Sunday, July 26, 2020

24 Hours As A Buddhist At Faluo Temple

The one-lane road extending west from Guanyinshan Lu may be unmarked and nondescript, but that doesn’t mean it’s not capable of taking you on a great journey.
I ventured down that road on Saturday afternoon not knowing what to expect. I’ve visited several beautiful Buddhist temples throughout China, but I’d never had the chance to experience one from the perspective of a participant, rather than a mere tourist.

Arriving at Faluo Temple in the afternoon after a longer-than-expected trip from Zhangjiagang, I joined three of our fellow participants in a reception area that was more tea house than temple. 

The serenity of the setting – ceiling-length windows looking out over the mountain greenery, the pillow chairs, the monk playing a Chinese flute – melted away the stress of my trip. This was my first outing with Album of Suzhou since the pandemic began, so it was nice to catch up with Helena and Polina, who I hadn’t seen since last year, and meet Rafa, a 2020 newcomer to the group. Patrick, Isabella (with three kids in tow), Bernd, and Bonny arrived, and our group was complete.

After our first meal (vegetarian, of course), we ventured out past the end of the temple road, down a path slickened by recent rains. We were surrounded by calm. The water trickling from the pond over the rocks and into the stream below. The gentle rustling of foliage in the breeze. The fluttering of moths across the path from one tree to another. It was a great way of communing with nature, decluttering our urban minds and preparing us for the evening ahead.

As we made our way back toward the temple, the golden walls stood in stark contrast to the overcast sky, extensions of the Earth reaching toward the heavens.  

Returning to the reception room after our walk, we were given our robes. If we were to become one with the monks that night, we were going to dress the part. In the robes, it didn’t matter whether we were wearing jeans, skirts, shorts, or dresses underneath. We let go of our trappings of individuality to become a collective. I didn’t give much thought to that simple act until after we’d done our meditation, when I realized that letting go of our individual appearances had also made it easier to let go of our thoughts as we entered a meditative state.

Although I have practiced a lot of yoga, I have usually found it difficult to enter a meditative state for a prolonged period of time. But somehow, it seemed easier that night. Maybe it was the atmosphere. Maybe the fact that I don’t understand the language very well kept my thoughts from dwelling on anything that had been said. As I focused on breathing rather than thinking, I was able to find and maintain that meditative bliss for the duration of our 10-minute session. 

After emerging from the meditative state and bringing our thoughts back into the room, the monk who led us in the meditation opened up the floor to our questions about what we were experiencing. Amid the talk of reincarnated forms and Zen practices, I was most drawn to the explanation of kindness as a crucial tenet in the practice of Buddhism. Although I am human and fallible, I always strive to place an emphasis on kindness in my life and in my teaching. The idea that kindness is part of Buddhism’s foundation was one I found to be very appealing.

After our questions had been answered, we went on to the second phase of the evening’s meditation, as a special guest brought out his collection of “sleep bowls.” The bowls, it is said, resonate at frequencies that specifically target different parts of our bodies. Used in concert, his bowls brought on a feeling of deep relaxation. Although I remained seated upright the entire time, I’m pretty sure I drifted out of consciousness for a while as he performed. It was a pretty surreal experience.

At the end of the program, it was time to call it a night, as we trekked to the temple’s guest rooms. I must have carried the singing bowls’ deep sleep with me back to bed – I woke up at about 3:30am convinced I’d had a full night’s sleep before coaxing myself back to sleep.

Sunday, July 19, 4:36am


As he walked the hallway outside our doors, the monk played his wood block in a rhythmic pattern.

We woke up, got ready, donned our robes once more, and headed for the temple courtyard.

The morning sky was not yet fully brightened when we began the day’s services. First, there was some kind of invocation before this wooden statue of a thousand hands. At least I’m guessing it was an invocation; it’s difficult to know when you don’t fully understand the language! 

Then, we walked in a line to the main temple hall.

At this point, it’s worth bringing up that I do not consider myself to be a religious person. I was raised with religion, but left it to chart my own path when I was a teen. (That’s a discussion for another time, preferably over a few rounds of drinks!) 

