Together with more than 1,000 other people I joined a four day retreat organized by the Plum Village, a Buddhist organization led by the famous Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn (Thay). About half of the people present were local Hong Kong people or expats living in the region; another quarter came from mainland China; there was a large group of Japanese people; and then there were people from Europe, America, Australia or other Asian countries. A colorful mixture of people, all with just one purpose: to enjoy four days of mindfulness in our busy, materialistic lives through Mindful Walking, Mindful Eating and Mindful Breathing.
My expectations were high. People told me I was surely going to enjoy it and experience something extraordinary. I was looking forward to the retreat. Now, being back home, I realize it was indeed a good experience. I gained new insights into my personal spirituality, I learned how to live more in the here and now, and I still have a calmness in me that will hopefully last for a few more days or even weeks (although I don’t get my hopes up too much; my schedule for the coming weeks is pretty busy). I also got more than inspired by the master Thay and the mindful manner in which he seems to do everything he does (walking, drinking his tea, wiping the white board). However, at the same time I had difficulty feeling that same inner peace and mindfulness, mainly due to the fact that there were too many people around.
With regards to the research I am currently doing, I managed to gain many interesting insights. I’ve met many interesting people in the retreat – mainly local Hong Kong people who felt comfortable enough to speak to me in English, other foreigners, and some mainlanders. I was struck by the amount of younger people present. Although most people were in the age between 35 and 55 years old, there was a significant amount of younger people (between 18 and 35). There were relatively few older people; perhaps an indication that this kind of Buddhism – which is more aimed at mindfulness and exploring your inner Buddhist nature, and less on burning incense in front of statues of the Buddha – appeals more to members of the younger generation. In fact, one Chinese nun, who grew up in Singapore, described that other kind of Buddhism as “your grandmother’s Buddhism”, which resulted in a lot of laughter from the young audience she was talking to at that moment.
It was good to see so many mainlanders coming to Hong Kong for this short retreat, and I wished I could have talk to more of them. It is not easy for most of them to get an opportunity like this, to see a famous Buddhist master in action. Moreover, to visit Hong Kong they must have applied for a visa, which can be a long and difficult process. However, they took all the trouble to come and to learn. The aforementioned sister was especially happy to see so many young mainlanders joining in on the retreat, and she expressed her hopes that more and more mainlanders will have the opportunity to get into contact with the practices of Plum Village. She told the young mainlanders that “if you want to join our five year program or you want to visit Plum Village for a longer period, we will arrange a possibility for you to come”. Her comment resulted in a lot of laughter – it almost sounded like cynical laughter, as all the youngsters present know that it is almost impossible for mainlanders to get more than a seven day travel pass for Hong Kong (even though for people al almost all other nationalities it’s easy to enter Hong Kong on a visa free period of ninety days).
And much more…
I discovered and learned many more interesting things during the retreat, for example trough the sharing of stories by five youngsters about the difficulties they experience in everyday Hong Kong life (described as “very high pressured life”) and the tools Buddhism gives them to cope with these difficulties. I talked to many local Hong Kong people, Buddhists as well as Catholics and non-believers. I have observed a few hundred people at the same time taking the Three Refuges and Five Precepts (or as the Plum Village calls them ‘the Five Mindfulness Trainings’). And I have experienced for myself what it is like to be in silent in Hong Kong.
But that is perhaps all material for another blog, and for another time.