- Within the Temple WallsImpressions from Baiyun Guan
Chujia 出家, the act by which one leaves family behind and formally enters a monastery, has been a tradition for Daoist and Buddhist monks in China since approximately 1200 CE. The Patriarch Wang Chongyang, founder of the Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) school of Daoism, established this practice in the 13th century. Since then "leaving the family and home" (Herrou 2015, 136) has become a fundamental characteristic of Quanzhen Daoist monastic practices.
Besides chujia, a person interested in following the path must learn, and accept, over a thousand rules of behavior. Additionally, most Daoist practices are passed on from master to student and never shared with the outside world. There's a saying within the Daoist community which explains this thinking, "The Dao cannot be discussed when six ears are in the room."
Visiting a Daoist temple in China provides a snapshot of the monastic life. Tourists see monks performing rituals in temples, wearing the traditional clothing, even laughing with each other in casual conversation. However, true insight into this life eludes most outsiders.
In August of 2019, I began a five-month residency in Beijing as part of a sabbatical from teaching high-school history. I enrolled in a semester-long intensive Mandarin language class at Beijing Language and Culture University. Rather than live on campus, I chose to rent an apartment in a local neighborhood and ten-minute-walk from Baiyun guan 白云观 (White Cloud Temple). [End Page 208]
Since the 13th century, it has been a center of the Dragon Gate lineage (Longmen pai 龙门派). At present, it houses a community of about sixty monks and serves as the administrative headquarters of the Chinese Daoist Association and the seat of the Daoist Academy, an advanced training center for monks.
Living in Beijing close to Baiyun guan meant that I had the opportunity to stop by on an informal basis. After the first month, my visits to the temple became less of a curiosity to the monks and workers residing there. Doors began to open to other aspects of life at the monastery.
In my first month, I was given an introduction to Master Zhong who teaches martial arts at the Daoist Academy. He agreed to teach me the Yuanshi 元始 (Genesis) form of taiji. Because he had temple obligations during the day, Master Zhong and I met for classes two evenings a week.
After one month of this, it became clear that he was amenable to meet for class basically any time I was available. On Saturdays and Sundays I'd often walk to the temple. By late fall, I was studying with Master Zhong four to five times a week. After class. he often invited me to lunch. Sitting and eating with the monks felt special even in the midst of the meal. Something as simple as sharing a meal with these adherents helped me better understand the chujia life.
As November arrived, I felt comfortable enough to start taking photos of the monks and worshipers visiting the temple. Two things gave me some measure of acceptance among the residents as a lay Daoist: , my friendship with Master Zhong, as well as my status as an official student of a senior monk at the Chinese Daoist Association. Second, the regularity with which I took photographs on my frequent visits to the temple meant I blended in to the background a bit.
The following photos reflect my time spent experiencing life within temple walls. Amazingly, in the midst of loud and modern Beijing, Baiyun guan is home to a vibrant community populated by practitioners living in accordance with precepts laid down 800 years ago. The images show monks practicing martial arts, telling fortunes at festivals, offering prayers, relaxing and more.
Since my return to the U.S. in January 2020, I have realized upon looking over these photos what special insights into this way of life I had [End Page 209] been granted. I want to thank the monks for their acceptance and generosity of spirit. They helped me understand the path I myself was trying to follow. Incidentally, on January 25, the temple gates were closed to the public...