I do, however, consider myself to be spiritual. That being the case, I think it worked to my advantage that I don’t understand the language well. As with the meditation, I was able to push thoughts aside and focus on the beauty of the ceremony itself – the tones, the atmosphere, the emotional presence. 

I had no idea what it meant, but the polyphonic chanting of the three singing monks was entrancing as they weaved their way through intriguing harmonies, accompanied by the punctuations of percussion. Without context, I was able to imagine that the monks were summoning energy from the universe and directing their flow via their melodies, bringing it inside the temple so that it could surround and infuse our bodies. (I may have been completely wrong, but that seemed like a suitably Buddhist mindset to me.)

After breakfast, we were treated to a program about the temple’s long history, including the time it was owned by royalty in the 1600s, and then we took a walking tour around the grounds, getting to see things like the vegetable garden where much of our meals had been grown, the rock carvings, and the statue that overlooks the entire compound from its perch up the side of the mountain.

After a rest and lunch, it was time for our final activity. We headed for one of the temple’s classrooms, where AoS friend Mr. Gu demonstrated the art of fan painting and calligraphy. It was amazing to see this work of art come together before our very eyes!

Then it was my turn to wield a brush. No, I wasn’t going to pretend I could mimic Mr. Gu’s work, but I did get an opportunity to try my hand at Chinese calligraphy. I’m just a beginner, but with the help of Tina, who joined us for the second day, I was able to start creating some drawings that could possibly have resembled actual Chinese characters!

And then, we were finished … time to gather our overnight packs and get ready for the trip home.

When we take part in Album of Suzhou events, we always leave with something. Maybe it’s a deeper appreciation of Suzhou’s history, architecture, folklore, or culture. But this one felt different. We meditated with the monks. We ate with the monks. We woke with the monks. We prayed with the monks. For a day, we actually got to sample and appreciate a completely different lifestyle, one very different from our own. It may not have made a vegetarian or an early riser out of me – at least, not yet – but I could feel a much greater connection to their sense of devotion, their mission of kindness and faith. We were leaving with the some of that flowing energy still reverberating through our bodies, reminders of the peace and tranquility we’d experienced during our stay.

Of all the Album of Suzhou events I’ve experienced, this was certainly the most intimate and meaningful. Thanks, as always, to Patrick for arranging it. Thanks to our hosts at the Faluo Temple, and thank you to my fellow AoS “Buddhists for the Day” for helping make the event so enjoyable and special.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Long Time, No See! (Part 1)

Ni hao!

So, apparently it's been almost exactly two years since I've posted. Sorry about that. Many things have been happening, for the most part, all good.

I finished my first contract as a teacher here and, when it came time to renew, I told my boss that if they were willing to commit to a longer-term contract, so was I. Fact is, I love this place. I love what I'm doing. Love working with these students, even if some of them can cause the occasional headache. Love the people I'm working with.

Once I committed to a longer-term contract, I committed to something else: making this my home.

After my first term in Zhangjiagang, I had already figured out that, even if I returned to America, I didn't want to return to the home I owned there. Didn't like the politics of the homeowner's association. Didn't like the proximity to the freeway, with its noise and pollution. So, during my first summer break back in America, I set about putting my house on the market. It sold almost immediately to a couple who saw it on the realtor preview day, and within $10,000 of the initial asking price. (Many kudos and thanks to my old friend and realtor Maty Novia, whose drive and vision were exceptional and invaluable in getting the house sold.)

Fast-forward half a year -- with my new contract signed, I started to entertain the idea of renting or buying a place off-campus, someplace that would give me more room than the school-provided housing. If I was going to stick around for a while, I wanted to live comfortably! After checking out more than a dozen places that met my price, space, and proximity to work requirements, I came across one that was perfect. (Maybe I'll talk about the process in another post. It really was a fascinating experience.)

So, two years later, I am now a full-fledged resident of Zhangjiagang and enjoying life here immensely.

