Life in Jinan

01:10 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

I was feeling a bit homesick and my family sent me a great video that really cheered me up. Here's my reply!


Guang Jue Monastery

08:07 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

I was recently fortunate enough to spend a few nights at a Buddhism temple in eastern China. You can read about my trip here - part 1part 2 and part 3.


Guang Jue Monastery: Part 3 - Reflection

08:02 Paul Robinson 1 Comments

On my second full day at the temple, I got to see a different side of Monastic life. The teacher, two students and I set off to Tianmushan, to visit the Buddhist Monastery there. The Chan Buddhist Monastery was apparently the first Monastery in China to export Buddhism to Japan.

We arrived at the temple to find a new five star hotel being built directly next to the temple. Whilst hardly authentic, I guess the temple has to make an income somehow. As we walked through the spectacular temple halls, it became apparent that all the temple structures were all either new builds or recent renovations. A local company has agreed to rebuild the temple and in-turn it is allowed to construct the hotel in the grounds. The teacher then guided us to the gift shop, where he spent about an hour browsing the books. I guess gift shops have something for everyone.

We were then given lunch and a tour of the crematorium/pagoda, local forest and a plush Government retreat. We walked through a room full of safety deposit boxes which housed the ashes of the deceased. We were even handed a marketing brochure, which was just surreal. As the tour continued, the teacher began treating us to impersonations and a series of funny faces. I think he was enjoying being out and about. He sort of reminded me of my Granddad – chatting strangers’ ears off and wandering off through doorways he clearly shouldn’t be going through.

It was interesting to see a commercial temple, but it wasn’t why I had travelled so far. Back at the Guang Jue Monastery, over dinner, everyone agreed that they weren’t fans of the commercial temple either.
Popo, the Guang Jue Monastery cook, is an old Chinese lady who speaks an unfathomable dialect. Even Chinese students struggle to understand her. She pronounces ‘wanshang’ (evening) and ‘weezen’ – I didn’t stand a chance. She also hated to see food go to waste. If your bowl still had a few grains of rice left over, you would get an earful. You can’t understand a word she says but you know she isn’t happy. It’s safe to say I’ve still got a lot of room for improving my Chinese.

All too soon it was time for me to leave the temple and return to civilisation. After spending three nights there and meeting several different students, I can see that the temple is doing a lot of good. I have decided to read more about Buddhism and try to incorporate some its teachings into my life. Buddhism encourages you to test the lessons it teaches, rather than simply employing blind faith – which is really appealing. I’m also going to try and mediate more often, I love how clear and steady my thoughts were after a few days attempted mediation.


Guang Jue Monastery: Part 2 - time to think

01:56 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

The temple is located in Zaoxi, an hour’s drive from the town of Lin’an. The scale of development is more familiar to British person. Most Chinese cities are sprawling monstrosities which litter factories and tower blocks across the land. However, small villages such as Zaoxi have a much more human scale. Villages are separated by countryside and there was barely a tall building in site. Labourers toiled in the fields and men in straw hats strolled along the roadside with sickles resting on their shoulders. The temple was surrounded by lush forest and the peace was captivating, (apart from the occasional Chinese fighter jet screaming past). I’ve sacrificed a lot to relocate to China and finally, it felt worthwhile; I was able to enjoy the countryside rather than endure the city.

A Buddhist temple retreat is about purifying your mind and simplifying your existence. As a result, the living quarters at the temple were pretty basic. I had to sleep on a hard wooden bed without a mattress, whilst constantly being harassed by flies. We ate nothing but rice and vegetables (apart from my secret chocolate stash) and the only thing suitable to drink was the local green tea. With barely any electrical power and no distractions like TV and the internet, when it got dark there was nothing else to do but sleep. By 8pm most evenings I was fast asleep.

I knew it was coming. My sleep was disturbed by the tolling of a bell which reverberated through the hills. It was still pitch black outside. I scrambled to find my torch and then my watch. My eyes refused to open but I managed to glimpse the time – 4.30am. Ugh. I threw on some clothes and crossed the courtyard and entered the main temple hall. The bell marked the beginning of the morning ceremony. As I entered the hall, the Sifu began to play a huge drum. The pace of the drum quickened and my heart rate chased to keep up. Then the music stopped and the chanting started. I closed my eyes and I was absorbed by the experience. The sounds quickened my heart, the incense sharpened my sense of smell and the morning sunlight teased the sleep from my eyes. The ceremony finished at 5am and I left feeling charged, caught in the moment. Outside, mist still clung to the hillside. In the bamboo forest the frogs, crickets and birds had begun their daily song.  After sleeping surprisingly well on a wooden bed, a new day had arrived and I was feeling more alive than ever.

