Gina Russo, China, History
The bell struck; as a chorus of Amitbha Buddha resonated around the dining hall, I watched the rows of monks and nuns, all with solemn expression, slowly walk towards their chairs until all 4,000 seats were filled. I watched with newly found fascination as they each bowed to the Buddha statue and ritualistically put their bowls at exactly a forty-five-degree angle from their plates. While I had witnessed this three times a day for the past two weeks, that day I saw it in a completely different light; that day, I realized how relevant this ritual was to my own life.
In 2006, I lived for a year in Hong Kong where I realized how important experience is to learning about a new culture. As I walked along the river with 10,000 other locals during the mid-autumn festival, I felt exhilarated to be involved rather than on the sidelines. Similarly, as I talked with a journalist from a provincial Chinese newspaper, I realized how much more I could absorb about the culture by speaking the local language. Through this involvement, I could see the true essence of local people shine, and I understood their culture on a deeper level. This realization was not always easy; it involved abandoning my fears and assumptions and thrusting myself into an environment that was completely outside of my suburban American comfort zone.
I was soon to realize, however, that cultural experiences could be much deeper and more personal. In July of 2007, I spent a month living in Fo Guang Shan monastery in Taiwan, where I not only stretched the outermost limits of what I was comfortable, but completely broke free from them; here, I not only immersed myself in another culture, but then used its lessons and customs in my every day experience. This realization was not immediate, and was much more emotionally uncomfortable than anything I had experienced in Hong Kong.
When I arrived at Fo Guang Shan, I expected a challenging intellectual experience. I expected to approach this program from an anthropological viewpoint, where I would be amongst monks and nuns learning how they practice Buddhism. I never expected to have my own religious experience, or that the practices I learned would be relevant to my daily life.
My anticipations of non-stop classes and intellectual discussions quickly dissolved as I spent four hours a day meditating, doing Taiji, and chanting in temples at 5:00 a.m. For the first week, I giggled through line up, whispered through mealtime, and counted the seconds before I could stretch my legs in the meditation hall. I longed for classes, which exercised my intellectual side, but dreaded religious practice, as I found them useless as a non-Buddhist. But that day in the dining hall changed my perspective, as I realized that this ritualistic way of eating was not a performance; it was a routine activity for the monastics, and I longed to know the reasons behind it. By eagerly trying to understand, I came to grasp how mindfulness of the present moment could bring peace, calm, and insight about the world. After this realization, I craved my meals in silence where I could contemplate every moment as it happened and fully absorb my experience.
I came out of this experience a better person, more aware of not only what other cultures have to offer, but even who I am as an individual and where I fit into my own culture. I used to think of myself as an open-minded person, a person who could learn from others with different opinions and beliefs than my own. After spending a year abroad, however, I understood that I used to view the world from my own personal, naïve middle class American perspective. Now, however, I have reformed my lifestyle to accept my new knowledge, and I am able to involve other cultures’ beliefs and customs into my own individual framework. While my friends have heard stories about physical discomforts and challenges I experienced, they have also witnessed my growth. I now embrace the quest to learn about myself through learning about other cultures, as the more I learn, the more apparent our commonalities become.
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