7-Day Mountain Temple Experience Recap

In travel by Michael Michelini

No video blog, no photos today of the actual experience, sorry.

Just have this one photo of the map I took while hiking one of the mountains in case I got lost (which I did anyway – but what is it to be lost in reality anyway?)

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Like many things in life, I wish I had done this earlier. My wife has been pushing me to “go to temple” every time she hears me stressing. This time, it got to a tipping point. With just a few day’s notice, we booked time to take a trip to Hong Fa Si (Hong Fa Temple) in the WuTong mountains of Shenzhen, China.

Wendy called them up and asked if a foreigner could volunteer to live and work in the temple as a common monk. Be an open set of hands to cook, clean, guide tourists, handle door registration, etc. They said that it was no problem for foreigners to come. They gave us the checklist (48-hour Covid test, passports, forms, etc) and we went though the process to go.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 3, we headed up the mountain, entered the park (paid the 18rmb fee, and scanned at least 4 QR code WeChat mini apps to upload passports, phone numbers, and names to each of these various divisions). we took a short bus ride up the mountain to the temple.

Here’s a photo Wendy took of us arriving at the entrance of the park or temple.

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After paying our respects to Buddha with incense at the door, we found the volunteer office. I was definitely getting a lot of looks as a foreigner in my buddha outfit (Wendy loves shopping on Taobao for everything. I had the full brown and green monk suit – sorry no photos!).

Entering the office, the manager plain and simple looked at me. He asked and Wendy explained that she called in advance and said if foreigners are accepted. Maybe I wasn’t the foreigner they expected. They asked if I spoke Chinese and if I believe in Buddha.

My Chinese is unfortunately still limited, and I cannot say I bow and pray to Buddha. I do respect the philosophy and lifestyle, but I cannot say I practice the religion. Both those questions didn’t pass his test and I was not allowed to stay in the temple as a volunteer. I then asked if I could pay a fee to stay there, as we had already prepared and traveled but there were no exceptions.

Wendy kept trying to convince him but then I had an idea. Why do I need to stay at the temple? There must be local hotels along the mountain to stay in, and I can simply enter the temple and the mountains surrounding it on my own time. We left the temple and Wendy searched cTrip. As with anything in China, there were plenty of options and we found a local hotel just 5 minutes walk from the park entrance for 35rmb a night.

It was such a low price for a reason: a hole toilet, basically a bed, a stool, and a slim window. Wendy popped her head in the room and wanted to say no to the innkeeper, but I said, “this is perfect”. She wanted to move me to a better room the next day, but I assured her it was fine. We paid the deposit, and gave each other a goodbye kiss.

Wednesday afternoon, 3 p.m. – I was on my own:

  • No laptop
  • No kindle (I was really tempted with this one)
  • No morning routine gear (no workout things, no timers, no alarms)

What did I have?

  • 1 canvas “trader joes” bag to hold my possessions
  • 2 sets of Buddhist clothing (2 shirts, 2 pants)
  • 1 brown Buddhist monk hoodie
  • 1 small towel, 1 bar of soap
  • Passport, only used for hotel check-in
  • Only 1 phone (my “WeChat” phone) that I kept powered off as soon as I scanned QR codes for Covid test results and other verifications. Besides that, and an occasional WeChat pay transaction, it was off.
  • A waterproof case to hold my passport and phone
  • Small toiletries bag that also had a small notepad for a limited short list of ideas (I left it in the hotel room)
  • 1 metal water bottle
  • 200-ish RMB (2 100 RMB bills and a bunch of small bills)
  • Hotel key

So What Did I Do for 7 Full days?

It was still shocking that Wednesday afternoon. I was definitely still “anxious” to check my phone and email. What if someone was trying to reach me or something urgent was happening?

Instead, I walked. Maybe like that Forrest Gump scene where he “just started running”, I just started walking. I didn’t want to go to the temple too much as I was still a little upset about being denied, and also because I didn’t want to power on my phone to scan all the QR codes to give my personal data.

So I walked along the mountain town’s outer edges, looking for a path up the mountain. I really had no idea where I was or where the other side of the path would lead, but I found various paths all the same. So I started to outline a schedule of which path I would take on which day.

