Every year for the last three years I’ve joined the Woodenfish Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program as an instructor (I was a student on it in Taiwan in 2010 and a similar one in China in 2009).
The program brings 80-100 students, average age around 24, to a monastery in China, supported by about 10 staff and 3 or 4 academic instructors. Our job as academic instructors is to provide approximately a full semester’s worth of material in around 14 days, with 3 to 5 hours of class time each day. Students can take these classes for credit through Whittier College in California, transferable to the student’s own institution. But most students choose to audit, joining the program instead for a range of reasons including monastic experience, interest in contemporary China, the opportunity to deepen Buddhist practice, curiosity about Buddhism, religious diversity training, and academic curiosity.
I’m not sure what the average American idea of a Chinese Buddhist monastery is, but one constant feature for us is change. Our schedule can change, our abbot might disappear (to lead a pilgrimage, to visit friends, to do business), new monastics might arrive, droves of local lay people might take an interest in us and show up and gawk, weather can also throw some curveballs.
So we need a degree of flexibility.
But within that overall flexibility it helps to have a relatively clear and rigid set of rules.
Rules can be difficult.
Some of these include student line-ups. They will hear bells or boards (two small pieces of wood slapped together) at set times each day and they are expected to follow set schedules to show up at specific places on time. There they line up, in order according to height, and practice standing meditation.
Each meal, too, presents its set of rules to follow: four bowls: one for veggies, one for rice, one for noodles, one for desserts/snacks. Place bowls at the end the table when servers are approaching to get more of whatever they are carrying. It can sound simple, but in practice it’s often very confusing – at least for the first couple days. No talking. No signalling, gesturing, waving for attention. Just eating what is given.
Class time offers another opportunity for rules. Show up on time. Greet teachers in a traditional bow at the start of each class period and thank them at the end. Be focused, present, and attentive during lectures. Ask questions when invited. Wait when it is time to wait. Most importantly, make the connections between the academic lectures, a mix of history and philosophy of Buddhism, and what you are doing here.
The rules though. There are rules for clothes. Rules for hairstyle. Rules for electronic devices. Rules for cleanliness.
I recall the rules feeling oppressive when I was a student on the program eight years ago. At least at first. After a week or so, I eased into them and then things went fine. This year, as with several recent years, we showed a video manual for an art studio in New York called 10 Bullets. Each bullet is a rule to be followed in order to ensure the orderly running of the studio. At first it might seem a far cry from monastic life in China, but similarities pop up, some obvious and some a bit more subtle.
Have a look: