If it has a face, it has a soul

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I’m not completely sure why I like the Chinese character for vegetarian, 吃素, pronounced chī sù.  It implies a choice, instead of an identity.  That is also exactly how it applies to modern Buddhist culture, as a choice.  Of all of the Buddhists I have met it China, only about half of them impose this dietary restriction on themselves.  Yes the Buddhist religion recommends that followers stick to a vegetarian diet, but never that not doing so would result in some catastrophic trip to the Buddhist equivalent of hell (which for the record does not totally exist).   

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The reason that Buddhists do not eat meat is relatively simple: reincarnation.

Humans are one of the most unfortunate animals on the planet for their capacity for passion and love also results in susceptibility to discontent, unhappiness and suffering.  But, if a person can commit to serving Buddha, chanting holy mantras, performing rituals and overall bettering him or herself as a person, they will be given another chance a happier life, or even a complete break from it.  These multiple chances for those who are good is a concept called reincarnation, and it is one of the most well known Buddhist concepts today.  Someone’s soul can be reborn, not necessarily as a human but as another animal, and maybe back to human again; this cycle continues, repeating birth and death.  Though the bettering and cultivating of ones soul, however, the cycle can actually be broken and they can reach Enlightenment.

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This means that Buddhists view the living, creatures are seen not as animals or humans but as beings equally deserving of life.

So as equivalent beings, if one being has the ability to choose not to eat a fellow being, he or she should not do so and instead stick to a diet; hence vegetarianism.

Humans are a species on earth that have the unique ability and the means to choose what it is they eat, without needing to hunt or graze or scavenge.  We also have the ability to live solely on vegetables, without any meat consumption; in the Buddhist mind, without having to bite, chew, swallow and digest an equal being or soul.

But one interesting thing about the Buddhist religion as a whole is that a practice like vegetarianism will never be preached to you.  While in China, I never once saw glances from monks in the Peking University dining hall when everyone around them had meat on their plates.  Nor was anyone questioned for ordering meat dishes at a restaurant next to a Tibetan monastery.  If you want to eat vegetarian you can, but if not there’s no problem, which is one of the reasons I believe Buddhism is so widely accepted through out China.

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Meeting Reincarnation

Currently sitting on my bookshelf is a beautiful photo of a temple located just outside of the Tibetan region in China.  It is very cautiously placed between sets of Chinese Language books and other journals so as nothing will damage it and I regularly check to make sure it has not fallen down or been creased.  It is just a piece of paper, but when I received it as a gift, I was asked to always keep it safe.  In addition, I also received a necklace and a phone number, just in case I ever needed someone to talk to.  This was not at all what I expected when meeting Jia Muzhi, a Buddhist master and a reincarnation of Buddha.

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I met him when I attended one of the secret temple gatherings of his followers in Beijing.  When I first saw him, he was sitting upright, dressed in traditional Tibetan Buddhist robes patting the head of a layman who was kneeling on the floor beside him.  He looked up, and with a large grin, gestured my teacher, Wang Laoshi, to sit in his presence and me.  Others began to gather, and it was then that he began to tell the story of his life.

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He was born and raised at a small temple in the Tibetan region after he was orphaned at the age of 7.  At age 13 he was discovered to be Buddha’s reincarnation, and after becoming a monk at 15, accepted his holy name Jia Muzhi and has identified as such ever since.   But in 1958 his studies and worship came to a halt when he and his fellow monks were forced to flee their temple from the Communist invasion.  After a number of years of running, Jia Muzhi was declared enemy number one by communist forces and was caught and imprisoned in a labor camp.  He continued talking about the labor camp, that party members kept a strict watch over him to make sure he refrained from chanting or preying, from assuring others that Buddha would keep them safe.  His years of studying did not help him with the physical demand of hard labor, but he was able to use his knowledge of Tibetan medicine to treat other laborers, and was eventually was able to live as a barefoot doctor to his fellow inmates.

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And there he stayed; treating sicknesses, tending to wounds, holding secret chanting gatherings, until he was finally set free—40 years later.

