Zen & Cicadas

How to describe the past month? I’ve still got a backlog of things I’ve written from the end of my first year with Yenching, and my brief but lovely return to the United States. For the time being, I’m trying to put things into words so that I can help organize my own thoughts about studying Buddhism, living in a monastery, and leading a (semi) monastic life throughout the month of July. You’ll have to bear with me, as these reflections don’t necessarily have a lot of structure or continuity to them. For me, this month was a frustrating, beautiful, stressful, complicated, etc. etc. etc., period – all in all, a time of “cultivation”.

The monastery where I stayed was a ride away from Ningbo (a city two hours from Shanghai by train), and surrounded by tall bamboo. At night, you could hear the sound of the cicadas humming, and over the first few days all I could focus on during our meditation sessions was the wind moving through the leaves.

Our program was housed in a guest building at Jin’e Temple (金峨寺) and we slept four to a room. The room had an elevated platform with four tatami mats arranged side-by-side, and one more space next to the window that we cleared so we could do yoga. I got on well with my three roommates, and continued to feel thankful for their knowledge and personal perspectives when I had questions about Buddhist practice.

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Our day-to-day schedule was normally fairly fixed: waking up around 5:20 each morning for tai chi, standing meditation and then breakfast. We typically followed breakfast with classes on Buddhist history until 11:00, and then had lunch and a small amount of personal time before we moved into afternoon meditation. From there, we learned about the intersections between Buddhism and other parts of Chinese culture through lectures given by the Abbot at the monastery, or guests teaching calligraphy, painting, music, and tea. Our evening meals were called “medicine meals”, and were followed by walking meditations and dharma talks. Finally, we ended each night with evening prayers in the main shrine building, and then typically had one hour to prepare for bed at 10:00.

These routines didn’t deviate significantly – though during our silent retreat all activities (barring meals and dharma talks) were replaced by extended meditations sessions. We typically lined up in height order five minutes before each activity, and lateness or pre-approved absence was not acceptable. I felt frustrated on occasion because of this structure, and though I’m sure there were others that appreciated the discipline, I felt sometimes at odds with a system that didn’t give a lot of room for flexibility or privacy.

One of the most notable parts of the month was our seven-day silent retreat. This was my first period of silent retreat, and it introduced me to a number of rules regarding communication. Beyond speaking, we were instructed not to listen to music, sing or play music, create artwork, gesture or write to others, make eye contact, etc. The list went on. We were allowed to journal about our experiences with meditation, but discouraged from journaling as a means of reflecting on other topics.

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In a way, I saw a profound loneliness in this – it felt like we were resisting human instincts of forming communities, and of sharing moments of joy as well as sadness with one another. Spoken and written language, of course, is a vital way in which we communicate, but during this week I also thought a lot about how non-verbal contact expresses emotions and ideas.

Constantly trying to practice equanimity meant that I was often monitoring my reactions and trying to look at my emotions as if they were not my own. For anyone who knows me, it should not come as a surprise that I found this to be enormously difficult. I am (for better or for worse) a sensitive person, and I use my emotions to guide many of my decisions and shape my views of the world. Though I think I’ll come to appreciate the introspection that this silence forced me to have, at the time it made me feel really vulnerable and disconnected.

Throughout the month, another ongoing internal dialogue that I held was questioning the relationship this program had to Chinese culture, and investigating the feels that I have for and about China. I’ve talked before about the foreignness of being a multiracial Chinese person in China, and what that means for how I see my life in this county and my connection to its traditions. In a way, I think that coming to this program may have been a way of searching for authenticity – though my family is not Buddhist by any means, I’ve taken classes over the past year in Buddhist history and hoped that connecting classroom learning with lived experiences would reveal a dimension of Chinese culture I hadn’t previously seen.

With that said, some of our afternoon cultural classes felt basic and geared towards an audience with limited interest or knowledge about Chinese arts. The spectacle and performativity of it all made me feel upset, as though it was saying that China needed to be made palatable to a Western audience in order to be acceptable. I know that this nervousness and anxiety stems in part from my own feelings about race, but there were few forums in which I could raise these concerns and felt heard, which heightened my discomfort about the dynamic.

