everybody here.

Tuesday, 13th November

Sam had been asked to help out in the Abbot’s kitchen, serving him when he had special guests. They cook on gas there. Greedy monks went there to help themselves to extra food and one tried to eat the food offerings before they had been offered to the Buddha. He was severely tongue-lashed. Another made off with a birthday cake and ate most of it himself! There was a small dining hall just across the passageway where important guests could eat and talk to the Abbot. This small kitchen also had rats – they would run around making us laugh. Sometimes the cook monk would poke the rats with a stick so they ran away. Sam also had to chop vegetables and wash up, going to the main kitchen to get hot water from the large woks of boiling water in thermos flasks. Everybody in the monastery got their hot water from these big woks in the main kitchen.

The firewood gang I worked with supplied the fuel for the kitchen. All this still has a medieval touch. It is very grounding and good for one’s health – although living for many years on the damp mountain has caused some older monks to get rheumatism. However many people who stay here find how much their eyes improve. I hardly needed my glasses except to read after a few days. The electricity has only been connected for ten years. Outside all wires are hidden and there are no electric poles in sight.

Felix was ordained in a private ceremony this morning with a couple of others. His name is now Shih Da Shin (the name of the main hall). He was smiling broadly with his newly shaved head and monk’s robes. He gave me a Chinese chanting book and I presented him with a monk’s pyjama suit. He was supposed to go straight to a special monastery to learn the chanting for a while and then return, but he had stayed as a lot of bedding had got wet and smelly in the store room, and he had to sort it out. It was now hot and all the bedding was outside drying in the sun, mine included.

Some monks came with a box full of the old dead monk’s things, not much. Felix offered me a large photo of my teacher; it was too big for my suitcase so I refused it. There was a scroll of transmission in the Xu Yun line. Felix and I translated it, then some monk skipped off with it, delighted at having acquired such treasure.

We then all went down to the Xu Yun Sharia pagoda to entomb the old dead monk’s ashes. His family were there – you could clearly see the family likeness. We spent an hour there in the boiling sun, chanting the most beautiful sacred chants. Then we all walked back together past the Bright Moon Pool. Arriving back at Zhen Ru Monastery the board was sounded for afternoon chanting. As it was the Medicine Buddha’s birthday it was long – one and a half hours.

Then, at 4pm good fortune came our way. Felix had got the keys to an empty hermitage. Sam and I went together with him and two other young monks from the guest master’s hall. On the way one of them managed to get Master He Dong on the phone. (Felix had no phone as novices are not allowed to have or use them or computers during their training; also, if any monk is caught smoking here he will be asked to leave.) Master He Dong was in Nanchang having had a couple of wisdom teeth pulled. He was feeling rough but was staying at a lay supporter’s house. He had reserved train tickets for us to return to Shanghai from Nanchang.

We walked out of the monastery past the site of the converted cow shed where Master Xu Yun lived in the 1950s. Standing there was his memorial which had been built in solid stone, with a statue of him and his belongings inside. We walked on for around thirty minutes to just past the place I had walked to alone to last year, when suddenly around a bend we saw a hermitage built like a mini-monastery to our left.

The young monks had the keys and we were soon inside. Weeds had been growing for the six months since it had been empty. An old master had died there. He had lived there with around twenty monks. They specialised in sitting in Chan meditation and sat all the time like a retreat. The main hall and other halls were nothing special but, to one side, at the end of a covered passage, stood a magnificent Chan Meditation Hall the size of a bungalow.

The monks stayed outside, reluctant to enter. Sam and I went in and sat in Chan meditation for about twenty minutes. I saw a wood burner with a long sloping tin chimney pipe to keep the place warm in winter. Behind it there were sitting benches, about ten places each side with a sleeping platform behind. It was hot in there that afternoon, so it probably had no insulation in the roof. When this hermitage was full of practitioners no women were allowed to enter. Sam was told that she was the first woman to ever have visited. After we came out it was getting dark and the monks wanted to leave. They didn’t seem to like it there much and they talked a lot to cover up their discomfort. They said that people had tried to stay there but had heard voices in the night and had left quickly. Sam and I thought what a waste it was that this beautiful meditation hall, only fifteen years old with its own well, laid abandoned. If only we had something as grand in the UK for the Buddhist Community. They locked up and we left. They talked so much, I suggested stopping to listen to the music, and they all looked confused. I said the music of the mountain; the wind in the bamboos and the hum of cicadas, but they walked on. Felix stayed close to me, he had been talking earlier about things you need to practise and the secrets he was not allowed to know from the grand Masters. I asked him suddenly, ‘Stop and listen’ then after a timeless while I demanded in Mandarin ‘Do you still need anything else?’ He was surprised and immediately realised, answering solely, ‘No’, grinning with delight. He now had his real ordination present and it showed him the Host: non-discriminating awareness as opposed to our normal Guest thoughts. We both stood there for a while in the blissful state of Samadhi, minds as one. Coming back to normal consciousness we hurried on to catch the others. It was dark. On the way back Felix shared with us that he did not know how to tell his parents that he had left home to become a Buddhist monk. Sam and I laughed as we knew Master He Dong’s mother did not know either – she thought he had a nice job in Nanchang. He said he could not bear to tell her and only his dad and brother knew. The Chinese family is a powerful bond.

