It is my first time visiting the Dharma Drum Mountain World Center for Buddhist Education. I will be spending 2 weeks there with the first week in a Zen retreat and the second week doing volunteer service.
The Center occupies quite a large area and is nested between mountain ranges with 2 river stream flowing through it. Below is the map with the main sights in the thumbnails to the right.
Transport will come right in from the south up the mountain. There is a Guo Guang (国光) bus service 1815 that ply between Taipei West Bus Station (the bus station is just a 3mins walk west of the Taipei Train Station) and Dharma Drum Mountain. The buses depart on average every hour and the journey is around 1hr 50mins. Google search "国光 法鼓山" for the bus schedule timing and bus fares. The bus will go directly to Building II Level 1.
At the main parking entrance , there is the Welcoming Guan Yin Park. The Guan Yin statue is 8m in height and is cast in bronze. It is based on the Sui-Tang dynasty design. She seems to be descending from the heavens to our world to welcome everyone. Before entering the Buddha halls, all visitors will have felt Guanyin Bodhisattva's compassionate and warm welcome.
As we walk further in, we arrived at the Main Entrance Gate to the mountain.
Week 1 - Zen Retreat
I signed up for the retreat online. Application for the retreat can also be made with the local Dharma Drum branch. This is a 7 Days English Retreat at Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM). DDM host retreats regularly, but English Retreat are typically held once a year.
In the first week, I will be staying at the Chan Center which is located at the top of the map. In the photo below we have the main hall as well as connecting accommodation and dining areas to the side. Basically everything is self-contained in these two buildings, which is perfect for zen retreat.
We started the retreat at 4pm on 7th July after we have finished all the registration, safe-keep of all electronic devices and valuables. There are 106 participants who signed up for this English retreat. Half of them come from overseas - US, Europe, Southeast Asia and so on. (16 different countries)
Noble silence is to be observed throughout the retreat up until when we leave the Chan Center. A summary of a full day schedule is below:
4am - 4.30am: Rise and wash-up
4.30am - 5am: Exercise
5am - 5.30am: Meditation
5.45am - 6.30am: Morning Prayer Session
6.45am - 7.15am: Breakfast
7.15am - 7.45am: Area cleaning
7.45am - 8.10am: REST
8.10am - 11.30am: Meditation / Dharma Talks / Exercise
11.30am - 12pm: Lunch
12pm - 12.30pm: Area cleaning
12.45pm - 1.20pm: REST
1.20pm - 4.30pm: Meditation / Dharma Talks / Exercise
4.30pm - 5pm: Dinner
5pm - 6.25pm: REST
6.40pm - 10pm: Evening Prayer Session / Dharma Talks / Meditation
The first day is usually the most difficult part of the retreat. We have to adjust our body clock to the retreat clock. My body clock is used to waking up at 7am daily, and now I have to wake at 4am. By the time we have reached the second day, we are more or less adjusted and started to be aware of the meditation method.
Some of the common occurrences during the subsequent days of meditation sitting include: body getting tense, too many wandering thoughts or body ache. The teacher, Ven Guo Yuan taught us techniques to alleviate these occurrences.
As indoor photography is not allowed, I shared the meditation photos taken by the retreat professional photographer (obtained from 法鼓山禅堂 Facebook).
Below are all of us in deep meditation (or sometimes deep sleep).
There were regular talks by Ven Guo Yuan on the meditation method. One of the key learning points I got from this retreat is to relax the body. Ven Guo Yuan mentioned to take it as if we are on vacation. This thought greatly relaxed the body and I sat down on the meditation cushion as if I'm resting on it, and just put my awareness on the breath.
Twice a day, we will be involved in area cleaning. This work activity is also a type of mindfulness meditation. No talking is allowed while we are working. It's amazing how we get things down rapidly and easily without any conversations.
Besides sitting meditation, there are also many other types of mindfulness meditation techniques. It include prostration (as seen below), walking meditation, running meditation, yoga stretching exercises. The principle is as follow - wherever your body is, your mind should be aware of it.
Two of the mornings, we went outdoor and walked through the hilly area behind the Chan Center. It is a 30mins walk. We have to walk barefooted to fully experience the sensation of walking.
