A Second Pilgrimage in China, 1994
by Venerable Thubten Chodron©
Fortuitous circumstances plus a free frequent
flyer ticket enabled me to visit China again in the autumn of
1994. Last autumn I went there on pilgrimage with a group of Singaporeans,
and we traveled with a tour guide. During that time, I met three
young Chinese men with whom I'd been corresponding for several
months (the older Singaporeans nick-named them "the boys").
They studied and practiced Tibetan Buddhism, and since finding
teachers was so difficult for them, they flooded me with intelligent
and thoughtful questions, and we had many interesting discussions.
So this year the four of us, plus a young Chinese woman who is
interested in Tibetan Buddhism, did a two-week pilgrimage and
two-week retreat (no tour guide or tour bus!). It was a truly
remarkable experience in so many ways that it's hard to describe.
I stayed with the family of one of the
boys while we visited Shanghai's temples for a couple of days.
And then our pilgrimage began -- first to Jin Shan, a large Ch'an
(Zen) temple in Zhenjiang, which was swamped by tourists, a circumstance
we encountered often in city temples. There were many young monks,
but the noisy environment with tourists isn't conducive to practice.
Most temples have a meditation hall, used only for meditation;
a Buddha Hall where prayers are recited, and sometimes another
hall for the recitation of the Buddha's name, a practice which
resembles mantra recitation. When visiting the meditation hall,
we spoke with an eighty-year-old monk with bright eyes and a rousing
voice who encouraged us, "Chinese have Buddha nature. Westerners
do too. Practice to become a Buddha. When distractions arise,
try to find the thoughts. Where do they come from? Where do they
go? Then return to the hua to."
are short phrases intended for meditation. Since the intermingling
of Ch'an, which emphasizes meditating on emptiness, and Pure Land,
which emphasizes reciting the Buddha's name, began many centuries
ago, the hua to
"Who is reciting the Buddha's name?" has become popular.
This was the practice done at Kao Ming Temple,
near Yangzhou, our next stop. Before 1949, this was the most famous
and strict Ch'an Monastery in the country, where hundreds of people
did retreat all year round. It had been totally demolished during
the Cultural Revolution. With the support of foreign benefactors
and the Chinese government, it was now being rebuilt and was noisy
with construction equipment. From the scorched earth of the Cultural
Revolution, green sprouts of Buddhism are growing again, as if
by miracle. Even more astounding is the number of young people
who are ordaining. Where does their faith come from? What draws
them to enter the monastery? However, as time went on and we visited
more temples, I began to see behind the superficial appearance
of renaissance to some severe problems, all of which are inter-related.
First, the quality of the monastics is low.
That is, most college-educated youth prefer to work at joint-venture
companies where they can make a lot of money. Many of the youth
joining the temples are from the countryside, from poor and/or
some of the educated youth -- my friends for example -- are interested
in Buddhism, it's hard for them to find teachers. A few elderly
monks and nuns heroically survived the years of persecution under
the communists. They teach as long as their health and age permit,
but ordained people of my age, who should be the new generation
of teachers, are virtually non-existent.
Third, people focus primarily on the physical
reconstruction of Buddhism at the moment -- temples, pagodas,
statues -- and this requires putting time and effort into raising
money and building. There is little emphasis on education and
practice, except in a few places which I'll speak of later. There
are Buddhist colleges with two, three, or four-year programs in
many major cities and pilgrimage sites -- their curriculum includes
political education -- but relatively few of the newly-ordained
Fourth, because the older monastics are concerned
with administration and most of the younger ones do not know Buddhist
doctrine well, some traditional, ancestor-worship practices done
in temples before the persecution are now being re-instituted.
For example, people burn paper money, paper bars of gold, paper
houses, and so forth to send to their deceased relatives. This
is not a Buddhist practice, but it is tolerated and even encouraged
at most of the temples. People offer lots of incense and candles,
but most don't know exactly who they're offering them to or why.
They need to be taught how to make offerings, but there are few
Dharma talks for the lay people in most of the temples. I did
visit some Laymen's Associations and some temples, however, where
lay people study and practice, and this was very encouraging.
Fifth, due to both financial concerns and
requests from the public, many temples engage in reciting prayers
for the dead. While this is a Buddhist practice, there are some
doubts regarding both the motivation of those who request the
prayers and those who perform them. Again, the problem is lack
of education, as well as the view that big, beautiful temples
indicate that Buddhism is successful.
Sixth, many Buddhist temples are now museums
or tourist attractions, with the monastics being the ticket-collectors.
This allows for the veneer of "religious freedom," an
image sought by the government.
