Venerable company

by Rob McFarland, Sydney Morning Herald, January 20, 2008

Taipei, Taiwan -- It's a magical, if slightly surreal, moment. We're standing in the courtyard of the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, surrounded by 480 identical gold statues of Buddha, listening attentively to the softly spoken words of one of the monks, the Venerable Yi Jih. The early evening light is just starting to fade and there's not a breath of wind.

<< Chanting at Fo Guang Shan, the main monastery south of Taiwan.
Photo: Rob Mcfarland

Suddenly, a mobile phone rings. Some of us tut disapprovingly and look around accusingly for the culprit. To our amazement, the offender is Yi Jih. She apologises while rummaging comically beneath her flowing orange robes to locate her phone. After a short conversation, she declares that the monastery office is closing soon so we'd better be quick if we want to check our emails.

And there was me thinking that technology was the root of all evil.

Located 30 minutes from the city of Kaohsiung in the south of Taiwan, Fo Guang Shan is the headquarters of an international Buddhist movement that has 194 temples around the world. It was started in 1967 by Venerable Master Hsing Yun and its branches include the Nan Tian Temple in Wollongong - the largest Buddhist monastery in the southern hemisphere.

As well as being a training college for monks, the centre allows visitors to stay overnight as part of a guided tour that provides an insight into both the religion and the lives of the resident monks.

Yi Jih enrolled in the monastery shortly after graduating from university and has lived there for 27 years. Each of her days follows a strict routine: rise at 5.30am, morning chanting at 5.50am, breakfast at 6.30am, lunch at 11.30am and dinner at 6pm. In between, her duties include giving tours, presiding over Buddhist ceremonies and teaching in the college and out in the community.

Over dinner in the guest dining room that night, she speaks candidly about the impact the decision to become a monk has had on her family and the loss they felt when she first came to live in the monastery.

While it's not everyone's chosen path in life, she's clearly found her calling. I've never met anyone who emanates such a sense of serenity and wellbeing.

Meditation is a key part of the Buddhism faith and after dinner we visit one of the monastery's meditation halls where monks will sometimes meditate for 17 hours a day. Starting at 5.30am, they break only for meals and to stretch their legs with short walks. Incredibly, some monks elect to follow this intensive regime for an entire year.

Yi Jih guides us through a 10-minute meditation which illustrates just what a difficult task this is. Despite my best efforts my mind starts to wander onto the most embarrassingly benign topics almost immediately after we sit down.

We end the session with a mantra which encapsulates the essence of the Buddhist faith: "May I be well and happy. May you be well and happy. May all beings be well and happy."

Accommodation for the night is in simple but comfortable air-conditioned rooms and it is with some reluctance that I set my alarm for the rather ungodly hour of 5.30am.

In the murky predawn light of the following morning we watch the monks file into the main temple and sit in lines facing three towering gold statues of Buddha. After a short prayer, they begin to chant in unison to the steady rhythm of a large gong. Many know the words off by heart while others read from small prayer books.

We sit cross-legged at the back of the hall and watch the proceedings by the light of hundreds of flickering candles. I don't have a religious bone in my body but it is impossible not to be moved by such a compelling display of faith.

Once the ceremony is complete, we follow them into the grand hall for breakfast. The monks take all their meals in this cavernous 3000-seat hall and every meal is eaten in silence. Yi Jih has already explained to us the protocol for indicating when we would like more food (leave a little of what we'd like on our plate and push it forward) and how we should arrange our bowls to signify we're finished (rice bowl on the left, porridge bowl on the right). Nevertheless, I still find myself nervously glancing around to see what everyone else is doing.

For 20 minutes we eat a simple meal of rice, spinach, beans and porridge in silence. The only sound that echoes around the hall is the rhythmic clicking of 800 pairs of chopsticks.

Sadly, we have to catch a train back to Taipei so we don't have time to visit the other parts of the monastery. Those on longer tours can see the museum, the exhibition hall and some of the monastery's extensive gardens.

As Yi Jih bids us farewell, she promises to stay in touch. From anyone else it would be a hollow gesture, but from her it is sincere.

I ask her if she needs my postal address and she looks at me like I'm a Luddite. She has a Gmail account (what self-respecting monk doesn't nowadays?) and there are photos of our visit in my inbox when I get back to Taipei.

The writer travelled as a guest of China Airlines and Taiwan Tourism.


Getting there: China Airlines flies from Sydney to Taipei five times a week. Phone 1300 668 052 or see The Fo Guan Shan Monastery is in Dashu, Kaohsiung. Take the high-speed train from Taipei to Kaohsiung (about 1.5 hours) and then get a taxi or shuttle to the monastery (about 45 minutes). Phone +886 7656 1921 or see

Staying there: Staying at the monastery costs $NT1000 ($35) for a single room and $NT2000 for a double room per night. Couples can stay together.

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