Photo of Taitaku Phelan Sensei

"Following Dogenís Footsteps,"
a Travel Diary of China

Josho Pat Phelan

October 1, 2001

Dear Sangha,

We are in Hangzhou, a medium-sized city of 3.4 million people on West Lake, a famous resort. Today we drove about two hours into the country-side, seeing sugar cane, rice, and tea plants growing by the road and a water buffalo. Rice fields are still planted using water buffalo. There are tall bamboo "patches" growing on the mountainsides beside evergreen trees, and it reminded me of scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We were on our way to Wanshou Temple (also referred to as Jing Shan, itís mountain name) originally established in 742. The temple gate was at the base of the mountain where a twelve-mile curvy mountain road leading to the monastary began, somewhat reminiscent of the road to Tassajara. There were clusters of houses and a small village scattered along the road. The monastery was destroyed in the 20th century but was rebuilt in 1987.

Jing Shan is a practicing temple with eight monks and a community of lay people, who want to support Buddhism and who help take care of the facility, totaling thirty people in all. Although this monastery/temple is out of the way, there are still lots of visitors since this is a national holiday. On the Temple grounds there are traditionally a Bell Tower and Drum Tower. The instruments here are very large and located on the second floor, above a large Buddha statue (larger than life size). There was a Dharma Hall, a Founders Hall, a Zendo (closed to the public), a Study Hall, Dining Room, kitchen, sleeping rooms, etc.

This area near Hangzhou (south of the Yangtze River) is the site of the Five Mountains, the five leading Zen monasteries that were the spiritual and administrative centers of Zen Buddhism in the Sung dynasty (950-1300). A river connects Hangzhou with the ocean, and virtually all the Japanese monks entered at this place; so Dogen and Eisai (the Rinzai teacher he met at age fourteen) both practiced in this area. There were a lot of displaced monks from the North (which had been invaded by Tartars or Manchurians) also in this area who lived in a bohemian community and did many famous Zen paintings that were taken to Japan and which strongly influenced Zen art (the "Six Persimmons" by Mu Chíi or Fa Chang is an example).

Dahui Zongao* practiced at Jing Shan as did Ru-Jing who was abbot here before becoming abbot at Tiantong where Dogen practiced with him for about two to two-and-a-half years. Dogen practiced at Jing Shan for five months before going to Tiantong.

The current Abbot invited us to have tea. We were seated at tables and chairs and were served tea by an elderly lay woman. The Abbot, Ding Kong, welcomed us, and then our tour guide and translator, Andy Ferguson**, asked him for a teaching. Reminiscent of Hongzhi, Abbot Ding Kong said:

The standard of our samadhi-wisdom is observing our true nature with a clear mind,
This can also be called the standard of sitting zazen,
The standard of our words and actions are the precepts,
Our meditation is lively and dynamic,
While in our words and actions we attain stillness and are not disorderly,
In this way we can bring forth wisdom.

Arrangements were made ahead of time for us to have lunch here. The Abbot, who was a slender man of forty to sixty years with a very sculpted and gentle face, helped set the table. Usually in China lay people are not allowed in the meditation hall, and anyone who is not practicing as a celibate monk and who has not taken the 250 precepts is considered a lay person. However, the Abbot let us sit as a group in the meditation hall. Their tan, which we sat on, were table-like, each seating two people. Their cushions were rectangular and much harder than ours. Some resembled small cushions for a couch. After we sat down, the Abbot came in and put small blankets of coarse flannel on our laps and legs. Well, it turned out that the period of zazen lasted an hour after the Abbot sat down. Then we did fast walking around the room in a "herd" for about ten minutes. Although the zendo was recently rebuilt, it was believed to be on the same site where Dogen sat zazen when he practiced here in about 1223.

After zazen we went to the gift shop to buy monkís bags, robes, and juzu or malas [Buddhist rosaries] which was right in the Dharma Hall. While we were there, the monks began doing a service which is more melodic than our chanting (which is not melodic at all). A young monk came to the front of the altar and did some extremely graceful and dexterous finger movements as part of a water offering, pouring it from one tiny cup into another, offering it outside, and then returning. I have never seen anything like this. His finger movements and mudras were very quick and graceful. We stayed for thirty minutes of this service but had to leave before it was over. (Some services last an hour and a half.)

I am writing from a cyber cafť, minus the cafť, with about thirty ancient computers. It turns out that China is very safe to walk around in, with a very low crime rate, and I do feel safe being out here after 10 p.m. and walking back to the hotel by myself. However (there is always a "however"), crossing the street really scares me. The cars and bicycles do not stop. Pedestrians bear the full responsibility of not being hit. We sit zazen every morning in the hotel before breakfast, so I had better end now.

*See Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures by Zen Master Ta Hui, translated by Christopher Cleary, Grove Press, 1977.

** Andy Ferguson wrote Zenís Chinese Heritage, the Masters and Their Teachings, Wisdom Publications, 2000.

October 4, 2001

Dear Sangha,

For the past two days we have been in Tiantai, a town on the edge of a national park. Our hotel is at the end of a stone-paved road next to Guoqing Temple at the foot of Tiantai Moutain which faces two stupas and has hermitages scattered among its peaks. Quoqing Temple was established around the 5th century and was the monastery where Chih-I*, the third Tiantai (J. Tendai) ancestor who codified Buddhist practices, including meditation methods, in China in the 6th century was abbot. There is a stream alongside the road, and there is a path beside the temple that has been used for the past 1,500 years. On this path up Tiantai Mountain, Joshu and Han Shan had an Dharma exchange in the 8th century. There were rice paddies almost up to the edge of our hotel, and one morning looking out the window we saw people threshing the rice by hand, with a water buffalo nearby.

Before leaving the area, we hiked up many stone steps to a small nunnery on the other side of the mountain. We offered incense and bowed at the main altar which is built cave-like into the rock face of the mountain.

Then our bus driver decided to take a "short cut" and leave the freeway. We were stopped in a traffic jam by a construction zone in a small town where both the highway as well as buildings, including a four story concrete or stone apartment house, were being demolished and rebuilt almost completely by hand.

Our destination was Shifang Chanyuan on Xeudou Mountain, one of the most prominent mountain monasteries in China with more than forty practitioners. The monastery was preceded by a hermitage built by a female Buddhist devotee in the 4th century. In the 11th century a monk here, Xeudo Chongxian or Setcho, compiled what was to become the Blue Cliff Record. Soon after we arrived, evening service began which we joined. There were a number of other lay men and women attending, temple workers as well as others from outside the grounds, some of whom were wearing sitting robes and okesa. We did bows on small benches and the chanting was, again, melodic and we began walking out in the courtyard in a winding path while chanting.

After service, we had tea with the thirty-seven-year-old Abbot and were given a video which showed the temple grounds, sutra chanting, and the surrounding mountains and waterfalls. This temple is large, having a wealthy donor in Hong Kong and it is quite a contrast to Jing Shan where we also met with the Abbot.

* See The Great Calming and Contemplation, A Study and Annotated Translation of the First Chapter of Chih-Iís Mo-Ho Chih-Kuan by Neal Donner and Daniel Stevenson, Kuroda Inst., Univ. Hawaii Press, 1993.

October 7, 2001

We spent two days on an island, Putuo Shan, that is dedicated to Kwan Yin and faces the China Sea. It has about 100 temples, including at least two nunneries, but we visited only the three largest temples. We saw several chanting/dharma studies going on with monks sitting at tables and chairs with books and with someone keeping time with a mokugyo. The chanting was soft, giving me the impression that it was more of a group study hall rather than a service. We found out that these monks, who were wearing red okesas with silver "lines" instead of stitches, were Tendai monks. There were also Chían (J. Zen) and Pure Land monks who, I believe, both wore brown okesa.

We saw a number of young monks and nuns on the roads and in temples at Putuo Shan. At two of the three temples we toured, someone initiated a conversation with an elderly monk. I was very impressed with their sincerity and depth of practice. They both talked about cultivation of mind and seeing into self-nature as the basis of practice. The second monk had a long gray beard and talked about how he had studied Marxism and heard political slogans that sounded good, but they didnít work. I canít remember much, but he seemed to have learned from his life experience and was willing to talk about it. He was asked about becoming a monk and said that some leave home in their hearts and minds and some physically leave home; and when both are done, this is true home leaving. Both monks ended by indicating the importance of maintaining the precepts as a way to cultivate the mind outside meditation.

After visiting a 100 foot statue of Kwan Yin which faces the sea on the eastern side of the island, we were ferried back to the mainland to Ningbo.

