A self-discovery journey to a Chinese monastery
One bowl of rice or noodles, in-season stir fry vegetables and tea – no milk and no sugar – for breakfast. Repeat it for lunch and dinner seven days a week for five months.
This was Cape Cod Hospital volunteer Michael McGrath’s dietary routine from April to September of this year at the Five Immortals Temple, in BaiMa Shan in the Wudang Mountain Range, Hubei Province, in central China.
Along with his strict adherence to the dietary regimen, he meditated for four hours and spent six hours on martial arts practice throughout the day, every day. Training took place in the temple’s large courtyard, in 90-degree heat and most of the time in a light drizzle. Michael and other students also worked on the gardens, chopped and split wood to warm the unheated common room, and for the large kitchen woks.
Michael, a vegetarian, has been practicing martial arts and meditation for 22 years. About two years ago he decided he “wanted to do something” with his spiritual practice.
He was looking for a path of self-discovery.
“I went looking for a new teacher,” he said.
He found one in Li Shifu, after first learning about him and his temple online. Five Immortals Temple is 1,500 meters high, on top of BaiMa Shan (Chinese for “White Horse Mountain”). Li Shifu is the temple’s abbott, which is a title given to the head of a monastery.
A Rigorous and Austere Life
Days at the temple started at 5 a.m. to the sound of drums. Some days it felt too early.
“We would rise, tired and sore, and do it all over again. And we did all of this with good humor and without complaint, understanding it was all a necessary part of the investigation of our lives,” Michael said.
Michael, 66, who has had careers as a certified executive chef and as a lawyer, volunteers several days a week in patient transport at Cape Cod Hospital, taking patients to appointments inside the hospital.
He closed his computer programming business recently to embrace the coarse and basic living conditions of the mountain. Showers or bathtubs gave way to cloth baths. The toilet facilities were a trench, or “squat toilet.” Internet use was limited and China imposes a firewall on much Internet activity, including access to Google.
He received a Chinese name, Cheng Tong, given to him by the abbott. It means “golden boy” because Michael was told by his teacher he had the heart and spirit of a young boy.
Clothes were washed by hand and dried on a line in the sun at the monastery. The mountain is always damp, and students hung their bedding outside each day to dry. When it rained, they collected water in a bucket, which later was used for shower and other needs, after having been heated in a large kettle.
“I discuss this extensively in my book (Michael is in a process of writing about his experience) and on how it led to a stillness and calm I had never known in my life. It provided a most valuable lesson: we learned how little we truly need to live a meaningful life, whether on the mountain or in society. It is a lesson I returned with and live with now,” he said.
Harder to Adjust to Life at Home
Michael had to learn basic Chinese, and practiced fasting and silence. At one point he went without food or water for four days in order to cultivate stillness.
“The monk feels that in our world today there is a demand for instant gratification,” he explained. “All that is familiar and comforting is stripped from you right away (in the temple). You learn how little you really need to live a meaningful life.”
Every week Michael sent text messages to his three daughters in Yarmouth. His daughters were concerned about his decision to leave for the mountain, but recognized it was important to him.
“They were happy when I came home,” although his grandson did not recognize the man with the grey beard.
Michael said he has had far more difficulty adjusting to life back in society than he did to life on the mountain.
“It is very noisy here. Noisy in the sense of misguided and misdirected energy.”
He recalled sitting on a rock on the mountain, where there was just air for about 4,000 feet down. Below was the Yellow River, which winds its way through the Wudang Mountain range.
“In person, it is a breathtakingly beautiful view,” he said. “There is no ambient light, so nothing interferes with the view of the sky, the stars and the Milky Way. It is very conducive to stillness, and shows quite vividly we are all a part of the universe.”
Changed In Many Ways
Before leaving the mountain, Li Shifu counseled Michael to live up to his Chinese name: to be a young boy not only with his grandchildren but with everyone he meets.
Now back home, Michael jogs three miles a day, practices meditation every night and sleeps on a floor futon in his sparse one-room Marstons Mills apartment.
“Minimal footprint,” he said, laughing.
He says his body feels better than it has in 20 years, and his flexibility has improved tremendously, due to daily stretching. He lost 22 pounds during his stay on the mountain, feels much lighter in spirit, and has a great feeling of wellness.
“I have healed in many ways.”
Now a monk, Michael grew a beard, let his hair grow out (before he was bald) and wears a robe.
At the temple, he sometimes picked his own vegetables from the gardens, such as eggplant, squash, lettuces, cabbages, chillis, garlic, and several kinds of beans. He remembered fondly the two resident nuns who picked vegetables in large basket bowls to prepare every meal. Green beans were in season, so he ate it for five weeks.
Michael thinks of his experience as a simple commitment to live as a Daoist adept: to live a life of simplicity and non-attachment, to grow compassion in oneself and in those he meets each day.
“It is, then a choice,” he said.
He intends to eventually teach what he learned on the mountain.
“This is what we are expected to do when we leave the Temple,” he said.
Michael said he has not renounced society, but returned to it as a common man to live this life.
“It is not a life of poverty and celibacy and other traits associated with a religious life. It is merely a simple life of non-attachment.”
He plans to return to BaiMa Shan Mountain next summer.