I wish all of my friends were as happy for me as I am for myself, but that's a different story ... the story I want to address in Part 2.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Handshakes & Hugs: My Last Week At ZJGSHS

 It all went by so quickly. But time flies when you're having fun.

And it was a lot of fun.

But June's arrival meant that final exams were on their way for the students at Zhangjiagang Senior High School. It also meant the end of Oral English classes... and a week of emotional goodbyes.

I only saw the 10th graders in class once a week; the 11th graders, every other week. With 1200 different students passing through my classroom, I couldn't even begin to know all their names. Still, knowing it would be our last class together was really difficult.

This has been a life-changing experience, and these students have been a huge part of it. Every time I've looked at a student in class and I've seen that look in their eyes -- the one that says I'm reaching them. Every wave in the hallway, every little giggle, every "Hello teacher!" They all contributed to me feeling right at home there.

As the week went along, some of the students left little gifts. One gave me a beautiful little handmade turtle!

I wanted to leave them with something, too. Throughout the term, I've tried to work little life lessons into the classes, so I had a sheet containing several of my philosophies -- "Mr. Ax's Guide to Life" -- printed up for each of them.

I spent the first five minutes of each class telling them how much they'd meant to me and thanking them for helping turn this leap of faith into such an incredible life decision, and my plan to keep the dialogue between us going by setting up "English Corner" here in Zhangjiagang. It happens in other cities -- events where students get to mingle and talk with native English speakers to practice their conversational skills -- but it apparently hasn't been done in Zhangjiagang yet, and I want to change that.

(Yes, I was so touched by the gift that the turtle attended all of my final-week classes!)

I did have one final lesson for them, about music and how it can be used to practice their language skills. It had a fun starting point -- I asked them questions about the English alphabet (for example, "Which letter comes before R?") -- and I waited as they struggled to come up with the answers. Then I asked them to sing the "A-B-C" song, which they could do instantly. Amazing how all of the answers were there all along, locked in their musical memory, right? It was a great jumping-off point.

The grand finale was a lot of fun, too: They learned to sing The Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love." It was a trip to hear all of these Chinese teenagers singing a Beatles tune. I loved it.

After having them pose for class pictures -- that's my final class above -- I gave them an encore.

During the very first class, the "ask me anything" class, every group asked me if I would sing. So I brought my ukulele to class, and the very last thing I did with them was play and sing "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz. Some of the students knew it, and I heard them singing along.

I'm sure it didn't sound too great -- honestly, with all the emotion I was feeling, it was hard to keep my voice from cracking -- but it was heartfelt. Everybody either loved it or was very kind, because all of the classes applauded.

Class was over... I thanked them again, then sent them off with a "see you soon" rather than a "goodbye," because I hope it won't be the end. Between English Corner and WeChat, I hope the conversation will continue, because this group is very special to me. After all, they were my first students!

On their way out of the classroom, some of the students handed me little gifts, snacks, and notes. One class gave handshakes on the way out. Most of the Class 9 students wanted a hug. It was an awesome, emotional end to our classroom experience.

It felt a little strange leaving the classroom, knowing the term was over. I erased the heart, club, diamond, and spade from the chalkboard (that's how I would randomly choose students to speak in class, using a deck of playing cards).

I replaced them with a simple message.

Will any students look into the classroom and see the message this week as they pass by? I don't know. But I hope they do.

That last look at the classroom was a melancholy one. Every other time it had been empty, it would soon fill up again. But not this time...

I headed back to my office, got changed, and headed to the gym to play volleyball with the other teachers. But there was still one unexpected student interaction waiting for me.

Near the gym, there were four boys throwing shoes up into a tree. I asked what they were doing, and they showed me another shoe that had gotten stuck up on a branch. (No, I didn't ask how, haha!) They weren't having any luck knocking it down with their shoes, so I told them to get a basketball. One of them got a ball and threw it up into the tree -- no luck.

The rebound came to me. I flung the ball into the tree... and when it came down, so did the shoe.

One last act of kindness for the students... a fitting end to my time with them. (At least for this term.)

