A Buddhist Banquet

Contributed by:
Peter Dodson
Professor of Anatomy – School of Veterinary Medicine
Professor of Earth and Environmental Science – School of Arts and Sciences
University of Pennsylvania
Institute Advisory Committee Member
I was invited to participate in an important symposium held at West Chester University on April 25 – 25, 2013, entitled “Science, Religion and Asian Thought.” It was organized by Professor Frank Hoffman, an IRS board member, and visiting scholar Hongmei Liu of Beijing and co-sponsored by the Institute for Religion and Science. During the meeting I met two monks from the Beijing Long Quan Buddhist Monastery, Master Xian Wei and Master Xian Qi. These two expressed interest in my work, and encouraged me to visit the Long Quan Monastery on my next trip to China.
Happily, the opportunity presented itself on June 21. I was accompanied by my former student, Dr. You Hailu, now senior scientist at the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. As senior scientist as well as Hailu’s mentor, I enjoy special respect in Chinese society. At the monastery this is enhanced by the fact that Hailu is himself Buddhist.
By the time we arrived after an hour’s drive we were out in the country and a range of low pink granite mountains loomed before us. The monastery is well above the plain we had driven across (Beijing being flat) and obscured by trees so we had no view of it as we approached. Longquan Buddhist Monastery is nestled against the granite peaks of the Feng Huang (Phoenix) Mountains northwest of Beijing. The monastery was founded about 950 AD as Buddhism spread across China and flourished for a thousand years before it fell victim to the Cultural Revolution and was largely demolished. The thousand-year-old bridge Golden Dragon Bridge survives, as do a magnificent pair of gingkoes. (Legend has it that gingkoes nearly became extinct and survived only in the emperor’s garden before being discovered by Western botanists; these splendid trees suggest otherwise!). The monastery has now been rebuilt in its original form and is a very impressive complex of lovely and substantial stone buildings. It re-opened in 2006 and now is an active monastery with 100 monks. I suppose that number includes novices, who wear gray robes instead of the yellow-brown robes of the mature monks. There are also 200 volunteers, male and female, who aid in numerous activities including construction, which is on-going, food preparation, laundry, manufacture of clothing, and farming. Volunteers stay for 6 months to several years, and some males end up becoming monks. The buildings feel, well, monastic! Long corridors, stairwells with carved wood, windows with lovely views. We were taken on a tour by a layman, and we didn’t actually see many monks. They all have their assigned activities during the day. We saw where they eat and where they pray, but we did not see them. There were amusing anomalies: a computer room with a high tech biosecurity fingerprint scanner at the door—but the door was propped open. No sooner were we told that the monks do not read newspapers and are more or less detached from the world than we entered the library and saw newspapers on the rack. I think computer use and library use is limited.
The abbot, Venerable Xuecheng, whom we did not meet, is very well educated, obviously charismatic and anything but detached. The monastery is approved by the government, like the Patriotic Catholic Church, and he is shrewd enough to be fully cooperative with the government, receiving official visitors from the government and participating in government committees and conferences. He is very forward thinking and feels it is incumbent on the monastery to use 21st century technologies to spread the message of Buddhism. He began blogging in 2006, and his blog now goes out in eight languages. Buddhist charities are many, a fixture of downtown Beijing, and directed towards feeding needy children and old folks among others. They were also active in earthquake relief in Sichuan in 2008. Many of the monks are well educated, with degrees from Peking University (“Beida”) and Tsinghua University, the Harvard and Princeton of China, respectively. Buddhist tenets of peace, tranquillity, respect for life and harmony hardly threaten to undermine the State!
After the tour we were received by Venerable Master Chanxing, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical physics from Tsinghua. We sat in a receiving room and he and I had a lengthy and interesting discussion about science and religion, with Hailu translating. I began by giving a précis of my talk, and then he probed differences between Buddhist views and Judaeo-Christian views. I emphasized the view of Genesis that the material world is good, doubting that Buddhists trusted the material world sufficiently. He countered that science is appropriate for Buddhists because science serves people and service is a Buddhist imperative. He asked me if I affirmed the separateness of the internal and external worlds (I do) and he affirmed the Buddhist emphasis on the internal world as paramount and the external objective world being inseparable from the internal. He cited the subjectivity of quantum physics in support of this view. It was most interesting conversation. One question I asked: is Buddhism a philosophy, as many claim, or a religion? The latter he said, and Hailu agreed. So do I.
At lunch we were taken to a private dining room. Chanxing was apologetic that the fare was entirely vegetarian, which troubled no one. We began with a modest four dishes on the table, and I thought this was Spartan indeed, but perfectly appropriate. Was I mistaken! A bread course came midway through the meal and I took it to be the end. It was only the halfway point! The food kept coming and coming. I lost count. It must have been between 15 and 20 dishes before the final watermelon came. Amazing and delicious. I never dreamed that I would leave the table stuffed from a vegetarian banquet! I know that Chanxing did not eat like that on a regular basis. He told us he got up at 4 a.m., joined the monks at 4:30 for an hour of communal prayer, ate breakfast at 6 a.m. and then went about his work at 7 a.m. I told him, and I was quite serious, that this was not so very different from my day. I get up at four, drive to work, work until 7:20, go to the Newman Center to pray, and then eat my breakfast at 8 or later. He eats lunch at 11 and then naps at 12. I do not nap and go to bed not too much later than 9 p.m.whereas he sleeps at 11 p.m.
Speaking of naps, following lunch we were shown to guest rooms—I shared one with Hailu (very clean, like everything we saw, but very Spartan) and given an opportunity for a rest. With birds singing in the courtyard, some hammering construction and chanting in the background I did not think I would manage to sleep but I was quite startled when I was awakened at 1:50. Time for the show. I had already turned over my PowerPoint to Chanxing. I was told to wait a moment before entering the room. When I walked into the back the audience was standing and clapping as I walked to the table at the front. If that doesn’t give you a head rush, I don’t know what would! I needed someone to walk behind me whispering in my ear, “Remember, you are only man.” I sat at a table on a low platform center front. The screen was to my left, and Hailu sat at a small table at floor level to translate. The audience numbered about 50, with monks at the front on both sides, novices behind them and lay volunteers behind them. The talk went well, and is one I have given a number of times. I spoke for an hour and 15 minutes, which I thought was pretty crisp considering that every word was translated. Hailu did an excellent job—we had rehearsed the night before and he looked up a number of words to be ready for real time translation. The talk was to be followed by Q & A. I held my breath because how else would I know how it was received? At first the monks were shy but soon one asked and then another and another. The session went on for another hour, with questions coming from all over the room. What did I like best about Buddhism? What did I like about Christianity (three times in different ways)? Was evolution good or bad? How did humans evolve? Can you prove the existence of God?
It was quite a remarkable session and certainly a great opportunity for intercultural and interfaith understanding. We ended the session only because we had to drive back to Beijing before traffic got too crazy. My departure was likewise marked by standing applause—what a great country! I am grateful to my God for the great opportunity to share in such rare intercultural dialogue that enriches my spirit.