On May 1st, 2014 I moved into Zen Buddhist temple to take part in a special study program in Manila, Philippines. I had a vague idea of what it will be like, it was daunting and I was full of doubts.

But I felt like I need to experience that, so when the opportunity arose I went for it.

Why Zen Buddhism?

Eastern philosophies always fascinated me and Zen Buddhism in particular.

In fact, big part of modern psychology is based on Buddhist principles and outlook on life. Practice of meditation and yoga, mindfulness, minimalism, living in the moment and egoless perspective. Those are the things that many people in the West were getting into recently.

So I wanted to experience it from the inside. Expand my understanding and see if this philosophy is a good fit for me.

Apart from that, many artists that I admire mentioned how this way of thinking influenced their creative work and daily life. I came across the subjects of Zen Buddhism and meditation practice in interviews with Brian Eno, David Lynch, David Bowie, Jack Kerouac, Leonard Cohen, Steve Jobs and many others.

If these people attribute significant part of their success to Zen outlook on life then there must be something to it, I thought.

Personally, I have always tried to embrace minimalist approach. From the cliche of “own less, experience more” to design decisions I make in my work and projects.

Set up

Imagine Manila, Philippines.

Enormous megapolis. Skyscrapers among slums.
One of the busiest and most dangerous cities in the world. True concrete jungle.

IMG_5458(Evening in Manila’s Chinatown)

And in the middle of this chaos there’s a Zen Buddhist temple. Tranquil island of peace and spirituality.

IMG_5419(View from rooftop garden in the temple)

Program

HALA (Humanistic Academy of Life and Arts) is a free program for anyone interested in learning about Eastern philosophies and culture, while living alongside monks in a Buddhist temple.

And it’s not only that. There’re daily activities and workshops on topics related to Eastern way of life. We practice kung-fu, yoga and meditation. Learn to play traditional Chinese music instruments and war drums. Study Mandarin and even learn to cook Japanese, Chinese and Korean food.

It might sound like it’s all fun and leisure, but we were warned that we would have to live a semi-monastic life. There’re many restrictions and rules and one would have to adjust and practice patience and discipline. It takes time just to learn the etiquette: how to interact with each other and the monks and even how to eat.

IMG_5430(Wu Shu teacher is showing us some new stuff)

There’s a special canteen etiquette which everyone have to follow. One must communicate ones needs solely with gestures and positions of the bowls on the table. It’s like a new language on its own.

Diet is strictly vegetarian, meals served at specific times and there are no options — eat what is served. Most of the activities are held indoors and the only day when we’re allowed to go outside is Monday.

However, while not being able to get out sounds tough, I never really felt caged. Temple itself is not exactly what you imagine when you think of a typical temple. It’s a modern building with ten floors which earlier served as an embassy. Inside it looks like an expensive hotel with spacious halls, tall ceilings and all the modern facilities.

There’s a rooftop garden with an amazing view over Manila Bay, Makati district and hotel with a helicopter pad. It feels surreal sometimes when we do yoga or kung-fu on the rooftop and watch sunset over Manila Bay while helicopters landing at neighboring roofs.

Monks

Previously, I’ve never interacted with anyone who renounced the world. I thought these people live in a totally different reality, have no emotions and lack sense of humor. It still might be true in certain cases, but monks I met are normal people and are fun to be around. They do many of the normal things we do, some of them even have Facebook account, imagine that.

IMG_5579(Meditation retreat at mango tree garden with our “shi-fu” — master)

I’ve also been curious about what led people to embark on this path. From my interactions with those who want to become a Buddhist monk and those who already are, I noticed that they are the people of extremes. Some just had too much fun in the “real” world, abusing all kinds of worldly pleasures. And after being overwhelmed they seek shelter at the other extreme.

Rituals

That’s the tough part, especially in the beginning. And this is one of the reasons why not everyone make it to the end of the program. Even though Zen Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion, it’s still a religion. And those who live inside the temple take it seriously. I myself have always been opposed to any kind of religions and worshipping of made up characters. I see Zen merely as a philosophy and new, positive way of seeing things.

Many of us had the same idea and were put off by the rituals we had to partake in. For example, we do morning sutra chanting while wearing “hai-ching” — a special robe. Pretty much the same robe you think of when you imagine a monk.

I, however, see this as merely a cultural experience. Something to tell my grandkids about.

Participants

Í caught myself thinking that if I haven’t made the friendships I made I would’ve probably left in the second week. Social aspect of the program is extremely important. I learned more from discussions after classes than from the classes itself.

And I love the variety of people here. Everyone is unique and has a story to tell. I mean where else would I make friends with Filipino ukulele artist & songwriter. University professor being also an occasional Asatru shaman. Lithuanian volleyball coach and a guy that pretty much rejected consumerist society to the point of making his own toothpaste. And other pretty unique characters. From conversations with them — that’s where I felt I’m learning things that I would never come across on my own.

And I think that’s what leads to developing a wider, more vivid outlook on life.

What’s next?

Second part of the program will be in Taiwan. And from what I’ve heard it’s going to be pretty hardcore. Even more disciplined routines and a 7-day silent meditation retreat.

This whole thing is still an emotional roller coaster and I’ve been contemplating my escape every single day since I joined. But friendships I made and certain practices still outweigh downsides, so currently I want to make it to the end. And I still have some free time here to work on my business commitments, though I put some less important projects on hold.

I plan to write more about my experiences and learnings later towards the end of the program. So stay tuned.