Xianghai Temple: Shanghai spiritual retreat

Xianghai Temple: Shanghai spiritual retreat

Escape your own ignorance with the help of Buddhist monks at Xianghai Temple
Spiritual retreat at Xianghai Temple
What would you think about if you had 90 minutes alone with your thoughts? Correct answer at Xianghai Temple's spiritual retreat: nothing, absolutely nothing.

Every weekend, scores of Shanghai urbanites descend on a quiet Buddhist temple in the countryside of Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province looking for a spiritual retreat; the disciplined life here is a stark contrast to the frenetic modernity of Shanghai just 80 kilometers away.

Enter Xianghai Temple

In Xianghai Temple (literally meaning “fragrant sea”), a handful of yellow-walled buildings make up the spacious complex, their pagoda roofs curling into the sky above. Shanghai’s glass-and-steel skyscrapers have long faded from view.

Around Xianghai Temple lies green farmland stretching in all directions.

Life has an unerring rhythm here. 

A wooden block is the compound's wake-up call at 4 a.m. to ensure everyone greets the rising sun. Meals are simple vegetarian fare enjoyed to the chanting of Buddhist prayer. All other time is spent reading, meditating or praying in the main temple space.

(Article continues below photo)

Spiritual retreat at Xianghai Temple It's not all meditation and no play. People can explore the Xianghai Temple grounds while contemplating the day's lectures.

A Buddhist spiritual retreat

For the past few years, Xianghai temple has expanded its scope from merely a house of Buddhist prayer to running three- and seven-day spiritual retreats for ordinary people. 

Here, those with limited time available to devote to Buddhist practices can come to live like the monks and listen to basic Buddhist theory on how to live a better life. 

The whole thing is free, but most people make a donation at the end in thanks for their education.

The retreats have become increasingly popular, especially for nearby Shanghai residents seeking salvation -- or merely peace of mind -- from the urban chaos.

In a recent four-day event for business people, participants came from as near as Shanghai and as far away as Henan Province. Places were booked out a week in advance.

When we are in the grip of our own opinion we wholeheartedly believe it’s the only reality. But this is not true. This is one of the hardest messages for people who come here on a spiritual retreat from the cities to understand.— Huihai, Buddhist monk a Xianghai Temple

Buddhist education

People join a spiritual retreat for as many reasons as questions they bring with them. A common concern the monks say is emptiness.

"They come saying, 'I feel empty. I have no peace. I can’t find a direction,'" explains Huihai, the monk in charge of the retreats. "People come with deep anxiety, much of it stemming from China’s fast-developing economy, as well as personal dilemmas about right or wrong."

One woman comes to the retreat looking for answers, angry that her children refuse to take over the profitable factory business that she spent her life creating. Another businessman in his 40s struggles with the feeling that his lifelong persistence had really been stubbornness, a less admirable trait.

“People come here to get a different kind of education, on how to face yourself and your decisions,” says Huihai. “Buddhism is one of the few places left where it is still preserved the knowledge of our ancestors.”

But Buddhism is often said to be a philosophy rather than a religion, with no forgiving God to guide or rescue its followers. Its consolations are only what you find in yourself, and are often said to be rather pessimistic, focusing mostly on suffering and its many causes.

But people still flock to Xianghai Temple's spiritual retreat anyway, in search of what they're not finding in China's modern cities. 

Ignorance versus mindfulness

In Buddhism, ignorance is considered one of the fundamental causes of suffering.

Therefore mindfulness, which means being aware of every action in every moment, is the first step out of ignorance.

It’s a simple concept, but extremely hard to practice consistently. And, almost every aspect of life at the temple, especially for those here on a spiritual retreat, is designed to reinforce mindfulness.

(Article continues below photo)

Spiritual retreat -- Xianghai Temple Buddhist teachingsThe lesson above all others at Xianghai Temple: mindfulness is the first step out of ignorance.

Meditation features strongly in the retreat programs, requiring participants to sit still for as long as a half an hour at a time, concentrating on their breathing. Simple task? Not quite.

Participants quickly realize how difficult this is as the mind, especially the modern mind, constantly drifts. Meditation, the monks explain, trains the mind to recognize the floating nature of thoughts and disciplines it to concentrate on one goal.

When participants first arrive they are also instructed on the correct way to stand, sit, enter or leave rooms, and even how to hold their bowl and chopsticks while eating. Though it seems draconian, it is another exercise in being mindful of every action.

These disciplines are the foundation of an idea that the Buddhist masters repeatedly bring up. “You must fully let go in order to fully pick up what is currently in front of you,” says one monk in an educational lecture.

They come saying, 'I feel empty. I have no peace. I can’t find a direction.'— Huihai, Buddhist monk a Xianghai Temple

“If there’s one thing I want people to take away, it is to concentrate in each moment of your life. If you could do that, is there anything you couldn’t accomplish? However, this requires you to let go of the past, the future and all other distractions,” says Huihai. "This is not just useful in the study of Buddhism, but even after people leave here."

"Events like these give you an insight into who you are and how you have been behaving," says Xiao Na, a 30-year-old woman entrepreneur living in Shanghai who has long had an interest in self development. "But it's difficult to keep these lessons in mind when you leave and apply them in life. I will keep coming back to learn more."

Letting go of attachment

The monks at the temple have let go of attachment to all normal social ties -- including family, friends and careers. They do so because they believe these ties are impermanent. Without them they can rid themselve of the self and everything related to the self.

For spiritual retreat visitors who can’t let go of all their possessions, relationships and identities, they are taught to at least step briefly outside their own universe. 

“When we are in the grip of our own opinion,” teaches Huihai, “we wholeheartedly believe it’s the only reality. But this is not true. This is one of the hardest messages for people who come here on a spiritual retreat from the cities to understand, but in society today, also one of the most important lessons.”

For more imformation on Xianghai Temple’s spritual retreats, go online to www.foxue.com.cn

To get there: Trains from Shanghai to Jiaxing run regularly. Cost: RMB 26 and takes about 30 minutes. From the train station it’s a RMB 40 taxi ride to Puyuan Town. From there ask the locals or rickshaw drivers to take you to the temple.
In three years in Shanghai, Nancy Zhang has written lifestyle, business and technical stories for a number of publications and interviewed hundreds of people in Shanghainese, Mandarin and English.
Read more about Nancy Zhang