Upon his release, Jia Muzhi returned to him home and was appointed temple master.  But in the wake of destruction and suffering, he needed to find peace once again.  So just above the ruins of his temple, he built a small, brown hut where he spent another 12 years meditating.

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He recalled that he often could not distinguish between day and night, and that when he emerged, he carried with him a task.

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He has since traveled throughout China, visiting his followers and sharing his story with countless others.  His goal now, at the age of 75, is to restore his temple to the magnificent beauty it once was and provide a home for the orphan Buddhists he cares for, before he takes his final leave.

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Emancipation

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Investigating the present also means delving into the past and how it has influenced the course of history.  The same goes for Buddhism, and even though its history in China often goes overlooked.  Though most Buddhists subscribe to just a handful of documents and scripture from where to draw spiritual inspiration, one doctoral student is delving a bit deeper.

Stephanie Balkwill has traveled over thousands of miles from Macmaster University in Canada to do exactly that.  She has been working on a doctoral dissertation investigating the roll that women played in Buddhist communities of China during the Dong-Jin and Liu-Song Dynasties between the 4th and 5th centuries.  Through the close examination of ancient biographies and inscriptions, Stephanie is hoping to shed more light on the lives of these women and their relationship to Buddhism.

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Her interests were first sparked as an undergraduate in Cambodia, staring into one of the world’s most amazing ruins: Angkor Watt.  It was love at first sight, and soon after that, Stephanie began exploring Cambodia’s ancient history where she developed an interest in the role of Buddhism in the ancient society.  Her continuing interests in the literary works of women and her discovered passion for Buddhism soon met, and became her current field of study.

In China, as in other areas of the world, Buddhism was used to rebuild and reestablish communities, cities and civilizations in the wake of war and destruction.  But it not only created a mode of peace for war torn peoples but also a catalyst for change in community roles, particularly the roles of women.  Stephanie has discovered an overwhelming number of biographies dating from the 4th and 5th centuries in China about women who were able to previous breach societal norms.  Buddhism helped them to leave the home, learn to read and write, and eventually even occupy posts in the political sphere.  Their court presence allowed the women in the north to consolidate their realm while their male counter parts continued to fight.

Stephanie thinks that the reason they were able to do this lies in an often-overlooked foundation of Buddhism: Buddhism is foreign.

Because of its non-native origins, Buddhism to ancient Chinese women was fluid and flexible, where as the constructions of Daoism and Confucianism restricted women to unprogressive civil roles.  Buddhism brought both monks and nuns to China, a previously unexplored idea.  This gave Chinese women a physical space to meet and fill roles beyond the household.

But most importantly, Buddhism gave them the chance to seek emancipation.

Secret Temple

As Qi Laoshi previously said, in China, monthly gatherings of large groups of Tibetan Buddhists can not exactly be put on public display.  So, instead of meeting in a temple, Buddhists all around Beijing gather together for a home cooked vegetarian meal to share in chanting and worship.

 

Last Monday, I attended such an event, in honor of a Tibetan Master’s arrival in Beijing.

 

But before, I accompanied two of the Buddhist Laymen, both women, to a local jewelry market, to mend a gift for their shifu: a beautiful crystal nianzhu.  But at the time, I was not aware this work of art was actually going to be given away.  Excitedly, they linked arms and marched through the jade and precious gem adorned hallways, looking for a small bead shop.  Once there, one of the women’s sister helped them pick out and string some of the most remarkable stone bead I had ever laid eyes on, still completely unaware of the selflessness of the act.  When all was finished, the other woman lifted the nianzhu into the light, eyes sparkling as she gazed at each of the 108 crystal spheres.  And with that she gave her thanks, and the two swiftly made their get away to attend the evening’s proceedings.

 

But it was not until we arrived at the home of another layman, where the gathering was held, that I fully understood the impact of the jewelry detour.

 

The front door of the apartment opening into a quite large sitting area, where over 20 pairs of smiling eyes met my gaze.  The kitchen was overflowing with able-bodied men and women tending to the vegetarian feast and the couches crowded from end to end with even more people, nianzhus in hand.

 

As the night continued, people flowed in and out of the back rooms to pay their respects to their shifu and the home’s small shrine.  Being in the presence of such a tight knit community, one who’s morals and ideals revolve around just being at peace, was a truly amazing experience, and like nothing I had ever witnessed before.

900 Hours

Daniel Qi is an Intermediate Level Chinese Teacher at Peking University.  He stands at 5 and a half feet tall with a thin build and enormous smile.  Dressed in his favorite bright blue spring jacket, Qi Laoshi (Chinese for “teacher”) often rocks back and forth from toe to heel, hands behind his back while anxiously waiting for his students to stumble through a Chinese translation.  And when his students crack jokes during class, his giddy, unmistakable laughter can be heard from the second floor of the international studies building.  But all the while, Qi Laoshi holds tightly in his hand a long bracelet, his nianzhu, lightly thumbing through each wooden bead throughout class time.

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For every bead he passes, he repeats the same chant, one that his Master granted him the year before, which he does everyday over 3,000 times.  His assignment is at least 1,000,000 by the next time his Master visits Beijing.  So, for 2 and a half hours a day, 75hours a month, and over 900 hours per year, he repeats the same chant, a ritual practiced by thousands of other Buddhist laymen living in mainland China.

Qi Laoshi studies Tibetan Buddhism, which he has been studying since 2007, after Christianity and Islam failed to ignite his spirituality.

The repetition of these spiritual mantras, he says, is a form of meditation and a way to keep a constant connection with Buddha.  Not only the words themselves, but even the nianzhu, which helps keep track of the repetitions and is an important protective staple for any Buddhist, all correspond to a different Buddha.  Crystal for the compassionate Buddha, and Puti seed, the seed of the tree under which Buddha found enlightenment, for all mantras.

On a monthly basis, Qi Laoshi meets at a “secret temple”, usually a small apartment chosen as a designated shrine, with his shixiong (fellow Buddhist laymen) to complete 2 to 3 hours of chanting, meditation and confession.

And every year, he makes a trip to visit his Master, during which he is given an assignment: he is granted the right to a new chant, one that will stay with him for the next year, one that he will spend over 900 hours with.

When he talks about his masters, Qi Laoshi beams with admiration and respect.  He says that they teach him chants that they themselves have spoken over 1 billion times.  The chanting is key to the mediation that allows for deeper connection with Buddha.

So, at each break in class time, Qi Laoshi sits at the large glass window just outside of the classroom is a small wicker chair, adorned with nianzhu, a red string bracelet blessed by his master, and a small pagoda necklace for protection, meditating and connecting with the Buddha he loves.

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Feeding a Curiosity

I am a college student, and like most college students, I am continually using my eager curiosity and thirst for knowledge to guide me through my amazing abroad experience in Beijing, China.  Though I officially left the Catholic Church at age 10, and I have sold my soul to the devout practice of science, I have always marveled at the relationship mankind has shared with religion and spirituality. 

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In China, as in other countries, life is considered to be a process.  It has depth, meaning and passion, requires care and cultivation, commands attention and respect for the self.  So in the pursuit of happiness, I find myself in an atheist country filled with individuals whose vessel for living life is Buddhism; and with an estimated 300 million people reported to practice some form of Buddhism, there seems to be no lack of stories willing to be shared about how this religion has captivated so many believers.

 

My interest in delving into more of the inter-workings of the Buddhist religion has presently been moved from wondering to action in planning out a semester long independent study immersion project. 

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This project will focus of the lives of different members of the Buddhist community in the city of Beijing to learn more about the Buddhist presence in one of the largest, fastest paced cities in the world.  This blog will consist of reflections and media from a series of interviews with Religious Studies faculty at Peking University, Buddhist laymen, and monks, and observations on the Longquan Monastery English lecture series.    With these stories, I hope to create a conversation between students and faculty on either side of the Pacific about the role Buddhism plays in the lives of individuals living in Modern China.  This project is also aimed at educating and enlightening those who are share my curiosity in the holistic study of Buddhism.

 

For any questions, comments or insight, feel free to email me at: hirving@students.pitzer.edu

 

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness.”-Mahatma Ghandi