A Monk’s Tale


You are sitting on a porch near the meditation hall of a Buddhist monastery on Hong Kong’s outlying island of Lantao. It is February 1986. Around you are grassy hills, and two islands lie light blue in the distance. It is difficult to imagine anything more peaceful. The man sitting beside you is a Chan [Zen] Buddhist monk, a soft-spoken Englishman with a strong Cockney accent. He is dressed in traditional monk’s garb, a long tunic with Chinese fasteners and baggy trousers pulled tight at the bottom. The sleeves aren’t long enough to cover the heavy covering of paisley tattoos on his wrist and lower arms, which come from the very different life he led before he became a monk. Paul’s head has been shaved, and his hair had grown out again to about a centimeter long. On his scalp you see four rows of small, round, deep scars, the results of burns made during his ordination. His eyes are very serene.

Paul’s story

I’ve been interested in Buddhism since I was twenty or so. I’m thirty now. In London we used to sit in meditation for a couple of minutes at the end of karate lessons, and my interest grew over the years. Almost three years ago I came to Hong Kong to enter a Buddhist monastery. I had read about a Chinese master, Xu Yun, whose teaching I like very much. I came to Hong Kong on the off-chance of meeting someone like him.

I liked the first master I met, but when the others encouraged me to choose him as my master I said I’d wait to see if I had an affinity with him. When I did ask him, he told me something he deliberately hadn’t mentioned before, that he was the disciple of the monk whose teachings had brought me here.

When I first came the abbot said I should start wearing robes now and find out if  I liked it. I kept tripping over them at first. These are just old-fashioned Chinese clothes, with loose trousers so you can fold your legs comfortably. The kasa, the descendant of the Indian monk’s robe, which was like a patchwork sheet worn over the left shoulder, is now reserved for ceremonies and formal talks. It’s worn over the tunic and pants and maybe a padded jacket.

I’ve found I have only minor annoyances here. For example, the Chinese think it’s abnormal that in summer when it’s hot I never wear shoes.

“Why do you not wear shoes?”

“It’s too hot.”

I keep a damp cloth by my bed so I can wipe my feet before I go to bed, and I’m quite happy with that. But generally, Chinese footwear habits are easy to adjust to because people wear shoes in and out of doors. In Japan and Korea, you take your shoes off before you go inside. The floors are immaculate, so you have to be very conscious of keeping your feet and socks clean. You don’t notice that so much here.

Chinese monks don’t have communal baths like people in Korea and Japan. They wash individually, and it’s very rare that you’ll see a monk with very little clothes on—in his underwear, for instance. Even in Hong Kong the monks scold me if I take my shirt off to have a wash before the visitors and nuns leave. They say, “Someone might see you through the window.” They get upset by that. So I’ve had to change some of my attitudes to create harmony.

The hardest thing for me was learning to use chopsticks with my right hand. If I used them with my left when I sat in the row of monks, they would get all caught up with the chopsticks of the man on my left, so I had to learn. Everyone was laughing at me. For about three months I kept dropping everything. I just couldn’t control them. But I’ve got it now.

The Chinese are easy to get along with. They’re gentle in their ways, and they seem to really like you to be here, whereas the Japanese and the Koreans don’t like foreigners very much. Also, in Korea and Japan you must do everything as part of the group. The Chinese allow you to center on yourself and forget others. They seem to have a slightly different focus.

The Chinese have all this ceremony, which many of them admit is too long and too complicated. But they do things that create an ideal atmosphere to make the mind still and tranquil. The clouds of incense are beautiful in the morning mist. Inside the temple it’s dark because they don’t have any windows. You sometimes see rows of candles on metal trays, and the light on them is quite remarkable. Many of the old temples have a peculiar atmosphere around them. If you’re the least bit perceptive, you’ll feel it as soon as you walk in the door.

You pick up something similar around the Chinese monks, particularly the older ones, just by watching them move. They’re so natural, they just flow. In fact, in Chinese ordination they tell you to walk like the wind, stand like a pine tree, sit like a bough and lie on your right side like a bow, the posture the Buddha used when he died. With a lot of older monks it’s not necessary to ask them questions, you can learn about inner stillness just by watching. The most important things I learned from my master I experienced when we went on a walk and no words were said.

A typical day in the monastery

Depending on the temple, between 3:00 and 4:00 you hear someone going around with a wooden gong and chanting. That’s the signal to get up and have a wash and clean your teeth. A half hour later there’s the morning chanting. It’s about an hour. Then half an hour after that, there’s breakfast.

