At precisely 3:30am, the deep bell sounds, breaking the tranquility long before dawn. It’s still dark and the moon shines through the trees. Candles are lighted and incense is burned in front of statues of the Buddha.
Another day begins at the small Ci En (Kindness and Blessing) Temple (慈恩寺), hidden in an enormous cave on Tiantai Mountain in Zhejiang Province. The temple is an 80-minute bus ride from Hangzhou, the provincial capital.
Monks, apprentice monks, Buddhists and others — aged from 12 to 60 — rise quietly and dress mindfully. They move to a hall where, scripture books in hand, they follow Abbot Zhidu in loudly and fluently reciting and chanting sutras.
It was big news in August that Ci En Temple was recruiting students (not necessarily Buddhists) for its Zen Devotion Class, free of charge. Stays are typically up to a month.
Students need not take the tonsure, wear yellow robes, or observe the very strictest rules, though they must follow a simple regimen of quiet, prayer and work.
In a concession to the times, they are allowed minimal use of smartphones and tablets and can use the temple’s free Wi-Fi, which was set up by a Buddhist volunteer from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, who was doing business in Hangzhou.
It’s an ancient tradition for temples to welcome anyone. This temple and many others around China offer retreats and devotional classes that have become quite popular, especially among stressed-out or just curious post-1980s young people. There’s even a term for short-stay monks, temple-hoppers.
But this tiny Zhejiang temple in a big cave made international headlines when someone posted a report on social media about regular “recruitment” of students for its Zen Devotion Class. More than 1,000 applications were received within the month. Thirty students were accepted.
Recruitment had to be suspended because of limited accommodation. Still, people kept calling and some arrived from distant parts of China to meditate.
“I never thought people would be so crazy about the event, but it demonstrates that people today are under great pressure and eager to escape, even for just a short period of time,” Abbot Zhidu, 52, tells a Shanghai Daily reporter who spent three days on a retreat.
The Zen Devotion Class has been offered occasionally since 2006, but interest snowballed after the Sina weibo posting — generating intense discussion about the need for inner peace and spiritual meaning in a highly materialistic, competitive and stressful society.
“The temple is open to anyone who wants to follow the Buddha with a true heart and they are welcome at any time,” the master says. A stay can be for days, weeks, months or even years.
Visitors chant sutras with the monks, learn scriptures, help with cleaning and other chores, and burn incense in the morning and at night.
“But this year we’ve got too many applicants and our small temple cannot accommodate them,” the abbot says.
Ci En Temple has a history of more than 1,400 years on Tiantai Mountain, a sacred spot famous for more than 40 religious shrines. Hidden in a vast and sprawling cavern, called the “black cave” by villagers, the temple itself has no more than 20 monks and was virtually anonymous for many years.
The monks and visitors live an ascetic life. The 12 dorm rooms are shabby, dim and damp because of the humid cave environment. Each person has a simple bed with a damp quilt and pillow. Each dorm has a desk and chair. For an occasional hot bath, monks boil water from mountain streams.
Meditation rooms were carved years ago out of the cold, dark cavern, which is so immense that people can get lost. They have stone slab “beds” and monks still lock themselves inside and sit cross-legged in meditation in the dark for a whole month.
“The living conditions are not good, but that’s not important,” says Master Shengqing, 33, who chose to become a monk three years ago. “We are practicing Zen, not enjoying life.”
The daily routine and temple rules are rigid for everyone, but every day there is a period when students can ask the master any questions about scriptures or problems in their own lives.
Wakeup is 3:30am, class starts at 4am and lasts 150 minutes. Monks and students hold the morning ceremony, chant sutras and burn incense. They repeatedly kneel, bow and pray in front of the Buddha.
Breakfast at 6:30am is a bowl of thin congee and bland pickles or two steamed buns stuffed with vegetables.
For the next three hours, monks and students study scripture and burn incense in two ceremonies. Then students sweep and mop the floors, clean the kitchen and meditation rooms, and arrange books.
No talking is allowed.
Lunch at 11am is more congee, pickles and steamed buns. If it’s too bland, spicy sauce is available for newcomers.
No one complains.
“I like the food,” says Zhu Huanyu from downtown Tiantai County. The 52-year-old, born into a devout Buddhist family, has been visiting the temple every year for seven years. He stays for a few weeks at a time.
“I feel Buddha is blessing me and my family, giving me inner peace and guiding me to do good things for others,” he says.
Meals are silent. Men and women sit on separate sides of the canteen. After lunch, everyone cleans tables and washes bowls and chopsticks. Those who want to stay another day turn their bowls upside down at their place, indicating that food should be allotted for them the next day.
In the afternoon, Abbot Zhidu lectures on sutras, helping students comprehend difficult passages. Students sit on the floor and are free to ask questions about scriptures and their own personal troubles and anxieties. These can involve deaths of loved ones, love problems, broken marriages, conflicts with parents, work pressure, financial problems and bankruptcy.
Supper is at 5:30pm. Evening class starts at 6:30pm.
When the temple bell strikes at 8pm, everyone goes to bed.
“Life is simple,” says Shengfu, 30, a ju shi (¾ÓÊ¿), or Buddhist who practices Zen at home and lives at the temple for a few days every year.
“It’s been condensed to learning, laboring and simple food. You kind of leave all you anxieties behind and concentrate on exploring your own inner world,” he says.
“Faith cannot be compelled. Stay or leave, it’s up to them. Buddha said everything happens for a reason, just let it be,” Abbot Zhidu says. “Despite the harsh life, no one has quit halfway. They stay for weeks. Most solved their problems and went home with a new self.”
Among those on retreat, many have had traumatic experiences.
Shanghai local Chen (who declines to give his full name) became a monk this summer after losing his son seven years ago. The young man was helping a classmate on the way to school and his friend demanded the return of a stolen cell phone. The thief stabbed Chen’s son to death.
Since then, Chen gave up his interior decoration business and started traveling around China, staying in Buddhist temples. Chen’s wife became a nun on Jiuhua Mountain in Anhui Province.
Chen arrived at Tiantai Mountain this summer. “When I came here, I felt very drawn to the place,” Chen says. His eyes fill with tears when he thinks of his son.
It seems that everyone has a sad story. The youngest monk, 12-year-old Shengyuan, was an orphan and was taken to the temple by Abbot Zhidu. He grew up at the temple and today is a fourth grader in a nearby school.
He is shy in front of strangers but likes to make faces.
“Remember to switch off the light each time you leave the dorm,” he always tells newcomers to the devotion class.
When people spend time together and get along, they tend to open up and share their stories. But one youth remains solitary. The young man, aged around 18, never talks or smiles. He sleeps, eats and labors alone.
“I tried to chat with him, but he refused,” says ju shi Cui Lan, 58. She has been staying in the temple for three months. “Let it be. It might be the best way for him to heal himself,” Cui says.
Many people romanticize the monastic life and see it as a way to escape the worldly life and responsibilities, at least for a while, Abbot Zhidu says.
“People may get lost in the material world and become frustrated by life’s pressures. I understand their wish to leave everything behind, but remember, the temple is not the real shelter,” he says. “Buddha can guide them and help enlighten them, but their problems have to be solved by themselves.”
If you go: Take the shuttle bus to Tiantai Mountain at the Shanghai South Railway Station's long-distance Bus Center on Laohumin Road. It takes four to five hours, and the one-way bus ticket is about 150 yuan. After you arrive at Tiantai Mountain, you can take a taxi to Ci En Temple. The taxi fare is about 30 yuan.