Journey to Calm: Sanctuary In the Heart of a Metropolis
Written and translated by Jennifer J. Lau with files from the Tsz Shan Monastery
Photography provided by Tsz Shan Monastery
“A bell rings and a hush falls over the faithful.”
Silence. Refuge. Located on the green slopes of Mt. Pat Sin Leng (literally, the Eight Peaks of Immortals) in Hong Kong, the Tsz Shan Monastery sits majestically on the hillside above the waters of Plover Cove, surrounded by lushly-forested hills away from the global city’s dense core. Its jarring tranquillity is foreign — almost unknown to the intensity of Hong Kong’s pace, and a serene reminder to calm the heart. Its architecture draws inspiration from Tang dynasty (618–907) elegance. Its large iconic white statue of Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy oversees the beautiful temples and gardens of the Tsz Shan Monastery. The design of the site combines traditional design with modern architecture, and took ten years to develop, becoming an institute of Chinese Buddhist practice and spiritual contemplation. Over $1.7 billion HKD (approximately $275 million CAD) has been generously donated by the Li Ka Shing Foundation to support the construction and operating costs to date.
Thankfully, this impressive monastery, home to monks and nuns who live there, welcomes visitors. Engaging the local and global community, the monastery delivers diverse approaches towards anxiety, joy, love, and death, through meditative practices and rituals in its open space for those who are seeking. Below we highlight six rituals performed at Tsz Shan, where you can take an imagined journey to experience them ahead of travelling to the coveted sanctuary.
Monastics or visitors carry water, which represents clarity and calmness, in a shallow elliptical wooden bowl and weave through the Tsz Shan Monastery. This is known as the water-offering practice.
The walk is a slow-paced procession beginning from Brilliance Pond inside the Grand Courtyard. You then walk around the Universal Gate Hall and tread on Compassion Path to reach the Thousand Wishes Pond, right next to the grand white Guan Yin statue. This is considered the end of the walk. You can continue to circle slowly around the statue several times with a mind focused on the Goddess or other bodhisattvas and buddhas. This experience brings you to a state of clarity and calmness with each careful and contemplated step.
Visitors can participate in a restful and restorative practice of sitting meditation. The length of the duration is completely dependent on the person. It will benefit those who seek to develop their minds, granting access to a quiet awareness.
There are many places to put this ritual to practice. You can choose to sit inside the inner halls or sit outside under the shade of the trees. Find a suitable posture — some prefer sitting cross-legged with a cushion while others prefer to sit on a chair. More importantly is finding stability in your posture. Then calm your mind by finding an object or matter to focus on, such as your breathing. Feel your body’s movements as you breathe in and out. After choosing the right place and position, you may concentrate on other thoughts and develop mindfulness. This meditation hopes to follow you throughout the day and be incorporated into your everyday life in the city.
Monks and visitors can join in the process of recopying the scriptures. Seen as a form of devotion for monks and meditation for laymen, one can find peace through writing with the right mind. Buddhists believe that this act of recopying is a good deed and benefits not only oneself but also others.
The Heart Sutra will be laid before you. The text in Chinese is 260 characters long — an abridged version of the original. You may copy as much as you can, but it must be done mindfully. You will join the many others before you and around you who have copied out the wisdom embedded in this canonical text.
Tea is used to calm the mind and as an object of concentration. Discovered in China over five millennia ago, having tea became a common pastime of intellectuals in the Tang dynasty and spread throughout East Asia. This ritual of tea at Tsz Shan brings similar sentiments of relaxation, clarity, and warmth.
You will be seated and a cup of tea is presented to you. The ceremony begins with the ding of a small bell. You can be guided by someone or choose to meditate on your own. You may concentrate on each individual element of drinking tea: from the texture, weight, and warmth of the cup, the smell and taste of the tea, to the feeling as you drink the tea itself. You will learn to appreciate the simple experience and find value in the seemingly mundane.
The practice of walking meditation could not be simpler: walk. But the difference between walking meditation and ordinary walking is walking with full, mindful awareness. Experience the present moment without trying to or worrying about where to go or what to achieve.
Slow down your movements and allow your thoughts to slow down. It is normal to struggle with this as you begin to notice the busyness of your mind. This focus on walking should settle your mind. You will begin to focus on the weight shifting of your body, the movement of muscles and legs, and the your feet. This calmer speed of walking and mindfulness will become natural and unforced as time goes on. This awareness of the body brings clarity to your feelings, the surroundings, and others.
Birdwatching trains the mind. Some watch with the naked eye, some use binoculars, and others see by listening for sounds from the birds. Birds have a central place in Buddhist culture: the ceremonial freeing of birds is seen as good karma and respectful.
With almost 70 types of birds that frequent the area around Tsz Shan, you can learn about the impermanence of life through this ritual. As you wait, the serendipity of a bird’s appearance helps train one’s patience and understanding. You may not always see a bird that you seek, which teaches you more about the fleeting nature of many things in life.
These rituals are just some examples of the lessons of monastic life offered at Tsz Shan Monastery. It is their hope that these practices can be integrated into the everyday, whether you find yourself in a bustling urban city such as Hong Kong, or wherever you may be. Join the journey to a more meditative life and visit the grounds at the Eight Peaks of Immortals if you have the opportunity!