The Woodenfish Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program (HBMLP), which offers an intensive Buddhist monastic experience for students and practitioners, will take place in July in Taipei. The program, which attracts participants from around the world seeking to gain an academic and experiential understanding of Buddhism, along with cultural peace-training and education, has been suspended since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program began in Taiwan in 2002 at Fo Guang Shan Monastery and spent many years utilizing host monasteries in mainland China from 2009–19. The program has been under the leadership of Venerable Yifa, a Taiwanese nun who holds a PhD in religious studies from Yale University.
The aims of the Woodenfish program have been to offer firsthand exposure to a Buddhist monastic lifestyle, along with various training and rituals of contemporary monastics. To this end, participants live in guest quarters at working monasteries alongside Chinese monks and nuns.
According to Ven. Yifa: “So far two major Buddhist organizations have offered to host our students this year. One is Dharma Drum Monastery, a Chan tradition, and Compassion Relief (Tzu Chi), an organization focused on socially engaged Buddhism, so our students will experience various types of Buddhist practices in Taiwan.”
Participants wear a simplified lay uniforms during their stay, waking each day at 5:30 a.m. to practice tai-chi and meditation before breakfast. The daily schedule includes academic classes on Buddhist thought and history, as well as cultural education such as tea ceremonies or calligraphy. After two weeks of classes, the participants engage in a week-long silent meditation retreat followed by several days of cultural tours.
“We arrange cultural tours to the most popular Buddhist temple—Longshan Temple—and Daoist temple—Xingtian Gong—plus the Palace Museum, so that participants can witness the religious activities of Taiwanese people,” Ven. Yifa added.
The program has sought to encourage college-aged participants, roughly 19-25 years of age, to take part. Nonetheless, each year, there have been older students. Some have been taking a break from their careers, while others were of retirement age. This year, Woodenfish explicitly encourages Buddhist practitioners to apply.
“In the past, some practitioners have brought the sincerity of their years of practice to our college students,” Ven. Yifa noted.
A 31-year-old former student and current volunteer from Hungary, Zoltan Toth, recounted: “When I came across the recruitment for the HBMLP in 2015, I signed up in a heartbeat. I returned as staff member three more times in the following years and I’m planning to return again this year. As in previous programs, I’m looking forward to meeting all the bright minds with a keen interest on uncovering the mysteries of reality, and also to be able to provide services that would benefit all who enter this program. I was thoroughly inspired by the staff members’ selflessness and diligence when I was a student and wish to embody that ideal I’ve witnessed in them.”
Marc Malonzo, a 40-year-old American living in Taiwan, first attended HBMLP in 2018. He told BDG: “At the time, I was practicing a lot of yoga, meditation, and the ‘flow’ of long-distance endurance races. And years before, I had discovered mindfulness via a work program, which kind of led to me also discovering Buddhism from a coworker. I believe the combination of all of this was a big pull for me toward the program.
“The program can be very tough—especially adjusting to monastic life—but the outcome is worth it.” Malonzo observed. “My two biggest take aways were the organization it brought to my life and the realization that most of the things we say throughout the day don’t actually need to be said. The monastic life helped me to clean and purge my house in a structured way. The week of silence allowed me to let go of things I felt the need to say, and then to later realize that they weren’t worth saying after all. It reminds me to think before I speak, which I have found to be a useful life skill.”
This year’s LBMLP will take place from 1–28 July. Applications are open and are considered on a rolling basis. Spots are limited, so those interested are encouraged to apply early. An application fee of US$10 is charged and those accepted will be asked to pay a US$500 administration fee to cover costs including uniforms, robes, and monastic eating bowls for participants. Whittier College, based in Los Angeles, allows participants to earn college credit for the program.
The author is a former participant and an academic volunteer for Woodenfish, and is listed among the program’s instructors.
HBMLP 2023 (Woodenfish)
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