Back in February, I was standing in Dr. Shelley Rigger’s office asking about some form I needed to fill out when she asked me if I was planning to study abroad and where. I told her about my situation and how being a student-athlete made study abroad during the academic year more difficult, and how I really wanted to include both Chinese and religion, but I was failing to find a good program that incorporated each one. She replied, “Then why don’t you go abroad on your own?” I was dumbfounded at first, then she told me about the Dean Rusk Program that allows students to go abroad during breaks for various reasons. We looked up the due date and found I had two weeks to create a budget, plan a trip and turn in an application. Fast forward: Now here I am sitting in a hostel in Puli, Taiwan, writing my submission for My Davidson Summer, so I guess you all know I received the grant! In fact, I actually ended up receiving a more specific grant administered by the Dean Rusk International Studies Program that is specifically for students interested in religious comparative studies. I got to meet the board member who sponsors the grant and everything. It was amazing.
Now that you have the back story, I’ve been in Taiwan for about two-and-a-half weeks and have had an incredible time. I will admit, it started out a little shaky, mostly due to the fact that I freaked out about being on the other side of the planet, traveling alone for the very first time. If you read my blog (Editor’s note: A link to Sarah’s blog appears below), you’ll see what I’m talking about in my second, slightly depressing post. Don’t worry, that stage didn’t last long. I have spent my time traveling, making countless friends, experiencing the culture of Taiwan, getting better at understanding people when they speak to me in Chinese, getting lost far too many times but always finding a way, eventually, and experiencing Buddhism first hand. I didn’t have a solid plan going into this, so every day has been a bit of a surprise, but each one has turned out pretty wonderful.
The following excerpt from my blog will give you a better picture of what some of my days have been like here:
My first day following a monk around
“Today has been amazing so far. I spent the morning following Ven Hue Shou around Fo Guang Shan, seeing different areas, talking about different philosophies, and learning about the workings of this temple. Though I came to Taiwan to learn more about Buddhism, at one point I found myself debating Christianity with him over a bowl of porridge. He’s quite an interesting man, and very open about his personal life. He grew up in a strict Catholic household with a father who Hue Shou felt didn’t truly understand the teachings that he was forcing upon his children. I must say, my favorite thing about this place so far is how welcoming they all are. I haven’t passed a single monk or nun that didn’t greet me with a warm smile. Not to mention how excited they get when I am able to have conversations with them in Chinese. Bless my mother for convincing me that taking Chinese in high school, instead of Spanish, was going to be a good idea. Anyway, along with warm hearts, they are willing to teach. Hue Shou showed me a room filled with books on Buddhism in various languages. After finding the English section, I was given permission to take any books that looked interesting. He left me for a bit to explore them and laughed when he came back and a large stack had developed on the table.
“Sorry, I got a bit excited. They all looked interesting.”
“Haha no problem. Let me get you a bag.”
So I now have a stack of books sitting next to my bedside. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to get this all home however… I guess I’ll be throwing out some toiletries to make room for my newly acquired books. Oh well.
When lunch time rolled around, I was informed that we would be attending “eating meditation.” I had never heard of this before I came here. Before we went in he gave me the rundown of rules, because once you enter the room you’re not allowed to speak. So here’s how it went… We entered the room in a line. The nuns and monks (aside from Hue Shou, who stayed with me) went first and filled the first couple rows on each side. All of the tables are lined up in rows and we all sit on the same side, facing the center of the room. There are also tables of people on the other side facing us, with space in the middle where the leader of the chant stands. When we sit down, a nun comes over and hands me a sheet that has the offering chants written on it. Each meal begins with the same chant, slow, drawn out. Then it segways differently, depending on whether you’re eating breakfast, lunch or dinner. We did the long chant as servers came around and placed food in the plates and bowls in front of us. As soon as we finished, we pulled the plate and bowls towards us and began to eat. There are different hand signals to tell servers if you want more of something, don’t want to eat something, etc. I pulled it all in and just started eating. I honestly couldn’t tell you the name of most of what was on my plate, but they only eat vegetarian here, so it was all some sort of vegetable or fruit. Plus rice of course. For the next 30 minutes or so we all ate in complete silence. I felt uncomfortable at first, but slowly I relaxed and found myself in a peaceful state (but also that might be because my stomach was filling up, which always makes me happy… Mmm food).
Hue Shou told me the rules, but I pretty much just followed exactly what he did. There are very specific ways to set your bowls and chopsticks throughout this. Overall, I quite enjoyed the meal. The food all tasted good, well except for this weird piece of tofu that I didn’t like but stuffed down anyways cause I didn’t want to be rude, and the silence was sort of nice. Really, when I eat I usually find myself silent regardless, because I get pretty into the food I’m consuming. But being in a room filled with probably 200 or so people and experiencing absolute silence, aside from the sound of chopsticks hitting dish ware, was a very different experience from any I have ever had. I’m not really sure how to describe how I felt about it. It was interesting. But that’s too vague of a word I think… So I don’t know.
Oh! The morning service was a wonderful observation as well. That was at 5:50 a.m. The nuns were in the front and the lay people in the back. Before each person sat down, they performed three prostrations. For anyone who doesn’t know what that means, they bow their heads, kneel down, touch their hands and forehead pretty much to the ground, and then stand back up. After they did this, they each sat down on their individual cushions, and when the service began they all chanted together. I didn’t partake in this one like I did at the lunch time meditation, but I observed. I wish I could have taken pictures so I could show what this was like, but you’re not allowed to take pictures inside of the Main Shrine while the grand chandelier thing is turned on.
One last note, Hue Shou told me that, like Christians, Buddhists here have holy water. However, they drink the holy water, rather than dip their fingers in it. I just thought that was a cool comparison that I’d throw in here. Anyways, I have about 2.5 hours to do whatever I want until I meet Hue Shou again. Off to explore……”
Follow Sarah’s travels on her blog, The Traveling Fink.