What did it mean that a number of non-Chinese people were coming together to practice Chinese Buddhist meditation, but not necessarily knowing what their engagement was with their cultural surroundings? Or that every night the group would gather to recite sutras in Mandarin, but did so atonally, awkwardly, and incorrectly? Or that our program relied on volunteer staff who themselves had varying degrees of experience with China or the Chinese language?

I felt these concerns acutely and painfully – though I’ll underscore that this was not because I felt that my peers in this program were bad people, or that the engagement with dharma material was shallow, or that the staff were uncritical. Quite the reverse actually: my classmates (and especially my roommates) were the people who helped me challenge and process these thoughts, and our discussions helped me to understand new depths about meditative practice and Buddhist teachings, and the staff was intelligent and selfless in many more ways that I could be. But for all of this, this gap existed between my expectations and reality, and that chasm was filled with convoluted thoughts on orientalism, ethnicity, spiritual identity, and appropriation.

I don’t know if these feelings could have been resolved over the course of the program (especially given that these seem to be tied to the same questions and frustrations I’ve always felt about my multicultural background) but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to have more informal conversations with students and especially with staff after the official conclusion of the program. These didn’t exactly give me answers – but did give me a lot more to think about and ways in which to think. I think that there’s a tendency to shy away from negative emotions or a desire to escape challenging situations, and this experience is helping me investigate how this manifests within my own inclinations and aversions.

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At the moment, I don’t identify as a Buddhist and (to be honest) I’m not sure if I ever will. I came into this experience wondering if it might be able to help me reconnect with Quakerism, a practice and tradition I value but haven’t been able to have an outlet for while in Mainland China. While I’m committed to spending the next year in China, I find myself more and more invested in the idea of finding a Quaker Meeting to join wherever I end up next. I miss the community that was associated with shared practice, and the familiarity that it brought with it.

I ate a mostly vegan diet at the monastery, though there were a few days where we were served milk and eggs at meals. In some ways, this took me back to the period when I was vegetarian between ages of ten and fifteen. It was harder this time around, and wasn’t always pleasant – around the middle of the month it really started to take a toll on me: I lost weight, had very little energy, and occasionally felt full-body aches. I’m not sure I had a balanced diet at this time, and began taking daily iron supplements. Though I might try to eat less meat/animal products in the future, I think I’d need to be able to depend on a more non-animal protein options than what I was getting at the monastery. I’d love to find a healthy balance with this, as returning to the life of a layperson has meant that processed foods and animal products are surrounding me in excess.

I’ll write down one a last thought about my takeaways for the time being as I realize that this is extending almost indefinitely. It surprises me a little bit, but right now, I don’t think I feel very much like an introvert. Perhaps some of my friends might find this self-assessment surprising, especially for those who didn’t know me as a child. But internally, I guess I continue to identify a lot with the younger version of myself, who was bookish and prone to crying. Disconnecting from a lot of social media starting from the start of the month, and then trying to distance myself from the physical in-person contact during the silent period really made me crave contact, and I felt a wave of warmth when silence was broken and I could finally share with others. Realizing that my personality has shifted in some ways over time, and that the dichotomous introvert vs. extrovert labels didn’t seem to hold quite as much weight as they once did was interesting.

As I’m (finally) coming to a conclusion, I realize that I talk throughout this about loneliness and sadness, and the various types of internal conflict or self-doubt that I’ve been feeling throughout the month. It might seem negative, and while I can’t say that my experience uniformly positive I think that this period in my life is one that I’m going to come to appreciate more and more as I get more time for reflection. All of it might be wrapped up in or precipitated by a subtle kind of mourning: a realization of intransience that is so central to the practice of Buddhism.

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As a child there was something precious about summertime cicadas – I could hear them from my bedroom at night, and finding the amber colored shells still connected to the trees in my backyard during the day seemed like a type of treasure. This year, in the heat of a Southern Chinese summer, I got to meditate a bit more on what this all meant to me. Right around the end of July, I started to see more cicadas dying, and their whirring songs seemed a little less robust than they were before. It wasn’t positive or negative, per say, just a state of being and an observation on how things change.

The title for this post comes from a pair of newly learned Chinese homophones: 禅 and 蝉. Both characters are pronounced chán. The first, 禅, refers to Chan Buddhism, often understood in the West as “Zen” as the Japanese reading of the same character, and the second, 蝉, means cicada. The past month has taught me a lot about both of these things, I think.

Love,

Kristen

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