Zhejiang has several famous monasteries associated with the Zen (Chinese: Chan) school of Buddhism, and one of the most important ones is the Tiantong (“heavenly child”) monastery. This is where the famous founder of the Japanese Soto sect of Zen, Dogen (1200-1253) studied under his Chinese master Rujing (1163-1227) and where he had his great enlightenment experience which he described as “dropping off body and mind.” Because I am interested in the Soto (Chinese: Caodong) school of Chan/Zen Buddhism, I had wanted to visit the Tiantong monastery for a long time. In September 2009, when I was on a business trip to China, I got the opportunity to do so. I traveled there with an old Chinese friend of mine who is a Buddhist monk, so my experience was of course different from that of a casual visitor, but the monastery is well worth a visit for anyone. It is near the city of Ningbo, and although we had the use of a car it is easy enough to get to there by bus.
It is one of China’ largest monasteries, beautifully set in the mountains. On the day I was there it was raining, but the mist that shrouded the monastery and the surrounding mountains only made it look more attractive. When we arrived at Tiantong monastery we were given lunch. Nowadays, there are almost two hundred monks in residence here, but in the Song dynasty, when Dogen visited, there may have been as many as several thousand. One can still see the old rice cooking pot, which is absolute enormous (picture 1). I very much wanted to see the monks’ dining hall, but we were served in a private room and I didn’t get a chance to do so. The food was excellent, and even though all food at a Buddhist monastery is vegetarian (monastics are not allowed to kill any living thing), several dishes tasted like they had meat in them. I suspect the food we had was quite a bit better than what the ordinary monks were served! A few senior monks from the monastery joined us for lunch and we talked about monastic life in modern China. They told me that although the life in a monastery is very demanding with long hours of study and meditation, many young men are interested in becoming Buddhist monks. Perhaps this is a reaction to the increasingly fast-paced life in modern China. Interestingly, it seems there are even more young women who want to become Buddhist nuns, but it is difficult because there are not so many nunneries in China. Still, China is the only country in the world where women can still receive the full Buddhist ordination; everywhere else the order of nuns has died out or was never established in the first place. I also asked the senior monks about meditation. In Dogen’s writings meditation is strongly emphasized, and I wondered if that was the case at present-day Tiantong. I was told that all monks must do some meditation, but that certain monks choose to specialize in meditation and spend most of their time in the meditation hall. The ultimate objective of Chan Buddhism is to truly understand that all beings originally have the nature of a Buddha, and that we are all inherently enlightened. Meditation is the best way to come to realize this, but it is hard and long path that is not for everyone.
After lunch we went on a tour of the monastery. In one place there is a portrait of Dogen, commemorating his time at Tiantong (picture 2). We also saw the meditation hall, but only from the outside since the monks meditating there cannot be disturbed (picture 3). We then went over to the oldest part of the monastery. It is a compound away by itself, and few visitors go there. Here there is an original stele inscription from the Song dynasty for Hongzhi Zhenjue (1091-1157) (picture 4), who was perhaps the most famous Chan master at Tiantong of all times, and whose writings were a big influence on Dogen. The old Tiantong monastery is in a beautiful setting in the middle of a bamboo forest, and very peaceful and quiet. A trip to Tiantong is a wonderful respite from the hectic and noisy life in China’s cities.