That night Laurence came to my room and we talked about Master Xu Yun or Empty Cloud and drank tea.

Wednesday, 14th November

After lunch Sam and I climbed up through the tea bushes to the top of the mountain, partly to escape the dust and noise that the building site which is usually a quiet monastery had become. We sat up there with the views for two hours with only the sound of cicadas for company. After we climbed down we went to the village to the small, simple, homemade, and immaculate house of our friend Si Shao Hai known as Si Ma, another minibus driver who worked with the monastery, to arrange with his wife for a ride to Nanchang on Friday. We are the only westerners ever to have eaten there in their house. I returned for the evening meditation. Sam was not allowed in the meditation hall so she sat alone in her room, when she was not chanting or at work in the kitchen.

That night in the meditation hall, one of the lay guests was walking/running around with us before the sitting with his laptop swinging in its case in his hand. The head monk shouted at him to put it down, so he did so but in the middle of the floor, where we were all walking/running. He was shouted at again, the head Monk demanding ‘What the hell are you doing with that lap top in here?’ It was hastily moved to one side by the head monk before anybody tripped over it in the dim light. Then just after the sitting had begun one of the other lay guests fled the Chan hall, sliding the big wooden door bolt open on his exit. Nobody stirred. Soon after that a mobile telephone rung not just once but twice. After the sitting period the offender, an older monk had to go and kneel in front of the head monk. He was then beaten on the shoulder in a show of public humiliation. He lost face that day, I’m sure he will never forget to turn it off again.

Thursday, 15th November

Straight after breakfast the driver Si Ma turned up. I heard him call Sam’s dharma name ‘He An’ a few times and I went out to investigate. He said we were leaving now and Master Dong would meet us at the Ming Yuan hotel. Just thirty minutes later, having packed and said goodbye to the guest master, we left for Nanchang. First we stopped at his house (Si Ma’s house); I presume the guest master did not have a wife!) where his wife came out with exquisite Iron Goddess tea in a presentation box. We had given them Welsh set honey but they had no idea what it was and he asked me what to do with it, curiously. Then we stopped halfway down the mountain at the Nunnery. There, a lovely old nun invited us to ring the bell in the tower by the entrance. Building work was also going on there big time and we left with Si Ma chanting the bell chant to us, then he played his favourite Diamond Sutra CD. He is an ex teacher who came to live on Cloud Abode mountain at the age of fourteen. His education was obviously much better than the other villagers. We chatted a bit in Mandarin and he told me how he had sat through a tough winter retreat up at the monastery a few years ago. He knew a lot about practice from the monks he drove around and it showed in his focused unhurried driving. The road had been dug up for improvement and it was another rough ride. Just over one hour later he dropped us off at our hotel and then left for another job. We went up to our room for a shower.

Soon after, He Dong arrived and we went to his friend’s incense shop but it was shut. We went next door and talked to his friend, a tea mistress. She invited us in and we drank a lot of very good tea. She gave us some beautiful incense. The rain just kept pouring down. This was a problem for Master Dong in robes but he was given an umbrella. We went by taxi to lunch in the only vegetarian restaurant in Nanchang. As soon as we sat down our friend He Han or Miss Lee called us from Beijing to wish us a good trip home. After the meal the manageress came over to ask Master Dong for advice. Her family had all converted to Christianity and as a Buddhist she was despised. Her husband had taken their daughter away and there was nothing she could do. At her wits’ end she poured out her frustration for quite a long time. She said that she would probably leave home where she was despised as a ‘Hungry Ghost from Hell’ by her Christian family. That is what the Buddhists are called in China by some Christians. We left and went to Walmart for food to eat on the journey home. That evening, after Master Dong left we went to a noodle shop. Next door was a tea shop and we chatted to two curious young men who worked for their uncle there. They made us excellent tea and we bought some. Across the road was a foot massage shop. It was hard to cross the road as the rain was so very heavy and we got wet feet. Inside Sam and I were ushered into a room with two young slim pretty girls with very short skirts and low cut tops. They could easily charm a man out of his money we agreed. The girls were very curious about us and told us how tough their lives were, but we were tired and glad to cross the flooded road to the hotel to sleep in a comfortable bed again after the monastery’s hard beds.

The next morning Master He Dong came back to see us off. We went back to the tea shop next door where he talked at length about Buddhism to the owner and his nephews. We went across the still flooded road for a local-style lunch. There were plenty of vegetarian dishes and it was cheap, friendly and had a charming homely atmosphere.

Picking up our luggage from the hotel we went to the nearby station by taxi as the rain was so heavy. Master He Dong had no platform ticket and we were shoved through security with the crowd, so he was left standing outside in the rain in his robes with wet feet and an ineffective umbrella. Very soon we were on our express train to Shanghai for the long flight home the next morning.

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