Whilst I came to the temple with an open mind, I wanted to form my own opinions and I avoided any individual lessons or teachings. I didn’t want the ‘big sell’ which religions usually push upon the agnostic. The teacher was happy with this and he left me free to do nothing and hopefully de-clutter my mind.
It turns out that I’m not very good at doing nothing. The beautiful start to the day had left me invigorated and I spent the day exploring the temple and the surrounding countryside. I investigated all the little nooks and crannies and took far too many photographs.

With so much peace and quiet in which to think, I began contemplating life in China, my life back home, my family and my friends. I decided to write some letters. Each letter had a little bit of nostalgia and sentimentality and a big dose of cheese, but it was rewarding. I also attempted to meditate. It was hard though. As soon as you expel one thought from your mind another unconnected thought takes it place. In each period of 30 minutes attempted meditation, I only had two minutes of actual meditation. Also, I had plenty of time to read my book. Time is fluid but it seemed that each moment was much more fruitful in the temple. I tried doing nothing and ended up getting so much done. I suppose the main reason is that there are no other distractions. And that my day started at 4.30am. Or the copious amounts of caffeine in the green tea.

At 4.30pm a second bell rang and the students, teacher and Sifu all gather to eat. We ate a simple vegetarian meal. Everyone has rice and then you can add your own tofu, pickled bamboo, potatoes, green beans and chopped herbs. The highlight of each meal for me was the dried mustard plant. The students are from Britain, America, Finland and Indonesia. It was nice to be communal. Everyone is pleasant enough and I’d love to know how their stories all converged on this temple in China.

After the meal I sat in the courtyard, drank some of the local rocket fuel green tea and listened to the silence. Like bathing in ice cold water, I was totally refreshed.

A final bell rang at 6.30pm and it was time for the evening ceremony. We all entered the temple and were asked to focus on a single object whilst chanting the name of the Buddha, Amituofo. Whilst I was feeling self-conscious, I came here sincerely, so I tried chanting. My mind began to focus and clarify. Then, I became acutely aware that the mosquitos had chosen this moment to begin feasting on my flesh. The little bastards knew perfectly well that I was helpless and that I couldn’t swat them away whilst I was in the company of the Buddhist Sifu. With my mind sharpened and another 30 minutes of chanting ahead, their bites really fucking hurt. Amituofo.


Guang Jue Monastery: Part 1 - Travel

16:04 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

I’ve now been in China for three months and I felt like time to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself. I decided to travel alone to Zhejiang and stay in a Buddhist Monastery.

My day began with a very early start, in order to catch the first train from Jinan to Hangzhou. On the train, I was sat next to a typical Chinese guy, whose behaviour fell somewhere between being rude and apologetic. He would continually lean into my personal space and eventually he fell asleep on my shoulder. When my courage finally overcame my British-ness and I decided shift him, he couldn’t have been more apologetic and helpful. I know that he didn’t mean to make me feel uncomfortable; it’s just that the concept of personal space doesn’t really exist in China.

One of the main challenges of this trip was communicating in Chinese. I’ve been studying hard and I have now nurtured enough confidence to actually try and speak in Chinese to someone. The problem is that everywhere I go, I draw so much attention that I quickly falter under everyone’s curious gaze. I arrived at Hangzhou Station to the usual press of hotel hawkers and unregistered taxi touts. I was trying to find a proper metered taxi whilst fighting off the taxi touts. I found a metered taxi but I had some bloody taxi tout chirping away at me over my shoulder. I tried speaking to the proper taxi driver but I couldn’t begin to understand his dialect of Chinese. My composure evaporated and my carefully rehearsed dialogue dissolved into a few words of halting Chinglish. So far, so bad.

Eventually, I shook off the tout and set off in my taxi, on my way to Hangzhou West Bus Station.  As usual when you’re travelling, the journey seemed to take far too long. The meter slowly ticked upwards. I started worrying. I was adamant that the driver was ripping my off because I was foreign, by taking me along the ‘scenic route’. I rattled my brain for a Chinese complaint and as I finally worked out what to say, we arrived at the bus station. Perhaps it would be better if I kept my mouth shut.

A bus and further taxi ride later, I arrived at the Monastery. A full nine hours after I departed. We pulled up into a dilapidated Monastery. A mixture of anticipation and nerves was kindling inside my belly. I was given a warm welcome by the Buddhist teacher. After about four seconds in his company, I comfortably had him down as a future mad eccentric, and I knew the adventure had started.