LIFE IN THE MONASTERY
TEACHING TAI CHI CHUAN IN TAIWAN
by Afaa Michael Weaver
http://poetscafeunitedstates.spaces.live.com

Taipei, Taiwan, is usually a very busy city, and it especially comes alive, at least for me, at night when all the neon signs are lit and a ride through the city in a taxi is mesmerizing. Or a night spent in the night markets with all the food and goods and the loud music of life is more than your sensors can process at times. There is the stinky tofu, so named for the smell it makes when it is being fried. However, disturbing the smell, I love the stuff. You can buy it at any time of the day. The city sits in a basin with the mountains of the northern end of the island surrounding it like a natural wall. The "pei" part of Taipei means north, and this is the northernmost metropolitan area of this island country that I first visited five years ago, almost to the day as I shipped out to do a Fulbright at National Taiwan University on January 22, 2002, just five months after 911. I feel awkward marking time after 911, but I won't hit the delete button. I'll just leave it here and tell a little bit about why I left Taipei and went into a monastery for a while during my most recent time in Taiwan and China.

This is the dormitory where I lived while at the monastery. It is the He Han Temple and Monastery in Hualien, Taiwan, on the eastern coast of the country, a place where my friend Dr. Yu Hsi, the poet, novelist and playwright, is the director and teacher. A monk himself, Dr. Yu Hsi pursues the mission of the monastery, which is to promote Buddhism through art. So it is a small artists' retreat as well, a lovely place, with the sound of birds calling before dawn, so many birds it seems they could never be counted. Then there is the sound of the Pacific, which is just across the street.


I had moved to Taiwan to study Chinese in the immersion way for eight months. At the Taipei Language Institute, a private school with branches in other places in Taiwan and in China, I studied in tutorial fashion for two hours every day. With just myself and the teacher, it was intense. I had two teachers, and the teacher for the first hour is the lady who encouraged me to write poems in Chinese, which was equivlanet to taking me by the hand and walking me into the language. I had studied at Simmons College for free with my faculty audit for two years before going, but there is nothing quite like immersion, and this lady took me to the deeper waters. She had to stop teaching to return to other business, so I was left alone at the gateway. It was the Chinese New Year when everyone goes home to their families. I went to the monastery where I was welcomed with open arms.

Sitting on the grounds of the monastery, I could see the sun forming a mirror on the surface of the ocean, and I would sit sometimes at the foot of the statue of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, and think over my life. I had grown weary of poetry, weary of the careerism, all the struggle to be known, the young poets battling for space in the margins of anonymity, and I had grown fearful of the power of poetry. Life in the monastery seemed so serene. I thought seriously about staying for the rst of my life, but then I would take my cell phone and call across the ocean to family and friends to check in with folks. Home would beckon, but the convenience of the phone at times became another reason for staying inside the walls. I could always call home.


This is a lookout point near the monastery gate. Dr. Yu Hsi asked me to move into the monastery and teach Tai Chi Chuan to the monks, most of whom are women, and I emailed my Tai Chi teacher to get his permission. He said I could teach anyone who wanted to learn. So I moved there in May, 2005, for a period of five weeks, and our outdoor classroom was near the lookout point. The monks were the best students. Teaching them was a joy. Some days after class, I would climb the hill and just stand there and look out over the ocean, stand and listen to the endless drumroll of countless tons of water, our origin. A few times Dr. Yu Hsi and I went for walks around the monastery and we would run up the hill like two big kids, laughing and panting for breath at the top.



This statue of Guan Yin is where I would sit, in a pavilion to the left of the grand lady. One story is that she reached enlightenment, but when it was time to enter paradise she opted to stay in the world to help those who suffer. So thus she is the goddess of mercy. It is a long climb up the hill to where she is, and a few times Dr. Yu Hsi and I made the loop a couple of times, racing to see who was in the best shape. We are the same age, both of us born in the year of the Rabbit. Two rabbits we were, one a dedicated monk and one who plays with the idea, one Chinese and one African-American.


Eventually, I returned to Taipei city and to my Chinese classes, to the three hours of homework.
Taipei, Taiwan, is a busy city. Back there from the monastery, I dioscovered that the news of a black man teaching Tai Chi Chuan in the monastery had spread like wildfire. I listened covertly to two little old ladies one day as I was walking to the subway after class. They saw me and began to talk in Chinese about the wonder of this thing, that I was "elevated." However, it was another day of class and I was worn out. I came back to my flat at the top of the apartment building where I lived and stretched out on the bed, in the afternoon sun, and listened to my radio. It's interesting to me to think of who we are and what we take with us when we travel.





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Lo in one sock said…
I love Quan Yin also and would pray and sometimes weep to her at a Krishna sanctuary on the Lower East Side of NY. Recently I took a meditation class with a Tibetan Buddhist monk who had painted a mandala to her. The statue of her in NY was gorgeous -- all white and she floated like a princess of mercy. Soon I will have a little statue in my shrine. Om mane padme hum.
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