Temples and Travels
Let me return to the pilgrimage. The monk
who took us around Kao Ming Temple showed us the huge guest house
which is not yet finished. I estimate it has about seventy rooms,
all with private bath and polished wooden furniture. He
proudly told us they were going to build a nine-story pagoda with
four jade Buddhas on each floor. While everyone else gasped with
delight, I thought, "Why don't they use the money to open a
school and teach children the essence of the Buddha's teachings,
to be kind people? How do we measure the benefit of Buddhism: through
buildings or through people's hearts and behavior?" Kao
Ming has a lovely octagonal meditation hall with polished wood floors,
where meditation sessions occur all day long. Of the one hundred
monks, about ten attended each session. The others were working.
We sat two sessions with them, a nice relief after hours of traveling.
Across the river was a nunnery, which was
also being rebuilt. The nuns did not want many visitors to disturb
them, but allowed us to enter. They were reciting the sutras,
and I sat with them for a long while, meditating. Being with nuns
such as this is a source of inspiration for me.
Then we went to Nanjing and visited another
nunnery. Here the nuns were leading the lay people in a week-long
retreat of chanting the Buddha's name. A young man who was getting
his Ph.D. in math and who knew English approached me to discuss
the value of Buddhism. As I was to find during the entire pilgrimage,
people were very curious about this nun with strange eyes and
hair. They were curious and friendly, and with the kindness of
Roy (I'll use the boys' English names for convenience), who translated
indefatigably, I met many people. When we tried to leave the building,
the over a hundred retreatants were serpentining in the courtyard
while chanting -- a Buddhist traffic jam! Loving Chinese chanting,
we happily joined in.
When we went to find a hotel for the evening,
we discovered that due to governmental regulations, foreigners were
not allowed to stay at the reasonably priced ones, only at the expensive
ones. Nevertheless, instead of getting depressed about the cost,
whenever we encountered this unfortunate circumstance we transformed
it into the path and rejoiced at the opportunity to take hot showers!
The next day we visited the pagoda with
the skull of Ven. Xuan Zhuang, the great monk, who, in the seventh
century, made the arduous journey to India to learn Buddhism and
to bring back many sutras which he then translated into Chinese.
Contemplating his life story, we understood better the actions,
the courage and the dedication of a bodhisattva. Also in the outskirts
of Nanjing is Chi Sha Temple, which once followed the Three Treatises
(Madhyamika) tradition. In the hills
around the mountain, hundreds of Buddha figures were carved in the
rock in the fifth century. But today, most of them lack heads or
arms -- the handiwork of the Cultural Revolution. One time I turned
around and saw one of the boys dusting off one of the Buddha images
and began to cry, with gratitude for the devotion of the artists,
with sadness for the ignorance of the mutilators, with awe for the
hope of the young Buddhists.
Jiu Hua Shan, Kshitigarbha's Holy Mountain
The bus ride to Jiu Hua Shan, the mountains
which form the holy place of Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha, was long
and tiring. The traffic in the cities and even between towns is
backed up, due to the poor quality of China's infrastructure and
the number of trucks carrying supplies for the construction of buildings,
which is going on all around. But as soon as we passed through the
Jiu Hua Shan gate, my head cleared. An
old monk led us to the nunnery, where the abbess graciously shared
her simple room with me and asked me to teach the sixty pilgrims
residing at the temple that evening. Foreigners are not allowed
to teach Buddhism in China, but the abbess assured us that the police
were her friends and there would be no trouble. So that evening
I gave my first "public talk," (I had been teaching the
boys privately since my first visit) on bodhicitta of course!
In the eighth century, a Korean monk came
to Jiu Hua Shan to practice. Having high realizations, he was seen
as the incarnation of Kshitigarbha, the bodhisattva who vowed to
go to the hell realms to help the sentient beings there. On the
way from visiting the pagoda with his remains, we
met three old nuns. I asked them about their lives: during the Cultural
Revolution, they were forced to wear insulting placards around their
necks and large dunce caps on their heads while they carried Buddha
statues on their backs as people in the streets jeered and threw
things at them. Their temple was now a factory; they had a little
room in it where they lived, and they had come here to look for
a temple to move to. In recounting their story, the nun was not
in the least bit bitter, although tears were in her eyes as she
spoke. Without trying to be, she was an example of the effects of
During those days at Jiu Hua Shan, we
walked in the mountains and visited many isolated temples dotting
the mountainside. Most were built in the last ten years, often by
the personal funds of the monastics who lived there. At one, the
nuns invited us to lunch. These four nuns lived in the meager temple
with no electricity or plumbing, let alone heating during the winters,
but they were content. At another, a nun of over eighty (she was
ordained at twenty-two) and her son who was now over sixty and also
ordained, built a small temple around a cave. This nun was so serene
that the boys remarked that she was surely going to be reborn in
the pure land! I asked her about her life (this is one of my favorite
questions because I believe we can learn a lot of Dharma from people's
life stories and how they handled the situations they encountered),
and she responded, "Ordained
life is very precious. It can't be bought with money. If you have
the roots of virtue, you can ordain. But if you don't, even if someone
tells you to and you can, you don't want to." Each of the boys
has the wish to ordain, so her comments were timely for them as
well as for me.