Time goes much slower when you are not checking your phone every minute. It also goes slower wen you don’t know what time it is. Just trying to look at the sun to gauge how late in the afternoon it is.

I got nervous I would get lost in the mountain and it would be nightfall, but then I figured that would just be part of the experience. I did have the receipt of the hotel, and cash, so the worst-case scenario was I could find a road and wait for a taxi and show him the receipt. Or even worse, I could use the thick brown Buddhist monk hoodie as a blanket and sleep in the mountain (this didn’t happen by the way, but it would have been quite the experience).

Also, I must have slept a lot those first couple days. I was so tired, I would just take the brown hoodie and lay it on an open grass area or a random small “temple” (in the mountains there were random concrete structures with 4 benches and a roof). I would then lay my head down, using the trader joe’s bag and its contents as a pillow, and just sleep.

As the sun came lower, I’d find more ways to get back to the “base”, and I do have a natural knack for knowing directions. I would try a fork in the trail and get lucky that it connected.

Eating at the local “cafeteria” style restaurant, with the base spoon of white rice and 2 choices of meat/ main dish and vegetables, it was a steal at 10rmb.

I decided to cut out the tea and coffee. Why? Just because I didn’t have a specific plan. I was contemplating fasting, but figured if I was gong to hike mountains, I needed to eat. And this wasn’t a 7-day retreat for my body. It was for my mind.

I did decide to drink some beer, mostly to unwind at the end of the day. A “night cap”. Across three nights, I had one beer each.

I’d sit at a bus stop or a public seating area, and just watch the people go by. It’s amazing how many people are staring at their phones oblivious to what is happening around them. Guess I’m one of them most of the time.

Winter in China means it gets dark very early (no daylight savings), so I really had no idea when I went to sleep most of the time. My gut told me it was 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. After dinner and an occasional beer or chocolate (I also enjoyed a fake nabisco oreo with milk beverage orange flavor), I’d head back to my inn to call it a night.

Preparing to shower over the hole toilet, I’d find an occasional moth, caterpillar, tons of seeds, and other debris on my clothes. I’d go back outside to set them free – amazed how long they may have traveled with me.

After changing out of my second set of clothes to my second set of pajamas, I would lay in bed. At these times, this is when the mind is really racing. No idea what time it is, no WeChat messages, Twitter, Telegram, email, news, phone calls.

Nothing.

What was happening in the world? In your world. The kids. Was Miles doing his English homework ok without me there? Was the team getting their work done? Was some urgent banking email coming in with a 24-hour requirement for a reply.

I realized most key people I worked with daily could reach Wendy. And Wendy knew the hotel innkeeper (she also added his WeChat), so if he wasn’t banging on my door, things must be ok.

After the First Phase, Entering Deep Meditation Phase

From Wednesday afternoon up to the weekend, I had no idea how much sleep I had. Normally, I’d use a Mi Band and a Google sheet to track my number of sleep hours. Or at the very least, I’d know what time I fell asleep and when I woke up. But right then, I had no alarms or clocks. Just the sun and its sunlight to track and estimate.

I think I must have slept at least 10 hours a night, maybe even more. It wasn’t from sleeping late, as I’d still walk outside during rush hour and could tell when the restaurants and sidewalk sales reps sold their dou jiang and xiao long bao as an indicator. I think the latest was 8 a.m., and I think I was falling asleep at around 7 p.m.

On top of that, I was napping frequently along my hikes in the mountain paths. I wish I could say it was a lot of meditation the first few days. There was some of it, but normally I was so tired I would end up laying down and sleeping instead of meditating.

I also noticed how anxious I was. For example, I decided to get a haircut at the nearby park barber (there are these adhoc barbers in public parks in China). Also each day or so I’d buy water and nuts for my mountain hiking. I started to get stressed and anxious:

“Would I get my haircut first, and then get the 5 liter bottle of water and peanuts? Or should I hike first and do these things at the end of the day? But I need to put the 5 L water bottle in my hotel room as I cannot carry it to the barber, but the barber is between the grocery store and the hotel, so I would need to go back and forth… blah blah blah.”

In my head, I would create stress from nothing. The few simple things I had on my daily to-do list stressed me out. What order would I do them in? What way would I do them more efficiently? Did I have the list of things I needed to buy prepared, so I wouldn’t need to take a second trip again?

