An Introduction to the Da Bei Monastery of Haicheng
The Da Bei Monastery is located in a mountainous valley in Maoqi, Haicheng, Liaoning Province. The monastery is surrounded by winding hills on three sides. Facing across the front gate is a fresh water reservoir used to release captive aquatic creatures. Approximately one kilometer away from where the local inhabitants live, this peaceful and secluded site is a perfect place for Buddhism practice.
The temple is constructed according to the terrain of the adjoining foothills and the majority of its buildings have already been completed, including the Mahavira Hall, the front gate, the Dharma Hall, the Meditation Hall, the Dining Hall, the Guest Hall, the Hall of the Medicine Buddha, the Buddha Recitation Hall, the Hall of Cloud and Water, the Hall of Great Compassion, the Manjusri Attic, the Tripitaka Building, and the Sangha's Dwellings. the Vinaya Platform, the Shurangama Platform, and other structural designs such as the Palace of the Seven Buddhas are currently under construction. The overall hue of the architectures is gray, with blue bricks and gray tiles, completely void of florid decorations – appearing solemn and steady and embodying the principle of practice.
Currently, there are more than seventy monks and over seventy lay practitioners (including those who have formally applied to join the order) in the monastery. In addition, the monastery overlooks the Daoyuan Convent, which is located in the distant mountains of Jiewen, Haicheng. The convent has more than one hundred nuns and over fifty lay female devotees.
The abbot of the monastery, Venerable Master Miao Xiang, travelled on foot from Mount Wutai to Liaoning Province in 1995. Later he spent three years retreating in a remote mountain hermitage in Benxi. In 2000, in response to a joint invitation from the local government and area disciples, Master Miao Xiang brought his Sangha to be stationed at the Da Bei Monastery and has acted as the chief advisor since. Abiding by the teachings of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, the Da Bei Sangha adheres strictly to the Vinaya rules. Their method of practice and daily behaviors are prescribed essentially according to the Buddha’s commandment. The Da Bei Monastery established eight fundamental rules for its residents.
1. Upholding the precept of abstaining from money.
The Buddha restrained monks from using or storing money. Monks of the Da Bei Sangha neither keep nor accept any monetary donations. The monastery does not have any charity boxes around so as to prevent visitors from leaving any cash. This helps to remove and eliminate any unseen trouble that might arise from the sight of money, thus monks within the order can keep away from money completely and concentrate on self cultivation.
2. Eating one meal a day.
Monks at the Da Bei Monastery eat only one meal per day during forenoon. As soon as the sun passes its zenith, no one is allowed to partake of any food or fluid, including tea, soft drinks, and fruits. Medicine and water are the only exceptions. The same disciplines are abided by the laity. All persons eat the same food at mess.
Wandering means the practice of the Dhutangas – leaving the home land and roaming around in the vast wild field, so as to detach oneself from worldly affairs and free the soul from passion. Every autumn, the Sangha practices the “Two Moment Dhuta” based on rules outlined in the Bodhisattva-Pratimoksa. During which period, monks step out of the monastery and travel on foot place by place, like a mobile temple, to spread the teachings of the Buddha according with conditions.
4. Asking for alms
The sutra defines a bhikkhu as a mendicant monk, one who seeks Dharma from the Lord Buddha for his spiritual nourishment while at the same time, begging and receiving almsfood from the people to feed his physical body. When monks are out on alms-rounds, they ask only for food, not money. Afterward, they mix all collected food together in big pots and then re-distribute it among them in an equal manner. Wandering and alms-gathering show the true qualities of a Buddhist monk.
5. Non-acceptance of gifts from visiting monks.
Resident monks do not accept any gifts made by visiting monks. All offerings must be handed over to the monastic order. The guest prefect at the monastery should return each courtesy and treat each visiting monk with fairness and equality.
6. All offerings belong to the Sangha
Offerings received by individual monks should be turned over to the Sangha and let the Sangha redistribute the items accordingly.
7. Keeping three robes and an alms bowl within reach at all time (along with 18 articles).
The three robes and one alms-bowl are not allowed to leave one’s side at any time and the robes must be mute-colored. The Eighteen Articles outlined in the Bodhisattva-Pratimoksa must also be kept alongside when wandering.
8. No solicitation of money and no pleading for help.
Wants result in suffering. Without wants, suffering will gradually die away. By carefully obeying the code of practice, not asking for money, nor soliciting for help, nor allowing the heart courting favors, human desires will extinguish and faith will arise.
All resident practitioners in the monastery are required to observe commands and work. Obedience and diligence are equivalent to obeying the teachings.
The rules above are formulated by the Buddha and handed down by each of the previous Buddhism Patriarchs. They are the basic requirements for people living and cultivating in the Da Bei Monastery as well as the life-long code of conduct for any monk, whether within or away from a monastery. Monks ought to observe these disciplines regardless of external conditions.
The Five Branches of Buddhism (the Chan, Pure Land, Esoteric, Vinaya, and the Tiantai Schools) are equally promoted by the monastery without sectarian prejudices. On the basis of observing the precepts, the monks practice in harmony. They sleep four hours each day, getting up at 2:00 o’clock in the morning and rest at 10:00 in the evening. The temple’s meditation hall hangs a wooden plaque of the Weiyang Sect of the Chan School, which serves as a toll bell. The Da Bei monks meditate five times daily according to the length of the burning incense. Each meditation is about one hour. In addition, each day they must assemble in the Buddha Recitation Hall to chant the Shurangama Mantra ten times. Buddhist precepts are recited on a fortnight basis.
