Memories of Taiwan: encounters with spirituality

It was Wednesday afternoon in my first week in Taiwan and I was emotionally exhausted. That morning I, among others, had undergone a traditional "bai shi" ceremony where I was accepted as an "inner circle" student of my teacher Chen Yun-Ching. Every facade had cracked; my attempts at maintaining a composed, relaxed front had proved laughable, and even Master Chen's normally inscrutable exterior crumbled as he knelt before the picture of his father and bowed three times, openly shedding tears. Then, with every one of us bai shi, he had the handkerchief at hand.

Before me was my good mate "Little" John Scott who so endearingly wears his heart on his sleeve, tears flowing freely. By the time my turn came I resolved to keep some semblance of both my and Master Chen's composure, holding back hot tears behind my eyeballs; pressure vessels about to explode.

In the afternoon I felt so spent I didn't bother to note where we were going. All I knew was that we were traveling somewhere by bus - "a very special trip to a temple" Shou Mei said. Given that we had spent every day training in front of an impressive temple, I couldn't understand how the excursion could possibly amount to anything more than a pleasant distraction and some relief for my sore muscles and swollen joints.

I boarded the coach and chose a seat on my own, then slumped into the shared quiet: each person seemed deep in his or her own thoughts. I let the hours of the journey roll past with the deepening countryside, watching the sky gradually becoming slightly less hazy as we steered into the moist hills, my ears popping.

When we arrived at the temple we were confronted by what I can fairly describe as a challenge to our weary legs - a long, steep flight of stairs ascending to a gate which I assumed led to the opening of the temple. I remember how I stood momentarily at the base, shaking blood and resolve into my lower limbs, breathing in the fresh mountain air and bracing myself for the climb.

It turned out that I had every reason to be apprehensive; the flight of steps was only the beginning. After reaching the gates at the top I found myself staring at an even steeper climb to another gate, and just beyond that another, and another. It was at this point that Shou Mei assembled us for an introduction to our guide; a Buddhist nun who was fluent in English. I remember walking towards the front of the group, slipping between my martial brothers and sisters, still lost in my own world, oblivious to (and disinterested in) what was to come.

Those who know me or have read some of my writings will be aware that I am what I like to call a "reluctant atheist" and a skeptic generally. I respect friends who are religious, moreover I respect their right to hold their beliefs. Indeed I often wish I shared them as I can see the solace and peace religious convictions can bring. But as I have said elsewhere, "wishing don't make it so" and I remain on the "outside" of belief systems. Meeting the nun who was to be our guide is as close as I have ever come - and probably ever will come - to "spirituality", however one defines that term.

It is a cliché, but I'll say it anyway; it was as if she had a light shining from within. The broad smile that framed her face embodied contentment of a kind I had not ever seen. It as was as if pure joy were personified; somehow distilled, bottled then rendered into human form.

She studied the group, her kind eyes surveying each individual, gave a small cough and adjusted her rattan "hat", making me aware of her shaven head. At this point I wasn't sure if she was a man or a woman; her lack of hair, brown robes and androngenous features perplexed me. Ultimately it was only her soft, measured voice that betrayed her gender.

In perfect, accentless English she apologised that she was still recovering from a nasty case of influenza and was not in her usual form, but would do her best to guide us through the temple complex. Whatever daze I'd been in before had disappeared. I became totally focussed on her every, slightly raspy, word, emitted between small coughs and a smile that flowed like her robes. We were, she said, in for a few surprises and I had the feeling she was right.

Walking up the next flights of steps seemed somehow easier. I was with Little John, taking 2 steps at a time. The nun's enthusiasm and joie de vivre seemed infectious.

Finally we reached the very top where the main temple stretched out in front of us. I was surprised to find the nun already there. Where I was slightly out of breath, she was perfectly composed (except for the little coughs).

We waited outside for a while until the entire group had assembled and I asked our group photographer Lucia Ondrusova to take the adjacent picture of me and the nun just before we went in.

