I was 17 years old when I left the martial arts academy where I had grown up and entered a Daoist temple.
In 1997, many of the temples on Wudang Mountain were at capacity; so getting accepted into the temple was not an easy process. I had a distant cousin who worked for the government and had contact with the temple administration. I went to visit my cousin and asked him to speak to Wang Guang De (王广德) who was the abbot at the time. Abbot Wang agreed to approve my request soon.
When the head martial arts teacher heard about my request to enter the temple, he was not pleased. As his student, I should have gone to him before making a large change like this in my life. He also wanted me to stay and continue teaching at the academy. Unfortunately, I was young, and did not understand the proper etiquette. My teacher went to meet with Abbot Wang, and told him I was not worthy of being admitted to the temple. After their conversation, Abbot Wang did not deny or approve my request. I was stuck in limbo, with no way to pressing a decision. I made the decision to leave the academy and return to my family’s farm. When my martial arts instructor saw that I was leaving, he must have regretted his actions. I was packing my belongings into a relative’s car when told me he would go back to the Abbot, and speak on my behalf. So, I stayed. Three days later, I received a phone call saying I could report to the temple at Jinding (金顶) which is on the very top of Wudang Mountain.
Before I hiked up the mountain, I went to thank Abbot Wang. He wrote a letter of introduction to Master Li Guang Fu (李光富) who was the head Daoist at Jinding at that time. Abbot Wang could not call on the phone, because the temple at Jinding did not have a phone yet. I hiked up the mountain that same day.
When I arrived at the temple, it was noon and time for lunch in the temple refectory. The food in the refectory is all vegan. I ate rice and steamed bread, and some simple vegetable dishes. In the village where I am from, food is shared family style. Each person has their own bowl for staples like rice or steamed bread or noodles. The main vegetable dishes are put in the center of the table and shared. It is considered greedy and rude to take the last piece of vegetables from the center plates. When I got to the temple I was given a bowl of rice and steamed bread, and a plate with vegetables. That first day at the temple, I finished my rice and all but a few pieces of vegetables. The steamed bread also had small piece that was discolored, so I had broken that part off. Master Li came over and scolded me. He told me that wasting food was not acceptable. He explained that everything we ate came from donations. He said that the food did not belong to us, since it was a present to the temple. Since we lived in the temple, we could eat the food, but it was an expression of faith and could not be thrown away. I was embarrassed and finished all of my food. Little did I know at the time that one day I would become a disciple of Master Li. And at that time, neither of us could foresee that he would one day be named the President of the China Daoist Association!
After lunch I was given a key and taken to my cloister. It was a small room, just large enough for a bed, a table, and a small cabinet for my clothing. Another Daoist lent me bedding and a basin for washing up. He also gave me a thermos to use for storing hot water.
That afternoon I just explored the temple. At 5pm, I heard the drum calling us to the for evening prayer. I went into the main hall and saw the other priests keeling down. I knelt down too. I did not know how to recite scripture, so I just listened. I thought it was wonderful, calm and relaxing. I felt at peace just listening. (click on “Daoist Music” on the right sidebar to listen)
After the prayers, we went to the meal hall for dinner. The other priests started to chat, and asked me questions about myself. I had met many Daoists from Purple Heaven Temple near the academy, but I had been too busy training to get to know the Daoists from Jinding on top of the mountain. The priests at Jinding often met visiting Daoists from other temple, but it had been 4 years since the last novice Daoist had been admitted to the temple. After finishing every last bit of my dinner, I paid extra attention to the clean up process. The priests cleaned their bowls by splashing boiling water into them. They swirled around the hot water and drank it. Nothing was wasted.
The next morning a large bell was rung at 5am. I washed up, and went to breakfast. After breakfast the temple halls were opened. Many temples do not open until 8am. Jinding opened earlier because many pilgrims hiked to the top of the mountain to watch the sunrise. The halls opened at 6am. Things quieted down after an hour or so, and at 8am we began the morning recitations.
After morning recitations, I was sent to collect admissions tickets. Admission to Jinding was 10 Yuan. It was my job to collect tickets and rip them in half. One of the people I met that day was a man in his 20s. He wanted to enter the temple but was still had not been accepted yet. He had been helping in the temple sweep the temple paths for over a year. Each morning and afternoon, he would sweep over a mile of stone pathways! I felt lucky for the opportunity I had been given. I have to admit, I also felt lucky that I didn’t have to sweep!
To be continued….