Posts Tagged ‘Buddhist Temple’

The Joy of the Unplanned

May 20, 2010 7 comments

As I mentioned in the “About Joe” section, I’m not a big fan of itineraries.  I feel itineraries can make a trip feel less like vacation and more like work…having to meet deadlines by being in certain places at certain times, etc.

That being said, I recognize the value of itineraries – allowing the traveler to see all they want to see in a limited time.  I would just hope that the schedule has some flexibility built in for wandering/exploring/lounging; I’ve learned in a lot of my travels, it’s the unplanned things that happen that make the experiences most memorable.  A great example comes from a trip I made to Taiwan this past March.  If you’ll bear with me as I tell a story, you’ll see all the seemingly random series of events that led to an exciting opportunity.

NOTE: The following story is a bit lengthy.  If you want to read more about my upcoming trip specifically, check out ‘Recent Posts’ on the right hand side.  Thanks – joe

Around the end of 2009 I had been invited to attend a couple weddings occurring the following March, in Taiwan.  One of the weddings was for my friend Nick’s sister (who I got to know on the past two trips to Taiwan), and another was for Nick’s friends (who I got to know on the previous trip).  The timing was pretty fortuitous – the weddings were exactly one week apart, which would allow me to squeeze in both celebrations in one visit.

Having some past experience touring Taiwan, I figured I could help show the country to someone else this time around.  So I invited my sister Colleen to join me.  Nick and his wife, Emily, generously offered to put us up in Taipei’s Grand Hotel, a world-famous hotel where Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife used to entertain dignitaries.  Probably the nicest hotel I ever stayed in.  Great rooms, beautiful decor, delicious food at the restaurants, and even heated toilet seats!

The Grand Hotel

So Nick and Emily paid for us to stay in the Grand Hotel our first two nights in Taiwan – an unbelievably generous gift.  The second and final morning of our stay at the hotel, I woke up early to get a little exercise before the day started.  The hotel is at a base of a small mountain, and I had read that there were some hiking paths behind the building, so I figured I’d check those out.

The paths near the bottom of the mountain were different than the traditional hiking trails I was used to in U.S. parks.  These paths were sometimes made of stone, and snaked around small homes (I later learned this land belonged to the government, and the tenants were able to live there in return for taking care of the land).  Also along the path was a Buddhist temple.  This was actually not too surprising, as Buddhist temples are everywhere in Taiwan.  You could find them standing alone on a hillside, or sandwiched in between two office buildings.  No matter where you found them, they were always very well kept and very ornate.

I must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere because I arrived at a dead end with a lot more mountain to go.  But no worries, I figured, I had been walking for about 45 minutes so it was a good time to turn around.  On the way back, I took a few steps up to the base of the temple to check it out, and there was a Buddhist monk sweeping the steps.  We greeted each other: “早安” (Good morning).  Using my limited Chinese, I was able to tell the monk I was out for a walk and noticed his beautiful temple.  Fortunately, the monk began to use English and we were able to communicate a bit more efficiently.

We talked about many things: what I was planning to do in Taiwan, the different cities my friends lived in, my work, his work, etc.  He suggested that maybe I should meditate a bit since I am working for a defense contractor, and that through the products we build, I could be indirectly involved in some pain experienced by others.  We also talked about yoga, his mediation techniques, and his journeys abroad in Nepal and India.  After talking for about 15 or 20 minutes, I realized I didn’t know how to address the monk.  He knew my name as Joe, but we never really discussed what his name/title was.  I asked him how should I address a Buddhist monk, and he said I can call him “師父” – Shifu (literally “master”).

He led me up the steps of the temple and took me inside their common area where some tables were set up.  There weren’t many people around, but his master – Shifu’s Shifu – was there and I was introduced, as Shifu went off to his office for a moment.  Shifu’s Shifu was very welcoming and friendly, and I tried to communicate in my best Chinese how great of an experience it was to be there and to be invited inside, as well.

Shifu returned with a plastic bag whose contents were for me – an Indian yoga DVD, a CD of Chinese meditation music, and two guava fruits.  What an amazing gesture.  Here’s a man who has chosen a life of poverty and he has these gifts for this first time visitor.  Since this was early in my Taiwan trip, Shifu told me to return at some point for vegetarian lunch.  I promised I would, and we parted ways.

Now certainly that was an unplanned experience, and I mulled that over as I walked back to the hotel.  Sometimes the best part of traveling is getting to speak with the locals, and here I got to speak with revered members of a religion that goes back about 2500 years. Needless to say, I was feeling good about the great start I had to this vacation.

