We arrived around midnight to a wonderfully warm reception at the lovely I-Kuan Tao Zhong Shu Temple near Taipei. We were all very tired from the long flight, but also very excited about the week ahead. Already we knew our itinerary would be full and tightly timed. Because of the late hour we were lead directly to the dormitory where the lucky few amongst us were able to catch up on a few hours of sleep before awaking at around 5 AM to prepare for the morning ritual.
About the ritual, I myself am still learning its cues, movements and overall significance. I know enough to understand that only through meditation and the practice of muscle control can I gain the full the benefits and insight of the ritual. I suppose that as honored guests we were allowed some leeway as we only did one hundred repetitions of the prayers in front of the beautiful Lao Mu shrine, as opposed to the usual thousand. My quads certainly didn’t think we were let off easy. I can see why the Grand Masters and other Tao cultivators live to see so many years. Such devoted practice definitely strengthens the body, mind and soul.
After the morning ritual we had one of the first of many delicious vegetarian meals: breakfast prepared by the lovely and skilled Temple chefs. Now I in particular had been looking forward to the food in Taiwan more than anyone. Those who don't know me should understand that I have a passion for food. I believe it nourishes more than just our bodies, but also the soul as it provides an opportunity to create connections and community, not to mention passing down culture and traditions. I have been a vegetarian for going on 13 years so for me, the vegetarian aspect of the Tao was an integral part of why I became a cultivator. Throughout our visit we had so many wonderful meals, it would be hard to describe them all. Towards the end of our trip, one meal consisted of 12 wonderful and distinct courses (more Janice says, than they would prepare for a wedding), all planned two weeks in advance of our arrival. Thankfully Derek helped me take pictures. The food on our first morning was of course wonderful and helped to start us on our day.
Our first stop was a visit to the Chuan Zhen Temple. In a way it was somewhat of a homecoming for Master Chen as this was the Temple where he first became a master. As appropriate for a journey where we were to come closer to the Tao, we received a lesson from the resident Grand Master before heading off for our exam. Before we could depart, we took the first of our many Group Photos. Towards the end of the trip we were able to gather into a pose and shoot several pictures in less than five minutes, impressive for a group as large as ours.
The second stop of the day was a brief visit to the National Palace Museum, equivalent to our Smithsonian, to learn about Taiwan's past and its many treasures. The main wing of the museum was under renovation, presumably for earthquake retrofitting. This was my first indication of the country's continued expansion and modernization. We learned that on September 21, 1999, Taiwan suffered through a 7.8 earthquake that killed thousands of people and caused a rethinking of the engineering and architecture of cities. Even under scaffolding, the palace was awesome and huge, and while we couldn't access much of the museum we did get to see the collection of Buddha and Bodhisattva sculptures and carvings. Surprisingly one of the most precious items in the collection is a white and green jade cabbage made in the Ch’ing dynasty. This cabbage is renowned for its exquisite attention to detail and aesthetic use of the stone's natural coloring. Sadly we did not have enough time in our itinerary to allow a greater exploration of all that the museum has to offer, even in its limited form.
We returned to the tour bus that was generously provided to us by the wonderful Tao cultivators at the Zhong Shu Temple and slowly made our way to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall where the Great Scholar Examination was to be held. This ceremony and gathering occurs only once every five years. This year, apart from being our first, held much significance as it was the 100th year anniversary of the Sixteenth Patriarch's Tao propagation.
As the bus circled the CKS Memorial Hall, I was struck by the vivid colors and intricate design of the National Concert Hall (or as we later termed it, the “Opera House”). And then I saw all the people in the square. It was like a great festival with balloon arches, circus colored tents and people in various coordinating outfits. There were 50,000 fellow Tao cultivators from across the globe in attendance. The commotion and palpable excitement of the crowd re-energized us though we may have been tired. Taiwan, being an island in the Pacific, gets pretty hot and humid in late August, so as bus pulled up to the main gate to discharge us, the energy we gained was almost sucked away as we stepped into the Taiwanese mid-summer day. After signing in, we were split into groups and lead over to the tent that would serve as our staging ground, examination area and overall sanctuary for the day.
We were introduced to Allan, a member of the English study group there, who I at first took for another of the friendly proctors in yellow vests. Allan would prove to be extremely thoughtful and helpful to us, ensuring that we stayed hydrated, comfortable and on track. As I didn’t fully understand what was going on around me most of the time, my Chinese being limited to a few simple phrases, I found myself going with the flow of our group and lost in my thoughts, mostly of how fortunate I was to experience this fantastic event. I also spent a great deal of time admiring the amazing architecture of the plaza. Eventually the cogs in my brain began to click again and I went back to studying. After all, we were here to participate in the Great Scholar Examination. I felt as though I was back in college, cramming hard before an exam. The texts we were tested on were: the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, the Da Tong, or the Great Commonwealth (the Confucian vision of a utopian society), and the Doctrine of the Mean, Chapter 1.
