January 15, 2008

A Monastic Life – Part I

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It’s hard to believe that just a couple of days ago, I was living in a temple with Buddhist nuns. Each morning at precisely 3:50 AM, I would arise at the clapping sound of two wooden sticks. Along with about 40 other young women, I had 10 minutes to prepare for the beginning of a new day (mind you, there were only four toilets and two sinks for the forty of us young women). Now how did I find myself in such a living situation? In retrospect, I think it had to do with a touch of fate and a yearning to return to a place that once provided the tableau for one of the most memorable experiences I ever had.

The place is called Hualien—it’s a rather rural city in the eastern part of Taiwan. This place, incidentally, is known for the beautiful Taroko Gorge—much like Ithaca’s own gorges. The first time I came to Hualien, I was still in high school, and the local university here held a summer camp for Taiwanese high school students that are interested in the life at medical school. In short, I had an amazing time at the camp (even though I was the only American), and I still keep in touch with the friends that I made back then. Somehow, Hualien resonated with me, and I have been looking for an excuse to go back again. After hearing about an opportunity to volunteer at the local hospital in Hualien, I finally found my excuse to travel back to this beautiful, mountainous region.

This time around, however, the living situation would be a little different. Instead of in a college dormitory, the 60+ overseas volunteers and I would be living among the Buddhist nuns of the Jingsi temple. Construction on the global volunteer dormitory made it so that we would have to live in the Jingsi temple instead. Consequently, all 60 or so of us college-aged volunteers had to adopt a monastic lifestyle for a week. This meant that in addition to following the dress code of the non-profit organization I was volunteering with, we would all have to wake up at 3:50 AM every day and be in bed by 9 PM.

The master of the monastery was a 1991 winner of the Philippine Magsaysay Award (also known as the “Asian version of the Nobel Prize”) for her work with charity and she is the founder of the non-profit organization. Her care for the environment truly emanates in all the work that she does. Much of the food that is cooked is grown in the land around the monastery and all the Buddhist nuns are vegetarian. As such, all the volunteers living in Jingsi adopted a vegetarian diet for a week and all the volunteers had to bring their own, reusable eating utensils. Instead of tissues, we were to carry around our own handkerchiefs (thank goodness there was toilet paper though!). After living at Jingsi for a week, I began wondering why this woman has yet to receive a Nobel Peace prize while Al Gore managed to receive one after only making a mere documentary—but that’s an aside!

The creation of Hualien’s first hospital is a result of this woman’s dream—a Buddhist nun’s dream. The inspiration for the creation of this hospital came from the death of a woman. One day, a man traveled down from his home up in the mountains to bring his bleeding wife to the nearest hospital. His wife had a miscarriage and desperately needed medical help. By the time the man traveled to the nearest hospital—which was a good eight hours away—the people at the hospital told him that in order for his wife to receive treatment, they would have to first pay a deposit of US$200. This family had no money whatsoever, so the woman died in a pool of her own blood at the doorstep of that hospital. The Buddhist nun happened to see this sight and vowed to create a hospital that would serve anyone of any income.

To be continued…

Grace Chen is a Sun blogger. She can be reached at blogs@cornellsun.com.