In mainland China there’s a lot more physical work—gardening, growing vegetables, and some of the monasteries have rice fields. A lot of monks work on rebuilding temples. Some monks study sutras [discourses or sermons] all day, some chant various ceremonies, some work as office clerks, some as cooks. They work until lunchtime. Buddhists always eat the main meal before noon. They have a short chant before and after the meal and maybe walk back to the main hall chanting the Buddha’s name.

In the afternoon people do their individual jobs until the evening ceremony, which in Hong Kong is usually at half past three unless the temple has a lot of visitors. The evening meal is never formal like breakfast or lunch. A lot of monks don’t eat in the evenings. If there’s a meditation hall in the temple, there’ll be formal meditation. In most temples now in China, evening is the time for the chanting for people’s ancestors. Generally people go to bed about nine. In our temple we have an extra chanting at half past seven of The Diamond Sutra.

The trip to the Chinese mainland

A farmhouse on Putoushan Island

The abbot and a large group from our temple went to Putuoshan, or Putuo Mountain, on an island near Shanghai dedicated to Guanyin [the female Bodhisattva of Compassion, who plays a role similar to that of the Virgin Mary.] Some ladies from Hong Kong were donating a statue to Guanyin, so we all went there for the unveiling ceremony. It’s really a nice place. During the Cultural Revolution, the monks were made to disrobe, and the temple buildings were used to store grain. The buildings weren’t damaged, only the statues. The atmosphere there is just like stepping back in time a thousand years. It’s incredible. Some of the monks look like they’ve been there a thousand years as well.

A couple of us went to the Six Patriarch’s Temple in Canton to see the body of Hui Neng, the author of the Diamond Sutra, who’s been preserved for over a thousand years. I’ve heard of a Westerner who was ordained in that temple last year. He may have been the first Westerner ordained in mainland China. It would have been impossible at the time I went through.

workers rebuilding the temple on Putuoshan

Then we went to some other temples in Guandong Province out in the mountains, straight up like a Chinese painting. But a painting or a photograph could never do it justice. You have to go there and see it for yourself. My master and another monk have poured a lot of money into Yunmen Monastery. I liked it there, and I liked the abbot. They’re working on a meditation all which will be finished in about six months.

This was in 1984, and many monks who had hidden out during the Cultural Revolution were coming back from the hills. They think some monks may still be out there, waiting a bit longer to come down. Or maybe they’ve decided not to come back at all.

I’ve heard there’s conflict between the state and the temples on the mainland, but I didn’t see any. Because I’m a Westerner, they put on a good show for me. But I think many of the initial difficulties have been resolved. Before, many Chinese were afraid or ashamed to admit they had any interest in Buddhism, but now it’s like a cork held under water for so long it’s popped up. Even powerful people in the government come from families which have been Buddhists for thousands of years. You can’t destroy it. I spoke to people who admitted to me that during the Cultural Revolution they kept reciting sutras and doing meditation and devotional chanting, but in secret. I suspect quite a lot of people did. The abbot of Putuoshan said that during the Cultural Revolution he kept on doing internal practice, Zen practice. So he kept going, but he never talked about it, and there was no outward sign.

There are still problems with the sutras. We had a letter recently from a place in mainland China where they had so few sutras they were copying them by hand. During the Cultural Revolution, religious books of all types were burned. People hid them, but few survived. Nobody could take any in, either. They were confiscated at customs. But the ban was lifted about six months ago. The abbot told one of my dharma brothers [fellow monks] to post some to China.

We met quite a few monks who were over forty or fifty and then young ones twenty or twenty-five and novices a good deal younger. There’s a generation gap between the old monks and the young ones because of the Cultural Revolution, and also a cultural gap because the young monks don’t have any experience of life without communism. My master said that some of Buddhism will inevitably be lost, but with five or six really good teachers in China they stand a chance of keeping the heart of Buddhism going.

Living conditions are very simple in mainland temples. You just wash from a bowl or bucket, though some have cold showers. Everything’s cooked in woks over open fires. Most temples have electricity and telephones now, but hardly any have television or radio. Some of the monks read newspapers. I’ve seen a lot of monks in China who don’t have much money. It’s not good for monks to have a lot of money because that can distract them from their original purpose, especially the younger ones.

With the Chinese the food’s good. They’re strict vegetarians who can’t eat meat under any circumstances. Most of them keep this rule, and most of them never drink alcohol, whereas in Japan there’s quite a bit of drinking in the monasteries, with parties after periods of intensive meditation. In China the monks have no holidays. They practice every day, nonstop, like a gentle stream running down a hill. I feel I have more affinity with this style of practice.

