Daily Life in the Monastery
The clapping of boards at 3:30AM wakes everyone up for morning ceremony, which takes place from 4-5AM. At four in the morning, the stars are still out and the world is asleep.
Since our thinking processes have not started full force yet, it is a little easier to concentrate. In fact, it is often quite insightful to see what is going on in our minds this early in the morning.
The ceremony begins with the recitation of the Shurangama Mantra, one of the longest and most powerful mantras in Buddhism.
The effects of this mantra are many, such as protecting the world from disasters, eradicating past negative karma, and ultimately developing an unshakable concentration.
The ceremony continues with the Heart Sutra, which is considered as the essence of the Buddha’s wisdom that transcends all dualities.
Since the Heart Sutra speaks on the emptiness of all phenomena, it serves as a reminder for the practitioner to not get attached to the merits and benefits accrued from participating in the ceremony.
Accessing this transcendent wisdom requires a concentrated and sincere mind; hence, in the monastery, memorizing and reciting Sutras is a way of focusing the mind.
In Buddhism, wisdom does not come from gathering more information (which is endless), but rather by uncovering your inherent wisdom (which is complete already).
The morning ceremony ends with the Bowing to the Patriarchs.
Each of the patriarchs has an inspiring story showing how they underwent considerable hardship and difficulty to keep the Dharma alive.
Without their hard work and dedication, the teachings that lead us out of suffering would not be available to us now.
And so mindful of their hard work, we bow in gratitude.
Later in the morning, people begin their work for the day. Working in the monastery is considered a blessing, because we can create stronger affinities with the Dharma.
Also this is planting blessings for the future because good actions reap good results. By supporting the monastery and others cultivating a spiritual path now, we will be supported by others in the future.
The next major ceremony is the meal offering before the lunchtime meal.
The food is offered to the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and all living beings wishing that they can also partake in what we have.
In the monastery, the simple act of eating becomes a chance to practice the Dharma. During the meal, people are encouraged to be mindful of the five contemplations, which are given below in verse:
All the food that we eat in the monastery comes as offerings from the generosity of others. The food, then, is taken with a sense of gratitude and thankfulness.
To cherish one’s blessings, no food is wasted. People are encouraged to take as much as they like (going back for seconds or thirds if need be), but make sure they finish all they take.
The food is also vegetarian, and for those who choose, vegan as well.
There are many reasons people in the monastery are vegetarian: compassion for animals, protecting the environment, and personal health and well-being.
We try to minimize the amount of suffering we create through our lifestyles and eating habits.
Buddhism also teaches that food has a profound connection with our thoughts and desires, and being vegetarian helps us have clearer minds and more compassionate hearts.
In Buddhism, the monastics traditionally give a Dharma talk at the end of the meal.
There is a mutual relationship between laity and monastics, where the laity provides sustenance and material support (traditionally: bedding, clothing, food, and medicine), and the monastics give teachings to the laity.
Depending on the monastery, there is sometimes a Dharma talk or often a taped lecture of Master Hua instead. His instructions remind everyone to practice diligently and vigorously.
For many, because of the immense respect they have for the Master, his words carry special weight and have the power to inspire and encourage.
After the noon meal, there is the Great Compassion Repentance, which is a ceremony focusing on Avalokiteshvara (Chinese: Guan Shi Yin), the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion.
Repentance is a central practice in Buddhism because it allows us to turn a new leaf—to recognize what we has done wrong, to repent of our mistakes, and to reform for the better.
The ceremony gives a form to the very personal act of repentance. Doing this in a communal setting also adds to its power.
Many people report that the ceremonies leaves them feeling cleansed in body, mouth, and mind. More specifically, the body is purified through bowing, the mouth through chanting, and the mind through positive intentions and concentration.
Evening ceremony is the next time the community gathers.
The ceremony begins with the Incense Praise and is followed by either the Amitabha Sutra or the Eighty-eight Buddhas Repentance.
The Amitabha Sutra is a teaching about Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land, the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
The Sutra gives a description of the radiance of the Land of Ultimate Bliss, which is adorned with many different treasures.
In addition, the music and scenery causes its inhabitants to always be mindful of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
This is an ideal place for cultivation, and the people who go there are assured irreversibility on the path to Buddhahood.
Then, with the steadfast resolve of a great Bodhisattva, the inhabitants can return to this world to help others awaken to the Way and let go of all greed, anger, and delusion.
Another way of approaching the Pure Land teaching is to see it applying to every thought.
Every kind, compassionate, and selfless thought is like being in the Pure Land, and every greedy, angry, and deluded thought is like being stuck in the world of suffering.
The Pure Land, then, exists in the present state of our minds.
In the middle of the ceremony, the entire congregation recites the Four Great Vows of the Bodhisattva. They are:
These Four Great Vows relate to the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha.
The first noble truth of suffering becomes the Bodhisattva’s vow to free all beings from suffering.
The second noble truth identifies ignorance and craving as the source of suffering, and accordingly, the Bodhisattva vows to transform all afflictions.
The third vow of learning all the Dharma-doors (i.e. methods for ending suffering) relates to the fourth noble truth of following the Eightfold Path.
And finally, the third noble truth that suffering can cease becomes the Bodhisattva’s fourth vow which is to become a Buddha, who is able to lead all beings to complete awakening.
The evening ceremony is followed by a Sutra lecture, which is a chance to hear the words of the Buddha explained in a traditional setting.
The lecture begins with a Dharma Request, where one person (sometimes more) formally requests the Dharma by circumambulating the speaker three times.
This period of silence is a chance to settle the mind before listening to the teachings.
The lecture itself actually varies considerably depending on the Sutra, the speaker, and the audience.
In general, the Sutra lecture is a chance to use the Dharma as a tool for reflecting on the day and developing one’s wisdom. At the end of the lecture, there is the Dedication of Merit:
This dedication is a form of Buddhist prayer where all our merit is transferred for the benefit of all living beings.
The last ceremony in the monastery brings together all the energy and work of the day.
In the beginning, the Heart of the Shurangama Mantra is recited 108 times at a fairly rapid pace (memorizing it makes it much easier to follow).
Finally, the day in the monastery ends with the Verse of Exhortation that encourages the assembly to be vigorous and mindful of impermanence.
Who knows if this day will be the last day one can cultivate and practice? With that thought, everyone files out of the Buddha hall chanting “Namo Amituofo.”
The day is over, but the next day is just around the corner ready to start at 4AM the next morning.