I don't know whether I'll have the opportunity to teach at ZJGSHS again. I'm assuming they'll want me at Liangfeng in the fall. But I have pitched out the idea of an elective Advanced English Writing class for a limited number of students at ZJGSHS. If they're interested, and my bosses give me the go-ahead, I might be back there (in a limited capacity) this fall. I hope it happens. They made my first term something special, and I would love to continue the relationship with the school and these awesome students.


Friday, April 20, 2018

Two Months In China: Random Reflections

It's the evening of April 19th here in Zhangjiagang, which means it's been exactly two months since I arrived here. And it's certainly been an eventful couple of months. (Obviously... you've been reading about a lot of it.)

Starting a new career in a new country is like mental yoga, stretching your brain in ways you didn't even know it could be stretched. And, though it might take a little getting used to, you quickly discover how good it is for you.

In many ways, life here is exactly like it is back in the United States. You work, you eat, you sleep, you find interesting things to do in your spare time.

Need stuff? There are plenty of grocery stores, and you can find convenience stores on virtually every block. There are shopping malls and retail streets. Hungry? There are plenty of restaurants... though the vast majority are Chinese food. Oh, and bakeries. There are bakeries galore here.

But it's the differences, of course, that make it fascinating.

If you don't like music, you won't like it here. Expect to hear plenty of it. Schools play music on their loudspeakers in between periods. In the early evening, there's music everywhere, as women set up "dance corners" in virtually every open public area. (There's an intersection a block from my apartment where three of the four corners are dance corners.) Even the street sweepers play music as they make their rounds around town.

Everybody goes outside. The city's sidewalks come alive at night, filled with people. Maybe they're walking to a restaurant. Maybe they're walking the dog. Maybe they're out for a stroll with the family. Maybe they're on their way to a park or a dance corner. But there are people walking everywhere -- many more walkers than drivers, which is a good thing.

I don't miss having a car. The drivers are unpredictable and crazy here. Even though it's a small town, and you'd think that everyone would know their way around, you still find people who suddenly remember (or discover) they need to turn left -- while they're in the right lane. That doesn't stop them, of course. I've seen plenty of them make that left turn from the right lane. They'll just stop in the right lane (in traffic) if they need to look up directions, pick someone up, or drop someone off... often with no warning. And way too many drivers make turns without surveying their surroundings. So, as a bicyclist or pedestrian, you need to be vigilantly observant at every intersection.

Speaking of bikes, since I put the computer on mine, I've racked up 394 miles. Not bad for two months. Of course, that did include one accident, but again, live and learn. But it's seriously the best way to get around town, and I feel like I'm seeing so much more of the city on a bike than I would in a car, or by taking the same bus line day in and day out.

So many of the people here are fantastic. It doesn't take much to get a wonderful smile from them. As a foreigner, I can usually do it with a simple "ni hao!" Being acknowledged by a foreigner is apparently a joyful thing here.

On a related note, I find that, living in a slower-paced town, it's easier to be kind to all sorts of creatures, human and otherwise. It took a while, but little by little, I gained the trust of the little stray dog who hangs out on the Zhangjiagang Senior High School campus. Now, not only does she let me pet her... if she sees me from a distance, she'll run to me! That, apparently, is not a common thing among dogs here in China. And a couple of the campus cats will now let me pet them, as well.

The clothes here are an endless source of entertainment. You're much more likely to see clothes with English words on them than Chinese words. The entertaining part, of course, is that so many of the words are misspelled, and/or the phrases are either grammatically horrible or completely nonsensical. And people here will wear music-oriented T-shirts without having a clue who the artists are -- that's about the only way I can explain the woman in the teachers' dining room today wearing a Ted Nugent T-shirt. I'm guessing she's never heard a song of his, and she certainly isn't aware of his atrocious politics. She probably just liked the way it looked.

Springtime is very beautiful here... very colorful. After my first month here was a brutally cold final month of winter, it's been great to see this color emerge.

On a personal level...

