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Jonathan Mair: Self-Cultivation

Photography: Life News Agency -

Learning about Self-Cultivation in a short-term Buddhist Retreat

Written by Jonathan Mair

My name is Jonathan Mair I am based at the University of Kent and I am a Social Anthropologist. That means that my principal method of research is finding out about people’s lives by spending time with them and, as far as possible, taking part in their activities—both routine and extraordinary, side by side with them.

I began my career as a researcher by studying the revival of Tibetan Buddhism in Inner Mongolia in northern China in the 2000s.

Around that time, in Parliament among other places, there was a great deal of interest in happiness and the good life. Academics such as Richard Layard and Amartya Sen were arguing that happiness, rather than wealth and economic growth, ought to be the focus of policy. Some were beginning to try to learn to quantify happiness so it could serve as an alternative to GDP as a measure of wealth. Others, such as Anthony Seldon, were promoting a pedagogy of character that aims to give pupils the psychological resources to live a good life.

Many of the concepts and theories that people were using to think about these issues came from the Western philosophical tradition of Virtue Ethics traced from Aristotle and the Stoics to twentieth-century moral philosophers such as Bernard Williams and Martha Nussbaum.

These are excellent starting points in many ways, but they are limited in at least two important respects. First, they are culturally specific, based on roots that are inescapably classical and Greek. Second, they tend to be very theoretical. Aristotle, the most important source for Virtue Ethics, is in no sense a practical guide to living a life of virtue. He has little to tell us about the specifics, rather than the principles, of how to go about living a happy life in the kind of world we live in now.

Unsplashed Samuel Austin

This led me to wonder why, apart from some limited cases, people who were interested in the happiness agenda were not engaging more fully with contemporary Buddhist traditions which routinely put the cultivation of character to achieve a good life into practice, not in the ancient polis, but in our modern world of transnational migration, capitalism and technology.

Together with social anthropologists James Laidlaw at Cambridge and Joanna Cook at UCL, I began to look for a Buddhist organisation or movement that could serve as the focus of a study of the good life in the modern world.

Through contacts in Taiwan, we learned of Master Hsingyun’s Buddha’s Light Mountain, or Fo Guang Shan, and I began visiting the London branch in 2009. We set out to understand what Fo Guang Shan Buddhists mean by self-cultivation. When we had the opportunity to interview senior monks and nuns at Fo Guang Shan headquarters, one of them told us that the activity that most clearly shows the meaning of self-cultivation is what they call the Short-Term Monastic Retreat. I’m going to give you a very brief introduction to the retreat today, to help you to understand how cultivation functions in Humanistic Buddhism.

The Retreat was started by Master Hsingyun in Taiwan in the late 1980s to provide lay members of the organisation an opportunity to experience the life of a monastic for a short period, usually 7 days. It now takes place several times a year in China, Malaysia, France and elsewhere as well as Taiwan. James and I took part in the retreat in Taiwan in 2016 as part of a research project funded by the British Academy.

Unsplashed Chris Chan

On that occasion there were about 800 participants. There were about 3 women to every man. Around half of participants were from Taiwan, with the rest being drawn from mainland China and Chinese communities across South East Asia.

The retreat has a dramatic structure. Participants are registered at the beginning and go through a process of rehearsal and purification in preparation for a ritual of ordination at which they are given the vows, and objects to symbolise them, including a monastic robe. They then spend several days living the life of a monastic before ceremonially relinquishing their vows at the end of the retreat.

There is also a daily rhythm that is just as important. Participants are grouped into same-sex units of about two dozen people under the supervision of a guiding venerable. These units sleep in dormitories together and are never apart for the whole duration of the Retreat. Everyday, the groups are woken at 5am for morning chanting, before a rapid breakfast and then go to one of the temple’s many large auditoria for lectures. After a silent and disciplined lunch, there is time for writing diaries and laundry, and for directed labour in the temple such as gardening and cleaning toilets. In the evening, after eating, there are more classes and strict lights-out policy at 10:30.

Unsplashed Faye Cornish

We were able to interview former participants last summer in Singapore and Malaysia. Many of them reported that they experience this highly disciplined and intense routine, often to their surprise, as very liberating. Taking part, James and I noticed the paradoxical fact that having one’s actions, at every waking moment, determined by someone else makes the mind free—free of the burden of making decisions. Apart from deciding each day whether to write one’s diary or do one’s laundry first there was really nothing at all to decide.

This situation leaves the mind to its own thoughts. Our interviewees reported a growing sense of calm and quietness over the course of the event. My own experience was typical. I endured two days of acute anxiety as I became aware of the cycles of worry, envy, resentment and anger that apparently are always working through my mind, usually unnoticed. By the end of the third day, this cacophony had reduced dramatically. At the end of the event I was left with a sense of deep calm that persisted for some weeks.

This calm does not simply arise. It is produced by the effort of the participants through what would now be widely recognised in this country as mindfulness. As we ate, moved about, and sat for meals or in lectures, monastics constantly reminded us to concentrate on what we were doing, to be aware of and observe the thoughts that were arising, and to return our attention to our task.

This was made easier by the difficulty of the simple tasks we were given. Every action was stipulated in fine detail, down to walking, standing, sitting and lying down.

Unsplashed Jason Cooper

For most of the retreat, for example, participants wore complicated clothing consisting of inner trousers and tunic, a large floaty gown, and finally, a renouncer’s robe. The robe was made of slippery material and hung loosely from one shoulder. It includes about two metres of cloth that is concertinaed and hung over the left wrist in a way that makes it liable to slip off and unfold. Wearing this clothing elegantly while walking in formation with one’s group requires constant attention. I found this a very effective discipline.

The units into which the retreat is organised walk from place to place in formation, always in the same order. We were told that we would experience thoughts of envy or resentment against each other. Sure enough, the young man who walked in line in front of me was rather clumsy and I often found feelings of resentment arising about him: why was he holding us up, why was he undermining our elegant presentation. As soon as I allowed these thoughts to persist and develop I would lose concentration on my own clothing, drop part of my robe or trip over my monk’s shoes.

Unsplashed Surasak

Fo Guang Shan has a very positive view of human nature according to which we will act well if we are free of mental afflictions such as my spontaneous resentment against my fellow participant. The purpose of Fo Guang Shan’s teachings on self-cultivation then is to progressively remove these afflictions as if we were pruning a bush of dead branches, leaving us free to live the good life of which we are already capable.

The retreat is just one context, though a particularly intensive and rigorous one, in which ways to implement this idea are taught.

Fo Guang Shan Monastery Link:

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