Monks cannot go out of the temple freely. They should stay within to cultivate, either by studying the precepts, listening to lectures, or working outdoors. They are not allowed to dress in fine and bright-colored garments, instead they need to wear mute-colored dyed cloth such as gray. Soiled robes are washed by their own hands. Each monk is permitted to keep two pieces of apparels in order to keep away from excessive covetousness and attachments. Worn out clothes are mended by themselves. These stitched up rags are called the “One-Hundred-Stitch-Cloth”. According to the rules of the Buddha, ragged-robes with mute colors are the true monastic habits, therefore his disciples are not allowed to dress in bright and colors.
The monastery observes the principle of separate living for male and female practitioners. The four nunneries which sought refuge from the monastery adhere to the Eight Commands and visit the temple every fortnight to seek advice. After each summer retreat, they come to ask for Pravarana.
Every year from April 15 to July 15 (lunar calendar), the Da Bei Sangha takes its summer retreat according to the disciplinary rules drawn by the Buddha. Summer retreating is an important practice for Buddhist monastic orders. It is one of the most fundamental practices according to Buddha’s rules. During the retreat, monks gather in a group, purifying their minds and deeds vigorously, and work diligently toward the path of enlightenment. No one is supposed to leave the temple unless there is an emergency. The three-month summer residence is a form of vigorous cultivation—a preliminary and fundamental Buddhism practice, which is similar to a retreat in seclusion. During these Vassa months, monks concentrate on the study of the precepts. Their daily activities accord with the usual: morning and evening chanting, practicing the Uposatha every fortnight, meditating, reciting the name of a Buddha, listening to Dharma lectures, studying the precepts, chanting mantras, doing outdoor labors, and so on. There are three intensive seven-day sessions during the retreat: a seven-day session on the Bhikkhu’s Precepts, a seven-day session on the Bodhisattva Precepts, and a seven-day recital of the Amitabha Buddha’s name toward the end of the summer residence. During the cultivation on precepts, monks keep on chanting the code of practice continuously through the day. Where practice already goes deep, this chanting may will be an aid to the attainment of harmony between the mind and the precepts, thereby reaching a state where the “the mind is the precept and the percept is the mind.” The Bodhisattva-Pratimoksa says: “those who are learning the precepts should recite the precepts day and night without stopping.”
Bhikkhus recite the Patimokkha Rules (Bhikkhu’s Precepts) in the first seven days and in the following week, they chant the Bodhisattva Precepts. For the novices, the days are spent in reciting the Ten Precepts and the Essences of the Daily Vinaya and in reading the final three sutras bequeathed by the Buddha.
Every year after the 15th day in lunar August, monks assemble in group and go out of the temple to practice the Two Moment Dhuta together. They travel on foot, beg for food along the way with alms bowls in hands, and sleep in the open field. Each trip is approximately 300 kilometers and usually lasts between 15 days and a month. Over the years, they have walked through the cities of Shenyang, Liaoyang, Anshan, Jinzhou, Huludao, covering most of Liaoning Province and some areas in Hebei and Inner Mongolia, including Chengde, Qinhuangdao, and the Shanhai Pass. From 1995 to 2009, the Sangha has had a wandering history of 14 years. Wandering and alms-gathering reduce arrogance and conceit, remove attachments, and benefit beings; in so doing they help to bring forth the pure faith in all sentient beings for Buddha’s teachings and restore the right image of Buddhist monks. The Shakyamuni Buddha once remarked: “the Dharma lives so long as the Dhutanga practices are carried on”.
The Da Bei Monastery conducts two Dharma assemblies on a yearly basis, one is on April 8th to celebrate the birth of the Shakyamuni Buddha (Vasak Day); the other is the Ullambana Festival, which occurs on the 15th of July (all dates are based on the lunar calendar). Buddhism followers can take the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts during these Dharma celebrations. Each time approximately several thousands of devotees come from various places to attend the ceremony.
In the afternoon on the day prior to each assembly, there is an open session explaining the meaning of the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts, followed by an all-night repentance ceremony for conscience-clearing. The next day there will a Dharma ritual transmitting the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts to the lay disciples by Master Miao Xiang. Conversion certificates will be handed out free of charge. Lay followers are encouraged to help around and join in any of the activities during these assemblies, and no fees are collected.
Signs like “Watch out for creatures under your feet”, “Cherish all living beings” and other such warnings are eye-catching to visitors in the monastery. Kitchen staffs also examine raw cooking materials with care to avoid killing of worms or insects. Drums used by the monastery are made of synthetic materials. The reason for not using animal skins is to cultivate compassion and equality toward all beings. Food and medicines which contain animal ingredients are not used. In addition, anything that has an animal image or vegetarian foods that are animal-figured are banned from the temple, cherishing and loving sentient being with subtlety and care to the finest point.
Admission tickets are not needed for visiting the monastery. Tourisms and ceremonial activities involving monetary transaction are prohibited. All religious activities are free of charge. The monastery prohibits strictly any money-related behaviors. Buddhism sutras and images of the Buddhas can be obtained at no cost from the circulation center. Pictures and names of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and worn scriptures are not to be destroyed and should be handled with care. In order to serve the public, a comprehensive Buddhism website has been established: www.suyuan.org, where one can read about introductions to practices, lectures by Dharma masters, and personal practice experiences. There are also book series under the title “Suyuan” (meaning “Tracing the Origin” or “In Search of the Origin”), audios, and CDs available for free distribution.