I was warned before I left to take some Western medicine with me -- specifically, Benadryl and Immodium. "It'll take a while for your system to adjust," I heard. In two months, I've needed neither. And the Chinese medicine I took for my aching throat last week, an herbal remedy, did a pretty good job.

The language factor can be difficult, but not insurmountable. Sometimes it almost becomes a game of charades. But usually, we get it figured out. Of course, it helps to have a smartphone, and to be able to show someone a word in a translating dictionary, if need be. Still, I want to learn the language. I need to make time for that.

I'm finding I'm not the least bit homesick. For now, at least, this is home. I miss people back in the States, but I often get to chat with them. (How awesome to be doing this in a time when the Internet, WeChat, and Facebook exist.) As far as Los Angeles and the U.S.A., I really can't say I miss them at this point. Even though I'm in a small apartment, I really don't miss my house, either. Maybe once I've been gone longer... but maybe not. Only time will tell. But even with the major language adjustment and the minor cultural adjustments, Zhangjiagang is already starting to feel like home.

Sure, life in a foreign country has its challenges, but life anywhere has its challenges. And having made it through the first two months, I feel like those challenges are becoming less and less difficult.

After two months, I'm happy to report that life is good here, and I certainly feel like I made a great life choice by coming here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Just Another Suzhou Sunday (That's A Fun Day)

In the Chinese geographical hierarchy, Zhangjiagang is a county-level city belonging to its prefecture-level city, Suzhou. So, technically, I've been in Suzhou this whole time.

On Sunday, though, I made my first trip down to the city of Suzhou since I moved here. It's a gorgeous city, commonly called "the Venice of China" because of its vast network of canals

I had a brief experience -- a day excursion -- in Suzhou while on the cruise vacation last year, and it whetted my appetite for more. So when I was presented with the opportunity to join a group, Album Of Suzhou, that does cultural walks around the city, I couldn't pass it up!

"Walk Through Renmin Road" was the theme of the walk, the road itself being one of the city's most historic, offering plenty of sights and cultural landmarks.

First up was the Confucian Temple, a complex that's about a thousand years old.

The bottom photo is taken inside the temple's Dacheng Hall. As it was explained to us, the building is supported with 50 great pillars made from a type of wood that, at the time, was only made available to royalty. That's how highly regarded Confucius was here in Suzhou.

The painting of Confucius, as you can see, is enormous -- the largest in existence. As it towers above you, it's a magnificent sight.

To the left and right are the musical instruments of the day, and there are a few assorted artifacts on display, but the temple's largest collection, by far, is of stone tablets. They've got hundreds, if not thousands of them, on display throughout the entire complex. Many are right there in Dancheng Hall.

But the four most famous ones get a building all to themselves.

From top to bottom, they're known as Tianwen Tu, Dili Tu, Pingjiang Tu, and Diwangshaoyun Tu, representing ground, city, sky, and people.

These stones are seen as having great cultural significance to China; they were among the first batch of relics to be designated as National Key Cultural Relics in 1961. They're very large, and they're very impressive.

Since Confucius was a big fan of meditation, the temple is still seen by some as a sacred place to practice meditation, and we happened upon a few of those people in one of the courtyard areas.

Then, we were off to the library.

Hidden away behind the very modern facade of the Suzhou Library is a wonderfully scenic garden area, and we got a chance to take in the garden's tranquility, both visually and aurally. (It's part of a library, right? Of course it's going to be quiet!)

Then, after we made a quick stop at a small museum specializing in Chinese calligraphy, we took a short subway ride to our final destination: the Suzhou North Temple Pagoda.

After getting a look inside the pagoda, we made our way around the grounds, ending up at its Plum Garden.


All in all, it was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, with beautiful scenery and a group of very nice people.

Here I am, with the organizer of the walk, Patrick:

This time, I was fortunate enough to get a ride down to Suzhou with Patrick's friend, Eric. But, in researching the walk, I've also discovered that Suzhou is also a relatively short intercity bus ride away.

Now that I know about Album Of Suzhou's walks and know some really nice people down in Suzhou, I can foresee taking more trips down there in the not-too-distant future.  😀