Halfway in the retreat, a thought came to my mind. In our life, our first 20 years of our education are planned by our parents. We can seek advice from career counselors on the the next 30 years of our career. Financial advisors helped us plan for our retirement in the next 60 years of our life. But what goes beyond the 80 - 100 years. What happen at our death bed and after our death? People usually do short-term planning up to the next 60 years. But they do not plan the 80 - 100 years or beyond. And this is usually the most important. By participating in meditation retreat, by learning Buddhism, we are getting ready for the 80 - 100 years and beyond. (life-time after life-time)
It was an amazing retreat experience. Though we are not able to speak with each other, but the communal living experience brought us really close to one another. At the last day when the retreat noble silence restriction is lifted, it felt like a close reunion with all fellow practitioners.
Here is our group photo (courtesy of Venerable Chang Xiang). Click on the photo for a larger image.
The retreat ended at 9.30am on the last day (14 July). Most of the participants left within a day or two. But I commence my next activity in DDM, which is the volunteer service. I made my way from the Chan Center to the main building where the volunteer office is located.
Week 2 - Volunteer Service
I signed up for the volunteer service with the local Dharma Drum center. In my case, I registered with Dharma Drum Singapore where I filled in an application form. A friend told me I could either be attached to a department or be with the general affairs volunteers team. As it is my first time in Dharma Drum, I decided to join the general affairs volunteers team so they will assign me to different areas depending on the demand for the day.
There are several unique experiences in this week of community service. I have learned there are many good processes and practices in place which is the culmination of their years of feedback and learning. In the kitchen, all utensils and tools are properly labelled and there are clear process stations between them. In the placement of meditation cushions in the main hall, there's very systematic measurement and techniques used to place them.
The volunteer activities which I have involved in over the 7 days and the learning points are listed below:
1) Drying of kitchen utensils (only 1 time)
- Washing process flow
- Labeling of utensils
2) Main Hall (Twice Daily)
- Meticulous in measurement and placing of cushions
- Recycling water from the dehumidifier machines
3) Compassion Hall (Once Daily)
- Technique to mop the floor easily
- Techniques to clean the rags thoroughly
4) Sweeping the Road (only 2 times)
- Using the leaves blower
5) Dormitory cleaning (only on weekend)
- Method to dismantle and clean fans
- Using of different tools to clean different areas of the dormitory
6) Industrial washing (only 1 time)
- Pre-washing check
- Use of industrial washing machines
7) Bento preparation and delivery (only 1 time)
- Process to prepare bento box
- Delivery of bento boxes
I was taught to recite Amitabha Buddha name while working. This will ensure mindfulness are maintained at every step and at every activity.
Some personal insight over the 7 days of work. While I was cleaning the Main Hall and Great Compassion Hall for the 5th time, I started to feel a bit tired. I reflected and found it similar to the nature of life. We need to have 3 meals a day to sustain this body. Why do we find it a hassle to sweep the hall daily but we do not find it a hassle to have 3 meals a day? The things that we take it as natural prevented us from recognizing it as Dukkha in life.
While I was sweeping the leaves from the road, I found out that leaves have began to fall on the area where I finished sweeping. The leaves need to be constantly swept. This is akin to our wandering thoughts which constantly arise and we need mindfulness to keep it in check. Only when the root of ignorance (tree) is removed, only will wandering thoughts (fallen leaves) cease.
The most unforgettable part of the volunteer service are the people - the teachers and volunteers. Everyone elucidate positive enthusiasm and there's mindful meditation practice in all activity. They give gratitude and thanks to everyone. All activities are a learning activities.
The daily schedule for volunteer is as below:
5am - 5.30am: Rise and wash-up
6am - 6.40am: Morning Prayer Session
6.45am - 7.15am: Breakfast (Official breakfast hours 7am - 7.30am)
7.15am - 8.15am: REST
8.30am - 9am: Talk by Venerable
9am - 11am: Morning Volunteer Work
11.30am - 12pm: Universal Door recitation and Talk by Venerable
12pm - 12.30pm: Lunch (Official lunch hours 12pm - 12.40pm weekdays, 11.30am - 1.20pm weekends)
12.30pm - 2.30pm: REST
2.30pm - 4.30pm: Afternoon Volunteer Work
5pm - 5.30pm: Dinner (Official dinner hours 5pm - 5.40pm)
5.30pm - 7.30pm: REST
8pm - 8.40pm: Evening Prayer Session
This is a rough time schedule, but sometimes there are some pre or post lunch work to be done. On special days such as the 1st and 15th of the lunar month or Guan Yin birthday, the morning prayer session will start at 5.30am instead. On Saturday, the evening prayer session takes place at 4.30pm instead as there is a Buddha's Name Recitation practice at 7pm - 9pm. On Wednesday evening 6.30pm - 8.30pm, there is a meditation group practice.