As to what we experienced inside... well, I think I'll let the video below speak for itself. Take careful note of my expression as I'm surveying the interior:


A video of the bai shi ceremony and the visit to Kaohsiung's Fo Guang Shan (佛光山) or "Buddha's Light Mountain" temple. Fo Guang Shan is an international Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monastic order

After we had savoured the majestic scale and beauty of the main temple we found ourselves congregating outside where the nun waited patiently. Then we followed her down an immaculately polished stone corridor. When we had reached the end she paused and turned to us: "We are now going into an art gallery. No photographs are allowed inside." The injunction was not a request, nor was it received as an order. It was just a fact, and we dutifully (if reluctantly) put our cameras away. "What you are about to see is some of the glass sculptures of Loretta Hui-shan Yang. She was a very famous actress here in Taiwan, but now she is known all over the world for her beautiful art. You will see why." Again, that omniscient smile.

As we entered the gallery we were immediately engulfed in a world of stark contrasts; darkness, punctuated by back-lit displays of exquisitely carved glass objects. Some were crafted in such minute detail they appeared to defy human physical possibility if not logic itself. "The artist," the nun explained waving at the interior decor, "designed the entire exhibition, right down to the lighting. She was directly involved at every step."

Before we entered a the final exhibition the nun made us pause. "This room is very special. I won't say any more. You will see."

Again she was right. We entered a room with displays that were, quite simply, indescribable. I turned to the nun and saw her laugh knowingly as our jaws collectively hit the floor. Joy was to be had from seeing sheer beauty. Yes, she too was reveling in the exhibition. But she was also vicariously experiencing the joy on our faces. How many times have we heard the saying: "the simplest things in life are often the best." Here was someone who lived that truism.

It was Einstein who famously said: "Time is an illusion." Indeed, while I was in the art gallery, time seemed suspended. Occasionally I took a break from examining the artworks to chat with the nun, who explained to me that after becoming interested in glass sculpture, Loretta Hui-shan Yang had written to leading Italian glass artists seeking some advice on where and how to begin. Apparently the few replies she received were less than helpful. So Ms Yang decided to go it alone. Working tirelessly for the better part of a decade she developed a technique and method that is now world-renowned and completely individualistic. She turned an initial setback into an advantage. She refused to give up. Some of the individual artworks had taken her up to 5 years to complete. The nun felt there were many lessons to be learned from her.

After the art gallery we visited the temple's museum, another state-of-the-art facility. I won't bore you with more gushing descriptions. You get the "picture". But our experiences were far from over; in fact they were about to become more "hands on".

We were shepherded into a giant, wood-paneled classroom for a calligraphy lesson. It was, the nun explained, all about the moment - living in the now. Grasping the pre-filled "brush pen" I tried to adhere to what I knew were the basics; keep it vertical, make a single stroke and be decisive. Never go back over a stroke; the moment has passed. I succeeded in breaking each of the fundamental rules, but found myself smiling anyway.

After the lesson we were led to a delicately lit meditating room. Without any instruction we were invited to have some "quiet time" to reflect on the day. We filed in and circled around the perimeter of the room, taking up positions wherever we wished, sitting cross-legged on futon-like cushioning, our backs against a similarly padded wall. The 15 minutes of silence was at once an eternity and yet it passed in an instant: again the words of Einstein come to mind. There was so much on which to reflect...

After the meditation session we emerged, blinking, into the sharp rays of the late afternoon sun for the final part of our tour, which included a visit to the giant bronze Buddha - a structure that was at least 3 stories high and dominated the peak of the mountain. By now I could see that the nun was weary; the extent of her illness was only just becoming apparent to me. She sat down to rest on a bench facing the statute and I took the opportunity to ask her about life in a monastic order. Did she often leave the temple? If so, for what purposes? What had she done before entering the monastery?

Whatever weariness the nun had been feeling seemed to vanish temporarily as she spoke of her life; clearly she had found complete contentment in a world utterly alien and incomprehensible in the context of our Western materialism. She had joined the monastery in the '80s after a time at university. She had never looked back. She rarely left the temple compound as all her needs were provided for there. The only exceptions were visits to prisons, to do other charitable work and to give the occasional lecture or paper on subjects pertaining to their order and Buddhism itself.