All these crazy thoughts in my head for such basic and simple tasks.

By the weekend though, I was rejuvenated and rested. I stopped thinking about what time it was. It became a  game to figure out when others would take their lunch break.

I’d see workers on the mountain (yes, there are public service workers all over these mountains picking up garbage, fixing the path, making new seats, adding trees, it is quite amazing how much investment goes into it), and they would take their lunch break (eat and then nap) between 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

So, if they were eating as I walked past them, it must have been some time around 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. If they were sleeping, it meant it was 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Wandering around the mountains, (sorry but I don’t mind the signs) I would travel off the path. I wandered to hidden rocks overlooking Shenzhen city. I saw a wild rabbit, lost dogs, golden salamanders, tons of snakes (but they were more scared of me than I was of them).

I also ran into random people living in the mountain. One guy had a secret garden and was shocked to see some white boy stumbling into his lettuce patch from a stream.

Usually I’d just have breakfast and dinner, sometimes just dinner. I’d snack on nuts and water as I hiked.

Monday and Tuesday, my last two days, were upon me. I decided to go to the temple in the afternoon. After hiking small WuTong / tv tower, I found a backdoor into the park so I didn’t need to scan (as many) QR codes (I know, I’m a freak, but I don’t want to scan all these QR codes to give my name passport number, and phone number to all these agencies).

Even though I still had some QR codes to scan, this made me more open to going to the temple to just meditate there.

Most People Who Go To Temple Just Seem to do a Tour

I walked up the three or four flights of stairs to the top of the temple. I’d watch as the visitors paid their respects which consists of burning incense and bowing to the collection of 30+ Buddhist statues throughout the temple, then leave.

I just found a nice little place to sit and meditate. It was cold and it presented a great reason to wear my thick brown Buddhist hoodie and just sit buried in it. I’d close my eyes and open them occasionally opening to look at the blue skies and tourists.

For sure, I was the only Westerner there during all my visits, and maybe even the only non-Chinese. So, I became part of the tour, with every few minutes hearing someone say “laowai”, or “wai guo ren” which are both different variations of “foreigner”.

Opening my eyes a slit, I’d often see them taking photos of me, and I did catch one bowing to me with her incense sticks. A young boy also sat near me and meditated for a while, I’d say at least an hour or so (based on the sun and the shadows).

It also had high winds on certain days. On Monday the wind blew from my back, and I felt the gust spinning and entering into my hoodie. Maybe it was just me talking to myself, but I felt a presence of someone speaking to me.

He didn’t speak first, but I first apologized as I felt a bit like a poser as a westerner in a monk outfit not fully embracing Buddhism. I respect it and enjoy the calm and simple lifestyle of it, but I do not feel comfortable bowing to statues of it.

He laughed and said he never required someone to bow to these statues and over the years people made these traditions up. It was reassuring hearing that I was doing things fine and that I needed to stop taking things so seriously. He was very casual and informal and helped put my mind at ease for feeling like I did not belong.

On the day’s end, the monks would do their chants. I stayed in my mediation position. I wasn’t sure where in the temple they were, but it was a nice way to end the day with the sun setting as well.

Hiking back through the mountains, I would think about what really mattered. I am able to live well and eat decently for less than ten dollars a day. And that is “retail” rate at a hotel and restaurants.

Why does human nature always push us to crave more? My son recently complained to me about Halloween, not seeing costume parties or trick or treating. But he had a new Lego toy, a pumpkin full of candy, and had spent hours playing with friends. Why do we do this to ourselves?

There were some nights where it was harder to sleep than others. Maybe I had slept too much (hah!). By Wednesday morning though – 1 week later – Wendy and David came to pick me up. Wendy wanted to take a photo of me in my full monk suit but I deflected. I loaded up the car with my single canvas bag, and we drove off.

Here is a photo Wendy took of David and I having lunch together after he and Wendy picked me up.

Now, typing this up, I wonder what is next.

Bring it on, life. Bring it on.

Richard Widdicombe commented:
Mike. You found what you have needed all your life. Calm, no rushing from one thing to the next. Value what is important to you. The rest is just consumption of time and money. Peace Be With You.

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