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Living Like Monks

  • News Image
    Junior Katy Jones is shown here during a meditation session at the Shengshou monastery in Wenzhou, China. Jones and recent graduate Kim Dembrosky spent a month at the monastery this summer.
  • News Image
    The Shengshou monastery.

Southwestern student spends a month at a monastery in China

Junior international studies major Katy Jones has been interested in Buddhism for a while, but her interest was peaked last fall when she took the Modern Tibet class taught by Patricia Schiaffini, part-time professor of Chinese.

“Since then, I have been trying to learn everything I can about Buddhism,” she said.

This summer, Jones learned more about Buddhism firsthand by spending a month at a monastery in China.

Jones, along with recent graduate Kim Dembrosky, participated in a “humanistic monastic life program” that offers Westerners the opportunity to immerse themselves in Buddhist monastic life.

Jones and Dembrosky spent most of the month at Shengshou monastery in Wenzhou, China, but also visited three other monasteries.

Jones said a typical day began with a 5 a.m. wake-up call followed by tai chi for 45 minutes and then breakfast at 6:30 a.m. At meals, everyone sat in assigned seats and ate in silence.

After breakfast, participants took classes in Buddhist thought and philosophy.

“This was my favorite part of the day because Buddhist thought is very different from anything I have ever been exposed to,” Jones said. She said the topic that interested her the most was the Buddhist idea of co-dependent origination, or the idea that no person, plant or animal can come into existence, or continue to exist by itself. Based on this, the concept of a self does not exist.

“Since this idea is so foreign to us in Western society, it fascinated me,” Jones said.

At 11:30 a.m., the group had lunch, which was very similar to breakfast: vegetables and tofu with rice, and watermelon if they were lucky.

The afternoon program began with 20 minutes of sitting meditation, which was followed by workshops on subjects such as Buddhist Chinese vocabulary.

After dinner they had walking meditation and then an evening activity. The evening activities included talks with the monks and nuns of the monastery, and lessons in Chinese calligraphy. Before bed there was more meditation, and everyone was in their rooms by 9 p.m.

“Living in a monastery for a month is really a life-changing experience, especially when you come from a background with all the hot water, comfortable beds and high-speed Internet access anyone could ask for,” Jones said. “I went from the very typical life of a 20-year-old in the United States to sleeping on a wooden bed frame covered in a comforter for padding, in a small room with three other roommates and no air conditioning.” 

The third week of the program was a silent meditation retreat. During that week, Jones said they had three hours of meditation in the morning instead of class. “We would sit for 40 minutes, walk for 10, and then have a 10-minute break,” she said. “After lunch and our break, we would resume meditation.” Dinner was followed by another two hours of meditation.

“It was quite an experience to not talk, and have no access to technology for a week,” Jones said.

Jones, who is minoring in Chinese, is staying in China this fall to complete an intensive language program at the Chinese Minority Nationalities University. One other Southwestern student − Ashley Johnson − has done this program before, and another Southwestern student, Marion Clendenen, will be participating in the program with Jones this fall.

“It is really hard to not be coming back to the States to share my experience (at the monastery) with the people I love, but my first month in China was just part of my adventure,” Jones said.

Jones is spending the month of August living on the campus of Peking University and tutoring the 10-year-old daughter of an archaeology professor that Allison Miller, assistant professor of art history, put her in touch with.

After she graduates from Southwestern, Jones said she would like to either attend law school or work with an NGO to help stop international sex trafficking.