As she spoke, I remembered with some irony how at one point during the tour the nun turned to us and asked if we had heard US president Barak Obama's inauguration speech. We replied that we hadn't; we'd been too busy training. "It's okay," she said, "you haven't missed it. Just log onto Youtube and do a search for "Obama" and "inauguration". It comes up straight away."

After obligatory stops to buy souvenirs from the temple's gift shop (the nun helped me choose some marvelous taiji music by a talented local artist) we were then led to the temple's cafeteria/restaurant and treated to a sumptuous vegetarian feast. The nun made a final appearance to wish us all a pleasant New Year and to say "Go Obama!" once more. I remembered the New Year greeting suggested to me by Master Chen's sister just after the bai shi ceremony and said it to her (this wasn't to be my first misadventure with New Year greetings, but more on that another time). It took the nun a moment to compute my poor rendering of Chinese tones and the perplexed look on her face faded back into the familiar smile. "Oh - I get it."

In the end, I'm not sure what "spirituality" is; all I can say is that I don't think a "spiritual experience" is outside the realms of possibility for an atheist skeptic. If "spirituality" means reveling in the beauty of a moment, in the exquisite complexity of nature, the power of the universe, the insignificance of man and simultaneously the endless possibilities open to us all, then I think we are all capable of such an experience.

Postscript:

Little did I know that my encounters with Buddhism were not yet over for that day. Not long after we returned to the hotel I was convinced by Little John to go out to the Cabana Jazz Club - a little bar some of my martial brothers and sisters had already made their own. A couple of hours and a couple of beers later, John and I left, exhausted and depleted, with Lucia in tow. She was still fired up about the calligraphy lesson and had been told by Karen Jensen that there was a teacher operating at a place we would pass on the way back to the hotel (this enthusiasm is the subject of another story you can read here). Since neither John nor I were certain about our ability to determine the way back, we let Lucia be our navigator; a short side-visit would be a small price to pay for getting "home"!

In our search for the calligrapher we chanced upon a shop, still open in the late hours. I stopped to examine some torches and keychains, coasters and broom handles; a mish-mash of items spilling out onto the sidewalk and into the warm, moist, sweet-sewer smell of the evening. The items themselves were mundane; certainly there was nothing I was interested in purchasing. John and I looked up simultaneously as a shout echoed out from the back of the room; a little woman of indeterminate age rushed down to us, beaming like a headlight. She said (in animated half-Chinese, half-English) that she had something for us. Ruing our decision to stop and browse, we hastily made our excuses, retreating into the shadows. She did not seem to understand and disappeared to the back of her store, presumably to obtain the goods she thought we'd like. Taking the opportunity, we absconded.

We never did find the calligrapher - nor the hotel. In fact, after a further half-hour of walking we found ourselves precisely back at the woman's shop. It seemed we'd just walked a very big circle. The woman was ecstatic; we had returned for her goods! She hastily piled books and bookmarks into our hands and ran back for more. I resigned myself to purchasing a few - whatever they were.

Flicking through a couple, I found myself somewhat pleasantly surprised; one was a book of wise sayings - generally of the kind one would expect to be uttered by the Dalai Lama or someone similar. It was a handsomely bound paperback and would make an excellent souvenir for some people I knew. Others were similar gentle philosophical books with a Buddhist "bent". The bookmarks were really quite exquisite.

I selected a few and made my way to the counter to purchase them. "No, no!" the woman protested. It seemed these were gifts. Then I took the time to examine her more closely and noted that what I had initially perceived to be a manic persona was nothing of the kind: it was the same embodiment of joy I had seen in the nun earlier that day.

Lucia took the opportunity to ask the woman if she knew the whereabouts of a certain calligraphy teacher. She did not. But she did inquire what words Lucia wanted to have rendered into Chinese script and obliging wrote them down for her on a note-pad. The woman in that shop didn't want to sell us anything. She didn't want to "convert" us. She just wanted to give us something - a gift in the truest sense of the word.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic