Sunday, June 13, 2010

Zhenru Monastery -- Part one

In February 1987 I was backpacking around China for the first time and found my way to Zhenru Si (Jenru Temple) in Jiangxi Province. I learned about this place from an article by Stephen Batchelor which appeared in the Middle Way magazine in 1985, a publication of the Buddhist Society in Britain. Stephen had heard that this temple existed, and that the monks were doing zen meditation on a daily basis, but he had not yet himself visited it.

I decided to do so, and arrived in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangzi. In those days there was barely a tourist infrastructure in place in China, which had only opened to foreign visitors in 1979. As in Russia, tourists had to first report to the local Intourist office to show their papers and get assigned a hotel room. At that time I hadn’t learned any Chinese yet, and almost no one in China spoke English—unbelievable, only 20 years ago—so I hired the services of a translator and a driver, and a government cadre had to come along too to make sure I was up to nothing subversive.

We drove for two hours out into the countryside and up into the mountains and eventually arrived at our destination. Aside from the fact that no one in the West at the time really understood to what extent Buddhist practice still existed in China, there were two important reasons to visit this remote place. First, it was unknown if there were Chinese monks still doing chan (zen), since it was commonly supposed that the practice had disappeared from Buddhist temples during the period of syncretism and the disappearance of the Five Houses (chan sects) in the 14th century. The second reason was to see if the existing zen meditation practice bore any resemblance to the school of Soto Zen introduced by Dogen Zenji to Japan after he learned studied it at Cao-Dong sect’s Tiantong temple near Ningbo in the early 1200’s.

If this subject is of interest to you, please read my interview with Abbot Chen in the white box below. Be sure to click on the following pictures for a closer view.

Zhenru from a distance on a bleak February day. The temple was savaged during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt mainly with money from Taiwan. Nevertheless, according to Abbot Chen, zen meditation has continued here without interruption for over 1000 years.

Zhenru is surrounded with rice fields. The imperial government never allowed monks to do perform ritual alms-gathering as is still done today in Southeast Asia.

Venerable T Guang, Guest Manager (l.), and Venerable Yi Chen (r.), Abbot of Zhenru monastery. Below a statue of Manjusri, the Perfect Wisdom Boddhisattva, found typically in his glass box at the entrance to a chan  meditation hall.

Article continues here.

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