At 5AM, a monk begins to clap blocks of wood together. The sound grows louder and then more quiet as he moves through the campus. At 5:30AM another monk begins to ring a bell. One, two, three, after twenty ringings, I lose track. At 5:40 AM, a monastic begins to strike the gong. Within a few more minutes at the Main Shrine, two hundred monks, nuns, novices, and visitors begin to chant Buddhist songs and scriptures. According to the Chinese calendar, Wednesday was the Buddha’s birthday. In celebration, the service goes on for nearly an hour. Even without knowing the words, I am drawn to the melody and the rhythm.
Various sounds replace the early sounds. After breakfast, seventy of us, all women except for ten men, gather in the Buddha’s Name Chanting Hall. Led by four nuns, we chant “Nomo Amitabha” for the next ninety minutes, except for a fifteen minute meditation. The nuns kept the tempo as fast as a fast as some of Elvis Presley’s or John Coltrane’s pieces.The sound is fast, urgent, upbeat.
The absence of sound is also telling. Individuals walk quietly. At breakfast in the Great Dining Hall, two hundred monks, nuns, and visitors eat in complete silence. While the food servers may clink the spoon against the pot when serving, or a person may occasionally scrape the floor with their chair, I hear nothing. Nothing! Since I quickly became use to the silence, I nearly dropped by camera when a person spoke to me from behind. I was so surprised! I don’t hear large trucks shifting gears to make it up the hills. I certainly don’t hear the members of the Sangha shouting at each other. Even the visitors are quiet!
Sounds are suggestive. Without any difficulty, I locate myself in a Buddhist monastery, not in a Hindu Mandir with Vedic Sanskrit being recited nor in a Trappist monastery with Gregorian chants being sung. With that locating, I can begin to imagine all sorts of other features of Fo Guang Shan.
Sight is also important. I can see people moving before sunrise. An elderly man mops the Mountain Gate Entrance, a sixty-year old former drug addict who is welcomed here I learn later. The face of Fo Guang Shan must be clean and inviting. The sweepers are already removing the one accidentally dropped tourist map or gum wrapper. I see the monks and nuns moving purposefully and quickly toward the Main Shrine for the morning service.
As the day proceeds, I begin to see colors. I see the orange robes of those same monks and nuns; I see the black or gray aprons of the cleaners, sweepers, and other workers. I begin to see the 100 foot golden Standing Buddha or the five hundreds arhat statues above the Gate of Non-Duality. I find myself taking pictures for two hours in the early morning light of gray and green mossy colored Buddhist figures at the Lumbini Gardens. All sorts of colors covering all shapes of people and objects come alive.
Again, I don’t see some of the familiar sights from home. I don’t see trash lying on the ground; I don’t see individuals running or dressed immodestly. I don’t see large MacDonald’s or KFC signs or the equivalent to Trump or Hilary election signs. I don’t see several lanes of cars and trucks waiting at traffic signals.
These sights are also suggestive in additional ways. Since the pain is neither peeling nor even fading, I know that the bright and vibrant colors are freshly painted. I can see that Fo Guang Shan extends from the tourist area of the eight pagodas and the Buddha Memorial Hall, to the central section of the Main Shrine with its monastic and guest residences and office buildings, to the college section with its dorms and classrooms. Whatever else lies behind these views, Fo Guang Shan has raised money to build an extensive campus.
I definitely learn by taste. For the first several days I had rice, fried tofu, Chinese celery, noodles, and green beans for breakfast. At breakfast yesterday in the guest dining hall, I was pleasantly surprised. After getting a plate I was motioned to follow the dining hall attendant. Led to a side room, I found a veritable buffet of toast, butter, peanut butter, chocolate, and coffee. Not the taste of Taiwan I expected, but a taste that I surely loved!
I find it harder to learn by smell and touch. Since I’m not besieged by all the smells that I’ll find in India, I may occasionally smell a flower. But not much more. In terms of touch, I’m reluctant to extend my hand for a handshake. Normally, I simply hold my palms together and say “Niehao” or “Amitofu.” I feel the warm sun since in Kaohsiung it is unusually hot. I guess by not touching I’m learning.
Taste smell, and touch are also suggestive. There is no snow, sleet or ice. Although there is no jasmine or gardenia or camilla blooming, I know that during this early January time, I must be in a tropical region. Even these three senses help us begin to make sense of our surroundings.
As a Buddhist monastery, Fo Guang Shan is an enclosed world which opens itself to the broader world. Even after only five days, I find Fo Guang Shan becoming familiar. Although I have learned much about Fo Guang Shan from conversations with Venerable Hue Shou, Hung Wen, Joe Hsia, and other Venerable I’ve met, I am not limited to learning simply through language. I, like every other traveler, can learn if I only use my senses.