The five nuns residing at another isolated
nunnery practice Ch'an meditation. We had an interesting discussion
about the path, and a young nun sought advice on handling distractions
during meditation. To help her, I repeated the words of instructions
which I heard from my teachers but being lazy, don't practice
myself. It's sad -- they have such fervor and a dearth of teachings,
while I have had the fortune to hear many teachings from the best
teachers, and yet have little fervor. (This is not modesty, it's
truth. Such things struck me during the pilgrimage.)
While viewing the figure of Kshitigarbha at the
cave temple of some other nuns, the enormity of his vow suddenly
hit home. He wants to go to the hell realms to help the beings there!
What a far cry from my mind, which seeks only the happiness of this
life! It's at times like these that I understand the value of prayer:
the transformation seems so radical, and we seem so entrenched in
wrong conceptions, that the only thing left to do is to drop all
facades, purify our minds, and request inspiration from our teachers
and the Three Jewels.
In one temple lay the mummified body of Venerable
Wu Sha from the Ming Dynasty. By pricking his tongue, he wrote
a sutra with his own blood. When he died, his body did not decay,
and devotees put it in the temple. About fifty years ago, there
was a fire in the temple and when the monks tried to move his
body, they couldn't budge it. So they cried out, "If you
don't leave, then we won't either!" The arms of the mummy
shifted position to cross his chest, and the fire died out.
We took the cable car to the top of one mountain
and walked in the forest. It took a while to get away from the
litter -- there is no conception of trash cans, even at holy sites,
so people throw their rubbish everywhere. The first day of the
pilgrimage, when one of the boys threw a can out the window of
the train, I was aghast. My look startled them, and from then
on I continually brought up during teachings the relevance of
Buddhism to environmental issues. This was something new to them,
but from that day on, none of them littered.
There is virtually no environmental awareness
in China, let alone any thought of nuclear disaster. During one
teaching on the five degenerations, I mentioned the nuclear threat
and unwise disposal of nuclear waste. My friends looked puzzled,
so at lunchtime I asked them if people in China thought about
the spread of nuclear weapons or the possibility of nuclear war.
They shook their heads and said, "No. The media doesn't discuss
this, and anyway, there's nothing we common people can do about
it." At that moment, it struck me how much the existence
of nuclear weapons has affected the lives of people in the West
in so many ways -- psychologically, socially, etc. -- and I tried
to imagine what it would be like not to have that influence in
Tendai and Samon
After visiting a large temple from the Yuan
Dynasty in Hanzhou, which was protected by order from Chou En-lai
during the Cultural Revolution and thus was undamaged, we went
on to Tendai and Samon. Mt. Tendai is the home of the Tendai tradition,
popular in both China and Japan. Both Tendai and Jiu Hua Shan
looked just like Chinese paintings -- Jiu Hua Shan with steep
cliffs, autumn-colored forests, broad views; Tendai with waterfalls,
bamboo forests, and terraced mountains.
We arrived at Samon after nine in the
evening, and walking through the fields by moonlight, we arrived
at the gates of a monastery where one of the boys' teachers, a monk
now in his seventies, was the abbot. They weren't expecting us,
and because women weren't allowed in the monastery after dark, they
escorted me to a flat in the town where some women affiliated with
the temple lived. The women -- a grandmother, mother and young daughter
-- warmly took me in, much to my embarrassed surprise (I imagined
dropping in unexpectedly late at night at the home of a friend of
a friend in the USA!). The next evening
I had the opportunity to repay their kindness when they asked me
to give a short talk. Instantaneously some neighbors appeared and
the small, happy group, plus the boys, gathered around their altar
while I discussed the mind being the cause of happiness and suffering
and some ways to work with anger. Because people in Asia so often
associate Buddhism with rituals in temples, it's important to show
them how Dharma is relevant to their daily lives, and they appreciated
The monks at the monastery here were all
Chinese and basically followed the Tibetan Gelu tradition, but with
a Chinese flavor. Earlier this century, several Chinese monks went
to Tibet to study and brought the Tibetan teachings back to China.
