2013 Chung Tai Pilgrimage

Joseph / 傳登

When Bao Lin shifu asked me whether I wanted to go for the pilgrimage to Chung Tai Shan, I was elated and felt especially privileged that Abbess had allowed me go to with the youth group. I must admit I had some reservations about going with a group of people with most of whom I had little past contact, and felt especially senior when told the youngest member was Bryan, 9. I soon found out on the second day of the pilgrimage in Taiwan, these reservations were unfounded.

The group was inclusive, even though I spoke little Chinese, and my grasp of the language was at best “half bucket” (半桶水). Everyone was friendly and accommodating, and conversed to me in English. Abbess was compassionate to explain things to me in English, after it was first explained in Chinese. I was most grateful.

The pilgrimage started with tour of some of Taiwan’s great many tourist sites. We averaged about 2 places a day, and managed to squeeze in a few shopping stops. These activities were fun. My favourite stop was the contemporary museum of arts. There were many interesting exhibits on display and one that I connected with was the Bamboo Forest. It was a complex mesh of black strings weaved and tensed conceptualising or simulating a real life bamboo under grove. I thought that was the most amazing piece of anything I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of the teaching – from the mind all phenomena arise. That feeling that I was there (even though it wasn’t a real bamboo grove) was the result of past experiences I had with my sense organs and the five skandhas.
We also visited Ling Quan where the Grand Master spent great many years practicing and meditating. It was a really calm, peaceful place with the rapid flowing brook in the background. This was truly a spiritual place. I felt this was one of the few places I could practice and leave all the care of the world behind at the foot of the mountain.

We visited a few Zen centres and were made very welcome. Everyone at every single monastery was happy to see us. It was like seeing a good friend after years of absence. Albeit a friend we haven’t met yet. It was like Bao Lin – we were treated for lack of a better word, as part of a family. Everyone went out of his or her way to ensure that we were comfortable and without wanting or needing. Their hospitality was practiced with joyful selflessness. If I have learned nothing else on this trip, this is something I want to aspire to.

Our entire journey was on a large tour bus. Our driver helped us tremendously and arranged entertainment (karaoke, movies and unexpected but hilarious jokes) for those stretches between stops. From Taipei to Chung Tai, I was thoroughly entertained. There were a few potential Australian Idols contestants, too, from all the fun sing-a-longs.

What was marvellous though were the innumerable dishes of delicious vegetarian food we partook – many of which were Taiwanese specialities. And I loved every single morsel. I felt like I have put on tons of weight, I am such glutton for yummy food!

The most indescribable experience was the arrival at Chung Tai Monastery at night. We could see the outline of the main building from afar on the freeway. There was a strange feeling of trepidation. The structure was certainly large enough, and impressive. I feared it would be a bit overwhelming for me.

When we arrived at Chung Tai, we were greeted by a few shifus who were in Bao Lin. It was great to see them again. But we had to rush to finish off dinner so that we could setup in the monastery’s dormitory. I mentioned that people went out of their way to help us – at Chung Tai it was no different. The kitchen and dining hall were opened just for us, and hot food waiting for our arrival at approximately 9 PM. We went and prepare the dormitory and slept through the night, ready for the days ahead. I couldn’t wait to explore the huge modern building complex, linked by labyrinth of walkways and stairwells.

Day two at Chung Tai. We were taken by shifu for a tour of Chung Tai. We started from the main entrance and the hall of the 4 heavenly kings, where the future Buddha Maitreya statue was sitting, smiling and greeting each visitor. Behind Maitreya, stood the Dharma Protector Wei To Bodhisattva and directly opposite the bodhisattva, Shakyamuni Buddha. The hall was fragranced by large pieces of sandalwood. I thought that’s probably what a Pure Land would feel like – permeated with great many fragrances of sandalwood and eaglewood, and the fragrances of many flowers. In the middle platform sits the Buddha. The hall was very well designed, everything seems to be well integrated and it looked like the four heavenly kings were holding up the building, as they are upholding the Dharma. Not one stair, wall, platform, altar looked out of place. Everything was symmetrical and harmonious. I was in awe of the Grand Master’s vision. We were taken up to the upper levels of the building and were shown the halls of Rocana, Vairocana and Shakyamuni Buddhas representing the Trikaya of Shakyamuni Buddha. Statue of each Buddha unique and representing different pronounced aspects. All situated in serene, contemplative, inspiring spaces within the monastery. There were other spaces and treasures in the upper “floors”, too. Words cannot describe the skills and inspirations that went into the design and building of this place. Truly a great example of “from the mind all phenomena arise”.