Fast-forward a couple weeks later, and it is a few days before I will depart for home. I returned to the temple around noontime, and was greeted at the door by Shifu.  He said my timing was perfect.  Lunch was about to be served, and he quickly brought me inside.  There were a lot of people there this time, many attendees/benefactors of the temple (I would guess the average age was 55 or so).  I was ushered to a table where some laypeople, Shifu, and Shifu’s Shifu would be sitting.  Shifu, demonstrating the Taiwanese hospitality that remains unmatched, asked me if a vegetarian meal is OK for me.  He advised that the Buddhist way is to respect all living things, whether human or otherwise. I told him vegetarian was certainly more than OK…I was simply honored to be there. Plus, I like veggies.

Those present shared in a Chinese blessing led by Shifu’s Shifu, and we then began to eat lunch.  Each table had about six or so dishes to share on a big lazy susan.  All were amazing.  Over lunch, I spoke with Shifu (the only other person at the table who I knew could speak English), and we talked about how the temple is run and discussed the support the temple has from the local community.  I learned the temple’s sole source of income is through donations, and it appeared there was a strong, though aging, network of supporters.

Soon dishes were being cleared and a large portion of those at lunch had left, though Shifu and I continued eating at our table.  I had finished what was in my bowl, but there were a few bits of rice that remained.  Shifu then said to me, “Joe, I am very sorry, but if you don’t mind, please finish what is in your bowl.  We want to make sure we do not waste food.”  I quickly complied, wanting to move past the minor faux pas I just committed, but Shifu could not have been more gracious about it.  It was after this I learned from Shifu that when one commits himself to Buddhist monasticism, he is pretty much signing up to be a beggar. Thus, no food ever goes to waste as regular meals are not always guaranteed.

We talked a bit more, and as we cleared our plates Shifu asked me if I had more time.  I had nowhere to be and was relishing the experience, so I told him I was free.  He wanted to show me a book he had read that we discussed at the table.  Now I thought he was actually going to show me a copy of the book, but he actually had me pull up a chair at his nice computer.  It was cool to see this temple, still seeping with tradition, had some modern tools to help people stay connected.  So Shifu showed me a couple youtube videos about a book (“The Secret”).  It was great seeing him at work on the computer.  He had this little device – a pad and a stylus connected to the computer, that would take the Chinese character he wrote and input it electronically into a text field (like the Google search box). I never saw anything like that before.

After watching a few videos, the topic of conversation turned to traveling, and I had mentioned how I will be returning to Asia in 2011 to work as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Shifu then said something that was so simple in nature, but was not something I had ever thought about much.  He said, “Volunteering is great, Joe, but you don’t need a government agency to find a volunteer opportunity.  You can just travel to a country on your own and help out at an orphanage.”  Makes sense.  He then went on to tell me he will be going to Nepal this September/October to help out at an orphanage in the city of Pokhara.  His plan will be to help the kids out and teach English, as he has done in the past.  He also showed me photos of Pokhara on the computer.  Beautiful.  Shifu said the best meditation he has ever practiced was in the mountains of Nepal.

He then said to me, “Joe if you wish to see Nepal…go sightsee…go volunteer…I can arrange accommodation for you.”  I was blown away. I just got to barely know this monk recently, and he made this offer.  I told him it sounded like a great opportunity and that I would have to let him know as I first had to get my summer plans in order.  I also was hesitant to commit right there, as I was unsure where I would stand money-wise this fall.  We exchanged emails – Shifu’s online handle is “Lucky Monk”, and I told him I would keep in contact.

The afternoon with Shifu didn’t end there.  He asked if I had more time.  Naturally, I said “Yes.”  He invited me to go out for a hike to the top of the mountain.  I readily accepted.

We probably hiked for just short of an hour.  Talked at length about different things, and eventually we arrived at the other side of the mountain where I could continue on to get back to Nick’s neighborhood.  Before parting ways, Shifu noticed a little caterpillar on my shoulder, and he gently scooped it off and placed it on a nearby leaf…like he said before, Buddhism respects all life.

I thanked him for a wonderful experience and he wished me well on my travels home.  I told him if I didn’t see him in Nepal, I would certainly come visit him again in a return trip to Taiwan.

Now fast-forward a few more weeks.  I came to the realization that if I plan things right, I could have enough money for a trip to Nepal after this summer adventure.  And how could I ignore the series of events that played into me meeting Shifu (remember, I was just going out that one morning to get some exercise), and then him offering what I view as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?  So here I am, in the early stages of planning, and I’ve gone ahead and informed “Lucky Monk” by email that I would be able to join him in Nepal.  His response was great:

Dear brother

My trip to Nepal is 100% sure. If you wish to join me that will be great. But, you know, i always suggest my friends don’t go to Nepal. Why? Because they would fall in love with the charm of Nepal and would not come back and then their family will fire on me.

And now I’m looking to go this October.  I’m optimistic I can make it work.

Sorry for the lengthy post, but that’s the first time I had ever written about that experience.  I wanted to write it down to remember it, and also to share with you the value I place in all Things Unplanned.