Traditionally in Chinese culture, temples have been considered a worthwhile place to visit. It’s good in many ways, because tourist have a chance to look at temple life. Most people find temples very serene and still, and often they feel encouraged to ask about the teaching. People go there because they’ve got problems to solve or doubts to clear up or for instruction so they can make their lives more peaceful and purposeful. They often stay a few days.

People come into the monastery for a multitude of different reasons. You’ll find every type of person you’d find outside—from a first-class saint to a rock-bottom sinner, totally unrepentant. Some people can’t understand why such sinners live in temples or why they’re even allowed to live in them. But the whole idea of the temple is to help these people, and it’s the very best thing for them, really, where others can set shining examples and help them cultivate their minds. Lots of people come in because they’re very sincere and believe in Buddhism. Some people who are academically inclined like to study sutras, and it’s an ideal setting for that. Some have a very devotional attitude. Some come in with very little understanding of Buddhism. Often they change, and their understanding matures. A lot of nuns, the younger ones, come in because they’ve had boyfriend trouble. Yes, some people do come in to have an easier life. This has been true since the Buddha’s time, I think. In mainland China ninety-nine percent of the young ones are peasants who could have had a very hard life outside, doing nothing but manual work. But in the Chinese tradition monks can’t marry, so they have to choose a life of celibacy.

Paul’s ordination

In China most people stay in for life, so you have to work very hard to get ordination. They’ll often give you a task they see is going to be difficult for you, just to see if you’ll go through with it. You also have to learn a lot of different monk’s customs—the way to put on robes, the way to walk, the way to sleep, the way to eat. We have a particular sutra to chant while putting on or taking off the formal robes, for instance. It takes time to learn these things. You have to spend many hours kneeling on the hard ground begging for the precepts. You have to do many hours of bowing every night, calling the Buddha’s name.

My probation period lasted eighteen months. I was ordained fifteen months ago. Right before ordination most people get ill, so the monastery has a doctor there a lot. Even if you really want to go through with it, the subconscious fights against it. It still wants to be free, and there are things it doesn’t want to give up. It’s a trick of the ego, if you like. In my case it was terrible constipation. The laxatives the doctor gave me didn’t work. But when I really got into bowing with sincerity of mind, the constipation stopped. It was as though all the bad karma passed through me, and I felt much better.

The ordination ceremony is a sort of repentance for all the bad deeds you’ve done in this life and in former lives. Now you’ll put them down, you won’t repeat them. During the ceremony, the monks transmit what they call “precepts substance,” the substance of the concepts of Buddha, which gives you direction in your meditation. When I went up on the platform I was confused because the ceremony was not at all like what I’d expected. It was very noisy, and there was no meditation, and there were many things I didn’t like. I had a lot of bad thoughts, and then all of a sudden I realized I hadn’t got this precepts substance. Whatever it was, I had missed it. So I turned my awareness back on myself, and I thought, “Well, what is it?”

All of a sudden my false thinking just stopped. I had no thought at all. My mind was pure and clean. This is what is supposed to happen. You get a break in the clouds so clear you can see the moon—or you perceive your own nature. So I just floated off the platform. The translator picked up on the change immediately. Afterwards, he said, “Don’t look so sad. That’s good. How do you feel?” I knew I felt the same as my dharma-brother who had come off the platform first—from the look in his eyes. He also hadn’t wanted to talk to anybody.

When your head is burned, it’s as though the precepts are burned right through you. It’s done early in the morning. Because you’re burned on the head, the poison from the burn goes right through your bloodstream, and you feel very dizzy and groggy. The burn goes right down to the skull. After they’ve done the burns, they’ll help you to stand. You go down the temple steps into a courtyard full of laypeople cheering and very happy and saying you have the Buddha’s ear and they are really proud. You walk through the crowd and hold up your robe, and people fill it with presents and stuff money into your pockets, and you end up in front of the statue of Huito, the Guardian of the Dharma, and you bow before him. You realize that now you have his job.

During the three weeks before your ordination, you’ve been locked up in the monastery, but now you’re free to out and walk over the island, and you walk because if you go to sleep the poison in your blood can damage your eyes. So you walk all day to avoid going to sleep. By evening the poison has worn off, and you feel much better. You feel as if you’re walking two feet off the ground. You feel really high.

Ordination ceremonies vary so much from country to country that only if you go through a Chinese ceremony will you know about it, or if you hear about it from someone who has. I’m really very fortunate. Not many Westerners have had the privilege—not many Westerners at all.