Abbess was kind enough to arrange a Dharma lecture. The Shifu gave a captivating lecture about the three poisons (anger, greed and ignorance). Everything you do where there is any level of dissatisfaction (or afflictions) is the result of the three poisons. He taught us by giving us contemporary examples. Introspection – apply the formula if you are unhappy and dissatisfied with anything. What caused the dissatisfaction in the first place? How do you resolve your dissatisfaction, and completely cut off ignorance (the inability to resolve your anger and greed). I admit the three poisons was a term at the back of my mind – I knew what they were but never applied the introspection formula. It is not just about recognition, but understanding. Understand why it occurred. It’s “I am now angry” and “why am I angry?” and not about “how can I be less angry in the future?” The future you cannot control, the past you cannot change and it’s all about the present. Be aware, deal with it and then move on. I am now actively applying this formula in my every day life. The introspection was imposing, but manageable and it got easier and easier.

Day three at Chung Tai. This was the day I was most looking forward to. The Eight Precepts ceremony. For 24 hours, we took and vowed to uphold the Eight Precepts – which allow us a small glimpse into the lives of the monastics. Grand Master presided over the precepts ceremony. When the Grand Master spook, he inspired awe in each and every one of the thousands of disciples in the hall. We were most fortunate to be given the opportunity to hear the Master speak, as a precept master. During the Eight Precepts period, the Dean of the Buddhist School re-iterated the points around the three poisons. We were fortunately to be given a preview to these lectures and therefore less distracted and just sat there and comprehended the lectures – rather than just being distracted with the thoughts of “What are these three poisons?”, “do I have them?” or “I am not affected by the three poisons!” and other ego-based thoughts.

Day four at Chung Tai. The end of the Eight Precepts and the Three Refuges and Five Precepts ceremony. I have attended some three refuges and five precepts ceremonies in the past. Never have I attended one with that many disciples and everyone was enthusiastic. I suspect based on the responses to the precepts questions “will you take and uphold this precept now and life after life?” for each precept, I felt that it was the same volume of group response for every single question, from that I could only surmise that majority of my dharma brothers took all precepts. The responses were absolutely heartening. So many people committed to advancing their practice. People were smiling after the ceremony, on an auspicious day, the first day of the year. Now this is what I call a New Year resolution! We then proceeded to a celebratory lunch hosted by the Grand Master. I could not fault the food. Many of Chung Tai’s disciples’ talented children performed. I was beginning to think – there is surely a great cluster of talents in this monastery alone, from academic excellence to artistic brilliance. This is common karma in action.

After lunch, we were shown the Pu Tai Elementary School. The facilities were modern and very well resourced. It looked like a very supportive and conducive environment to nurture and grow the leaders of tomorrow. If only I was schooled there, I think my outlook in life would even be better than what I have today.

Day five. Last day at Chung Tai and Taiwan. As we prepared to leave the monastery and Taiwan, I wish I could have stayed longer. But, that was just attachment – when you like a place. As we bade farewell to Chung Tai, I thought back to my first day. I got to know a few more people at Bao Lin, a formula I can use and practise for life and amazed by the talents, enthusiasm and respect shown by everyone. I hope all members of future pilgrimages will personally experience what I have experienced.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Chung Tai, Abbess and Bao Lin, for which this experience would not have been possible.

With Mettā,
Joseph (傳登)