Many translated texts, so that good translations exist in Chinese
for many of Lama Tzong Khapa's works, for example. However, in passing
down the practices, some masters changed several points and neglected
important elements. Even when people
go to the Tibetan lamas who visit Beijing, there are often difficulties.
The lamas give high initiations, but they are not translated into
Chinese, so the participants don't know what's going on. Usually,
they don't give the commentary on how to do the practice. How fortunate
we are in the West where initiations are translated into our languages,
commentaries given, and pure lineages kept intact and passed on!
And how often we take this for granted, not appreciating our fortune!
Puto Shan, Chenresig (Kuan Yin's) Holy Place
We then went on to Puto Shan, which was to
be our R&R -- Rest and Retreat -- after two weeks of tiring
travel. I'd made many prayers to Kuan Yin (Chenresig, the Buddha
of Compassion), whose holy island this was, to be able to find
a quiet retreat place to practice and continue teaching the boys
and a young woman, a friend of theirs who joined us. We arrived
after dark, and walking through the village, I saw basins of live
seafood ready to be dropped into boiling water and eaten, and
made-up girls outside what appeared to be beauty parlors. It seems
some tourists mix pilgrimage with other pleasures.
One of the boys' friends worked at the
Chinese Buddhist Association, so we went to visit him and see if
he could help us find accommodation that evening as well as a retreat
place. He told us that foreigners are only allowed to stay at certain
hotels on the island -- the expensive ones of course -- but his
friend was the manager of one of them. His friend gave me the last
bed in the place, in a room with three other women, all strangers. The next morning, when I got up early
to do my meditation and prayers, there was no electricity, so I
used my flashlight. When the electricity finally arrived, my roommates
woke up and began talking. Then their husbands and boyfriends from
the next room came over, and they were all having a great time,
while this strange foreign nun meditated on one of the beds. But
when I finished my practices, they expressed their delight at me
meditating and wanted to have their picture taken with me!
By good fortune, we were able to meet the
abbot of the largest temple, who was also head of all the Buddhists
on the island, and appealed to him to talk with the police so
that I could stay at a temple (not a hotel) and do retreat. He
was sympathetic and tried his best, but the police refused and
even came looking for me! Fortunately I wasn't there at the time
and we left the next day.
Since there were only two weeks left and
we didn't want to spend a lot of time traveling to another place
and looking for a retreat house, Marty suggested that we return
to Shanghai and do retreat at his family's flat. Having made many prayers both before
and during the trip to Kuan Yin to help us find a place and have
a worthwhile retreat, I gave up my preconceptions and return to
Shanghai, and the retreat went wonderfully! We arrived unexpectedly,
two weeks early, at Marty's flat at 5:15 a.m. on Sunday morning,
and his parents welcomed us in without a trace of annoyance, not
minding at all that their son and four of his friends were going
to do retreat there for two weeks! We did six sessions a day, and
during two of them I taught lamrim and the Chenresig practice. The
boys had never done retreat before. In fact, they had never had
ongoing oral lamrim teachings before, although they had studied
so much and had taken several initiations.
Our retreat was both serious and punctuated
with laughter. The first few days, my friends were very tired
by the time teachings began after supper. So I taught them the
profound practice of the Perfection of Sleeping during teachings,
one that I have trained well in. First, as the root of the path,
you must find a guru who will definitely put you to sleep. Then
prepare the cushion and sit down. You must practice the Perfection
of Sleeping during teachings together with the other six perfections:
With generosity, give your fellow Dharma students adequate space
to fall asleep. Do not take the best place for yourself, but sacrifice
your happiness, and sit in the front row where everyone can see
you while you sleep. With ethics, do not hurt anyone if you fall
over while sleeping during teachings. With patience, do not become
angry if you can't fall asleep immediately. With effort, do not
be lazy. Fall asleep quickly and efficiently. With concentration,
fall asleep single-pointedly. Do not let your mind be distracted
by listening to teachings. With wisdom, know that you as the sleeper,
the sleep, and the act of sleeping all lack inherent existence.
They are just like a dream. The ultimate guru yoga occurs when
guru and disciples' minds merge, so that at the end of teachings
all that is heard is snoring.
However, once we changed the schedule so that
the second teaching period was in the afternoon and we did the
Chenresig practice and chanted the mantra out loud at length after
supper, we encountered some obstacles to this profound practice
of sleeping during teachings.
Our retreat went well and all of us were happy.
When it was over, with feelings of rejoicing, gratitude, and fulfillment,
as well as with sadness, I boarded the plane to return to the