October 8, 2001

Today we went to Auyung, the home of the first Tenzo* that Dogen met after his ship docked in China. Auyung has a sarira or relic of the Buddha (a small piece of cranium bone), and it was believed this came from King Ashoka who had 84,000 relics deposited in stupas all over the world. A stupa was found on this site in the 4th century and eventually a monastery was built here named after King Ashoka (Auyung in Chinese). The relic is kept in a little metal pagoda-like structure in a wooden box in a locked room. We were allowed to participate in a service in which we each offered incense, then bowed and chanted in front of the relic, and then, one by one, we came up to look into the metal pagoda container which was held by a monk. The relic was supposed to be the size of a bean. When I looked at it through a lattice-like hole, I saw a sort of distorted blur but no "bean." People saw different thingsĖsome saw a golden bell with a lima bean size relic, others saw a much smaller relic. We were told that sometimes the whole building glows at night because of the relic. Both Dogen and Eisai, as well as other Japanese monks who transmitted Zen teachings from China to Japan, visited and studied at Auyung.

From Auyung we went about forteen miles to Tiantong where Dogen practiced with Ru-Jing for about two-and-a-half years and where he "dropped body and mind." There is a special altar for Dogen with a nice portrait provided by the Soto Shu (School) in Japan. A monk first built a hut at this site in the year 300. Master Hongzhi Zhengjue**, who is known for his teachings on "silent illumination" Zen and who compiled of the Book of Serenity, lived and taught here. Hongzhi had an important influence on Dogenís understanding and practice of shikan taza.

We had a guided tour by a young monk who had lived there for three years. When men want to be monks, they come to the monastery and let it be known. Their heads are shaved, and they then go to a Buddhist Academy to study for two, four, or six years before returning for monastic practice.

Today at Tiantong, there are both a Rinzai teacher and a Soto teacher. (Remember that when Dogen first visited Tiantong, there was a Rinzai abbot he didnít care for who died, and Ru-Jing, a Soto monk, became abbot next.) We were told that there is no difference between Rinzai and Soto as it is practiced here; the only difference being in the perspective or approach. The Soto perspective is that we are already enlightened and we practice because of our inherent enlightenment. The Rinzai perspective is to practice to become enlightened. Interestingly enough, if I understood the monk, he said that Soto is considered sudden practice and Rinzai is considered gradual practice. The monk said that the practice is the same in both approaches: when sitting investigate "who is it that meditates?" When chanting investigate "who is it that chants?" Rinzai monks are assigned one koan which they use on an ongoing basis, having dokusan only when some question about practice arises. The systematization of koan practice, where a koan is assigned for one to practice with as a way to break through, which is then followed by investigating another koan, eventually going through the forty-eight koans in the Mumonkan and the hundred koans in the Blue Cliff Record, developed in Japan. There are about one hundred monks at Tiantong, the majority practicing in the Rinzai tradition.

The monksí schedule is to wake up at 3:30 and to go to bed at 8:30. There seems to be an almost continuous schedule of zazen and chanting service and study hall throughout the day. Meals are eaten at tables and chairs in a dining room, except during sesshin when breakfast and lunch are eaten in the zendo. Dinner is not "dinner" but some kind of tea during sesshin. The sesshin day begins at 3:00 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m. Sesshin are something like eleven days, or three weeks, or seven weeks long. (I canít quite remember how long, but much longer than ours are.) The koan practice and the sesshin length both remind me of what I have heard about Zen practice in Korea.

The site for Tiantong is a green uninhabited mountain, and each hall, positioned right behind the previous hall, is a little higher than the hall in front of it, with about 750 halls and rooms. There are four zendos here, and before leaving we were able to visit and circumambulate the zendo believed to be the site of Dogenís enlightenment. Tomorrow morning we leave for two days in Shanghai before returning to San Francisco.

*See "Tenzo Kyokun" by Eihei Dogen in From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment, Refining Your Life, Kosho Uchiyama, Weatherhill, 2001.

**See Cultivating the Empty Field, the Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, translated by Taigen Leighton, Tuttle.

For more on Dogenís travels and experiences practicing in China, see Dogenís Formative Years in China, An Historical Study and Annotated Translation of the Hokyo-ki, by James Kodera, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

P.S. This wonderful tour of Chinese Buddhist Temples was arranged through China Focus, Inc. in San Francisco, (800) 868-7244 or <www.china>. It was led by Andy Ferguson who lived in Asia for many years and who has been researching Chían masters and their temple sites for about twenty years. I am deeply grateful to all who made this tour possible, including my teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman, the spiritual leader of the tour.


© Copyright Taitaku Patricia Phelan, 2001

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