There is the China we hear about in the news: largest economy in the world; lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and into urban areas; largest CO2 emitter; entrenched corruption; toxic air; poisoned food and water; growing disparity; political uncertainties; global expansion and entanglement…
Yes, that’s perhaps all true. But, on my recent 4-week trip across the country, I saw a different China – different from my impression just a year ago, and different from what I thought I knew. Yet deep down, it felt strangely familiar.
I sensed an ecological and spiritual awakening in the country, at a tipping point. I saw countless people and groups doing their small and inspiring parts. Many of them do not know each other. But they are essentially doing the “same work”: being the change they want to see in the world.
Below are some snapshots of the emerging landscape of change.
Beijing Longquan Temple
For the past two years, I’ve heard about a blossoming Buddhist monastery near Beijing -- Longquan (Dragon Spring) Temple -- that has become an epicenter of China’s Buddhist revival scene. Longquan was called “the most high-tech monastery in China”, and had become sort of a “reserve academy” for the seekers from the top universities in the nearby capital, attracting PhDs and other conventionally successful young people to “leave home” and become monks at Longquan. It came into media attention a few years ago when a math genius (gold medalist of International Math Olympics) at Peking University gave up his full scholarship to MIT and chose to become a monk at Longquan.
I heard that the abbot has a blog that’s syndicated in nearly a dozen languages. The sangha and volunteers are digitizing the entire Buddhist classics collection, and are making cartoons and videos to introduce Buddhist stories and values to children and the digital-native generation. Study groups are forming all over the country to study the sutras. Every weekend, busloads of college students make their pilgrimage from Beijing to the temple to volunteer: working in the onsite organic farm, doing cleaning and maintenance, help on the construction site, etc.
There are so much excitement around Longquan that I almost doubted the validity of the reporting. So, when an opportunity came up to visit the temple with my parents and friends, we jumped at it.
To our great joy and surprise, the one-day we spent there even exceeded our expectation, and deeply moved us, to the point that my atheist mom half-jokingly said, “I want to just stay here for good.”
We arrived at the temple at noon on a Friday. The temple is situated in a picturesque nature reserve. We entered through the main gate that seemed almost too modest for a temple of its status. Inside the temple, it was quiet, clean, but palpably lively and exciting. People walked swiftly, but not in a rush. I immediately get the sense: these people here are serious cultivators; they are not here to “chill out” or “hide away”. (We later learned that all monks and volunteers get up at 4am every day to start morning studies and the day’s work.)
We found our way to the dining hall, and got seated along with 50 or so other visitors. Later, we learned that from the very beginning (10 years ago) of rebuilding the temple, the abbot insisted that the temple offer the same monastic meals to all visitors who come, free of charge. These days, the temple feeds hundreds of visitors on busy days, and have been able to sustain it through the natural reciprocity and generosity inside people’s hearts.
After reciting prayers of gratitude, appreciation, and repentance, we were served simple and delicious vegan meals by volunteers. The meal was in silence. Much of the vegetable came straight from the organic farm next to the monastery. It’s so organic that we were each given a handful of boiled full peanuts from the farm, with twisted shapes and worm holes. What a delight and relief to see natural peanuts again! Complete with worm holes!
After we finish the food in our bowls, the volunteers came again, to pour hot water into our bowls for us to rinse the bowl and drink the water, per monastic tradition. Volunteers then collected all the peels and food waste for composting. My dad and I witnessed a young volunteer picking up the leftover food from the table, and eating it. Perhaps due to such witnessing, very little food waste exists.
Later on, my dad said, “Half way during the meal, seeing the volunteers coming and serving us, I knew that I had to give something. I can’t just come here and only receive.”
So we decided to volunteer for the afternoon. We were lucky to be assigned to work on the organic farm. As we dug white yams for most of the afternoon, we chatted with other volunteers, and heard heartwarming stories of transformation. One woman said that she used to be depressed, overweight, and unhappy with life. She then came to volunteer here, and had since moved to the temple full time as a layperson. She now has more strength and health than most young man, and is glowing with smiles and lightness.
Another elderly woman (front right in the above picture, teaching me how to properly use a shovel...), called by other volunteers as the “elder Bodhisattva”, was over 70-year-old, but has jet black hair, and works every day on the organic farm. She is from the countryside, and lives by herself. An urban environment would not provide a place of dignity and usefulness for her. But here at the temple, she is the holder of farming wisdom, and well loved by volunteers. In addition to farming, she is a diligent cultivator, up early for recitation and Buddhist studies.
We learned that Longquan Temple has chosen the path to cultivate in this world, instead of retreating into seclusion. Everyone here has a full workload, from washing the toilets, to weeding on the farm, to translating the sutras, to maintaining the digital infrastructure, to organizing study groups all across the country. People bring their cultivation into daily life and human interactions – in the pressure cooker of worldly duties and relationships. This path is certainly resonating with a generation of Chinese, who want to engage in the world while also cultivate transcendental values.
We learned that the abbot, Master Xuecheng, now in his early 50s, had become an abbot at another monastery at the age of 23 – one of the youngest abbots in China at that time. He came to Longquan Temple 10 years ago, facing a deserted temple, and started from scratch. He is also the President of the Chinese Buddhist Association, a government entity that seeks to build a “united front”. Master Xuecheng walks a fine line between preserving the essence of Buddhism and innovating for the 21st century, and between working with the government (in order to have the license to operate in a sensitive environment) and maintaining independence (in order to not lose the trust from the sangha and society).
(It turns out that Longquan has long-standing relationship with the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Below is a photo from when Rev. Heng Sure visited Longquan in 2009, receiving a gift from Master Xuecheng.)
I tried to spend the night at the monastery. All guest beds were completely full, but a cancellation opened up one spot. All overnight volunteers are required to hand-copy and follow the precepts. Aside from that, there’s no fee for staying the night. However, halfway into my copying the precepts, I learned that I could not stay because I do not have the government-issued national ID card. Longquan Temple could not risk violating the human laws of this world to let me stay. Oh well :)
There were many details that deeply touched us: the diligence and work ethic, the youthfulness and vitality of the place, the sparkling clean bathrooms (a rare site in public places in China), the genuine smiles and joy that exuberated from everyone at the temple, the flourishing organic farm, the fact that all construction workers (there to build a huge auditorium to accommodate the growing visitors) receive the same free meals as any other volunteers, the fact that the entire monastery runs on gift economy (no entrance fee or other commercialization), and many more.
Viewing Stars Eco-village
If a monastery is mainly focused on cultivating the inner ecology, and has extended that cultivation onto organic farming and such, then an eco-village is using the tilling of the soil as a way to reach into people’s heart.
I had the good fortune to visit an eco-village right outside of Beijing – 50 kilometer direct distance from the Tiananmen Square. It’s called Viewing Stars Village. The Village is founded by a Chinese man named Lawrence. Lawrence was a geology major at college. Then, he studied law and became a corporate lawyer for many years. For the past few years, he has moved increasingly toward a “full time villager”, turning Viewing Stars Village into a playground of permaculture, intentional community, and inner transformation.
The Village was one hour walk up the mountains, along a steep gravel road. The old village was deserted, as villagers moved into the city in search of higher pay and an urban life. Today, the village is slowly becoming a magnet for urbanites who long to return to the land, and reconnect with the soil.
My friends and I spent the whole day at the Village, picking fruits from the tree (or climbing one, above), vegetable from the garden, checking out the chickens, goats, bees, and roaming freely on the acres of land, learning to identify trees and plants.
As we sat down with Lawrence, I asked him what’s his “primary task” is at the moment. He said, “To create a field of positive affirmation, bring together a circle of noble friends, so that we are not doing this alone.” He also confessed, “This eco-village is just an excuse – an excuse for inner cultivation.”
About a year and a half ago, I did my first 10-day silent meditation course at a Vipassana center in California. That was a profound turning point in my life, for which I am always grateful.
I heard that Vipassana, or mindfulness and meditation in general, is growing in China, just as it did in the 60s and 70s in the US. I was overjoyed to find that my hometown Baotou, Inner Mongolia, is home to one of the six dedicated Vipassana Centers (in the tradition of Goenka) in China. It was quite a surprise, because Baotou is a far-away, little-known industrial city, without much of a cultural scene or spiritual heritage. So, I decided that I need to visit the Vipassana center there, to find out what exactly is going on. To my happy surprise, my parents – who are largely atheist and are not particularly spiritual – eagerly agreed to join me for the visit.
I called the Center in Baotou many times for days, but no one picked up the phone. So I decided to just go and find out. We followed the address, and drove to the campus of an acupuncture clinic in the new district of Baotou. A staff at the clinic greeted us, and told us that the center is closed for the winter, due to lack of heating. She said the sponsor of the center – who is also the owner and main doctor at the clinic – might be around to meet us. As we waited, I walked around the campus (photo above), and peaked into the kitchen. There, I recognize the familiar sight of a Vipassana center kitchen set-up – even the food trays are the same as those used in Californian centers!
We finally met the sponsor of the Center, a kind gentleman, Brother Wang. He encountered Vipassana a few years ago through the book “The Art of Living”. He immediately recognized the truth in the practice, and became a dedicated practitioner. He later donated part of his clinic campus to serve as a Vipassana center.
We chatted with him for a few hours, and my parents asked many questions about Vipassana, and the journey of opening and supporting the center. We concluded our time together by doing a mini Anapana sit. That was the first time for my parents to do sitting meditation. As we stepped into the meditation room (photo below), I sensed the familiar vibration of Vipassana. As I sat with my parents on the cushion, and heard Goenka’s familiar voices through the speaker, tears streamed down my face. I would never have imagined that there is a Vipassana center right in my hometown, that within 15 months of my first meditation retreat, I would be sitting in meditation with my parents, sharing the dharma that has so deeply transformed my life. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and disbelief.
The greater amazement came after we bid farewell to Brother Wang. As we drove off, my dad was deep in thoughts. He then said with unusual gravity and determination: “Dharma is rare to encounter. Life is impermanent – who knows what tomorrow would bring. I shall not delay. I want to sign up for a 10-day meditation course as soon as we get home.”
I was speechless! Just months ago, my dad was worried that I am joining a cult with this meditation thing! And to add to the surprise, my mom fully supported my dad’s going across the country to sit in cross-legged silence for 12 hours a day for 10 days! With all the stars aligned, my dad has successfully completed his first 10-day Vipassana course soon after I returned to the US.
Country Church, and Many More
Halfway between Beijing and Baotou, our family stayed overnight at a small farming town. The next day was Sunday. In the morning, I had a conference call at hotel room, and my parents drove around the town. They ran into a country church, felt curious, and went inside. Usually, in Chinese countryside, the roads are dirty, often full of trash. But the surrounding of the church was very orderly and well swept. The church itself was modest, but all church goers are dressed formally and dignified – another rare sight in the countryside. Adults gathered to hear the sermon, while their kids attended Bible school. The sermon was about marriage, and the importance of resting on Sunday.
My parents were quite amazed by what they witnessed (such as a lively Bible school for young kids), and were moved by the minister’s choice to do “God’s work” in this obscure village. Conservative estimates put the number of Christians in China at above 100 million – already surpassing the 87-million strong Communist Party membership. Sooner or later, China will have the largest number of Christians in the world. How “God’s work” is carried out in China will have a profound impact on the fate of the country and the planet.
During my 4-week in China, I did not visit as many Christian, Islamic or other communities due to my limited contacts, but I’ve heard that equally wholesome work of awakening and service are being done by many groups of diverse faiths and backgrounds.
Seeds of awakening are not limited to spiritual communities alone. For example, I had the pleasure of meeting a group of practitioners and trainers of nonviolent communications in Beijing. They shared their personal journey to NVC, and their observation on the steady growth of NVC in China. Many book clubs are forming to learn and practice NVC, and applying the “language of life” to bring more peace into daily lives.
As an only child, I have no siblings, but many cousins who are only children themselves. Learning about the life of my cousins has been a fascinating window into the life of young Chinese.
One of my cousin works in the finance industry in Beijing. As a result of her hard work and clear goals, she has enjoyed career and financial success in the past few years. But increasingly, she has been realizing that money is not all. By chance (or not), she picked up the Diamond Sutra a few months ago, and had many big Aha moments from reading it. In her Beijing apartment, she and I sat around the Sutra, discussed paragraphs, exchanged inspirations, and held a deep conversation for 4 hours, till 2am.
Another cousin joined my parents and I to visit the Vipassana center in our hometown Baotou. In the meeting room, there hanged the texts of the Heart Sutra. My cousin looked up, and the first sentence she saw struck her deeply. It spoke directly to the challenge she is facing right now in life, and had since brought about a change in her orientation. This same cousin also told her family that she was inspired to see me doing the dishes at home and while visiting families – an act that only children rarely perform. (I only started to do dishes after I left China, and have been increasingly enjoying doing dishes as a practice.) She has resolved to start doing dishes as well.
These small interactions and changes do not have the same glory as a high-tech monastery, but they give me just as much hope and faith. It affirms the deep longing for meaning, alignment, and truth in ordinary people, and the possibility of change.
Clock Has Struck
Some say, “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” Perhaps it’s my confirmation bias this time around, that I am particularly looking for signs of awakening on my trip across China. But I have more and more evidence – and intuition – to believe that we are at the verge of something profound. It has been decades in the making, with generations of forbearers laying the foundation, turning the barren landscape into fertile soil, and maintaining the lineages and connections in face of great dangers and difficulties. Today, many of the fruits are ripening, and new seeds are sprouting: an ecological and spiritual awakening is here.
At the risk of over-simplification -- one hundred years ago, in face of foreign invasions, imperial collapse, and existential threats, China had a national awakening that ended 2,000 years of dynastic cycles. Seventy years ago, China had a political awakening, followed by some nightmares. Thirty years ago, China had an economic awakening, embracing market and capitalism, regardless of “white cat or black cat.”
In the century long awakening from her millennia-long, Middle-Kingdom dream, China has rejected the past in order to create the new. She has abandoned traditional philosophies and ethics in search for Science and Democracy. She has severed the spiritual heritages and embraced the historical materialism of Marx and Lenin. She has disconnected from the land in favor of jumpstarting the industries. She has made too many Faustian bargains in pursuit of “wealth and power”, a new dream of glory and revival.
Today, wealth and power there are. Perhaps, we are moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (America’s very own John Adams once wrote, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy… in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music…”) Perhaps, the environmental and moral degradations have become too much to bear. Perhaps. But for whatever reason, I know for sure that the clock has struck: ours is a time for ecological and spiritual awakening.
And, it’s actually not (just) about China. “China”, as a man-made identifier, is a part of the planetary awakening of Gaia. What I am witnessing in China is the regional symptom of a global trend. The synchronicity is almost uncanny, and breathtakingly beautiful. Blessed to be alive in this planetary-time.