Some points to note for volunteers:
- Upon arrival at the volunteer office, they can draw keys to personal lockers for use
- Check in timing to the volunteer dormitory is 12.30pm - 1.30pm or 5.40pm - 7pm daily
- It's good to bring own bowl and chopsticks. Volunteers with own personal bowls can collect the meals 30mins before official start time and dine elsewhere.
- I heard there's a rest day for every 5-6 days of volunteer work.
In between the volunteer activities, there are plenty of time to slowly explore the sights around Dharma Drum Mountain. Let's take a look at some photos here.
Every morning, I will walk from the dormitory which is located mid-mountain up the mountain to the main hall below. The first few days, I took the route along the road which leads directly up to the main hall. In the last 3 days, I discovered another route which is via Building II elevator (Level 2 > Level 5) and thereafter transiting to Building I elevator (Level 5 > Level 6).
The hall oversee the great valley and the town beyond. This is my favorite sight each morning. I heard from a fellow volunteer that drums in the main hall will be sounded from 4am to 5am each morning. Early risers can sit outside the main hall and meditate to the sound of drums.
Here is a view at full moon.
In front of the Great Compassion Hall, there is a great view. It has a still pool of water and the mountain scenery beyond.
Behind the Great Compassion Hall and Dining Hall, there is a waterfall.
There is a large bell (Lotus Bell Tower) at mid-mountain. I heard from fellow volunteers that during the Chinese New Year at midnight, the bell will be rang 108 times.
And just next to the Chan Center is the Founding Guanyin Park. The Founding Guanyin is based on Ming-Qing dynasty design. (contrast it with the Welcoming Guanyin Sui-Tang design) Visitors walk clockwise around Guanyin and chant her name.
There's also the Medicine Buddha. While on my way to explore this park, I met two of my friends who are also exploring the area and we walked together.
There is a Life Memorial Garden to the southwest area. Ashes of deceased are scattered around the trees so they are given back to nature.
There is an Institute of Liberal Arts to the northeast of the Dharma Drum Mountain area. It is not shown in the map.
There are two great streams of river in the Dharma Drum Mountain. Below is one of the stream before reaching the main campus of Institute of Liberal Arts.
At the northeast corner of the institute, there is a tunnel that leads to the other side of the mountain. It offers great view of the sea. The original photo I took was cloudy. So I shared a great sunny photo taken by a fellow friend.
There is also a vast collection of books in the library at Building III. I spent half a day here reading through books on my last day there.
Below is a photo of the volunteers dormitory which is located mid-mountain. It is located in between the Main Entrance and Building II. There are both hot and cold water showers in the volunteers dormitory and Chan Center. Water dispensers can be found easily throughout Dharma Drum Mountain.
Volunteers who would like to have free WiFi access can either access it at Smiling Photo Room (Building II Level 3), Library at Building III or Volunteers Dormitory. It's quite difficult to get mobile data access indoor at the volunteer rest area. A good place to sit in air condition area and access mobile data are the tables in front of Building II Level 2 visitor counters. But this period is quite a good opportunity to detach away from mobile phone distractions. I will advise minimal use.
Another strongly recommended indoor hangout place is the Cafeteria at Building II Level 2. This is a must visit place for light snacks, coffee and tea.
On the way up to the Main Hall one morning, I came upon this lotus flower at a small pond. And took a photo of it.
In just 2 weeks, I have lost 4kg. I felt myself feeling healthier - from the fresh mountain air, the constant exercises of helping out and climbing mountain tracks, and healthy vegetarian meals. As the founder Venerable Sheng Yen has mentioned "The busy make the most of time; the diligent enjoy the best of health." This is very true indeed. I'm now back to my healthy BMI range.
There's also an indescribable happiness that come with volunteer service. In doing volunteer work, we began to put down our self-centeredness and started to put others before oneself more. This is really the great Mahayana path in action. I definitely look forward to visiting Dharma Drum Mountain more regularly in the future.