When I could cram no more, I took the opportunity of a break in activities to explore the plaza. I saw the large bazaar set up behind the main stage where friendly merchants sold an amazing variety of vegetarian treats as well as toys, books, clothes, shoes, pottery and so much more we wouldn’t have time to explore it all. I walked by the Opera House and the Arts Theater (National Theater Hall), though I could not enter either as they were cordoned off by military men and a thin rope. I also saw lovely youths in red shirts and white gloves lining up to perform their choreographed routine on the main stage. From afar, I saw the CKS Memorial building with its beautiful octagonal blue roof and 89 steps leading up to the grand entrance. But it was now time to return to our sanctuary tent and take the exam we had come so far for.
In ancient china, most agree around the third century, the practice of having citizens take exams for civil service began. As Derek mentions, it was one of the first expressions of democracy in the ancient world, the Greek Senate system being the other. Of course, like the Greeks, the Chinese were far from completely democratic. Women were not allowed to take the tests, nor were peasants or the non-elite of society. Those would be scholars that could eventually take the exams studied in specialized schools for many years, trying to memorize and (eventually) comprehend the esoteric and dense Confucian texts and Sutras that were the core of the exams. But oh how far we’ve come. Not only could women participate in the Great Scholar Examination, but we weren't even vying for government jobs! I was now part of a grand tradition passed down and transformed for generations.
Derek administered the exam for our group. He was incredibly generous with us and very lenient with me. I passed by a decent margin. To be honest, I felt upstaged by the young scholars in our tent, no more than 3 and 6 years old, who memorized far more than me, and probably understood more to boot. Of course the rest of the group passed with flying colors and some members (Derek, Bill) even got to participate in the graduation ceremony held at the main stage later that afternoon. The folks there were so nice, they even planned ahead and had Bill's graduation gown especially made to fit him.
When we were done with the examinations, we headed off to the main stage to hear the President Chen Shui-bian speak. Again, it was hard to tell what was going on because of the language barrier. Also the sheer number of people meant we couldn't really see the stage. Immediately following the President’s speech, Tommy and Bill were mobbed by requests for interviews by newspapers and television crews. It was easy to see why. Bill was the member of our group who stood out the most. And Tommy’s heartfelt hamminess gave the press plenty of fodder. Overall we noticed how curious people were to see us there, some even doing double takes as they passed by our tent. “What are they doing here? How were they drawn to the Tao?” they probably wondered.
While they enjoyed their brief celebrity, a small group of us slinked off to explore the CKS Memorial building, which is similar to our Lincoln Memorial with a large statue of a seated Chiang Kai-shek himself. Luckily while we waited to watch the changing of the guards we escaped a torrential downpour that turned down the heat but left everything a soggy mess, including us. After the rain stopped, we proceeded to enjoy spending our meal coupons in the many food (and non-food) stands of the bazaar.
Heading home, back to the Zhong Shu Temple, we were exhausted from the day's activities. I couldn't really wrap my brain around the colossal event we had been blessed to be a part of. It was not until our parting day that Master Pan brought it together in a very concise way, for me at least. The rain of that day, in a sense was a baptism and a gift sent to cool us and bring in a new era of learning and self-realization. We had been part of an event rooted in thousands of years of tradition meant to bring order to society. And while it is true that ritual is what grounds us to our community and society, the Tao gives ritual a context and meaning that connects us to the greater universe and oneness. So in passing my exam and receiving a certificate, what did it mean? That I could memorize and spit back some lines? No, although in a sense yes that too. The most important lessons I took away from our participation in the Great Scholar Examination were the feelings of community, of a great multitude of people getting coming together, getting along. And even in uncomfortable conditions (the climate) we were able to learn from each one another. I learned of the seemingly unending hospitality and generosity of the people of Taiwan. I learned that kindness knows no barriers and language is just one means of communicating. And I also learned that humans are capable of almost anything, of building great monuments and organizing huge rituals, but in the end it is our karmic affinity that brings us together. As curious and intrigued as the interviewers and others were, it was because they understood that we saw something in the Tao that they sometimes easily overlooked because Tao culture surrounds them. We, our English speaking group, held a mirror up to our Taiwanese friends and they saw us as another aspect of themselves. We were thus able to bring a greater understanding to one another.
Obviously this was an experience I won’t soon forget. Over the coming years I hope to become a better scholar, to learn the sutras and other teachings and know them in my heart. For it is when we let go of learning and begin to understand the meanings behind them that we truly become wise. I hope to return in five years for the next Great Scholar event more prepared and perhaps, like Bill, able to recite the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching in Chinese. After all, as Derek taught us, first we must dream… then can we see it come true.