Detours: Fo Guang Shan

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2009, 12:00am

It's a magical, if slightly surreal, moment. We're standing in the courtyard of the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, surrounded by 480 identical gold statues of Buddha, listening to the softly spoken words of one of the nuns, the Venerable Yi Jih. The early evening light is just starting to fade and there is not a breath of wind.

Suddenly, a mobile phone rings. A few of us tut-tut disapprovingly and look around accusingly for the culprit. To our amazement, the offender is Yi Jih. She apologises, rummaging beneath her flowing orange robes to find her phone. After a short conversation, she declares that the monastery office is closing soon so we have to be quick if we want to check our e-mails.

And there's me thinking that technology is the root of all evil.

Located 30 minutes from Kaohsiung, Fo Guang Shan is the headquarters of an international Buddhist movement that has 194 temples around the world.

As well as being a training college for monks and nuns, the centre allows visitors to stay overnight as part of a tour that provides an insight into the religion and the lives of the monastics.

Yi Jih enrolled in the monastery shortly after graduating from university and has lived there for 27 years. Over dinner in the guest dining room that night, she speaks about the impact the decision to become a nun had on her family and the loss they felt when she came to live in the monastery. I've never met anyone who emanates such a sense of serenity and wellbeing.

After dinner we visit one of the monastery's meditation halls, where the monastics sometimes meditate for 17 hours a day. Starting at 5.30am, they break only for meals and to stretch their legs with short walks. Some follow this intensive regime for an entire year.

Yi Jih guides our group through a simple 10-minute meditation, which shows what a difficult task this is. Despite my best efforts, my mind starts to wander onto the most embarrassingly banal topics almost immediately after we sit down.

Accommodation is in simple but comfortable air-conditioned rooms and it's with some reluctance that I set my alarm for 5.30am.

In the murky pre-dawn light of the following morning we watch the nuns and monks file into the main temple and sit in lines facing three towering gold statues of Buddha. After a short prayer, they begin to chant to the steady rhythm of a large gong. Many know the words off by heart while others read from small prayer books.

We sit cross-legged at the back and watch the proceedings by the light of hundreds of flickering candles. I don't have a religious bone in my body, but it is impossible not to be moved.

Once the ceremony is complete, breakfast is taken in silence. We eat a simple but filling meal of rice, spinach, beans and porridge. The only sound in the hall is the clicking of 800 pairs of chopsticks.

Visitors on longer tours can explore the museum, the exhibition hall and the extensive gardens.

As Yi Jih bids us farewell, she promises to stay in touch. From anyone else it would be a hollow gesture, but from her it's sincere. I ask her if she needs my postal address and she looks at me quizzically. She has a Gmail account and there are photos of our visit in my inbox when I get back to Taipei.