Taiwan: A nun's story

By Rob McFarland, New Zealand Herald, March 14, 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 nuns, the Venerable Yi Jih. The early evening light is starting to fade and there's not a breath of wind.

<< Fo Guang Shan is the headquarters of an international Buddhist movement. Photo / Dean Purcell

Suddenly, a mobile phone rings. A few of us tut-tut disapprovingly and look around 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 emails.

And there was I thinking 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. As well as a training college for monks and nuns, the centre allows visitors to stay overnight as part of a tour that provides an insight into the religion and the lives of the residents.

Yi Jih enrolled in the monastery shortly after graduating from university and has lived there for 27 years. Over dinner in the guest dining room that night, she speaks candidly about the impact the decision to become a nun 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 Buddhist faith, and, after dinner, we visit one of the monastery's meditation halls where monks and nuns 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 elect to follow this intensive regime for an entire year.

Yi Jih guides our group through a simple 10-minute meditation which illustrates just what a difficult task this is. Despite my best efforts, my mind starts to wander almost immediately after we sit down.

Accommodation is in simple but air-conditioned rooms, and it is with some reluctance that I set my alarm for 5:30am.

In the murky pre-dawn light of the following morning, we watch the monks and nuns 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 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 here, and every meal is eaten in silence. For 20 minutes we eat a simple but filling meal of rice, spinach, beans and porridge. The only sound 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 the extensive gardens.

As Yi Jih bids us farewell, she promises to stay in touch. 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 nun doesn't?) and there are photos of our visit in my inbox by the time I get back to Taipei.

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